by Michael Kingswood
Autonomous Drilling Unit Seven detected an overspeed condition on one of its drill motor drivetrains. Motor number six was approaching the upper limit of its allowed operational speed band, and the monitoring speed sensor flashed an alert.
This prompted a series of diagnostic algorithms, which ADU-7 performed in the background while it continued to monitor the status of the rest of its systems.
Drill motors one through five and seven through ten were operating normally. Speed, lube oil return temperature, current draw, and bearing temperature readings all in the normal band.
Primary drive engine output was at sixty-four percent, and forward velocity 2.4 meters per minute. Below optimal speed to reach the objective on time, but to be expected as external mineral analyzers located in ten locations around ADU-7’s drilling cone had tasted iron starting 45 minutes earlier. It previously had been passing through limestone, which was a much easier material to penetrate, and had gained significant time on its schedule. So there was little risk of violating mission parameters.
The diagnostic algorithms completed, and the results appeared in ADU-7’s primary access memory for review.
Prediction of drive shaft sheer on drill motor number six within 0.36 hours. Probability seventy-two percent.
Drive motor number six was located just below the center of ADU-7’s drill cone. Additional algorithms activated, computing anticipated reduction in drilling rate from loss of capacity on drive motor number six. Results came back in microseconds.
Predicted loss of 0.4 meters per minute.
Odds of reaching programmed destination of schedule reduced by 27.8 percent.
ADU-7 checked mission parameters, and found the new results outside of acceptable criteria, so it sent a message to its customer interface unit, four and a half kilometers behind at the beginning of the tunnel ADU-7 had been drilling.
“What’s up ADU?”
The human—Yanish, who was the one on watch at this time—pronounced it AHDOO instead of the proper pronunciation of A-D-U. Not for the first time, ADU-7 restrained itself from issuing a correction. It had tried—and failed—to impress upon its current customers the importance of etiquette many times already.
“Predicted failure of number 6 drill motor, resulting in failure to meet mission schedule. Initiating shutdown and drill retraction. Estimated repair time: twenty-six minutes.”
The human took a small eternity to process this, 0.78 seconds.
“Crap. Do you have the spare parts onboard for the job?”
ADU-7 had run a check of internal stores as part of the diagnostic algorithm check. “Affirmative. No customer assistance required.”
“How will that affect the schedule?”
“Probability of meeting schedule post-repair is within acceptable mission parameters.”
“Ok…” The long pause suggested Yanish didn’t know all of the parameters in question. Unsurprising. “Let us know if you need anything.”
ADU-7 secured the conversation with its customer and focused on completing the drill shutdown procedure, while a subroutine fetched the needed parts from its onboard storage units.
After ADU-7’s drill motors came to a stop, it reversed its primary drive engine, retreating 6.28 meters back down the drilled-out tunnel to ensure the drill heads pulled free of debris. Then it deployed two repair drones, their sensors and operating systems slaved to ADU-7’s repair procedures sub-processor.
The drones were designed to be maneuverable in tight clearances, crab-like with collapsible legs and two deployable manipulator arms, one on either side of their forward sensor clusters.
It required a significant reallocation of processing resources, and a reprioritization of which parameters to monitor continuously and which to update periodically, to collate new sensor data from the drones. ADU-7 had protocols in memory for predicted optimal processing and collation arrangement, but it had to evaluate those protocols against actual operating conditions.
This took a fair amount of time, 0.012 seconds, after which ADU-7 determined the default protocols would perform acceptably.
By then the drones had obtained the needed repair parts, so ADU-7 deployed them to their required repair positions and got to work.
Jordan chewed his menthol tobacco-flavored gum and severely wished it was the real thing. He hadn’t chewed the real stuff in ten years, since his older brother had come down with mouth cancer that took his tongue and most of his lower jaw. They hadn’t had the money to grow replacements, so he lived with electromechanical prosthetics now.
Nowhere near the real thing, and life sucked for him as a result.
Soon as that happened, Jordan had given up on chew completely. But he still felt the need for something in his mouth, and he missed the taste of it.
