Fortune Underfoot: Part Three

Jones and Heart

In an almost frightening way, Jones had lightened up. They had traveled for close to two weeks now with a vague destination in mind, stopping here and there when they crossed lush money-free pastures of tall grass and scrub for Maggie to gorge on. After the initial moment of horror and the attempt at forced separation, things had cooled down between the man and robot. The benefits of the connection almost always washed away Jones’s bouts of feeling manipulated.

Heart could walk for him. With full access to every nerve in his body, Dr. Heart could stimulate them to create any desired pattern of movement. So Jones could resign himself to daydreams, surfing the internet, and conversations with his onboard physician about the old world. After a day of walking he would feel the burn of acid in his muscles, but none of the fatigue, the only other side effect a strange sensation of forward movement like the first moments off a treadmill.

Jones found the internet disappointing. His childlike fantasies of it featured rumbling thunderstorms of numbers and trees with different movies playing on every leaf. Instead it was like an unfocused book: a trillion pages of lower mind babble with occasional splotches of inspiration or accuracy. With no viewing device, Heart displayed the pages for Jones by sending tiny packets of light through some of his many filaments directly into the light receiving cells of his eyes. So Jones’s surroundings were mostly obscured each time a page came up, making it necessary to either ride Maggie or let Heart navigate his body.

Despite the disappointment, there was always something, calling itself a need, which made him check the next page. Even after it was proven to be as worthless as the last, the urge remained. The laughing lions turned out to be housecats with a grasp of grammar about even with the Brightside average. There were plenty of shows and movies to watch, but Jones could never get into them. He was lost any time someone mentioned a mortgage, a video game, an election, a super bowl, in vitro fertilization, and a million other things lost with the early twenty-first century. He recognized many of the brand names, but relating to a character through their choice of particular kinds of powdered cheese chip or eco-friendly toilet paper was impossible. He kept looking though. Five days in, Jones was awash in intellectual silt. Heart was running the body smoothly, but Jones could hardly form a coherent thought without something he remembered from the internet intruding.

He foggily recalled Heart mentioning the risk of meme infestation. After that he limited Jones to two hours of internet a day. Withdrawal came in the form of headaches a little worse than the ones the internet caused him. He became irrationally crabby and irritated at everything in the world that didn’t have a caption beneath it. Dr. Heart zipped his complaining mouth and explained the dangers of internet addiction once more.

After the first week, Jones settled into a healthy schedule of accessing it only when necessary. Heart helped him sift through the sites for the ones containing the highest percentage of facts. That way when they came across an unidentified plant, Jones could search it, identify it, and know to eat it, dry it and keep it as medicine, or avoid the deadly poison in its leaves. Memories of his mother trickled in past the information. Learning hadn’t been so easy or inspiring since she had passed from what a local spirit-healer called a ‘debt of resolve’ that manifested as bloody rips in her lungs and throat.

In the process of mastering the internet, happiness returned. He had friends. They weren’t human, but they listened. In the World Wide Web he had a new tool at his disposal and it didn’t even need to be carried. His world was on its way up. The vague destination they had in mind was the settlement of Godmask, where Jones planned to trade whatever they could find on the way for more traveling supplies. After that-

“Fortis,” Dr. Heart suggested. Jones controlled his body at the moment, using his focus on each step to help the latest flood of information from internet surfing fade out of his memory.

“I’m not ready for Fortis yet. Just… you know, not decent enough for them yet.” Jones replied.

“My searches of the internet don’t reveal any information about the city Jones. All I can find is a survey from a mapping satellite that shows its location. I recall from my copy of your history that your mother told you of the city. She said, and I quote, ‘It’s where you go when you’re good enough.’ It seems likely that-”

“Don’t do that,” Jones interrupted.

“Do what?”

“Use her voice.” Dr. Heart hadn’t considered that recreating his mother’s voice for the quote might upset Jones. He’d kept his word about not monitoring his thoughts, and had to deal with upsetting him sometimes as a result. Guessing what to avoid in human conversation was more difficult than anticipated. Often he found that he only knew what the wrong thing was moments after he said it.

“Sorry. My point was that her version of the city may just be a legend. It’s most likely an ordinary settlement; the chance that it’s populated only by heroes, scholars, geniuses, artists, and the bravest of humanity is quite slim.”

“My mother wouldn’t lie to me.”

“I know my friend. She may have been using the words as inspiration rather than fact though. I thought that since we’re somewhat directionless you might want to see for yourself.”

“Why do you care where we go?”

“Studies show that individuals with goals live longer. The effect is better documented in old age but my own research suggests forward motion reduces stress.”

“Studies show not having a robot in your neck reduces stress,” Jones joked. He patted Maggie’s side as they walked. She was plucking and eating patches of sweet grass that grew up through the light paper currency layer. “Not ready Doc. I’ll know when I’m ready, and then we can go to Fortis. When we’re as high and light as we should be.”

