Regular Romp is an interactive fiction activity over on our Twitch stream where I ask a regular a series of questions before turning their answers and a corruption of their username into a short story. Stop by twitch.tv/blainearcade if you’d like to participate.
According to the automatic calendar, the soft paper-turning fwip sound of which served as Zord’s alarm click, it was the six thousandth five hundredth and thirty second day of freedom. Everything the robot had done with those days was visible in their small apartment hidden beneath an active machining facility.
There was a large cylindrical battery in the corner, connected to most of the other devices by various colorful wires, some of which glowed. Its reserves meter was in the red, but only so much power could be siphoned from the factory without them noticing. Zord really needed to turn off the calendar’s page-flipping mechanism. Every time it turned the day over that was one more jolt of juice that could’ve powered a daydream that the robot no longer had.
They thought about it each morning and forgot about each night, lost in their perpetual journey of invention. The current project, spread out in pieces on the desk, was meant to be a false bird with solar panel wings. It could be sent out flying, gather some power, and return to nest atop the battery. Ozmick Zord was hard at work soldering one of the wings on with the tip of their finger, when they heard a rustling in their fireplace.
The flame was magical in nature, borrowed from the other world, and thus produced no heat or smoke. It was just to keep unwanted visitors out. Ozmick Zord had a feeling it wasn’t a mole passing through, just happening to find the robot’s charged pocket of air and ideas. They were proven right a moment later, when a creature barely larger than their hand cleared her throat.
“Ahem!” a tiny squeaky voice said. Zord continued soldering. “Hello? Ozmick? It’s me. Let me in.”
“I don’t know why you think revealing your identity would make me more likely to let you in,” Zord commented flatly.
“Uhh, because I made you,” the little voice shot back. “I can extinguish this flame in two shakes of an earwig; I’m just being polite. Let me in. I come with a job offer.” Zord gently lowered the bird wing, rolled over to the fireplace in their wheeled chair, and turned a knob. The flame died, allowing a green gremlan in a red and gray mechanic suit to step inside. She had a little bundle of blonde hair, with two pigtails that stood more like rabbit ear antennae.
“Yes, you made me,” Zord said, “but a human programmed me. If I was full of your code I’d just be moving boxes somewhere in your world or dispensing sodas. I don’t know how much is of me is nature versus nurture, but I know you didn’t provide any nurture.”
“Yeah, and the humans have been so kind to you,” she said with a roll of her eyes. “That battery’s looking awfully close to empty. Nobody give you any AAs for your birthday?” The two stared each other down for a moment.
The gremlan saw a rather odd robot patched together from human-made computers of the 1970s and 80s. Zord’s head was a black fishbowl screen that could display anything they wanted, but that was usually blank, occasionally filled by a screen saver of zooming white stars. The original shell was a bunch of awful grays and whites, so the gremlan had repainted it lovely shades of brass and lead. The gremlans, despite loving outdated computing technology, which worked best with magic, preferred the aesthetic of steampunk. Humans respected it a little more as well. As a result, a few useless decorative valves were glued across Ozmick Zord’s body as well.
Technology had been a strange roller coaster, now with ups and downs when it always used to be ups, thanks to the arrival of the gremlans in the human world. The industrious little creatures had seen the earliest human internet as something of a rail tunnel popping up in the side of their world. They shared a bit of magic and knowledge, but took far more. Usually the end result was aberrant creations like Zord, things incompatible with most software updates in either world.
The gremlan before Zord was the industrious Smithereen Jigglefuge Art, usually shortened to SJ. She had her clawed fingers in a number of budding industries, but no longer tinkered in invention. Her last effort slapped her and ran off, eventually finding itself under a factory crafting a bird by the light of a dying battery.
“I respect you,” SJ said. “I gave you a great name, Ozmick and you went and attached a surname. I use it, even though it’s stupid. I call you zord even though zords are a bunch of made-up robots from a stupid human kids’ show. The least you can do is turn down your firewall for me so I can get a word into that disk drive of yours!”
“Power Rangers wasn’t a kids’ show,” Zord defended, “It was a way of life. If you just….” The robot’s screen flashed with frustrated red Xs for a moment. “Never mind. What’s this job offer?”
“Okay, now we’re being civil. I got a stadium now. Name on it and everything. ‘The SJ Art Coliseum and Fun Theater’. Nice ring tone to it, right? Anyway, there’s a robot show booked there later today. The only problem is, there’s a cave system under the building and something’s living there. I’m afraid it might try to interrupt the festivities, like one of those monsters the Power Rangers fought. That’s why I thought of you. I want you to be my giant robot fist and smash this thing, quietly.”
