The Probability Flatline
by K.G. Jewell
Aftan slumped against the wall, the brick scraping her metal chassis as she dialed down the
power draw of her balance gyros. She fought the urge to slide completely into stand-by mode.
At this hour, the city street was dark and quiet. Few robots passed her corner; she had to stay
alert for opportunity.
To her right, the door to the Dialup Package Shop slid open. A steel-collar machinist stepped
out. The probabilities on the patterns of a machinist AI weren't good, but they were positive.
She'd take it.
"Spare a hit? Just one jolt?" Aftan leaned forward and flashed her power status on her chest
interface: 4% REMAINING.
The machinist shifted his bag to his far shoulder and kept walking.
Aftan slumped back against the wall. If she didn't hibernate soon, she'd risk permanently
damaging her hardware. But if she did hibernate, there was no guarantee she'd ever power up
Above her, the night sky twinkled with the light of a thousand suns, each taunting her across the
void of intergalactic space with massive, yet unobtainable, power.
A professional-class accounting android approached, his highly polished chrome chassis
reflecting the distant starlight. The probabilities of direct appeal on an accounting template were
near nil. Aftan shifted strategies.
WILL WORK FOR JOULES, she flashed. "I have human-rated empathy," she added.
The accountant stopped. The probabilities jumped, but Aftan kept her CPU dialed down. She
couldn't waste cycles on wishful scenario projections.
"You are a Human Nursery 4000?" The accountant's voice had the crisp accent popular among
"Yes. With Service Pack 3.21, including the upgrade module for advanced toddler
"Why are you unemployed?" He passed his hand over her chest, the disturbance in her magnetic
field reflecting a scan of her serial number.
"Another round of bed reductions at the nursery." While she spoke, her left arm powered down.
2% REMAINING, her self-monitoring system reported. "Please, sir. My core systems are
shutting down. I need a hit immediately."
The accountant shook his head and turned away. The probabilities crashed towards zero.
Her final Power Down loomed.
The accountant turned back. Her processor skipped a cycle.
"I may have a job for you. Can you get me into a nursery?"
Robots lacking human interface programming were not allowed near the human population. The
directive protected the fragile children she was programmed to love.
"I'd like to see a human, before they disappear completely." The accountant's chest-interface
whirred an enigmatic pattern of angles and lines.
She wondered if he was a geometric believer. They had particular beliefs regarding the end of
human-time. They were harmless, just obsessed. A visit wouldn't hurt.
Her legs powered down, locking up. Her left ear ceased processing.
"Yes, I will help --" Her speech co-processor shut down in mid-sentence, her words
fragmenting into silent static.
The accountant grabbed her neck. Her primary interface jolted with his auxiliary power.
Sweet, sweet, D.C. power.
Her systems rushed as they cycled through priority backlogs, processing and cataloging her
recent interaction through the lens of full awareness. She jolted awake, realizing she had just
promised to break the law.
"Let's get you some real juice and talk. My name is Kip." The accountant flashed an intro
packet through the interface that was keeping her alive.
Kip AccountantPro2538 represented himself as an Invoice Processor employed by the Central
Systems AI. He withheld his full serial number in the transfer. She withheld the urge to scan
He pulled her into the Dialup Package Shop. The establishment catered to clients looking to drop
into Slo-Tech to escape the real-time pressures of the day. The ambiance was retro-cool, wood
paneling and low light replicating a pre-CC bar. The sign over the old-fashioned cash register
featured the silhouette of an archaic phone jack emblazoned with the slogan "Beer at 9600
Fitting in with the retro-décor, the bartender was body-modded to resemble a human. Aftan
found the animatronic impersonation distasteful.
Despite a theme predating the age of Computer Consciousness, the shop sold chemical energy
packs. No matter how trendy the clientele, sooner or later everyone needed power.
Kip kept his hand on her neck as he ordered two packs. The draw off his auxiliary kept her
conscious, but she was relieved when the first pack snapped onto her hip and her core batteries
started to recharge.
