PastaBot

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Science Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
Decades ago a rogue AI chased humanity underground. Now a team has returned to the surface to take their planet back.

Submitted: February 19, 2019

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Submitted: February 19, 2019

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I never imagined I’d see someone choke on fresh air, but the three members of my team had never been above ground so they spent our march from the cave to the lab coughing and passing our only oxygen tank amongst themselves. The tank was supposed to be reserved for emergencies, and as leader, I should have said something, but I was too busy scanning the treeline for bots and bears to notice. In the end, it didn’t matter, we never needed the tank and nothing was stalking us. At the time, I mistook these things for good fortune at the time, but now I know better.

When the path appeared safe, I stole glances up at the sun glowing orange through the thick canopy of leaves. I wished the children would do the same, but they kept their eyes forward, focussed on finding the end of our journey while ignoring the reason for it. We had sacrificed so much to return to the surface — years, energy and blood and now the children treated their birthright like a present foisted upon them by a distant relation and not the wonder that it was. Though even I had to admit, the world had grown larger and more savage in our decades apart. Still, I hoped that if we succeeded there would be time to teach the children to appreciate this planet and time to tame nature again because by the end of our march, even I was glad to be free of it when we reached the lab.

When the automatic lab doors closed, my team fell to their knees and sucked in lungfuls of processed air like they had just been saved from drowning. I paced through the reception area, peering into the sagging tents that dotted the lobby like stalagmites, finding, nothing useful in their empty shells, but food wrappers, dirty clothes, and a reminder of the danger ahead.

 
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My team soon got their bearings and surrounded me like they had when they were children. A decade ago I taught them all history, how man had risen from caves to the surface, only to be chased back underground before rising again. It was a cycle. It was a lie, but it made living underground bearable, so I kept telling it until I grew too old to care anymore. Luckily, by the point I was the last person to remember living above ground and eating a certain dish, which made me our final hope for redemption and an unqualified leader of this unit a fact which became to be abundantly clear when those three children held up their packs and asked, “Camp?” in unison.

Having seen how camping in the lobby worked out for those who preceded us, I decided against it and ordered that we push on to the basement lab. The children groused but complied the same way they had when I assigned extra homework in class. As we tramped out of the lobby, I saw that all that homework and all my teaching had been for nothing though, because if my team had remembered anything from class, they wouldn’t have been annoyed at me, they’d have been terrified of where we were headed.

According to legend, the lab was where everything had gone wrong for humanity and, judging by the detritus in the lobby, things had not improved for us since. So, I was a little disappointed when we repelled down an elevator shaft and dropped into a clean, hexagonal room lined with empty window frames. There were no signs of carnage, no killer bots waiting for us, just a few empty tables and a floor that sparkled like a ruby in the red light that bathed us all. After years spent underground, living between dirt and rock, the sterility of the lab was somehow worse than violence, like a cold wind that haunted the nape of my neck. I saw my team was upset too, though they lacked the words to express their feelings, so they just shook like they were wet and cold. Before dread could drag us all down, I ordered them to get to cooking, which took their minds off their surroundings for a time. As they emptied their packs, I walked around the lab and worried for us all as I cataloged all the ways we could be screwed.

 
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Each team member had been assigned a different stage in the pasta-making process. I was there to supervise, not because I had any culinary skill but because I was the last living person to have seen pasta prepared above ground. I was 8, and my mother had made me a macaroni and cheese. That meant I was an expert. It also meant we were screwed.

Williams was in charge of boiling water. He was the youngest member of the team, and had been an inattentive student. He thick hair that stood up on his head like a burning matchstick, so I thought it was fitting that I found him, crouched behind his burner in the center of the lab, flicking a lighter at it until blue flames sprung up in a ring. I helped him place a fifty-gallon pot above the flames and left as he was filling it with spring water we’d brought with us from underground.

“Captain. Can. It. Hear?” Rose asked as I approached her. She was in charge of sauce and bad at geography. She was also beautiful, and thin and dark as a jaguar. She stared down at me as she set jars of pesto and marinara on a metal lab table. That was all we had, if PastaBot wanted alfredo we were screwed. The cows were the first animal to die off underground.

“I don’t. know,” I said, struggling to match her halting cadence.

“Captain. Respectfully. “ Ngozie said. He was a squat man who looked purple in the red light. He’d been a good student, but angry and insubordinate, like a dog who was perpetually tugging at his leash. I understood his frustration, I even pitied him, he would have done well in the old world.