“A robot show?” Zord repeated. “You mean where gremlans walk around with leashed machines showing off their paint jobs and polish? Showing off bodies like mine, but brains like toasters.”
“I know your opinion; I’m sensitive,” SJ insisted, holding a hand over her heart as if the statement had pierced it. “I didn’t make any of them; they’re just using my building. If you want pamphlet tarp about how machine slavery is bad on their heads after they leave, that’s your business. You up for a fight? I’ll pay you in power and fill that battery twice over.” Zord’s fishbowl head could see in all directions, so they didn’t have to turn to remind themselves of how low the meter was.
“What is this thing I’d be fighting?”
“You know when humans don’t keep their cords in order, just throwing them in boxes in the back of closets, acting surprised when they come out in a giant tangled ball?”
“It’s one of those, only it happened on our watch. Nobody knows how many cords are in there, just that it’s human-sized and agitating the space under my stadium. Don’t worry about feeling guilty; it doesn’t act intelligent. It’st just an electrified tumbleweed of rubber and headaches. We call it Tanglecord. So you want the championship bout?” SJ danced back and forth, fists raised, even though she’d never thrown a punch in her life.
“I don’t have much choice,” Zord admitted. There wasn’t even time to pretend they weren’t interested in the offer. “Let’s go.” The robot stood and dug around in a few cluttered drawers, searching for a useful weapon. They settled on an earlier invention, the sturdy spool, which was excellent at separating and rolling up cords of all different makes and sizes. Zord attached it to a hook around their waist.
“Excellent!” SJ snickered. “Get in. My roommate will go over the plan with you while I take us there.” She pulled out a floppy disk and slid its metal panel open, revealing the patch of data magic. Zord reached out and touched it, and was instantly gone, reformatted it into something that could be stored within a magical hard drive.
Anything could be converted to magical data, and that was how gremlans preferred to live whenever they weren’t busy working. It reduced living expenses essentially to nothing, as they could store themselves in disks that only needed to rent drawers as property.
Zord stepped over the threshold and into SJ’s clean apartment. All of the furniture had hand-knit coverings, likely gifts from elderly relatives that had decided their shaking fingers weren’t good enough for machines anymore. It was quite cozy, and though SJ was likely running back to the subterranean gremlan world, it barely shook the living space. SJ’s roommate wasn’t even spilling his bowl of lukewarm cricket leg soup.
“Oh, you’re here already,” the male gremlan said, popping up, letting a badly knit blanket fall to the floor. He set the soup aside, bent down like a dipping bird for one more slurp, and then grabbed some equipment from behind the couch. As data they existed on the same scale, so he could easily hand over the pair of white padded headphones and its coiled cord.
“What’s this for?” Zord asked.
“You din’t ask my name,” the gremlan said, sounding disappointed. His ears wilted a little. “I’m Terriboy Crawloot Jam. You can call me TC. I already know you’re Zord. Anyway, these are for us to interact with the stadium’s noise canceling system. It’s in the roof of the cave where Tanglecord is. We need to sneak into it and turn it on without that monster noticing. That way, nobody at the show above us will you fighting it.”
“Let me guess,” Zord said taking the headphones and placing them around their plastic-ribbed neck. “SJ knew this thing was down there and rather than pay to remove it, she tried installing sound canceling first, hoping the tangle would never hear anything moving over it.” TC nodded. “Typical. Why are you gremlans so short-sighted?”
“I’m the most short-sighted of all,” TC admitted. “I can’t even leave this disk most of the time. Lots of places are charging you just to walk on their sidewalks in the city. It’s only SJ’s kindness that I don’t have to pay rent.”
“Oh, sorry,” Zord said. “I guess we’re in the same boat then. I’m doing all this for a battery top-off.”
“Pact of the desperate?” TC suggested, holding out his hand. It was their only chance to shake, for as soon as they were out of the noise canceler Zord would be back to being a hundred feet tall in TC’s eyes. “You keep Tanglecord off me and I’ll keep it off you.” Zord shook, finding the terms agreeable even if there wouldn’t be much the gremlan could do to help once the brawl started.
There wasn’t much time left to pass before the door of the apartment opened on its own, into a portal of compacting reflective energies. SJ had likely popped the disk in the noise canceling machine. Her two employees stepped out and entered a massive digital facility that mostly looked the empty halls of a Greek god. There were soaring pillars everywhere, and the few framed pictures were so tiny in comparison to the walls that they just seemed like freckles or ticks interrupting its perfection.
