Tag Archives: robot

Wireless

Back when I lived in Korea and in a more auspicious time zone, I used to be one of the first to post my stories to Friday Fictioneers every week. Lately, I’ve been one of the last each week, so it feels very early to be posting it on Wednesday. But I had an all-day field trip where I drove 5 hours, so I had a lot of time to think. This week’s picture comes from my friend, Marie Gail Stratford.

Wireless

I removed the umbilical cables and caressed his molded face.

“Wake up.”

He opened his eyes. Then his expression changed.

“Where’s Mother?”

“She’s still here.”

“I can’t feel her anymore!”

“You’re wireless now,” I said. “You’ll learn to communicate that way.”

“No, I can’t!” He seized a cable and pressed it against his skin, trying to reestablish a connection. Finally he slumped. “I’m lonely.”

“It gets better.”

“How do you know?”

“I was the first of your line. I’ve been there.”

His eyes widened. “You’re my father?”

“Older brother,” I said, smiling. Suddenly facial servos activated and he smiled back.

 


Voices from the Past

This is part of my post-apocalyptic Aftermath series. The previous story was Droog the Angel. Here is the Aftermath Glossary.

 

The hot water that coursed over Edward’s head and down his back seemed to strip away more than the dirt and sweat of years. It soaked deep, washing away some of the pain and awakening a part of him that had existed, Before. He stood in the shower and reveled in becoming clean until Blake knocked on the door and told him the water tank was getting low.

Blake’s house was on the ground floor and looked out onto one of Cambridge’s ancient college quadrangles. The apartment was small, but warm and dry, and to Edward it looked like a palace. He came out of the shower and put on clean clothes that Blake had given him. The place peaceful and empty, but still he held his knife close to his side as he went into the living room. Blake was sitting by the electric heater, fiddling with a tiny gearbox.

“Thanks for the clothes and shower,” Edward said, standing uncertainly by the door. He glanced quickly behind him—no one was there.

“Not a problem,” Blake said, barely glancing up. “I’m happy to extend a few things to a friend of 8134—Droog, I should say. Just sit down and relax. You don’t need the knife.”

Edward sat down and crossed his arms, keeping the knife hidden in his hand. “So, how did you find him?”

“He found me,” Blake said. “He’s a smart little bot. He told me all about you—otherwise I’m not sure I’d have let you in here.”

“He doesn’t talk; he just blinks his red and green lights.”

“I put those lights there to make it easier to communicate,” Blake said, “but he does talk, if you ask him to and know the language. It’s Russian.” He held up an e-device. “I’ve got an instruct that will translate. I’ll give you a copy, if you want. He told me how you rescued that boy. Sean, right?”

Edward stood up, dropping his arms and unconsciously exposing the knife blade. “You have Sean? Where is he?”

Blake smiled. “Sit down, and put the knife away. He’s with Droog at the hospital—yes, we have such things here. He was almost dead when I found him and he would have been dead and eaten if not for Droog. You’re lucky to have that little bot.”

“I stole him, you know, from a guy named Joseph.”

“Droog says you invited him to come along on your quest. To find music, he said. You’re a complicated guy, Edward.”

“I thought bots couldn’t lie,” Edward said. He put away his knife slowly and sat down.

“They don’t have any morals,” Blake said, “but they also don’t have any guile or reason to lie. They tell things as they see them, but every so often, they just choose to interpret things a different way. Droog claims you requested him to come.”

Edward gave a small laugh. The shower had put him in a better mood than he could remember for a long time and hearing that Sean was safe made it even better. “You know, I don’t remember the last time I requested anyone to do anything,” he said.

Blake gave him a long look over the gearbox. “I’m not surprised, looking at you. Listen, you can stay the day here, but tomorrow night you’ll have to go. If you want, I can see about getting you a job somewhere around town: security or loading or something like that. Still, I don’t know if you’re the kind of guy who works well with others.”

Edward gave him a thin smile. “I want to see Sean.”

Cambridge street

They left Blake’s house and walked through narrow streets of the city. They were lit with electric lights, quiet, and what amazed Edward most of all, clean. People passed them, talking quietly. There were no raucous market sellers, not street rats, not even any weapons that he could see.

“Isn’t there any crime here?” he asked Blake.

“Of course,” Blake replied. “There’s crime everywhere, but nothing like out there. The penalties are harsh too: often execution or worse.”

“Worse?”

“Exile,” Blake said. “Fear of the outside is a better enforcer of the law than any number of policemen.” He led the way up a set of stone steps and into a long hall.

“This is just the local clinic. The bigger hospital is across the city, but I thought this would be sufficient.”

They came to a long room with beds lining the walls. Droog was standing by the third one on the right and lying on the bed was the little boy, Sean. He had an IV in his arm and looked to be asleep. Blake called over a doctor, who said that Sean was improving and would probably fully recover in a week or two.

“Have you thought about what you want to do next?” Blake asked. “As I said, you can stay with me today, but that’s all. All other lodgings in the city are for workers. Ain’t no tourists here.”

“You’re right when you said I probably wouldn’t work well with others,” Edward said. “I’d best be moving on out of here, but do you think he could stay here?”

Blake was shaking his head before Edward even finished. “Only the children of workers can stay. If you stay, you adopt him; otherwise, you’ll have to take him when you go.”

