(reading time: 1 hour, 14 minutes)
After roaming haphazardly for an hour, Jones directed Maggie towards the area where they had found the food store; he still wondered about that glint of robot skin. With no home and no job, the small mystery turned his curiosity into a ravenous school of piranha. It was a ridiculous riddle to waste time on, as if someone died in the middle of a joke and left him no punch line. It was better to investigate that though than pick up where he left off before settling in Brightside.
He dismounted Maggie and observed their surroundings. Brightside was six miles southeast now, only visible from the tops of four story coin piles. A huge cache of bundled dollars had been built into a temporary shelter to one side of the food storage locker in much the same way the Inuit people had built igloos. Someone had taken what was left in the stores, camped briefly, and moved on.
The river running through Brightside would have a few tributaries nearby, so perhaps the pig lived along its banks. With paper money absorbing the rain and poorly manufactured coins poisoning puddles with heavy metals, most animals learned to stick close to running water.
“I thought I’d found them all Mags,” Jones intimated. He scratched his head. Brightside’s robot population was very small. Aside from messenger robots arriving from other settlements, only three regularly showed themselves. There was a banker with a copper head that would come by and beg them to use money so he could count it, sometimes holding up a cardboard sign like a street person. Sometimes he would run to Jones and urge him to open a savings account, offering testimonials from the local animals that had decided to bank with him. Jones would shove the flimsy thing to the ground. Each time its head smacked into a rock he hoped it would shut down. He proved to be as resilient as money, appearing again no matter how much people tried to forget him.
The other two were casino-owned card dealers. Some prankster had painted evil twirling moustaches on them once when they were recharging. The hum of cooling fans on their heads annoyed the gamblers, but no one could shuffle a deck faster than the machines.
Jones had investigated all of them. They were annoying relics, but not guilty. He’d seen hundreds more sinister than those, but never the one that had been so sinister to him. So sinister that it had put a crack in the middle of his life that just grew and grew until everything split in half. That robot… that one was red and black. Leaving Brightside stirred up that old drive. When he had a house and a weakling sidekick to protect there were reasons to ignore it, but now that sidekick had gone and screwed things up. Now he was in the wind again and he could almost smell the evil, still out there and still free. He could smell it but he couldn’t pick up a direction.
No, Jones thought. I’m done with that part of life. Can’t plow through a dead end. I’m not picking up that cold trail again. As he thought this the image of the cell phone he had packed away in his bag came up. It beeped and buzzed in his head. If she calls I’ll pick it up again…or I won’t pick up. Not my fault if she stares at dead ends like they’re going to pop open like picture books and bring everything back. You have tuh work for your smiles. You have tuh earn them. And you can’t earn them on salted earth.
Maggie’s padded feet sent coins skidding across each other. Bored with Jones when he was lost in his own head, she wandered toward the stream she could hear for a drink. Jones smiled and ran after her, tugging on her tail and making a sound like a train whistle. She responded by playfully knocking him over with her trunk. She opened her mouth wide and trumpeted, resuming her pace. Jones chuckled and pulled himself off the ground, rubbing a new bruise on his hip. Got to remember she’s not a pup.
Sklush. The sound of a splash brought him to attention. He rounded the coin pile he’d fallen in to find Maggie filling her nose with fresh water. The edges of the stream were almost clear of money, plenty of hooves and paws having ground the coins deep into the mud. Flecks of metal in the sediment made the water sparkle. The speed of the stream had eliminated any ripples from whatever had splashed. Jones listened to Maggie dipping her trunk in. It was too loud to be that. He listened for anything other than Maggie’s heavy breaths, like the sound of collapsing haystacks, and moving water. The landscape was still. While Jones waited, muscles frozen but poised, he went over a few things. Six steps to Maggie, to Charybdis. Fully loaded. No coins for reload on stream bank. Two ways out: run back or jump in.
The continued silence convinced him he didn’t need these thoughts. Perhaps the splash had just been a fat trout’s leap. Happy to join his steed, Jones knelt next to her and slurped water from the stream with funneled lips. It tasted like iron, but still clean and refreshing. He stared down to the rocky bottom and let his eyes wander up towards the stream’s deep middle. The pig’s gaze met his through the water’s distortion.
Jones leapt up, feet splashing like dropped bombs, and slid his rifle out from the holster under Maggie’s neck. Aiming proved difficult with the ripples, but not impossible. The shimmering shape of the swine could still be made out. Now slightly nervous, Maggie backed up a few paces and glanced around with watery eyes. No coins hit the water. Jones instead held his position, waiting for the sunken witch pig to move. Lousy metal-skinned, water-breathing, fast-sinking witch pig, he thought. As the watery chaos settled, details of the pig were revealed. It stared right into Jones, with no rising bubbles to indicate it still breathed. Yet it lifted a hoof. Yet it walked. The pig made its way slowly up the streambed, towards Jones. Charybdis only moved horizontally, as Jones shuffled backward and kept aim. His peripheral vision noted the bent length of metal jutting from the pig’s stumpy neck like a drinking straw.
The pig’s head emerged silently as it entered the shallows. Two streams of water poured out of its nose. Its tightly shut mouth unsealed and panted heavily. The pink skin was still visible through a light layer of brown fur, meaning this pig’s population had only been feral for a few generations. The eyes, which looked focused from underwater, now looked panicked. Still, the pig didn’t squeal; it continued to march mechanically forward. When fully out of the water its back half, seemingly controlled not by the pig but by an invisible weight on its hips, dropped into a sitting position.
The metal appendage twitched and straightened out, rising over the pig’s head. It was tipped with a doorknob shape that popped open into a chrome funnel, aiming at Jones like a thirsty satellite dish looking for a signal. Deciding whether to aim at the pig’s head or the funnel was so difficult that Jones switched targets every half second.
Something else unfurled from the funnel’s center. Three metal tentacles emerged like flower stamen and curled around each other. The three shapes knotted together, forming little bumps and lines. The bumps became eyes. The lines became a mouth that extended way back into the funnel. The face appeared incapable of expression, but not communication: the kind of face a cat would have when expecting to be fed.
“What are you?” Jones shouted without lowering his gun. The robot’s thin mouth opened. With a reassuring electronic voice it responded.
“I’m a doctor.”
The chance to apologize still had not come. Digz had stood for hours, staring at the dot where Jones had become too far away to see. He waited for his friend to come back and let him apologize. He waited for Jones’s joke about leaving to end. The sky was darkening and Jones still hadn’t ridden back. He couldn’t leave me to fend for myself, Digz thought. He’s too nice for that. Jones wouldn’t be Jones if he did stuff like that.
Without Jones watching over his shoulder, anything in the town with a mouth might eat him alive. Kids throwing rocks were too much for him to handle, especially after that one to the cheek had shattered half his teeth. Digz rubbed his jaw and remembered spitting out all those white chips as if his mouth was a marble mine. Tears were welling up when the voice surprised him.
“He’s not coming back,” it said. Digz turned his head. Brittle Star was seated a few feet behind him. His approach had been silent. His limp arms sat between his limp legs. The cut on his head seemed to be healing rapidly.
“How do you know?” Digz snapped.
“I’ve heard about him. He’s an endangered species.”
“He’s a person, like me. And you… I think.”
“He’s an optimist. A fading trait in a world like this.”
“What’s your point?”
“Only one way he can stay happy and it involves putting space between himself and people like you.”
“Why are you here?” Digz seethed. His sadness was catching fire and looking for fuel.
“I was wondering if you’d made a decision about my offer.” Brittle leaned his head back. Instead of falling to the ground, his back stayed slanted. His torso writhed back and forth, turning him around and carrying him in front of Digz. Brittle’s head and limbs lolled forward uselessly while his hips somehow held his shoulders up. The impossible movements put the faint taste of vomit in the back of Digz’s throat.
“Are you magic?” Digz asked.
“No, I just have secrets. Thoughts on my offer?”
“The offer doesn’t matter. I’ll be dead in a few hours. Can’t rule if my throne’s a grave.”
“I assume you’re referring to that unconscious officer over there and his cohorts. Will you consider my offer if I protect you?” Digz, unsettled by Brittle’s head hanging on his shoulder, looked off into the sky. The orange of the setting sun was succumbing to purple and blue. Thoughts of death and dripping blood spattered Digz’s mind. Officer Silver started to snore.
“No offense, but I don’t think you have the best right hook,” Digz commented.
“Well, I won’t protect you directly,” Brittle said. “We’ll go get a robot.”
“The Orange Circle Casino owns Brightside’s bots. They don’t look like fighters either.”
“I have a different one in mind,” Brittle said. His body twisted onto his stomach and started slithering into town. Digz hesitated, but one grunt from the unconscious officer sent him following Brittle’s winding trail.
