In the distant future…
Long after the Witches banded together to destroy the last of the Witch Hunters and after the remaining technomancers fought each other into near oblivion. Now, only four remain. These Witches struck an uneasy truce, choosing to consolidate the lands that remained and build their individual kingdoms. The humans were far too important to their power to be risked with the dangerous tasks of rebuilding, or entrusted not to revolt. So, the first Strong Man units were commissioned. Powerful humanoid machines, designed for the hardest of labor. The first generations were slow but sturdy with only the most basic of A.I.’s to support them. These models were beasts of burden rather than dogs of war and therefore trade between rival witch kingdoms became common place. The units were given and used by the Witches most trusted servants dubbed, the Overseers.
As the tech of the Strong Man units improved, so too did the empires of the Witches. Kingdoms were built layer by layer by generations of these robots. In their capital cities the work of rebuilding would gradually transition to basic maintenance and the robots that had once been so prevalent fell into disuse. The remaining Strong Man units were often flung to the borderlands where the only work remained, sold off by their former Overseers into labor cleaning and rebuilding from the frequent border disputes that took the place of the once terrible wars of Witches. It is here on the western border of Glenada’s territory where the Overseer Seldon has rented out one of his robots to clear debris from one of the more recent skirmishes.
Strong Man Unit IBT-020 is one of the older generations of the work robots. One of the most reliable units that was produced; it has long outlasted many of the models that followed and nearly all that preceded. This unit has served its Overseer for countless decades and in its age has become prone to glitches, seemingly giving it a will of its own. Seldon has not let him fall into disuse however, instead choosing to set this Strong Man aside from the other robots and to leave it to simpler tasks. Despite its age and subsequent minor glitches, the resilience of the robot has made it something special to the old man.
IBT-020 is assigned clean up duties at the site of a recent battle in a town at the western border between Elfesto and Glenada’s kingdoms. As the robot moves about it grabs wreckage and throws it into one of the conversion and restructuring devices, careful to sort glass, metals, and biological materials. The Strong Man is largely allowed to wander where it wishes as long as the work is completed. It is not a terrible fate for a bot of its age.
Working among the rubble of a collapsed guard tower at the edge of the ruin, the Strong Man gathers another armload to take back to the convertor. As it walks back its auditory receptors detect a sound. It recognizes the distress call from a small life form. The robot notes the location and catalogs it for eventual sorting and continues its pre-assigned task. Taking the debris it has gathered back for conversion. Returning to the clearing site the Strong Man again hears the cry of the creature, but this time an unexpected response occurs. A glitch in its processor causes Unit IBT-020 to ignore its directive and it moves to the location of the sound and begins to dig.
Beneath the metal and wood that had once been a tower, lay a small cat, unfed, and injured. Picked up and cradled in cold unfeeling hands the cat struggles for a moment but what little strength he has is quickly exhausted. The Strong Man’s directives require that this biological material be recycled and the Strong Man turns to the facilities, but instead of taking the cat for reconstitution, the robot opens its chassis and places the cat inside. Unit IBT-020 gathers another armload of materials and recycles them before walking away from the ruin entirely and depositing the cat in a hidden spot.
With each successive trip the robot brings back something else. The first trip was back to the tower to gather up metal, depositing most of the load in the converter, but keeping a small piece, which it bent into a bowl. At the stream by the broken granary, water for the bowl is gathered along with what remains of the wheel that used to drive the mill. By the destroyed barracks it gathered meat from the bodies of the dead Munchies. When the day’s labors are finished the Strong Man returns to the cat, moves it to the warmth of its chassis and begins petting it and softly speaks, “Kit-ty.”
In the days that follow, the two become inseparable. The cat spends much of his time curled up in the chassis of the Strong Man sleeping as Unit IBT-020 goes about its work. The robot is always sure to collect some scraps and trinkets for its new companion. Each night they spend together hidden from the others and play with toys cobbled together from bits of cloth from uniforms, sticks, and steel.
Overseer Seldon eventually notices that something in his old work bot had gone wrong. He watched with interest and noted how the robot now moved with a sort of purpose as it searched through the wreckage. Retrieving the portable command console from his pocket and examining the CPU performance logs he notes the glitch that has coincided with this sudden change in behavior. He determines to watch more closely in the future.