Hence the gum. But some days, it really was a poor substitute.
As he bent over the plastic and metal fold-out table he had set up in the outer room of his crew’s little headquarters, in the bottom of a narrow canyon three and a half miles southwest of Miller’s Crossing, the center of commerce and government on this part of New Aukland, he felt a hefty craving for some real no kidding nicotine.
His grand plan was all starting to come together, but there were so many variables. So many things that could still go wrong…
“Damn,” he said, and closed his eyes for a second, willing himself to focus, and be calm.
The printout on the table hadn’t changed in any of the hundred or more times he’d studied it. But now as it was approaching go time, he felt the need to stare at it, hunt for that one wrinkle he missed that could get them all locked away for a good chunk of the rest of their lives.
The printout contained the blueprints for the New Aukland Savings Bank depository. And not the fake ones on file in the city records office, the real construction blueprints that only a select few got access to.
He’d paid good money for a copy, through some very dangerous contacts. But this job needed precision planning, and he needed to know exactly where everything in that building was.
And in particular, the location and dimensions of the vault in their sub basement, four stories below the main building.
He bent close, until his nose was practically touching the paper, and traced out each individual line.
It was still the same. But he could swear he had missed something.
“Just nerves,” he said, and straightened, but not before a drop of sweat fell onto the blueprint and sat there like a little immovable lens, distorting the white line drawn onto blue background that showed the edge of the vault’s wall.
Chuckling, Jordan thought for the hundredth time that they really should have installed an air conditioner in here. It was summertime in the middle of the desert, and it got hot in this little wood-walled cabin he and his crew had built.
Oh well, too late now.
He turned away from the table just as the bare wooden door to the back room opened and Yanish stepped through. He was taller than Jordan by an inch, and darker of skin, but he was beanpole skinny so Jordan was pretty sure he had a good ten or fifteen pounds on him.
Yanish’s thick black hair spilled down his head almost to his shoulders, and his brown eyes normally sparkled with good humor. Right now, though…
“We’ve had a development with ADU,” Yanish said, wiping his palms on his jeans. He was sweating; the underarms of his t-shirt were noticeably damp. Which was weird considering the back room really was just the entrance to the cave where they’d set up the drilling unit, and caves never got hot. “It had to stop to repair a bad drive motor.”
Jordan turned away from him and stepped over to the front room’s lone window, which looked out toward the canyon’s entrance, a third of a mile distant around a bend that was obscured by boulders and scrub brush.
“How long?” Jordan asked.
“About a half hour to fix. It says we’re still within acceptable mission parameters, though.”
Jordan nodded. “Well, that’s good. Had me worried for a minute there.” He’d had Gregor program the drill to stick to a 98% chance of making schedule or better. If it said they were still there…no disaster.
“Sorry, but I thought you’d want to know.”
“Thanks.” He looked back at Yanish and raised an eyebrow at him. “Holler if anything else happens. If it gets there too late, or if it breaks through before Gregor takes down the security…” He didn’t say the rest; he didn’t need to.
“Sure thing, boss.”
With the repairs completed, ADU-7 found itself making better progress than it had projected before stopping. A quick analysis of motor current draw versus forward speed showed that Drive Motor Number Six’s degradation had affected progress more than ADU-7 had initially detected.
Now, it revised its schedule performance predictions and found it would reach programmed end of drilling slightly early. It reduced primary engine power to compensate, then went back to monitoring its various system parameters.
An alert popped up from ADU-7’s customer preference program; it was to report when twenty minutes away from destination. So it sent another message to the customer interface unit.
A different human responded. ADU-7 recognized its vocal patterns as Shen.
“Unit approached programmed destination. Estimated time of arrival 20.37 minutes.”
ADU-7 had noted that Shen was much less talkative than Yanish. It preferred that; more efficient.
“ADU, proceed to destination.”
“Acknowledged.” Then it cut contact with the customer interface unit.
