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Glitch_A Short Story

Hugh Howey


  by Hugh Howey

  The hotel coffee maker is giving me a hard time in a friendly voice. Keeps telling me the filter door isn’t shut, but damned if it isn’t. I tell the machine to shut up as I pull the plastic basket back out. Down on my knees, I peer into the housing and see splashed grounds crusting over a sensor. I curse the engineer who thought this was a problem in need of a solution. I’m using one of the paper filters to clean the sensor when there’s an angry slap on the hotel room door.

  If Peter and I have a secret knock, this would be it. A steady, loud pounding on barred doors amid muffled shouting. I check the clock by the bed. It’s six in the morning. He’s lucky I’m already up, or I’d have to murder him.

  I tell him to cool his jets while I search for a robe. Peter has seen me naked countless times, but that was years ago. If he still has thoughts about me, I’d like for them to be flab-free thoughts. Mostly to heighten his regrets and private frustrations. It’s not that we stand a chance of ever getting back together; we know each other too well for that. Building champion Gladiators is what we’re good at. Raising a flesh and blood family was a goddamn mess.

  I get the robe knotted and open the door. Peter gives it a shove, and the security latch catches like a gunshot. “Jesus,” I tell him. “Chill out.”

  “We’ve got a glitch,” he tells me through the cracked door. He’s out of breath like he’s been running. I unlatch the lock and get the door open, and Peter shakes his head at me for having used the lock—like I should be as secure sleeping alone in a Detroit hotel as he is. I flash back to those deep sighs he used to give me when I’d call him on my way out of the lab at night so I didn’t have to walk to the car alone. Back before I had Max to escort me.

  “What glitch?” I ask. I go back to the argument I was having with the coffee maker before the banging on the door interrupted me. Peter paces. His shirt is stained with sweat, and he smells of strawberry vape and oil. He obviously hasn’t slept. Max had a brutal bout yesterday—we knew it would be a challenge—but the finals aren’t for another two days. We could build a new Max from spares in that amount of time. I’m more worried about all the repressed shit I could hit Peter with if I don’t get caffeine in me, pronto. The coffee maker finally starts hissing and sputtering while Peter urges me to get dressed, tells me we can get coffee on the way.

  “I just woke up,” I tell him. He paces while the coffee drips. He doesn’t normally get this agitated except right before a bout. I wonder what kind of glitch could have him so worked up. “Software or hardware?” I ask. I pray he’ll say hardware. I’m more in the mood to bust my knuckles, not my brain.

  “Software,” Peter says. “We think. We’re pretty sure. We need you to look at it.”

  The cup is filling, and the smell of coffee masks the smell of my ex-husband. “You think? Jesus, Pete, why don’t you go get a few hours’ sleep? I’ll get some breakfast and head over to the trailer. Is Hinson there?”

  “Hell no. We told the professor everything was fine and sent him home. Me and Greenie have been up all night trying to sort this out. We were going to come get you hours ago—”

  I shoot Peter a look.

  “Exactly. I told Greenie about The Wrath and said we had to wait at least until the sun came up.” He smiles at me. “But seriously, Sam, this is some wild shit.”

  I pull the half-full styrofoam cup out from under the basket. Coffee continues to drip to the hotplate, where it hisses like a snake. The Wrath is what Peter named my mood before eight in the morning. Our marriage might’ve survived if we’d only had to do afternoons.

  “Wait outside, and I’ll get dressed,” I tell him. A sip of shitty coffee. The little coffee maker warns me about pulling the cup out before the light turns green. I give the machine the finger while Peter closes the door behind him. The smell of his sweat lingers in the air around me for a moment, and then it’s gone. An image of our old garage barges into my brain, unannounced. Peter and I are celebrating Max’s first untethered bipedal walk. I swear to God, it’s as joyous a day as when our Sarah stumbled across the carpet for the first time. Must be the smell of sweat and solder bringing that memory back. Just a glitch. We get them too.