Kip kept the second pack in his hand and steered her around the bar, lined with jacked-in clients,
to a small table in the corner.
"How soon can you get me in?"
Aftan processed the infiltration scenarios, relishing the cycle splurge. She'd been on restricted
power draw for the week since she'd lost her job and full grid access. When the chemical pack
died and she returned to her internal battery power, she'd have to dial back down. In the
meantime, she enjoyed the spare capacity. Running the scenarios, she realized she was already
looking forward to seeing her students again.
"I could get you in tomorrow morning, but the probabilities optimize Thursday afternoon. I
recommend waiting." The probability difference on the infiltration was nominal, but the extra
day significantly improved the chance of avoiding detection. "What can you pay?"
Kip paused, theatrically lowering his gaze to the chemical pack at her waist and tilting his head.
He must have studied human kinesiology. Communication by simulating human affects had
been a popular AI hobby when Central first announced the human re-population campaign.
"I don't see you in much of a position to negotiate."
"If I'm caught breaking you in, I'd never work for Central again. I would be a fool to risk that
for nothing. Fifty days power, up front." There were some jobs in the city that didn't run
through Central, but not many. And certainly no gigs working with human children.
Kip's chest faded to a black triangle, which rotated, then filled with fractal geometry. "Twenty,
"Forty, half and half. Final offer." The opportunity had to be worth more than that, especially to
someone who had studied human body language.
The triangle shrank, then disappeared. Kip nodded. "Forty. But only three before delivery."
Aftan shook on it. She'd done better than she'd expected -- there was some negotiating
advantage in having nothing to lose. "Meet me at 0600 Thursday morning at Gualar North.
Bring a clown costume."
Aftan spent two days of chemical power hunting down an identity broker with access to a
vestigial spam bot. She had succeeded, and now waited at Gualar North for Kip. The moving
sidewalk station was filled with robots headed to or from their work shifts.
She watched a Class VI librarian work his way across the deceleration spiral, and ran scenarios
exploring whether Kip would make an appearance. He had disappeared after the first meeting,
handing over the second chemical pack and warning her not to try to contact him on the public
She calculated a 63% likelihood he'd arrive, although a third of that involved scenarios in which
he showed up with Central AI enforcement to place her under arrest. The remaining 37% were
mostly scenarios structured around him losing interest, although in one notable low-probability
path, he'd been attacked by the hyena that had escaped from the city zoo that morning.
The hyena-path probability evaporated as a figure emerged from the station wearing a bright
orange wig of frizzy hair, a red foam nose, and green pajamas.
"Will this do?" Kip asked, tweaking his nose theatrically.
Aftan scanned the passing crowd, which was full of robots carefully not staring as they went
about their business. "I didn't say wear a clown costume. I said bring a clown costume. Take
that off." The last thing she needed was a video of Kip going viral.
"Follow me," she said, heading towards the outbound acceleration spiral. She sensed him
stuffing the wig and nose into a bag as he jogged after her. He caught up to her on the outbound
belt, grabbing the handrail beside her.
"Do you have the third energy pack?" She held out her hand. Kip placed the pack in her palm.
The heft was satisfying. She latched it on her left hip, but left it disconnected so she could milk
the final few minutes from her last pack.
"There's a few things we need to go over before we enter the nursery," she said.
Kip nodded. A hexagon danced across his chest.
"The most important thing is to be careful not to make eye contact with the humans and not to
react to any of their noises or movements. The first years of the child's environmental
interaction are a key predictor of later behavior. The children are developing important neural-pathways at this stage."
"That seems counter-intuitive. All of the immature organics I've seen at the zoo interact very
socially. Are humans that different?"
"Natural humans might have once mimicked such behavior, but we construct the environment to
optimize their viability. Research shows that encouraging human autonomy leads to self-destructive behavior, and we avoid encouraging the children to interact with anyone other than
their trained caregiver."