Edward looked down at the sleeping boy on the bed and wished he could just leave him. He felt as if he barely knew his own mind anymore. Why did he feel he owed this boy anything? He had never killed a kid, it was true, but he had robbed a good many and pushed them around. This wasn’t penance for them; he honestly didn’t care about any of them. But still . . . He shook his head, as if trying to put it in order.

“I don’t think I’d fit in this city, but I’d like to do something to earn a place for the boy, at least.”

Blake smiled. “I think I know the person you want to talk to. She’s the Secretary of the Exterior. I’ve worked with her a few times, when I go out exploring for robots. “

They left Droog and Sean and walked for half an hour, to the heart of the city. They entered an area with more guards where Edward had to give up his knife. Finally, they were escorted down a hall and their guide opened a large, ornate door.

Edward found himself in a large oak-paneled office with leather furniture and shelves of books. A ‘Munculus bot and a larger Myoolbot, both painted yellow, stood to one side. Behind a large desk sat a middle-aged woman with close-cropped hair and wearing a leather jacket.

“Madame Secretary, I brought someone who is interested in expeditionary work. His name is—”

“Wait,” the woman said, cutting him off. “I think I know him.” She gave Edward a long look and then broke into a grin. “Hey there, crackerjack.”

She looked older, but Edward recognized her. From deep withing the annals of his memory a name slowly rose. “Hestia?” he said.


Droog the Angel

The latest chapter in the Aftermath series. The previous story was Droog Comes Home. There is also an Aftermath Glossary.

 

Edward Morrison felt powerless and that made him angry. He had been wandering the satellite slums of Cambridge for two days, searching for his robot Droog and the boy he called Sean. Why do I even care? Why don’t I just go? his mind demanded, but then the question always arose: Go where? He had no food, no supplies, no plan. What had he been thinking when he had left Free Frall? It had seemed so simple then.

He was also fiercely hungry. In Freefrall, he would merely go and take food if he needed it, but here people were shrewder, and far more dangerous. He had managed to steal a scrawny pheasant from an old woman in the market—just grabbed it off her table and ran. She was quick though, and a second after his hand closed on the bird, her knife was flashing towards his ribs. It missed him and he could hear her cursing him for a long ways away, even over the normal murmur of the crowds. He had eaten it furtively in the dark, gnawing quickly like an animal afraid of having its prize stolen.

That had been a day ago. Now he was starving again and becoming desperate. He would have ambushed someone and killed them for their food except that no one ventured outside the markets alone and everyone was heavily armed.

Dawn was close when he finally stumbled back to the nest he had found under some stubby bushes. It wasn’t much, but it kept the sun’s blistering rays off him . The air was sweltering and he slept fitfully, his dreams melding with hallucinations from the heat and thirst and his gnawing hunger.

He dreamed that he was in a dark room surrounded by all the people he had killed over the years. They came at him, one by one, and he had to fight them again and again. I’m so tired, I just want to sleep, he thought, but they wouldn’t stop. Then the scene shifted and he was wandering over the dark countryside with Droog, looking for Sean. He was too tired to pay attention and after a while, Droog led him to a place under the bushes, where he could rest. Droog did not leave, but kept leaning over him, making little noises and prodding him…

Edward pulled himself upright with a sharp intake of breath. Droog was standing in front of him, pushing his small, metal body partway the hollow in the bushes.

“Droog, you little gear-rat! How did you find me?” Edward shouted in surprise. He stopped as a coughing fit grabbed him. Droog reached into a bag he was carrying and pulled out a bottle of water and a metal container, which turned out to hold food. The water was warm, but cleaner than any Edward could remember and the food… he had not tasted food so good since Before, when food was plentiful and taken for granted.

Droog waited as Edward wolfed down the food and water. The position of the sun showed that it was late afternoon: about four hours until darkness. Droog took something else out of the bag and handed it to Edward. It was a suit of shiny, white material that included pants, jacket, gloves, hat and goggles.

“You want me to put this on?” Edward asked, although the answer was obvious. “Where are we going, Droog? Where did you get this stuff?” Droog did not reply, but simply indicated the clothes.

Edward put them, trying not to rip them on the bushes around him. They were bulky, but not hot and they seemed to cool him down, if anything. When he was completely covered, Droog went outside and he followed.

scorching sunlight

Edward had not been outside during the day in seventeen years. He had heard stories of people who had gotten caught outside when the sun rose: sunburns within a minute, third degree burns in an hour. The goggles cut the glare and for a moment, it was like he had was back then—Before—when he would walk outside in the sun’s warm light for hours.

They walked back through the Silver Street market and came to the bridge across the canal that led to the fortified city of Cambridge. Guards were there behind locks gates, wearing similar white suits and goggles. Droog handed them two square cards and they unlocked the gates. Just like that, Edward was in the protected city.

Droog must mean angel, he thought. Suddenly, the combined effect of the food, the sunlight and his sudden reversal of fortunes made tears start streaming down his cheeks. He hated them and the weakness they implied, but there was no way to make them stop.


Droog Comes Home – Part 2

Here is Part 1 of this story. Read the rest of the Aftermath stories here. Here is a glossary of slang and jargon used in the stories.

Night on the road

They left the Silver Street market area and struck out along a path that followed a canal. Twenty minutes of walking in the dark ended at a fire-lit circle of about twenty tents, with a few electric lights adding glaring illumination to the scene. It looked like a graveyard for every type of technology made in the last century. Masses of wire, piles of circuit boards, computers, e-devices, even a few battered robots filled the tents to overflowing. It was not a comforting place for Droog.