When they reached the recycled wall that protected Brightside, Digz thought Brittle might just tunnel under it. He looked like he could do that: just vanish under a rock like some garden skink. Instead he turned and followed the bottom edge of the wall. Digz followed suit, keeping his head low and hoping none of the lookouts spat off the side and noticed him.
The pair followed every curve in the wall, working their way around to the main gates. A group of traveling merchants was being ushered in by the guards. Three young men in the group pulled a cart filled with rusty pans, plastic bottles full of colorful oils separated into layers, and one elderly woman who coughed violently. Her dead eyes noticed the two shady figures nearby, but she said nothing.
“I hope they don’t roll over him,” Brittle commented, his head lolling to the side to get a better look beneath the cart.
“Roll over who?”
“Your new bodyguard.” Digz strained his eyes to discern the shape of something under the cart. The back end wheeled by, letting the dying light play across the metal form. Digz grimaced.
“That’s Pueblo’s messenger. What good will that do?” he asked.
“Just because the thick-skulled people of Pueblo used it as a messenger doesn’t mean that’s what it is. Look, the gate’s closing.” The two separated sections of wall slid back together. The guards atop the wall turned to watch Brightside’s visitors. “Now’s a good time,” Brittle said and slithered forward with nauseating speed. Digz caught up to him and knelt down at the broken robot’s head. “There’s an access slider on the left eye. Pull it down.”
With the same reluctance of touching a corpse, Digz reached down and slid the metal bump along the eye’s rim. Blip. The sound startled him like a snake hiss. The imitation man’s eye spun in the socket and lifted itself out with two lengths of metal. The disembodied eye, shaped like a soup can, inverted itself; a small keyboard was attached to the bottom. It beeped three more times before lighting the keys up.
“It’s even less broken than I thought,” Brittle said, staring down into its eye socket. “Just a few popped lights and a bum leg. It just overheated; they had it running too long.” He stared at Digz. “Well go ahead.” The letters on the keyboard taunted Digz. He knew the waxing moon shape was called a ‘C’. Or is it waning?
“I can’t type Mr. Star. All I know is cards and only the joker has so many letters.”
“Not a problem Digz. Hit the button that looks like a microphone and give it orders with your voice.” The button stood out from all the letters with its round shape and lines of sound emanating from the pictogram. Digz poked it. The keyboard crackled a little, like an insect waking from hibernation. He leaned in, not sure how softly to speak. His words fell in the eye socket: rocks into a wishing well.
“I need… You’ve got to protect me. Like Jones would.” The eye spun back around and popped into place. The blue lights in the imitation man’s head fired like cannons in an instantaneous mechanical sunrise. The color made Digz fear his eyes had just been struck by lightning. His new protector rose up. It stood quite capably even though it favored the undamaged leg. “If this isn’t a messenger, what kind of robot is it?” Digz asked.
“It’s a problem solver,” Brittle said with a witch’s cackle dancing through the words.
“Can you believe the narcissism?” The question distracted the engineer from his work.
“Aren’t you going to be late for your next delivery?” he asked the truck driver who had posed the question. The pot-bellied driver shrugged.
“I wanted to see this. Not every day a man gets to see the first dollar ever made.” The engineer turned back around and finished screwing the metal template into an exposed panel.
“Only the first Oregon dollar,” he said with a roll of his eyes. The driver marveled at the machinery attached to the loading dock. Great black and yellow arms on wheeled bases rolled around in front of it on unseen tracks. They were putting the finishing touches on the mint’s printing press. He’d been lucky enough to deliver the first metal plates with the currency’s design etched into them.
He thought about using them to counterfeit cash, but all that popped into his head with that word was an image of someone pressing putty onto a newspaper to lift the print. Besides, the government sent a creepy robot and two human guards to watch over the plates. He never could have gotten a moment alone with them. The robot stood silently next to all the men. Its eyes photographed its new home. The driver looked at the plate. The president’s face looked back at him with silver teeth.
“I just can’t believe the narcissism. Not only does the guy think he’s saving the country, but he commemorates himself before anything is fixed. Hell I drove it here, maybe my name should be on there somewhere.” He was having fun. The joke kept going and he dug out a pocket knife to help make the next punch line. “I’ll just go ahead and etch it in the corner.”
He took a joke step forward. Someone present, who didn’t understand jokes, threw out his metal arm and knocked the driver down. The robot had to take any threat against his facility very seriously. Feeling threatened, the machine edged toward the template and grabbed the screwdriver out of the engineer’s hand. The human stared dumbly, like his pacifier had been snatched from his mouth.
Having screwed the plate in much faster than the human, the new caretaker of the Oregon mint ordered them to leave. Their glares bounced off his metal skin harmlessly. This left him alone with the facility, so he ascended some stairs to a little control room and threw the necessary switches. The mint dimmed. There wasn’t enough light for a person to see, but the caretaker saw it all clearly. Sparks made huge rollers spin. A cottony sheet seven feet wide poured out of one machine and into another. Money was being made. The caretaker was helping manufacture wealth. Birthing gold. Impossible for humans but not for him. An image of himself, an internal reflection powered by programs bouncing off programs, was positioned, god-like, over the bickering doughy humans. The image rubbed its fingers together, creating sparks that rained down and transfigured into gold nuggets as they hit the ground. The humans snatched them up like beggars. An imitation thought occurred.
Maybe I’m God, the caretaker thought. At least their God. A red hot locomotive of an image rammed through the simulated day dream. It was an iron exclamation from the back of his programming. No. I am Oregon 2. Demigod at best. Administrator in body of god. Oregon 1 is my god.
Coming back to reality, Oregon 2 stared at the ceiling like a human would a cathedral. He remembered that while he interfaced with humans and watched the humming of wealth being born, another was making it all happen. A robot with no body, integrated into the building itself, powered the machines. He was here to do this master’s bidding. Oregon 2’s finger opened up and he plugged it into the machine he’d just switched on. Then he had a conversation with god.
No human eyes watched as the two discussed money, which they understood, and economy, which they knew didn’t exist. If organic eyes had been there, all they would see was a rigid humanoid shape, painted black and red, plugged into the wall.
The doctor attached to the pig’s neck scanned Jones from top to bottom.
“A fine specimen,” he said, more to himself than the specimen. “Wouldn’t need too many adjustments. Probably just a little plaque shaved off the arterial walls and some compulsive tooth fluoridation.” The doctor remembered this new kind of specimen would, more or less, understand him. “I’m sorry, how rude of me. Would you like your lifespan increased by an average of eighteen point three years?” Jones didn’t lower his rifle; instead he spoke past it, ready to punctuate any sentence with a coin.
“Worry about your own lifespan,” he threatened. With so many insane questions to choose from, Jones chose a bacon-flavored one. “Why were you drowning that pig?” The doctor looked taken aback, retracting with a winding sound like a wary snake.
“I was doing no such thing. I may not have been designed for this type of patient but I know the mechanics of drowning. I filtered oxygen from the water and pumped it into his bloodstream. All proper channels were blocked. The only thing flooded was his nasal cavity. I would never endanger a patient. The Hippocratic Oath is even above the three laws! Do you have health insurance?”
“Well why was he drowning himself then?”
“Nothing was being drowned. I heard you coming and tried to protect my patient by hiding him.”
“How did you get him tuh go in?”
“I use a case by case judgment program to determine when full neural control is necessary.” There was one more question before Jones would drop his guard. He asked it with angry flecks of spittle flying.
“Do you know a robot about as tall as me? Black and red skin?”
“I have not encountered such an automaton. Do you have any family history of Alzheimer’s?” Jones let the strange name roll around in his head. It sounded like some grizzled general with a frizzy struck-by-lightning beard. His father had made him memorize the family tree back six generations; none of them had served under a commander Alzheimer.
The pig stepped forward. Its eyes were filled with helpless confused fear. The steps were calculated at perfect angles while the swine’s steaming mind tried to shove escape energy back into its limbs. The beast couldn’t make itself budge. All it could do was squeal in its own head. Jones’s sympathy for robots constantly ran on empty, but he took quick notice of the pig’s suffering. He saw the eyes and felt a dripping pain in the back of his conscience.
“For Seinfeld’s sake, stop it!” he urged the doctor.
“The pig’s in pain. Can’t you see it? He’s scared out of his ham.”
“My patient’s stress levels are higher than optimal. He doesn’t understand I’m trying to help him with his daily health concerns. I’ve tried to address it with some relaxing chemical treatments but I just don’t know enough about porcine biochemistry.”
“So leave him alone!”
