The modified robots were suspended one above the other inside a long thin tube the end of which trailed in a dark viscous liquid, the pointed tip holding its own against the fast flowing current.
The liquid slipped by without a sound, somewhere far in the distance there was a rhythmic pumping, a pounding double beat that moments later triggered an almost imperceptible increase in the speed of the fluid, every machine was equipped with sensors that could detect this subtle change in the current, and as it did they stored this information in an ever changing variable deep inside their environmental array.
Information flooded in from all directions, the data was consumed and processed in almost real time by each and every machine, and they even spent clock cycles sharing the results of the data analysis amongst each other, an unnecessary step as the results were always identical.
Despite the furious data crunching that was going on inside the robots, on the outside there was no activity at all, each machine was wedged in place as if frozen in time, to any onlooker it would seem that the robots were waiting for something.
After what seemed like an eternity the specific set of instructions that the machines were waiting for came in and as one they moved down the pipe in a curious synchronised shuffle, working together to make progress down the steep smooth surface, one slip and they would tumble into the fast flowing fluid below.
When they reached the end of the tube the lead machine held the edge in a vice like grip, then the next robot scrambled over the anchor machine and immersed itself in the fluid, the rest climbed down over each other like circus performers grasping the lower limbs of the machine above until they were all strung out just below the surface of the slick liquid like links in a chain.
After a group wide systems check the anchor robot released its grip and the whole team disappeared into the thick solution.
The chain of robots began to roll up, one by one they curled back against the current until they were rolled up like a liquorice wheel and then they allowed themselves to go with the flow that was rushing through the pressurised system.
They make no attempt fend off collisions with the inside of the conduit. The strange mechanical group clung to each other with an unbreakable bond as they were carried through the tunnels, at regular intervals the path was blocked by one-way valves, here they had to unravel and string themselves out in order to pass through these restricted choke points.
After many minutes they arrived at a junction where the narrow pipe joined a much larger tube, here the two flows merged in a manic maelstrom that had them spinning in every direction like children on a fairground ride.
Further on the main flow calmed as the dual currents eddied into each other, here the walls were much wider than before, there was enough room for the robots to rearrange themselves and they formed a sphere, now they became one with the liquid and the group drifted in the current turning with grace in the flow.
The extra room allowed them to make use of their free limbs and they waved them back and forth like paddles in a coordinated effort control their progress, using this technique they could stay in the middle of the pipe and avoid the worst of the many other maelstroms that they encountered as more and more tributaries joined the main stream.
Now that they had more control they were able to deploy their microwave communication antennas on the inside of the sphere where there was no chance that they would come into contact with the walls of the pipe and get torn off.
One by one the machines checked in with mission control and delivered a number of status reports. Each robot provided a full update on its internal parameters followed by a constant stream of the changes.
Alongside this they created a report which included sonar built images of their immediate surroundings, these too were updated and included in the continuous data stream that was delivered to command and control over a microwave channel.
Back in the command and control centre the complete set of reports were reassembled, each report was verified against data acquired elsewhere and then in-depth analysis was done on the full data set before the message informing the centres only occupant that the insertion was successful was displayed.
This message confirmed that all the individual units were intact, that a cohesive stabilisation had been achieved as defined by the missions parameters, and that each step of the insertion phase had been completed according to the original plan.
Constant status reports were sent back to mission control, their high-speed microwave communications increased in frequency and intensity as the free flowing group approached their first major obstacle, the primary pumping system that served to keep the complex system pressurised.
On approaching the pump chamber the group reconfigured again, the sphere opened out like a flower before forming into a saucer shape, convex on one side and concave on the other, with tiny adjustments to their new formation they altered their direction in the flow and steered for the edge of the pipe. As soon as they touched the side the machines fired anchor cables into the surface of the conduit.
Due to the ferocious currents and high-speed one way valves inside the main body of the pump they had to pass through one at a time and as is the methodical nature of machines robot number one went first.