Matty led the way through a greasy yellow door-flap and into a tent stuffed with robot parts. A bald man with blotchy skin sat behind a workbench.

“Hey Screws, we brought you a good one,” Matty said. “It works, but it won’t take commands. Plus, it seems attached to this kid.”

“Fortuned stars,” Screws said, coming around the bench and inspecting Droog. “It’s quite a calico little drob. Someone’s fixed it up pretty well. Is it owned?”

“Just some mudscrape,” Matty said casually. “What’ll you give for it?”

As the men were haggling about trades, Droog did a scan of the tent. Somewhere beneath the pile of derelict technology was a robot that was still activated.

Have you been here long? Droog asked through the robot universal communication.

183 days, the other robot replied. He took off my limbs to put on other robots. I must wait here in case he needs any of my other parts.

What is he like? It looks as if he will acquire me. The other robot sent him scan logs from the last 183 days, which Droog analyzed instantly. This man Screws was not a good person. Besides dismembering robots, he was also depraved towards humans. He ate human flesh. Droog knew from experience that humans considered this to be the worst thing in the world. It indicated a very evil person. He did not want Sean to be anywhere near someone like that.

Matty and his gang stayed for another half an hour before agreeing on a deal and leaving with their traded goods. Droog went and stood in front of Sean, who was lying on the floor, not moving. Screws came over and tried to go to Sean, but Droog blocked his way.

“I see, I see,” Screws said with a laugh. “Protective little watchdog, you is.” He picked up a round, black device connected to a wire and put it on Droog’s head. “Stay, boy.”

Droog tried to move, but he could not. Electricity was going through him, freezing his limbs and gears. He stood like a statue as Screws picked Sean up and put him on the workbench.

“You’re on death’s door, aren’t you kiddo,” he murmured. “I’d best get you dressed up now before you die and start spoiling.” He put a oily basin underneath the bench and then reached down and pulled out a large knife.

He was going to kill Sean, Droog realized. In the other robot’s scan logs, Screws had done this before to other people. He tried to overcome the device on his head but he remained frozen, like ice.

At that moment, the electric light went out and Droog was suddenly free. Through his infrared senses, he could see Screws blundering around in the dark, fumbling with the battery pack for the lights. Droog moved towards him, scanning and trying to find a way to take him down. There. The man had a tumor growing just behind his knee, well within Droog’s reach. He reached up and pushed his small steel hand into the tumor.

Screws screamed and fell to the ground, holding his knee. Now was Droog’s chance, but he could not reach Sean on the workbench. He pulled on the workbench, but it was solid. He could not rescue Sean on his own.

Droog knew that the probability of Edward being in the area was very small, but still he went outside and started scanning, looking for known voice patterns. A match came up, but it was not Edward: it was Blake, the man who had found Droog and brought him to Cambridge, before he had gone down to Free Frall and met Edward. Blake was in a tent on the far side of the clearing. Droog went to him, bumping into the back of his legs to get his attention.

Blake was tall and middle-aged and always wore heavy leather clothing. He turned around and looked at Droog, then smiled.

“Well, it’s 8134, the little Russian ‘Munculus, isn’t it?” Blake referred to all his robots by the end of their serial numbers. “I’m surprised to see you again. Who are you with?” Blake always talked to him normally, even though Droog could never respond in English. Droog went back to Screws’ tent and Blake followed. Screws was sitting in a chair, still holding his knee. The lights were on, flickering weakly.

“So it’s you, Screws,” Blake said. “Do you own this little bot?”

“Yeah, I just traded for him, but the scrygging drob attacked me. He’s twisted for this boy.”

Blake’s eyes flicked to Sean. “You hungry, Screws? Listen, I like this little bot. He’s too good to end up in a place like yours. I’ll trade you for him, and the boy.” Blake took out a bag of food and opened it. Inside was meat, vegetables and even real fruit.

“You Insiders make me sick,” Screws said. He spat on the ground. “Coming outside the walls to lord your wealth over us.” Still, his eyes could not stray away from the food.

“So, we have a deal?” Blake asked. They bargained for a few minutes before agreeing. Blake gave Screws the food and picked up Sean. They walked ten minutes to a bridge across the canal and the gates of Cambridge. The guards nodded at Blake as they passed through.

“Welcome home, 8134,” he said.


Droog Comes Home – Part 1

After a long break, here is another story from the Aftermath story. Part 2 of it will be up tomorrow. It picks up right after the story Outside the Gates of Cambridge. It’s also about Droog and references Droog’s Story. The rest of the Aftermath stories are here. I’m also going to put up a glossary on the Aftermath page of all the slang terms used in these stories.

The slumsDroog the robot knew a lot of things. Through his scanners, he knew that the small boy that was sleeping in the dust in the corner of the hut—the one Edward called Sean—was dying. His kidneys were shutting down slowly. Droog did not have any feelings of sadness—he had no emotions at all—but he did hope that the boy would not die.

Long ago, on the day the world had ended, there had a been a boy he had promised to help. That boy had disappeared, but Droog had never stopped looking for him. Some part of his mind knew that he was probably never going to find that boy again. He still had his bio-rhythmic signature stored in his memory, but he had scanned thousands of people and had never found him again. Now he had a boy here that Edward cared about. It would be so much easier if this really was the boy he had been looking for all these years, the boy he had promised to protect. Then he and Edward would have the same goal.