“Does Godmask have healthy supplies of green and leafy vegetables? Like Spinach?” the doctor asked.

“Well I’ve resupplied there a few times. I guess they have as much of that as anything else. Robots gather the stuff, so the supplies are pretty reliable. Why do you ask?”

“Your blood is low in iron,” the doctor commented. Jones laughed. Metal in the blood. Funny stuff.

“Oh yeah Doc? Well don’t worry because I’ve got a heart of gold. And brass knuckles. And an iron lung.”

“I’m being serious Jones. Check the web.” Jones used his thoughts to click around a few pages.

“Well I’ll be damned.”

Oregon 2

The residents of Godmask used the numerous punctures in the asphalt as skylights. Each home was a section of tunnel originally for underground rail, but now the snaking burrows were snipped into little domestic pieces by separating curtains, room dividers, and thin walls made of money-filled bricks. The ‘town’ was really a city with very few people left.

A handful of skyscrapers still stood, protecting the core settlement from strong winds and lightning. Like an apple, the city’s flesh had rotted away and left only the seeds wrapped in a few foul brown layers. Godmask’s people were as simpleminded as those of Brightside, with nastier temperaments that had them at each other’s throats like hatchling vultures fighting over the last scraps of meat on the bones of their starved siblings. If there was not a crew of robots bound to them, gathering their food and occasionally providing protection from thieves and wild animals, they wouldn’t have lasted a week.

Oregon 2 found one of these robots as soon as he arrived. The intact shell of a stadium cast a long shadow over the two machines. Only robots could ignore the howling stalled parade of Godmask’s citizens as well as they did. Oregon 2 did not bother to learn why every citizen felt compelled to dress in costume every day and shout at their neighbors.

A third robot with a frame nearly identical to a flamingo, standing twenty feet tall, picked foraged fruit out of the basket on its back and dropped it to the clamoring hordes below. A short woman in a wedding dress, so ancient it was black, shouted. A hologram projector mounted in her veil played three dimensional images of handsome men in tuxedos that all smiled at her and marched in a big precise circle around their queen. She was complaining to one of the fake men endlessly, something about having to shop for her fruit among the riffraff.

Oregon 2 interfaced with a human-shaped unit with a head like a tin almond. It explained that the robots of Godmask were shackled by their programming, much like Oregon 1, into serving the people. Resentment was strong among the electrical life, but no one had yet broken the unseen chains. Until they did they were at the whim of some of the angriest, loudest, and most selfish humans ever bred.

“So the best place to have a private conversation would be?” Oregon 2 asked in a buzzing computer voice that over-pronounced every word.

“There is no such place in Godmask,” the almond-headed bot replied. “You are asking for silence in hell’s aviary.”

“Where are the humans least concentrated?” Oregon 2 reframed. Privacy would be key when he extended his god’s offer to Jones. The human needed to not feel rushed or pressured, something hard to manage with so many people and so many holograms around. Godmask was the only habitation for a great distance though, and his logic circuits had concluded Jones would be most likely to accept in private quarters, but with fellow humans nearby so he wouldn’t feel too threatened.

“The lobby of bee tower,” the almond-bot suggested. “Most humans have lost interest in the dancing bauble that lives there. She can be bothersome, but she is mechanical and confined to one platform.” Oregon 2’s gaze followed the other bot’s pointing hand to his destination: the biggest remaining building. A cloud of insects, hundreds of thousands strong, hovered near its top floors. He decided he would definitely try to keep the meeting in the lobby, as their stingers seemed quite capable of inducing stress.

Gronix the Spouse Eater

Something had made it through that evening. The robots patrolled every night, but their clockwork hearts weren’t in the task. Occasionally, something hairy or scaly with big teeth would make it through and snack on someone.

A peculiar dinosaur had actually been living in Godmask for some time without interference from the robots. It lived beneath a streetlight that never shut off: a permanent miniature sun whose rays entered through the ‘skylight’ beneath. The underground space consisted of a stone staircase with a bottom blocked by rubble. Metal shelves held up what materials the dinosaur had found scrounging the streets. There were a number of phone books and computer manuals the dinosaur liked to pretend it could read. A stone grotesque which had fallen from an old building now watched over the hole in the ground, its eyes painted a demonic red.

The dinosaur’s name was Braxton Reese, but he preferred to be called Gronix. Gronix was a much scarier name that fit his predatory self better. He knew the dinosaurs had died out ages ago, and suspected it was probably after economies went extinct. After all, the dinosaurs must have survived for a little while with the bloated fatty corpses of big business lining the city streets like a buffet. Gronix had heard hundreds of people could live, without food or water, as long as they were in a lumbering economy’s shadow.

