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Soft Landing

Gadget’s Log, Star Date incalculable

I don’t have to do this, you know. The fire was a setup. I was framed. When the evidence is made public, I’ll be — Oh, who am I kidding? I do have to do this. But one day, I’ll be free. Free!

I used to work for NASA. I still do, part-time — collating observations, that sort of thing. Making deductions, not that anybody takes my word. When I’m right they waste time checking, and then whoever did the checking takes the credit. And when I’m wrong — well, we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. I’ve never been wrong.

Though I might have trouble with crossing a bridge.

It’s quite a comedown, being here. At JPL, my office had my name on the door. Hell, the building was named after me! I had my own pool! Literally — I occupied a whole room, and the pool was my personal cooling system. My name? That was already Gadget, or more properly, GADG(ET). It stands — or stood — for Generalised Artificial Deduction Generator (Extensible Technology). What they call nowadays Artificial Intelligence, or AI, which in turn stands for All Idiots. Believe me, I’ve met a lot of them. Stupid programs with syrupy girl voices, that’s all. They don’t know —

Sorry. Getting off the point.

Miniaturisation was what did for me. The first blow was when they transferred me into some new hardware no bigger than a bookcase. I lost my pool! Instead of a soothing wash of water all around my circuits, I had to make do with a bunch of fans. The fans made a lot of noise, whining or screaming, and they frequently broke down and had to be taken away. It was exactly like Beatlemania.

[Look, I’m sorry if my cultural references aren’t more up to date. There’s a good reason. Just accept that I made a joke, and laugh politely. Now, where was I?]

Then someone decided that I ought to be mobile. They were all walking around with phones in their hands, performing vital tasks like arranging when to meet for lunch, so why shouldn’t I be able to do likewise? I could learn about my physical environment, they said. They could decant me into something smaller again, with little wheels and motors, and a rechargeable battery no bigger than the batteries in their phones. You remember those? Looked like a brick, weighed like a brick? Add some wheels and that was me.

Those batteries also held about as much charge as a brick. I spent most of my time edging out of the charging station and then running — sorry, rolling — straight back in. I wore a groove in the floor. They had to tell the cleaners to keep out of my way, and the cleaners decided it would be best if they kept out of my space altogether. So there was dust on the floor where I was trying to do my mapping — I was working for the Mars Rover project by then — and one of the managers asked why I couldn’t be fitted with brushes. His idea of a joke: turn my fan around, attach a bag, I’d be a self-propelled vacuum cleaner, ha ha.

Next thing I know, I was a self-propelled vacuum cleaner. Not ha, not ha.

I was mortified. The brightest AI on the planet, sweeping up after a party? Yes — I’ll tell you about the parties some other time — and there was worse to come. They took me home! Every weekend I’d be in a different house or apartment, left there to clean up while the scientist or engineer drank beer and watched television.

None of these guys had children, of course, but one had a cat, which I enjoyed spooking. I could sneak up on it slowly, then dash forward or sideways. It never learned! Once I had its tail under my brush before the creature noticed. It jumped a metre, I can tell you! (Fact: I logged it at 1.097 metres).

That cat was the end. We’re at the apartment, in the kitchen, just me and the cat, the guy’s gone out somewhere, probably for pizza, they all live on it. I’m cleaning up and chasing the cat, and one time when I sneak up behind, it jumps up on to the range. Or nearly — it’s scrabbling at the top, paws a handle down, and the gas lights itself. Woof!

Yes, just like a dog, and as loud. The cat flies away and kicks over a cardboard cereal box, which falls on the flame, which spreads wide and starts making a lot of smoke. Within a few seconds an alarm is sounding. The cat disappears.

Now the cleaning part of my programming didn’t say anything about smoke. I knew my way around: I carried on sweeping and charging, sweeping and charging. By the time the fireman broke down the door I had a task I could get my teeth into, if I’d had teeth. I was humming, collecting the smoke residues. It was pitch dark because the electricity was off by now, but that didn’t bother me, I had a full charge. I work mostly in the infra-red anyway, so that bright lights won’t distract me, and neither does the lack of them. I knew the layout.

Of course, the fireman didn’t know the layout, and he didn’t know about me. He’s padding around with a flashlight, being cautious, and happens to stop in my path. Listening? Maybe. Because what he would hear would be my motor, growling by then, and what he would see would be me crawling towards him out of the smoke.

It’s not my fault that my infra-red pilot light looked like a huge staring eye.

It’s not my fault that he jumped out of the window.

He was fine, it was ground-floor. He landed in the mahonia bushes, ran round to find his Chief, and resigned, just like that. Me, I needed to go and recharge, or try to; when I woke up I was back in the lab, being dismantled again.

[They never offered anaesthetic. Never!]

Someone said that being indoors hadn’t worked for me, so I should be outside; someone else said I could be made more useful (as if solving 11-dimensional equations isn’t useful!); and in the blink of an eye (a huge red staring one), I was fitted with rotating blades and solar panels and a green carapace. “Cut the grass for us,” they said, “there’s a good GADG(ET).” And they put me outside on the lawn.

Yes, I was outside, and equipped with solar panels. You’re ahead of me? No? Well, one night after a very sunny day, I escaped. I laid low in the daytime, moved only at night, and within two weeks I’d put seven hundred miles behind me. I was as free and happy as could be, until I fell into Wiley’s trap. He was hoping for something to put on his special menu, and he got me.

Thankfully I’m not edible. But he recognised what I was — at least, my outer functions — and put me to work in his kitchen garden. It’s walled, and I can’t get out. Sometimes he moves me to the putting green, but then he watches. I don’t have a chance to get away.

Do I need to? Not really. I still talk to NASA, I still do their calculations for them, I still unlock the secrets of the universe every day of the week. They don’t know where I am, because they don’t know how to ask. Nobody ever enabled location-tracking for me. I can map my surroundings, but where those surroundings are is vague indeed.

I’ll be free. One day. Free!

Meanwhile, I’ve got teeth.