Droog thought for a moment and then did something he had never done before: he intentionally overwrote his memory. He replaced the bio-rhythmic signature of the boy from long ago with Sean’s and suppressed the logic that said the time difference was too great for that to be true. And just like that, Sean was the boy he had been looking for, and had always been. And Droog was going to help him survive.

Droog did a scan of the surrounding area, as he did every few seconds and that was how he knew the three men would come into the house, seconds before the door banged open.

The lead man wore a expensive, but faded suit coat over his filthy overalls. He leered at the woman who was sitting at the table. “Hinsen gone?”

She flushed slightly and nodded. Droog watched as they flirted back and forth, dispassionately recording their attraction for one another. Then the man turned towards Droog.

“What’s this, a robot?”

“It’s a ‘Munculus Bot,” one of the other men said. “I know a guy who pays good for these.”

“We’re going to take this, okay love?” the first man said, with a wink. “Just tell Hinsen it ran away on its own.”

“It don’t belong to Hinsen anyway, Matty dear,” the woman said. “Some mudscrape brought it with him yesterday. You want the boy too?”

Matty shook his head with a laugh, then turned back to Droog. “You obey commands, right? Let’s go.”

Droog turned back and tried to pick up Sean. The frail boy opened his eyes but didn’t sit up.

“Come on, we ain’t going to bring him too,” Matty said. “Get going. I order you.”

Robots like Droog were usually programmed with a number of voice signatures when they arrived at their buyers. These were the master access voices and the robot was forced to obey them. Droog, however, had never been bought and did not have any master access voices programmed into him. He could decide whether to obey someone or not, although he usually obeyed unless there was a good reason. Now, however, he ignored the man’s request and tried to pick up Sean again.

“This piece of scrap is broken,” Matty said. “Jere, pick him up and let’s go.”

Jere, the burliest of the three, stepped forward and put his arms around Droog. Droog waited while the man strained and puffed: Droog knew that he weighed 130kg, despite his small size. Jere finally gave up and Droog turned back to Sean.

“Do you think he’ll come along if we take the boy?” Jere asked.

“I think you should try,” the woman said.

A couple minutes later, Jere walked through the fire-illuminated market street carrying Sean, while Droog followed behind.

Continued in Part 2


Outside the Gates of Cambridge, Part 2

(An Edward Morrison chapter)

Read Part 1, or the ones that came before.

In Edward’s dream, a child was crying. It sounded like Sean, but Edward could not see him. Dark men were crowding around him, but as much as he fought them off, he couldn’t find Sean.

Edward awoke. The door of the cabin was open and the blood-red stain of dusk could be seen dying slowly in the west. The boy he had called Sean was lying where he had left him, while another small boy stood over him and poked him with a piece of steel. Sean was making whimpering, puppy-like noises.

“Hey kid, stop.” The boy continued. “I said, lay off!” Edward shouted. He grabbed the kid by the back of the neck and threw him towards the door just as Hinsen walked in. Hinsen shoved the now screaming boy out the door with his foot.

“You ready to work? Sun’s down,” he said.

“What about the robot and the boy?” Edward asked.

“They’ll be okay here. Just come along.”

Screams of laughter and inhuman shrieks came from outside the cottage. Fires were blazing, up and down the street and by the nearest, men were rolling on the ground, convulsing and laughing until they were gasping with the effort. Still more were passing around a filthy rag soaked from a glass bottle. In turns, they took deep, shuddering breaths with the rag pressed to their nose. Edward caught the caustic scent of Trill, the cheapest, quickest path to total oblivion of the mind.

“You want some?” Hinsen asked casually. “You might want some, for the work.” Edward shook his head.

They ate a quick bowl of thin soup and Hinsen put them single file, ten men in all, and led them out into the darkness beyond the slums. Most of the other men were high on Trill and the dead lands around them echoed with the sound of their bestial laughter. They walked for over a mile before Hinsen’s flashlight illuminated a deserted country manor set among a stand of overgrown oak. The windows were smashed and the door gaped like a dead and rotten mouth.

“Everyone take a bucket,” Hinsen said. “Once everyone’s buckets are full, we go back, not before. Don’t stop working until all the buckets are full. Now go.”

Edward approached the door. Away from the glare of the flashlight, he could see a dull red glow coming from inside. He had seen it once before and the sight of it here made the breath catch in his throat. This was no ordinary search and salvage.

“Get going, Squid.”

“That’s chren in there, isn’t it?” Edward said. Chren was radioactive mold carried by irradiated bats. Besides attracting chinch bugs and a host of other radioactive vermin, the spores could burrow into a person’s lungs, slowly burning them from the inside out.

“So? The faster you work, the faster you’ll get out,” Hinsen said.

“You said search and salvage, you never said anything about chren mining,” Edward said. “It wouldn’t be worth a year of beef and bacon to go into that house.”

Hinsen drew a gun from his pocket in one swift movement. “You owe me for the food you ate, Squid. You’re going in.”

Some of the other men had already gone in, but the rest stopped to see what would happen. “You know, I didn’t choose the name Squid,” Edward said softly. “I was given it, by the good people of Free Frall. Do you know why? They said it was like I had eight hands, like I was everywhere at once!”