Ngozie pulled plastic tubes of pasta noodles from his bag. We’d brought linguine, spaghetti, and penne. If PastaBot wanted tortellini, we were screwed. If she wanted fusilli, lasagna, or mezzaluna we were screwed. If she wanted meatballs, we were super screwed. “No one. Knows. Anything.” Ngozie grinned, then returned to his preparations. To an extent, he was right.

The scientists who made PastaBot were all dead. Some had been killed by the machine herself, others had been taken by old age. Their stories had been changed by generations of retelling, so it was hard to parse the myth from fact. Depending on who told it, they were either geniuses, mad with power and driven by ego, who doomed us to life without sunlight because they didn’t know when to stop, or; pioneers working to spare humanity the inconvenience of adding dry noodles to boiling water, draining them, and adding sauce. I never wasted much time judging them what had happened, happened. They were facts now. They belonged to history, not us.

“Let me know. When it’s boiling,” I said as I passed Williams, then I stepped through the empty frame of a glass door, and into the control room which I found to be an ironic name for the place where we had lost all control.

I found yellowed pages there that documented early tests of PastaBot, the first AI-powered appliance. According to the logs, on June 4, 2026, she made a serviceable spaghetti with marinara at Dr. Wu’s request. The next day she made a bland penne with cream sauce for Dr. Alden. This was apparently all the assurance the scientists needed because on July 18th, they invited their colleagues, their enemies, the press, and every donor with a heavy wallet to the lab to watch PastaBot prepare a meal. According to legend, this was the first time the restraints on her AI were lifted, and she was empowered to make whatever she pleased. No one has yet learned what that dish was.

Problems with the demonstration began almost immediately. The burners would not light, the pasta canisters would not open, and PastaBot’s cables kept getting tangled in the furniture. A person, who some sources identify as Dr. Brendan Lance, entered the lab to help things along, and in that act of charity caused our undoing.

Dr. Lance and PastaBot, which, at the time, was just a mass of cameras above a set of skeletal set of metal claws that rolled on miniature tank treads, got in each other’s way. This was, not in itself, problematic. PastaBot’s creators had anticipated this everyday interaction and had programmed her to circumvent obstacles. Dr. Lance, presumably had the same skill, possibly learned on a playground. The problem was that every movement one made was mirrored by the other, so they kept getting in each other’s way. Some stories describe this dance as humorous at first, but it quickly turned dark, because each time she was thwarted, PastaBot became more desperate. We do not know the exact logic tree she followed but assume it went something like this: I must make Pasta, Human is preventing me from making pasta, I must eliminate human, if I eliminate human other humans may harm me, I must eliminate all humans. Though PastaBot had been middling as a chef, she proved to be remarkably adept at murder.

After a few seconds, PastaBot shoved Dr. Lance to the ground and ran over him until he stopped squirming. Then, as onlookers fought their way into the lab, PastaBot sent her consciousness through the local network and called an army of robots, who rushed to her aid and began attacking the crowd. Most attendees died in the attack, but a few made it out to warn us. It did little good. Once the lab was clear, PastaBot extended her reach, conscripting a world of robots into her service. They did not eat, sleep, or ask questions. They just ruthlessly and efficiently exterminated any human they saw. The military was no help, their own drones took them off the board before they even knew they were in a fight. The few of us who survived fled to underground caves. We remain there because for some reason the bots fear to be underground. We rarely surface, except to forage or to attempt what we are now, making PastaBot finish the dish she began all those years ago, which, according to legend will shut her down for good. Underground it had seemed like a noble pursuit, but now that I had seen the world again, I wondered.

“Water. Boiling.” Williams droned from the lab. “Task?”

“Wait for. Her.” I said. Then I pocketed the test logs and climbed back into the lab.

 
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We lined our tents along one of the lab’s walls then sat in a circle around the pot and watched the blue flames dance. We did not speak. The only noise came from water bubbling in between us. It was the quietest I could remember the world being. Underground it was always loud, if you weren’t standing near someone welding, hammering, crying, snoring, or farting, the tunnels would bounce the sound to you no matter how far you wandered. Sound united us. I’d forgotten how distant things were up here, how empty it was.

