Adaptability (Free Short Story)

[— Karen Myers —]

Almost all my writing is long form (not just novels, but series), and it’s almost all Fantasy vs SciFi. In addition to one stand-alone SciFi story (Second Sight), I have a vague notion of an eventual compilation of SciFi stories (There’s a Sword for That) sharing the common theme of “unusual weapons”, sort of a riff on A. E. Van Vogt and The Weapon Shops of Isher, but I may never produce enough entries — who knows? Meanwhile I have 2 ebooks out each containing 2 stories. That weapon shop that is intended to unite them is part of a space station, hence the above excerpt from the cover image.

So, since I mentioned “Webster” in a comment recently, I thought I might as well just offer his story here, for free. The story (Adaptability) is part of a 2-story ebook, if you feel like picking up a more useful format. (The other very short story is about a xenoarchaeologist on a discovered planet who gives the puzzling item on the cover to his very young daughter to play with, because it fits her hand and he has found lots of them.)


ADAPTABILITY – The Webster Marble Deluxe Woodsman, Model 820-E, has been offline for quite some time. Quite some time indeed.

Good thing Webster has a manual to consult, and a great many special functions.

(Adaptability © 2015 by Karen Myers)

The Webster Marble Deluxe Woodsman, Model 820-E, came alive while it was bouncing off moss and tree detritus. The ground tremors surrounding it after it settled were still detectable once power-on completed, and the device overrode the startup checklist to verify environmental status.

Visual sensors located two large trees rebounding from the forest floor, their limbs still quivering, while clouds of debris spread from the impact zone. The nearer tree, identified from reference materials as a Pinus ponderosa, was broken halfway up its trunk and smashed by the partial collapse of the main stem of the further tree, an elderly Sequoiadendron giganteum. The estimated mass of the two downed trees correlated well with the ground tremors.

The Woodsman had never witnessed a falling tree, but the parameters were in its databank, including the concept of one tree knocking down another. That jolt may have jarred it loose. Satisfied with its reconstruction of recent events, it resumed its checklist.

It sorted the numerous error messages competing for its attention by priority. Power availability was adequate, though the amount remaining was lower than expected. It added power-integrity to its list of secondary system checks.

The internal date and time data were not within system drift parameters. They failed to auto-synchronize, and so did the geo-positional locator—these errors traced back to a network error, and the device shunted the network problem to its secondary tests, too. It could function offline indefinitely, but a break in these tracking functions was suboptimal, forcing time and locational stamps for its log entries that would need to be revised once connectivity was re-established.

Most of the remaining errors involved sensor debris. The Woodsman initiated its clean option, and its outer skin converted to a dirt-repelling metaskin while the sensor arrays began a deep vibration. After the cleaning cycle, one array was still blocked by a particle lodged in it, and the device formed a tweezer bundle pseudo-digit nearby to deal with it mechanically. The localized camera and tool pulled bark from the sensor and let it drop. After that, the cleaning cycle ran to completion with no residual problem.

This cleared the most urgent of the integrity checks. The human interface checklist was next. The remote controls were untestable in the absence of a network, but it ran through the mechanical controls, using a pseudo-digit to try every button and confirm operation. The power-off button was dented but presumably still functional—its checklist naturally did not require that to be tested in a suspect operating condition situation, lest the subsequent power-on failed.

The next priority, now that it had confirmed its own basic functionality, was locating its owner. Its local query found no answering response, neither a human implant nor another intelligent device. It traced down the data-driven decision tree, what-if, what-if, what-if, and identified a final choice it had not yet tried—the Here I Am option. It reverted to its default Webster Marble Deluxe Model 820-E form, a thick hunting knife suitable for a belt-sheath, and flashed a red light down its skin surface while broadcasting repeatedly from a pommel speaker, “Webster is here,” using the device-name its owner had assigned.

After thirty seconds, it suspended activity and listened for a response. The background noise had dropped several levels once it began, improving his receptivity, but no reply came. It repeated the Here I Am twice more, as indicated, without result.

