"Since the peak oil crisis, mankind has always been moving towards the ideals of solar power and wind power, renewable fuels. The Tokyo Hydro Disaster in 2014 effectively killed public discourse on hydrogen cells as a fuel source, and for the most part terranium has picked up the slack. We don't know when the supply of terranium will actually vanish. We've only recently finished modeling systems to predict terranium amounts in given areas of the earth. Frankly, it's been a long, strange trip."
Dr. Cabot Toliver sat back in his chair, pleased with the turnout at his Energy Symposium. Terranium was the buzzword of the year, perhaps of the century. Since the discovery of this strange new metallic substance that burned with nearly zero emissions and gave off disturbingly high energy levels, the industries of Earth, which had been stagnating, suddenly sprung to life again. Terranium refining plants boomed; automatons were reanimated; everything bloomed in a beautiful season of rebirth. And it was all thanks to Dr. Toliver, for first locating the mysterious metal.
Reporters practically rushed the stage to ask Dr. Toliver questions about the future of terranium. "One at a time, one at a time, ladies and gentlemen!" Toliver said, an easy smile forming on his lips ...
I watched the last payload of terranium emerge up the shaft, the barrel only half-full. It was within my power to send it back down for completion, but I had had a feeling this dig was running dry, and did not press it. Let the night shift make up the difference, I thought with a smug smile. Peabody would be upset, but I didn't answer to him.
I hopped in the backseat of the automobile and directed it home. As it drove through the streets, it offered me several suggestions for dinner, until I shut it off by muting it. Lousy know it all.
When I got home, I flipped the switch to everything and the house lit up like a birthday cake. The TV started blaring - one of the robot newscasters was filling in, reading off sports scores with enthusiastic tenor. Then a lead came in, some protesters complaining about "robot abuse" and "robot domination", so I flipped that off. Some people will fight you on just about anything.
I threw a pot pie in the microwave, sucked it down before it got cold again, and went to sleep. Right as I hit the bed, the lights dimmed appropriately.
It's good to be alive in the Age of Robots.
I arrived at work bright and early the next morning. My supervisor Windham was there, a rather sullen sort. Once again he walked around with the weight of the world on his shoulders. Around his neck was the administrative whistle - the one that started up all the terranium robots down below - which he carried like a curse.
"Hello, Windham," I offered (avoiding his nickname "Whiney Windham"). "Any news to report?"
He looked at me as if I'd shot him.
"Nothing at all, Stuttgart. Back to work with you now. Production levels must be maintained." He marched off to his office, to have his autoamanuensis file paperwork.
I paid him no mind - bloody Welshies - and made my way over to begin helping the others shift the rising vats of terranium to the airships for transit. The first batch was teeming, almost overflowing. Guess in the light it's easier for the terrabots to recognize and grab the stuff.
Then a strange thing happened. The second barrel came up empty. And the third as well.
The fourth barrel didn't come at all.
I made a run for Windham's office. I told him what had happened, and he made his way down to the field grounds, whistle in hand. When he arrived and saw the predicament, he looked like he was about to cry. He went over to the slender pipe that ran down into the earth and blew his whistle. Still no barrel. Again and again he blew it, but to no avail.
"We'll have to go down there," he whined. He gave me a suspicious look, one of both mistrust and fear. He was acting very strangely, even by Windham standards.
"They'll pay you a fortune for your soul."
What? I thought, no doubt looking more angry than confused. "Who will?"
Windham ignored me. He snatched my arm and we got on the maintenance lift. No one but Windham went down there - and that one time, when Morgan had, before he had fallen down the shaft and broke his neck. Morgan was a good man, with a family, and kids. I think they'd hired me because I was a bachelor. Change of pace, I guess.
As the lift went down, I watched with childlike fascination as the light of the world slowly vanished and all that was left was the dim red bulbs that lined the side of the shaft. Windham rubbed his hands nervously. It was just a malfunction, but he acted like it could mean his life.
Finally we reached the bottom, and I stepped out into the blinding darkness of the shaft. The first thing I noticed was how small it was - no more than five feet tall at any of the junctures. I ducked accordingly and followed Windham, who led us to the path of the barrels.
On our way, we passed one of the specially designed terrabots, and he seemed to be standing there, expecting something that had yet to come. Windham idly waved an administrative card in front of his sensor, and it relaxed. A sentry of some sort, I gathered.
When we arrived at the mine, I could hear the robots buzzing about - and among them, a low drone, sounding almost like the wind or someone whistling a tune. Sure enough, the fourth barrel was in shambles, broken to pieces and cast about the room. Windham was surprisingly nonchalant about this, as though it had happened before. He kept on moving, into the particular mine being excavated today. The drone grew louder. Soon, we stepped into the primary shaft, and I stopped. I could hardly believe the horror of what I saw.
Children everywhere, dirty, scraggled, their shirts soaked with sweat and caked with blood. Their hands were filled with terranium, which they were throwing with all of their strength - meager though it was - at the terrabots. I saw now that these terrabots had been modified from their original design. They no longer had digger claws on their arms, but the brutish fists of robocops. At their feet lay several children, crushed and lifeless, their dead eyes afire with angry closure.
The children spotted us and began directing their blows at us. One of them stepped perhaps a bit too close, and suddenly one of the terrabots lashed out, sending a pounding shot to the child's forehead. He crumpled to the ground in a shambling heap.
I turned and ran for the lift. Windham noticed me a second later and chased after me, in wild desperate pursuit. As I rushed past the sentry bot towards the exit, I was in such panic that its lightning-quick reflexes sent me sprawling. I lost consciousness as Windham bent over me, yelling, "I'm sorry, I'm sorry!" in my vanishing ears ...
Dr. Toliver had a perfect explanation for everything. The original terrabots' claws were simply inadequate for the fine motor skills required to grab terranium. They were useless children anyway, wards of the state, orphans all, unloved. Here they were put to use for the good of society - he quoted me several authors on utility and happiness. He offered me money, women, power - it was for the good of mankind, you see?
Finally, in a state of shock and wanting desperately to escape his claustrophobic room, I simply nodded and began walking quickly to the door. "Mr. Christiensen." I turned around.
"We live in the Age of Robots, it's true. But you must understand. Robot, you see, is a metaphor. Not for progress, or inhumanity, or stability, or any of that science fiction hokum. A metaphor for servitude. You see, we are the creators and the owners and the givers. We must control that which we own and create. It is the natural law. Just because these robots do not have gears and springs and motors, makes them no less robots." I just kept walking, right on out the door, back to my house. I broke everything, the automobile, the television, the automatic lights, the bed. I did all I could to save them, though I knew it was in vain.
Now I sit staring at the shaft that leads down below and I think of what I saw down there, what I know goes on out of sight. I sit and I think of Morgan, and what he saw, and what he did. I wonder if the fall goes right on through, past the cold hard earth, down to the dark and endless road of good intentions, and straight to Hell,