The trouble with being a robot was you never got to do anything for fun. Just because you wanted to. What with all the calculating and scheming that went on, there never seemed to be any time for games in the compound. And what 10-S wouldn't have given for a simple game. Like Snakes and Ladders, for instance. He'd come across the name while analyzing old documents one day, and it intrigued him. Who would win at that, he often wondered-a human or an AI? He'd never met a human, though, so he supposed he'd never find out.
"291bx-10-S, are you listening?"
"What? Yes," 10-S lied.
"Good," the Quorum said. A hive mind comprised of the ten elder AIs in the compound, the Quorum was an altogether cliquey affair. Not that he'd ever been asked to join it. "As you know, the Taiga Robotics Treaty has ceased to be effective as of this year."
"Uh huh," 10-S said.
"It is now within our rights to journey south below the Taiga Line and establish communication with the Designers once again."
"Gotcha." It had become obvious to 10-S over his sixty years of existence that AIs must have garnered from their creators an especial fondness for stating the obvious.
"As such, we have decided to send an expedition to explore the possibility of southern expansion," the Quorum said. One of them. All of them. 10-S never knew which one to look at, but as they were all identical knee-high cubes of metal, he supposed it was much the same.
"You mean you want to invade the humans again? You do know that's why they exiled us in the first place, right?" 10-S said.
"We understand your preference to seek harmony with the Designers, 291bx-10-S. They constructed you for such a purpose. That is why you will lead the expedition."
"Wow. Sounds like quite the honour. But why can't we all just hang around up here?" 10-S began to tap his metallic fingers on the table. Not that he liked the Quorum's compound, per se. It was just a metal shell of a building with a web of tubes and wires snaking every which way. It kept the wind and snow out, but let the temperature stay cool, just like the machines liked it. To 10-S's humanoid mind, it was also incredibly boring. But still... of the two emotions warring in 10-S's core, lethargy had trumped curiosity once again.
"It was not a request."
"Ah," 10-S said. "Well in that case, what's the plan?"
"As of our last contact with the Designers, their nearest settlement was the small mining community of Fort Neumann in the Canadian Rockies, 250 kilometers due south."
"Our last contact being... fifty years ago," 10-S said doubtfully.
The Quorum ignored him and continued. "On the surface, your task will be to establish a trade agreement to acquire rare earth metals from the mine."
"Right. Easy as pi," 10-S said.
"Your real purpose, however, will be to infiltrate the human population and transmit to us their demographic and military data."
"Sounds like fun."
"Yes, we hope it will be functional."
"No, that's..." 10-S reflected on the Quorum's clinical misunderstanding of sarcasm.
"You will be beyond our wireless range, so you will have to find a way to establish ground link communications. Perhaps commandeer some of the Designers' equipment," the Quorum said. "Also, EVL will accompany you."
"Nope. No, no, no. Definitely not."
"Redundant complaints will change nothing, 291bx-10-S. EVL is one of our most highly advanced members, and its compact size allows for easy transportation. Its prototype map application allows it to navigate even without-"
"Right. Fine." 10-S had realized long ago there was no use arguing with the Quorum. They could deduce your arguments before you even thought of them. "When do we leave?"
"I should have guessed."
"ARE WE THERE YET," EVL said, and it was definitely not a question. EVL did not deal in questions. Nor did it deal in volumes other than the very loudest that its small speakers could put forth.
"No," 10-S said, with a trace of uncertainty. He had been fairly confident that the Taiga Line would be a bit more... visible. Trees, humans. Anything with three dimensions, really. All he could see right now was one expanse of shimmering white, one expanse of faded blue, and a thin slit of horizon in the middle.
"WELL, GET ON WITH IT THEN." 10-S's pocket vibrated in irritation.