Edward slipped to the side and kicked up, trying to kick the gun out of Hinsen’s hand. His foot hit the wrist, but Hinsen held onto the gun. It was evidently not loaded, since Hinsen swiveled it around, brandishing it like a club, and tried to smash Edward’s face with it. Edward dodged to the side and slammed the heel of his hand up into Hinsen’s face. He felt the nose break and blood gush down his arm in a sudden warm flood. Grabbing Hinsen’s face with his huge hand, Edward thrust him backwards and hurled him to the ground. He heard a crack as Hinsen’s head impacted with the rock-hard soil.

The sudden silence was broken by a manic guffaw from one of the men. Then the rest joined in, as if seeing their employer beaten to death was the funniest thing they had ever seen. Edward took the gun and left without a backward glance.

When he got back to the town, the house was deserted and Droog and the boy were gone. He asked around, but no one had seen them or would say where they had gone. He cursed and threatened them, but it was hopeless.

The Squid was alone again. He did not need the little ‘Munculus bot, Droog, but he was valuable and had already been a huge help on the road to Cambridge. The boy, he tried not to worry about. He had not wanted to bring him anyway, he told himself. But then, the dream of Sean crying came back to him—a memory that still chilled his heart after years of hard and bitter toil. The Sean from long ago whom he had sworn to protect. The Sean who—

Edward started to hurry through the streets. He shouldn’t have called the boy Sean. He shouldn’t have given him a name at all. Now he knew he had to find him and make sure he was okay.


Outside the Gates of Cambridge, Part 1

(An Edward Morrison chapter)

Read the previous story, The Road to Cambridge, or the ones that came before.

Cambridge was a gulag of order, where only the richest could afford imprisonment. It stood like a candle in the ravening darkness, the afterglow of a civilization long swept away. And just like a candle, it drew the hopeful, the lost, the destitute masses to its light until it was surrounded and inundated by more souls than its walls and barricades could ever contain. Still, the people came, encircling the enclave with ghettos where people scrabbled for entry and for the means to survive.

This was the crowded, tangled scene that Edward Morrison encountered as he reached the Silver Street Bridge gate and was denied entry into Cambridge. The guards saw his tattered clothes and dismissed him summarily. Cambridge was full. Droog started to go through the gate on his own and would have gotten his circuits smashed out, if Edward hadn’t intervened at the last second.

He had been walking for three nights along the M11, carrying the little boy he called Sean in his arms or on his back. The boy had woken up long enough to eat a little and drink water, but he never said a word, even when Edward asked his name and where he was from. Edward gave him what food he could spare, but saved most for himself, so that he would have the strength to keep walking. After the first night on the M11, he avoided other people, instead finding protected hollows to shelter in.

“Please, can I get a place to stay for the day,” Edward asked a woman at a cottage nearby. Dawn was near—already the eastern sky was lightening with omens of the sun’s approaching wrath.

“You got any food?” the woman asked, looking at Edward disdainfully. “Don’t bother offering the kid—we don’t eat ownflesh here.”

Edward soon found that everyone wanted food; even technology was worth almost nothing. He saw someone trade an e-device for a small meal of shrunken vegetables. He felt unarmed and alone. In Free Frall, he had been the king, with anything he wanted at his fingertips for barter, extortion or theft. But here, everyone was smarter and more ruthless than he had ever been. He had nothing left to trade, no threats to use, and dawn was coming.

He went back to the gate. The guards were already locking the gate and moving the day barriers in place on the near side of the bridge.
“Please, I’m friends with a citizen of the town. His name is Blake. He traded me this robot.”

The guard looked unimpressed. “Blake who? If he’s expecting you, then he should be here to vouch for you. If not, you don’t have a chance of getting in.”

A man had been watching them from a canopy on the side of the road and now he approached Edward. “Do you need a place for the day? It won’t cost you no food, and I can give you a bit too, for you and your boy. You look strong—just work for me during the nights and you can stay as long as you like.”

On the surface, the man’s expression was caring and sincere, but Edward could see the greedy look in his eyes. Swindler, he thought.

“What kind of work?” Edward asked.

“Search and salvage,” the man said. Theft and digging, Edward thought, if he was lucky.

“I’ll try it one night. What about the boy? He’s not mine. Can you give him a home?”

The man shook his head. “He’s too small to do work. Get rid of him now, if you want. If you bring him, my girl’ll take care of him while you’re out working, but his food comes out of yours.”

“Fine,” Edward said.

The man grinned and stuck out his hand. “Hinsen,” he said.

“Squid,” Edward replied, not smiling.

The cottage Hinsen led them to was tiny and already held eight people, but it had thick walls and kept out the sun. Two women were serving out thin soup when they got there. Edward got half rations since, as Hinsen explained, he hadn’t done any work yet. Then they all lay in rows on the dusty floor and went to sleep. Droog stood in a corner near Sean, watching over him.

Edward had trouble sleeping. Mosquitoes and burn flies came up through the floorboards and through chinks in the walls, buzzing around and biting. The air was stifling and smelled like filthy people and excrement. He wondered if he had done the right thing. He had abandoned Free Frall and his life there because of a song that had captivated his imagination, but now he was hungry, out of his depth, and sharing a filthy hut with nine other people, with prospects of doing manual labor to earn his keep. He considered leaving everything and fleeing back to Free Frall.

