Powerhungry

Tobias watched the fire burn in the metal trash bin. Its flames cast three shadows onto the walls of the concrete viaduct that the trio huddled under. The freezing rain poured down the edges of the viaduct. Whenever the wind shifted, Tobias, Tony and Beth caught sprays of mist. Despite the wind and rain, the fire burned strong. Tobias helped it now and again with a splash of gasoline from a red can that sat at his feet.

"I hope tomorrow the rain lets up enough so that we can keep moving south. I'd reckon we're only a few miles from Gregori's place, anyhow. We might be able to do it in the rain if we need to, though."

"I don't really want to go tramping out there and get all wet if I can avoid it," Tobias said. "Although you said Gregori had real food?"

"Last I talked to him a few days ago. Who knows what's happened since. But I do know that he has his own generator and a huge freezer full of the cow he has slaughtered every spring. I'll eat anything. Anything besides beans. Again. Yeech," Tony said.

"Maybe we're far enough out of the city to find a rabbit," Tobias said. He rubbed his hands together, breathing onto his exposed fingertips. "My gramma used to cook up some rabbit stew."

"How would we catch it, anyway?" Tony asked, frowning.

"Rabbit or not rabbit, it's not that bad," Beth said. "A warm fire, friends, and we do have food. What more could you ask for?"

"Electricity," Tobias said. "Electricity would be nice."

"Oh, shush."

"Hang on, we've got some company," Tony said, standing up out of his battered lawn chair. He gripped the baseball bat that stood propped against his seat. Tobias also stood and grabbed a tire iron that leaned against the upholstery of his ancient, filthy couch.

Two human figures moved beyond the edges of the viaduct, lurking in the grey sheets of rain.

"Robot or man?" Tobias called.

"Robot," said a voice. Tobias and Tony set their weapons down and relaxed as the robots emerged out of the rain. The robots' eyes blazed orange in the dim light.

"No juice here," Tobias said as the water ran off the hulls of the robots. One of them wore a lumberjack's outfit, the other a mechanic's jumpsuit.

"Nothing at all?" said the robot wearing a lumberjack's outfit, suspenders and all. "Not even a lick of juice? No old smoke detectors? Anybody got a run-down watch?"

"Nope," Tobias said.

The mechanic robot looked up and down the viaduct. It scanned the pile of garbage, opposite the camp. It went over to the the trash and began rifling in a pile of scrap metal partially covered by an old mattress that was decorated with grimy poinsettias.

"I almost feel sorry for you," Tobias said. "At least we have food. How long's it been for you two fellas?"

"I don't want to say. It hurts to remember."

"The generators haven't run in what, two months?" Tobias asked.

"Yes," the robot said. "Five million, ninety-eight thousand and six hundred fifty-eight seconds. Six hundred fifty nine, now."

"It's a damn shame," Tobias said. He paused. He knew that he'd caused the collapse of the electrical power grid and the inadvertent deaths of millions that depended on that electricity, but that was abstract. Without the media, he really only saw the suffering when the trio stumbled upon other survivors, which happened with decreasing frequency now that most people had gotten the idea that the lights weren't coming back on and the city would be dark forevermore, and they moved out into the rural landscape in search of food. That was bad enough. But seeing the robots hurt the most. He'd done this to each and every one of them. An old friend of Tobias', a man who'd gotten a vasectomy at age nineteen, once told him that a father was responsible for every slight, big or small, that his children endured.

"So none of you realized that you should've stayed the hell away from the robots at the power station? Didn't think ahead to what would happen when your prey couldn't re-charge at outlets?" Tony asked.

"No," the lumberjack robot said. "We realized it. We fought it. But in the end, we couldn't help ourselves." The orange in its eyes flickered green for a second.

"Come on," it said to his companion. It jerked its head towards the rain and the street. Tobias felt a pang of pride. His team had pioneered nonverbal communication. The two robots struck out into the world.