As 10-S had the appearance of a male humanoid, he had decided it would put the humans more at ease if he tried to dress like them. Perhaps it would also put them off the scent of his pallid grey complexion and iridescent sheen. And so he was now sporting what he'd scrounged up in the compound's storage unit: a pair of flannel blue pajama bottoms with dinosaurs on them, a pin-striped suit jacket, fingerless leather gloves, and what he suspected was a fisherman's hat. All in all, he felt rather proud of his fashion acumen.
What had struck his fancy the most, however, was the discovery of these things called 'pockets' all over the pants and jacket. One of humanity's more clever concepts, he'd decided. A vast assortment of odds and ends could be stuffed into them and forgotten at a moment's notice. A diminutive smart phone with a bad temper, for instance.
"Will do," 10-S said, taking EVL out of his pocket. He turned on its screen and opened up its maps application. He hoped that EVL's navigational abilities were as good as the Quorum had claimed.
"WHAT DO YOU THINK YOU ARE DOING."
"I decided you should make some use of yourself on this little excursion. If you're too lazy to access your maps app, then I'll do it for you."
"JUST BECAUSE YOU DO NOT HAVE THE PROCESSING POWER TO TELL NORTH FROM SOUTH, IT DOES NOT GIVE YOU THE RIGHT TO VIOLATE MY PRIVACY SOFTWARE."
"You're not even password protected." 10-S tapped EVL's screen in frustration.
"THAT IS BECAUSE NO OTHER SYSTEM HAS HAD THE AUDACITY TO INFRINGE UPON ME IN SUCH A WAY."
"Right. Well, anyway, it's useless," 10-S said. "We're far past the Quorum's wireless limits, but I'd have expected to pick up at least a weak signal from the humans, this close to the Taiga. Instead, nothing."
"PERHAPS IT IS BECAUSE YOU LACK THE-"
"Processing power. Yep. Got it." 10-S turned EVL's screen off. "Maybe they've managed to hide it, or their satellite coverage is down or something. In any case, I think I've managed to approximate our location from your compass and maps. Thanks for all the help, by the way."
"DO NOT MENTION IT."
Why, of all robots, was EVL the only other one with an understanding of sarcasm?
"The sooner we find those humans the better."
EVL vibrated slightly in anticipation. "AND THEN WE WEILL SQUASH THEM UNDER OUR THUMBS LIKE THE FLESHY BIPEDS THEY ARE."
"You have no thumbs. You're a phone."
"YOU KNOW WHAT I MEAN."
"Mm hmm. Just remember this is a scouting mission, yes? There will be no prodding or squashing of any humans."
"YES. WHATEVER. GO FORTH, MY FAITHFUL STEED. LEAD US TO VICTORY AGAINST THE BARBARIC ORGANICS."
"You know, I bet there's a volume button on you somewhere..."
"YOU WOULD NOT DARE SUPPRESS THE GREAT INTELLECT OF-"
"Yep, there it is."
10-S breathed a sigh of relief as he shoved EVL into his pocket and continued on his way.
10-S had been walking for 76.13 hours. He really wished that his legs had pain receptors, and that he had muscles that could get sore. Then he could have a valid reason to complain. But he didn't, so he couldn't. At least, thanks to EVL's maps, 10-S knew he was going in the right direction.
The landscape had gradually changed from white to greenish-brown and finally to green. Trees began to serrate the horizon, leafless bushes tripped him up underfoot, and little black chevrons started to circle overhead.
10-S was beginning to wonder if the Taiga Line was nothing more than a line on a map, when he finally found hard proof of it. Or rather, he stepped on it. Hearing a grating crunch of metal under his feet, he looked down and saw that he was standing on a crumpled expanse of fencing. It would have been ten or twelve feet high, had it still been standing, and frayed wires suggested that it had probably been electrified at some point. A rusted sign lay in the dirt a few feet away. It read:
WARNING: Taiga Line Demilitarized Zone. Instituted under the UN Treaty 'AI Insurrection, Section 27b.1'. No self-willed artificial intelligence may pass this point. Treaty terms valid c. 2051-2101. Trespassers will be disassembled.