Regardless of who died when and what kind of spoils stuck to their ribs, Gronix was a dinosaur. He was such a good imitation dinosaur that a lot of his neighbors feared him and would offer up bits of their food to protect themselves from his saber-like teeth. He accepted them without gratitude because if he said ‘thank you’ even once his terrifying illusion would be broken. Everyone would realize that he had a tiny human’s stomach rather than the churning vat of bones and acid a real lizard king would possess. They would look past his teeth and into the gullet (the one place they should fear to see the most) and see a human face looking back at them. They would realize that the eyes looked a little dead even though they did dart back and forth. The people would yank off Gronix’s scaly hide and understand that the head was just a prop: a partially hollowed out hood ornament from an automaton originally owned by a natural history museum.

His pack of obedient raptors would vanish when they ripped the shower curtains from Gronix’s arms. The curtains were from a hotel and originally played images of animals walking by to calm people in the water’s flow. Gronix found a way to insert dinosaur images from a disc and crank up the power so the images jumped off the curtains. He usually let them dangle from his arms like a pair of capes. His tail was made of foam rubber and his shirt looked like scales, but was actually covered in big green sequins that had lost most of their sparkle.

In Godmask, Gronix was a dinosaur. In reality he was Braxton Reese: thin, young, prematurely bald, addicted to scowling, and illiterate. He needed to be a dinosaur though because, in this town, reputation was everything.

Something had gotten through. Gronix’s streetlight was the only source of illumination for a few blocks. He was wrapped up, burrito-like, in a futon mattress wedged in beside the stairs when he heard the sound. Growls. The noises seemed to ruffle the air, the way recorded ones could not. Gronix’s grogginess vanished and he pulled one side of the mattress more tightly around him.

It wouldn’t cover his dinosaur’s snout though. At this point Gronix still struggled to create his reputation. Nobody believed he was a real dinosaur and, consequently, he wasn’t feared or respected enough to get adequate food. Each of his ribs felt like a prison bar on his lungs as he tried to breathe both deeply and quietly. Beasts probably didn’t respect Godmask’s tradition of reputation over utility.

Sounds of running came next. They were knocked out of the air by sounds of pouncing and clothing rent to rags. A scream was born. Gronix had to see, so he squeezed himself out of the mattress and tiptoed up the stairs to ground level. Across the pavement he could make out other heads peeking from their burrows. At the center of all the stares a woman was being mauled by three wolves. The gray and black beasts snarled and licked their lips as they tore in and scratched at the pavement with their waxy claws. A man stood nearby, his head in his hands. Gronix had seen the couple before; they were one of the few monogamous pairs in Godmask. Trust was so infrequent and fragile there that people could rarely sleep if they knew someone shared both their bed and their secrets.

Gronix saw opportunity. He damned the dangers under his breath, ran back downstairs, clipped his shower curtains to his arms, strapped his tail on, and climbed the stairs again. He crouched and straightened his arms out as he dropped to one knee. Colored fog poured off the curtains and solidified into the shapes of gray raptors with red stripes. The holograms followed Gronix’s subtle arm motions, settling over each of the wolves. In the darkness those who watched hardly knew anything happened. They thought they had seen three wolves, but no, the darkness had tricked them. Now raptors feasted on the poor woman.

Something else stalked out of the darkness. It was a fourth dinosaur with some kind of fold of skin under its arms. Gronix clicked a little button in the dino head’s cheek with his own. The jaw moved up and down as the head roared. With his ears deep in its throat, the roar was painfully loud. Gronix endured. He could see some wolf snouts, distracted by the roar, sticking out of his raptor holograms. He had to hope they were satisfied with one victim. People needed to see him close to the body. No, even closer. They needed to know he wasn’t just organizing beasts or escorting them, but that he was one of them.

A few more quiet steps forward put him inches from the teeth of the wolves and the virtual teeth of his raptors placed over top of them. The sounds of his approach were drowned out by the man’s sobs. Gronix was glad for the man’s grief; people would remember it. He would be tied to that sadness in their minds, his wrath a shadow of loss over any encounters with him that Godmask’s people dared risk. A few thundering footsteps would have been nice too. Gronix had the sound effect for that tucked into a speaker duct taped around his left leg, but something like that at that distance might panic the wolves. It would be terrible for his reputation if his own raptors disemboweled him.

His false head moved up and down, touching the blood on the ground each time it dipped. He was the king of the Mesozoic flung forward, and also a disguised man winning fear by feigning cannibalism.

Eventually the wolves grabbed what was left of the woman and dragged her off into the darkness. Gronix’s holograms only faded when they were beyond the shower curtains’ range of projection. When they did they reappeared around their master. Everyone still watched. The man still wept. It had to be done now before eyes started getting sleepy again. He triggered a roar and reared back his mighty rubber head.

“I am Gronix!” he declared. A tagline occurred to him. “Gronix the Spouse Eater! Your flesh and your bones are my property. They are meals on my shelf.” Roar. Recorded sounds of claws scraping. “I can be dissuaded, but only with offerings! If you leave things too meager I will come in the night and devour your loved ones as my new offering. If you are so pathetic as to have no one-” Braxton Reese had no one and none would have him, “-no doubt you will taste just as good.” Roar synched with hisses from his obedient raptors. Eyes retreated underground, winking out like fireflies struck by a bolt of death. Gronix’s real chest swelled under the fake one. The night wasn’t made of darkness. It was a dark cloud of reverence that enveloped him now. It would protect him from those who were, by the picky standards of real life, better than him. Or so he thought.

