Silence Like Diamonds – Episode 8: Automatic Kidnapping
This is Episode 8 of a Light Reading original science fiction story. Need to catch up? Start here:
Or find all the episodes here: Faster-Than-Light Reading.
The tranquilizer must have included a paralytic, because I couldn't move, plus a euphoric, because I was becoming happier and happier about being abducted. Clearly they did not intend to kill us right away. Such nice people!
After a while, the van pulled over someplace. A couple of them dragged and rolled us onto the rear seats and belted us in. Another one played back an audio recording of complicated directions to the self-driving computer.
They all got out of the van and shut the door, and the van drove away. Very clever. Good to be in the hands of such professionals.
Could we help the local cops notice that we were tied up in a van with no driver?
I literally could not move a finger or a toe; my head hung over to the side, and I was probably going to have the mother of all cricks in my neck. My face felt like slack soggy clay on the front of my skull.
Markus could have been a warm sandbag slumped against me. I hoped he wasn't too badly beat up; probably losing the fight had been rougher than just being grabbed and tranquilized like me.
I couldn't even open my eyes to read a road sign. Overwhelmed by helplessness, jet lag, and drug-induced indifference, I fell asleep.
When I woke again, my hands were bound behind my back. I was lying on my side on a reasonably comfortable surface. I tried slowly opening my eyes. They opened.
Markus was about a meter away, strapped to a cot, his face toward me. Like mine, his hands were bound behind him. I could see the lines holding his pant cuffs down; his ankles were tied together too. I flexed my feet and confirmed that I was tied there too. As soon as I worked the ankles, the bonds tightened; they loosened after a few seconds of lying still. Taking precautions not to activate the smart bonds by squirming very slowly and without much pressure, I got my head into a position where squinting confirmed that bands of something strong held my calves, hips and torso to a cot, and that I was tied in exactly the same way as Markus.
I tried moving my mouth; it was dry and my tongue felt thick, but I worked my jaw and sucked saliva a little more, and eventually thought I might be able to talk, if Markus ever awoke.
I heard a mix of whining, whirring, and grinding noises behind me. Ignoring the threatening squeeze of the smart bonds, I raised my head as far as I could, turning to look sideways, and saw a printer-assembler powering up in the corner. A piece dropped into its out-hopper. One robot arm picked it up and put it on the assembly frame; the machine went on humming and buzzing as it made the next part. Having nothing else to do, I watched as it used two arms to hold the two just-completed pieces together, printed a screw, then used a screwdriver arm to attach those two pieces and set the combined unit in a different position on its frame.
Next Page: The Taste of Failure
"Not the liveliest entertainment, is it?" Markus asked.
"This isn't really fair. You can watch without having to do yoga against the straps."
"I'll let you know right away if anything exciting happens. Have you tried working the bonds?"
"Yeah, it's a smart fiber that constricts against your motion. It releases if you don't move or stretch it for a while."
"Duh. My hands are getting cold and numb. I'll try lying still a while. Didn't think of trying that. Nothing like being outwitted by a ball of twine."
"What do you think's going on, Markus?" I didn't like the helpless, whiny tone in my voice.
"I usually have the privilege of not thinking about that much," he said. "Mostly I just punch things that are trying to hurt the things that I'm protecting. I have no idea, except that the whole thing feels like we've been set up every stage of the way. But what they got by doing it, or even what we're being set up to do, that's... I have no idea."
"That applies even more to me, and it's really putting the taste of failure in my mouth. Right now anyone who could figure this out would impress me. I see no way anyone is getting any money, any power, anything any normal scheme involves --"
"Oh my god." Markus almost whispered it; it might have been the first time I'd ever heard him sound frightened. He was staring over my shoulder.
I raised up and turned to look at what was happening behind me. I did it too hard and fast. That triggered the smart bindings, which bit painfully into my wrists, ankles, ribs, and hips.
Nevertheless, I stayed twisted around. I could not have looked away.
"It just stood up," Markus whispered, as if afraid it might be listening.
All this time, the printer-assembler had gone on about its work, making parts and putting them together into assemblies, then attaching assemblies. What it had built was a roughly spherical body, now standing up on a tripod of long, thin, spindly legs. On top of the body sat a sensor package -- lenses, microphones in scoops, or "eyes" and "ears" except that they pointed in all directions and there was no room for a brain between them. Two powerful-looking arms, one long and one short, protruded from the body.
Like a windup crustacean, on the shorter of its two arms, the robot extended a round, manacle-like claw with interlocking fingers. On the longer arm, an obviously sharp cutting wheel was spinning up to speed like an old-fashioned circular saw. It cocked the saw arm back, telescoping it down, to hold the blade at ready next to its body.
The robot walked toward us deliberately, neither rushing nor delaying, with the clear purpose and utter efficiency only a robot has.
— John Barnes is the author of 31 commercially published and two self-published novels, along with hundreds of magazine articles, short stories, blog posts and encyclopedia articles, so he likes to describe himself as an extensively published obscure writer.