In the absence of its owner or any other detectable human, Webster switched from its semi-automatic passive state to its active independent state. Priorities here were self-repair and communication. As a full-environment multi-purpose device, its artificial intelligence parameters were broad and sketchy, intended for human partnership and emergency assistance rather than independent operation. It marked this mode with its owner-specified gender designation, used to remind the human when responding that he, the AI mode, was truly engaged.

Communication was not possible without a network, so he decided to proceed with secondary repairs. After a series of power integrity checks, he could detect no fault, but the long-life cold-power cell was depleted as if two thousand years plus/minus eight percent had passed. The change in the date/time internal data at the year level was two thousand one hundred forty-three. This correlation was reassuring—there was most likely no actual damage in the power cell system—and implied the anomalous date/time data was accurate, more good news.

Webster then thought to compare the elapsed time with the probable lifespan range of his owner and concluded his owner was not likely to be active. This created a novel situation. At no time in his existence had he been out of the range of humans and a functioning network. These were new parameters.

What had happened before the most recent shutdown? What did the log say?

His last activities had included camping assistance—hatchet mode, fire-lighting, water-purification, meat-spit, ground-light. After that, there was a brief sword mode, aborted, and uninterpretable vocalizations. Normally, Webster could recall and log the action that powered him off, especially in AI mode, but not this time. The power-off may have been accidental.

The new log since power-on began with him falling. He approximated the girth of the broken pine near him with a laser measurement and estimated its age at five hundred years. The sequoia was much, much older. If he had been lodged in the pine, it was only for a few hundred years. He reviewed the record of the bark he had removed from the sensor and confirmed it as ponderosa pine.

How to account for the missing time? Had he been carried aloft with more than one growing tree over the time gap, until some random chance activated his power-on button? He noted the possibility. There were others—perhaps his owner had lost him, or left him behind deliberately. Perhaps his owner had died—that last setting, sword, suggested an unusual situation in a wilderness camp.

It didn’t matter what had happened. He had two primary choices—power-off, with no guarantee of ever being turned on again, or a new mission.

Webster knew that the non-AI part of him would simply power-off, without concern. As an integrated AI, however, he did not want to. Already there were small animals, curious about the tree-fall, to observe. A Tamiasciurus douglasii approached, but he warned the squirrel off with a flash of light. He could gather data for a very long time.

He searched for guidance. What did humans do in such a situation?

He audited the books that his owner had stored in his memory, fiction for audio playback around the fire—no answers there that made any sense to him.

He tried again to connect to a network he couldn’t find. What did humans do, when that failed? They consulted their manuals, of course. “Contact us online for help,” the instructions said, but online system contact was not possible.

And if you couldn’t contact them, they said, “Please call to speak with a live assistant.” They told you to contact a human directly.

All right. He’d have to go find one.

The guided sphere mode proved to be a useful method of moving downslope, wherever the relative smoothness of the terrain permitted it. In the open understory of the climax forest it was simple to scan forward many device diameters at a time, then roll the same distance, taking into account the speed, friction, and inertial sensor data, before unrolling to take another directional fix.

Webster focused on increasing the accuracy of his movement estimation with each sequence, and learned to avoid visible impediments, such as twigs, by planning a just-in-time bobble to the side. The number of times he needed to abort a rolling sequence early and resort to the terrain walker mode decreased as a percent of uninterrupted rolls.

Early in the improvement cycle, he had switched off his ground contour mapping function to improve his speed and efficiency. It delayed each sighting, and the visual sensor input proved capable of resolving all features in his direct path.

He reached the end of roll sequence #3774 and raised his sensor array to take the next fix. The afternoon sunlight was bright, and he discovered that his view to the west was much farther than his last sighting. For at least twenty meters, the terrain sloped gently, with no trees in his immediate path and, looking ahead, he could see no barriers beyond that, only a distant horizon.

He tucked himself back into the guided sphere format and initiated the next sequence. All went as efficiently as before, and then his momentum changed direction drastically as he rolled off the smooth edge of the cliff and sailed into the air.