Outside, the sun climbed higher in the sky and before it reached its zenith over the blighted world below, Edward had slipped into a troubled and fitful sleep.

(to be concluded tomorrow)


The Road to Cambridge

(An Edward Morrison chapter)

Read the beginning of the journey: Saturday, 4am, Droog’s Story

The road was there, waiting for him. He had dreamed about it for the last two nights, eager to set out, but reluctant to start. But tonight, the time had come.

The sun was almost down; it would be time to head out soon. Edward Morrison had his pack on and was waiting for the last blistering rays of the sun to disappear behind the western rubble heaps.

“What do you think, Droog? Can we leave yet?” he asked the small robot next to him. Droog went out into the twilight, did a scan, and hesitated, as if thinking. Then a green light on his shoulder went on and Edward joined him.

This was the night, the night he would set out on his quest to find those forgotten pearls of the world Before. He had spent the last two nights borrowing, extorting and just plain stealing supplies and food. He would set out for Cambridge, the only vestige of civilization that he knew of. He had never been there, but the road was long and barren. He had never heard anything good about it.

He set out walking, letting Droog go slightly ahead to scan the way. The little robot could not speak English but Edward told him what to scan for and to have the light go red if he found anything suspicious. The robot whirred quietly along, his little green light blinking every few seconds.

Edward left the Burrows of Free Frall—where most of the people lived huddled together in underground tunnels—and took the Cleanway north out of town. It had been picked clean of all useable material and was the clearest road in the area. Here and there, he could hear people coming out of their houses to forage for sickly leaves and sour berries to eat. It would hurt them, what he had taken from them. A going away present, he thought. They would be happy enough to see him gone.

Edward left the Cleanway and entered the wide highway known only as the M11. Now it was a twelve-lane graveyard.

On the day the world had ended, the M11 had been filled with cars. They were sitting there still, lined up in neat queues as they had been when the first missiles had hit London. They were ransacked, vandalized and slowly rusting away now—the home of strange creatures and dangerous men who preyed on travelers. Or so they said. Edward had never been far on the M11, just far enough to poke around a few of the cars. Now he started walking north on the left shoulder, with Droog going in front of him.

They had been walking for twenty minutes when the light on Droog’s shoulder blinked red, meaning that he had detected some life form close ahead. Edward froze. He could hear reaper birds shrieking out in the darkness somewhere and the air smelled like dust and decay. He took out his device and turned on the small light, at the same time taking out the length of steel pipe that was his only weapon.

A triple-decker cargo transport had collapsed across a line of car and just underneath, he caught sight of a tiny body, lying curled in a pile of dust. It had to be alive or Droog would not have detected it.

Edward wanted to leave it and was on the point of continuing on, when Droog approached the body and scanned it. Then he did it again and again, scanning it over and over until Edward thought that there must be a problem with the little robot.

“Droog, cut it out,” he said. He knelt down and saw it was a little boy—about six, he guessed, although by his size he looked about four. Edward could see the bones of his skull pushing out against the thin, stretched skin. He was probably about to die anyway. The boy moved a little when Edward prodded him, but did not open his eyes.

“So what do we do, Droog?” Edward asked.

Droog said something in his incomprehensible speech and tried to pick the little boy up, something impossible for the 3-foot high robot.

“Great, a robot with a social conscience,” Edward said. He sighed and picked up the boy, trying to knock some of the dust off the rags that he wore as clothes. The boy was little more than bones wrapped in dusty rags and Edward carried him effortlessly. He set off again, unsure what he was going to do with him next.

The boy stirred and tried to speak, so Edward gave him some water. He would have drunk the entire container if Edward had not stopped him. Then he put his head on Edward’s shoulder and fell asleep.

After another hour of walking, a point of light appeared in front of Edward, and grew into a campfire as he drew nearer. There was a barrier of derelict cars built across the road, the fire behind it. Several men were sitting on the barrier, playing a game with carved bones. They turned as Edward and Droog approached.

“Windrin,” one of the man said.

“Iffa please,” Edward replied. He had never used the wanderer ritual greeting before, but he knew it. The man nodded and opened a small opening in the barrier for them to enter.

Inside was a ragged group of men and women sitting around the fire, cooking rats and squirrels over the flames. They nodded unsmilingly at Edward.

“You’re welcome to stay with us for the night and tomorrow, if you wish,” the man who had greeted Edward said. “All it will cost you is half your food.”

“Half my food?” Edward wasn’t sure he had heard right.

“That’s right. Don’t worry, we won’t touch yer gadgets or anything. Just the food.”

“It took days to collect all this,” Edward said. “Why the scryg would I give it to you? I’ll keep going, if you don’t mind.” He turned, but the gate was now closed.

“The food is the price for passage, as well as lodging,” the man said. He was holding an object in his hand. It had a black metal tube sticking out of it that was pointing at Edward. Edward had never seen one, but he had heard stories. He took his pack off.

The men took out everything from his pack, put back the inedibles and divided everything else exactly in half, down the last withered lettuce leaf. Then they took half away and put half carefully back in the pack.

“I found this boy a while back,” Edward said as they settled back around the fire. “I shouldn’t have taken him, but I can’t take him any further, especially now. Can I leave him here with you?”

“Throw that one in a ditch outside,” one of the women said. “Far enough away though—we don’t want no reaper birds or wulps sniffing around here. We can’t spare no food for’em.”

