The Techne’s Apprentice Ch.4

Leaving the mess where it lay, Nicholas turned and sprinted back to his room. Kicking the door open, he descended on his desk and began frantically digging through its messy contents. Zephyr followed lazily at his heel, seemingly unconcerned about their very recent brush with a killer robot.

“Whatcha looking for?” the little sprite asked.

“My tablet,” Nicholas snapped, continuing to dig. 

“Your spell tablet?”

Nicholas let out a frustrated growl, “No Zephyr, my cooking tablet that I use for cooking and nothing else!”

“Oh. Well, your spell tablet’s over here but good luck finding that one.”

Somehow resisting the urge to waste more time with shouting, Nicholas stomped over to where Zephyr hovered. The tablet was indeed there, sitting atop a dresser and he took it up in both hands, swiping the screen to wake it up. The summoning interface dutifully appeared, and Nicholas immediately saw that he was in deep trouble.

While parts of the screen remained legible, most of it was scrambled beyond recognition. Streams of corrupted data ran down the feeds, spouting nonsense variables that told Nicholas nothing. The actual display was plagued with graphical glitches, screen tears and digital static that heavily distorted the various icons. All things that one typically didn’t want their magic spell to be doing for no reason.

Cursing quietly, Nicholas quickly deduced which of the glitched icons was the camera feed and pressed it. With a halting stutter, the screen changed to the requested display and his eyes went wide as the curses became both loud and profuse.

Through the various feeds, Nicholas could see the swarm diligently going about their tasks, just not the ones that Nicholas had given them. The young techne had no idea what they were doing but apparently it involved systematically disassembling the room with chainsaws. Nicholas could just see that they already had most of the floor and wall paneling off, exposing the pipes, and wiring underneath.

Flipping through the feeds in a desperate attempt to find an explanation, Nicholas quickly noticed a strange detail. Through the omnipresent showers of sparks, he spotted everything he’d tagged as crap piled neatly in the center of the room. The bots kept moving it around to work at the floor underneath, but they always made a point of nearly re-stacking it afterwards. They were clearly following at least some of his instructions, but that didn’t explain where this new behavior had come from.

“What in all the hells is going on up there?” Nicholas asked no one in particular.

“Dunno,” Zephyr answered. “They were like that when I went up there.”

Nicholas whipped around with a glare. “What did you do?”

“Nothing.” the sprite said.

“Zephyr!”

“I didn’t do anything! Just zipped around like I did with you. And they weren’t anywhere near as fun!”

Nicholas rolled my eyes and turned back to the tablet. That explained the one in the hall at least, asides of the normal desire any sane creature had to kill the little sprite. Zephyr had directly interfered with the completion of their core directives and the bots had responded by attempting to remove the impediment. 

But even that still didn’t explain the new hardware. Nicholas very much wanted to know how they had made the leap from brooms to chainsaws. Or where they had gotten them in the first place.

Minimizing the interface, he pulled up the spell’s raw code. At a glance, it appeared unaffected by the corruption with no obvious errors leaping out at him. That was not reassuring because it just meant that the problem was not the kind that could be solved with a few keystrokes.

With no other option, he began perusing the code line by line, searching for any deeper issue that could be causing this. An open loop, a stray variable, something that might point towards a root cause. It was a desperate ploy, digging for an error that could be no more than a single character out of place. Easy to miss, especially with the screams of metal cutting metal beginning to rumble their way down from above.

Doing his best to ignore it, Nicholas kept reading, finding nothing. Nothing looked out of place, nothing that could cause a problem like this. It flatly should not be happening and that only compounded his frustration. He knew how to use this damn spell, he’d used it dozens of times before, so why wasn’t it working? What had he done wrong?

The frustration almost made Nicholas miss the one crucial detail he needed to figure it out. While flipping through the various screens, he found his way back to the main control panel. Long ago dismissed as unlikely to hold the problem, Nicholas went to swipe away before his eyes happened to catch sight of the swarm’s directive list. Or rather, its new directive list.

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

“Oh crap…” Nicholas said with dawning realization.

“Looks like they modded their directives,” Zephyr said, stating the obvious.

For once Nicholas wasn’t annoyed, largely because he had much bigger things to worry about. The swarm had indeed modified their directives, mostly because he had failed to put in place anything telling them not to. They technically hadn’t broken any of their constraints, just tweaked them slightly to be more efficient. From that perspective, it made perfect sense to put listening to ADMIN low on the priority list. After all, Nicholas might tell them to stop.

But that still didn’t explain why they were diligently working to disassemble the room. By all indications, they were done with their tasks. The contents of the room were sorted and the dust was…

“Oh, Zephyr I screwed up.”

“Uh-huh,” Zephyr said, pausing to revel in Nicholas’ withering glare before continuing. “How did you screw up?”

“I told them to dust but I didn’t tell them when to stop. They’ve gotten all the obvious stuff, now they’re working on preventing every surface in the room from ever getting dusty again.”

“And that’s a problem?”

“Well seeing as how ‘every surface’ means the entirety of the fifth floor, I’d say so yes.”

“So just change the code.”

“I can’t, they have no wireless ports. I’d need to plug into Cleaner Prime directly and they’re not exactly listening to me right now.”

“Technically they’re not listening to anyone.”

“Not helping!”

Nicholas began wracking his brain for any semblance of a plan. He couldn’t order them to stop and they wouldn’t stop on their own. Not until they’d removed the fifth level of the tower from existence, which carried its own obvious drawback. Any attempt Nicholas made to force them to stop would be interpreted as interfering with their directives and prompt them to attack. Nicholas might be able to handle a few of them in a straight fight but he’d never get them all before one of them got lucky.

But then, he didn’t have to get them all. The Kaori’s might have been a swarm construct, but they still needed a central intelligence to regulate what the individual bots did. They still needed Cleaner Prime to tell them what to do.

Without that vital thirteenth bot, the core of the animating elemental would be released and leave the rest of swarm directionless. They might still try to carry on with their tasks but without oversight, they wouldn’t be anywhere near as dangerous. Nicholas didn’t have to take out the whole swarm, he just needed to disable Cleaner Prime.

“Zephyr, re-engage your combat setting, we’re going bot hunting.”

“No can do,” the little sprite said chipperly.

“Excuse me?”

“Only Orry can order me to activate slice and dice mode.”

“Bu-but you just used it!?” Nicholas sputtered.

“Your life was in imminent danger. I can override the restrictions in that case.”

“And getting crushed by a tower doesn’t count?!”

“Nope. Not imminent enough.”

Damn Master Orlin and his effectively programmed safety restrictions. Nicholas took a moment to calm himself, sucking in a long deep breath before letting it out in an equally long, beleaguered sigh.

“Guess we’re doing this the hard way then.”

*

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