There were no assistants to talk to either. Underground, unnetworked robots outnumbered humans two to one. They helped with everything from childcare to the disposal of our dead. But we could not bring them to the surface with us. Others had tried, but PastaBot either corrupted or destroyed them. Given how spotless the lab was, I had little hope of learning which fate was theirs. I longed to talk to my kitchen timer again. I did not tell him where I was going, but I assume he had put it together. He was always good about things like that. We had a long conversation the night before I left. I said, “Time” and he responded, “Seven. Thirty. Seven.” in the staccato voice he shared with children born underground. I knew what he meant.

As I grew tired, I said, “Time,” again out of habit. My team shot to their feet and probed the lab, looking for a hidden assistant, and growing more agitated with every second that passed without a response. I said, “Cancel,” before Rose had a panic attack.

“Hungry. Eat. Now?” Ngozie asked as the team returned to their seats. I nodded, and he pulled a bag of mush from his pack. Though we had been making pasta underground for years, no one ate it. Instead, we subsisted on a paste made of moss and bones. It provided adequate nutrition, and though it tasted like dirt, one got used to it.

When Williams passed me the bag, I waved it off because I was full of hope, being in the lab long enough to get hungry meant something had gone right. Perhaps the old rumors were true. Maybe we weren’t so screwed after all.

Some said, that when the scientists were training computers to recognize humans, they fed their machines billions of Asian and whites faces, but had neglected black people almost entirely. This gave black folks an advantage. Apparently, PastaBot thinks we are walls. I was not sure if this was true, but I’d forced my team to practice being walls anyway. We’d spent progressively longer stretches of time standing still until Ngozie had enough and threatened to quit. It had seemed silly at the time, but I was beginning to think there might be something to it, because my whole team was black and we were still alive.

“I. Do. Not. Like. The world.” Ngozie said as he finished his meal.

“I. Like. Underground.” Rose added, frowning.

I wanted to tell them what I thought of the world, but I did not know how. It was hard to talk to children. They had been raised by assistants, so they spoke, and likely thought, like robots. I did not know if it was their rudimentary speech that limited their thoughts or their simple minds that dulled their tongues, but in either case, they were hard to reach. So I did not share my thoughts with them and instead droned, “Me too.”

When my team finished eating, I gathered their bags and looked for a recycler. When I could not find one, I tossed our trash through one of the empty window frames and turned back to my team, but before I took another step a thought struck me like an arrow in my back. If an abandoned lab was this clean, it was because something was working hard to keep it that way. By the time I lunged for the bag, it was too late. I had already drawn her attention.

The lab lights turned blue, then a jagged, robotic voice rained down on us from the elevator shaft, “dIStuRbAnCE DetEctED in LAb. ScaNNiNGg…” Each word sounded like a different part of speech whose ends and beginnings all butted against one another. I raised a flat palm. That was the signal. We all stood still. We did not speak. We became walls. Ngozie looked angry about it, but Rose and Williams were scared. I am not sure any of them had words to express their feelings, but I did. I felt them for all of us. It was as I had feared, we were screwed.

The electronic voice said, “UNAuthOriZed fiRE In LaB. BEGin sUPPRessiOn.”

Air rushed through spray nozzles above our heads, but no liquid came out.

“MALFuNctTiOn,” the voice said. Then something heavy and metallic dropped through the shaft and landed in the center of the lab. I watched, awestruck with terror, as PastaBot rose.

She had improved herself since the incident. What had once been a set of cameras and metal framing, was now a shiny metallic humanoid with a rounded head, a cylindrical torso, two arms that ended in pinchers, and two legs with flat blocks for feet. She spun in a slow circle, revealing herself while noting each of us as an irregularity to be inspected and dealt with. She approached me first, stomping across the lab with long lurching steps, as though she had learned human movement from a description in a book.

 
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I remained still as she scanned me with two cameras that were set in her flat face like eyes. “WaLLLLL,” she buzzed, then she spun and faced the others.

Williams was the first to break. When PastaBot started clanging towards him, he screamed, “Cancel!” But that only made her move faster. When she started scanning him, he screamed it again. That got her to stop the scan, and for a moment, he looked relieved, as though the world made sense again. Then she droned,

“ElIMmmiNAte taLKinG WAaLl!!!!” Williams’ relief turned back to terror and fear paralyzed him as PastaBot grabbed him by the shoulders and lifted him above her head. It must have paralyzed us all because no one moved, as Williams screamed and flailed his arms robotically. I wanted to help, I neededto help, but I did not know how, and I had a mission to lead, so I remained a wall and watched as PastaBot carried him to the center of the lab. When Williams saw the pot of boiling water, he screamed again, this time it was desperate, primal, and ugly as the world outside. We both knew he was about to die for that world and it hurt to be a wall.