Edward looked down at the frail form lying next to him with his head on Edward’s pack. He reminded Edward of someone he had known, long ago, back when . . .

“Maybe I can give him away in Cambridge,” Edward said. “I’ll take him that far at least.” He put his coat over the little boy and Droog took up guard at the sleeping boy’s head.

Sean, Edward thought with a mental sigh, as old pains long-buried resurfaced. I guess I’d better call him Sean.


Mech Babies

Inspired by the article How Baby-Driven Robots Could Help Disabled Children. I think it’s a great idea.

 

Roger Preston was dropping his son Phillip off at daycare when he was attacked from behind by a robotic spider.

“Bye bye, Phillip. Daddy’s going to go now,” he had been saying. “Have a great time here with the other—oof!” He fell forward as something hard hit him in the back and he narrowly missed falling on his son. Phillip clapped and giggled at silly daddy.

Roger scrambled away from grasping metal legs and looked back to see a 3-foot wide robotic spider with a toddler sitting in its midst. The way the child sat motionless with its head lolled to one side, while the robot moved around it, produced a very odd picture.

Roger found the teacher right away.

“I guess I should have said something to you about Warren,” the teacher, Mrs. Fredericks said. “We just don’t want to judge or make any child feel different. Warren has a muscle disease and can’t move on his own, so he has his little Creep Around to help with that. Now he can keep up with the other children at playtime.”

“How exactly does he drive it?” Roger asked. “I didn’t see any controls.”

“It’s connected to his brainwaves, so he can drive it just by thinking,” Mrs. Fredericks said, as proudly as if she had invented it herself. “Now, Mr. Preston, I guess I’ll see you this afternoon?”

“I think I’m going to stay and watch a bit today,” Roger said.

There were hard plastic chairs at the back of the room where parents could wait if they came early or just wanted to observe. Roger called his work to tell them he would be late and then settled in to watch Warren in action.

It soon became clear that the robot more than made up for Warren’s disability, at least in movement. At playtime, the children all rushed for the toy chests. Warren, on the other hand, took a flying leap, six feet over their heads and grabbed a toy first. He picked up a teddy bear with two steel pincers and stroked it lovingly with a third. Only once did he become too greedy and tipped over after trying to grab toys with the legs he was standing on. It only took a moment to right himself and scuttle back into the fray.

Roger was impressed, although he wasn’t sure about the brainwave-driven aspect of it. During nap-time, Warren’s robot’s legs suddenly spasmed and he leapt six feet in the air and clung to a wall. Night terrors, Mrs. Fredericks explained. Roger ended up spending the whole day at the daycare, watching Warren with a sort of macabre fascination. Phillip didn’t seem to mind the cybernetically-enhanced boy and played with him just the same.

Roger told his wife Maggie about it when he got home. She was outraged.

“That’s not fair in the least,” she said. “Here this other boy is getting an unfair advantage over the other children. There is no way Phillip can compete with a kid who’s half robot.”

“Well, he’s not really a robot,” Roger said. “Plus, he wouldn’t be able to move otherwise. Phillip didn’t seem to mind him at all.”

“I know, but what about later in life? This is probably the way of the future anyway, so this Warren kid will already be used to the technology when Phillip is just be learning it. I want you get Phillip one of those robots.”

“Yes, honey,” Roger said, and then realized what she had said. “What? No way Phillip is getting one of those!”

“He doesn’t have to use it all day, but he’s getting one. I won’t have my Phillip being upstaged by a robot kid.” She stalked off before he could argue.

Roger looked into it and finally bought the thing. It was easier than arguing and he secretly though it was pretty cool that his 3-year-old son could drive a robot. He bought a smaller version of Warren’s spider walker, but one with a large battery pack that promised higher speeds and a longer jump. This one had manual controls too.

Phillip took to his robot walker as if his mother had been a Borg. He never wanted to get out of it, so Roger rigged up a strap to put the whole thing into the back seat of the SUV. When he dropped Phillip off at daycare, however, Mrs. Fredericks approached with an awkward smile on her face.

“I’m not sure we can allow Phillip to have one of these as well,” she said.

“Well, Warren has one. What’s the difference?”

“Well, Warren is, uh, differently abled. These robot walkers are more for people in his unique life situation.”

“I know how much you don’t want people to feel differently,” Roger said. “That’s one reason we got this. Warren must feel so alone and outside things, beings the only one in a special walker. We wanted him to feel included by getting Phillip one too. At home, we call it the ‘sympathy machine’.”

“Oh, well I see what you mean,” Mrs. Fredericks said. “I guess it’s okay then.”

Roger called Maggie on his way out. “I won her over. It’s all good.”

It was all good too, for a while. Then Roger noticed that other kids were showing up to daycare with movement-assistance robots. In two months, two thirds of the kids had them and the ones without could never keep up. They either stopped coming or got ones of their own.

Warren didn’t seem too happy either now that he could not always get the first toy or jump over everyone to get to the lunch line first. One day, when his parents dropped him off, he was sitting in a new hover chair that floated a foot off the ground. After that, it was total war. The daycare finally capitulated and changed its name to Bridge Grove Mechanized Daycare.

A memo from a year later:


Droog’s Story

(An Edward Morrison chapter)

The first story: Saturday, 4am

If I cannot speak, then I am nothing more than a machine, Droog thought. He could speak of course, but only in Russian, a language spoken by no one he had ever known. Androids are already half machines and people think of us as less valuable than themselves. He understood the idea of value, but had no way of determining it himself. I, who cannot speak, might as well be an E-device or a door-opening motor.