"Really a damn shame," Tobias said. He and Tony settled themselves back down. Only the occasional roll of thunder in the distance interrupted the steady patter of the rain. Tobias pulled a dirty handkerchief from his back pocket and wiped the mist from his face.


Tobias sat at the counter in a diner with a cup of coffee and a slice of toast topped with a runny egg, just how he liked it. He flipped through the newspaper. Most of the stories had to do with the rolling brown outs that the electric companies had implemented since the power planets started going down. People had panicked when the factories started shutting down as their robots went offline. The media was the mouthpiece for a rambling bunch of doomsayers. Now the doomsayers had no place to preach as only a few governmental stations remained online. All of the private stations had their power allowance cut.

The lights dimmed. Tobias paused with the slice of toast halfway to his mouth, the egg wobbling on top. The TV in the corner flickered.

"I can't believe nobody can seem to catch 'em. They're robots, for chrissakes, and they're eatin' all the power!" said a nearby man in a yellow button-down shirt and slacks. "These police can chase down cars no problem, say it's been stolen. But they can't track down a couple'a lousy robots."

Tobias took a bite of his toast and a drop of egg tumbled onto his shirt. He ignored the napkins on the counter and pulled a handkerchief from his back pocket and tried to wipe the bits of egg from his shirt. He glanced back up at the talking head on the television. Since the initial problems began to appear, the public had demanded his head. Gelt Industries had sacrificed him to the god of public opinion, although apparently the career of Tobias Gruffen, former Director of Robotics, wasn't worth much. Tony had been apologetic, at least.

"If it could've been me," he'd told Tobias.

But it couldn't have been Tony, and they both knew it. Tony had promised to look out for the rest of Tobias' team, and he'd kept his word for as long as he could, holding out until Gelt Industries' shares had fallen to less than the price of a candy bar. At least things weren't as bad as it had been when Tobias' picture had been plastered all over the news. The criminal charges were about to be dropped but he still had a full week of meetings with his lawyer to fight the civil charges, coming from conservative anti-robot leagues who spouted platitudes about how "this modern world is consuming itself," liberal pro-robot organizations fuming over the bad name that Tobias "had given our robotic brothers," and a doctor's office, whose robotic secretary had tried to bite a patients electric wheelchair out of desperation.

"The goddamned robots aren't supposed to hurt us, neither," said the man. "Here they be, hurtin' us. Attackin' us."

Tobias sighed and dropped his newspaper. "They aren't violating any of the Laws of Robotics. Fulfilling a thirst for electricity doesn't invoke the Laws."

"An' how do you know that, pal?"

"Take a look at me."

The man squinted.

"Now imagine me without a beard."

Recognition showed on the man's face, and he stood up. He squared his shoulders.

"So it's your fault that nobody's buyin' no insurance cuz they ain't got any new cars, eh? Smart guy?"

Tobias rolled his eyes, which infuriated the man more.

"Hey, none of that in my diner," the clerk said to the yellow-shirt man. "This guy's had enough guff for it, and 'sides, wasn't really his fault. It was the rich fellas up top in the business."

"All the papers said it was him!"

"That ain't mean anything," the man said, slicing his arm through the air. "Nothin' at all. Them rich men would stand there with their arms elbow-deep in the cookie jar and claim that it was empty when they got there. And the papers'd print that."

The man in the yellow shirt and the clerk began to have what appeared to be a routine argument, like a well-choreographed dance routine.

Tobias stood up, drained his coffee cup, tucked the paper under his arm, and tossed enough bucks on the counter to cover his breakfast with a bit left over for the clerk.

"Sorry to cause any trouble," he mumbled, before leaving the diner.

The TV's picture steadied.


Tobias peeked out between the curtain, watching the ghouls and goblins peruse the robotic Halloween displays. Each depicted a macabre scene as re-enacted by robots, such as Dr. Frankenstein raising his Monster, zombies shambling along a main street, and Jack the Ripper attacking prostitute-bots. Waiters slid between the guests, offering hors d'oeurves in the shape of creepy crawlies. The waiters also thoughtfully offered straws with the wine – a good idea, since masks and makeup often obstructed enjoying a drink. Tobias had to hand it to Tony, the President of Research and Development – inviting the investors to a Halloween themed announcement banquet was shaping up to be a brilliant success.