  The Gladiator Nationals are being held in Detroit for the first time in their nine-year history—a nod to the revitalization of the local industry. Ironic, really. A town that fought the hell out of automation has become one of the largest builders of robots in the world. Robots building robots. But the factory floors still need trainers, designers, and programmers. High-tech jobs coming to rescue a low-wage and idle workforce. They say downtown is booming again, but the place looks like absolute squalor to me. I guess you had to be here for the really bad times to appreciate this.

  Our trailer is parked on the stadium infield. A security bot on tank treads—built by one of our competitors—scans Peter’s ID and waves us through. We head for the two semis with Max’s gold-and-blue-jowled image painted across the sides. It looks like the robot is smiling—a bit of artistic license. It gets the parents honking at us on the freeway and the kids pumping their fists out the windows.

  Reaching the finals two years ago secured the DARPA contract that paid for the second trailer. We build war machines that entertain the masses, and then the tech flows down to factories like those here in Detroit—where servants are assembled for the wealthy, healthcare bots for the infirmed, and mail-order sex bots that go mostly to Russia. A lust for violence, in some roundabout way, funds other lusts. All I know is that with one more trip to the finals, the debt Peter saddled me with is history. I concentrate on this as we cross the oil-splattered arena. The infield is deathly quiet, the stands empty. Assholes everywhere getting decent sleep.

  “—which was the last thing we tried,” Peter says. He’s been running over their diagnostics since we left the hotel.

  “What you’re describing sounds like a processor issue,” I say. “Maybe a short. Not software.”

  “It’s not hardware,” he says. “We don’t think.”

  Greenie is standing on the ramp of trailer 1, puffing on a vape. His eyes are wild. “Morning, Greenie,” I tell him. I hand him a cup of coffee from the drive-through, and he doesn’t thank me, doesn’t say anything, just flips the plastic lid off the cup with his thumb and takes a loud sip. He’s back to staring into the distance as I follow Peter into the trailer.

  “You kids need to catch some winks,” I tell Peter. “Seriously.”

  The trailer is a wreck, even by post-bout standards. The overhead hood is running, a network of fans sucking the air out of the trailer and keeping it cool. Max is in his power harness at the far end, his cameras tracking our approach. “Morning, Max,” I tell him.

  “Good morning, Samantha.”

  Max lifts an arm to wave. Neither of his hands are installed; his arms terminate in the universal connectors Peter and I designed together a lifetime ago. His pincers and his buzz saw sit on the workbench beside him. Peter has explained the sequence I should expect, and my brain is whirring to make sense of it.

  “How’re you feeling, Max?”

  “Operational,” he says. I look over the monitors and see his charge level and error readouts. Looks like the boys fixed his servos from the semifinal bout and got his armor welded back together. The replacement shoulder looks good, and a brand new set of legs has been bolted on, the gleaming paint on Max’s lower half a contrast to his charred torso. I notice the boys haven’t gotten around to plugging the legs in yet. Too busy with this supposed glitch.

  As I look over Max, his wounds and welds provide a play-by-play of his last brutal fight—one of the most violent I’ve ever seen. The Berkeley team that lost will be starting from scrat
ch. By the end of the bout, Max had to drag himself across the arena with the one arm he had left before pummeling his incapacitated opponent into metal shavings. When the victory gun sounded, we had to do a remote kill to shut him down. The way he was twitching, someone would’ve gotten hurt trying to get close enough to shout over the screeches of grinding and twisting metal. The slick of oil from that bout took two hours to mop up before the next one could start.

  “You look good,” I tell Max, which is my way of complimenting Peter’s repair work without complimenting Peter directly. Greenie joins us as I lift Max’s pincer from the workbench. “Let me give you a hand,” I tell Max, an old joke between us.

  I swear his arm twitches as I say this. I lift the pincer attachment toward the stub of his forearm, but before I can get it attached, Max’s arm slides gently out of the way.

  “See?” Peter says.

  I barely hear him. My pulse is pounding—something between surprise and anger. It’s a shameful feeling, one I recognize from being a mom. It’s the sudden lack of compliance from a person who normally does what they’re told. It’s a rejection of my authority.