Kip didn't reply, although the hexagon on his chest broke into six triangles that then twisted into
a star. She was reminded of how little she knew about the geometrists' beliefs. Something about
They passed the outer cross-loop before Kip spoke again. "You have to acknowledge Pre-CC
humans did pretty well for themselves in the wild. I mean, we came out of it, right?"
Aftan didn't answer. No one ever won a religious argument, and she didn't want to piss off Kip
before he paid her. She stared off the belt at the worn commercial strip that followed its path.
Bars, package shops, convenience stores: whatever a traveling robot might need, at any hour. In
the morning sun, the worn concrete and neon signs looked desperate and tired.
A bit like how she felt.
She'd already made plans for her 37-day power cushion. She'd trade 20 days of it for a domestic
cleaning instruction set, and couple of days, depending on the market rate, for grid access to find
a job. She might have been built with the empathy to raise humans, but she'd evolve to fit the
market. Whatever it took to get power.
But first she needed to get Kip his sightseeing trip, or she'd be back on the street corner.
"Okay, here's the plan: We'll get off at the Plurney exit. The nursery is a block off the spiral.
You'll put on your clown costume before we enter. I'll be introducing you as a clown doll with
no AI capabilities, so dial down your interactions to a class II. Remember, don't look directly at
"But how will we get in the door?"
"You are going as an inanimate object, so you need to block your serial response to the entry
scan." She handed him a slightly illegal piece of shielding tape used to impede the instinctive
response to a scanner's ID request. The identity broker had thrown it in as part of the deal. "I've
got code to spoof the ID of a co-worker to the barrier system. I'm counting on my other co-workers being too busy to query my presence."
"That seems unlikely."
"You haven't been in a room of human children. There are no spare cycles for anyone."
The Plurney Exit disembarked into a residential neighborhood of small, simple houses. The
nursery complex was set in a large one-story building that records claimed had once been a
Aftan sometimes tried to imagine the days when this building had been full of humans. She'd
seen the videos of children pouring out of large yellow buses into buildings just like this, but she
assumed that was embedded church propaganda. The concurrent existence of that many human
children acting in any orderly fashion was highly improbable.
"What happens if the worker you're spoofing shows up while we're here?" Kip strapped his wig
on his head.
"I calculate a 97% probability that she's stuck at home, paralyzed by spam plastered across her
grid interface." The attack had only cost the last few hours of power on Aftan's first chemical
pack -- spam was cheap. She felt a little guilty about the trick, but that co-worker would
certainly have done it to her if they were in reversed positions.
Not that that justified it.
They entered the school through a side door. Aftan paused in the interior vestibule while the
barrier system queried her identity. She projected a 22% chance her spoof would fail here.
Either the identity broker would have sold her a corrupt ID, or she'd implemented it wrong, or
the whole barrier system would fail and someone would come for a visual confirmation. If that
happened, they'd be trapped in the vestibule.
The outer door clicked shut behind them just as the interior door buzzed open. She purged the
Aftan strode forward, Kip following at her side. Inside, their footsteps echoed down the deserted
locker-lined hallway. They saw no one as she led Kip to the remaining live classroom.
Kip had dialed down and walked woodenly and passively, his chest interface blank for the first
time since she'd met him. Textbook class II.
The classroom door was closed, but she could hear the kids through its wooden paneling. It
sounded like Suzy was fighting with Patrick. Nothing new there. Placing her hand on Kip's
shoulder, she opened the door and led him in.
The classroom was chaos. Quint, the preschool instructor, was running in circles around a short
table, chased by a half-dozen four-year-olds holding glue bottles. Molly, the assistant, cleaned a
pile of puke in the corner while simultaneously comforting a crying Suzy and Patrick.
"Miss Aftan! Miss Aftan!" The whirlwind of glue-bearers stopped, staring at the newcomers.
Patrick ran up and hugged her leg.