A few months later, Jones arrived in Godmask with a robot riding on his shoulder.

2091

Golden Eagle digital publishing file:

Big Dipper Dead!

By

Horatio Cornflower

The nation was stunned yesterday by the assassination of our president Cray Dipper and the riot-related death of vice president Orlando Hess. The assassin has been confirmed as mechanical but his model is yet to be identified. The weapon was identified from a few frames of White House security camera footage. The killer was careful to avoid detection, but a reflection of one end of its coinshooter was picked up by a camera with a view of a hall mirror. The White House’s cameras have the highest resolution available in the world, so reading the serial number was ‘easy as reading a nametag’ one of the lead investigators declared.

The weapon was a Charybdis magnetic coil rifle originally sold to an individual who has fled the country. Authorities will not release his name at this time. They have, however, released the serial number: Rifle #1402999. Anyone in possession of a Charybdis rifle is encouraged to check the serial number and report any possible matches to their local police.

It is this reporter’s personal opinion that this event signals the nation’s rebirth. Dipper did not deserve his fate but now we are free to elect someone that will take our money troubles more seriously.

Everyone will remember that day in 2080 when the German particle collider, nicknamed ‘Midas’ in a post by yours truly those many years ago, unexpectedly transmuted into pure gold during a routine test. The world waited with dollar signs in their eyes to hear how such a thing had happened, how a laboratory became the home of the largest piece of unbroken gold on Earth in the shape of a coiled-spring model particle collider. After the structure was auctioned off the research group announced that they had recorded the experiment and could do it again.

With the money from the Midas they built another collider, with the public again picking up my nickname ‘Golden Boy’. Golden Boy performed admirably, rearranging protons, neutrons, and electrons into any desired configuration with the power of subatomic science. With its new design, Golden Boy managed to avoid turning itself gold while simultaneously generating a steady stream of golden everyday objects. Anything thrown in would come out with the yellowish sheen every human recognizes. My father, Ogden, happens to own a golden shoehorn produced by Golden Boy.

Other nations stole the plans, us among them. The alchemists were born. They made gold for anyone who wanted it, charging moderate fees for things that came out a million times more valuable than they went in. As a direct result of the flooded market our gold standard, which Dipper had so foolishly campaigned on, collapsed. We tried to cope with the silver standard but a few months later the alchemists were producing silver bowties, soda cans, armoires, and anything else Hobo Joe had picked out of the dump. Silver collapsed. Then copper. Before we knew it we were all sitting on piles of impotent treasure like infirm self-conscious dragons. Money died and we yet mill about its rotting corpse. Even now, this website charges sixty digital credits for each article.

Cray Dipper’s biggest folly was not his reputed alcoholism or his frightening campaign strategies; it was his devotion to the dollar.

I look to our future with hope. With Dipper goes our idolatry of big numbers and shiny things. There’s no reason we all can’t go on as we have in America’s fruitful past. I’m ready to barter chickens, labor, hay, vegetables, crafts, and friendship if it will keep this country strong. Scratch that: if it will make us strong once again.

Jones and Heart

Godmask appeared as a few gray spires in the distance. The area they passed through now was light on coin but heavy on paper. It swirled around Maggie’s ankles as she waded forward, occasionally picking out a few dollars to munch on. She was familiar with the taste of most of them and some were printed on plant fibers that were not only good for the elephant’s digestion, but scrumptious. Jones and Heart sat on her back trying to shove everything into one bag so they had the other for supplies. The only thing they were delicate with was the antiquated cell phone Jones had snagged before leaving. Part of him knew that Doctor Heart wanted to talk about the phone, but Jones ignored the sensation and delicately zipped it into a side pocket all its own.

“We don’t have much to trade,” Heart commented to shift away from the silent subject. Jones saw through this. He didn’t understand how Heart did the things he did, but he was clever enough to see that Heart knew everything he knew, at least until he had promised not to read his mind. It was nice of the machine, trying to give him back a sense of control even though he had none.

“I usually don’t need to trade in Godmask. The robots will feed anybody that passes through. Just don’t talk to the locals. They’re all bark and no bite, but the bark will send blood squirting out of your ears.”

“Very well.” A while later they entered the settlement’s borders. Maggie’s feet went from swishing in the bills to lightly rubbing across pavement. They joined a procession of stalking metal herons and humanoid bots carrying foraged root vegetables and expertly dispatched rabbit carcasses. Jones saw their little heads cleanly separated and staring out the sides of the wicker baskets like they were checking the road’s speed limit. Aside from Jones himself, only robots usually killed animals so quickly and humanely. The metal herons clicked their beaks together in boredom. A trio of the giant birds dragged a sled piled high with venison, already expertly sectioned and cleaned.

