His brain clicked.

“Nannybot,” he said. “Nannybot is the tertiary back-up. We back up all files to it every other week. It would have everything before I plugged Timur’s geosurveys in. I can fix that in four days.”

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Santos sighed. “That’s the bad news…”

Sean crossed his arms on his chest and watched as the bio-storage unit, otherwise known as Nannybot, tried to ride a dwarf cow. The dwarf cow resembled a miniature Terrestrial buffalo with orange fur. In its quadruped mode Nannybot resembled a large but slender canine with a smooth indigo skin and a single lens in the middle of a tubular head. In its bipedal mode, it resembled an alien from early Terrestrial UFO mythos.

Neither mode was suited to riding. Particularly to riding terrified dwarf-cows, while holding a broomstick in one appendage.

“Why the broomstick?” Sean asked.

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“Verne isn’t sure,” Santos said.

The cow charged a small bench, where Emily, the oldest of the children, sat reading her book. For a terrified moment Sean was lost between being frozen in panic and springing to the rescue. The cow veered left, avoiding the bench by a hair. He exhaled. “Tell me how this happened again?”

“The best Verne can figure out is that the millipede’s protocol pegged Nannybot as an AI during the back-up and spawned. Only of course, Nannybot isn’t a regular AI, so instead of shutting down it made it do… Whatever it’s doing right now.”

“But there was no Nannybot back-up scheduled for last night.”

Santos coughed. “Julia thought you were taking the back-up protocol too lightly. She’s been backing up to the Nannybot every night for the last week.”

Sean looked past the school yard, past the spasmodically jerking blue monstrosity on the cow’s back, to where Ino forest reached toward the sky, its smooth silvery stems intertwining and braiding. Garlands of ino-ino fruits beckoned from the branches like enormous dandelions. The air smelled of red wine.

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“Why me?” he wondered idly. He hadn’t even wanted Nannybot in the first place. Officially classified as Independent Biological Reasoning Unit, Nannybot was neither independent nor reasoning. An abacus was a better substitute for a computer than this genetically-engineered collection of muscle and ganglia. Designed as an alternative to regular data storage, Nannybot had an enormous capacity, but it took forever to transfer even a small data cluster from the Dwarf into it. He voted to have it deactivated, but the majority vote sent it to tutor the children instead. And now his entire future depended on Nannybot. The Universe was mocking him.

The dwarf cow buckled and kicked, catapulting Nannybot into air. The IBRU flew over the fence, cleared their heads, flipping in the air like a cat, and landed on all fours. Santos snapped into a shooter stance, pointing his zapper at Nannybot.

“If you shoot it, I’ll kill you,” Sean said evenly. “The report’s still in it.”

Nannybot rose slowly. Its limb still clutched the broomstick. The round lens of its ocular swiveled. The vocal slit opened and smooth baritone issued forth. “Knights full of thought and sleepy, tell me if thou sawest a strange beast pass this way?”

“Dear Gods,” Sean said.

“The Beast!” Nannybot proclaimed, swinging the broomstick in a dramatic fashion. “I have followed this quest this twelvemonth, and either I shall achieve him, or bleed of the best blood of my body.”

“What does it mean?” Santos asked.

“It means nothing. It’s gibberish.” Sean said.

“Mallory,” Emily said.

“What?”

Emily looked up from her book. “It’s not gibberish, it’s Mallory. Arthuriana. Nanny thinks he’s Sir Pellinore.”

“Emily, honey, what is it trying to do?” Sean asked.

Emily smiled. “He’s trying to hunt the Questing Beast, of course.”

A small light of hope flared in the deep black void filling Sean’s head. “Tell me more.”

“There are only two ways to break down a third-order AI like Nanny: a chaotic protocol or a goal-oriented protocol.” Sean strode to the Chief Programmer’s block, Santos in tow. “The chaotic protocol floods the AI with a random avalanche of tiny tasks, which throws the system out of whack and drives the AI insane. There is no cure for that one. The goal-oriented protocol locks the system into a loop with a definitive goal in mind. Achieve the goal and the virus purges itself. The first way is tedious and doesn’t require much imagination. The second takes far greater skill.”

He paused but Santos offered no comment.

“Arbian hackers take pride in their work. They love a challenge. They wouldn’t slap together a chaotic protocol for that millipede – any hacker can do that. They sent a goal-oriented virus, so they could watch us squirm trying to solve it.”

“You think Emily is right?” Santos said.

“Yes. And Nanny’s behavior is too logical to be a product of a chaotic protocol.”

“So not everything is lost?”

“If – if – we break the loop and if Verne can get the Workstation back up, it’s possible we can salvage the FER. We…Ummm.”

They turned around the corner and saw Verne. Ratibor Verne, the Chief Programmer and Protocol Guide wore a ceremonial plastic hauberk. He had brought a proper metal one from New Barbar, but trogomets had found it within the first week and promptly eaten it. Sean had managed to convince the orbital station’s automated synthesizer to produce a plastic substitute, but it looked a bit ridiculous on Verne’s hulking figure, partially because it was colored neon green.

Verne faced a rock, on which sat a small idol. Foot-long and carved from some dark wood with startling detail, the idol squatted, clutching an axe in one hand and a stack of wheat in the other.

A couple of curious trogomets sat next to Verne, pondering the idol. At the sound of Sean and Santos’s steps, they scuttled forward, like twin clumps of tumbleweed, and sat on their haunches, tiny hands-feet raised, waiting for a handout. Santos extracted a cookie from his pocket.

“Cookie.”

The trogomets mooked in unison.

Santos broke the cookie in a half and handed a piece to each fuzzy. The delicate hands snatched the cookie halves. Small shrew-noses poked out of the fur to sniff the treat. The cookie vanished into tiny mouths and the trogomets took off. No doubt, they would’ve preferred a piece of copper wire.

Verne picked up a stick, hefted it in his hand, and hit the idol. Thwack!

Sean stopped. “Verne?”

“Yes?”

“What are you doing?”

“He has been a bad god,” Verne said grimly. “He must be punished.”

Thwack! Thwack!

“Two years I spent here! Two! Years!”

Thwack!

“On a planet with no system. No uplink, no sensors.”

Thwack!

“Always paranoid that what little I had would get eaten. And now he robs me of all of it.” Thwack! Thwack! Thwack!

The stick snapped in his hand. The idol seemed no worse for wear. Verne cast the broken stick on the ground and looked for another one.

“Emily thinks Nannybot is a character from a 14th century Terran myth,” Sean said.

“Yeah?” Thwack!

“A knight,” Sean said. “Who hunts a Questing Beast.”

“Stop trying, Sean. It’s a chaotic protocol. We’ve been buggered.”

“Suppose it was goal-oriented, just for the sake of argument. How would we solve it?”

“Give Nanny what it wants,” Verne said. “Give it the Asking Beast, let it hunt it, and catch it.”

“There is no other way?”

“No.”

Santos rubbed his chin. “Where would we get a Questing Beast?”

Verne stopped. “You’re serious about this.”

“Yes.”

He rested his stick on his shoulder and looked to the sky. “If you’re wrong, then I will hate you for the rest of my life for giving me hope and then bashing it to pieces.”

“Understood,” Sean said.

“Make one,” Verne said.

“Make one? How?”

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