Fiction Friday: Burncycle Preview

Welcome to the latest Fiction Friday, the CTG blog feature where we contribute a new piece of lore to the universe of one of our games. This month, with us all working hard on the burncycle Kickstarter (coming to you on Nov. 10), we’ve decided to publish one of the short stories from our upcoming burncycle lore document, which will be available through the campaign. The final document will include several short stories and additional lore entries about the world of burncycle. Enjoy, and don’t forget to visit our Kickstarter on Nov. 10!


Title: Ocularity is trying to access your camera

Lightning crackled through the night sky over Old Tokyo, casting alien shadows amid the steady rain. Though the Ministry of Restoration robots did an excellent job restoring the old city during the Age of Peace, it had once again fallen into despair during the three centuries since humans had returned to Earth. Casing turned his hulking, cherry-red frame skyward. With each lightning flash, he could see the outline of the Ocularity camera perched atop the karamon of the old shrine in front of him; the giant silhouette of Tokyo II hovering overhead provided a suitably foreboding backdrop.

“Have you ever been up there?” Byte asked quietly, as she, Bit and Casing made their way toward the shrine, staying close to the shadows of the park’s few remaining cherry trees as they went.

Casing shook his head. Tokyo II was solely the domain of humans and the robots who worked for them, and he’d never been more than a factory bot.

“Bit and I worked there for a while,” Byte said. “No real sense of design. They left all that down here. Fun safes to crack, though. Lots of corporate espionage.”

Bit glared at her sister.

“Right, sorry,” Byte said. “‘Mission critical’ conversations only.”

Casing felt a rumble, though he wasn’t sure if it was from the thunder above or Crash’s continued low-level demolitions below. For the last few weeks, the 404th’s demolitions expert had been triggering small detonations in tunnels and caverns under Ueno Park and the surrounding area, hoping to trigger the camera’s vibration sensors. The first few times the earth shook, Ocularity security officers soared in on a variety of defense equipment, searching the area for a bot or human intruder trying to make off with their proprietary tech, but eventually, as Processor had predicted, they stopped coming, writing off the disturbances as caused by minor seismic activity.

Byte held up her hand as the trio reached a tree about 20 yards from the decaying shrine gate. From this distance, Casing could see the splintered wood where the camera had been jammed into place, disfiguring a structure that had stood for more than a millennia.

“They even ruin their own history,” he remarked.

“Are you ready, Casing?” Bit asked.

Casing lifted one of his giant pneumatic hands to his head, concentrating on the pattern always racing through the back of his mind. Access had equipped all three of the team members with 3Law movement spikes so they could walk to the shrine without running afoul of their directives, but to actually accomplish something of substance, Casing knew he’d have to lock into his code again.

Move, Mold, Shift. Move, Mold, Shift. Judging by his current code sequence, Casing was scheduled to be working at his old manufacturing job, or at least he would have been if he hadn’t left a couple of years ago.

“We know Ocularity will not respond to the vibration sensors,” he said. “Is there anything else I need to know about this camera?”

“This one should not have any feedback loop defenses on it, if that is what you mean,” Byte replied. “Once it gets really jostled, it will deploy additional shielding until it is retrieved by Ocularity. But that is why we are here.” She hooked pointed at Bit, her virtual twin in a slight gray frame.

“We are all known fugitives, so we do not need to worry about recognition,” she added. “Coming here at night during a storm seems to have kept it from identifying us so far. Do your thing!”

“OK.” Casing liked to know what he needed to know, but he was built for force, not details. Breaking into a run, he rehearsed the burncycle procedure in his head, pulling the movement spike out of his neck port at the end of the code sequence.

Move.

Casing was pleased to see that his timing had worked out perfectly, as the command gave him just enough time to finish his journey to a pillar holding up part of the ancient shrine gate. The other had half collapsed long ago, neglected by all but a few tourists.

Mold.

Mimicking as much as he could the movements he used to use to bend giant metal beams into place, Casing grabbed the intact pillar and twisted it. With a great Crack!, the pillar crumbled and fell. Casing could see the camera’s solar flaps retract and its double-lens aperture disappear behind a thick plate of steel.

