Chapter 75

               “Can you push any harder?” Kirk was peering around the side of the metal box whose single protruding bar was being pressed down on by Owen, using only his triceps. It was a pretty standard device in the high-end gyms developed for strongmen, or Supers with similar powers, built to figure out how much the user could safely lift using any given muscle group. When one measured their workout equipment in the hundreds of pounds, guesses could lead to injury or worse.

                “I can, but in my experience this is around where the machine breaks,” Owen warned them.

                “According to the reading you’re only moving the equivalent of one and a half tons,” Edgar said from his position at the console across the room, eyes unmoving from the screen. “These are rated to go to at least three.”

                “Yeah, they say that, but given how few Supers out there can even get over one, it’s not a claim that they get called out on often.” Despite his warning, Owen obliged, easily moving the bar lower through the increasing resistance. Plenty of Supers out there could move more weight than him, but they had to do it using telekinesis or anti-gravity or some other trick. Pure muscle usually capped out around a ton for most Supers. Even with abilities, the human body was built to have limitations. Strongmen were plentiful, but those who could break the ton barrier were few and far between. The number of ones who were in the same league as Titan could almost be counted on a single hand.

                “Stop stop stop!” Edgar leapt up from his seat and waved his arms in the air, as though his impassioned screeches hadn’t gotten the message across.

                Owen obliged, forcing himself not to gloat at the slight crackle of snapping metal from inside the metal box as he allowed the bar to raise itself back up. Kirk hurriedly moved a few steps away, while Edgar fell back into his seat and began typing up a storm on his computer.

                “I suppose this is the repayment for our hubris. Your strength is well-documented, after all. Tell me, do you have any idea what your actual maximum is these days?”

                Releasing the bar all the way to a resting position, Owen let go and shook his head. “I stopped being able to use Hero gyms a long time ago, for obvious reasons, and even with a few ultra-dense weights a home gym can’t do much for me. Working out is more of a way to turn off my brain and relax these days. Luckily my strength never goes down, only up, so it’s not like I can get rusty.”

                “Fascinating.” Kirk produced a tablet from his lab-coat pocket and began typing furiously. After a few moments, he looked up, then glanced at Edgar’s desperate clacking of keys, and realized he was being rude to their guest. “Since it seems the testing equipment will be down for a while, why don’t we use the time to answer the questions you mentioned.”

                “It’s not so much a question as me wanting an opinion,” Owen said. “By now I assume you heard about the robots that attacked the other day…” Owen went through the events as he knew them, sharing the limited information available to him while leaving out the only confidential bit, the stolen piece of experimental equipment, and otherwise bringing them up to speed. He was nearly done when Edgar walked over and joined the listening, waving off Owen’s attempt to backtrack.

                “…so honestly, I’m not sure what to ask you here. I just feel like we’re all busting our heads against the walls trying to figure out what’s going on, and maybe some fresh, smart eyes could offer insights.”

                Kirk and Edgar shared a look, one that was both easy to read and deeply worrying to Owen. As his story had gone on, they’d seemed less and less surprised by each progressive revelation, and the stony resolve with which they faced one another was poor fit for the perpetually curious men he’d been dealing with.

                “You don’t think-”

                “I most certainly do think.”

                “But how?”

                “Parallel thinking, corporate espionage, simple-”

                “Guys.” Owen leaned forward and spoke firmly, cutting off Edgar and causing him to jump slightly. “I’d like to be included in the conversation, if you don’t mind.”

                “You explain, I’ll go check it.” Edgar didn’t wait for a reply, he merely rushed out through a glass and metal door, into some deeper part of the lab that Owen had not been privy to viewing.

                Kirk cleared his throat and shuffled awkwardly, but after a few seconds of hesitation he finally pulled himself together and began speaking. “Titan, what you’ve described makes no sense. The way these robots are acting, the strategies in use, sacrificing one unit for another with no time to have received an order… it seems like nonsense, if we’re viewing these robots as independent, programmed units.”

                Owen didn’t lean forward or shift his weight, he wanted to avoid coming off as intimidating for as long as possible. Still, there was a touch of edge to his voice as he pressed for more information. “I take it you have a theory?”

                “A highly unsubstantiated one, merely a hypothesis based on personal observations from a prior experiment,” Kirk warned. “But, all the patterns that make no sense as individual units do hold structure if each unit is viewed as a piece of a greater whole. All working toward singular goal, prioritizing success over conservation of resources or minimized losses.”

                “Like ants from a hill,” Owen surmised. “Their goal is the survival of the queen.”

                “Similar, but more like cells in a body,” Kirk corrected. “Each unit has no inherent value; it is only a piece of the true whole. Ants and bees and the like still operate under an individual consciousness, however primitive it may be. To these robots, it’s possible that they have no thoughts of their own, that all share in a single mind. That each robot is actually connected to the greater program running them all, thus why they are able to coordinate so perfectly.”

                “Wait… do you think these things are alive?”

                “No no, nothing like that,” Kirk said quickly. “Merely that rather than running a program on each unit’s hard drive, they are all connected to one program that is being run remotely and controlling robots like appendages.”

                “I’m with you now.” Owen doubted he was really getting all the intricacies of what Kirk was trying to tell him, but he’d at least grabbed hold of the gist. It was an interesting theory, definitely one that put those metal assholes in a new light. Unfortunately, that’s all it was at this point: a theory. “Is there even record of a machine that can do something like this?”

                “The creations of Supers with technical genius are largely classified, so I can’t say for certain how many functional ones have existed, but I do know of at least one prototype that was created by those of the more mundane genius.” Kirk paused, looking up at the mountain of a man before him, then plunged forward. “Edgar and I made it years ago; in fact it was one of our first projects together. There were serious issues though, and we shelved it in the Mordent laboratory vaults until time and technology advanced to where we could perfect the design.”

                “Seems like someone felt the time was ripe.” Edgar had reappeared though the doors, a vacant, haunted look on his face. “The prototype is gone, no record of it being checked out. Our work has been stolen.”