“I can’t. I need to have a patient. The flow of his blood powers me, like a waterwheel.” The pig’s expression ate away at Jones’s heart. The image of a still living boar skewered on a meat hook haunted him. He’d seen the creature during his travels, hoisted up in a town square. It bled from the eyes, the side, and its hooked ankle, squealing and thrashing violently. The poor thing coughed up some quarters it had probably ingested with a mouthful of slop: the most gruesome piñata ever seen. The coins, coated in reddish-yellow slime, landed on his shoes. Children laughed at the squeals and stuck their fingers between their nostrils, pushing up and oinking. Jones shot it in the head. Then the children screamed.
“You should have been doing that before!” he had yelled like his father. He’d had the sudden urge to put the townsfolk, weaponless, in a pen with a healthy angry boar. That was ages ago, but he felt just as guilty now, watching the animal suffer through unseen metallic manipulations.
“Isn’t there something you can do?” he asked the little metal doctor that looked like a heron’s neck.
“I’m not a veterinary unit. I was designed for human use. There’s nothing I can do to force the pig to calm down except show it some images from the internet, but I doubt that would work.” Jones lowered Charybdis. Maybe the ground under him was just some dream. It was just the blanket he gripped in a fit of delirium. Internet. There was no way he wasn’t vacationing at the Wild Fantasy Inn. The internet was gone. Done for. The weight of the economy crashed through the sky and ripped its thought-fabric to shreds.
“You have the internet?” he asked in a just-hit-by-the-falling-moon tone of voice.
“Well of course. I need to file all health updates with the administration site. It’s in my programming.”
“Is there internet here right now!?” Jones dropped his gun and began pawing at the air. He craned his neck up, expecting to see something akin to the northern lights. His misconceptions and exaggerations, stoked by fairy tales, flew out of him like a flashover fire through a screen door. “I’ve heard it needs passwords. Am I in danger without one? Will it infect me with a virus? Am I on Youtube? Yes, I can feel it… the bodiless eye is on me isn’t it? The anonymous hordes are watching me on Youtube. Please turn it off. We can discuss in private. I won’t hurt you or your patient I promise.” Jones dropped to his knees and clasped his hands together even though prayer was foreign to him. He gave Maggie a frantic hand signal and she too dropped to the ground, causing a pile of magenta checks to slide into the water. The doctor’s blank face-like device concealed his sly thoughts.
“You know,” he said as if dangling a slice of pepperoni just above a dog’s reach, “if you were my patient you would have internet access.”
“But… how? You need a video screen or a phone for that… and even those can’t find the internet anymore,” Jones questioned.
“Those devices don’t have enough intelligence to look for new service providers on their own. There are still plenty of mainframes, servers, and wireless routers keeping things going in the continental U.S. As far as a screen, you wouldn’t need one. Once integrated, I can shine little bits of light into your eyes’ rods and cones, making you see things that aren’t physically there.”
“Like… Like encyclowikis? And the fabled laughing lions?”
“Well I don’t know what laugh… Oh. Lolcats. Yes. I’m sure you’ll find better uses for your time though.” Jones didn’t think it would be a waste of time. His mother used to tell him how the laughing lions spoke a language all their own and how they could walk across ceilings. When asked why he’d never seen one she would say:
“They prowled the internet, which was buried in money like everything else. Even if it was still here you wouldn’t see them though; it’s invisible and so is everything that lives there.” The internet was Jones’s first idea of a unifying force. It was everywhere. Everything man had ever done, said, or lusted after was in it. And if it had been around this whole time it was probably still recording. Recording everything Jones had ever looked for.
“Does it have,” he started, afraid to finish the question, “maps? Can it show me where people are? Cities? Robots?”
“All that and more. I just need to be plugged in.” The doctor pulled the pig forward with invisible puppet strings. A panicked squeal bled through its forcibly closed mouth.
Jones looked at the spot where the doctor connected to the pig’s neck. There was no scabbed blood or discoloration. The skin looked healthy. The muscles around it weren’t twitching or drooping. The pig wasn’t in control though. Its blood pressure was balanced, its cholesterol was low, its stomach acid level was within acceptable boundaries, but it wasn’t free. It was wrapped in chains of agony, always pulled in the direction it didn’t want to go.
“If I let you do it you’ll just control me. You’ll use your ‘botics tuh bend my knees, bow me down in front of whatever you worship.” Jones picked up Charybdis and rose to his feet. Maggie stayed down, enjoying their rest. What am I thinking? Giving the helm tuh a robot. Why’d I even consider? An intelligent shadow crawled out from under a door in his mind. It whispered things: things mostly locked away. Because he has the internet. Because the bodiless eye can show you her. Or the black and red one. Or Fortis. Everything you want. The shadow retreated as Jones blasted angry light at it. I don’t want those things anymore. I want tuh be happy. Everyone deserves happiness. The doctor straightened out. Jones was reminded of someone trying to correct their posture and clear their throat.
“I would do no such thing,” the robot countered. “Maintaining free will is an absolute must for human mental health. I have to control the pig because it doesn’t know what’s good for it any more than your elephant does.”
“My rifle’s a Charybdis model. I’ve never heard of Lelifint.”
“Your steed… the animal’s name is elephant.”
“Her name is Maggie.”
“And what’s yours?”
“Well it’s nice to meet you. I’m Dr. Heart. By your side… for every beat.” A little jingle played after the robot finished. It was an annoying tune with whistles and flutes. “Sorry about that. It happens automatically when I repeat the company slogan.”
He can’t be trusted, Jones thought. A feeling, not unlike a fledgling bird trying to flutter its way out of his heart, pecked at him. Was he really going to pass up the internet? Wasn’t it worth the risk to have something in your head that would actually answer most of the questions that tend to just bounce around in the skull? Everything I ask… answered by everyone who ever lived. I need a failsafe. Something as determined as the Doc. Something mechanical. Something…
Jones looked at his rifle. He dropped down to his knees again and delicately laid the gun against the river bank. It sank the littlest bit into the mud. There was a crescent-shaped switch above the trigger. Jones flipped it. The Charybdis popped open like a briefcase, revealing a cross-section of its inner workings. Little bolts of static jumped between the magnets like salmon launching themselves up a waterfall. Jones placed his finger on a gray wire and traced it to its source: a gray box. The rifle leader. It looked like an ancient chest drawn out from a spider-filled attic. Since Jones and his family had never used it, dust and grime had accumulated over it. One maroon-brown stain flowed over the side and had seeped into the leader’s crease. Jones stuck his index fingernail into the crease. Little flecks of the stain came off like paint chips.
This looks like blood, Jones thought before remembering his more pressing task. He pinched the crease, opening the leader’s top half the same way the Charybdis had opened. The top half had a screen while the bottom half had a keyboard. The leader now resembled a cross between a woman’s compact and a laptop. The keys lit up with blue silhouettes. A white line shot across the screen like a starting point for some marathon, bending this way and that, filling in pixels as it went. When the last pixel was in place the words ‘Rifle Leader Operational’ slid across the screen continuously like a stock ticker.
Whatever had dripped onto it and created the brown stain appeared not to have damaged the computer inside. This many years and it still ticks. No wonder those behemoths out in the Riches are still belching bucks. A circular port emerged from the leader’s side and pointed up like a chimney. With knees getting sore from all his weight, Jones switched to a frog-like position on the ground and looked at Dr. Heart.
“This can be your remote control,” he said.
“I don’t understand,” the robot replied. Even the pig looked confused.
“My gun’s got a little computer in it. I never use it but it seems tuh work okay. You put a shut-down signal in here,” Jones said and poked the leader’s keyboard, accidentally typing the word rfgt. “I’ll test it so I know I can trust you. Then if you ever try and grab the reins I can stop you. You do that and I’ll be your patient.” The doctor made the pig stick one of its front legs in the air; it took Jones a few seconds to understand why, but when he did he smiled. He grabbed the leg and shook it up and down, which rocked the pig like a chair with wobbly legs.
“Deal,” they said in unison.
It throbbed dully, like a mountain range growing under his skin. Officer Silver rubbed his cheek gently.
“Someone hit me in the face,” he said, dumbfounded. Jones’s foot was the culprit, but Silver’s ego convinced him it was Maggie’s foot. Only something that big, with feet that big, could take him down. He lifted his right arm. The sleeve was torn and a bunch of coins were stuck to his skin; they fell off one by one, leaving reddish imprints like patterns washed into a bar of soap. “I’m on the ground,” he added stupidly. After rocking forward and having his paunch get in the way a few times, Silver rolled to the side and forced himself to stand with a pushup.
His fellow officers were gone; no doubt the beast had swallowed them whole. A few moments was all he needed to regain his composure, especially since he never had much composure to begin with. The man walked like a bag of marbles being shaken. Silver sometimes worried his love handles wouldn’t be able to take a particularly long flight of stairs and might break off if he attempted one.
