Garbage In, Garbage Out

E-Milio, the security bot, and Shawna deal with the unintended consequences of detected movement with unknown origins.

 Garbage In, Garbage Out

by Gustavo Bondoni

E-Milio, the security bot assigned to the lower floor of the Imperial Museum, stopped in front of Shawnas desk, its rubberized tracks slipping slightly on the polished marble.  Excuse me, but I have detected unauthorized movement in the Egyptian exhibition, it said in a mechanical voice.

Why didnt you send over the images over the net?  Shawna asked as she jumped to her feet.  Were wasting precious time.

There were no images to send, E-Milio replied.  The robot moved in the way Shawna had come to recognize as uncertainty.  Though the machine was a yellow cube, a foot and a half in each direction with just a few protuberances and a built-in speaker, it could communicate its feelings surprisingly well, if you bothered to look.  I picked up several different nonstandard readings, from the radiation detectors and from the seismographs, and I pieced together that someone or something had entered the room.  Also, there were traces of flashes in the far infrared.

Thats impossible.  Let me check the feed.  Which Gallery?  

One hundred and seventy-four, E-Milio replied.

Shawna programmed her monitor to show her the past two hours from that gallery at high speed, and to stop if the security AI that analyzed the tape spotted anything.

It ran all the way through, and slowed to real time at the end.

Theres nothing here, she said.  Nothing missing, and no burglars transmitting in the far-infrared range.

I know there was something there, the little robot insisted.

Well, its not there now.  And its not on the video.  She studied the little vehicle for a second.  Are you sure you arent taking your petition to be reclassified as a type IV sentience a little too seriously?  This all sounds like its the product of an overactive imagination.  But thats level VI stuff, so you shouldnt go there.  How is the petition coming, anyway?

Ive been approved for a humanoid bodyshell, on probation, starting in three months.  The robot paused in the slightly forward-leaning position that Shawna had come to associate with the fact that it hadnt finished speaking yet.  She waited.  But that is unimportant.  I know there is nothing on video.  But there was something in that gallery and I fear it might still be there.

Thats just not true.  Look.  She turned the monitor towards the robot.

The robot focused an eye on the monitor.  Please come look, it said.

This is ridiculous. Weve checked it thoroughly, Shawna replied.

E-Milio sagged onto his wheels and Shawna cursed.  The robot only acted that way when it was about to do something that would make the humans around it unhappy.  And there was only one thing pertinent to this situation that would cause it to do so.  You wouldnt色 she said in a soft, angry tone.

Im sorry.  I have no choice.

Dammit, Shawna cursed bitterly.  She knew exactly what the robot was doing: it was calling in a logical override of biological intuition.  The LOBI protocol had been instituted so that purely data-driven machines could act on logical premises even when the humans in the vicinity believed the best course of action was different.  When a robot sent it in, the central computer would issue orders.

A message beeped on her comm screen.  

Please accompany robotic unit 2431 E-M1L to identified problem area.

She sighed and got up, but it was no use taking it out on E-Milio.  The stupid bucket of bolts was programmed to respond in a cheerful and chirpy manner which would only make everything much worse.  

They walked the darkened halls, between the glass cases and hulking stone relics that lurked in the shadows. 

Shawna reflected that she was getting too old for this.  Shed originally taken the human supervisor job to help pay for college.  Then, after she got her degree, had kept iton a temporary basisbecause it paid better than most entry-level jobs for her degree.  There were bills to pay, and rent to keep ahead of. 

  But soon, she would need to bit the bullet and accept an offer at a lower salary, because she wasnt getting any younger, and careers in advertising didnt happen overnight.

Gallery 174 was one of the big ones.  A temple fa癟ade dominated one side of the space, while large stone carvingsbig enough that they could stand the occasional brush by some mindless touristdotted the floor.

Shawna went over every square inch of the gallery.  There was no one there, and there was nothing missing.  If anyone had tried to steal something from this area, she would have noticed the cranes and heavy equipment the thieves would have needed to bring with them.

Satisfied?  I know what I saw.  And you dragged me all the way over here to see the same thing: nothing.  Theres nothing wrong with my eyes.  And theres nothing here, no matter what your exotic particle detectors might have said, she snapped.

I dont have any exotic particle detectors, the robot replied.  But logically, if the only seismograph in the entire museum that reads differently is the one in the very gallery where I found a spike in radiation levels色

Stow it, tin can.  I dont want to know.