Shift.

Letting go of what was left of the pillar, Casing gripped the fallen karomon and turned it, maneuvering the gate so that the top — and thus, the camera — was close to ground level. He could hear the faint whir of the sisters’ wheels as they closed in behind him.

“Stay back,” Bit cautioned. “The exterior plating is charged with volatile magnetics. It could wipe or fry your circuits if you touch it.”

Casing backed off and tried to stay still, avoiding taking any activity that would be viewed as a violation of his directives.

“This is where I come in,” Byte said, raising her arm. Her hand folded back in a series of clicks, revealing an array of different-sized magnets within. Cautiously, she approached the sealed camera and began touching parts of the plating with some of the magnets. Casing could hear faint hisses and buzzes from inside the plating, which he knew meant the protective field was being neutralized.

After a couple of minutes, Byte leaned away from the camera, satisfied, and gave it a firm kick. The plating fell off in a couple of pieces, leaving just the camera jammed into the karomon with a large post. Bit approached it and let herself concentrate for a moment; Casing knew she was waiting for the right moment to lock into her own burncycle. In their silence, all he could hear was the howl of the wind.

Suddenly, Bit came alive. Her fingers ropily extended out of her hands, unnatural appendages that seemed to have minds of their own. They moved gingerly toward the connection point between camera and pole, swaying to and fro as if stalking their prey. Once they touched the camera, they traveled its surface slowly and methodically, working their way into small crevices and subtly shifting interlocking metal, stopping intermittently when Bit’s code sequence wouldn’t allow for delicate movement.

Finally, the camera gave way, falling into one of Bit’s outstretched hands. With her other, she signaled that it was time to go. As the trio turned to leave, the wind died down for a moment, and the group heard what sounded like a high-pitched whine.

The three of them froze. Bit and Byte started looking around, heads pivoting to and fro. This area was supposed to be free of regular Ocularity or Ebbwall patrols, Casing thought. Was this all a ruse?

Then, as the sisters continued to look for intruders, he heard the sound again, quieter this time but more distinct. Trying to muffle his footfalls as much as his frame would allow, he stepped over the karomon and walked over to the two pillars that once housed it. Spotting the source of the sound, he quickly motioned to Bit and Byte to come.

When they reached him, they saw what he did: a Japanese woman, wearing a tattered shirt and pants, whose legs had been caught under debris that had fallen from one of the pillars. A similarly-clothed man was there, holding onto her shoulders and staring up at the robots with a mixture of anger and fear. The humans made no move to confront the robots, only speaking to each other in hushed, fearful tones.

“They must have been sheltering under the karomon when I tore it down,” Casing said, feeling a pang of guilt. “What should we do?”

“We should go,” Byte said, turning to leave. Bit grabbed her shoulder.

“We cannot just leave them,” she said. “They are only in this position because of our mission.”

“Do you think they would consider us as nicely if our situations were reversed?” Byte shot back in a hoarse whisper. “I say we are lucky. They are clearly too poor to be let into Tokyo II; they will not have any connections there. We should leave well enough alone and get out of here with what we came for.”

“But it is deathly cold out here,” Bit said. “What if no one of their kind comes along to help?”

“There may not be any guards here now, but that thing is still hot,” Byte said, pointing to the camera. “That has to be our focus.”

Bit sighed and turned to Casing. “Neither of us can lift the stone, anyway. Casing, it is up to you what we do.”

Casing thought for a moment, remembering his supervisors back at the plant. Every one of them was either cruel or simply negligent, never sparing a thought for his well-being. Then, he thought about the people whose sooty homes he passed in Slagsburgh on his way home.

“These people are not our enemies,” he said. “It is the people in charge we are fighting. They are being hurt by Ocularity, like we are.” 

Byte put her hands on her hips impatiently, but Bit looked up at him with appreciation. Casing leaned down, causing the human couple to wince, and then started picking up chunks of debris and moving them aside. He had to intermittently stop the process so that his work would sync up with his directives; each time he did so, Byte glanced around nervously.

