26 October 2013

Frothup: The Halloween Bot

     It came lurching and clanking down the road, trailing a thin streamer of smoke in the twilight, two heavy feet scuffing aside the red, brown and yellow-gold fallen leaves along the street-side edge pale-mauve line that delineated the pedestrian, bicycle and small/slow autonomous vehicle lane from the main road.

     Jackson Jones was the first of the kids to notice it. He was playing in the front yard in his costume while waiting for his big sister to come outside and take him  door-to-door, collecting treats.  He looked up at the sound and stood a long while, watching the big object approach though the long shadows.  "Neat-o," he said to himself, and then louder,  "Dad?  Daaad!  You've gotta see this.  Tell Quinnie, too."

     A vague male rumbling from the house replied.

     "No, Dad, you'd have to see it," adding, "Quick!" because by then it was about halfway past the neighbor's driveway, trudging steadily toward the Jones frontage.

     The scuffed trail was vaguely visible back along the tree-lined street, where homes gave way to vacant lots and small industrial buildings.  You could just make out the high, blank fence and higher sign-post where the road came to a T at the back of the sprawling Innovative Machine compound.  The signpost was topped with a silver-painted shape like a streamlined bowler hat, bearing the word INNOVATIVE, turning unceasingly around and around.  It was one of the first long words Jackson had sounded out for himself, and then he'd had to go ask Dad what an I-No-Vat-Ive was.  That was when he learned that Innovative Machine & Repair was "the plant" where Dad worked.

     There might've been a man visible way back at the fence; it was hard to be sure.  Jackson squinted at it, but his attention was drawn back to the shape patiently lurching along.  As it drew closer, he could a gentle squeaking and hissing, the clack-chuff! of valves and the singing of cables under stress under the sharp scritching of leaves  as it shuffled. 

     He took a step and the thing, roughly man-shaped, slowed.  Its head swiveled to face his direction and two huge, goggle-lensed eyes lit up, as sodium-yellow as the streetlights starting to flicker on.

     "Daad!  Mommm!  Quinn!  It's a real robot!"  And so it was, eight feet of shiny aluminum, blued steel, bright brass, copper wire, hoses and tubing and braided cable, walking and wobbling for balance on great broad feet, hands holding a big box shaped like a pirate's treasure chest in front of it.  As it came close to the boy, it slowed and stopped, slowly pivoting his way, body turning to line up with the head.

     Jackson heard a screen door up the road twang open and bang shut, followed by a similar sound from his own house and his Dad's familiar tread, but he didn't dare turn to look.  The robot was right in front of him.

     It stood as still as he was, hissing slightly, leaking a little smoke or steam.  Something inside it went click-click-click and the big yellow eyes blinked out and came back on.  It bent towards him a little, and the arms held the treasure chest-like box out just a bit farther. 

     Jackson wasn't sure what to do.  There were a lot of robots in his world, utilitarian things that lifted and carried, dug and drove, doing the dull or dangerous things that had to be done in a busy society with too few human hands; you kept out of their way, because they stopped cold if people they didn't recognize came too close and then you'd get yelled at by whoever was in charge of them.  None of them were like this wonder, not at all.

     It blinked at him again, and made a kind of offering gesture with the box, holding it out a tiny bit and then back. 

     Jackson felt his Dad was behind him and felt braver because if it.  "Um...hello?"

     The robot blinked and made the gesture again.  What was it trying to do?  Jackson glanced around, hoping for a clue, and saw his sister had come out on the porch in her costume.  Inspiration struck.  He asked the robot, "Trick or treat?"

     It blinked twice, bent down even further, let go of the box at one side (somehow holding it level and steady with a hand at one side) and lifted the lid with its free hand.

     Revealed inside, a king's ransom in candy!  Or, Jackson told himself, at least a prince's — glazed popcorn balls, chocolates in glittering foil, hard candies—  His Dad coughed.

     "Don't take too much, Jack.  That robot's got a long walk tonight and there are a lot of other kids."

     Hans from next door had snuck over, too, and chimed in, "Yeah, share."  He never missed a chance to curry favor with grown-ups but he was right.

     Jackson reached out and grabbed a handful.  Hans stepped forward, reached out, pulled his hand back when the robot swayed slightly,  then nerved up and took another swipe at it, netting a fair amount or, it seemed to Jackson, a little more.  The robot blinked yet again, swiveling his head to look at both boys, then carefully closed the box and stood up, shuffling in tiny steps to face in the direction it had been traveling.

     "Hey, Dad?"


     "Can we walk with it?"

     His Dad made an overly-serious face, fighting a barely-controlled grin.  "I don't know, Jack.  That's an awfully big robot."

     "Aw, Daaaad!"

      Dad lost the battle with his grin.  "I suppose you can — but your big sister has to come along, too!"

*  *  *

     Later that same night, on the phone:

     "Raub here."

     "Looks like our project is a hit."

     "Tell me about it— Hang on, tricky stretch coming up. ....  Okay."

     "Don't you trust the autocontrol?"

     "In a mob of two dozen kids?  You come down here and try driving this thing, watching a dinky screen!"

     "Thanks, Raub.  I owe you big for this."

     "Hey, it took both of us to build it.  Wouldn't have missed tonight for the world.  Any world."

     (For my nephew Ben and his two kids; they'd love a Halloween robot and of everyone I know, he's the most likely to build one.)

18 October 2013

Things Lost Under Bridges

[Found in the tattered back half of a Far Edge magazine.  Fiction?  Biography?  I have no idea.]


      For as far back as he could remember, he woke up shattered, understanding flitting away with scraps of dreams.