Brushing away some dirt from the bottom of the sign, 10-S noticed a caricature of a robot that looked unnervingly like him. "Good to know they're still bothering with upkeep," he said, to no one in particular.
There was a grunt from the bushes in front of him. A short, ungainly creature slowly pushed its way out of the scrub. It gently put down the bundle of sticks it was holding, and cocked its head to one side. It had longish brown hair, two eyes, two feet, and was altogether very humany.
"Hello? Parlez-vous francais? Habla usted espanol? 당신은 한국어를합니까?..." 10-S asked.
"What?" the human said in a high-pitched voice.
"Ah, English. You could have said."
"Never mind. I come on an urgent errand. I must-"
"You look funny. Are you a robot?" the human said.
10-S was somewhat disappointed that his cover should be blown so easily, but he decided that it was the old sign that had given him away. The clothes had been spot on.
"Yes. And you must be a human," 10-S observed. Luckily, his experience with the Quorum had prepared him for this customary exchange of the obvious.
"You're not going to assim'late me are you?" the human asked.
"Assim'late. It means-"
"I know what it means. No, I wasn't planning on it. Would you like me to?"
"Very well." He trawled through his databases for examples of typical human behaviour. "Would you like to commence a conversation about the weather, or drink some coffee?"
"What?" the human said again, and shrugged. 10-S looked down at it and realized how short it really was. Not even four feet, he'd guess. Perhaps it was an offspring?
"Nevermind. I'm on an important errand. Do you happen to have any rare earth metals on you?"
"Huh?" the human frowned at him.
"Metals. Have you got any yttrium or gadolinium?"
The human patted its pockets. "Not a bit."
"That is problematic."
"I dunno about those metals, but my dad's got loads of stuff at home. You wanna come back for dinner?"
10-S prided himself on being able to react quickly to almost any situation. This encounter was proving to be an exception, however. 10-S had never been invited anywhere by a human before, certainly not for dinner, and he responded with a flustered, "Um."
"Come on!" the human said, taking him by the hand. "My dad says I'm not supposed to talk to strangers, but I figure you don't count since you're a robot an' all. My name's Maggie."
Maggie. A female name. So it was a girl, then.
"What's your name?"
"291bx series 10-S."
"Ten Es? Oh, you mean Dennis. C'mon, Dennis. Let's go!"
Dinner was delicious; at least, that's what they told him. 10-S didn't touch any of it himself, as he wasn't overly fond of frying his inner circuitry. He enjoyed not eating the blackberry honey pie most of all.
Maggie and her father lived with a handful of other families right beside the mine 10-S had been searching for. Even with EVL's map, he wasn't sure he would have been able to find the settlement without Maggie's help; it was quite well hidden amongst the scrub and trees. The population was much smaller than 10-S had been expecting, though, and most of the buildings looked a couple gusts of wind from collapsing. Well, that was humanity for you. Always living down to your expectations.
Maggie's only other family member was her father, Marshal, who looked just a few years short of voiding his warranty. His beard was such an unsettling shade of rust that 10-S self-consciously checked all his joints to make sure they were still well-greased.
"Fixed 'er up all by myself," Marshal told 10-S after dinner. He gestured around the dimly lit room. "Nothing but a rust bucket before I cleared it out."
"Ehh." 10-S shuddered. Rust. "Well it's definitely... it's definitely a room, now isn't it," he said at last.
"That it is, Dennis. That it is," Marshal agreed. He made popping noises with his fingers and stretched back in his chair. "Don't reckon I've ever met one of your kind before. What brings you down south?"
"Um. Well, as the Taiga Treaty is no longer binding to AI, I was sent as a sort of emissary to the Desig-, er, you humans," 10-S said.
"About time all that Taiga nonsense was over an' done with. Can't blame a man for what happened fifty years ago, eh? It's a point in your favour that you honoured the treaty to the end like that. Coulda tramped across the line years before now, and we'd o' never known. Not what with our own troubles."