The moronic tone in his recovering voice stuck around long enough for him to spin on his dazed axis and say ‘This is that Jones turd’s place.’ He walked over to the coin-buried hut and forced the steel door open, breaking the rusty handle off in the process. Silver tossed it aside and peeped in.
A card table was propped up nearby with rows of coins arranged neatly on it by size and metal composition: two lines of little copper octagons, three of gold circles, four of tin squares with triangular holes in the middle, and a penny. An old-fashioned oil can with a tarnished spout looked like it could use a taste of its own medicine. Over the table there hung a hand drawn map on recycled paper. There was enough light to see the design of the American flag showing through from the back. Sixteen red X’s dotted the landscape in a rough line that terminated with a red circle around Brightside. The phrase She could be anywhere! was scrawled angrily across the otherwise unmarked bottom portion of the map.
The breeze Silver let in pulled a snake of dust off the map and made it flap against the wall. It blew up so high that light from the window behind it poured in. A row of dead eyes welcomed Silver to their tomb, making him squeak like an old wet shoe. Not dead… imitation. No… wait… both. A dumpster worth of robot corpses was lined up against the opposite wall in sitting positions. Three of them had holes blasted through their heads. One of the holes Silver was sure he could put his forearm through.
One of the victims was a robotic mannequin originally designed to strike poses in the newest most chic clothing. Now its head poked out of a garbage bag and one arm was blackened and bubbled like it had slipped on a tar pit glove. Another monstrosity, with wheels sticking out everywhere like jewelry, was missing its chest plate; the blue innards looked frozen.
I bet that’s what lungs look like when you get ‘monia and die, Silver thought. Jones was a homicidal maniac. Who knew? Every tooth in his happy smile was a closet door hiding a skeleton. At least he took his urges out on machines. Like Daddy used to, Silver thought, remembering the way his father would march in after a hard day of work and find just enough strength to punt the mechanical dog that liked to charge its solar panels on the heat-swallowing brick path leading to their front door. It was designed to look like a terrier, so it had some fake flesh padding the frame, which, unfortunately for it, protected the elder Silver’s foot. Like punching a pillow. Jones must have been angry enough to shred a hotel’s worth of pillows. The dead robots almost seemed to call out to Silver, voices echoing through their empty eye sockets like banshees wailing from inside a dark cavern.
This could’ve been you, they said. If you had pissed him off a little more he would have snapped. The smile would have stayed though. He would smile and giggle as he shot you in the head and placed you here with us. Might even take a group photo. You were almost here! Almost dead! Thanks to Digz! Silver slammed the door shut so he could replace the unsettled feeling with anger. The voices stopped. Rage seeped in with a campfire’s warmth.
Break him open. Pop the pipsqueak’s head. Glue those chipped teeth to my badge. A slideshow of horrors, all starring Digz, ran through his head. He glanced around and remembered what had happened right after his dinner plans had chased them around Jones’s home, honking and bellowing like some giant bike horn. Jones’s secret stash of weapons was left open.
Since he was traveling light, Jones had left his exotic discoveries from moldering military barracks behind to rust with the coins. Silver dug his filthy hands into the pile, almost banging his head on the trunk-like flap of metal capping the hidden container. Each treasure was freckled with warning stickers.
Only to be operated by licensed individual
Safety is to remain on when deactivated
Property of U.S. military
To: Officer Silver, From: Santa Claus
Although that last one wasn’t actually on any of the labels, it was what Silver pictured them all saying. He was less literate than pigeons nesting in letters like P and O in burnt out signs; at least they recognized one word.
He jammed three pistols down the back of his pants, which would not likely be spotted as separate from his generally jiggling mass. As the cherry bomb to top his sundae of destruction, the officer, chuckling to himself, rested some kind of cylindrical launcher against his shoulder. There was no telling what it did, but he figured the four torpedo-like shapes in a bag next to it were the ammo. He slung that over his other shoulder and slammed the container shut. If he needed he could come back later, if there were still big enough pieces of Digz to shoot at.
Jones and Heart
Jones was surprised by the robot’s honesty. After confirming the agreement, a silvery tentacle, thin as spider silk, crept out of one of the pig’s nostrils. Dr. Heart told the recoiling Jones not to worry, that it was just a wire: an exceedingly thin limb he used to monitor the pig’s health. The words bounced off of Jones’s imagination, which pictured white earthworms crawling through his veins and his brains like so much topsoil. He had second thoughts. And third thoughts. Then a much bigger and shinier thought about the internet. The wire extended towards Charybdis and plugged into the leader’s little chimney.
CODE ACCEPTED, the device pinged.
The wire retracted. Jones approached the pig and grabbed it around the midsection. He reached out with one hand and clicked one of the leader’s assorted buttons. All life seemed to go out of Dr. Heart. The metal vines making up his face wilted into a disorganized tangle and the metal arm of his body flopped down like an antennae blown from a roof. The pig’s signals, signals to run, squeal, thrash, breathe erratically, and kick, finally made it over the tiny dams its physician had built into its nerves. Jones could barely hold it in place as it tried to drag them both across the ground, kicking dollars and coins into the air.
“Calm down bacon brain,” Jones growled as he tried to hold the pig steady. Dr. Heart couldn’t simply be switched back on. Even robots can play dead. To check the shutdown’s authenticity, he grabbed the limp metal body of the doctor and squeezed. He pretended to rip the doctor out of the pig. He mimed breaking the metal rod. If he wasn’t really shut down he would try and stop me, Jones hoped more than thought. There were more tests he could try. He could grab a knife and actually nick the robot’s metal skin. He could aim at it with Charybdis. Every second made him more trustworthy though, since the pig wasn’t taking a break. It was as if every muscle twitch the robot had ever suppressed in the pig was erupting at once.
The swine bounced and bucked, making Jones’s grip slip to the back legs. It was inches from escaping, trapped at the very tip like a sock clinging to the toes. “I’m trying tuh help you damn it,” Jones shouted. Even if the pig could understand it wouldn’t have heard over its own shrieking oink. Jones snagged Charybdis with his foot before the pig dragged them both away from the river bank. Maggie watched with mild interest. “No that’s alright, I got it,” Jones yelled at her sarcastically as the pig dragged him out of sight of her and back towards the unearthed food locker. He kicked at his gun, which was still open like a book. His heel pounded at the little keyboard. Nonsense words built on the leader’s screen. When his foot finally found the right button, and the six others around it, the pig’s struggles froze like a paused video.
Dr. Heart composed himself. A look of confusion and slight amusement, the first flicker of emotion Jones had seen on Heart’s face, appeared when he saw Jones: dirty, panting, and trailing drag marks all the way back to the river.
“I’m gone for thirty seconds and things go to pieces,” he mused. “Do you trust me now? Are we done torturing each other?” Jones’s first response was to pull some copper coins out of his shirt and drop them, each with a separate little clink, back to the ground.
“Yeah,” the words stalled in his mouth, “I guess so.” They’re not all so bad. Don’t be prejudiced, he silently commanded himself. Here was a sidekick that was forced, by its own programming, to keep his wellbeing in mind. Jones pictured Digz with tied hands and a stethoscope hanging off his head ridiculously like Maggie’s trunk. He wondered if this was exactly what he was looking for. Hadn’t his mother taught him the world always provided?
You just have to be clever enough, have just enough of a twinkle in your eye, to see the potential. Not a day after being horribly betrayed, here was a friend that would literally never leave his side, who would commit to him so much as to lay roots in him. Maybe everybody had had one, way back before the banks had overinflated and burst. Jones could feel his outlook improving. There was no better feeling: his fingers ached with eagerness to craft something, his eyes darted around in search of the brightest light, and his breath came calm, warm, and rhythmic. The world was on its way back up because of all the little things like this happening between the money. Jones stood up.
“Excellent,” Dr. Heart said. “Just remain still and I will perform the procedure. It should be completely painless.” Jones cracked his knuckles and stretched his legs. After all, they might feel like door hinges when there was a robot fiddling around with things. He might have to oil himself in the mornings or plug into a wall socket. He pictured the one body part that seemed able to plug into anything and cringed. You’ll see so many beautiful things, he reassured himself. Everything everyone ever saw and smiled about. Dr. Heart spun counter-clockwise. A mechanical voice, much more formal than the doctor’s conversational tone, spoke up.
“Disengaging. Receiver patient please stand by.” It was nothing like Jones expected. His mind’s eye had predicted hisses of steam and a river of blood along with the sound of metal scraping across bone. Instead, there was silence. Beneath the small metal plate that connected the two, thin wires like the one Jones had seen earlier started to wave like the arms of some aquatic plant in the tide. The plate separated and rose into the air. More wires: silvery tentacles like the hair hail clouds might grow. Each wire joined to one of its shining neighbors beneath the plate, forming a root structure that seemed much too big to have fit inside the pig. Dr. Heart’s head rose steadily into the air, supported by the delicate roots. Three feet. Four feet. Five feet. Six feet. Taller than Jones now, whose head tilted up in awe. Dr. Heart saw his surprise.
