An original story by Taylor Alexander
Prologue and Chapter 1 published here. Additional chapters to be written.
"What's that?" Donny asked, his soft southern accent showing through.
"New mod for R34," Jack responded as she applied some lithium grease to the crank arm. "Should stop it from getting clogged when it goes through that stream."
The plantation had been getting heavy rain for weeks, and new streams had cut their way through the farm's landscape. The bots didn't seem to mind, or really notice even, and kept on the same paths as usual driving straight through the new waterways. It wreaked havoc on the mechanicals. They were rated for splashes, rain, and hose down, but driving through muddy streams every day revealed the need for a few improvements in the design of the harvester's retrieval arm.
Donny looked on in silent amazement as Jack tore into the mechanical skeleton on her workbench. The bot mostly snapped together, so she didn't need to waste time reaching for tools as she pulled off the outer shell, separated the frame, and accessed the linkage that had filled with mud. In a few seconds it was free from the robot's base, and she'd snapped in the upgraded assembly.
"What if you forget something?" Donny wondered out loud as Jack re-assembled the diminutive vehicle. "There's a lot of parts there."
"Like what? A screw?" Jack asked sarcastically. "Parts in these snap-together frames are easy as hell to keep track of. We don't use screws because there's no need. This whole robot only has 43 mechanical parts, and I designed most of them. I designed this mod in my head last night before I drew it up. This robot is my baby, and there's no way in hell I'd forget how it goes together."
"But for noobs like you," Jack continued, "just study the assembly drawings."
"Oh great! Where are the assembly drawings?" Donny asked eagerly.
"I'm glad you asked Donny, I'm glad you asked," She said with a hint of amused irony in her voice. "Remember that job Manesh said we had for you?"
"We need you to create assembly drawings for the harvesters. The current drawings are about four versions behind, and Manesh says we need to be up to date when we push the big release. I just don't give a shit about assembly drawings so I'm making you do it. I'll just tear through the CAD when a new bot comes out, but apparently some people really need the drawings."
"Oh..." Donny seemed confused. "But how can I make the drawing if I don't know how it goes together?"
"I... Were you raised on an iPad?" Jack asked impatiently. "Just take one apart and figure it out. Here, you can use R27. It needs to be cleaned. Take it apart, clean all the components, and put it back together. Take video while you disassemble it so you can check where things go when you forget. Tomorrow I'll show you how to upgrade the arm with the new mod. For now I'm off to test it. You'll have this back together in the morning. I need it operational. Get started."
Jack dropped R34 on the shop floor and hit the power button. With a low hum, the system came to life. Two beeps - electronics self test passed. Then there was a slight whine followed by three beeps - motor systems on line. And then a moment later, the bot was rolling out of the shop. Once the self tests are done, the robot figures out where it is, what it can do to help, and gets to work. Jack hoped Donny would prove as useful as she followed R34 out the door.
Donny sat there staring at the vehicle in front of him. He didn't have the slightest idea how to begin, but Jack wasn't the kind of girl you want to disappoint. It was going to be a long night.
The smell of wet earth filled the shop as Jack returned in the morning. She clenched her coffee and made her way to the back of the shop, looking for R27. The room hummed with the sound of printers all churning out bot parts - frames, wheels, gears, motors, all being made on the spot. All the replacement parts, mods, and upgrades they needed were made right on the plantation in Jack's shop. She rounded the corner past the main workbench. There she discovered R27 torn to pieces, the floor littered with parts. And there was Donny, passed out on the shop cot, still wearing his video glasses.
Jack was pissed.
Four years later.
The shop was humming with activity as Donny got the call. "What's up Manesh?" Donny asked through the comms system.
"V618 is stuck again. This can't keep happening." Manesh said impatiently.
"Son of a bitch. Yeah, alright, I have a plan."
Donny swapped his kicks for work boots, grabbed a coat, and walked outside. In front of the shop, Sanctuary was humming.
"Hey Donny!" a new resident shouted from a reading bench for the fourth morning in a row.
"Hey!" he returned instinctively. "I've got to remember her name," he told himself.
The shop contained most of the bot hardware and service equipment, but the tractor was still kept in an old barn on the other side of the plantation.
"Fifteen million to build this place and we still keep the tractor in a 150 year old barn." he thought to himself.
Sanctuary was arranged in two overlaid patterns. A continuous outward spiraling walkway formed the main path through the property. Buildings were arranged along the path in the most logical fashion, and most of them were multipurpose structures so the whole place could be quickly reconfigured. Of course, going from one end of a spiral to the other would be maddening if you weren't looking for a leisurely stroll through markets, gardens, and dormitories. To make it more efficient, there were many pathways connecting buildings across arms, like spokes on a wagon wheel. That's the first pattern.
Jack was part of the original planning crew, and she hated the spiral idea. "Just make a grid," she told them. "Grids are easy. Planning for the bots will be simple and none of the residents will get lost."
The board wasn't going to give up on the spirals. Jack wasn't going to give up on a grid. They could have overruled her, but it seemed no one wanted to.
So overlaid on the pattern of walkways spiraling out from the center is a mostly complete grid connecting every corner of the property in a neat, direct fashion.
Donny used to love going on long walks down the spiral, especially under the stars. This day he was just happy to have the grid. V618 was one of the heavy vehicles used to transport raw harvest from the distant fields to the processing depot. Sanctuary had grown a lot since the storm, to make sure they never ran out of food again. That meant a lot more bots and a lot more responsibility. He had 100 other problems to fix that day, and he wanted to put this one to rest.
So Donny didn't take a long, casual walk that day. He went straight down the grid towards the barn. Jack was a son of a bitch at times, but she was rarely wrong. The grid between the shop and the barn took him right past the center of sanctuary, through the main gardens. It was all he could do to not think about the time he used to spend there. He just wanted to fix the issue with V618.
The tractor hummed when he got in. They didn't bother with keys, there was no way to steal anything. Each building knew who you were and your access was controlled by the plantation's servers. Computers, of course, strictly enforce the rules. But there weren't too many rules in Sanctuary, residents were all there together and there was a real camaraderie between them. Mostly the servers were used to turn the lights on, keep the heat right, and route messages to residents through the comms. But they also kept people off of the maintenance equipment. It wasn't always so controlled, but after a resident "seeking higher forms of consciousness" knocked a hole in the side of the library, the residents all agreed they didn't need unfettered access to the tractors.
These little decisions were hard for the community. They had formed Sanctuary to retreat from the rules of broader society. You can't say this, you can't do that. It held people back, impeded their lives. Sanctuary was seen by many as the ultimate escape from all that - a way to live life freely without control from outside the self. We've only got one chance here and people wanted to make it worthwhile. Sanctuary was part libertarian, part socialist, part utopian. It worked surprisingly well, and after eight years copies of Sanctuary were beginning to pop up all over the country.
Donny leaned back in his seat as he commanded the door to open. The barn may be 150 years old, but that doesn't mean the doors can't be automated. Nobody wants to slog through the mud to open a barn door in the rain.
The tractor's cabin was comfortable. It was enclosed so weather didn't slow down operations, and a holographic display filled the volume of the cabin. Anything could be displayed at any point inside that space. Even in a snowstorm the radar systems could map the outside world and show it to the operator. The weather was fine that day, and Donny looked forward to the long drive into the fields.
"Head to V618" Donny told the on board systems. Silently, the tractor rolled forward. It wasn't chatty like most of Sanctuary's systems. Donny was glad for that.
Outside the main complex, Sanctuary was more haphazard. Placed in an ancient river valley between two sets of rolling hills, they originally thought 100 acres would be all they needed. The main complex was in the center, straddling the river. Farms stretched out from either side. It was as beautiful as it was easy to defend. Aerial drones kept watch on the perimeter, and a defunct military satellite provided some coverage of the broader area when it was overhead. Jack had hacked the stream for that one long before Sanctuary was founded, and no one ever seemed to mind.
Donny thought about the problems he'd face in the shop that day as the tractor made its way to the outer reaches of New Sanctuary. After the storm, after all they had been through, they realized they needed more space. Three kilometers southeast through a massive redwood forest was a broad open plain, hundreds of acres in size. That was New Sanctuary.
Donny kept his head down as the old giants passed overhead. He was thinking about the repairs he'd need to make to B212 back in the shop. The interns just weren't getting it, and he didn't have anyone to help with the workload. It was stressful, but he had no choice. Sanctuary has to run and he wasn't going to let the residents down.
In the vast expanse of New Sanctuary, on the East end of the plain, V618 sat stuck in a muddy patch. A seasonal stream flooded part of New Sanctuary every year, and the massive harvest vehicles were getting bogged down in the soft clay. Most of the vehicles did alright, but V618, one of the 20 full size harvest vehicles operating on the plantation, kept driving through a mud pit.
Donny got out of the cab to asses the situation. The truck-sized harvest robot sat in deep ruts, mud caked so deep on the tires they had become smooth as billiard balls. It tried to free itself by rocking back and forth, but it only dug itself in deeper. He looked at the tracks the vehicle had been carving for weeks along this path. He really needed to program in some variability to their motion. Sometimes computers are too perfect, and they make things worse.
He touched his comms unit, which patched him through the tractor back to Sanctuary proper. "Sanctuary, I need enough gravel to cover an area 20 meters by 50 meters five centimeters deep. Send six full length five by twenty planks too."
"Right away Donny." A pleasant voice said on the other end. "Fifty cubic meters of gravel and six planks coming up. It will take one full truckload. Expect arrival at your location in approximately 30 minutes."
"Thanks Lila." Donny responded. "How is everything back at base?"
"Everything's nominal" Lila replied.
"Hah, no sorry I mean how are you?" Donny continued. "How are the kids, Xeke and Syrah? How is Esh?"
"Oh, right." Lila stammered awkwardly. She forgot sometimes people just want to say hello. "Family is great, thanks. Xeke is learning Kenpo and kicking butt. Syrah is the only student who can beat him. Esh is learning the violin, which he says is calming."
"That's great to hear. But what about you?" asked Donny.
"I'm... healing. Mostly I like to stay in the call center. I've been taking everyone's shifts. My friends tell me I'm hiding from my feelings. I tell them they don't know what they're talking about, and to get me more fries."
"Well I'm glad to hear you're finding your way. Hang in there Lila, you're strong."
"Thanks. Truck will be there in 30 minutes. Good luck." Lila liked to talk to Donny about her feelings, but not too much. Still, she kept telling him, and it seemed to help her.
Now Donny had half an hour to kill. Far from the main plantation, New Sanctuary was peaceful. He would have a little time to himself today, and he wasn't going to waste it. Off in a far corner of New Sanctuary, Jack and Donny had started a marijuana field years earlier. The stuff was pretty popular at Sanctuary, and the main gardens were always wafting with the smell of the burned buds.
Donny was way into it for a while, but as responsibilities picked up he had to start staying mindful of his consciousness. It helped him relax, but sometimes he got too relaxed. With no one else to run the shop, he didn't partake too often anymore. Life just moved too fast these days. More recently, he'd started growing tobacco in the old field.
Hidden inside his coat was a spliff he'd made just for this kind of situation. Half tobacco and half sativa marijuana gave him a good buzz without knocking him out. He leaned against the side of the tractor, looked out over the open fields, and lit up. A ray of sunlight warmed his face as he drew his first puff. Another long day was just beginning.