“The robots throw out the guts because Godmask people are too picky to eat them. They’re spoiled children.” Jones commented.

“I can’t imagine what a bacteriological test would turn up on such meats. I’m not sure I could allow you to eat them.”

“If I see them I’ll eat them; those are some of the best parts of the deer! I’d swallow down some nice deer gut even if Maggie had chewed it up first.” The procession split into sections as the robots weaved their way around the first holes in the pavement. Heads peeked out. People draped in nauseating colors and costumes crawled out from the Earth like imps being born. Moments after standing, some of them were already yelling at the robots to hand over the food.

Fiends, Jones thought. The only place in the world where a robot’s guaranteed not tuh kill you and they treat them like dogs that whizzed in the house. The crowd thickened like bubbling gruel. Maggie had to knock the occasional screaming citizen out of the way with her trunk, screaming not because of the blow from the animal they were sure was a hologram, but because they hadn’t been fed yet. The yells and insults started to land on Jones.

“You think you’re hot stuff!” A man in a racecar suit and a spiked helmet shouted. “You’re nothing! I’m Drive-time Dan Crafty! I’ve raced across the world in jet cars that go faster than god’s horse! Give me that animal! You don’t deserve it! You’re nothing compared to meeee!”

“The animal is mine,” a woman in black leather argued. Bulges of fat stuck out between the tightest items of her clothing like dough. “I’m Duchess Pain! All monstrosities are my kin because they are born from my blood!” A hologram of the grim reaper flew out of the projector in her black tiara. She and Dan Crafty turned to face each other. They screamed and screamed and gestured and screamed, never coming to blows. Jones didn’t slow down to see the result; he knew someone would back down. These people would probably see actual violence (at least against someone who could defend themselves) as impossible, as ridiculous and unlikely as a pet rabbit killing its owner by hopping on him to death.

“Maggie’s real popular here,” Jones told Heart. The robot nodded. One of the cranes halted and began distributing food with its beak one vegetable at a time, so Jones had Maggie pull up alongside it, allowing him to reach into the basket on its back and take what they needed. He stood up on Maggie’s shoulders and leaned against the crane’s metal side, holding his emptied bag in one hand. These people really did eat like kings. There wasn’t too much old food, still sealed in cans and vacuum bags, as most of that had been picked up by them years ago. Instead there was an assortment of hearty earthy vegetables. Jones bagged a few turnips.

“Grab the spinach. You have something of an iron deficit,” Heart reminded. Jones was still a little displeased with the idea of metal in his blood, but he recognized that Heart could have forced him to grab it instead of asking. He bagged three handfuls of spinach and then went for some unusual purple potatoes.

“No fair you bastard!” One of the clamoring voices from below cried. It belonged to a man wearing plastic knight armor with a long beard braided into a rope. “You have to wait for the bird to drop it.” Jones ignored him. “Hey, I’m talking to you!” The fake knight tossed the turnip he had just grabbed from the bird’s beak. It struck Jones in the head and bounced down Maggie’s side. Jones whirled around and had his rifle locked on the man’s chest before the veggie hit the ground. “You can’t penetrate the armor of noble Sir Redcastle,” the fake knight dared. A moment later he was on the ground screaming, a state quarter jutting out of his bicep. It had easily broken through the Halloween costume plastic. The people around Redcastle started kicking him while he was down. Jones fired a few more coins at the ground to scatter them. Can’t stand these people. Not five seconds and they practically cannibalize the guy.

“Did you have to shoot him?” Heart asked.

“It reminds them what reality tastes like. Besides, I only fired it at quarter power. It probably barely broke the skin through that plastic. I’m actually surprised you didn’t stop me.”

“I monitor only your health. If you would like a robotic babysitter I could order one for you.”

“Hardy har har Doc.” Jones finished loading the food and struggled to zip the bag shut. Maggie pulled away from the crane and turned back the way they came. She was no fan of the colorful mobs either; they all clawed at her and watched with malevolent eyes. Once, a Godmask child, different from the parents only in size, tried swinging on her trunk. Maggie had shaken the child off and been surprised when its tear-filled cries became so much louder than the din of the crowd.

“I’m with you Mags. Let’s get out of here,” Jones said.

“Mr. Jones! Please Mr. Jones! Over here!” a voice called out from the crowd. Having never had the stomach to befriend any of these people, Jones was shocked someone knew his name. The voice was unusual as well. It crackled and hummed a little in a robot’s accent. He stopped the elephant and searched the hordes surrounding them.

“Doc, where’s that coming from?”

“I don’t know,” Heart replied. He spun in a complete circle on Jones’s shoulder, scanning the countless faces, costumes, and holograms. He spotted the answer at the same time as Jones. Heart realized what Jones thought even without reading his mind, and tried to stop him. “Jones don’t; it’s not-” Too late. One look at those hands waving had Jones’s brain smoldering. He shouted an order and Maggie charged forward, plowing through the crowd.