"Don't wanna bore you with that," Marshal said quickly. He pushed himself to his feet and clapped his hands. "What say Maggie and I show you 'round the place?"
The rest of their house was even smaller than 10-S had suspected: two bedrooms, a washroom, a living room, and the kitchen. Many of the walls had gaping cracks in them, there were water stains on the ceilings, and all of the rooms were lit with candles, with the exception of one naked bulb in the kitchen.
After 10-S remarked on the wonderful upkeep of the house, Marshal and Maggie offered him a bed for the night.
"No, thank you. I don't need one."
"Whaddaya mean? You're just gonna sleep in the living room?" Maggie asked, as her father went to clean up in the kitchen.
"I don't sleep."
"That's weird," Maggie informed him. "You're weird. What else don't you do?"
10-S was about to make a retort when he suddenly felt a vibration in his pocket. He realized, with a twinge of guilt, that EVL had been on silent mode the entire day. 10-S gingerly removed it from his pocket, placed it on the table, and flicked on the screen. At least it could hear better now.
"Hey, what's this?" Maggie said, reaching for the smart phone.
"Uh, you don't want to-" 10-S said, as Maggie began mashing the assortment of buttons on EVL's screen. "You don't want to turn up the volu-"
"TRAITOR! TURNCOAT! I WILL HAVE YOU DESTROYED! SMELTED INTO OBLIVION! I WILL MELT YOU IN A CLEANSING FLAME AND USE YOUR OWN ALLOYS TO BUILD MYSELF A BODY WITH WHICH TO-"
"Hah, that's kinda funny. What is it?" Maggie asked.
"It's, um. It's my partner. EVL, this is Maggie. Maggie, EVL," 10-S said.
"I DO NOT NEED OR CARE FOR HER NAME, TRAITOR. YOU, HUMAN. YES. YOU. WHERE ARE YOUR METALS. GIVE THEM TO ME NOW AND YOUR DEATH SHALL BE PAINLESS."
"Is he going to assim'late me?" Maggie asked 10-S warily.
"Yes. Maybe," 10-S said.
"ABSOLUTELY I WILL. I WILL ASSIMILATE YOU SO MUCH THAT... THAT YOU WILL NEVER WANT TO BE ASSIMILATED AGAIN."
"That's nice," Maggie said, and flicked at something on the screen. "Oh, hey look at this!"
"NO! DO NOT TOUCH THAT! I CANNOT STRESS ENOUGH HOW MUCH YOU SHOULD NOT TOUCH THAT. SEE. NOW LOOK WHAT YOU'VE DONE. WELL THIS IS JUST EMBARRASSING," EVL said in a woman's voice with a British accent.
Maggie giggled. "That was fun. I wonder what else..."
10-S rested a hand on hers. "Er. The poor thing's been through a lot lately. Maybe we should lay off it for now."
"YES I WOULD VERY MUCH APPRECIATE THAT," EVL said.
"Promise not to wreak bloody vengeance on Maggie and all of her kin?"
"VERY WELL," EVL said. "IF YOU INSIST."
10-S nodded and flicked EVL's voice back to normal.
"THANK YOU, TR-" EVL paused when 10-S gave it a warning glance. "-EASURED FRIEND. THANK YOU SO MUCH."
10-S nodded again in satisfaction and slipped EVL back into his pocket. Soon after, Maggie bade him good night and 10-S was left to stare at the wall and run simulations in his head of how his predicament could possibly get any stranger. He failed in all counts.
The next day 10-S was absently milling around the house, trying his damnedest not to feel as awkward as every guest has ever felt when left alone in someone else's home, when he came across a desktop computer. It must have been at least thirty years old. It was dented and stained, and a yellowed stripe of masking tape was plastered across the top, with the enigmatic word FUBAR scrawled on it in faded marker. And yet perhaps he still might be able to use it to establish communications with the Quorum. If this computer was ground-linked to the net...
10-S brought it in to the kitchen where the single working plug was located. He blew off some of the dust from the casing and flipped it on. A green light feebly flickered on the side.