Still, Casing was one of the strongest members of the 404th, so in a few cycles, he was done. Just as the bot lifted the last piece of rock, the man pulled the woman away and stood in front of her. His expression changed from fearful to contemptuous.

“It is all –” Casing began.

Darting his hand into a nook in what was left of the pillar, the man pulled out a handgun. Faintly, Casing could hear Bit and Byte cry out behind him, but he was almost more shocked than frightened. The piece wasn’t a BioDefend or Ebbwall model; it appeared to be an old pistol manufactured even before the Age of War. The man shouted something indistinct, gripped the gun with both hands, and fired. 

Casing felt an impact and suddenly found himself knocked flat on his back. His companions were quickly at his arms, dragging him away from the scene. He could hear ricochets of errant bullets and another thunk as something lodged in his torso. Byte shoved a movement spike into his neck.

“Can you walk?” Bit asked. “Because we need to leave. This may not be a regular patrol area, but that many gunshots will definitely raise some enforcers, and we do not know if our friend has more bullets.”

Casing wobbled to his feet. Several yards away, he could see the man waving his gun and shouting. His mood dark, he nodded affirmation at Bit and turned to go.

“Here they come,” Byte said.

They could see the lights before they saw the vehicles. Breaking into as much a run as they could muster — Casing could hear sparks crackling inside his head — the group had barely reached the end of the park when two hamster guard units started gaining ground behind them. The word “halt!” was practically launched at them from a tinny speaker on top of one of the units.

“Surrender now, or we will dismantle you!” the lead guard radioed. “You are suspected of theft, property damage, conspiracy to commit terrorism and assaulting a superior being!”

“We need to lose them in the buildings!” Byte cried. “Hurry!”

Exiting the park as the rumbling of the guards grew louder, the trio made for the wreckage of a long-fallen skyscraper. Slipping in through an opening in the rubble that was too small for one of the hamsters, the trio started maneuvering through the twisted metal toward a hoped-for opening on the other side. Byte turned on her headlamp to help them see in the darkness.

One of the hamsters pulled up to the hole they’d entered and fired destablizer darts blindly into the abyss; the other one wheeled away to find another place to head off the bots. With a sinking feeling, Casing realized they were too far away from their rendezvous point.

After a while walking in darkness, he slowed.

“Stop,” he said. “We are not going to make it.”

He rummaged through the wreckage, eventually finding a chunk of metal that could pass as the camera from a distance on a stormy night.

“We should split up,” he said. “It would be better for us to accomplish the mission than for us all to be destroyed for no reason. I am already damaged. Let me be the decoy.”

Immediately, Bit shook her head. “No way. I am not leaving you, and I do not want to keep discussing this.”

They looked over at Byte, who was staring up into the blackness and rapping her first on a nearby piece of rebar.

“Oh,” she said, snapping back to the moment. “Er. No. I am not leaving you, either. Honestly, I would think about it, but my echolocation is telling me there is only one way out of here, anyway.”

Bit shot her sister a vicious scowl.

They walked on for several minutes. As they neared what they believed to be the other side, the sound of rain began to get louder, and rivulets of water began flowing down the sides of the old building’s twisted detritus. Casing hadn’t told the sisters, but his vision was getting foggier. He would not let them sacrifice their lives for his.

Soon, they spotted another opening back out into the old alleyways. Casing thought he could see the crumpled front of a second generation charging center through the rain. Tokyo was one of the strangest cities on Earth to walk through these days, as the humans’ exploitation of it while they constructed their floating paradise also re-exposed the old damage the robots had once tried to repair during the Age of Peace. It was ruin atop ruin, a potent reminder that no monument to progress is safe from entropy. 

