The Techne’s Apprentice Ch.2

“This is a bad idea.”

“Are you going to stop me?”

“No, but it’s still a bad idea.”

Nicholas snorted in amusement. Zephyr was an honest creature if nothing else.

Waving the sprite away, the young apprentice turned back to continue working on his “bad idea”. An array of computer equipment sat on the workshop floor before him, arranged into a semi-circle of monitors and towers. Tangles of mismatched wires snaked between everything, bound together with lengths of coloured tape. Messy, but the sorting method only needed to take sense to him so it would suffice.

Beyond the setup sat the Kaoris. A total of thirteen little bots that Nicholas had been able to dig out and restore to working order. He’d further modified them with little brooms and feather dusters, leaving them a hodgepodge of mismatched pieces cobbled together into something workable. Ugly but functional was emerging as the theme of this little project.

Twelve of the bots Nicholas had arranged in a circle on the floor, taking care to keep them spaced equidistant from one another. Using yet more wires, he had connected these together to form a basic circuit, taking the time to ensure everything was connected properly. Stylishly messy didn’t trump the need to prevent short circuits. In the center of the circle Nicholas had placed the thirteenth bot, affectionately dubbing it Cleaner Prime as he plugged it into his rig.

Windows popped up on the monitors as they detected the new hardware and sent power flooding through the circuit. The bot’s activated in sequence, starting with Prime before moving around the circle clockwise. Each came to life with an electric hum, eye lenses flashing first yellow and then green to confirm they were online and functional.

Nicholas smiled as the last bot settled into standby mode. That had been that hard part as, without functional hardware, this whole idea was dead on arrival. Now that he knew they worked it was just a matter of animating them with magic.

Pulling a keyboard into his lap, Nicholas began crafting his spell. His fingers blazed away, long strings of code appearing on the screen in response, a confusing mix of sterile mathematics and abstract symbols. Meaningless to someone untrained in their use but holding the potential to harness the forces of creation itself in the right hands.

Such was the way of magic, both in its ancient and modern forms. From shamans calling upon spirits to witches brewing potions in bubbling cauldrons, it all in some way involved the harnessing of magical energies and directing them to the caster’s will. While the exact method may differ, the core means remained the same.

Techne were no different in that regard. Binary code had turned out to be the ideal medium for such binding and harnessing. Rigid instructions that could be modified in countless ways turn otherwise unreachable energies into useful, highly versatile tools. Theoretically, code could be written to do everything from conjuring fire to binding a lesser god in physical from. Though such would just be a touch overkill for what Nicholas needed. He didn’t have enough processing power for a start.

No, for his purposes, a simple elemental would suffice.

For the backbone of his spell, Nicholas retrieved a basic summoning program from within Greytower’s servers. Not the best fit for his needs but he’d used it before and was familiar with its quirks. Such was the Techne way in a nutshell. Always better to modify old and reliable rather than build something new from scratch. The latter had a nasty habit of producing side effects of varying lethality.

Loading a clean version of the program into the compiler, Nicholas set to work making the needed changes. The summoning and binding rituals were already in place, needing only minimal alterations. Adding things like pathfinding and swarm coordination for the bots were likewise simple to find and implement. So far, so downloaded.

It was when he reached the actual cleaning that Nicholas had to do some actual coding. He needed to give the bots enough freedom that they could do their job effectively but not so much that they got lost and confused. A delicate balance was called for, a phrase which may as well have been the tagline for good spell coding. 

It took some doing but eventually Nicholas managed to get basic commands in place for sweeping and disposing of the dust. The junk Nicholas simply instructed the bots to sort based on weight, not wanting to risk anything valuable getting thrown away. It wouldn’t clear much space as a result but imposing some actual order would make it easier for an actual human to sort through later.

With both those systems in place, the only thing left was to decide which kind of elemental would be driving all this. It was a choice that bore some thinking about. While elementals usually had little in the way of consciousness, certainly not the minor one Nicholas would be summoning, their nature did influence behavior to some degree. One could, for example, summon a fire elemental to help organize a library, but it would likely result in a very disorganized library.

Or a very ashen one, if the thing ever managed to slip around its programming. The smart Techne considered such things before the potentially literal fires started. With such wisdom in mind, Nicholas began going down the list in search of an elemental that fit his needs best.

Earth? No, too sedentary. The bots would move at a crawl, if at all. Fire? Energetic certainly but they tended to burn out their vessels too quickly and Nicholas didn’t have any replacements. Water? Maybe one day if he ever got around to building in a mopping function, but until then he’d rather not flood the tower. Air? A quick glance over at Zephyr drew a firm no under that idea.

With the big four eliminated, Nicholas began cycling through the more specific sub-categories. Sand, metal and plant were eliminated as too messy, storm as too dangerous and ice as little better than the worst parts of water and earth combined. Nicholas continued down the list in similar fashion, dismissing each in turn as not quite right for his needs. It was not until he reached force elemental that Nicholas paused to consider.

Force embodied the elementary transfer of energy throughout the universe, a living expression of motion that permeated every single atom of physical matter. Deeply primal, they required a firm hand to direct but were single minded in the pursuit of assigned tasks. Nicholas scoured what he knew of them, looking for any potential drawbacks and was pleased to find none. Yes, force would do nicely.

Pulling up the relevant section of the spell, Nicholas entered the needed variables to attune it to a force elemental. Small bits of code that were nonetheless important to tell the spell what I was looking for. Without them, there would be no telling what the summoning might grab, other than that Nicholas would almost certainly be unprepared for it.