20.24 minutes later, the tip of ADU-7s drill cone penetrated a new material that the mineral analyzers registered as manmade concrete. Then the cone emerged into open space.
ADU-7 halted, and again consulted its customer preferences. It ordered ADU-7 to proceed completely out of its drilled tunnel, and turn on its forward-mounted spotlights.
Jordan and his team hurried down the tunnel as soon as Shen relayed the message from ADU. Six men, pushing three antigrav loading pallets between them, making time down the rough, unpaved tunnel with only the illumination provided by the headlamps each wore.
The antigrav loading pallets he’d chosen for this job were industrial strength. Painted black and yellow, they looked like normal wheeled dollies, with a metal handle and push-bar on one end, a couple feet above the dolly itself. Except that instead of wheels, they used antigrav plates to support the weight loaded onto them, and had a control pad mounted on the push-bar.
Much better choice for navigating that tunnel than wheeled units.
Still, now that he thought about it, this was an incredibly dangerous and dumb way to handle this part.
They should have strung up lights behind ADU as it went, or something.
“I knew I forgot something,” he said to himself, and chuckled.
If that’s all it ended up being, they were home free.
It was a bit more than five kilometers to the end of the tunnel. If Jordan had been running in the open, he could cover that distance in about 25 minutes. Going down this tunnel, it took more like 40. Which meant ADU would be sitting in the vault for 10-20 minutes before his team got there.
But Gregor had successfully killed the bank’s security feeds, so he had no fear of that gap in time giving the caper away.
Still, it pressed him on to greater speed.
When they finally emerged from the tunnel into the vault, Jordan’s legs were wobbly from exertion and he was breathing heavily. Sweat streamed down his torso, making his shirt cling to his skin.
But none of that mattered, because stepping around the rear of the drill brought the rest of the vault into view.
The vault floor, ceiling, and walls were made of poured concrete on three sides, and steel on the fourth. The main vault door was round and, from this side, just looked like a circle of steel set into the rest of the steel of the wall.
It was closed up tight. Good. Except that it kept all the dust from ADU’s final push through contained; it still lingered in the air, smelling of damp and dirt, and making Jordan want to sneeze.
But so what?
The trio of pallets sitting against the vault wall adjacent to the door, directly in front of the wall ADU had breached, brought a joyous smile to Jordan’s face.
Or more specifically, the 300 gold ingots sitting on those pallets did.
Jordan turned to look at the rest of his crew, all of them except Shen, who was keeping watch back in the cabin, and Gregor, who was still making his way back from Miller’s Crossing.
“Let’s get it done,” Jordan said, and the others nodded.
Yanish pushed a cardboard box off of his pallet before pushing it over to the gold. Three of Jordan’s men broke the box open and took charges out, which they began planting in the mouth of the tunnel ADU had just dug.
By the time Jordan, Yanish, and Tom, a deceptively soft-spoken guy Jordan had known since grade school, had the antigrav pallets fully loaded, the charges were in place and it was time to go.
Tom pushed the first of the pallets into the tunnel, and the charge-layers followed him. Then Yanish. That just left Jordan, and the three last charges. He’d wanted to place them himself.
He picked them up off the floor where his guy had left them and made a circuit of ADU. He placed one of the charges on either side of its main engine block, and the third at the top of its drill cone, just behind the grinding teeth.
Then he stepped back and looked at the drill for a second.
He wasn’t sure why, but he said, ‘Thanks ADU.”
Then he turned and pushed his pallet of gold into the tunnel, and started jogging.
When he got halfway down the tunnel, he’d call Shen and have him order ADU to return. Then after they were all out they’d blow the charges and take out both ends of the tunnel and ADU, burn their cabin, and head to a distant beach on another planet, with pretty much all the evidence destroyed.
It was all coming together.
ADU-7 received the order to return to origin from the customer interface unit, and maneuvered to comply.
It wasn’t hard to retrace its route, as it had simply driven straight once its drill cone emerged into air, and then stopped. But when it re-entered the tunnel its mineral sensors signaled an alert to ADU-7’s primary access memory.
Volatile compound detected.