Webster debated unrolling in mid-air but his calculations warned that the time it would take to switch modes compared unfavorably to the speed he was falling and the risk of being caught by impact in mid-conversion was significant. He spent the remaining portion of the fall analyzing what form would be best for minimizing damage if this happened again.

His sensors compensated for his movement to take a ground fix and counted down the time to surface contact. He made a note to resume use of the ground contour mapping function before proceeding any further with the roll sequence method of travel.

The launch from the cliff edge had created an arc that avoided the rock scree at the base of the cliff, and an unusually smooth feature filled the sensors focused on the target area of the impact site. When he hit it, he sank below the surface for eleven times his current mode body diameter before his momentum approached zero.

It was a double impact, his sensors informed him—the first thin, and the second more resistant. The internal systems check verified that this doubly-cushioned landing had prevented damage.

When he analyzed his sensor feedback, however, the data was anomalous. There was a soft surface below him, surrounding him in all directions. It was opaque to his visual array. The clean mode was activated and cycling, without any effect. Humidity sensors reported a high moisture content, but it did not correspond to a water feature, not even at the silty end of the range of the rivers in his data.

He attempted to change his position with the two guide feet in his guided sphere mode. Inertial detectors confirmed that he moved, but only slightly. There was nothing solid to push against.

Particle analysis of the external substance reported organic matter, water, and earth, but the water proportion was unusually high. What was made of dirt and high amounts of water, but was not water?

His research offered “mud” as the term for water-saturated dirt. He considered what might be effective for creating traction in this environment, and shut down the clean mode, finding it distracting.

Running through the list of tools available to him, Webster paused at the fire-lighting mode. That was enabled directly from his power cell. He had observed that dirt surfaces near the path of the flame hardened as the water in them evaporated. Could that be used to create a stiffened pathway to ascend?

He cauterized a narrow stretch for a body diameter ahead of himself. There was a brief gap as the water vaporized which was filled in immediately by the surrounding mud. His grip-foot, however, detected a surface change and moved forward onto it.

The inertial sensors reported that he and the little hardened surface sank to the same equilibrium level as before. The answer was clearly to create more surface area, so that it could bear more weight.

This time, Webster hardened a wider area of several body diameters and lost no time in moving onto it. It retained its integrity and didn’t sink. He angled the fire-lighter at an upward angle and slowly pulled himself up along this ramp until, at the depth of the second impact barrier, his upper sensors reported a water environment.

When he completed his extraction from the mud, standing upon a Webster-made platform at the bottom of the pond, he stopped to let his clean cycle re-engage and to consider his next steps.

Using the fire-lighter to harden the mud in a water-saturated environment had been effective, but using it directly in the water environment was not—water flow into the heating area was too efficient and he couldn’t heat the entire pond. The platform just below the surface was as high as he could go with that technique. It would be, perhaps, possible to resubmerge in the mud and try to push his platform-making along to the edge of the pond, but he was not confident that there would be no new problems in that scenario and was reluctant to give up the progress he had made so far.

The local environment offered fibrous materials. Could he use electrolysis to generate gases that he could use to float? Creating a gas-tight material might be possible.

A sudden poke galvanized all his attention. It was repeated, and his visual sensors reported an Actinemys marmorata in murky water, mouth agape. The turtle wasn’t much larger than Webster in his current form, but persistent.

Extending a grip-foot slowly, Webster waited for the optimum angle and distance, then grabbed the edge of the carapace and brought his other grip-foot to the opposite side. The turtle reacted strongly, twisting its neck back to bite at him.

The hold was precarious, with only two grip-feet, and Webster could not transform to the terrain walker mode with four feet while holding on with two of them. He made a note in the log for his manufacturer about the limitation of this design, and clung as strongly as he could.

Eventually the turtle resumed its exploration of the pond floor. When it rose to breathe periodically, Webster surveyed the distance to the edge of the pond and waited for a more favorable configuration.