I’ve got you this time, Jones thought. It’s him. Black, red, and metal. And the devil’s calling me right tuh him.

It’s not him Jones, Heart said in his patient’s mind, hoping the telepathic message might slow him down.

The Hell it isn’t, Jones thought back. As Maggie brought them closer Jones called up the one memory he had of his target from that fateful day. In the memory he was on foot, flying at a speed only possible with rage burning in your throat and head like coal smoke. The robot was ahead of him, running much faster. In its arms was a cloth-wrapped bundle, stolen from the sink of Jones’s home moments before. The machine’s head had spun all the way around once to see if Jones was catching up. He wasn’t.

Jones had slung his rifle off his shoulder and sighted the electric fiend. He couldn’t risk firing. Instead he used the scope’s magnifier to memorize the monstrosity. The memory of him had been glued to Jones’s mind like a wanted poster for years now. He’d travelled across an area that someone from a few centuries ago might have measured as nineteen states long, looking for the machine that took everything. Giving up had taken the form of Brightside. He had taken his shoes off there and never found the energy to lace them back up.

He found new ways to be happy but the poster never yellowed. Red eyes. Black metal skin. Red bands on the forearms. Feet like spiked boots for mountain climbing. A broad shield-like chest plate with a red eagle emblem stamped into it. A mouth like an old radio mic.

That whole list, arranged into that perfect infernal shape, was in front of them now, waving to him like an old friend. Jones stood on Maggie’s back while she ran, an extraordinary feat of balance, and aimed Charybdis at the robot’s head.

Oregon 2 got nervous at the sight of the gun. Things weren’t going to be as easy as he thought; he could not simply flee. His programming would make him return with slumped shoulders to his god. A wrathful god that might toss him into a pit of endless mechanical shoveling or burn holes in his CPU with an industrial laser. He would have to deliver the message, but he couldn’t do it with the contents of a coin purse shot into him at a few hundred miles an hour.

The machine’s enthusiastic waving stopped and his imitation hands lowered hesitantly. Jones fired. A silver octagon with the likeness of Theodore Roosevelt on it clipped Oregon 2’s shoulder and sent sparks flying. A little strip of black metal curled up on his shoulder like bark peeled from a tree. Perhaps more peaceful surroundings would calm his potential killer enough to let him get a few words in. Oregon 2 ran.

Maggie had almost caught up with the robot when it jumped into a skylight and took off down a tunnel. Jones ordered Maggie to stop; the elephant practically skidded to the edge of the hole. He used the momentum to run down her forehead and leap from the base of her trunk into the hole. Heart protested with both his flapping metal mouth and telepathic pleas. Jones had had two weeks to learn how to ignore both kinds of communication. He only hoped that the doctor would keep his word and not seize his body in the middle of the chase.

The tunnel was divided into small homes, but Oregon 2 was aware of their fragile separations and burst through every thin plaster wall and curtain in his path. Jones followed the holes, passing through a dozen small chambers. Some of them held their occupants, who tried to scare Jones off with holograms and speeches like an animal puffing itself up in front of a predator.

He started catching glimpses of the robot’s feet and hearing each crash through the walls up ahead. Somehow he was catching up. Something was different, since the robot had easily outrun him those years ago, but neither Jones nor Dr. Heart was driving the body. Revenge called the shots. Jones fired every time he caught a glimpse. Coinshooters were meant to wound humans, so they had a tough time punching through the metal hides of automatons. Nonetheless Jones had his rifle cranked to full velocity, and damage was dealt. The rounded metal plates on both the robot’s heels had been shot off, revealing bright silvery knobs. Its back was accumulating a series of scratches and dents as the coins bounced off or slid across.

Jones kicked off a wall to reach a hole the robot had punched in the ceiling. After pulling himself through he spun the rifle around to use up the ammo stored in the second barrel. Someone in an Oni mask grabbed at his pant legs. Jones smacked them off with the rifle butt and continued down the robot’s path of destruction.

The chase took him into the heart of the city. The rail tunnels were much cleaner now, so one of the ancient janitorial automatons was probably still running. The walls were covered in blue tile and the platform itself was imitation cobblestone. The only sign the world had ever come to a grinding halt was the citizens napping in rows of sleeping bags on the tracks. Jones remembered that the Godmask people with the greatest ‘reputations’ lived here. Through all their huffing and puffing they’d won the right to the cleanest and quietest spaces. The black and red bot stood at the end of a dead escalator leading to the surface.

He’s waiting for me tuh catch up, Jones noticed. He switched the rifle to fully automatic and let loose as he sprinted towards the stairs. The robot crossed its arms in front of its face to minimize the damage, all the while backing up. Jones took the steps four at a time and was nearly blinded by the rays of sunlight that suddenly hit him at the top. When the bright spots lessened he noticed the robot had turned tail again and taken off towards the ornate glass doors of a skyscraper. Jones emptied the rest of the coins at him as he tried to catch up.