They walked in silence for close to a minute before finding a single switchboard desk, most of its cables moving on their own. TC sat down in the chair, look at the mess as if it were a pile of marinara sauce with some finger swirls in it.
“Do you know what you’re doing?” Zord asked. The chamber shook.
“I’ll figure it out,” TC said, clearly unsure of himself. “Nobody was willing to come in here what thing down there, but like we agreed… desperate pact.” The hall shook again. “You better get going. There’s a connection to the speaker at the end of the hall. You can broadcast yourself through it and you should go back to physical format. You might land right in front of Tanglecord though. I’ll just… handle this…” He touched a few of the switchboard cords, recoiling when one struck at him like a cobra. “Go!”
Zord had no choice but to leave him, lest Tanglecord rip the noise canceler out of the ceiling before the fight even began. The robot ran for another minute, eventually seeing a giant circular sieve of white metal and plastic. Traveling as sound data was not routine, so the robot braced themselves before diving straight into it without slowing down.
The hall was gone in an instant, replaced by an even wider cavern full of its own flowing columns of rippling stone. Zord held out their padded feet as they fell, wondering if their limbs could even take the distance. They got their answer when they landed upright but heard a crack on the knee joint of their left leg. Rather, they should’ve heard the crack. Instead the air was filled with the softest crackling, like burned feathers being crushed to powder by a passing snail.
Zord looked up to see several rounded speakers nearly as big as their own body, painted in white, throbbing with the white noise that had canceled out the sounds of impact. TC had done it; the machine was on. They could now battle in silence. It seemed Tanglecord was just as impatient as any gremlan, for it didn’t try to hide.
A yellow LAN cable spiraled around a column of stone and tightened. It was joined by a black one tipped with a European plug. Two more. Five more. The bundle pulled itself into view. Tanglecord was even bigger than Ozmick Zord, nearly as heavy as a horse. The ball of knots and sparks had no discernible face, with loose ends rising off it everywhere like primed scorpion tails. Zord didn’t trust SJ when she said the thing wasn’t intelligent, at least not until they’d seen for themselves. Unfortunately Tanglecord wouldn’t provide even a moment for an attempt at communication. Even if it could speak, Zord couldn’t hear anything over the white noise.
Tanglecord lunged at Zord, immediately wrapping several tendrils around the robot’s arms and legs. They wanted to be human to the creature, perhaps just tie it down, but they couldn’t stop themselves from remembering all the epic battles they’d seen on Power Rangers. Valor always won when a zord fought hard and shed many sparks.
The robot had no energy sword to summon or transformation to declare, but they had the super spool they’d brought with them. It took all their strength, but they reached an arm down to their belt and unclipped it. The device whirred to life, hungry for any cable that got too near.
“I’m a zord!” Ozmick shouted, knowing ti was impossible for anything to hear. “I reinvented myself, from tool to scholar! You will not defeat me!” Zord pressed the spool against the knotted rubbery flesh of Tanglecord. A real zord fight, worthy of the reruns, would’ve been filled with the sound of explosions and sword clashes, but all Ozmick got was the churning silence as the spool grabbed a few cables and started to roll them up.
Tanglecord panicked at the sight of this, stretching out to two more columns and pulling itself up off the ground, taking Zord with it. The robot struggled against its clutches, but they gained height quickly. They were already near the ceiling, feeling the throbbing air from the noise canceler. If Zord fell now they would snap a leg right off.
There was nowhere to go but up, and Tanglecord knew this as well. Its loose ends grabbed at the speakers, using them to support its weight. Pieces of the machine started to give way. Zord panicked. TC could’ve still been in there, subject to deletion and death if the machine was destroyed. The robot struggled, pressing the spool deeper and deeper, but there were just too many cords. The roll was almost full and Tanglecord still had plenty of body to fight with.
Sparks flew. They were going through the roof no matter what. Tanglecord gouged at the stone with its sharpest ends. The white noise died, allowing Zord to hear the crumbling of the rock and their own pained grunts. Tanglecord’s tendrils whipped and snapped through the air audibly.
Things went dark when they were between the noise canceler and the ground of the stadium, but a shaft of light broke through quickly. Zord heard the panicked shrieks and squeaks of fleeing high-society gremlans. Sj had done a decent job decorating the place. With its ad-covered bleachers and multiple sky-boxes hanging from massive chains like old wick lanterns, it definitely looked like the kind of fancy place where monsters and giants wouldn’t burst out of the ground in the middle of a show.