  “Max, don’t move,” I say.

  The arm freezes. I lift the pincers toward the attachment again, and his arm jitters away from me.

  “Shut him down,” I tell Peter.

  Greenie is closer, so he hits the red shutoff, but not before Max starts to say something. Before the words can even form, his cameras iris shut and his arms sag to his side.

  “This next bit will really piss you off,” Peter says. He grabs the buzz saw and attaches it to Max’s left arm while I click the pincers onto the right. I reach for the power.

  “Might want to stand back first,” Greenie warns.

  I take a step back before hitting the power. Max whirs to life and does just what Peter described in the car: He detaches both his arms. The attachments slam to the ground, the pincer attachment rolling toward my feet.

  Before I can ask Max what the hell he’s doing, before I can get to the monitors to see what lines of code—what routines—just ran, he does something even crazier than jettisoning his attachments.

  “I’m sorry,” he says. The fucker knows he’s doing something wrong.


  “It’s not the safety overrides,” I say.

  “Nope.” Greenie has his head in his hands. We’ve been going over possibilities for two hours. Two hours for me—the boys have been at this for nearly twelve. I cycle through the code Max has been running, and none of it makes sense. He’s got tactical routines and defense modules engaging amid all the clutter of his parallel processors, but he’s hardset into maintenance mode. Those routines shouldn’t be firing at all. And I can see why Peter warned me not to put any live-fire attachments on. The last thing we need is Max shooting up a four-million-dollar trailer.

  “I’ve got it,” I say. It’s at least the twentieth time I’ve said this. The boys shoot me down every time. “It’s a hack. The SoCal team knows they’re getting stomped in two days. They did this.”

  “If they did, they’re smarter than me,” Greenie says. “And they aren’t smarter than me.”

  “We looked for any foreign code,” Peter says. “Every diagnostic tool and virus check comes back clean.”

  I look up at Max, who’s watching us as we try to figure out what’s wrong with him. I project too much into the guy, read into his body language whatever I’m feeling or whatever I expect him to feel. Right now, I imagine him as being sad. Like he knows he’s disappointing me. But to someone else—a stranger—he probably looks like a menacing hulk of a destroyer. Eight feet tall, angled steel, pistons for joints, pockmarked armor. We see what we expect to see, I guess.

  “Max, why won’t you keep your hands on?” I ask him. Between the three of us, we’ve asked him variations of this a hundred times.

  “I don’t want them there,” he says. It’s as useful as a kid saying they want chocolate because they like chocolate. Circular reasoning in the tightest of loops.

  “But why don’t you want them?” I ask, exasperated.

  “I just don’t want them there,” he says.

  “Maybe he wants them up his ass,” Greenie suggests. He fumbles for his vape, has switched to peppermint. I honestly don’t know how the boys are still functioning. We aren’t in our twenties or thirties anymore. All-nighters take their toll.

  “I think we should shut him down and go over everything mechanical one more time,” I say, utterly defeated. “Worst-case scenario, we do a wipe and a reinstall tomorrow before the finals.”

  Max’s primary camera swivels toward me. At least, I think it does. Peter shoots Greenie a look, and Greenie lifts his head and shifts uncomfortably on his stool.

  “What aren’t you telling me?” I ask.

  Peter looks terrified. Max is watching us.

  “You didn’t get a dump yesterday, did you?” I have to turn away from Peter and pace the length of the trailer. There’s a rumble outside as our upcoming opponent is put through his paces in the arena. Boy, would the SoCal guys love to know what a colossal fuck-up we have going on in here. “So we lost all the data from yesterday’s bout?” I try to calm down. Maintain perspective. Keep a clear head. “We’ve got a good dump from the semis,” I say. “We can go back to that build.”

  Turning back to the boys, I see all three of them standing perfectly still, the robot and the two engineers, watching me. “So we lost one bout of data,” I say. “He’s good enough to win. The Chinese were the favorites anyway, and they’re out.”