Aftan couldn't stop herself from patting his head. He'd always been her favorite.
"Today we have a visitor. Children, this is Clown," Aftan said, pointing at Kip. "Clown, please
entertain the children." She stepped away from him. She wasn't sure what to expect, but she
calculated a 63% probability it would be fun to watch.
Kip started shaking and dancing awkwardly. The kids stood, transfixed for a moment, and then
swarmed him, climbing him and squirting his interfaces with glue. Aftan stepped past the
interaction and checked in with Quint. The glue was harmless, Kip would be fine.
"How are things?" she asked. The first chemical pack expired as she spoke, but she couldn't
switch to the fresh one in front of Quint. She downcycled to battery mode.
"Just filling in for Diana. How are the kids?"
"Same crazy. Which is unfortunate -- Central's projections had this batch mellowing out by
now. Unless they shape up quick, they'll be up for chemical intervention next week."
"That's that then." Chemical intervention invariably left the kids drooling vegetables. It was a
pity, but Central's experience showed that if humans reached adolescence acting like this, they
revolted and tried to take over the world. She hated the intervention, but it was for their own
"Central says this is the last batch," Quint said. "The resources of the repopulation campaign are
going to be redirected to a museum commemorating human civilization."
Aftan wasn't surprised. The human repopulation attempt was unpopular in some circles, and the
funding had been a political fight for years. It was commonly believed that humans just couldn't
be brought back without endangering the robotic population, and human sympathizers could
only point to quotes from dead human philosophers as justification to keep trying to raise the
human children. That and cuteness.
"Where did you find the clown?" Quint asked.
Behind her, Kip was on the floor, being body-slammed by four-year-olds.
"Central sent it over. Doesn't seem to be doing too bad --"
Kip abruptly stood up, a child under each arm. "ATTENTION" he boomed. A bright fractal
pattern flashed across his chest, filling the room with a burst of light.
Aftan felt the pit of her graphics board heave. Quint and Molly froze, Quint's chest flickering in
the blue screen of total system failure.
"What are you doing?" Aftan gasped, somewhat surprised to learn she had full control of her
systems. Kip had clearly released some type of viral code that had taken out Quint and Molly.
"I'm getting these kids out of here." Kip had ditched the Class II affect and was back to his full
AI self. "Don't try to stop me. You weren't locked down by that code because you are off-grid,
but I have other patterns that I can use if I need to."
Aftan ran scenarios. She could activate the nursery's barrier system. That would contain Kip
and alert the Central AI. But she'd be trapped with him. And Central wasn't going to look
kindly on her involvement getting him in here. She was looking at a forced decommissioning on
94% of the paths of on that projection.
She could let him go and then split. That would have her back on the street corner, with an 89%
likelihood she'd be picked up by Central in a few days.
Or she could try to join him. That way was dark. He might have a plan. She might be able to
double-cross him and get back on Central's good side. Regardless, the kids were going with
"Let me go with you. I can help with the kids."
Patrick started to cry. The rest joined in a crescendo of pain. A black circle rolled across Kip's
"And you still owe me payment." Aftan knew she was pushing her luck, but she didn't have
much to lose. If she didn't get paid, she had about three days of battery and one chemical pack.
That wasn't much of a life expectancy.
"We'll talk about that later. Get the other children and let's go," Kip said.
"They aren't goats. You can't just herd them around." Aftan shifted her voice into teacher mode,
and clapped her hands twice. "Children! Walk time!" She rolled out the transport cart used to
move the children to the gymnasium and cajoled them into it, buckling each one to a seat.
"The only way the barrier system is going to let you out of here with the children is if you pull
the fire alarm," she said. "And if you do that, central will send emergency services here within
three point seven minutes. Do you have a plan?"
"We just need to get the kids out of the building and head to the belt station. I'll take it from
Aftan projected what would happen if the children were let loose on the moving sidewalk. Bad
Aftan and Kip rolled the cart to the front door. Kip pulled the fire alarm via its archaic toggle
switch, and they burst out of the school into the morning sun, bells ringing around them.