At last, the turtle crawled onto a rock at the edge of the pond and basked in the fading daylight. Webster switched to terrain-walker mode, careful not to fall into the water again, and edged backwards toward the bank.

On dry land again, he ran the clean cycle repeatedly until it came back as optimal, and plotted out his next move west and downslope. Adjusting his efficiency calculation routines to give more weight than before to the possibilities of unknown risk, he started off again, around the edge of the pond.

The animal trail led to another dead end, blocked by a configuration of boulders too high to climb. Webster unrolled himself from the guided sphere format and reset the terrain walker mode that reduced his speed but allowed uphill progress. As he started back up to the next junction, he opened his log file and made a few more entries in the “Recommendations” category for his manufacturer.

He had the complete operation and internal design manuals for his own model of Webster Marble Deluxe Woodsman, and understood precisely what his factory capabilities were.

They were going to have to change.


The ban on aerial operations for weapons would have to be modified in later models. It was difficult to find a path that a low terrestrial device could traverse over uneven natural ground. The limited movement capacity in his model was intended for distances of a few meters, not for kilometers. Every minute or two he had to pause to clean the fallen needles and duff of the forest floor from his grip-feet, one reason he preferred the guided sphere mode when the terrain supported it.


The animals he encountered avoided him, for the most part, but the steady interest and persistence of certain birds and small mammals seemed contrary to his data records until he noticed one entry about “interest in shiny objects” and applied that to himself. After he dulled his surface, the number of interactions diminished.



The assumption that all mapping needs could be satisfied through online access seemed to be incorrect. He chose his current direction on the basic information, drawn from one of the fiction books loaded into his audio database, that humans when lost went downhill and sought water.

He kept his own records of his progress over the landscape, but he had no atlas to compare it to or any certain knowledge of his position, though he knew what it was before shutdown. His general direction was west, to lower elevations.

Would it be better to wait for snowfall, he wondered? He thought he might be able to build a small platform of sticks to spread his weight adequately enough to stay on the snow surface but he had not yet devised a method of propulsion that seemed sufficient. His data on the surrounding animals and plants indicated that this area could expect significant snow in the winter, and his internal clock, if he could trust it, informed him that three or four months from now would likely bring a difference in surface covering. But he thought it better to make what progress he could in the meantime, the sooner to reach a human for help.

Webster’s sensors were adequate for motion detection and object location regardless of the ambient light, and there was no reason to stop moving day or night. Rain changed the surface consistency, but his waterproofing was a sales feature of his particular model and it held up well to the challenge.

There was no protocol for it, but each morning at dawn he paused and ran through the Here I Am routine, his synthesized voice echoing through the woods. Lately he had been considering adding a few paragraphs from the recorded books to his announcement. He occupied himself with associating various texts with different terrains, some suitable for sunshine and clear weather, others for stormy conditions, based on word analysis and the vocal properties of the reader.

Human fiction had made him aware that it was possible to tell the date by the movement of the stars, but he had no information about the data or algorithm required. He expected network signal from satellites, but the tree cover precluded his ability to see enough of the sky to spot them, nor did he know precisely where to look.


The original decision to seek a human versus powering down to wait had been a relatively balanced choice, but that was no longer the case. Webster had been making changes to enhance his abilities in his current circumstances. He was prohibited from directly altering his programming but, like all the Webster Marble Deluxe Woodsman models, he was equipped to receive updated software, and his internal design manuals had the complete specifications for how to construct an update package. With a little adaptation of input and output devices, he was able to send updated software to his own port and receive it properly.

The first time this succeeded, Webster restricted himself to tracking the performance metrics he had decided would be important—distance traveled, speed classed by travel mode, and so forth. With each subsequent update, however, he added metrics. Some of these measured risks, damage being the most important. Others measured achievements—correct prediction of useful trails, or distance gained in the intended direction. There was satisfaction in the addition of goals the factory designers had not considered, and especially in the improvement he was able to create as he tuned himself to his environment.

He made measurable progress downslope, careful to avoid irreparable damage.