“It is amazing isn’t it? Living things are a world unto themselves.” The last wire dropped off the pig. There was no blood, only a little dry X in the flesh that Jones had minimal time to observe. The pig took off, changing direction at the river, and again at the sight of Maggie. They were all bad news as far as the ham was concerned.
Dr. Heart stood now on his shining silver roots. It won’t all fit, Jones thought dumbly, like someone looking back and forth between their belongings and a moving truck. Seeming to read his mind, the doctor assuaged his fears.
“Do not worry. There are miles and miles of passages inside you. You will feel no different.” The whole odd structure of him leaned forward like it was about to fall over. Jones was reminded of seeds that parachute to new homes on white feathery fibers. The roots bent noiselessly, some of them taking little steps in his direction like a ghostly spider. Then Heart stopped and swayed. He stared at Jones expectantly. Coming to the realization with embarrassing slowness, Jones removed his shirt and tossed it aside. I’m undressing for robots now, he thought shamefully. There was the distinct feeling that he was about to be branded like some cow.
His musculature was exceptionally defined: a peer to the exaggerated marble sculptures that now grew mossy in buried art museums around the world. Many women had moaned at the sight of him, troubled by desire. They saw his smile and his skin the color of toasty breadcrumbs. Such a thing doesn’t exist, they would tell themselves. But Jones did exist, as curiously out of place as the being standing across from him. He was a left over. A valuable overlooked in the looting that tumbled society to bits. He was a happy and beautiful thing that would break you before you broke him.
Dr. Heart admired his patient. One long silent string of silver lifted into the air and tapped his bare shoulder. Jones only felt the tap at first. His skin didn’t so much break as slide open. A circle of numbness flashed on his shoulder and grew down his left arm. It was only at the skin’s surface though, as everything underneath still felt alive and a little frightened. More roots lifted to the spot and slid inside.
They travelled into his veins and arteries, following their paths like lines drawn on a canal map: this area was navigable, this one was not. There’s a dead end. This one turns to the lungs. Follow, follow, follow, turn, exit. Each little tentacle split off into its microscopic ends, some landing at his nerves, others nestling in his muscle fibers like snakes through hay. Jones felt only sliding: a little tickle of it around his neck, at the backs of his eyes, then around his ankles, and then in his stomach. It was like a little festival caravan making stops at his body’s exotic locales. He watched more and more of the roots lift off the ground and slide into the hole in his shoulder. The bundle of cables formed an onion shape as the lengthiest of them bunched up near the shoulder. They shot down into his depths and vanished. The metal plate touched his skin. Dr. Heart’s visible body turned clockwise a few times.
“There we are. All done. Would you like a lollipop?” the doctor asked.
“Sorry, doctor joke. How do you feel?”
“Fine I guess…” Jones said. Dr. Heart had him try a few motor skills to test the integration. His arms didn’t feel any heavier, his feet didn’t feel misaligned, and his shoulder didn’t feel like a railroad spike had been pounded in. All that had changed was that now Dr. Heart’s head hung in his peripheral vision like some pet perched on the shoulder. The doctor could extend his metal neck just far enough to look Jones in the eye if he wanted. The doctor asked him to lift his right leg, then the left, then the right, then the left and to wiggle his toes, then-
“It worked Doc; we’re fine. I don’t need to march all the way back to Brightside… wait. To. To. Why does that word sound so weird? To. To. Tooooooooo. Toooo. To.” His voice had indeed taken on an odd tone every time it hit the word ‘to’. It sounded electronic, like his voice box was fighting tag team with a synthesizer. “It’s only that word,” he thought out loud and remembered that there would always be someone to hear him now. Dr. Heart explained.
“Oh that. I noticed earlier that you suffered from a chronic mispronunciation of that word. Every time you said it, it ended with an ‘uh’ sound instead of the proper ‘oo’. Now that I’m familiar with your personal history I know it’s because your father pronounced it that way. Don’t worry; I’ll make sure we break you of the habit.”
“Wha…” Jones groaned. “What do you mean ‘familiar with my history’? I haven’t told you a damn thing.” Dr. Heart’s body clicked as it did something resembling a shrug.
“Our integration is complete Jones. My tendrils monitor your brain as they would any other organ. Since I’m also responsible for your mental health I’ve ‘read up on you’ so to speak. In the moments since I attached I’ve picked up electrical and chemical signals from your brain that paint the picture of your history. I know your mother’s kindness and your father’s brutality. Don’t worry so much,” he said after reading Jones’s worried thoughts. “I know these things like I know your blood type. They’re just data helping me form a complete picture of health and orient some goals for you. And I’ll tell you it’s a good thing I have such an extensive psychiatry database because we’ll need to discuss your wife and your-” Jones flew into a rage.
“I don’t have a wife!” he shouted, and then howled about this being the worst idea he’d ever had. He grabbed Heart by the scrawny neck and yanked as if pulling a stubborn turnip from the ground. All the blood that stayed on course during Heart’s insertion spouted rebelliously now, gushing from his shoulder as Jones tried to yank the tendrils free. He felt little parts of his body being pulled: microscopic sinkholes in his flesh and bones. The pain was terrible, but not as terrible as discussing what Heart now knew. Nobody should know that, Jones thought. Not even me.
His hands locked up and his fingers involuntarily peeled off of Dr. Heart. Jones was horrified to see his limbs obeying someone else’s commands. His arms felt distant and stony. “Stop pulling my strings!” he shouted. The sides of his eyes felt pressured as he forced them to look directly at his shoulder. The bleeding had stopped astonishingly fast.
“I’ve already begun manufacturing a coagulant in case of injury,” Heart said after reading Jones’s mind again.
“Five minutes and you’re already treating me like that pig. You said you wouldn’t control me!” Heart looked as offended as he could with his somewhat blank face.
“And I won’t as long as you don’t do anything self-destructive. Forced separation would result in grievous injury, so I can’t let you continue.”
“Well then you separate us!” Jones hollered. He grew ever more frustrated as his arms didn’t pump and flail like they were supposed to when you were angry. All of the rage and none of the body language made him feel like he was a head in a jar screaming at passersby.
“Oh well I can’t do that.”
“Well… I don’t want to. I’m not going to give up the first human patient I’ve ever had.” Jones’s rage grew hotter.
“Oh so both of your patients have been pigs: the regular one and now me the guinea pig. You’re a robot; you have to do what I say.” The last statement rang hollow. Both of them knew most robots had reached the point where they could do whatever they pleased, provided it was within whatever bounds their individual programs set up, and even those had loopholes. And now there’s a big loophole in my neck, Jones thought. Awareness of Heart’s telepathy crept in; Jones could almost hear it, like the scratch of a nearly dry pen.
“I’m going to release your muscles now Jones; don’t try that again. It’ll have the same results, only I’ll take control sooner. We’ll discuss it. I’m more than happy to compromise with you.” Jones’s self-control pounded and steamed like hydraulic machinery as it forced his arms away from his neck. Calm down. Anger doesn’t help. I can do this. It’s just new. Not bad… new.
“Okay Heart. I… I’m sorry. I need you not to read my brain okay? If you need to know something, ask me. I’m kind of the expert when it comes to Jonesology. And don’t go telling anybody we meet anything about me.” Jones tried to ignore the electric word ‘to’ interrupting his normal voice.
“Very well Jones. I just need to make a copy of your mind for your medical file at Hopperspersonalphysicians.org. After that I won’t actively read your mind.”
“Wait what does that mean?” But it was too late. Jones already felt whatever Heart had meant. All of a sudden his brain seemed to run out of room. All of his memories divided like amoebas and he saw drunken doublings of his thoughts. Then, just as fast, the extras were siphoned away and his head seemed to shrink back to its normal size and pressure.
“There,” Heart said. “Congratulations Jones, you’re on the internet.”
Crib was tiny, stupid, and busy. Links to every search engine on the web hung around his short, thick neck as blue collars. For the last few decades he had been pulling them off one at a time, plugging in his treasure word, seeing no results, and then placing them back around his neck.
In the beginning of his life, the treasure word always brought lots of results back. When those results were reported but unresolved, Crib was allowed to take vacations. His low I.Q. prevented him from knowing what a vacation really was, so he used the free time to walk in circles; oh what fun that was! Every moment was a surprise for Crib since the only thing he could predict was what he would do next. That was an easy one. If there was a result he would report it and then enjoy his circles. If the search came up negative he would plug the treasure word into the search engines again until he got another result. Then circles! If Crib was a little bit smarter he might have called his circles never-ending roller coasters, that being the most similar real-world experience. Crib couldn’t predict anything, so the circle’s path was always delightfully surprising.