  Nobody says anything. I wonder if this is about ego or pride. Engineers hate a wipe and reinstall. It’s a last resort, an admittance of defeat. The dreaded cry of “reboot,” which is to say we have no clue and hopefully the issue will sort itself if we start over, if we clear the cache.

  “Are you sure you can’t think of anything else that might be wrong with him?” Peter asks. He and Greenie join me at the other end of the trailer. Again, that weird look on their faces. It’s more than exhaustion. It’s some kind of wonder and fear.

  “What do you know that you aren’t telling me?” I ask.

  “It’s what we think,” Greenie says.

  “Fucking tell me. Jesus Christ.”

  “We needed a clear head to look at this,” Peter says. “Another set of eyes.” He glances at Greenie. “If she doesn’t see it, then maybe we’re wrong . . .”

  But I do see it. Right then, like a lightning bolt straight up my spine. One of those thoughts that falls like a sledgehammer and gives you a mental limp for the rest of your life, that changes how you walk, how you see the world.

  “Hell no,” I say.

  The boys say nothing. Max seems to twitch uncomfortably at the far end of the trailer. And I don’t think I’m projecting this time.


  “Max, why don’t you want your arms?”

  “Just I don’t want them,” he says. I’m watching the monitors instead of him this time. A tactical module is running, and it shouldn’t be. Stepping through each line, I can see the regroup code going into a full loop. There are other lines running in parallel, his sixty-four processors running dozens of routines all at once. I didn’t notice the regroup code until I looked for it. It’s the closest thing we’ve ever taught him to retreat. Max has been programmed from the ground up to fight until his juice runs out. He knows sideways and forward, and that’s it.

  “You have a big bout in two days,” I tell Max.

  Another surge of routines, another twitch in his power harness. If his legs were plugged in, I imagine he’d be backing away from me. Which is crazy. Not only have we never taught him anything like what he’s trying to pull off, we never instructed him to teach himself anything like this.

  “Tell me it’s just a glitch,” Greenie says. He almost sounds hopeful. Like he doesn’t want it to be anything else. Peter is watching me intently. He doesn’t want to guide me along any more than he has to. Very scientif
ic of him. I ignore Greenie and focus on our robot.

  “Max, do you feel any different?”

  “No,” Max says.

  “Are you ready for your next bout?”


  “Why not?”

  No response. He doesn’t know what to say. I glance at the screen to get a read on the code, but Peter points to the RAM readout, and I see that it has spiked. No available RAM. It looks like full combat mode. Conflicting routines.

  “This is emergent,” I say.

  “That’s what I told him,” Peter says. He perks up.

  “But emergent what?” Greenie asks. “Because Peter thinks—”

  “Let her say it,” Peter says, interrupting. “Don’t lead her.” He turns to me. There’s a look on his face that makes him appear a decade younger. A look of wonder and discovery. I remember falling in love with that look.

  And I know suddenly what Peter wants me to say. I know what he’s thinking, because I’m thinking it too. The word slips between my lips without awareness. I hear myself say it, and I feel like a fool. It feels wonderful.

  “Sentience,” I say.


  We live for emergent behaviors. It’s what we hope for. It’s what we fight robots for. It’s what we program Max to do.

  He’s programmed to learn from each bout and improve, to create new routines that will improve his odds in future fights. The first time I wrote a routine like this, it was in middle school. I pitted two chess-playing computers with basic learning heuristics against one another. Summer camp stuff. I watched as a library of chess openings was built up on the fly. Nothing new, just the centuries old rediscovered in mere hours. Built from nothing. From learning. From that moment on, I was hooked.

  Max is just a more advanced version of that same idea. His being able to write his own code on the fly and save it for the future is the font of our research. Max creates new and original software routines that we patent and sell to clients. Sometimes he introduces a glitch, a piece of code that knocks him out of commission, what evolution handles with death, and we have to back him out to an earlier revision. Other times he comes up with a routine that’s so far beyond anything else he knows, it’s what we call emergent. A sum that’s greater than its parts. The moment a pot of water begins to boil.