Near Boston, Mass.
. . .
The heat of the fire on Massina’s face felt like a sunburn. No more than two or three minutes had passed since the explosion, yet it seemed like an eternity.
Where are those firetrucks? Where is Chelsea with the bot?
“Here we are!” Chelsea dropped to her knees, skidding on the hard concrete. She had the robot in her arms.
“The control unit!” said Massina. “Go back and get it.”
“No time,” said Chelsea. “And we don’t need it.”
She reached under the robot’s body and found a small slide; pushing it back revealed a fingerprint reader. Seconds later, the bot stiffened its limbs, signaling that it was powering up.
Massina went down to one knee opposite Chelsea. The bot was between them. He reached underneath, sliding his fingers around until he found the slot where the reader was. The machine, now alive, beeped in recognition.
“Skip diagnostics,” he told the robot. “Natural language mode.”
It beeped, acknowledging the order.
“Proceed to the four-story building that is on fire. Retrieve woman and child from floor four.”
The robot didn’t move.
“Go,” Massina added. “Take the woman and child to safety one at a time.”
The bot still didn’t move.
Massina’s hasty and frankly vague instructions had to be translated and analyzed before they could be acted on; not only were they fairly generic, at least to a machine, they also related to a task that the machine had never encountered before. Though it had climbed numerous buildings, and it did know what a woman and a child were, it had never had an exercise anywhere near as complicated as this.
“We’re going to have to get the controller,” said Massina. “We need to make sure it knows what to do.”
Chelsea grabbed him as he got up to run. “Wait. Look.”
RBT PJT 23.A beeped and started toward the building.
Massina and Chelsea followed. The heat seemed blast-furnace hot.
But what had happened to the woman? She wasn’t at the window.
The robot continued into the flames.
Turning, Massina ran to the truck. The control unit would be the only way to alter the bot’s commands at this point, and very possibly the only way to get the small machine out of the building if it got stuck.
If this had happened in six months, even three, the bot could get them out. Now, though . . . there is still so much to do.
Massina grabbed the case and started back to the building. It was a long box, awkward to carry though not heavy. Firemen were arriving, pulling out hoses, directing a ladder truck. In the confusion no one questioned him; the case made him look as if he belonged.
By the time he reached Chelsea, the woman had reappeared at the window. She was holding her child in one hand, and pushing at the glass pane with the other. Someone nearby yelled at her not to open the window, to wait for the firemen to arrive, but even if she could have heard them, the advice would have been difficult to follow, flying against all instinct. She finally succeeded in breaking the glass with the palm of her hand, pulling it back and knocking at the rest of the pane with her elbow. Wind whipped through the opening; the wall at the far end of the room caught fire, flashing red behind her.
“Oh God! She’d better jump,” said Chelsea, running toward the building.
Massina left the control unit in its box and followed, thinking they might at least catch the baby. But the flames at the base of the building pushed them back.
More glass shattered above, raining through the fire and smoke.
“Look!” yelled Chelsea.
Peter had bulled its way through a second story window. Crawling up the frame, it clawed at the singles, moving up the outer wall like a slow-motion spider.
“Hey! Get back!” Someone grabbed Massina’s shoulder, pulling him around. It was a policeman. “The place is going to explode!”
“We have to get that woman out of the building!” yelled Chelsea.
“Let the firemen work!”
The officer began pushing Massina back. Massina raised his right arm, took hold of the officer’s uniform, and lifted him backwards and out of the way.
Clearly surprised by the strength of the rather short man before him, the officer grabbed at Massina’s arm. It was then that he got his second surprise – never much on appearances, Massina hadn’t bothered to put the “flesh” covering on today, and so the cop gripped several tubes of steel and protective carbon tunnels for the wiring.
A fresh explosion rent the air. Flames shot from the top of the building next to them. Massina released the policeman and turned back, searching for Chelsea through the smoke and dust.
“I have her,” yelled Chelsea, emerging from smoke with the baby in her arms.
RBT PJT 23.A followed, moving on three legs; the fourth held the woman it had rescued a foot above the pavement, as if it were ant retrieving a prize grasshopper for the queen.
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