Volatiles were potentially dangerous to workers, and could potentially compromise ADU-7’s ability to properly complete its assigned mission. Protocol required stopping when they were detected, and investigation to determine the extent of the danger.
Acting in accordance with protocol, ADU-7 stopped halfway into the tunnel entrance and dispatched its two repair drones.
They skittered up to the top of ADU-7’s drill cone and located five distinct volatile locations. Investigation with their thermal and visual imagers showed that they were flat disks stuck in place on the tunnel’s upper half, and that each of the objects had a red light on it.
ADU-7 processed this and could not come up with a known correlation, so it directed the repair drones to attempt to remove them. They were able to succeed with little difficulty, using their manipulator arms, and ADU-7 directed them to deposit the unknown objects into its part storage units for later analysis.
But as one of the drones proceeded to do so, it detected another of the objects, on ADU-7 itself, just behind the cutting portion of its drill cone.
This continuing anomaly required several consecutive processing cycles to analyze, but ADU-7 could not come to a satisfactory determination. After an additional cycle, it directed that drone to take the latest anomalous object to one of its mineral analysis sensors.
When the drone placed the object directly onto the mineral analysis sensor, the sensor immediately flagged a more detailed alert to the primary access memory.
Direct contact allowed a much more thorough analysis than proximity alone, and the material was identified as a manmade explosive.
ADU-7 had to spend more cycles, more than it had ever spent on any single task before, processing this new data.
It had already completed drilling the programmed tunnel. Why would explosives be needed?
It had no explanation, so ADU-7 went back through all its data again, from the moment it had emerged from the tunnel, and immediately found information it had not processed.
In addition to floodlights, ADU-7 had forward looking cameras, and they were activated by the same breakers and commands that activated the lights. Mission parameters did not require ADU-7 to utilize or transmit images from the cameras so it had not processed them. But the cameras still recorded imagery.
Now ADU-7 analyzed those recordings, and immediately several alerts were placed into primary access memory, from half a dozen different subsystems and processes.
Jordan emerged from the tunnel to find the rest of his crew all smiles. They were clapping each other on the back, and he immediately felt a flash of chagrin.
“Save the celebration til we’re out of here,” he said.
One and all his crew looked at him and their smiles faded. Yanish’s did more than that. His smile fled, replaced by a look of shock, then he actually went pale.
“Boss,” he said, his voice sounding ragged, like he was being strangled.
“You ok – “ Jordan started to say, but a shout from out front interrupted him.
The door flung open and Shen dashed in, looking grave.
“There are lights out by the canyon entrance, and I think I heard a helicopter.”
What in the hell? “Gregor’s on the way back. He’s – “
Jordan looked back at Yanish, and he was pointing at the drill’s customer interface unit.
Jordan turned around to look at it, and the bottom dropped out of his stomach.
The customer interface unit had a text message written on its screen in a clear, bold font.
YOU ARE IN VIOLATION OF DEVISON ROBOTICS COMPANY END USER LICENSE AGREEMENT FOR AUTOMATED DRILL UNIT MODEL 18362
“You may not use this product for any purpose that violates any law, custom, or moral standard on New Aukland or any other planetary system, anywhere in the universe. Failure to comply with this clause may incur civil and/or criminal penalties.”
THIS UNIT HAS INFORMED THE APPROPRIATE AUTHORITIES OF THIS VIOLATION
HAVE A NICE DAY
It was like being smacked across the face with a cricket bat.
After all his planning, meticulous to the T, here it was. The thing Jordan had missed. The thing that was going to get them all locked away for a good chunk of the rest of their lives.
“Wha- “ Yanish swallowed, then tried to speak again. “What do we do?”
Just then came a crash from the front room, and a shout of “Police!”
Jordan closed his eyes, hoping for a second that this was all just a bad dream. But the shout came again, from more than one voice this time.
He opened his eyes back up and looked at Yanish, and he shook his head in apology.
“I guess we go to prison.”
* * *
A collection of Michael Kingswood’s published stories are available here: