Silicon Follies

Chapter 27: Afterglow of the robotic inferno


Thomas Scoville
June 16, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

Psychrist ignited the Abyss with the German's cigarette.

The lights dimmed as the four bots began a slow lap of the circular arena, LEDs twittering a satanic crimson with every packet from their mephitic master. Blue-tinged flames licked at the Throne of Infinite Logic, creating sinister, dancing wraiths on the monoliths and brooding underbelly of Heisenberg's Pebble.

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Doom Server dispatched its agents each to a separate quadrant, where they paused for a few moments as two bedraggled techs introduced Carbon Rat and his chariot into the arena. They delicately placed the rodent -- enclosed jewel-like in his transparent orb -- into the guidance mechanism at the front of the dangerous-looking vehicle. They pull-started the engine, then quickly backed away as the saw blade picked up speed.

The bots commenced their search-and-destroy -- a somewhat jerky but relentlessly methodical trolling routine, scouring the Field of Cultural Production for the hapless proxies of carbon-based virtue. Much to the disappointment of his warm-blooded cousins in the audience, Rat only wandered aimlessly in the quadrant of Affect, nudging his juggernaut pointlessly against the perimeter wall, sparks dancing as the whining blade skipped off the concrete.

Self-Determination had been the first to go, swept up in the jaws of Alienation. They lurched together toward the fire of the Abyss, delayed for only the few moments required to negotiate a single pylon. The human witnesses on the perimeter -- many of them armored in hard hats and safety goggles -- lowed disappointedly as the pair tipped over the edge into the inferno.

Aesthetics was next, captured by Detachment. Its claw closed around the fuzzy pig proxy. The bot turned 90 degrees and headed toward the pit.

Finally, a little action from the carbon contestant: a shocking volume of flame erupted from the flanks of the carriage, searing the perimeter wall on one side and belching a burning tongue into the arena on the other. Rat had been rattled; the vehicle lurched wildly as the startled pest pilot skittered in his ball.

Rat Mobile came to rest aligned with Detachment and its quarry. Rat poised motionless as the LEDs strobed before him. Somewhere in the tangle of synapses of his disoriented motor cortex, he began to remember. The carriage took off purposefully after the bot and its captured Aesthetics.

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They converged at the edge of the Abyss. For a moment it looked as if Detachment might be eviscerated from behind by the rotating saw, but the Chip Whip eclipsed the action at the last moment, making contact with the bot's stubby radio antenna. There was a tremendous flash, a miniature lightning bolt. But chance conspired against the rescue. Bereft of logic and communication, Detachment spun crazily out of control, throttle open. With Aesthetics still in its grasp, it executed a bizarre 270-degree turn -- straight into the Abyss.

More groaning from the Carbon faction. The carriage twitched as Rat floundered.

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A second conflagration from the flame-throwers turned the tide: Passivity, having located its victim, navigated around one of the concrete pillars in the quadrant of Affect. The blast broadsided the bot. Amazingly, it continued for another half-minute, but eventually bogged down in the burning slag of its tires. The LEDs went silent after the flames engulfed its ethernet card. The fluffy frog, still gripped in the pincers, smiled a cheerfully toasted grin.

Rat intercepted Hubris and Perversity on the Brink of the Abyss. The rotating saw caught the bot just above the fenders, bearing into it as Rat reflexively rolled the ball toward the flashing LEDs. The whine of the blade descended as it loaded down under the strain. The resulting shower of chaff caused the humans to sound their approval.

But the blade snagged suddenly, catapulting the vehicle to the perimeter with ugly force. The bot caromed off the wall, breaking into pieces. The cuddly plush unicorn popped free on impact. It landed on its feet.

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Four hundred fifty milliseconds of cheering was cut short by a blinding flash and hellacious explosion. Bits of glowing, molten steel peppered the arena from above.

Heisenberg's Pebble fell in that unique way that all very heavy objects seem to fall: It hung for a tiny moment, leisurely gathering momentum for its incontrovertible descent.

It was the ultimate falling curtain. In a casual gravitational gesture, the boulder compressed the minitower into two dimensions, shattered the Throne into dust and plugged the gaping maw of the Abyss. Only a few pints of flaming fuel-oil, splashed from the pit by the impact, betrayed any suggestion of the scene moments prior.

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There was one other casualty: Heisenberg's Pebble had clipped the Rat Mobile as it stood on the brink. The impact had partially crushed it, tipping it over on its side, engine still idling roughly. The plastic orb containing Rat rolled out of the control module, bounced twice and separated neatly into its two halves.

The stunned rodent momentarily surveyed the smoking wreckage, gathered its wits and decided to high-tail it for the nearest dumpster. He disappeared through a gap in the perimeter wall. The humans let out another carbon-based hurrah.

Two fire trucks, responding to reports of open flames and general mayhem, provided an unexpected finale.

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"Unbelievable," Paul muttered, stunned as well.

"Pretty amazing, huh? Wasn't that the coolest?" Steve enthused.

"Unbelievable nobody was killed," Paul clarified.

A huge portable stereo stimulated the post-performance festivities, throbbing with techno. The crowd gravitated toward the back of an open van, where a party was in process of spontaneous organization. People drank from plastic cups and munched out of little white boxes -- high-octane refreshments were being served, apparently. Steve noticed the boxes had been decorated with colorful magic-marker renderings of cute little rats and angry robots.

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Paul heard a familiar voice he couldn't quite place: "... Muscovy duck and white bean burritos with apple salsa. Goes great with the Breton hard cider, too." He tracked its source to one of the three women serving the revelers from the back of the van.

He stared a moment, disbelieving. It was Liz Toulouse. He approached, met her eyes and said, "Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine."

She was surprised and delighted, but she didn't miss a beat, handing him a glass of cider. "Here's looking at you, kid."

A fireman strode through the party, pointing to the still-smoldering set. "Will somebody tell me exactly what the hell is going on here?" he demanded.

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Psychrist handed him a glass of cider, too.


Thomas Scoville

Thomas Scoville is either an Information Age savant or an ex-Silicon Valley programmer with a bad attitude. He is the author of the Silicon Valley Tarot.

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