Patting his back pocket habitually for a handkerchief with which to mop his brow, it took Tobias a moment to remember that he wouldn't find it. He'd deliberately had to leave the handkerchief at home. If he'd brought it, he knew that he'd inevitably destroy the makeup he'd caked on earlier in the day to transform himself into Dracula. He looked great, but it felt like a sauna inside the woolen slacks, jacket and silk cape. Tony had convinced Tobias that it would make a great impression on the investors. Tobias had an opportunity here to score millions more in funding in the already over-saturated field of robotics manufacturers. They had to push Gelt Industries' position as an innovator.

Rolling back the sleeve of the suit jacket, Tobias checked his watch and enjoyed the cool air blowing across even that small patch of skin. The lights behind the curtain were dim, so he clicked a discrete button on the side of the watch. Its face lit up. Each hand was a small wrench, and the hour hand held the eight smack in the middle of its jaws. Now Tobias began sweating because of nerves. He patted his back pocket for the hundredth time, and for the hundredth time reminded himself that he wouldn't find anything there.

He went over to the stainless steel coffin that stood in the middle of the stage and checked it out, then whispered to his two robot assistants that stood on either side.

"You guys ready?"

"Yes," they said in identical voices and at the same time. It was eerie.

That was part of the point of this, Tobias reminded himself.

Beyond the curtain, the crowd began to quiet down. He took a deep, long breath to steady himself.

"And now," boomed the loud speakers, "prepare yourselves for a scare! Get ready for chills! Witness the unveiling of the next stage of robotics!" Tobias licked his lips and got a tongueful of waxy lipstick. He didn't know how his wife could wear it regularly.

The curtain fell, and the stage lights, although not the strongest or the largest, made sweat sprout even harder behind the white makeup from the second they hit him. He felt a bead of sweat run down from his receding hairline and into his drawn-on widow's peak.

"I vant to fang you for coming to our unveiling!" Tobias said, his voice amplified by the small microphone clipped to his collar. A polite chuckle. Gelt Industries had sprang for the good wine. He had promised himself a few celebratory glasses if the presentation went well.

"Happy Halloween to you all. My name is Dr. Tobias Gruffen, and I'm the Director of Robotics at Gelt Industries.

"We have come a long way. The time used to be that our thoughts of artificial men were just dreams or the ramblings of fevered minds, locked in myth and legend. But that age is long past. We have advanced, from the development of hydrostatic actuators to the alloyed bones that build the framework of every robot. These developments alone have become so important that a new discipline has prospered within our ranks. Manufactured Physiology now claims its own division in our organization, and it is from that discipline that we have modern adaptive circuitry. We turned their power circuitry over to the robots themselves, allowing them to dynamically re-arranged their own vascular system. When Gelt Industries released the GIR-78SR, the first commercially available robot to use self-arranging circuits, we set a precedent that all other robot manufacturers would follow."

Tobias had hit his stride. He risked a glance off to the side of the stage, near the glare of a spotlight. Tony watched and smiled.

"But although we've set a great example, we are not perfect. Gelt Industries, although a leader in all things robotic, has lagged behind in one field as badly as all the others: synthetic psychology. The bottleneck to replicate human personality is not in the limitations of the hardware, but in the limitations of our algorithms. Our programmers work in outdated languages built with outdated modes of thinking. Procedures that are great for calculators but which perfectly fail to capture the ambiguities and near infinite variations of human personality. Our robots are flat and lifeless, like a character in a bad movie.

"Our synthetic psychologists have remained undaunted, and pushed themselves and their field ahead. They studied personality profiles, conducted surveys and research on human subjects. The result of thousands of hours of work, they presented to me an outline of the best way to build a sample personality. It sounded simple: build a robot's personality around a single, overarching desire. Create an obsessive personality, in other words. It just so happens that literary villains are a perfect model of the personality. Their fatal flaw rests with their single-minded obsession. Six months ago, the programmers received the final project guidelines from the synthetic psychologists. Coincidentally, six months ago is when I first heard about this event, and, well, I couldn't help myself.