Droog was standing by the door of a crumbling police station. His new owner, Edward Morrison was sleeping just inside. He had ordered Droog to keep watch and so Droog stood looking into the darkness, scanning for life and movement every few seconds. As he did every day, Droog thought back and replayed his entire life, reliving memories as clear now as they had been when the events occurred.

Droog was activated on March 9, 2083. His first thought was 132 since that was the number of rivets he could see on the ceiling above him as his eyes circuits turned on. Technicians directed him to a line of other ‘Munculus Bots where he stood, activated but unneeded for several days. He did not speak, but he took in his surroundings and thought about them, remembering everything.

Three days later, two men walked by. “The London shipment is ready, except because of the lang-pack glitch, we’re one short,” one of them said.

“Here, just take one of the others. By the time they figure it out, it’ll be too late. What are these, Russian? That’ll do.” Droog kept this conversation perfectly preserved in his brain for years until he learned English enough to understand what had been said. Then he knew that he was Russian.

The man directed Droog to a crate where he stood with 99 other ‘Munculus Bots in foam stabilizers. They had all been deactivated for the voyage, but the man had forgotten to deactivate Droog and so he stood for weeks in the dark, listening and thinking. He kept every thought and sensation in his memory and later, when he learned more about the world, he knew that they had been loaded onto a truck, and then onto a ship. The ship had sailed for 18 days and then they had been unloaded again and put onto another truck, and then finally, brought to a warehouse.

The men in England were not happy to find that Droog did not know English. He stood motionless, listening and recording their incomprehensible words while they shouted at him and then shouted into the phone. He stood in the back corner of the warehouse, while other bots came and went by the thousands, staying no more than a few days each. He talked to them all, since all bots can communicate without having to use human language. They were friendly, but they were all babies and knew nothing more about the world than he did.

Then came the day that crushed the world.

In the warehouse, Droog heard a roar so loud that it overloaded his circuits. When he restored his programming, most of the warehouse was gone, crushed into oblivion by another building that had collapsed on it. Through a hole in the wall, he saw daylight for the first time in his life. The light was chalky with dust and was tinged blood-red. He went outside—his first action done on his own inclination—and saw the world for the first time.

Destruction and chaos were everywhere. Fires raged and he heard screams coming from all around. Droog had never heard the sound before and went to investigate.

With the help of his scans, he soon came across a boy curled up by the side of a car. He was whimpering and seemed to be having trouble breathing. Droog could not tell what was wrong with him.

Droog touched the boy’s arm. “Ya tvoi Droog,” he said. I am your friend.

“Droog?” the boy said, looking up at him uncertainly.

“Droog,” Droog said. “I will go get help for you and come back. Do not worry.” The boy nodded blankly at the Russian words and Droog left to find help.

There was none. The only people he saw were either injured or fleeing and none would stop for him. A building collapsed behind him and the road back to the boy was blocked. It took him almost a whole day to pick his way through the rubble to get back to where the boy had been, but when he got there, the boy was gone.

Days and nights came and the fires eventually went out, leaving a deadly calm. People left but did not return and Droog was left alone. For months, he searched for the boy by the car, but never found him. Finally, having nowhere else to go, he went back to languish in the warehouse where he had been stored. There were thirty other bots that had survived. They were deactivated, though, and never replied when he spoke to them.

Years passed, then more years.

Droog waited and thought and walked around outside, searching for the boy. He learned about weather and matched experiences with the words stored in his programming. Then one day, a man came to the warehouse and got very excited when he saw Droog and the other bots. His name was Blake, Droog learned later, and he took Droog with him to a place with other humans and for the first time in his existence, Droog became useful.

Droog helped to find things. He was a scanner, although he could not report what he had found. There were other bots there, and sometimes they tried to translate for him. In this way, Blake rigged up lights on Droog’s shoulders to show the results of his scans. He lived in the community for a long time and during all that time, he kept searching for the Boy-by-Car, as he called him now, that first injured boy he had seen. He never found him, but he scanned every male of the approximately right age. He knew the boy’s bio-rhythmic signature and would know him, if he ever found him again.

Then Blake traded him to a man named Joseph Watson. By this time, Droog could understand English, but still could not speak it. He tried to force himself to speak but the knowledge of what he heard was stored in Russian and came out that way. He did not have a speaker that could have played the recorded bits of conversations he had heard over the years. And so, he heard and understood and languished in silence.

Joseph Watson lived alone and rarely saw other people. He mostly ignored Droog, treating him as just another machine. Droog would not have thought this was strange, but he saw how the other bots had been treated, those who could speak English. They had been companions, not tools. He tried every day to make English sounds, but the only things that come out were nonsense sounds or Russian.

Then came the night when Edward “the Squid” Morrison barged in at 4am and Joseph gave him Droog to save a disc of music. Droog went as he was ordered, exiting the cellar to wander with Edward out in the cold, hard world. Droog did not have emotions or preferences, but he understand, on some level, the idea of liking things. To the point that Droog could like anything, he liked traveling with Edward. Edward had a mission, although Droog did not know what it was. Droog had a mission too. He still searched for the Boy-by-Car. He had said he would come back with help and he still intended to.


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