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by Miriam English

14. weapons

The little robot was a marvel of engineering. Its mechanical design was inspired by one of the most versatile and efficient forms to have walked the earth: the ant. Not much bigger than a large ant, it packed an enormous amount into its tiny form. It couldn't rely upon external communications for its task, so it contained enough intelligence to make sense of the things around it, and it was conscious, so that its mind was able to focus on the situation, formulate plans, and be motivated with a sense of purpose and urgency. It knew its target, and it knew it had to avoid being seen. Energy was a serious problem. Batteries had never lived up to their promise, and fuel cells were still only promising. The AIs had helped with the design of super-capacitors, but they worked best in large size. About a third of this robot's body was taken up with a miniscule super-capacitor, but this still delivered only several hours' life, and that life was severely shortened if much movement was needed. The robot had to be careful and use the strategies it had been taught.

Earlier, it had been surreptitiously released into the foyer near some large desks and equipment. The robot undertood that it needed to get to the other side of this. It could crawl safely along, under the edges,remaining out of sight, but that would seriously deplete its energy. Getting to the other side would be best done by hitching a ride. This was very risky, but would extend its potential working time by hours, so it shut down most of its systems and waited for the first wave of people -- the security staff -- to enter the foyer.

Noise and movement woke the little device and it watched carefully for a foot to stand near where it was hidden. The robot could move very fast, and that required hardly any more energy than slow movement; one of the great advantages of small size is negligible inertia. It scurried from its hiding place to a great shoe and in an instant it was under the gap in front of the heel, clinging upside down to the sole.

The human was moving. The robot watched. At first the person was moving in the wrong direction, towards the front door, and with a sudden sense of panic it worried that it might have chosen the wrong person and perhaps need to abandon for another. It would would be very dangerous, running for cover with enormous feet clomping all around. Also it would be a terrible waste of energy.

The human stopped. He was conferring with another person at the front door. The robot didn't understand what they were talking about -- something to do with forms and shifts. Presently the human turned and walked back the way he'd come and passed around the other side of the barrier. The tiny robot almost went weak with relief, but clung until it was sure it was near the other side of the security barrier, then quickly crawled out from under the shoe and zipped under the edge of the barrier.

It knew it would not have to wait long now and that all the attendees would have to pass through this barrier with its metal and bug detector. Shutting down non-essential services again, it bided its time.

The robot didn't understand why it was important that it wait here, just that it was. It didn't have the room inside its little brain to know about the disastrous meeting of the heads of the pharmaceutical industry earlier in the year and how the entire discussion had been broadcast live onto the net by a bug that had been somehow attached to one of the members. All the discussion of collusively setting exorbitant prices, of negotiating regions among themselves and casually allowing millions of deaths as a way of increasing prices -- all this and more was exposed to the world. Even with their massive power, they had been no match for the wrath of the worldwide public and most countries had immediately nationalised their pharmaceutical industries and sacked their executive staff. Some had even been imprisoned for intentionally inflicting suffering and death upon millions. Now important drugs were available for all, as cheaply as possible, there was no longer any deceptive push for useless drugs to be foisted upon the public, and people and governments saved billions in wasted research, focussing now on truly useful work, like solving malaria and doing basic, blue-sky research.

The robot had no knowledge of who were the self-important people that would come through here, nor that they had learned their lesson about bugs and were ensuring that their particular business would remain a secret.

After perhaps half an hour the little robot was once more awoken by extra movement. People were coming through the metal detector. It could hear voices and gruff complaints.

It soon had the opportunity to dash to a shoe that had stopped near its hiding place. Snuggled up in the space under the shoe, it clung there, relieved that it was now safe. It had accomplished the most difficult part of its job. Now it just needed to wait and listen.

It didn't understand most of what was discussed at the meeting. It just knew that this was extremely important, and it felt proud that it was able to do this. It dutifully recorded the entire event.

When the meeting ended it watched, during each step, as its ride walked from the conference room, through the foyer to the sidewalk outside where it would face its final dangerous task. It abandoned its safe place under the shoe and raced for the edge of the footpath, and leaped into the gutter.

This was still a perilous position for the little robot. It was unlikely to be spotted here, but it had to make itself safe from vehicle tyres that would squash it and extinguish its recordings. Accordingly it found a small crack in the concrete and flattened itself into it. Now it settled down to wait again, secure in the knowledge that its task was almost complete.