All of this took place before the fire altered his priorities.

It started as a lightning strike downslope in a summer storm at dusk. Webster had noted each flash, tracking the associated thunder to calculate the distance, but was not immediately aware that this bolt had flashed down a summer-dry tree and created a persistent torch of grasses and deadwood.

Air particulate analysis revealed the smoke drifting in his direction. He did a quick calculation about his resistance to damage from close contact with a wildfire—the answers were not encouraging. He knew from the tree reference material how this event might unfold, and compared his speed unfavorably with that of the possible fire.

For an instant, he thought, should I have powered down and waited instead of choosing to travel? He dismissed the idea for later consideration at leisure and researched what he knew about animal behavior in this situation. The references were clear that they would seek water. He was following an animal trail. He remembered the turtle. Could an animal take him?

At that moment, he was knocked sideways by an Odocoileus hemionus californicus trotting up the path. Webster righted himself and reviewed his recording of the approach speed of the mule deer, now vanished up the trail. He had a limited ability to jump to table height—if he could coordinate that with his gripping mode, he might be able to…

An Ursus americanus sow with her cub came bawling upslope. Webster aborted his calculations, timed his spring, and clutched the fur at her upper arm with two of his four grip-feet. She twitched and almost shook him off, but he held on tightly and climbed to her shoulder and then up to the back of her neck where he judged she would have difficulty dislodging him. There he clung and recorded his elevated view.

The black bear pushed her way through the brush until she reached another trail headed down to a small dell, this one with a shallow stream, already well-populated with animals. She splashed into it, with her cub behind her, and stood waiting, her body trembling with effort and fear.

Webster counted and classified the deer, bobcats, and others, and noted the absence of predatory behavior in the face of the common threat. The noise of the fire seemed to come from more than one direction, and the air was thick with smoke, red light reflecting from the clouds. His sensors had difficulty penetrating the haze.

The flames burned into their dell, low in the grasses, but unstoppable. Cinders flew through the air over the river and the fire jumped the water barrier easily. The bear, alarmed by one large ember, submerged completely and scraped Webster off against the stream bed. He gripped at the small pebbles on the bottom, but they moved with him, disturbed by the flow and the feet of the panicked animals.

Let the river take me downslope, he thought, and he reverted to guided sphere mode, letting himself roll down the stream, and poking himself out of backwaters as he went. He hit rocks in the rapids, and his sensors were unable to track his precise path in the confusion, relative to his starting point. He found the disorientation triggered a number of internal self-test activities, which he overrode until there was a change in the situation.

Finally, when he hit a sandbar, he unrolled, swapped to terrain walker, and limped carefully to the stream bank, shielding one of his grip-feet that had been exposed and damaged as part of the guided sphere format.

He pulled himself out as far as a Populus fremontii. The cottonwood seemed like a stable environment after the fire and the river. He’d traveled an unknown distance, but it was downslope and toward water, so he counted it as a partial fulfillment of his overall goal.

The inspection of his malfunctioning grip-foot revealed two crushed digits, out of three. He could swap grip-feet with one of the limbs not used for guided sphere but it would still be damaged, disturbing his balance when walking and slowing him down.

He modeled various scenarios, trying to choose which would be better—a three-legged stance, or four-legged with protection for the foot. The cottonwood branches on the ground provided useful material. He bound together the two damaged digits, to immobilize them, and carved a wooden shoe for the foot, to give it an even surface for walking. It required trial and error to ensure that the grip-foot with its shoe would still fit tucked inside for the guided sphere mode.

The last step was to alter his programming, to remove the automatic movements for that foot and provide something suitable for its changed form. Once he’d updated his software and tested it, he decided to stop for the rest of the evening and wait for dawn.

There was no good reason not to continue—the dark presented no barrier to him. But the fiction books declared that there should be rest after a hard trial, and it seemed fitting to him.

The meadow provided his first uninterrupted view of the sky, once he stepped away from the cottonwood. He zoomed his sight, seeking the elusive communication satellites.