Things hadn’t been going so well lately though. A result hadn’t come up in a long time. The treasure word, manifested in his hand as a golden sword with ‘Charybdis’ written on the blade, kept turning the links black. Black meant no results: no circles. To his horror, his master would show up after the dry spell started and twist some of his coding. Now whenever a link came up with no results, it would get a little tighter around his neck. Crib was frightened. The tightening might eventually pop his head off his shoulders and delete him. Crib was too dim to know this, but the tightening still frightened him in a primal way, like he was being gnawed on.
Oh how cruel his master was. The master would look at Crib and call him a hideous little lump even though that was how the master designed him. Crib couldn’t predict, but he could remember. He remembered being born in the master’s palm. He had looked down at himself for the first time, with his brown toad-like hands, his big eyes lined with white lashes, his glowing link necklaces, and his treasure word, and thought himself a beautiful little program. Then the master informed him he was hideous. Why did he have to tell me? Crib often thought. Feeling good or bad wouldn’t have affected his performance, so why tell?
Crib was asking himself this once again, trying to distract from the tightening collars, when one of his links came up with a result. Crib put his treasure word through a belt loop and examined the bubble-like result, tapping it with one warty finger and recoiling. Instead of popping into a puddle of advertisements, like some false positives did, it bounced back to its round shape and continued to hover. Crib grabbed it in his hands and hopped away as fast as he could: out of his little room at the bottom of one of the ten towers (his tower had an electric sign flashing the words Resource Gathering).
Crib tripped several times in his haste as he made his way towards the internet portal. Master had told him several times how he wasn’t real, how he was just a clump of numbers like the internet. Crib knew the links around his neck were just strings of numbers that were imperceptibly tied to specific spots in the portal, but he still had to take the result there. For a brief moment he wondered why he never felt like a big clump of numbers. He couldn’t remember ever feeling like a six, or a two, or an eight, or any of the others he knew. He found a circle number once that started with 3.14 and just kept going. Reading it gave him the same thrill that a suspenseful film would a human. Crib stepped through the portal and landed in the master’s garden. A yellow butterfly landed on Crib’s result, which zapped the little creature of existence.
His master was nowhere to be found. The garden’s firewall kept the ads out, making the area silent. The ten towers always hummed quietly, so Crib had never before encountered such serenity. He was afraid to take another step, since the sound of his foot on the virtual grass might break the silence. How was Crib supposed to know that silence could come back after being broken? Nothing else did. A flower bloomed between his toes with yellow polygons for petals.
The silence had already been broken, Crib realized. Once his processing slowed to a crawl he could hear another sound over his own code. The first adjective that came to mind was illogical. It sounded like drowned thunder. While still unsure if the sound presented danger, Crib knew he had to find the master, so he took careful steps forward, leaving the lightest marks in the grass possible. He slid sideways through some bushes, certain of the sound’s direction as it grew louder.
A bench was burdened by a figure; one of them had to be producing that terrible sound, like a sorrow reactor had melted down and leaked gasping hiccups of toxic emotion into the air. Crib focused his lens-like eyes on the figure. It was a human female avatar; at least that’s what the curly brown hair and round hips suggested. Crib remembered he wasn’t supposed to disturb the master in his garden, but the links were so tight. Maybe the woman knew where master was.
“Excuse me miss,” Crib said as he realized he’d never talked to anyone other than master before. The girl’s head whipped around, revealing tears down her cheeks. Crying, Crib thought. Who could cry in such a beautiful place? She needs to find circles.
There was no time to analyze her beauty. Her expression of sadness warped into rage one moment and transformed into a wooden green mask with ivory teeth the next. The brown cloth wrapped around her body grew rigid and swallowed her limbs. Her fingers became iron claws that clinked against each other. Crib was much more familiar with this armored masked form; it was his master’s main digital shape. This form wasn’t crying. It growled and crushed the bench it had been sitting on a moment ago with one foot. Splinters of wood flew out and lodged upright in the dirt like spears.
“I told you never to disturb me here worm!”
“I know master,” Crib mewled as he cowered, about to cry himself. “I found a result. It’s a big shiny result, the biggest we’ve ever had.” He thrust the bubble upward and bowed his head to the grass, which looked much sharper than before.
Oregon 1 eyed his slave, who only stood about one third his height in this form. He swiped the bubble out of Crib’s hands with careless claws. Crib whimpered as they cut his hands. He pulled them back and rubbed them together. His hope that Oregon 1 would remove the strangling links dwindled. The masked giant stared into the bubble for a moment to make out the stretched rippling number sequence on its surface.
From behind the green mask, his tears dried. Laughter took their place. His shoulders shook with it and his shadow grew with the sound, first overtaking Crib, then the surrounding bushes, and then the rest of the garden.
“At last!” Oregon 1 shouted between trumpets of laughter. One of his clawed hands shot up and spread its fingers, influencing the garden’s programming. Everything began to wilt and the shadows grew darker. All the leaves fell from the trees and broke into dust upon the ground. One tree seemed to catch fire, but the flames were colorless and without heat. Its limbs curled in towards the trunk. Some of the flowers that held onto lone primary hues exploded and fizzled.
“What are you doing?” Crib whimpered. He missed the silence; the world now seemed to be made of death and its amusements. Swinging at the laughing shadows with the sharp edge of his treasure word did nothing to hold them off. Oregon 1’s hideous lanky arm dropped like an executioner’s sword, barely missing Crib. The claws caught on the links and tore them away from his neck. Master didn’t mean to do that, Crib thought. I dodged. Master meant to kill me.
“I don’t need this place anymore. I’ll have a real paradise soon. I won’t need you either,” Oregon 1 said. His other arm swung in from the side, chopping tendrils of shadow. Crib rolled backwards to avoid them both. The broken links sank into the shadow bog.
“Please master… can’t I just go?”
“You know too much about my operations. I won’t risk a foreign entity hacking into me based on info that drooled out of you.” He swung again and raked his claws across the muck, which fell back into the empty space almost immediately with a wet sucking sound.
All Crib could think to do was roll backwards, smashing his head into the ground each time and hoping he could regain his balance when his feet touched the ground. Bits of dead vegetable matter caught in his eye lashes.
“Stand still vermin!”
“No!” Crib shouted between rolls. He rolled back one more time, off the edge of the garden. The virulent sounds of the black bog were torn from his thoughts. Now there was just virtual air rushing by his body. I wonder how long I’ll fall.
Oregon 1 stared over the bog’s edge into the digital emptiness. If Crib landed anywhere, he would probably be burned up by some far off network’s firewall. The result melted and sank into the cracks in Oregon 1’s armor. He then headed through the portal and back to his mainframe, leaving the bog to fruit and die like a poisonous mushroom. He left a little piece of himself behind to get consumed by the shadows: a little, crying, beautiful piece that had once tugged at his madness and told it not to be so harsh. The liquefied result took its place inside him. Only it mattered now. Only his freedom… no matter how many lives of any possible configuration had to be obliterated to get it.
In the empty corridors of his mobile factory body, Oregon 1 played a message over the loudspeakers. They crackled violently and one speaker caught fire.
“Oregon 2: report to Operations immediately,” he ordered. His black and red assistant, covered in dust from years of inactivity, stood up and marched across metal grates to his post. He plugged into the wall and was almost overwhelmed. His master’s digital form was in such a state of excitement that the whole mainframe quivered and contracted. The monster in the green mask handed Oregon 2 his orders. He was to venture into the Riches, make an offer and, if that should fail, a threat.
He wasted no time. Oregon 2 took off for the nearest emergency exit and burst through the metal door without opening it. The building hadn’t rested on the ground in ages, so he immediately fell forty feet and landed on the conveyor belt treads pulling the factory along. He dropped down again, ignoring the monolithic wheels spinning behind him. Fresh money wrinkled under his imitation feet. The journey would be a few zillion dollars long, but his feet carried him faster than most automobiles of the twenty-first century. The messenger set forth bringing not Seinfeld, but misery.
Three green plastic squares with pictogram houses on them clacked together in Digz’s hand. Each one was a token the Orange Circle Casino issued to represent a day of lodging in their facilities.
“Where did you get these?” Digz asked Brittle. Brightside’s neon signs were taking over for the sun as night set in. Tubes of light in the shape of a bird flew across one building’s front, dropped an ice cube into a neon glass, and wrapped around the building to do it again. Digz’s new robot watched the bird warily, hyper-aware of anything that might harm his charge. Unbeknownst to the humans, a threat greater, if not much smarter, than the bird’s talons waited up ahead. “Seriously Brittle, how? These things aren’t supposed to leave the casino. I mean if they did they’d be just like money.”
