Check Mate by Michelle Knight

Check Mate

(Michelle Knight)

Check Mate

Chapter 1

Fangs of the HYDRA


The audience sat in darkened silence. Roughly thirty people of various governmental ranks, were housed in a purpose built viewing area behind a thick shield of curved, hardened glass. The tension among those assembled was high; their pulses raised. Secret complexes in the Nevada Desert brought with them a certain degree of fear, awe and wonderment before a person even set foot in them, no matter how experienced they were at doing deals within their walls. These expectant souls were here for a purpose, to view the results of many years work and the spending of a serious amount of military research money. Their current inability to see anything beyond the glass itself, simply made them all the more nervous about whatever was to happen next.

Three large widescreen monitors, positioned above the display window, came to life and the A.M.A.R.S. logo faded up from the blackness. As the logo grew in brightness, the mutterings of the audience faded to silence.

An announcement system crackled to life and a male voice began its spiel. Ladies and gentlemen. Welcome to the A.M.A.R.S. desert demonstration facilities. Without further ado, we introduce to you the latest in military robotic warfare. The Holistic, Yare, Deployable, Robotic Assailant, or H.Y.D.R.A. for short.

One audience member leaned to a colleague. What the heck is a Yare? he asked.

Not a thing; a description. Agile. Lively. Prepared.

Oh. said the man, still none the wiser.

Lights beyond the glass flicked in to life. They revealed a large white room, in the middle of which was an eight wheeled robot. It was painted a dull military grey. The robot was roughly the same size as a four person golf buggy, perhaps a little wider. Each corner had a wheel unit, with each unit holding two rugged wheels, making up the eight. The main body, of course, appeared more or less solid except for the odd line which told the audience that this thing could fold itself into various configurations.

The voice continued, To deal with the yare aspect first, this unit is always ready for action and can move quickly. The monitors showed a rotating diagram of the robot, and zoomed in on the wheels. The main drive is powered by electric motors that give it a high torque and good speed options. The wheel units are independent so the system is able to adapt itself for various terrain types. As the wheels are an obvious weak point, they are reinforced in a similar way to an escort vehicle. Beneath the rubber is sealant which is supported by metal ribs, so if you try and shoot them out, they'll continue to run.

On cue, the robot behind the window, extended and contracted its wheel units independently. It then unpacked itself to look roughly human-ish and brought its wheels in tight. It turned rapidly on the spot in both directions and raced around the room, even working its way up and down a wide set of blank steps. The audience were agape at its ability to go from stationary to a good chasing speed almost instantaneously, and also come to a complete halt with seemingly minimal effort.

With the speed section of the demo complete, it returned to its starting place in the centre of the room.

The rotating graphic on the screen changed to display the robots head. Actually, it was only vaguely head-like. There were sensors and cameras behind protective plates of different colours. The system doesn't have one central processing unit, instead it has several, each with its own purpose. The individual processors interpret and distil down their own inputs, leaving the central unit to simply control high level behaviour. This makes it easier to program for different missions as there's no need to process separate input streams; the core gets all its information pre-chewed in a manner of speaking. The head, for example, has motion and recognition units which are combined with a multi-frequency communication array that talks with a mainframe back at the control centre. The robot itself is powerful, but it can only store a certain amount of information. Watch closely. The screens suddenly switched to a matrix display of what was happening on each of the robots sensors.

From one side of the room, a man started running. The robot sensed the motion and looked at the man. A blistering array of red lines, squares and icons flashed very rapidly on the monitors. In a swift action, the robot gave chase. Arms snapped out from its body and captured the man's wrists. The audience could only see him yell with pain as the robot brought both his arms down, forced them behind his back and into holes in its body. A moment later, the robot let him go; the man's wrists had been secured with a cable tie. A second man in uniform then entered the room, picked the first man up from the floor and escorted him out.

Now, let's look at that again.

The monitors wound back and replayed what had just happened. The voice took them through the slow motion recap. You can see the robot detecting a presence and it turns its head to pick up a visual image. Red boxes appeared on the screen to highlight the person's head. It waits until it can see enough of the face to determine an identity. The blue light you see is transmission to the mainframe for identification and then it switches to red when the robot receives the instruction that this man is wanted, or isn't supposed to be in the area.

The rectangles changed position on the video feed. The robot then locates the man's wrists and moves to capture him, just above the wrist line. When it has him gripped, it does an analysis of his skeletal structure, lines appeared over the man's image, highlighting the elbows and shoulders, and then it calculates how to get his wrists in to the body, where it can tie his wrists together, without snapping any bones. Note that even after it has done this, the light is still red.

There was a pause in the announcement as the slow motion video continued to show the man falling not so gracefully to the floor. Then the uniformed man was seen entering the room The motion detector triggers again and the robot repeats the same exercise, but this time the mainframe returns a green light to indicate an authority figure and the robot stands down. It then lets the arrested man be led off.