Once that was entered, Nicholas scrolled back to the top and quickly reviewed his work, searching for any issues. He corrected a few syntax errors and one rather embarrassing typo, but otherwise the spell looked good to go.

Satisfied, Nicholas began compiling the code, sitting back as the symbols flew past on the screen. Most of them were still the same numbers and letters but a few had begun to morph into more arcane symbols. Already Nicholas could feel an electric pulse in the air as the code began to weave itself into a cohesive whole. It was weak, the spell still inert but heavy with potential, just waiting for something to set it free.

In short order, the compiler finished and a large “EXECUTE” button appeared at the bottom of the screen. 

“This is a bad ideeeeaaaa,” Zephyr sing-songed from across the room.

“You can stop me anytiiimmmeee,” Nicholas sang right back.

“I don’t waaannttt tooooo.”

“Okay stop that.”

“Nooooooo.”

Rolling his eyes, Nicholas turned back to the screen, finger hovering over the button. He felt the familiar flood of last-minute panic that always accompanied the running a new spell. Right now, the thing was as likely to work flawlessly as it was to literally blow up in his face. Until he pushed the button, Nicholas had no way of knowing. Part of him didn’t want to find out, another wanted more in all the worlds.

A third part raised the concern that Master Orlin wasn’t going to like this, but it was swiftly shouted down. It wasn’t Nicholas’ fault that he’d given Nicholas an insane task. Besides, all he had technically told Nicholas to do was clean the tower. He’d given no specifics as to how. He might even be impressed at his apprentice’s ingenuity. Or he’d be royally pissed. Both seemed just as likely.

Recognizing this familiar back and forth for what it was, Nicholas shut all three out and pressed the button. 

Instantly the screens filled with yet more symbols, cascading past too quickly for Nicholas to follow. The lights began to flicker, briefly winking out as the computers drank greedily from the tower’s power grid. His rig began to thrum and whir as it processed the code, its ethereal fingers reaching out to bend the universe around the code.

A warping effect surrounded the circle of robots. Nothing physically moved, not exactly. Instead, it was as if the empty space itself were stretching to accommodate something moving through the air like a blanket. The effect lasted only a handful of seconds before normal physics reasserted themselves and everything snapped back into place with a sharp crack. For a moment all was still, the very air seemingly to hold its breath as Nicholas waited to see if it had worked.

Cleaner Prime was the first to come alive. Its tail began to coil as tension entered its joints, twitching back and forth at random. Irregular clicks sounded as the bot slowly found its legs, pushing itself up off the ground like a toddler taking its first steps. It stumbled, falling twice but it was a fast learner, quickly getting the hang of its newfound limitations of mass and gravity. Soon it stood tall and steady as the rest of the bots came alive around it.

When they had all stood, the bots began scanning the room as one, drinking in the myriad details of colour, pattern and depth. They had no such senses in their natural state and needed time adjusting to them. Eventually, one of them spotted Nicholas standing at the edge of the circle and they turned as one to look at him.

“Acknowledge and identify,” Nicholas said, fighting to keep an excited tremble out of his voice. 

The words triggered code buried deep in the spell, too fundamental to be ignored or overwritten. The bots continued to watch him, their lenses adjusting focus and LEDs blinking rapidly, first yellow, then green. Glancing down at his tablet, Nicholas saw several images of himself, each tied to a bot’s camera feed. They all tagged him with the identifier of “ADMIN”. So far, so good.

“State core protocols.”

The bots stayed silent, lacking any means to synthesize sound, but the spell tablet promptly chimed with an alert. A new window had popped up, displaying the requested information.

  1. Remove dust (airborne/ground)
  2. Organize objects tagged “crap”
  3. Follow ADMIN directives

Nicholas nodded, happy to see everything working precisely as it should. With one last check of everything, he decided there was no sense delaying any longer.

“Begin primary function, execute.”

Cleaner Prime’s LEDs flashed green again, its tail reaching around to unplug itself from the wires. The rest of the bots followed suit, following their leader as it moved towards the stairs. Their initial attempts to climb were utter failures, the elemental having no knowledge of the motions necessary for such an action. They were not deterred, trying again and again with the dogged determination Nicholas had selected them for in the first place.

After several attempts, they managed to get a pattern down, working together to lift and pull one another up each step. They refined it as they went, getting better and faster with practice. Nicholas followed at a distance, watching as they reached the next level and neatly filed through the door to begin cleaning.

Just like with the stairs they were slow at first, sluggish as they worked out the best way to approach their task. They scattered amongst the piles, lacking any coordination as they constantly got in one another’s way. They did little more than push the dust around in circles, unable to make the junk to do little more than vibrate. More than once a bot narrowly escaped being crushed as something tipped over on top of it. Something of an embarrassing display in Nicholas’ opinion.

But the bots were a quick study and soon started getting a handle on it. The swarm split itself into two groups, those with brooms working to purge the dust while the rest focused on organizing the junk. Soon they had the floor around the stairs cleared, Nicholas able to take a deep breath without choking. Everything was working perfectly.

“See, told you it would work,” Nicholas said to Zephyr, making no effort to hide his smug grin.

“They’re weird, I don’t like them.”

The little sprite didn’t seem that unnerved, hovering around one of the Kaori’s as it shifted a filing cabinet. 

“They’re just robots Zephyr, same as you. Though they are more helpful.”

Even without a face to cast it, Nicholas could feel Zephyr’s pout from across the room. Before Nicholas could say anything else, the little sprite had disappeared into a nearby vent, flying off in search of more mischief no doubt. Rolling his eyes at the childish display, Nicholas turned to walk back downstairs, leaving the bots to continue their work.

*

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