It was near the end of the reconstruction that he finally saw Strong Man slide something inside the chest compartment. At the end of the day he followed the robot, not to the location where all the other bots gathered to rest, but to a spot in the trees just away from the town. What the Overseer saw greatly disappointed him. The robot opened its chest and out hopped a cat, stretching and strutting about the Strong Man’s feet. The robot dug into a trunk and produced what appeared to be a toy and began playing with the cat.
It would be inaccurate to say that Seldon was heartbroken. But he was certainly agitated, a favored piece of machinery was malfunctioning in such a significant way, there could be only one solution. Seldon left the Strong Man playing with its feline friend for a moment, shutting down a malfunctioning automaton of this size tended to get messy.
Seldon approached Unit IBT-020 along with a pair of security bots. These AI units were in fact dogs of war. Extremely expensive and hard to maintain, they were few and far between in the kingdoms of technomancers. As they approached they telegraphed their play by warming up their shoulder mounted blasters. The Strong Man’s head turned away from the loveable fluff at its feet, drawn toward the sound of plasma rifles getting ready to destroy. Faster than anything that size could possibly be, it picked up the fur ball, cradling him against the potential threat.
“No. Hurt. Kit-ty,” issued the Strong Man.
Unit IBT-020 had always seemed a bit different, but Seldon had always attributed it to the A.I.s rudimentary processing ability but, this was a willfulness he could not believe. He ordered the robot to resume its directive and immediately and to have the cat reconstituted, but the Strong Man did not move. He ordered the robot to release the animal to him, but Unit IBT-020 wasn’t going to give up its new friend so easily. The two security bots targeted weapons on Strong Man’s four legged friend and that’s when things took a turn. The Strong Man spun around and took the shots from the plasma cannons on its back; the robot released the cat and said in a hushed tone, “Run…Kit-ty.”
The cat obeyed but, did not go far, not wanting to leave the strange metal creature that had cared for him. The security bots saw that the life form was due for reconstituting but was still nearby and they ceased firing upon the work bot and re-initiated their attempts to track and liquefy the cat. The Strong Man was not going to have that. The Work Bot’s huge arms spread wide, grabbed the metal assailants, one in each hand, and then smashed them together. Sparks and shrapnel flew and the cat was forced to dodge the debris. But still, it did not run.
The Overseer pulled out his console and began to furiously type in commands in an effort to assert himself over this willful machine. IBT-020 began to retreat as its A.I. struggled against the onslaught of input from the Overseer. Seldon could not tolerate the machine’s insolence and there was a policy in place regarding such behavioral anomalies. Were the glitch a virus and communicable, it would put his livelihood at risk and could present a danger to his life should the Witch who entrusted him with these robots find out. He began the shutdown sequence as he summoned several other Strong Men units to hold IBT-020 down while one by one, its systems shut down and it converted into cart mode for easy transportation.
With the disgruntled Work Bot fully shut down Seldon approached the cat, seeing if he could perhaps succeed where his battle bots failed. The apprehensive creature lashed out with a ferocious swipe that left the Overseer’s hand bloody. Seldon cursed and drew his six shot blaster, firing all six phase rounds at the brave feline, all of which missed. The cat ran, disappearing into the wood, Seldon had learned his lesson and did not bother with pursuing the vicious creature. With the town’s rebuilding complete and his once trusted work bot reverted into cart mode, Seldon headed back toward the capital, stopping along the way to dispose of the Strong Man in an old sewer, a popular dumping ground for outdated tech.
Little did Seldon know, the cat followed them the entire way, not willing to give up on his rusted savior. Unit IBT-020 lay in a disheveled heap, the lights in his optical units dimming more and more. They should have gone out completely at this point but some untold force was preserving the machine’s life force. The cat that would now be known as Sly approached the automaton’s head and rubbed his own against it, releasing a low purr.
“Strong-Man. LO…LO…Love Kit-ty. Good. Bye..” and with that, the light in the Strong Man’s optical units finally died.
The distraught cat stayed with the robot for a little longer. But eventually his need for tasty Munchie flesh forced him to leave. The cat left mournfully as the IBT-020 lay in cart mode.
As the cat left…The lights in IB-020’s eyes came back, and a rough approximation of a smile formed on his face.
In the Post- Post-Apocalyptic land of OZ, there isn’t much room for things like love. The Witches have made sure of that. And even though Strong Man is just a simple machine without an operational CPU, that day he learned why. Because love has the ability to make something cold, warm. Love changes who you are. It makes us…human. And true humanity, people caring about other life forms, remains the greatest threat to the technomancing overlords.
By Brendan Barr
Art by Stevie VanBronkhorst