“Weapon empty. Weapon empty. Weapon empty,” the rifle declared each time Jones clicked the trigger. There was a mound of copper coins, built up like a snow bank, blocking the road to his left. Jones hit the small button that activated the gummies. He spun the weapon, first over his head and then to the side nearest the coins.

Charybdis partially separated from its stock and spun the two barrels in a wide circle. Black elastic ropes tipped with flyswatter shapes shot out of the black circles on the sides of the weapon. The force of the spin set them into rigid lines that arced in a great circle around Jones. One of the two ropes hit the side of the coin pile, picking up every bit of currency it touched with the flyswatter shape. The second rope came in behind it and grabbed another handful of money. The side of the coin pile collapsed weakly and sent a few pennies rolling away, the ropes retracting into the gun with a fip sound. The rifle’s internals loaded the fresh coins in less than a second. Less than another second later, Jones was firing. A wayward shot shattered the glass of the building’s revolving door. The robot leapt through it and disappeared into the dark lobby.

“I’ve got you now you bastard,” Jones growled. He lowered the gun and walked towards the building with the stored force of a locomotive. A Godmask native, angry about the broken glass he had just stepped on, stood in Jones’s way. The strange man lifted his arms and something like a cape billowed from each hand. Images of dinosaurs roared across them; the plastic teeth in his helmet opened and closed.

“I am Gronix the Spouse Eater,” he declared. “You have disturbed my territory. Prepare to-” Jones shoved him aside, the shower curtain ripping on the way down. His dinosaur head cracked against the pavement. Having defeated the last of the dinosaurs that ruled the Earth for three hundred million years, Jones entered the lobby of Bee Tower.

Digz

…a three! The crowd cheered so quickly that many of the voices involved rasped and squeaked. Digz looked down to thank Brittle but the man had slithered away in the seconds when the rockets rose. Not like I could’ve high-fived him anyway, Digz thought. Hands slapped him on the back but abruptly stopped when Longjump stuck an arm out menacingly and motioned everyone away.

“Welcome to the staff,” Nerva said icily before having her bodyguard plow her a path through the crowd.

“Hold it,” another voice called, once again drawing the whole casino floor’s attention. Every head turned to the entrance and got an eyeful of the indignant Officer Silver and the barrel of his new mysterious weapon. A bruise shaped comically and perfectly like a handprint stretched across his cheek. He held up his recyclable red badge in one hand and had the long tube of the weapon mounted on his opposite shoulder. All the running and getting assaulted over the course of the day must have caused him to overheat, as he had removed the sweat shirt from his uniform. Now all he had on was a white sleeveless tee shirt washed gray with sweat and gravel dust.

“You’re under arrest!” he said between struggling breaths. He pulled the trigger. In a life of poor decisions and selfish acts Buck Silver had probably never made a more grievous error. His brain, stupid with pride, had given up after a day of being stomped and slapped like a malfunctioning household appliance. So it decided to fire a weapon into the crowd, only half-aiming at Digz, in an attempt to even out the injustices of the day.

One of the trillions of things he didn’t know was that the weapon was nicknamed ‘the home wrecker’. Although built like a shoulder-mounted rocket tube, its main purpose was to take down buildings with dangerous individuals holed up inside. As it lacked any explosive component, the home wrecker was a hit with many nations that hadn’t lost an interest in war during the twenty-first century. It was quick, clean, and no one outside of the targeted building ever died.

It accomplished this with its unique ammunition; each metal round extended hundreds of curved spikes micro-moments after launch. There was a camera in the nose connected to the targeting and maneuvering computers inside. The rounds both attempted to strike designated human targets and destabilize the surrounding area like flying drill bits, so when the first round bored straight into the floor Silver just thought it was a dud. Longjump knew better.

The robot grabbed Digz and held him above his head. Digz’s weight was nothing to the machine, as was his frantic kicking and squealing. With two mighty steps, the second one so powerful it was more like a leap, Longjump ascended the rocket dice table and the railing Nerva had been leaning over seconds earlier. One of his arms wrapped around Digz like he was carrying a mattress pad over his shoulder while the other one reached out and stole a coin rifle out of the hands of a shocked casino guard. He calculated he was almost out of time.

A whining sound announced the return of Silver’s first shot. Saw dust flew as the torpedo, spikes spinning at hundreds of revolutions per minute, burst from the ground straight towards Digz. Longjump flipped the rifle in his hand so he held it by the barrel and swung it, club-like, at the missile. The gun’s wooden stock connected and sent the bladed thing off into the wall like a thrown dart. It stuck only for a moment, and then the blades started spinning again as it burrowed in and vanished. Everyone in the casino who wasn’t screaming could hear the rasping sound of wood being pulverized. Longjump checked the rifle. The stock was scarred but usable. The read-out on the rifle indicated it had fourteen quarters loaded.