     The sun woke him long after dawn, nasty brightness streaming under the bridge and through the scrubby weeds that almost hid him from the path along the river.  He woke up on a sandy patch of bare dirt that smelled only faintly of old vomit and fresh urine, shuddering, slammed back into the here and now, groping for eyeglasses he hadn't had since-- when?  Lost the thought.  Of long habit, he sat as soon as he realized he was really awake, jerking upright and, after a breath, to his feet, standing quickly before the pains got his notice.  If the sun could find you, anyone could.

     Coughing, he stumbled to the water's edge and dashed a quick handful over his face and head with dirty hands.  Some remnant of vanity had him smooth his thinning hair without realizing he had.


     He first learned about it standing outside the TV shop, staring from too close through the wavery old glass at the fuzzy, overly-colorful screens, trying to blink sense into the scrolling words under the earnest, blankly-young faces.  Did they say everyone would have to sign up?

     Later: It was everyone.  He puzzled the meaning from a week-old newspaper left on a park bench, shaking finger wavering along the line.  Him, too, him and Slippery John and Jenny Cats and the kids who slept, furtively, in the stubbed-off storm drain, thinking themselves unobserved.  And the Mexedes-driving bastard floating past who threw half a cup of coffee on him, the newspaper and the park bench.  He started to shout, "You, too," but the "ooou" turned into a hacking cough.


     They said you could sign up at the book-and-thinkmachine hall, but he was turned away at the door.  Not. You. That's what the lady said, lips compressing shut on every word, glancing from him to the poster of faces under the word PROHIBITED stuck to the wall just inside. He stood there remembering the unfortunate day a week or a month or a year ago, when either the dolefood or the dumpster gleanings had waged a horrible war in his gut while he looked at the screen, searching, searching frantically for something he'd since forgot, when the chair turned to sticky, damp heat and he'd moved down to the next.  And the next.  And the next, until a burly guard grabbed his arm, Hey, you!  Filthy bum! Out, out! Holding up something that clicked once, twice, on the way to the door.


     The billboards said you could get a form at Postal-Serv and mail it in.  The sign said NO BUMS and the green-uniformed kid holding a strange-looking black rifle spared him a wary eye every step of the long stairway until he reached the top, then stopped him with a short, slow back-and-forth of helmeted head.


     It was a long way back to the bottom.

     Slippery John and the kids didn't have any better luck.


     It was Jennie Cats finally got them all forms.  She cleaned up well enough, especially if no one got too close and she remembered not to smile too broadly.  And the booktenders and think-machine tenders liked her, a little, on her best days.  He had to save out grubby coins for a week — "Print copies are not free, dearie."  Crumpled, a little, and a jelly stain on pages eleven and twelve but it wasn't a bad one; most of the sticky was rubbed off.

     The printing was too small to read under a street light.  It was almost too small at noon.


     The pencil stubs were too skinny.  They slipped away from his grasp like the smallest coins.  He had a fatter one but it got too short to sharpen again before he'd gotten any farther than NAME and REG. NUMBER and was puzzling over EMPLOYMENT HISTORY.

     Years earlier: "Here's my essay, professor Jones.  And the lab results."
     "The deadline was yesterday, Miss Howart."
     She smiled.
     He didn't.

     Now: He finally found a fat blue crayon he could hold.  He scrubbed a point on it any place there was concrete.  The workshop man at back of the TV store helped him some with the HISTORY.
      "Geez,  you're really him, hunh?"
     He shrugged.  Words came and went.  They were elsewhere today.
     "I was never sure, you always looked so different-- Man, what happened?"
     He had no idea.
     "My old man, he says you won us the war.  You know that?"
     He tries to remember.  Can't.  So, there was a war?

     Years earlier: "Here are the parameters, professor Jones."
     "I quit yesterday."
     "You can't."
     He couldn't.

     Now: "Doc, I guess that's it.   This place right here was the last reg'lar work you had, I think, back when I started.  There wasn't nothing you couldn't fix back then.  Um, when you was sober.  No offense."

      He takes the forms and mumbles something.  Thanks?  Yes, thanks.


    The posters had been warning about a deadline for weeks while he struggled past MOTHER'S MAIDEN NAME and LIST LIVING GRANDPARENTS.  He was almost sure that one only meant his but he listed a few other grandparents he knew about just to make sure.

    He'd lost track of the date.  One morning under the bridge was much like any other, unless the kid gangs had gone whooping along the river-ditch in the dark and he'd had to get out fast before they found him.  Flashing warnings on the TV screens told him, but the shop was locked up.  The Postal-Serve's doors were chained shut and a different young man behind them pointed a rifle at him and waved him away.  He stared for a second, befuddled at the shiny, reflecting patch at the end pointed at him, shiny where he had somehow expected a menacing black void. The man just yelled louder until he turned away.


     There were pigeons in a coop on top of the TV-store building. Six floors up.  He'd seen them, scrounging.

    Same rooftop, sometime later: he tapes the forms to the stolen bird.   Kisses it on sudden impulse, kisses it and tosses it into the air, murmuring "Fly. Fly free."  His eye tears up and, embarrassed, he turns away immediately.

     The form was much too heavy anyway, but it's a pity he'd taped the bird's wings down.


    He never even woke when it happened.  Later that day, the sun found an empty patch of dirt under the bridge that smelled only slightly of vomit and spilled blood.  There was a darker, damper patch at the center of it.

     Leadership held a press conference in time for the evening pundits.  Everyone was registered now.  It was the start of a new future, they said.   

     There was a glow in the sky.