Home Stretch

The finish line for the robot race was in sight, but Big Red was half a second behind blue Geri. Spectators in the bleachers who had ever felt aggrieved by the Wolf pack, groaned. All hope was lost; the Wolf ‘bot was going to win; the Bear ‘bot was going to lose.

Abruptly, the Wolf pack’s steel-blue robot leaned back, skidded to a stop, then stood erect and remained motionless. “What’s it doing?” echoed countless voices in the stands, but no one had an answer. 

Big Red followed its programming and raced ahead without pause. But blue Geri turned sharply toward the south and trudged effortlessly through the rear wall of the stadium as if it was paper, through outbuildings as if they were cardboard, and through the safety barrier separating Central Park from the highway as if it was merely a suggestion. Geri leaped down onto the intersection of 150 Kilometer Road and 60 Degree Avenue with a clangorous thump. On the road, the autonomous vehicles veered to a stop around the giant robot like a logjam blocking a raging river. But while the autonomous vehicles were mindful of obstacles and tried to avoid them, the giant robot disregarded anything in its path as it crashed its way unwaveringly toward the South Face. 

Pack Master Dimbleby was as stunned as everyone else. “What the heck is Wolf pack doing?” he exclaimed. “Tommy, take over,” he said, “and secure the area.” Then he sprinted toward the Wolf pack’s pit area. 

Tommy watched Mr. Dimbleby recede in a cloud of dust, then said, “Joey, Milo, drive Big Red back to our pit area, check him out, and try to make sure he isn’t ready to go crazy too. I’m going to follow Mr. Dimbleby and….” Before Tommy could take a step, there was the sound of a jet-pack whooshing down, and then Col. Dubois himself landed in a whirlwind halfway to the Wolf pack pit area and then sprinted the rest of the way. 

The Bear pack looked at each other in surprise, then Milo stated the obvious. “This can’t be good.” 

“Secure Big Red,” Tommy repeated, taking control of the moment. “I’ll find out what’s happening.” 

Tommy said, “Becky, grab your tablet computer and follow me,” just as Miyoko Smith jumped the guard rail surrounding the Bear pack’s pit area. Miyoko wasn’t sure what was going on, but she instinctively veered to follow Tommy and Becky.

Inside the Wolf pack’s canopy tent, all chaos was breaking loose. Col. Dubois was pushing his way through a crowd of frenzied Wolf pack cadets and onlookers, and Mr. Dimbleby was trying unsuccessfully to get Pack Master Sergei Cardellini’s attention. The elder Mr. Cardellini was cherry red in the face and preoccupied with screaming at his son, Bruno, “Do something! Do something, stupido! That blasted robot of yours is running wild!”

Tommy, Becky, and Miyoko, deftly plowed through the crowd until they stood in the circle surrounding Bruno. It was hard for Tommy to tell if the younger Cardellini looked more terrified than helpless, or vice versa, or an equal measure of both. Bruno cried, “I’m trying to get Geri to stop, but it isn’t responding to any of my commands.” The younger Cardellini was wearing a sensor mesh bodysuit and virtual reality goggles in an effort to remotely control blue Geri, but he was obviously failing. Overhead behind him, a holographic projection showed a panoramic display of what he could see through Geri’s cameras.

“Don’t yell at me, Papa,” Bruno said pitifully, feeling his father’s cruel words cut like a knife. “I’m trying, but Geri won’t obey me,” he said in a screaming panic. “He acts like he has a mind of his own. It’s like he’s rebelling!”

Tommy took a step forward from the crowd encircling the cadet and said, calmly and precisely, “Calm down, Bruno. We’re going to help you get through this.” Then he whispered covertly to Becky, “Find Wolf pack’s ‘Yesterday’ and link your computer into their ‘bot’s telemetry.”

Bruno was blinded by virtual reality. But hearing a non-accusatory voice, he said hopefully, “Cameron, is that you?” Sergei Cardellini protested, out of hand, that Tommy should leave his son alone. But Mr. Dimbleby shut him down with a spine-chilling scowl that would brook no interference. 

“Bruno, I’m sure you did this already, but humor me anyway. Did you try all the standard high-level commands when your robot stopped responding? SYSTEM:QUIT? SYSTEM:RESET? HARD­WARE:DIAGNOSIS?” 

“Yes, yes, I tried all of them,” Bruno said, almost sobbing, “but nothing worked.”

Tommy thought quickly. It made no sense for the Wolf pack to sabotage their own ‘bot. And he knew that the Wolf pack’s spy-drone had caused so much electronic interference, as if from a computer virus, that the Bear pack’s ‘bot was free from infection only because he and Becky had rewritten Big Red’s base class cybersecurity code from scratch.

“Bruno, this competition had a lot of requirements,” Tommy said calmly. “You were supposed to write your own base class code. But by the time you…found out…what Bear pack was doing and started copying our idea,” Tommy said, pulling no punches, “you wouldn’t have had much time to both prepare a ‘bot and write new code too. So what did you do?”

Bruno pushed his virtual reality goggles up from over his eyes and said, “We did a lot of work—I mean, a whole lot—but we didn’t have time to do…everything. We had to prioritize.” Bruno’s shoulders drooped. “We just needed a little more time. And Dad said no one would mind—” Sergei Cardellini glowered at his son to be quiet, but Bruno couldn’t see his father’s face because his own eyes were cast down in shame. “—So we use the base class code from the Hawking central network Library….”

Tommy spoke across the crowd to Becky Yesterday, who was sitting with the Wolf pack’s “Yesterday”. Tommy didn’t know the cadet, but he looked like a quivering animal caught in a trap. Becky ignored her counterpart but used his telemetry and her computer to conclude, “It looks like there’s a computer worm wandering all over the municipal network, infecting nearly every artificial intelligence. It’s everywhere. The AI’s can’t even cure themselves by restarting because they use code from the central Library, and the Library itself seems infected. We’re lucky though. Our ‘bot is immune because it uses only the code we wrote and stored in its onboard library.”