She wasnt angry about having to walk to the galleryshe often gave random rounds through the museumbut she couldnt stand it when robots hit her with a LOBI request. Those went on her record

But she wasnt powerless.  She would report this in detail, and that would go on E-Milios file.

She pulled up the report form and wrote the title:

Report on probable malfunction and logical failures despite visual evidence in robot unit

Three weeks later, Shawna walked the museum once more.  There was no reason for this particular patrol, but shed gotten a gut feeling that it was a good time to check out that everything was all right.  Robotic security could become predictable, so a good reason to have a human on board was that they could wander the museum at random moments.

She passed through the Medieval Arms display and into the Egyptian Display, entering through Gallery 163, a small passage with glass display cases against the walls.  

A light up ahead caused her to quicken her step, and she found E-Milio rolling towards the sarcophagus display.  Its new body was slightly smaller, and the green of a level-I sentience.

A pang of guilt hit Shawna and she looked away.  She didnt want to remember that she was at least partially responsible for the little robot being moved down a pair of rungs on the sentience ladder.  Her report had triggered a repair protocol which, sadly, had scrubbed some of the robots autonomy.  She missed her occasional conversations with it.

E-Milio didnt seem to harbor any resentment.  It chirped cheerfully at her as she passed, before continuing to shine its light into the corners.  This body didnt have advanced sensors.  Or the ability to communicate verbally; all its reports were beamed to her desk in text form.

She hurried ahead, to put the robot out of her sight, and walked into the main temple display, where she stopped dead in her tracks.

A circular patch, pitch-black in the already dim room, floated six feet above the floor.  She cocked her head, and it disappeared.  Then she returned to her original position and she could see it again, although not clearly.  It was like the thing was both there and not there at the same time.  She took a step toward it, to get a closer look

地nd felt something tugging on her.  

Instinctively, she tried to step back, but the pull intensified.  Her feet slipped on the marble floor, and she dropped to her hands and knees to get more purchase.  

Nothing helped.  She was being sucked toward the inky void.

Her skin tingled, triggering memories of E-Milios report of unusual radiation.  The floor shook beneath her hands.

Then she was lifted into the air.  The darkness was freezing when she made contact with it.  Her left arm was pulled through first, with a sudden shock of pain from the cold, and then nothing; not the numbness of an unresponsive limb, but the certainty that the limb no longer existed.

She screamed.  

But it was a short-lived sound.  The process of getting sucked in accelerated.  In less than a second, she was completely immersed.

Life transcurred among blue shadows, as if she was locked in an underwater hall of mirrors.  Reality could be seen through veils.  Sometimes, the view out of whatever this was showed her the familiar gallery in the Egyptian hall.  At others, it showed her scenes of empty worlds baking under huge suns, or ice planets under tiny distant stars.  Most of the time, it showed nothing but the empty vastness of space.

Shawna lived.  But that was all she did, and she didnt do it all the time.  Most of the time, her consciousness was scattered along the space around her.  Occasionally enough of her mind coalesced that she could have thoughts and remember things.

One night, she came together enough to recognize the gallery, and to spot E-Milios little box stopping to study something just above the ground.  It looked, from inside her prison, that the robot was staring straight at her.

E-Milio! she screamed, making a colossal effort to keep herself together long enough to get the plea out.  Its me, Shawna.  Help me.  For the love of God, help me.  As the words left her enclosure, she saw them turn into energy.  That must have been the radiation the robot had seen before.

The little robot rolled one way, then another, studying the apparition from different angles.  Then it appeared to make a decision.  It turned away and shone its light on the temple entrance.

Shawna remembered that the new body it had been assigned was a more basic model, suitable for visual and aural inspection only it didnt have radiation sensors.

Thanks to her.

She tried to scream, but it was too late.  Her particleswhatever it was that made up her consciousness in this nightmare worldwere already being scattered again.

She felt consciousness fading, and the last thought in her scattered mind was that it was unfair: she had done her job and seen what there was to see.  

There had been nothing in that gallery, dammit.




And her thoughts ended. 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer with over four hundred stories published in fifteen countries, in seven languages. He is a member of Codex and a Full Member of SFWA. He has published six science fiction novels including one trilogy, four monster books, a dark military fantasy and a thriller. His short fiction is collected in Pale Reflection (2020), Off the Beaten Path (2019), Tenth Orbit and Other Faraway Places (2010) and Virtuoso and Other Stories (2011). In 2019, Gustavo was awarded second place in the Jim Baen Memorial Contest and in 2018 he received a Judges Commendation (and second place) in The James White Award. He was also a 2019 finalist in the Writers of the Future Contest.
His website is at