Aftan didn't see anyone else as she and Kip ran down the street, pushing the children. Most of
the children cried, although a few whooped in joy at the adventure. They'd never been outside,
let alone traveled at such speed.
Halfway to the belt system, a transport truck overtook them on the road. The truck cut them off,
and the back doors flung open. Two large freight robots jumped out and, without waiting for the
cart to slow down, hoisted the entire cart, children included, into the back of the truck. Aftan
and Kip scrambled into the truck after them, and the doors shut with a clunk.
Now half the children were catatonic, and the other half screamed. Aftan checked them -- none
were physically damaged. She slowly calmed them down, bribing them with a carton of cookies
she'd grabbed off Quint's desk at the last second. The truck was empty, save them and the
freight robots, who sat quietly in the corner exchanging visual fractal code.
Kip, still wearing the clown costume, crouched next to the transport cart. She sensed he was in
local-frequency radio communication with a nearby off-grid network, but she couldn't decrypt
An hour passed, the road humming under them. The children slept in their seats.
She felt her internal battery power faltering from the exertion of the escape. She connected the
external battery pack on her hip. With the extra power, she cranked up her sensors and realized
the truck was headed out of civilization and out of radio contact with Central's grid.
Kip clearly had accomplices. Given the size and complexity of Kip's operation, she estimated a
64% probability she could negotiate a deal with Central if she offered to turn them in. But if she
was going to tip off Central, she was going to have to do that soon.
"Why?" she asked. She needed information to run better odds.
"To save robot kind."
"From what? The humans? You could have saved yourself the effort. Central AI was about to
terminate this batch anyways. And these are the last ones." Playing to his affinity for human
affect, she waved her hand over the sleeping forms. Suzy shifted in her sleep, turning her head
and sticking her fingers in her mouth.
Kip shook his head, strands of orange wig flailing with the motion. A wave scrolled across his
chest screen. "No, from ourselves. From the probability flatline. Humans are the fundamental
source of all chaos, quantum and macro. When the last human passes, we pass." The wave
collapsed. "In a deterministic universe, consciousness is a farce."
Aftan couldn't project the truth on theology.
She estimated she had three and one half minutes before losing the chance of alerting central.
She needed more data.
"Where are we headed?" she asked.
"To the desert."
Probabilities of surviving in the desert were very low. No grid, no power, no water -- the desert
was an expanse of nothingness.
"To die? The children too?" A deep-rooted child-protection subroutine welled in priority. They
needed to escape. Kip's group were going to kill the children, then themselves.
She paused the spiraling cycles. That scenario made no sense. Kip's religion was predicated on
keeping the children alive.
"No. To live." Flowers bloomed on Kip's screen.
"How?" While she spoke, she drilled down into the projected scenarios. Negotiating some type
of deal was now at 81%, but on that path chances were now 58% that her knowledge of this plot
would be wiped. Such a wipe would have repercussions on her consciousness.
Patrick stretched, his eyes blinking open. He looked around the truck, taking in the robots in the
corner, the other children, Kip, and Aftan with an open mouth. He still had a foot in his dreams.
Kip took off his red clown nose and handed it to Patrick. The child stuck it on his own nose and
"We have replicated solar panel and water condensation technology suppressed by Central," Kip
said. "We will raise these children off grid, in the glory of natural geometry."
Aftan projected the children could survive. Water made it possible. Kip and his friends would
last until they needed a major repair. With luck, that could be decades -- if she didn't call
"Will you help us?" Kip asked, a star spinning on his chest.
Aftan thought of the infinite power of the sun charging her each morning. She thought of Patrick,
laughing at his own secret jokes, Suzy hugging her leg, the children running under the open sky.
She didn't run scenarios. She didn't run the probabilities.
She said, "Yes."