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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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