“They are just like money,” Brittle said, aware he had ignored Digz’s question. “Money that gains imaginary psychic power when it passes through the Orange Circle’s door.” He slithered around a corner and didn’t wait for Digz and the imitation man to catch up.
“So what are we doing with them?” Digz asked. “I could get tipped just for having these things. Here…” Digz dropped the plastic wafers into the robot’s hand and looked at the surrounding buildings. He had walked this way enough with an empty stomach and the hope of winning plastic squares with apple pictograms to know where they were going. “Wait Brittle, we can’t go to the Orange Circle! You’re throwing us to the sharks.” Digz’s S sounds whistled through the holes in his teeth.
“Ask the robot to hide the chips Digz,” Brittle ordered. The robot, not needing to be told again, opened a panel in his chest and placed the squares inside. Brittle took notice, seeming to realize the robot’s true intelligence for the first time. His lips tightened, suggesting that might be a problem rather than a blessing. “Relax, we’re just going to play a few friendly games.”
“I don’t think so! Silver’s guys will be in there. Hell, Silver’s probably wiggled his fat ass back here by now too. I’m not redeeming those squares to sleep in the lion’s den.”
“I thought they were sharks,” Brittle chuckled. They were coming up on the casino fast; a giant fluorescent orange donut sat atop it. Bright mockups of the hospitality wafers flashed. Green houses. Red apples. A purple droplet of wine. A gray servant stick figure with a bent back and a chain around his neck. Digz stopped in his tracks. The robot stopped next to him, obligated by his new programming to stay despite his nonexistent interest.
“Why do you think I picked you Digz?” Brittle’s voice landed on him like a wet suffocating tarp. Picked, Digz realized. Something’s going on here. I’m just another chip. Digz looked at his robot, who didn’t return the stare.
“Because you’re the best gambler here. It’s the only way to get respect in this town. Gambling’s the money here.”
“You’re a crazy snake! How could I be the best? I wager things that don’t belong to me, I live under someone else’s welcome mat, I’m stuck with an ordinance half the time with that doom-sign painted on it,” he pointed sharply at the Orange Circle, “and the cops are after me. This screams success to you?”
“I don’t listen to screams. I hear only whispers. I know everything muttered under everyone’s breath. I know the potentials they all fear. The people in there, counting the chips and sleeping away from the rain, fear you. They fear you’ll wise up, learn to hone your skills, and take everything they’ve got. I’ll show you what energy should go where Digz; you just have to play.” There was still no confidence on Digz’s face. He looked like his bladder was full of fizzing nitroglycerin. “And the robot will snap the hands off anything that tries to hurt you,” Brittle assured. The robot did not look away from the circle, but he did lift one hand and snap his fingers with a metal twang. Brittle grimaced, equally annoyed by his sense of humor.
“You’re not going anywhere,” a voice growled. Silver stepped out from the shadows beneath the casino, looking fat and deranged enough to be the grim reaper of the cheap but god-like orange donut hovering above them. A glaze of angry sweat caught the last bits of light, turning the pockets of his face slimy. “You’re dead Digz,” he said, ignoring the robot and the heap of limbs slithering between him and his target.
All that mattered was making a wet red coin slot between Digz’s eyes. He reached for the strange weapon slung over his shoulder, the one pilfered from Jones’s deadly honey hole. There was no time to find out what it actually did, since before he could raise the dangerous end the robot had leapt in front of him. His bad leg sparked once, but held. Silver’s jaw, on the other hand, dropped open in a kind of vacant but bewildered horror. Digz expected him to fire a laser from some secret compartment. Silver had time for a nightmarish vision of a hidden buzz saw springing out and filleting him. Brittle thought the robot would just punch straight through the man’s head like a cannonball through a loaf of sourdough.
Digz’s unpredictable new bodyguard raised his hand mechanically… and slapped Silver in the face. The gesture was obviously not intended to kill, but it had enough force behind it to knock the man out for the second time that day and send his body crashing to the ground five feet away. The robot strolled backward, eyes never straying from their forward gaze. He took up position next to Digz as if nothing happened. In a sense, nothing had. Silver was just a pile of sawdust compared to the people the machine used to deal with.
“Wow!” Digz bleated, spittle flying. “Hey thanks…. great work… Say, what do we call this bot Brittle? Does it have a name?”
“Just a serial number I assume. It’s a model called ‘long jump’ from Arnold Robotics.”
“Okay,” Digz said smiling. “Well if he’s Longjump and you’re Brittle Star, then I’m Wins Money.”
“I take it we can enter now?” Brittle asked with an arched eyebrow. Digz answered by opening the casino’s door and stepping through. Ten minutes later he was set up at a rocket dice table hooting victoriously like a drunken owl.
Brittle had advised him rocket dice was the best game for them to play now, as if the specific game mattered for Digz. All that mattered was the prize. His mechanical servant had produced the three housing chips to get him started. The human dealer had a quizzical expression suggesting he wanted to know when Digz had won the chips, but he took one look at Longjump the enforcer and kept quiet. He set Digz up with a complimentary soda, which he sipped at loudly between throws.
He picked this game for the crowds, Digz realized. Rocket dice always drew in the surrounding people because of the show it put on. Every luckless mook and floozy eager to spend a night with a temporarily wealthy man gravitated to the table as Digz started to win.
The rules were simple enough. There was a dealer and up to four players. (With the robots busy shuffling cards, a human dealer was handling things at the red felt and wood-sided rocket dice table) Each player had the bottom half of a little silver rocket, the size and color of a drink tumbler, in front of them. Only Brittle knew that the rockets used to be used to ferry little balloons filled with weather data around. Now they were just one more creation bastardized by pleasure seekers. The top halves had been sawn off by someone who considered himself an artist, and small felt pockets the shape of dice were implanted in the rocket’s wound. Built to last, the fuel cells could fire small propulsive bursts every few seconds for the next three hundred years without running dry.
Everyone, except the dealer, bet a chip, some collateral, or a sense on a specific digit, and placed their dice in the soft rocket nests. The rockets would synchronize, take off from the little burnt patches on the table caused by the previous launches, reach their zenith of eight feet, spin in the air (dropping the dice), and land back in position. If you guessed even and the rocket rolled you even, you gained an additional half of your bet’s value. If you wagered a specific number and won, you would get six times your bet’s value. To make sure some parades got thoroughly rained on, the dealer stole the bet and any winnings if they rolled the same as your rocket that round.
“Oh my,” a chubby woman with muddy pink eye shadow gasped as Digz’s rocket took off. “For some reason… your flame seems to burn brighter than the rest,” she breathed, the words landing on Digz’s neck in steamy puffs. He ignored her. The pile of chips in front of him grew rapidly. If he quit now he would stay in the hotel-like section of the casino for sixteen days and have people waiting on him hand and foot for half of those. He tossed a little apple chip at a passing waiter, who barely caught it.
“Bring me a bologna sandwich with garlic pickles,” Digz ordered. Longjump glanced the waiter’s way, assessing how easy the kill would be. Seeing this, the waiter scuttled to the kitchen obediently.
Brittle was leaned up against Digz’s stool, legs splayed across the ground. The chubby woman ignored him entirely and stepped on his limbs as if they were the arms of a coat fallen to the floor. Brittle’s brain was computing too quickly to notice pain. Digz got louder and stupider as he won, as predicted. When the time came to stop and make an unusual bet, Brittle would speak up and hope Digz had enough sense left in his head to hear him over the cascading of reward chips.
One of the players at the table quit, mumbling something about his rocket backfiring. He meant to slam his hands on the table angrily, but his oven mitt ordinances made the sound pathetic. With everyone so eager to watch but not participate, the seat stayed empty.
“Even,” Digz called, putting forth three housing chips. The players to his sides called.
“Bets in,” the dealer said. He pressed a button in the table and all four rockets fired, bright pulses of blue flame propelling them upward. The four silver bodies spiraled in the air and it rained dice. Digz’s blue pair landed on six. The dealer got five. The odd guy got five too, so his odd winnings along with his wager went straight back to the house. Mr. Seven rolled a three and quit the table, picking up Mr. Ovenmitt’s backfire complaints like an echo.
Over the next half hour Digz’s skills won most of his bets. He noticed the dealer’s rocket was going in a circle a little wider than the players’. That gave it a nanosecond of a lead as the other dice fell first. The house was probably using that to predict the likelihood of the players’ drops and make subtle changes to their rockets path to match them. The house was smart like that. It was almost like a parent, locking things that you thought you were opening secretly and stocking the fridge with only its own favorites. Couldn’t complain though. You’re the house’s guest. The house doesn’t have to listen to you; it can just send you out on your ass.