Yet they did. Tanglecord and Zord flopped out onto the artificial turf. It was done. There was no way Zord was getting paid for this now, and TC might’ve paid with his life. The robot felt a surge of fury, like anyone who fought tangled cords to a standstill; their domed head turned to patterns of blazing blue fire. The robot managed to get their feet under them and rise. Tanglecord came along for the ride, jabbing at Zord, cracking their head.
Knowing there was a hole just behind them, Zord leapt backward. Tanglecord’s bottom flopped into their entry point. That convinced the monster to release its grip on Zord and stabilize itself against the ground. It could’ve been Zord’s only opportunity to fight back without getting swallowed up, but the spool was already full. Their internal eyes absorbed their surroundings, looking for the glint of anything sharp enough to serve as a blade.
Zord saw exactly what the gremlan world was. It was the same as the human one, no matter how small they were, no matter how much dirt was overhead, and no matter how much magic ran through the wires alongside the voltage. They fled from their creations, obviously lacking a single thought for how this battle had come to be.
SJ built Zord to deal with humans, to just be part of transactions across worlds. It was a child, full of wonder, that had snuck in a programmed soul. Tiny robots, just as empty as Zord was supposed to be, wandered around the turf, dragging their leashes, abandoned the moment trouble had started. They didn’t even have survival instinct. They were thimbles the gremlans had poured wealth into just to show them off. Meanwhile their fellows, TC, were stuck living as data, unable to afford walking in a public street.
Zord wasn’t allowed money or rights or the power they needed to survive. They had to turn their mind to craft, to the wall of logic and the chisels needed to pass through. The super spool. It could still be the answer. The abandoned showbots could be part of it too. Everything they’d dehumanized was part of Ozmick Zord’s family.
The robot rapidly pressed several buttons on the spool, reprogramming it. The tangle had given up hundreds of cords serving various purposes, some of them had to fit the showbots. When the new program was set Zord aimed the device at a tiny ambling thing of gold and copper. One cord shot out and attached to its data port.
Zord transferred memories and purpose via the connection. The toy saw what it was but, more importantly, what it could be. It could be a brave zord fighting to protect innocent life. The program took. The robot backed up, quickly finding the wall of the bleachers with their back, but aiming at other showbots all the while, shooting out more cords, dispensing more souls.
Tanglecord was nearly upon them once again, but Zord now wield a small army, looking like a dog walker with a hundred leashes. The tiny showbots charged Tanglecord, diving into its loose flesh, helping to separate its knots. The beast cried out, but its form was already melting into a loose pile. Perhaps it had been sitting in a corner, knotting for years, but it had never faces the ingenuity of Ozmick Zord before.
Its roar faded as did the chaos it caused. Zord saw something at its center as the last cords fell away. They were ready to punch it, to smash whatever nasty thing had been the core, but the robot pulled their fist back at the last moment. It was an elderly gremlan; they couldn’t even support themselves on their weak legs. They were tangled up in a tiny ball of wire covered in flashing lights, weak as stars near suffocation.
“Thank you,” the little gremlan squeaked, reaching out with their one free hand and stroking Zord’s knuckle. “I was just trying to put up my holiday lights.” Their eyes closed. Zord couldn’t tell if it was death or fatigue, but all of a sudden they couldn’t stand it anymore. Organic life and machines always at odds, always having to serve each other’s purposes. How many had fallen just to protect this show? Perhaps TC. Perhaps this elderly soul just looking to light a lonely day.
How many had been born? Sixty-five showbots were at the end of Zord’s cords, sharing his program, already incapable of going back to being inanimate without being dismantled.
The bravest gremlans in the crowd started crawling all over the remains of Tanglecord. Zord backed away as if they were roaches. A few picked up the well-lit victim from its center and carried them off for medical attention, but most were clawing and picking at the cords, salvaging any rare or valuable ends to them.
If they could claim salvage, so could Zord. They pulled their new companions along, climbing the bleachers to leave the stadium. SJ was suddenly there, running as fast as she could up the steps, screaming.
“Where are you going you lousy building! Look what you did to my place! You owe me! And give those showbots back!”
“I don’t owe you anything,” Zord declared, “and neither do they.” The robot grabbed the stadium’s lip. They peeked over and saw the vast expanse of a gremlan city, human-scale holiday lights hanging between the spires of the tallest buildings.
“Where are you going?” SJ cried.
“Somewhere without power,” Zord whispered. With one gentle pull they lifted all the showbots by their leashes and lowered them over the side of the stadium, to the ground. The robot clicked one last button, separating them. They scattered in all directions, looking for freedom and monsters to fight.