Some hours passed by and the robot was brought out of its slumber by a familiar voice, "Whoops! Oh clumsy me! I have two left feet today." Momentarily it saw above, the face of the man who was to retrieve it. Oh joy! Almost home, free! Then it was covered by paper. It quickly left the safety of the crack and clung to the underside of the paper. Seconds later it felt itself being lifted and other papers being placed under it, before being put into the darkness of a briefcase. The little robot felt dizzy with relief and overwhelming happiness.

Not long afterward the briefcase was opened and gentle hands found the little robot and lifted it out. There were smiling faces all around. The robot recognised most of them. These were its friends and it no longer needed to hide. It was carefully placed upon a little platform with two connectors where it plugged its little antennae. The warmth of a replenishing current flowed into it and also conducted its recording to the large computer and its AI that the robot knew was the one who had designed it.

The robot happily listened as the people cooed over it and began the playback. It knew they would be very pleased by what it had accomplished.

"Okay, everybody quiet. Lets hear what went on in there."

The voices died down and the recording began to play.

The President's voice was unmistakeable, "Let me welcome you all to--"

A gruff voice growled, "Sit down and shut up. Why do you politicians all have to rattle on with so much drivel all the time? We all know each other and we all know why we're here. You're not buying enough of our product."

The President again, "It isn't as simple as that. With this new wave of open government forced by all these leaked documents, we can't just be cavalier anymore. We have to be careful."

"Weak, you mean. I think your political opposition would be more receptive. We can change government anytime we choose."

"I doubt it. He's just as bound as we are. He can't accept bribes any more than we can. And now the public won't stand for that much money being spent on weaponry. It just can't be hidden. There are no secrets now. Everybody knows that diverting the weapons budget for just half an hour out of the year would end starvation. Diverting it for an hour would end poverty. Eliminating weapons production for the entire year would enable every man, woman, and child on the planet to live like royalty. I'm in agreement with the voters on this, and unfortunately for you I'm in power now."

The growling voice deepened, "That's a temporary situation, and something that a single sniper's bullet or terrorist's bomb would instantly change in our favor, as well as making it easier to convince people that they need a strong military with lots of weapons."

"Listen, you antiquated moron, the world has changed. You can't threaten me like that anymore. If you did manage to have me killed there is no way you could keep it secret anymore and you'd bring your whole industry undone."

Another of the men at the table spoke, "He's right Bob. The era of military might is over. Get used to it. You're already filthy rich and could live a long and luxurious life. Hasn't it ever occurred to you to try to make something worthwhile of your life?"

"You slimy politicians are an embarrassment. You answer to us, not to the idiot masses. You need to get with the program and spend more money on our gear."

A different, milder voice, "And buy what? Your land-mines are useless since that genetically engineered bacterium was developed. It eats explosives and turns them all into duds before they're even deployed. Small, cheap anti-sniper robots have made it impossible for anybody to fire a gun when distributed inside warzones. Nobody dares fire a weapon when response is instant and accurate. Bombs have mostly been defused by the explosive-eating bacteria..."

Yet another voice, clipped, efficient-sounding, "We're working on other explosives that are safe from the bacteria."

"By the time you have them there'll be no call for them. Propaganda doesn't work anymore. We can't drum up support for fake wars and we can't scare the population into accepting the need for a fighting military."

"Then what the hell are we here to discuss?"

"There is a way to continue the militiary, but in a different capacity. During natural disasters the military have been used to help people, and during the Great Depression they worked on public projects. This is the only way forward now. We are seeing the end of war. We need to adapt. And this is the only way to salvage something out of the mess."

There was the sound of a chair being thrown, presumably against a wall and a stream of indecipherable insults yelled by the gruff voice, followed by receding, stomping footsteps.

Someone breathed a big sigh of relief. "Thank god he's gone. Maybe we can get something useful done here now."

There was general agreement, but one voice said, "Isn't anybody worried about what he'll do?"

"Why worry? He was always impossible to control. We'll fix him later. We can't afford to let one quick-tempered neanderthal ruin us all."

There followed long discussions about dividing the profits and responsibilities for the new peacetime operations of the military. Until finally the meeting ended.

The recording was switched off and the face of one of the little robot's friends leaned down and thanked it.

The AI in the computer nearby relayed to them in a warm voice, "It is very happy and grateful."

The audio of the entire conference was broadcast on the net and the reaction from the public was immediate. The weapons manufacturers were closed down, their vast fortunes confiscated, and many of them imprisoned. By then the one with the gruff voice who'd threatened the politicians had already died in an accident, almost certainly engineered by one of the others. He had indeed been fixed.

Surprisingly, the politicians weathered the storm rather well. it was clear that, although rather weasely, they were now genuinely working to deliver what the voters wanted.

For the first time in history people could look forward to a future unblemished by war.

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