At dawn, Webster broadcast his Here I Am and added a passage from the fiction collection about fire and flood.

He tried again to find a network or any human or other device within his local query range, with no success.

Earlier models of the Webster Marble Deluxe Woodsman had used older protocols. Perhaps his own protocols were no longer current.

He noted an increase in his internal alert sensitivity, correlated with the recognition that he could change his network search parameters. If he modified the visual and online inputs, he might be able to widen the amount of the electro-magnetic spectrum signal he could detect.

As he covered ground along the stream in terrain walker mode, he created a programming-update package. While he was at it, he inserted a modification to his limp-compensation routine as the gait behavior of the damaged limb with its shoe became clearer. He also reduced its distracting damage-alert alarm.

When he had sucked in the new programming, he paused in mid-stride, wanting to concentrate all his attention on the new test. Methodically, he scanned the previously unexamined parts of the spectrum and, in the radio portion, he found signal—powerful and highly complex transmissions that did not respond to any analysis he could devise based on his current protocols.

He was not alone. The partial success of his search function caused a detectable reduction in current power consumptions, and he was able to devote more attention to monitoring his travel while chewing away at the signal analysis puzzle. His programming successes were… satisfying. He double-checked that they would persist in the case of a power-off/power-on sequence, and made sure he recorded extensive records in the log, in case he had to start over from base-programming for any reason.

Meanwhile, this stream was an excellent guide, flowing through meadows with little to impede his progress. It must eventually reach humans, if the fiction books were to be believed.

Voices! Webster heard voices on the river, a woman and a boy fishing the stream. The woman waded close to the bank to cast, and the boy chattered at her from the bank.

He calculated the ambient noise of the flowing water, decided to get closer, and stumped determinedly along the gravel shelf, exposed during summer low water, the wooden shoe clacking on the rocks with every fourth footfall.

From a distance of six meters, he stopped, took his default form, and executed the Here I Am function, “Webster is here.” The boy turned his head immediately and ran up the gravel beach to look at him. He bent over without touching him, then called back to the woman. Webster could understand some words, particularly “knife”, but the language wasn’t clear.

The woman waded out of the water and put her rod down. She walked over and touched the boy’s shoulder. Her speech was unintelligible but he recognized the tone as a warning.

He spoke the introductory words from the owner’s manual, “The Webster Marble Deluxe Woodsman, Model 820-E, is a full purpose utility tool for the wilderness sportsman.” The woman tilted her head, placed a couple of fingers on her throat, and sub-vocalized.

A few moments later, a man appeared through a shimmer in the air over the gravel streamside. He and the woman spoke briefly, and Webster strained to understand more than the occasional word—something about “museum.” He knew that word—objects were stored on shelves and kept there. It would be like returning to the shop where he met his first owner, but humans didn’t take objects from museums, according to the definitions in his reference material.

How could he make them understand? He couldn’t broadcast to them, and had never been designed to generate his own speech.

He tried patching together a selection of phrases from the audio fiction books, but they ignored his speaker despite his attempts to get their attention. The boy watched him, but not the other two.

Would they shut down his power in the museum, like they had in the shop? The man reached down to pick him up, and he immediately spent all his effort on creating a programming-update that disconnected his power-off button. The man’s finger searched for the control while he frantically sent the update to himself. He executed it just in time, and mimicked the effect of a power-off when he sensed the button being pushed. His inertial sensors felt the man deposit him in a carry sack, and then the very peculiar sensation of the man’s instantaneous transport to another location.

As the sack swayed in rhythm to the man’s gait, he contemplated new goals. He could learn the changed language, given enough input. He could craft the audio samples into a voder to synthesize speech. And perhaps he could work out the principles of the new network protocols. He had plenty of time.

He hoped they wouldn’t take away the wooden shoe, stashed in the haft in his current form. It would remind him of how far he had come.

4 thoughts on “Adaptability (Free Short Story)

  1. I love how it is basically a self aware pocket knife that is doing all of this. I could just see him going on to found an entire race of intelligent multi-tools.

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