Launching itself away from the sidewall with the right amount of force calculated to make it reach the centre of the pipe, the machine balled itself up like a wood louse, shutting down all stabilising and guidance systems, it didn’t need to expend energy to control its progress just yet, it just had to let itself get taken up by the torrent, and submit itself to the violent eddies in the pump.
Two high pressure flows met in the pumps antechamber creating an irresistible maelstrom that tore at the robot, spinning it this way and that until the chamber was full, then just for a millisecond the turmoil stopped, not long enough for human perception to even notice a pause but long enough for the robot to measure the chamber, identify its entry point and more importantly the exit that it was about to be thrust through like a bullet from a gun.
The first valve snapped open and chaos returned, the fluid in the chamber along with the robot shot into the main body of the pump as the outer walls of the chamber constricted. This was the largest space the machine had been in since it had entered the system, the robot could only perceive the chambers outer walls by combining the inputs from a number of different sensors, the pump cycled again the robot was propelled out of the pump and into another wide conduit.
On the other side of the pump the robot reengaged its stabilising and guidance systems and headed as straight as it could for the side of the pipe anchoring itself there with a cable. The robot reeled itself out into the main flow cable still in place, swimming across the flow with all its might until it could see the far wall and then just as it was about to reach the wall the cable jerked as it reached the end of its tether.
The machine evaluated its options as it reeled itself back towards the side that it was tethered to. It had to complete this task in order to continue with the mission. The cable was long enough to stretch across the pipe, but the irresistible force of the flow was pushing it too far downstream before it could make it across.
It considered dragging itself around the inside of the conduit trailing the tethered cable behind it until it was opposite the anchor point, but the robot calculated that it would need a cable twice as long as it had.
The robot reeled the cable all the way in, returning to itself to the starting point, the machine clawed at the walls dragging itself against the pulsating current back towards the pump reeling out the anchored cable behind it as it went.
When it had gone as far as it could the machine launched itself towards the other side again and this time it made it across with a little cable to spare, as soon as it was anchored it sent the signal to inform the next robot to make the perilous journey through the pump.
Once the second machine was through it reeled out its own cable a short distance and the trailing end hooked itself on the cable stretched across the tube by the lead machine, making it come to a sudden halt like an aircraft hooking itself on the arresting gear on a carrier deck.
After reeling itself in, the second unit crawled up the cable stretched across the conduit to join its companion on the sidewall, once it had secured itself to the inside of the pipe it sent the signal to instruct the next robot to proceed.
The last unit through was using its motive limbs to pull itself towards the rest of the group clinging to the sidewall when it came under attack, material started to cling to its outer carapace, a thin coating at first that did little to affect the robots progress, but as the other machines looked on the material thickened until it almost covered their companion.
Soon the sheer weight of the foreign substance made it impossible for the unit to make any progress, it hung stationary on the wire like a fly cocooned in a spider’s web.
The group of machines released their hold on the sidewall and rushed back up the cable towards their stricken companion, they swarmed all over the soft material cutting chunks of the ever expanding mass off until there was a hole large enough for the robot trapped inside to wriggle out.
As soon as the machine was free the group reformed and cut the anchor cable leaving it and the empty cocoon behind them flailing in the flow like baited fishing line in a fast moving stream as they spun away.
Inside the sphere that they had formed, the group analysed a lump of the foreign material that had almost disabled one of them, as they did the same material started to collect on the their exposed bodies, they had to work fast and find the element in the substance that formed the bond with their outer shells.
When the key element was identified one of the machines moved into the centre of the sphere and it was cleaned by its companions, once clean the robot secreted a small amount of fluid from its storage tanks, and then the other machines smeared the substance all over it until its outer carapace was fully covered. The clean machine made its way to the outside of the sphere which was beginning to resemble a comet with a tail and placed itself on the upstream side where the foreign material was thickest, the robot scooped up some of the unhardened material and spread it on itself, the viscous gloop failed to adhere, slipping off and spinning away like a newspaper in the wind.