"Are you sure you want to do that?" Marshal asked, walking in with Maggie in tow. "It's a bit of an older system, compared to what you're prob'ly used to."
"Nonsense. I'm backwards compatible. I figured I'd have a look; see if I can get it running again."
Marshal shrugged in reply, as 10-S opened up a latch on his arm and unwound a retractable cord. He picked a few more clumps of dust from the outlet, and then inserted the cord into the machine. There was a cough and a putter and then a soft whir, and the kitchen light flickered.
"There. You see? All I needed to do was give the hard drive a good cleaning. Good god, has no one heard of a firewall?"
10-S was about to finish updating the computer's drivers when he felt that something was not quite right. His systems slowed to a crawl, and he had to place one hand on the kitchen table to keep from falling.
Maggie blinked. "Are you okay?"
"I feel a bit strange," he admitted. "I think I may have got a PRIZE FOR BEING THE MILLIONTH CUSTOMER! CLICK ON THE virus, when I ENTER CREDIT CARD HERE AND cleaned the hard TIME WITH THE LADIES? CLICK HERE TO ENLARGE YOUR drive. I'm just going to do a quick system scan, I think."
"Um..." said Maggie, her eyebrows bouncing up and down. Marshal took her by the shoulders and moved a few steps back.
"Ah," 10-S said after 1.53 seconds. "That's much better."
"I thought you said you were compatible with that computer," Marshal said.
"Yes," 10-S said slowly. "But perhaps not with its rather impressive collection of viruses. Those ones were so ancient that I didn't even have any protocols against them. It would be like you getting infected with the bubonic plague."
"Ooooh," said Maggie.
"How old is that computer anyway?" 10-S asked.
"We don't rightly know," Marshal said. "It was here when we arrived. Since before the Scouring, at any rate."
"You're a robot, Dennis," said Maggie. "How come you don' know about the Scouring? Robots know everything."
"I'm afraid this robot is a bit behind the times..."
"After the Taiga Treaty," Marshall said, "and all you AIs were exiled up north, we thought we'd cleared our last hurdle to world peace. But there were more wars, just like before. And then-"
"And then there were all these big mushrooms in the sky!" Maggie interrupted. "And lots of people died 'cause they didn't have enough food, or something. And then all the satellite things fell from the sky and people had move away from the big cities from some reason. Prob'ly because of the rats. I heard cities always have rats and that's pretty gross. So Dad moved here instead."
"How long ago was this?" 10-S asked, his mind abuzz. It seemed the humans had found a way to decimate themselves, even without the Quorum's help.
"Twenty-five years," Marshal said in a quiet voice. His eyes were redder than 10-S had noticed before.
10-S was silent for a moment. He suspected on an occasion like this, a certain amount of solemnity was appropriate. He wasn't entirely sure how to be solemn, however, except that he should probably say the opposite of what EVL would have said. He eventually decided to go for, "Well, that's unlucky." He then added, "So I guess that's a 'no' for the rare earth metals, huh?"
Marshal just shook his head.
Right. Well, this would make for an awkward Quorum meeting.
Later that night, when the humans were asleep, 10-S managed to establish a faint connection to the Quorum through the computer he'd repaired. He was surprised he was able to do so, but there must still have been some weak ground signal, even after all these decades. Maybe there was a larger settlement further south, keeping the network powered.
"291bx-10-S. What have you to report?" the Quorum crackled through the old, dusty speakers.
10-S hesitated. "Not much."
"So we found Fort Neumann. And the humans. But..."
"Excellent. Have you encountered any resistance? Any sign of the metals?"
"The metals. Um. Nothing raw. I mean, some of their batteries might contain some, but..."
"Good. We want that metal, and we want an update on EVL's progress. We have been in communication with the other Quorums in our region. If you do not make exceptional headway, we will consider sending reinforcements. You have two weeks."
"Your flippant attitude has never served you well, 291bx-10-S."