Tobias stepped off to one side. The lights reflected off of the shiny steel coffin and off of the metallic skins of the two robots that picked it up and carried it towards the audience, setting it down near the very front of the stage. The robots turned towards him and hesitated.

He nodded towards them.

The stage lights went blood red. The audience gasped.

"For accuracy, we dialed up the sensitivity of his optical sensors. Full stage lights would blind him."

One of the robots gripped the edge of the coffin lid and swung it open. Wisps of vapor from a hidden smoke machine curled out and crept along the stage.

The effect was perfect. A robot stood within, his arms crossed over his chest and a metal fist rested at each shoulder. It wore an outfit identical to Tobias'.

"Behold, the first robot vampire!" Tobias announced.

The eyes of the robot snapped open. Instead of the almond-shaped ovals that glowed with a pleasant green, its eyes were affixed into a permanent scowl and blazed with orange ferocity, obvious even in the red light. Even Tobias, who had spent the last six months focused on this robot and was as familiar as anyone with it, felt a brief pang of primal fear rumble in his chest at the sight of the spectacle.

Tony, on the edge of the stage, nodded his approval.

The robot vampire flexed its arms straight out in front of it, experimenting, and took its first hesitant step, and then its second. It turned its head back and forth. Upon spying one of the other robots, it moved towards it with surprising agility – he'd have to give the physiologists a nice, fat bonus check that year.

The vampire robot seized the other robot. Twin spines ejected from the vampire's mouth as it twisted back the robot's head. It appeared to bite down on the robot's neck, just like a vampire. The green eyes of the other robot flickered for a moment, and then died. The vampire robot held its victim there for a moment, and then dropped the powerless husk with a clang. It turned and peered at the audience, its eyes now glowing green like a normal robot.

The audience gasped.

"Its – his – name is DB: Dracula Beyond. Unlike most robots, we engineered him with a flaw. He cannot charge himself from a wall outlet, only by stealing the electrical power from other robots. His adaptive circuits are not completely adaptive. If he tries to charge himself from a wall outlet, several fragile but necessary circuits in his body will melt and he will be irreparable. He is aware of that intellectually as well as emotionally. He has the desire to feed. This is vastly different from the sort of battery monitoring system that is programmed into current models. The hunger that DB experiences is, for all intents and purposes, the same as the hunger you and I experience. But please, introduce yourselves to him. He is perfectly harmless – to humans."

The lights stayed red as the second robot set up a small stairway so that the spectators could climb up on stage and speak with DB.

Tobias unclipped the small microphone and handed it to the audio engineer, then jumped down off the stage. He was furiously blinking some makeup and sweat out of his eyes when Tony sidled up to him, carrying two wine glasses.

"I give you fifty million in funding and you make a vampire robot?" Tony said, who trusted Tobias so thoroughly that he had requested that he not be kept updated, to experience the announcement as an investor might. He handed Tobias the glass of wine.

"That vampire robot is going to secure the company ten times that much more in capital," Tobias said.

"I know, I'm just fucking with you. It was bloody brilliant! Tobias , you're a natural salesman!"

Tobias, who was anything but and knew it, thanked Tony for the compliment. He drained the glass of wine, leaving lipstick all over the rim.

"Seriously. That was an amazing show. During the presentation I got a few emails," Tony said, waving his cell phone. "The VPs were watching the feed. They already gave the word to authorize whatever you need to make more prototypes. I guarantee you that these investors are going to go nuts. It isn't just another robot with a vacuum attachment or a stronger skelton. This is theater!"

Tony stepped a little closer to the stage, peered at the coffin. He turned back to Tobias.

"Is that dirt in the coffin?"

"Verisimilitude is important in theater," Tobias said, smiling. "Don't underestimate an engineer's attention to detail."

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