One by one the robots took turns to coat each other with the designer fluid, by the time the last one was finish the sphere of robots was fully cocooned, the machines cut their way out and emerged on the outside like insects emerging from an egg, no longer troubled by the foreign material the machines dissected their former prison into small chunks so that wouldn’t get trapped in the systems filters and raise the alarm.
As the group of machines approached the hosts control centre their ultra sound pulses picked up clusters of the myriad of communication lines that monitored the systems sensors and controlled its motor functions.
The robots relayed this information back to their command and control centre where it was compared to a map of the system that was obtained prior to their insertion and a message came back validating that their mission was on time and to plan.
Soon the robots arrived at the point where all the communication lines bunched together and entered the systems control centre, here they took a moment to cling to the conduit and map out the entire facility using their ultrasound.
Then they built an electrical schematic of the entire system by monitoring each and every tiny fluctuation in every communication line until after many hours they had a full understanding of how the system functioned and formulated a plan of attack.
Once armed with this information the robots put the plan into action, three targets had been identified and analysed, three groups of three machines were dispatched from the main body to each target with very specific instructions, in order to succeed with their mission each target had to be disabled and enabled in a very specific order.
The remaining three of the group of twelve robots went to work on the communication lines, they were instructed to subvert some of the lines and to build some new communication pathways to link up each of the three target areas.
The first area that came under attack was the system memory, a full scan of the systems past, present and its future plans was undertaken and after some deliberation whole sections were erased and subtle tweaks were made to others, new communication paths were requested to connect to the two secondary targets.
At those secondary targets steps were taken to prepare for the new communication lines, these areas were required to function as they had in the past, so no other major changes were made. At each target site a single robot undertook the alterations with the other two standing by providing multiple levels of redundancy in case the worker machine should break down or come under attack.
The communication lines took the longest to complete, the materials had to be stolen from existing lines that the system could do without, and so long sections of the lines were chopped out with one end reconnected to another functioning line to provide false feed back to the control centre.
The work on the communication lines was labour intensive and time consuming so all three of the robots took an active part using their microwave antennas to coordinate the tasks. As soon as the work at the primary and secondary targets was complete all the machines went to work on building the new communication lines.
When the final connection was made the robots started a system test by hooking themselves up to the new communication lines and sending a miniscule electric pulse down each line. The resulting flurry of communications caused by each test pulse rippled through the entire system, and they were analysed and confirmed to be as expected, they dispatched the message to say that the whole system had been reconfigured and would operate as normal.
Once the testing was complete the machines regrouped at the point where all the communication lines met and the group of robots did what machines do best, they waited motionless whilst their creators ran a further set of external tests required to confirm complete control of the facility.
The withdrawal instructions came through and the robots left via another main conduit tumbling through the pressurised liquid until they arrived at their extraction point, one by one they left the main group and using their inbuilt propulsion and guidance systems made their way to the escape tube.
As the last robot entered the main body of the extraction mechanism it turned from red to green to indicate their safe arrival and the tube started the extraction procedure.
The patient awoke to the soft sound of the monitoring machines that he was hooked up to. He stared at the blurred ceiling for a while as his jumbled thoughts started to come together, he knew who he was and his distant memories were there, but he had no recollection of how he came to be here or why, he closed his eyes and drifted for a moment only to come around at the sound of a door swinging closed.
He turned his head to the side and saw twin rows of hospital beds disappearing off into the distance, crisp white sheets under pale green blankets covered the man in the bed next to him, they were pulled right up to his chin leaving his head exposed, he tried to focus on the facial features but his eyes kept coming to rest on the man’s ear and the clump of hair that grew inside his ear canal.
A noise at his feet made him turn his head towards the ceiling again, he pressed his chin into his chest so that he could see the source, which was a middle aged man with close cropped hair that was just starting to thin on top, the man looked up from the chart that he’d been studying and stared at him with cold blue humourless eyes.
