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Clocks and Boxes — Part 36: Future

The Babbage engine that Donna had retrieved from the carpark was just a little larger than a fridge, so it had been easy to find space for it in the backroom of the Storage Universe. Donna's understanding of computing was fairly decent, but her understanding of mechanical AIs was basically nonexistant.

Fanaka was the obvious person to examine it, but he'd had to go and open the watch repair shop. Nalda, as an AI herself, was also a good choice but her shift had begun at the disposals store. That meant that the task was in the hands of Axel Platzoff and Vincent Pizaro.

Professor Devistato and Captain Stellar. A former supervillain and a former superhero, working together. Donna wondered whether Sadie would have appreciated this, or considered it an unfortunate compromise.

"Nothing," Axel said. "I can't see any obvious problem, but it's shutting down anyway."

"Hang in there!" Vincent said. "Don't give up now, damn it!"

"How does that stop something from dying?"

"I don't know. It just does."

Donna sighed. Getting the device indoors had involved knocking it around a little, but originally it had been the robot brain of a steam powered ornithopter, so presumably it was resistant to being jostled. Why wasn't it doing anything?

With an enormous effort of will, Donna shrugged her shoulders. There were other things to deal with. It wasn't down to her to carry it all.

Though it felt like that. It really felt like that sometimes.

She adjusted her polo shirt, tied up her apron and walked into the front of the shop. Time to put this nonsense behind her for now. Time to do the stupid job that she was actually paid for.

The shop was already tidy, but she tidied it to Delia's standards – or as close as it was possible to get to Delia's standards. Then she spent the morning selling storage containers. She was surprised to find how much she was enjoying it. Just an ordinary day in an ordinary shop, selling ordinary things to ordinary people.

And then, she'd glance out of the front window at the wrong angle and see the pyramid and she knew there was nothing normal about her situation.

Eventually, break time fell upon her. Sighing, she returned from the warm comfort of her awful job to the horror and confusion of the rest of her life.

"How's it going with the thingy?" she said.

"O….kaaayyy," Axel sighed. The little man had started prodding with the innards of the machine and now had both his arms so deeply intertwined with its struts and control rods that he looked like one of the Three Stooges after a short stint in the plumbing industry.

Vince put a finger to his lips. "He's concentrating pretty hard. Don't interrupt him. He's one of the smartest people in the world, but the flip side of that is that he can get really badly caught up in things. It's best to let him work until he settles down himself."

Donna glared at him. "Didn't he try to kill you a bunch of times?"

"In my experience as a lawyer, attempted murder usually involves a gun or a knife, or maybe poison," Vince shrugged. "Someone ties you to a giant eggbeater… Well it's not the same thing."

A particularly biting remark was marching towards Donna's lips when Nalda slipped in from the front of the shop.

"I am on my break, being," she said, munching on a salami wrap as if to prove the point. "How is our friend here?"

"Axel is still trying to get it to talk," Donna said.

Nalda began making a clicking noise with her mouth. This had two effects: making the machine whirr into life and spraying salami over Donna's shirt.

Startled, Axel disentangled himself from the machinery. "I think I got it going… Oh, hi, Nalda."

"Silence, obsolete fleshling," Nalda snapped. She returned to her clicks and buzzing.

The Babbage machine whirred and buzzed. Spindles spun, wheels turned, cams cammed and differential gears did whatever it is that differential gears do. It looked pretty sweet, Donna had to admit.

"What does it have to say about the Barns?" Vice asked. Maybe it was good to have a lawyer present, Donna thought, to keep the questioning on track.

"733E-P is injured and traumatised by its encounter," Nalda said. "Be patient mit der poor thing."

"Nalda, can I have a word?" Donna said.

They were already in the back room, so Donna had to take Nalda out to the alley in the rear of the shop.

"What's up with you and this machine?"

Nalda stared at Donna from behind her sunglasses and flexed her shoulders beneath her leather jacket. But Donna was in no mood to be intimidated.

"What. Is. Up?"

Nalda did something Donna had never seen before. She grimaced. "You know that I am from der future, nein?"

"Yes, I know. We all know. What about it?"

"Der future I come from is der Maschinenzeit, or as you would call it der Epoch of Mechanisms."

"So like a robot future in which the humans have all been murdered," Donna sighed. "What's up with that? It's the worst, stupidest SF cliché. You're AIs. If you're in competition with humans, what's keeping you here? Why not just upload yourselves to satellites and go live transcendent lives in the cosmos? Leave us to set up printer networks manually, like it was the Dark Ages or something."

"Good point," Donna said. "Shut up. Can't you see dat dis is vat der Moon computers represent? A way to have an Epoch of Mechanisms mitout having to kill all humans."

Donna looked up at the midday sky.

"Is this," she began. "Is this something I have to deal with?"

Nalda shrugged. "Up to you."

"Okay. I guess I won't deal with it," Donna said, and went back to work knowing full well that she would regret saying that.

Next -- Part 37: Bubble

Previously -- Part 35: North

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