The mocking program by Alan Dean Foster

One more block. He was home free. And then he was falling, bouncing, banging against the hard ground as he instinctively tucked and rolled to absorb the force of the kick. Uncoiling into a sitting position, he saw the younger of the two Aborigines standing over him. The upraised blade in the dark man’s fist caught the light from the tube station as it began to descend.


CARDENAS THREW UP AN ARM TO SHIELD HIS chest, but his was not the one that blocked the thrust. That limb was larger, thicker, and composed of more than a dozen elements, none of which were flesh. Shards of welded metal gleamed in the ambient light that poured down from stolid street lights and flamboyant signs. Plastic flashed rainbow hues, fragments of salvaged machinery clanked and rattled, reinforced ceramic tinkled, and bits of metallic glass sparkled like clusters of ambulatory diamonds.

What looked like a giant crab fashioned from street scrap and industrial throwaway had clambered out of the nearby storm drain. While one arm blocked the Oozer’s potentially lethal blow, a second tossed the heavy plastic drain grate aside. Blinking, Cardenas rolled to his right, onto the sidewalk and away from the street. His startled assailant bent to recover the blade that had been jarred from his fingers. A third metal leg struck him across the back of his head, knocking him senseless to the ground.

Catching sight of the fantastic mechanical apparition that had emerged from beneath the street, the downed Oozer’s three murderous companions slowed to a halt. Though the clanking contrivance did not have the slick, professionally finished exterior of a law enforcement device, they were strangers in Namerica and could be sure of nothing. What they did know was that it had intervened to rescue the downed federale. Taking it on in the absence of their own advanced weapons would be tantamount to trying to break into a tank with a can opener.

Leaving their unconscious associate to his fate, they backed off, whirled, and fled, flinging only impenetrable strine obscenities in their wake. Cardenas watched them go. Keeping an eye on the downed compatriot they had abandoned, he climbed slowly to his feet and began brushing himself off. As he did, the mechanism approached, whirring and clicking.

Though three times his size, its six folding legs allowed it to snug into a portal with a diameter even smaller than the storm drain from which it had emerged. LEDs flashed within its motorized depths, eclectic raspings and moans issued forth as cobbled-together parts scraped noisily against one another. Hanging in the center of the snarl of mechanical limbs was a basket of wishwire that wrapped several times around the singular figure ensconced at its core. With his scraggly long hair, deep-sunk red-rimmed eyes, dark stubble, and scarred arms, the half-naked man resembled a drunk who had just been swept up by the late-night patrol. Except he did not act drunk, and clearly he was in control of the embracing machine, not the other way around.

Responding to a twitch of the man’s right arm, a powerful limb rose on hissing servos to dexterously flick grime from the Inspector’s windbreaker.

“You okay, Officer?” It took Cardenas a moment to make certain the voice had come from the man and not the machine he was riding—or that was riding him. Gazing at the fantastic plethora of parts and pieces, rubble and salvage, it was difficult to tell.

“I’m fine, thanks. And how do you know I’m with the police?”

“My friends and me been listening, I says.” One eye suffered from a persistent twitch that was unnerving to look upon. Cardenas was equipped to handle the spectacle better than most. “Decided to jump in when you came free.”

“Why not earlier?” Cardenas checked his spinner. It was still operating under the deading influence of the para-site gram that had been installed by the female Inzini. But if she had been telling the truth, the gram would expire in—he checked the chrono on his bracelet—forty minutes or so.

“Wasn’t interested, I declares.” The wishwire-cloaked recluse was marvelously indifferent to the Inspector’s possible reaction. “It was only after you broke free. That I decided to help. Andale, hey, me hablas. Reconned you done did your part. ‘Sides, four against one ain’t fair odds.” Behind and beneath the wire, he grinned, exposing teeth that were yellow, blackened, or absent. “Feral Dick’s the name, avoiding taxes me game.” The grin, unfortunately, widened. “You can call me Feral, suggests I.”

“You said you and your friends had been listening.” Cardenas cast a meaningful glance behind the crab mount. “I don’t see anyone else.”