It was obvious to Tommy that Becky’s experiences so far were enabling her to quickly make deductions in a way no one else could. That, and of course the fact that she wasn’t just a computer whiz. She was Bear pack’s computer whiz.

Becky Yesterday made one final observation. “Tommy, this worm is doing something weird. I don’t think it’s harmful in itself—it seems to be just gathering data—but all its clones are echoing a crazy message back and forth across the network. They’re sending a system level message with only one word: ‘Home’.”

An uproar couldn’t have started faster if someone had set off a firecracker in the Wolf pack’s tent. “Goldarn it, Sergei,” said Mr. Dimbleby, “you cheated!” 

Sergei Cardellini might have claimed innocence; that his son misunderstood him; and that even if their robot was infected somehow, that infection wasn’t necessarily the cause of their robot’s rebellion. But then Col. Dubois sidled up along side Mr. Dimbleby, wearing a sour expression that dared anyone to challenge the Bear pack’s master, and said, “We’ll get to the bottom of this. But for now, my opinion is that mixing a computer virus with professional level code and fragile amateur code was bound to lead to unpredictable—even dangerous—behavior.” 

Col. Dubois turned his back and tried to contact the authorities on his wristwatch. But all that came from the device’s speaker was a horrific screech of static. “Blast! Communications are rebelling too,” grumbled Col. Dubois. “But what did I expect?” he asked himself calmly. “Even the standard communications system is managed by an artificial intelligence.” 

The Colonel quickly assessed the situation and took command. He buttonholed an adjutant in the crowd who was equipped with a jet-pack and told her, “Fly to the Hawking Cybersecurity Division and tell them a computer virus has compromised all artificial intelligences, including interfering with colony-wide communication, and making a heavy-lift bulldozer go on a rampage. 

“The authorities might be unresponsive at first, cadet. They might not believe your report,” said the colonel. “But tell them the bulldozer is capable of traveling by hyperloop and is powerful enough to damage any structure in the South Face, the Axis, the spaceport—and of greatest risk to the colony—the commercial airlocks. Got that?”

The adjutant nodded and began to put on her helmet. “Tell them to guard the Axis and set up a secure battlefield communications network. And if they still give you guff,” scoffed the colonel, “tell them to use that fancy battlefield network to contact me. If they think the standard network shrieks like a banshee, just wait till I give them an earful. Now blast off, cadet.” 

The adjutant snapped a salute, jogged out the tent door, and then took off in a whirlwind of ionized air.

The colonel had calmed the chaos in the tent to an organized roar. Amidst the tumult, Tommy Tomorrow and his friends were forgotten. Miyoko wound her way through the crowd with Becky in tow, and they caught up with Tommy just as he was slipping out the Wolf pack’s tent. “Let’s get back to Big Red,” he said in no uncertain terms. Outside the tent on their way back to the Bear pack’s pit area, they saw an outline in the stadium wall where blue Geri had crashed through, and a plume of smoke in the distance where the machine was still wreaking havoc. 

When Tommy reached the Bear pack’s pit area, Joey and Milo pummeled him with questions. “What’s going on?” they said. Tommy hurriedly brought them up to speed, then asked two questions of his own. “Becky, how quickly can you write our own computer worm? One that first infects the Wolf pack’s ‘bot, then makes it download the key parts of our own software library?”

Becky Yesterday answered reflexively, “Just a few minutes, I think. I’ve already done the research trying to debug the interference with Big Red…. Wait a minute, what are you saying?” Becky was stunned when she stopped to comprehend what Tommy was asking, then was awed by the sheer audacity of it. “You want to re-infect the Wolf pack’s ‘bot with our immunized code? A proper cure, yeah? And then have the Wolf ‘bot spread the cure to every AI it’s already infected? Tommy Tomorrow, you are one crazy cadet!” 

Becky paused a moment to ponder further, and then finally said, “But any cure I can make will have to spread by near-field communication,” she objected. “You’d have to touch that blue pile of nuts and bolts to cure it.”

“That’s the fatal flaw in your plan,” Miyoko agreed. “It’s a great idea, Tommy, but their ‘bot is already a few kilometers away. There’s no way to deliver a cure.”

Tommy didn’t answer directly, but turned to Bear pack’s engineer and asked his second question, “Joey, how long would it take you to get Big Red ready for manual operation?” 

“He’s recharged and ready to go now,” Joey Today said warily. “Why? No—! You’re not thinking of.…”

“Yeah, that is what I’m thinking of,” Tommy said. “Someone’s got to stop the Wolf ‘bot, and we’re the closest ones with the skills to do it. We’re Jr. Planeteers. We’ve got to try.” Tommy headed toward their bronze Goliath. “I’m going after the Wolf pack’s ‘bot. Thanks to Becky’s code, Big Red’s telemetry link is immune to the virus. You have until I can catch up with the Wolf ‘bot to transmit the cure to ‘Red over the link.” 

Tommy’s footsteps rang as he climbed the ladder built into the back of Big Red’s leg. Joey reiterated the inadvisability of Tommy’s mission in his most color­ful terms, but Tommy was undeterred. He climbed into the operator’s jockey seat and hooked into the hallucination I/O system. Then Big Red stood more erect, flexed his shoulders, looked around to adjust to his taller perspective, and finally said in a metallic, bass voice, “You won’t have long until I need that cure, Becky, so you’d better start working now.” Then Tommy Tomorrow and Big Red turned and sprinted through the hole where blue Geri had crashed through the stadium wall.

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