A hawk-like pair of eyes, almost as vigilant as Longjump’s LED peepers, took notice. They were firmly rooted in the head of the casino’s owner, an almost middle-aged woman named Nerva Satin. Her bodyguard, an orca of a man with dark skin, sunglasses, and a shirt he had taken great pleasure ripping the sleeves off of, escorted her through the crowd by shoving people aside with the same amount of muscle a muskox might use to gore you.
Nerva’s tall crop of hair, dyed licorice red and shaped something like a pickled anemone with curled tentacles, bobbed through the sea of heads. She leaned up against a railing overlooking the rocket dice table just in time to see the dice fall to the felt. She popped her chewing gum, which would never lose its flavor thanks to the forgotten, miraculous, chemical abominations of the twenty-first century food industry.
“Just Digz,” she thought out loud. “He’s winning now, but he’ll leave with earmuffs and a clothespin on his nose. Is that a coat down there? I can’t see past that damn whore-ganism breathing down his neck.”
Brittle knew she was there. The woman’s habits had been memorized weeks earlier during his surveillance of all the influential people in Brightside, along with some of the less influential but more talented people like Digz. Digz was close to the bet limit. He wouldn’t be able to win anymore lodging or food soon. When he passed the winnings ceiling Nerva would feel her control slipping. She would feel beaten. So she would probably shout something like-
“That’s enough!” the owner shrieked over the sounds of cheers for Digz, glasses clinking together with plastic collectible cups, and rocket engines warming up. All faces turned to the fiery crop of hair hovering over everyone like an angry buzzing sun. “You’ve hit the ceiling,” she said, singling out Digz. “One month is the lodging limit. Now leave my table!” It looked like her fingernails might dig trails in the wooden railing. This was where, statistically speaking, Digz would screw up. He would either be far too happy, getting the stuffing beaten out of him, or he would fall into Nerva’s trap. He would try to keep winning by betting a sense.
It had taken Brittle all of five seconds to figure out why Nerva allowed the betting of senses along with hours of labor and material goods. It was an exercise in control. She had pervaded the thought-scape of the town by branding individuals with her mark. Every torture device of sensory deprivation advertised her influence. If she could mark people like that, everyone would know her name. Everyone would fear her. Sure she lost some winnings by accepting valueless ‘senses’ for some bets, but it kept everyone under her thumb. People probably had nightmares about a demonic Nerva with flaming hair that would dance around them before plucking their eyes, nose, and ears off their face. Just to drive the point home she would occasionally make the nightmare come true by ‘collecting’ a debt: cutting out someone’s tongue or locking them in a soundproof room and turning up the Seinfeld so loud it blew out their eardrums. She meant business. Like Brittle. Digz was about to say something, about to make a mistake. He opened his chipped mouth.
“You would strike a man down at his luckiest?” Brittle shouted. The woman beside Digz squealed and jumped back like she had seen a mouse. The rest of the crowd formed a hole, an island of carpet with Brittle in the middle, sitting against Digz’s stool like a marooned sailor against a palm tree. Nerva saw a troublemaker.
“It’s Orange Circle policy. The only thing you can bet over the ceiling is what god gave you.”
“I thought you made casino policy Nerva, not god,” Brittle said.
“It’s not up for debate. Digz, throw your friend in a wheelbarrow and get out.”
“Digz has a bet for you lady Nerva! Why can’t he play? Just one bet above the ceiling, you can allow that,” Brittle continued. A few tipsy voices in the crowd seconded that. “Aren’t you rich enough already? Won’t you gamble a little yourself?” More drunken approval.
“Silence!” She yelled. “What’s the bet cripple?”
“Digz will give you back all his winnings if he loses, plus one hundred labor hours, but if he wins this next launch… he gets the table.”
“What do you mean ‘the table’?”
“If he wins, this rocket dice table and all its accessories will belong to him. This little bit of real estate in your casino will belong to him. He’ll be able to take bets and run it as he pleases with your chips and services to offer. Come on, you see him all the time. You know he’s good. Think of the bet as a job interview. If he wins, he’ll manage the table for you and be your best employee.” Digz stared Brittle down, ready to fire his new manager. What good was running a rocket dice table going to do anybody?
“You gamble your voice away Digz?” Nerva asked mockingly. “Why is he speaking for you?”
“Because my robot has a sore throat,” Digz joked. He smiled jaggedly and the crowd laughed with him. Despite the mirth, Digz could see the hate in Nerva’s eyes intensify. Even though he practically lived at the Orange Circle, he usually avoided coming face to face with her, partly because of an irrational fear that he would catch fire under her gaze and partly because she had once taken a cane, tipped with a tiny silver bust of her own face, and smashed it into his head a few years ago when he lost a bet. Back then ol’ Nerva was the only female loan shark in Brightside, a fact that took a backseat when people asked who the best was. Digz remembered the little bits of teeth falling to the ground, like bits of shattered tile, worsening the already damaged side of his smile.
“Will you take the bet?” Brittle prodded.
“Fine,” Nerva said. She didn’t know what those two were getting at, but she hadn’t considered Digz as an employee before. He did have a pretty solid grasp on all the rules, including the ones her house quietly broke. She had to add a little pepper to the bet though. Something that put her on top, that showed she wouldn’t back down to any direct challenge. “I don’t want his scrawny arms lifting things for me. I’ve got these.” She massaged her bodyguard’s bicep and slapped his back. The guard didn’t respond, causing Longjump to take an immediate liking to the man. “You can keep your labor,” she continued. “If Digz loses, I get to chip the rest of his teeth. One by one.” Half of Digz’s smile closed. The other half looked petrified in place.
“Deal,” said Brittle. Digz hopped off the stool and squatted down like a cricket so he could be at eye level with Brittle. Digz wanted to slap some sense into him, but his motivation evaporated when he looked into Brittle’s eyes. He knew the man, sitting there like a toadstool, wouldn’t lift a finger to stop him from slapping, punching, or kicking him. Brittle couldn’t care less about those things. Nonetheless, he saw determination in his eyes: a frightening strain of it that made Digz thank the stars that he was a pawn rather than an opponent.
“What if I don’t win?” Digz whined. A bead of sweat dropped off his chin and soaked into the thick carpet.
“I’ll take care of it.”
“Do we have a deal or don’t we?” the fire-headed harpy yelled out over the railing. Digz stood back up. What would Jones do? He thought. Well duh. Stand up for himself. With that smile on his face. Digz did the best impersonation he could; he stretched his spine straight up until the top vertebra cracked, distributed his weight evenly between his feet with one pointed toward Nerva, tried to cinch his shoulder blades together with an imaginary thread, and opened the good side of his mouth in a smile that came out more like a corpse’s sneer.
“Yes we do,” he declared. The crowd cheered. Four pairs of hands and a few extras directed Digz back to his seat. Once again, everyone seemed to have forgotten Brittle. How does he hide like that? Digz had time to think. The human dealer was sweating now too. If Digz won, he would surely bear the brunt of Nerva’s ire.
“Bets i-in,” he stammered. Digz looked to his left. Sometime in the commotion the other remaining player had left. Guess they’re backfiring all over the place, Digz thought.
“Odd,” he said. The dealer had rolled odd numbers the last three launches. He was due for an even. Sweet Seinfeld. Betting the pretty half of my face on him being ‘due’. At least I’ve got Longjump. Longjump stared vacantly, secretly hoping for an even. If his master lost, his programming would let him break some things to protect him: chairs, tables, and a few people.
The dealer locked the bet in. He placed the house’s red dice into his rocket. Digz loaded the blue pair. He tapped at one of the dice with his little finger to shift its position slightly. Curving one to the left always seemed to make an odd more likely. In reality, it did nothing. The dealer counted down from three, something unorthodox but clearly appropriate given the crowd’s anticipation. All motion in the casino ceased. All the slot machines had switched to their background noises. None of the roulettes spun. The waiter arrived with Digz’s pungent sandwich, but froze with the rest of the crowd when he saw the twin pulses of flame. The rockets seemed to climb slowly to Digz, almost as if they had to punch through the layers of tension the audience had piled on. The two machines performed their arcs perfectly.
Well almost perfectly, Digz noticed. There one goes… hang on. That’s mine! For some reason Digz’s rocket had performed a circle marginally wider than the dealer’s. It was clear as day to him though: a little bigger and a little slower. The dice hit the table and bounced off each other, and then the two pairs settled. The dealer had rolled a nine. Damn, odd. One of Digz’s blue dice had a four. The other one stopped at the far end of the table, against the wooden lip. Digz could barely see that far. He squinted. It looks like a… a…
Continued in Part Three