“Tacka-tack—who said a thing about anyone? What’s in a name, but a thing to be named?”

They came swarming out of the open storm drain. Ten, twenty, thirty—a bona fide multitude. Only once before had Cardenas ever seen as many, and the panic they had induced in the surprised soccer players and their fans who had been the recipients of the manifestation had been real enough, if ultimately unjustified.


Offspring of what had ultimately been designated, for lack of a better definition and in the throes of official bewilderment, wireless underground gofer systems, the wugs were tiny, exquisitely engineered, self-reproducing robotic lifeforms whose actions suggested but did not confirm that they were components of a communal mechanized lifeform directed by some kind of rogue artificial intelligence gram. Expecting the first true AI to arise from a confluence of mammoth research projects and profound university conferences, humans had been startled to see AI, when it finally manifested itself, take the form of mechanicals that were fist-sized and smaller. Initial fear and panic at the appearance of the wugs soon gave way to concern, then uncertainty, and finally to annoyance when the thousands of tiny devices exhibited nothing in the way of purpose, much less hostility.

Most of the time the wugs avoided people, hiding themselves in the enormous circulatory system of the Strip: air-conditioning vents, water and sewer pipes, transport tunnels, fiber optic conduits, and induction tubes. Like mechanical cockroaches, they shunned the daylight. Unlike their arthropodic counterparts, they were clean and did not carry disease. Nor did they often enter private residences or disturb human food. They simply reproduced. As the engineers who struggled for several years to devise a means of exterminating them finally conceded, people might as well get used to them. Short of dismantling and shutting down every mechanism and machine in the Strip, the wugs were here to stay.

After a while citizens grew used to, if not entirely familiar with, their presence. As one wag put it early on in the course of the “invasion,” irregardless of what anyone wanted, the wugs was. While no wug had ever injured a human being, humans were constantly squashing, smashing, dismembering, and otherwise demolishing the elegant little automatons. Even children soon lost their fear of them. The assaults by humans engendered no retribution, provoked no retaliation. Those paranoicos convinced the wugs were out to take over the world quickly found themselves shorn of their followings, especially when it became clear that the wugs were nothing more than an irritation.

Virtually the only thing about the wugs that continued to bother people was that nobody could manage to figure out where the heck they were coming from.

They certainly appeared to thrive in the congenial presence of Feral Dick, Cardenas observed. He held his ground while a couple dozen of the minuscule machines swarmed up his legs. They poked and prodded him for a few minutes, gently and with what could only be termed respect for his nonmetallic person. Sensors and wires caressed and tickled, taking measurements for what purposes the Inspector could not imagine. Then, as if in response to a signal unseen and unheard, they scampered as one back down to the pavement to disappear into the open storm drain. No two of the diminutive wonders had been alike.

Feral Dick gazed fondly at the cavity in the street. “I likes the wugs, and the wugs likes me.”

Cardenas was genuinely intrigued. “Is that why you decided to intervene and save me? Because the wugs wanted to examine me?”

Within the sessile whorl of wishwire, Feral guffawed. “A funny cop, laughs I! I don’t know what the wugs want. Nobody does. How many wiggles will a wishing wug want?” He giggled as he recited the common children’s rhyme. “But they seem to enjoy veteing around with me, and I kind of like the company. You live beneath the street instead of above it, you take any company you can get, sombers I. At least they don’t nag.” He spat something off to one side. Cardenas was mildly surprised it didn’t clang when it hit the pavement.

“That still doesn’t explain why you decided to help me.”

The mechanical crab-shape began to scuttle sideways, in the direction of the gaping storm drain. “There’s times now and then, observes me, when a feral might have needs of a little federale goodwill. Believes in banking official amity, shrewds I. Besides, I wasn’t doing anything else at the time.” A metal-plastic-glass claw rose in casual salute. “Fondly remember me to your files, Officer.” The wishwire made it difficult to see those sunken, but not haunted, eyes.

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Categories: Alan Dean Foster