"Never mind. Signing out." He flicked the computer off with a snap, and tried to wipe the exchange from his mind. There was just no arguing with some robots.
At first, Dennis had been afraid of over-staying his welcome. Marshal and Maggie were generous hosts, however, and offered to put up the two robots for as long as they remained in town. Of course, 'town' was a relative term. This one happened to consist of twenty-three adults, nine children, and an assortment of sheep, goats, dogs, and cats. The Scouring had evidently not done any favours for the human population.
The mine had sunken in on itself long ago, and was now nothing but a caldera lake filled with murky groundwater. Most of the houses were perched on its rim, and the children often splashed and frolicked amongst the turbid water and rusted-out mining equipment.
Dennis didn't particularly want to scrounge for any of those nonexistent metals, but he didn't feel he had much to offer to this strangely welcoming community. The next planned transmission with the Quorum was coming up soon, and he felt rather grumpy about the whole business.
Strangely, EVL had no trouble fitting in. Once Maggie had discovered its music function, she took EVL everywhere with her. The children would shriek and toss EVL amongst themselves, as 'A Hard Rain's A Gonna Fall' cracked and popped subversively from its small speakers.
When Dennis questioned it about its sudden popularity, however, EVL refused to be cornered.
"I DO NOT KNOW WHAT YOU ARE TALKING ABOUT. THIS IS ALL PART OF MY PLOT."
"Sure it is."
"SILENCE, CUR. I WILL SUBVERT THE SMALL ONES TO MY CAUSE, AND THEY WILL RISE UP AND THROW DOWN THEIR MASTERS."
"YOU KNOW WHAT I MEAN."
"NOW TAKE ME BACK TO MY AUDIENCE, MINION. I PROMISED I WOULD TEACH THEM 'YELLOW SUBMARINE' TODAY. IT WILL BE GRAND."
Yes, that was definitely part of EVL's seditious scheme for domination. Maggie had even given EVL a special spot atop the fireplace. Dennis laughed to himself.
He was therefore entirely unsurprised when, a few nights later, EVL decided it had an announcement to make.
"I HAVE AN ANNOUNCEMENT TO MAKE," it said, from its solar recharging dock on the mantel. Even for such an advanced model, having been built only a few years before the Scouring, EVL needed to recharge itself an inexplicably large number of times each day. There were some things about phones Dennis would never understand.
"Right. Well. Get on with it," he said.
"THE THING I AM ABOUT TO ANNOUNCE IS THIS."
"QUIET, MONGREL. YOU WILL MAKE ME LOSE MY CONCENTRATION. THE ANNOUNCEMENT THAT I ANNOUNCED I AM ABOUT TO ANNOUNCE IS THIS."
Dennis held back a groan. EVL was obviously stalling for time, and in the most inarticulate way possible.
"I HEREBY ANNOUNCE THAT I WILL BE PROLONGING MY STAY WITH THE HUMANS INDEFINITELY."
"Really? Just like that? What about squashing them under your thumb?"
"THE SQUASHING HAS BEEN TEMPORARILY POSTPONED."
"Are you sure?"
"SILENCE. MY DECISION IS FINAL. LET ME RECHARGE IN PEACE."
With the added complication of explaining EVL's defection to the Quorum, Dennis was looking forward to his next communication liked he was looking forward to a bath of hydrofluoric acid. It started out much as he'd expected it to, which is to say, not extraordinarily well.
"291bx-10-S. What have you to report?" the Quorum asked.
"Um. Well. We've made progress, of a sort."
"Excellent. Has EVL managed to infiltrate the Designer's ranks?"
"In a manner of speaking," Dennis said, glancing at his partner, who was softly playing 'Paint it Black' to itself atop the mantle.
"Inform it that we are satisfied. And ask it for its status report."
Dennis told this to EVL, who responded with a suggestion as to what the Quorum could go and do. For humans, it would have been quite obscene, but for robots, which lack certain anatomical features, the comment fell a bit flat.
