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.)