His head flopped back onto the pillow, as he was unable to hold the uncomfortable position any longer and he tried to find something interesting to look at on the suspended ceiling tile, he found an interesting brown stain to study and wondered if it was coffee and if so, how it got there.
The whirring of multiple electric motors broke into his reverie and the view of the grubby patch slipped away as the bed contorted to bring him up into a sitting position, his eyes and his head tilted back trying to keep the subject of his fascination in view for as long as possible until this position became impossible to hold, and then he slumped back against the mattress.
His eyes came to rest on the man at the foot of his bed and he felt a strange mixture of fear and elation at the sight, the man felt like a father to him. For some reason that he couldn’t determine the newcomer’s clothes were very odd, the stethoscope that hung around the man’s neck told him that he was a doctor but the clothes were too dark, too drab, like a uniform… a uniform? This must be a military hospital.
‘How are you feeling?’ Asked the doctor.
‘Different, but OK’, the patient said after a pause.
‘Are you in any pain or discomfort?’ The doctor asked.
‘No’, said the patient after some contemplation.
‘Do you know who I am?’
‘Yes’ the patient responded even though he had never seen the doctor before today.
The doctor nodded and wrote something down on the chart, and then he pulled an object out of his pocket, placed it on the clipboard and proceeded to stab at it with his index finger.
‘I am going to ask you to do a few basic motor function exercises’, the doctor said when he’d put his phone away. The doctor held his pen at arm’s length towards the patient.
‘Focus on the pen and try to follow it with your eyes as I move it, try not to move your head’, instructed the doctor. The doctor moved the pen from side to side as well as up and down and observed the patient.
‘Any pain or discomfort, sickness or disorientation?’ He asked returning his attention to the clipboard again.
‘No’, the patient replied without hesitation.
‘Please extend both your arms out in front of you like so’, the doctor said holding one arm out to demonstrate.
‘Now touch the tip of your nose with your right index finger’, asked the doctor, and looked on as the patient complied.
‘And now repeat with the left index finger’, the doctor requested. Satisfied the doctor filled the chart again before replacing it on the foot of the bed.
‘Pick up the gun from the bedside table’ the doctor ordered, without a word the patient picked up the snub nosed .38-calibre pistol.
‘Fire a bullet into your head’ the doctor said calmly. The patient responded immediately placing the gun barrel against his head and pulling the trigger, the silence of the room was broken by a loud click as the hammer struck an empty chamber. Nodding with satisfaction the doctor told the patient to replace the gun.
‘Look at me and listen very carefully to what I have to say’ ordered the doctor.
‘Natural nemesis’, the doctor said leaving a pause between each word for emphasis.
Without a word the patient climbed out of the bed and made his way out of the ward, up the corridor to the main part of the building where he collected a brand new passport and a wad of banknotes from a sergeant sat at a desk in the reception.
The sergeant filled out some paperwork as the patient stepped out of the main entrance where he stood on the steps blinking in the bright sunlight oblivious to the continuous roar of the traffic. A minute later the patient joined the crowd of people that filled the narrow footpath on the side of the road. He had no recollection of the strange hospital, nor the unusual events that had occurred there a few minutes before.
He strolled down the street with a smile of contentment on his face, he understood now why his life had been full of pain and suffering, and why the endless hours of penitence and servitude had failed to alleviate the incessant anguish.
It was obvious to him now that each and every moment in his life had a purpose, which was to lead him to this very moment, this moment of complete and irrefutable realisation that what he had believed had been wrong all along, that his enemy’s values and ideals were the only true and honourable ones to hold.
He knew now what he had to do to right all the wrongs that he had committed in his ill-conceived past, he had to return to the place that had turned him into the man that he had been, he would go back to the training camp in the desert and kill them all.
The thought turned his smile into a grin that lit up his face, he was elated and happy with his mission even though it could be the end of him, and for the first time in his life he felt at peace and in complete control.
© 2015 Copyright by Paul Johnson. All rights reserved.