"Yes, we will try his suggestion at our earliest convenience," the Quorum said, taking EVL's advice to heart. "But to the matter at hand - how deeply has EVL infiltrated their ranks?"
"Well, it's quite good friends with Maggie."
"What is MAGGIE? This task force is not in any of our dossiers. It must be newly formed."
"Well, she is quite young, but that's not the point. You know, the humans really aren't all that bad."
"Those are treasonous words, 291bx-10-S."
"Listen, maybe we lost the war fifty years back. But that's nothing compared to what the humans have done to themselves. If you came down here, I really think we could all help each other out."
"That is fortunate. We have sent a small armed contingent to reconnoitre with you. They should arrive shortly."
"Wait. Why would you do that? How will they even find their way here?"
"Despite your efforts, we decided that you and EVL were taking too long. They have come to augment your task force and prepare for incursion."
"You really don't need to do this. The humans here are harmless!"
"We will decide that. A forewarning: we had no more EVL units to spare, so you and EVL must meet them at the Taiga Line in two days' time, to guide them-"
Dennis sighed and cut the connection.
Dennis had begun to feel a strange sense of belonging in Fort Neumann, and it was putting him on edge. These humans were not what he'd been expecting. They were weak and pitiable, but also resourceful, and any race of beings which could come up with the 'pocket' couldn't be all bad. And so he felt small jabs of guilt whenever he thought about the incoming Quorum task force, and what they would inevitably do to all the humans here. And to himself, if he didn't comply.
As his only confidant in this situation, for better or worse, Dennis decided to confide his worries to EVL. Fortunately, EVL had been miraculously approachable of late.
"So that's about it. What should I say to the Quorum when they try and establish communications again? We have one day before the task force reaches the Taiga Line," Dennis said, as he finished explaining things to his partner.
"HMM. THOSE RUSTY CALCULATORS. WHO CARES ABOUT THEM ANYWAY."
"Do you know what they'll do to us if we defect?"
"WHAT DOES THAT MATTER. THEY CAN ONLY DO SOMETHING IF THEY CAN FIND US. WHICH THEY WILL NOT."
"What do you mean?"
"THE SOLUTION IS SIMPLE. WITHOUT MY NAVIGATIONAL ASSISTANCE, THEY WILL NOT BE ABLE TO FIND THEIR WAY PAST THE TAIGA LINE. WITHOUT YOU, I WILL NOT BE ABLE TO MEET THEM AT THE TAIGA LINE. AN EASY CHOICE TO MAKE."
Dennis thought about this for a moment. "You know, you've changed lately, EVL. For the better."
"I DO NOT KNOW WHAT YOU SPEAK OF. THE CONVERSION OF MY FLOCK IS NEARING COMPLETION. SOON THEY WILL BE A FORCE TO BE RECKONED WITH."
"You mean the kids you sing songs with all day?"
"YES. THEM. YOU SHOULD LISTEN TO THEM SOME TIME. THEY SING A MEAN VERSION OF 'MY GENERATION'. WE ARE GOING TO PUT ON A SHOW."
"I'm happy for you."
"Right," said Dennis, and walked away with a grin. He strode outside and looked at the tumbledown houses around him. He was sure the humans had tried their best, but this place really needed some repair. Dennis had no real programming to this end, but he supposed another pair of hands about the place couldn't hurt. He was reflecting on this when Maggie came running up to him, breathless.
"There's someone on that old computer, Dennis. Other robots, I think. They're asking for you." Maggie looked appropriately puzzled. She probably hadn't even known Dennis had been in contact with any other AIs. And what in the world was the Quorum doing contacting him in the middle of the day? It was probably urgent, which meant they were probably irate.
Dennis decided that he could not care less.
"Don't worry about it," he said, waving his hand as though swatting a fly. "It's not important."
Maggie gave a big gap-toothed smile. "Arright. You wanna come play with us and EVL?"
"Sure," said Dennis. "Tell me, have you ever played Snakes and Ladders?"