As the group approached the opening, Casing saw the telltale flashing lights of a guard come into view. The other hamster was waiting for them. Quickly, Casing looked around for load-bearing debris. He’d never been one to study much pre-AI history, but there was a story in an old religious text about a supernaturally strong man who’d defeated his enemies by pushing the supports of a building apart, killing him and everyone else inside. Casing had often fantasized about using his own strength for such an end in his old life; wildly, it appeared he may actually have the opportunity to do so. Not far ahead, he spotted a beam that, if pushed just so, would probably topple a large portion of the structure, crushing the pusher as well as the guard. He looked down at Bit.

“You can make your way through smaller spaces than I can,” he said. “Keep going. I need to do something.”

“Casing, do not do this,” Bit said. “We can push past this guard.”

“No,” Casing replied. “We are pinned down, and my functions are ceasing. The man back there shot me in the head, right?”

He saw Bit’s eyes inadvertently track to a spot on his cheek, where he assumed a hole had been punched by the initial shot.

“Yes,” she admitted.

“It is all right,” Casing said. “I never planned for this life. I just wanted to leave my old one. I am happy if what I do now lets the two of you get away.”

There was a pause. “Thanks, Casing,” Byte said. “You are a good bot.” Bit said nothing, but nodded hurriedly. Casing knew what it meant to her.

“I hope the camera helps out the 404th,” he said, preparing his burncycle. At the command Move, he started running toward the beam — and the ground collapsed, sending all three bots tumbling several feet down below.

As the dust settled and he pulled himself free of the wreckage, Casing could see a pair of glowing eyes peering back at him through the darkness. Byte clicked her headlamp on again and revealed a large bot with a yellow paint job and a jackhammer arm.

“Crash!” Byte yelped. “Right in the nick of time!”

Crash nodded to her and hooked his non-hammer-hand behind him, indicating a large cavern at his back.

“We should go,” he said. “Just in case they decide to figure out where you went.”

“Go where?” Bit asked.

“I have been setting off so many explosives under here to trick the camera that I thought I should probably put them to additional use,” Crash remarked. “So there you have it. I blasted our own little tunnel system beneath the grounds of Old Tokyo. Now, thanks to this little retrieval I had to do on the three of you, it might not be secret for long, but…”

At this point, Casing got very dizzy and blacked out.

When he awoke, he was in one of the 404th’s Japanese safehouses. Bit was sitting next to him and seemed to liven up as he sat up and looked around. He touched his head but couldn’t feel a hole.

“We dinged you out, good as new,” Bit said, quietly. “Happy to see you awake.”

“Thank you,” he said.

“You know, Casing,” she said, “you had the right idea back there with those two humans. It may have backfired, but you had the right idea.”

They sat in silence for a while.

“I think they are almost done with the camera,” Bit said. “You want to come see?”

The two walked a short distance down a dim hallway, through a doorway lit by the glow of welder’s sparks (Casing had to duck to fit inside). As he entered, Casing saw Access standing over the camera, which was situated on a workbench, while another bot he did not recognize was shutting off a blowtorch. Several of Access’s head wires were plugged into various ports on the camera, and the 404th’s network genius inserted a small chip into a new slot that had been added on top of the device.

“Is it going to work?” Bit asked. Access looked up at them, nodding pleasantly at seeing Casing on his feet.

“I think so,” she said. “Firewall found a sympathetic unassigned AI on one of the old Age of Peace servers. The trick is getting it to stick while keeping all the data this camera has on Ocularity’s aggressive ID procedures — and hopefully maintaining a back door to the network, in a pinch. Get this: We are pretty sure the lenses on this thing are so advanced that on a sunny day, they can identify bots from their reflections off of humans’ corneas at 100 yards! And tourists just think they are getting an insta-pic!”

Just then, the camera shuddered, then rose about eight inches off the ground. Casing was surprised to see two thin little legs holding the device aloft. Shutters on the lenses clicked closed and then reopened, now featuring a faint internal glow that seemed to convey a spark of life.

The camera peered around the room, taking in the various sights. It then turned back to Access and raised a small sonic dish to its “forehead” in the simulacrum of a salute.

“Greetings!” it chirped. “I have self-designated as Transmitter. I am ready and able to assist the 404th.”

Access smiled. Bit nudged Casing.

“Mission accomplished,” she said.