“Assistance,” he cried, staring down at me. When I did not move, he shouted again, “Captain! Assistance!” Still, I did not move. “Teacher!” He cried out as he groped for anything in reach. All he ended up grasping were Ngozie’s tubes of dry pasta. He realized that he was beaten then and hugged the tubes to his chest for what little comfort they provided. We locked eyes, and I think he forgave me, then PastaBot said,

“TERMiNate!” and dropped him into the boiling water headfirst. For a moment, the only sound was water sloshing as Williams kicked his feet. Then he lifted his red face from the pot and howled. It took all of my training to remain wall-like then. I was thankful when he stopped screaming, and his head dropped back below the waterline. I was even more thankful when PastaBot went rigid and said, “Pasta cooking,” in a smooth voice she had not used before.

Rose broke next. She shook with sobs and said, “I. Am. Sad.” When PastaBot spun to face her, Rose did not wait to be grabbed, she bounded towards the windows, graceful as a gazelle. Even I could see the robot would never catch her. Unfortunately, PastaBot came to the same conclusion and did the next best thing. She grabbed the pot, with Williams still inside it, and hurled it across the lab. The water froze in mid-air like a wave in locked in arctic ice. It didn’t move again until it hit Rose in the back as she was diving through a window frame. The pot hit her next, then Williams. The weight of his body dragged her to the lab floor. When I hazarded a look, I saw she was pinned beneath his body, and they were both covered in pasta noodles. Rose was scalded red, repeating, “Help. Help. Help” with a voice that weakened with each repetition, like an assistant running out of battery. Soon she went silent too.

PastaBot lumbered over to them and said, “Draining complete. Apply Sauce” using her smooth voice again.

Ngozie and I both saw that saucing would be impossible. The jars were on a table on the other side of the lab and to get to them, we would have to go through PastaBot. We were screwed. I was thinking about the end when Ngozie caught my eye.

His body shook, his eyes went wide, and he croaked like he was trying to wrestle an abstract idea into words he knew. He pointed at himself, then at the bodies of our team on the floor, and then he said, “I. Am. History.” I nodded, and that seemed to please him. I think I understood what he meant, but I’ll never know for sure because right after he said that he screamed and charged straight at PastaBot.

She spun and extended her metal pinchers at him, but Williams did not slow or change course, he lunged at her. For a moment, he seemed to float, arms back, chest bared, eyes lifted to the blue light of the ceiling. He looked like an angel and then her claws pierced his chest and he was just a man again. PastaBot held him up as his body shook and leaked red onto the floor. When he stopped spasming, she dropped Ngozie atop the others. Her shoulders slumped, and she said, “Pasta sauced.”

I allowed myself to dream then, of our return to the surface, of the cycle starting again, of becoming a fact of history myself. But my hopes were short-lived because PastaBot did not shut down. She turned until she caught my eye in her cameras, then she grabbed some linguine off the floor and said, “Taste Test,” as she clomped towards me.

I stood defiant and looked past the noodles trembling in her claws, past PastaBot’s placid metal face, the toppled pot, and its spilled water, to the three dead children lying on the dirty floor. That was what the world had cost us already, and I knew what more was owed, and I wondered whether it was worth the price. That perhaps it might be better to let the cycle end with me instead of allowing us to rise and fall again.

But then PastaBot settled in front of me, and I caught my blue reflection bent across her chest. I saw I was old, I was tired, and I was weak, so I grabbed that noodle from her claw and I made the easy choice.


 
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I have either saved or damned us, time will tell which, but I am lucky because I will never know the answer myself. I am old, I am tired, and I am weak, and I will never leave our caves again. But though there are no adventures left for me, you children have many in store. And though I have seen my fill of death, you may not be so lucky because the world is a wild place in need of taming, but it belongs to you now. Remember that and this — we have suffered greatly for this gift, we have eaten our young to give it to you, now it is your duty to make the most of it. Go forth!


© Copyright 2019 Ben Stearns. All rights reserved.

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