The monitor snapped back to the external, diagrammatic view of the robot's head. The system can tap into a variety of frequencies and can even use domestic mobile phone circuits if it has to. Obviously, it gives priority to higher speed connections and if you wanted to deploy it in a war zone, you'd need to supply a communications pod for the best response. That doesn't stop it from being autonomous, however. If you pre-load it with your targets and other preferences then it can run independently.

Now to the offensive and defensive capabilities. Please remain seated. The reason for the glass being curved became obvious as the room started to rotate. The white room slid away, to be replaced with a view of the desert outside. There were a number of other robots in front of them, one deliberately positioned to be looking straight at them.

The units are equipped with a number of weapons. The monitors changed to display an image of the whole body of the robot in its, human, stance, like the one which was now staring at them through the window. There are a number of short distance rockets for destroying doors and moving vehicles, coupled with a very small number of long range rockets for surface-to-air work, such as the unit needing to escape from aerial pursuit. As the announcer continued to talk, various pods opened and closed, both on the robot in front of them and also on the model on the screens. Most of its offensive weaponry is based on traditional ordnance but the rounds are a little more specialist to help it shoot through armour.

It also has a small number of other tools like gas canisters and a capture net, along with tracking beacons; so if a target gets in a car for escape, it can fire one at the vehicle and follow it beyond line of sight.

The unit is powered by plutonium carbide batteries with, of course, the necessary shielding. The generators are small enough to power the whole system, performing constant high speed manoeuvres for a number of weeks. Obviously, that kind of power enables the system to work autonomously on stealth assignments for considerably longer than that. The power unit is slightly smaller than the one installed in the Curiosity rover, and we are also able to turn more of the radioactive heat into usable energy these days.

From one side, a grenade was thrown next to the robot. When it exploded, there was a flash, that most of the audience recognised as an EMP grenade. The system is protected from electromagnetic disturbances up to a reasonable level. Obviously it won't survive a large nuclear explosion, but it can absorb most infantry deployable EMP weapons.

The demonstration went on for another two hours. The audience were introduced to the accuracy and speed of the unit and also a cute little mini-robot that its host could send up normal flights of stairs to do the odd bit of assassination and reconnaissance work. Units sped all over the place. They turned, fired, tracked, ran down, blew up, demolished and assassinated a variety of targets.

At the end of the show, the audience were turned around to face the white room again, still proudly displaying the first robot, and the announcer brought the event to a close. One last thing, ladies and gentlemen; the system is capable of self-destruction if necessary, but we'd rather not demonstrate that feature to you for obvious reasons. A chuckle came from the audience. Thank you for taking your time today to review the A.M.A.R.S. H.Y.D.R.A. unit. We look forward to taking your orders in the near future.

The lights came up and the audience were led off the campus as the robots trundled back to the maintenance bay.

It was a large, bright white hanger. Two walls held five lined areas each. The parking spaces had plenty of room around them so that routine maintenance could be done without having to move a robot. One wall had a glass panel, behind which were terminals and computers. The last wall had a large, corrugated vertical door, through which all ten robots now came, and rolled themselves into their lined areas. They extended their wheel bases for examination, unwrapped themselves into, human, configuration so that their torsos were exposed, extended all their limbs and opened up the maintenance doors to the central control units. With that, they waited for instruction.

Andy was from Philadelphia on the east coast. His paternal grandparents had moved to the USA from Europe. By the time he was born, there was no real family connection to speak off across the pond. He'd done industrial design in PhilaU and then somehow shifted around a little, eventually taking a graduate course in robotics through Pennsylvania State University. He had made enough waves with his academic results to bring him to the attention of a scout, who worked for American Materials And Robotic Systems. The scout then persuaded him to join AMARS and he had become a part of the HYDRA project.

If Andy had realised that he would effectively be moving to Nevada, in order to become a nanny to a bunch of robots, then he would have politely declined the offer. It was little wonder that he was less than enthused about his work.

He emerged from the control room, an underwhelmed twenty-something, married to the job, with no sex life and loads of overtime to his name. His left hand was twitching slightly; it usually did this when he was nervous. Whenever the robots came back, still carrying live ammo, he got the jitters. Although understandable, being this nervous when working with live ordnance was never a good thing, which was why he let Gary do the physical stuff.

It had all stemmed from the early days with the Hydra units. Everything was perfectly fine until one fateful day when he was working on the chest panel of one of the machines. To help him perform some detailed work, he had one arm wrapped around the side of the robot. When his screwdriver slipped and caused an electrical short, one of the rocket bays instantly shot out of the side, taking Andy's arm with it. In the process, it jammed his clothing in its mechanism so he couldn't free himself. He had suddenly found himself nose to nose with a bank of live rockets; his bright white underpants becoming a mushy mixture of brown and yellow, as abject terror gripped his body.

Even though the hanger was very large and the bay doors were closed, his screams were clearly audible outside the building. It took three people to free him and by that time he had become a nervous wreck. Eventually they had managed to get the jellied, shivering Andy on to a stretcher and off to hospital. It was more than a month before he returned to work and even then he restricted himself to lab duty. It took another six weeks before he had the courage to return to the hanger and be in the presence of the robots again. The whole team understood the situation and tried their best to limit the times when the Hydras were in the hanger, while still armed.

Gary followed Andy from the control room. It was just the two of them; the lone tidy-up crew. After successful demonstration runs like these, it was accepted that the rest of the team would go off to celebrate a hard-earned victory, leaving the two of them to clean up and join the rest later.

In his mid-thirties, Gary was from Sacramento, just a little further up the west coast. There, he had taken computer science and followed it up with an MS in electrical engineering. This made him another ideal candidate for the Hydra babysitting team. He still hadn't grown out of his early college habits, however. His main means of relaxation was stuffing pizza and drink down his neck, while watching action and horror films; or playing on his games console and swearing at the screen. He called everyone, dude, including the women, which didn't go down well among the AMARS staff. That probably explained why he too, was still single.

His mix of everyday surf culture slang and film curses confused the hell out of everyone who knew him. The problem was an odd one. If you stuck a surf board under his arm, then he looked like a classic, west coast American surfer. However, to the best of everyone's knowledge, he had never so much as waxed a board in his life, let alone ridden one. He hadn't even driven a woodie. No one could figure out where he picked up his habits. Regardless of where he obtained his mannerisms, his attitude and language were, perhaps, why he had been stuck at this level in AMARS for so many years. Not that he cared, to be honest. He had enough money for beer and pizza, and the free time to devour it, so he was cool. That was all he asked for in life.

Andy, however, still had dreams of rising to greater things. His plan of climbing the technical ladder was being scuppered by his tendency to become a stuttering jelly on legs, whenever the robots were armed. Unfortunately, this usually coincided with the occasions when their superiors paid a visit. He was starting to believe that maybe the writing was on the wall and he'd be stuck working with Gary for the rest of his life; a prospect which didn't fill him with much glee.

Sensing Andy's lack of enthusiasm, Gary tried to give him a little encouragement. Come on, brah. The sooner we're done, the sooner we can get out of here.

How many times have I got to tell you to not call me brah. I am neither a surfer or Hawaiian.

This hard-nosed response bounced off laid-back Gary, just like it always did. Come on, dude. It's you and me. We're a team! High five! Gary placed his hand in the air, but as usual, Andy ignored him and simply grabbed one of the mobile monitoring units. He deliberately wheeled it a few feet away from Gary and started tapping at the keyboard.

Look, can we just get on with this please.

Sure. Gary smiled, ignoring Andy's negative attitude. He knew his partner in crime hated it when there were explosives around, so he didn't mind being blown off. He started going from robot to robot, taking cables that were hanging from the ceiling and plugging them in to the exposed chest cavities.

Andy continued hammering at the console, running diagnostics programs, while Gary moved to a telephone and called the armoury. As the ring-out tone sounded in Gary's ear, he sighed and looked over the machines. Sand everywhere. It would take them ages to clean them down. And the floor. Couldn't do anything about that until the tin cans had been disarmed though.

The phone continued to ring out and Gary looked at his watch. Oh no. I think we've missed the wave. The armoury's shut.

Andy sighed. Well that's just great. We're going to have to wait until... some beeping interrupted him. Unit six is reporting a problem. Gary put down the phone and joined Andy at the monitoring unit. Ah. That's it. The memory stick in the control unit's got a fault. Just an unreliable cell in an unused area, nothing serious.

Flash failure? Wasn't that the bot used for the EMP demo, dude?

Yes, I think it was. I'll send an e-mail to the design team. They need to take another look at the EMP protection.

Sounds cool. We don't have any spare sticks down here though.

OK, take it out, mark it up, and we'll replace it with a fresh stick back at the lab.

Andy finished up at the terminal and filled in some paperwork, while Gary went around to each robot in turn, hitting the power buttons on the central units and removing the memory sticks. When it came to number six, he took a red pen out of his pocket and filled in the letter A in the AMARS logo on the stick, as a way of noting which one had to be replaced.

With the robots powered down and memory sticks in hand, he approached Andy at the console. Look dude, you're a nervous wreck. I'll take care of the lab stuff and you go join the team. Yeah?

Andy sighed. For all his rough edges, Gary had a heart in him. You know, that would be really, um, cool. He tapped the power button on the terminal, handed the completed paperwork to Gary and the pair of them walked in to the glass fronted control room. Oh, those manuals have to go back as well. You sure you're OK with taking all this?

Yeah, no problem. You go chill and I'll be there in a bit.

Well, there's no chance of you missing the fun. I heard that the event they've laid on is going to last most of the night.

Yeah, I heard them talking about the party. It's gonna be sick, dude! Gary used his free hand to lightly punch Andy on the shoulder. For his part, Andy responded by picking up the manuals and handing them to Gary, in the hope that he wouldn't be able to punch or high five him again with his hands full. With everything done and gathered, they left the control room and entered the maze of white corridors that made up the AMARS desert complex, Gary shouting, Free pizza! and Andy shaking his head in despair at his colleague.