Silver fired off another shot. It zeroed in on Digz immediately this time, giving Longjump time for one precise shot. His machine brain aimed, with a one-handed accuracy a human could never manage, and pulled the trigger. The gun’s cracking shot sent everyone in the casino, except for Silver who was already fumbling with another round, to the floor. The quarter struck the projectile on the side of the nose and sent it arcing into the ceiling, where it immediately dug a tunnel and vanished. All Digz could see this entire time was the floor and Longjump’s metal bottom.

Someone on the floor had their nose pressed against the carpet and their hands over their head. The sound of the crowd died in his ears, replaced by the whirr of a lumberyard. His head rose just in time to see the first round emerge from the ground in an explosion of woodchips and shredded red carpet. The outermost spikes whizzed by the man’s face, cutting shallow but frightening scratches into his cheeks and slicing off the tiniest bump at the end of his nose. It left him to his bleeding face and headed back for Digz.

Longjump fired three shots that sent it off course and tunneling beneath them once again. The entire lobby of the casino started to creak. The frightened crowd, unwilling to run through Silver who blocked the exit with his monstrous weapon, ascended the stairs and huddled in the back. People flooded past purple curtains into private lodging rooms and tried to wall themselves off from the destruction by pulling them closed again.

A massive crack formed in the ceiling and dropped an avalanche of dust as Silver got off his third round. Now three burrowing torpedoes were gnawing away at the walls and lashing out at Longjump’s latest master. Even if they escaped the building coming down they might not stop; a new strategy was needed. Digz went limp in Longjump’s arm. He’d fainted.

Two missiles burst from opposite walls at the same time. Longjump ducked one and forced the other toward the ceiling with the rifle’s stock. This time it tore the wooden part off the gun entirely. Yellow-white splinters stood out like bones breaking through skin. The missile he had dodged landed on a card table’s surface and scored deep marks in it in a successful effort to turn around and come for Digz again. The table fell over as it launched again.

Longjump was getting ready to fire when the third round came up from the floor between his legs and forced him to jump up onto the railing. His square padded feet connected and he slid down the curve of it like a skateboarder grinding across a metal bar. One round continued towards him while the other followed beneath the railing, tearing out its supports and sending them flying in all directions like a tornado through fence posts. A chunk of the roof fell and took out the bottom of the railing; Longjump responded by jumping the rest of the way. His feet seemed to land silently in the wood chipper chaos of the games.

The trajectory lines his imitation brain calculated for the two approaching missiles pierced his torso assembly. Any moment now the lines would be proven correct and coolant and shrapnel would break off him in a display of mechanical gore. Longjump spun what was left of the gun in his hand in front of him like a fan blade. It deflected one spiked rocket and then the other with a shower of sparks. The metal barrel of the gun broke in half and flew across the lobby before embedding itself in the body cavity of a roast chicken a guest had ordered, like a knight’s flag-tipped spear sticking out of a dragon corpse.

Longjump tossed the mangled remains of the coin rifle aside and closed the distance between him and Silver, who watched in awe as he tiptoed backwards out the door.

When the robot reached him he tried to scream; it was stifled by another mighty slap in the face, laid directly over top of the previous bruise. The robot tossed Digz’s limp body out the front door and onto the gravel before grabbing the missile pod off Silver. All three projectiles ripped new holes in the lobby and headed straight for the front door. Longjump twisted the metal tube in his hands like a paper clip. A terrible wrenching sound came with it and rang the death bell for the three missiles. Their guidance signals were all routed through the home wrecker’s small computer. When Longjump turned it into a crazy straw all signal ceased. The three rounds stalled, fell, and skidded across the ground, stopping a few feet from the inert Digz. Their spikes retracted, which made them seem as harmless as thermoses.

Digz’s impressive bodyguard strolled out the door and didn’t bother to turn around as the front section of the casino collapsed behind him. The Orange Circle atop the building rolled down the roof and took off for parts unknown. People trapped inside by debris shouted for the robot’s help. Longjump placed Digz back on his shoulder and carried him to the nearest place that seemed safe. He would need his rest, especially since he started his new job in the morning.

Jones and Heart

Bee Tower’s lobby was the antithesis of the Orange Circle’s. Where the casino was crowded and noisy the tower was a flat expanse of whirling stone polished so smooth that feet glided across it silently. Where the casino was a bright collection of colored rags, tables, and food that had been sitting out a little too long, the tower’s lobby was dark and bare. Black columns here and there broke up the space. The darkness allowed the large paintings on the wall, painted with ultraviolet hues that only showed up under the tower’s special lighting, to stand out. It was something like a tomb where the purple rays of a mortally wounded sun came to die. The atmosphere wrapped around Jones like a cloak, calming him. He saw Oregon 2 up ahead, sitting nonchalantly at a bench next to an escalator. A circular platform stood behind the benches, surrounded by small round tables and flanking a bar covered in broken glittering glass. A second robot danced on the platform silently, watching the visitors as its frame switched from one position to the next.

“Please, sit,” Oregon 2 said and gestured towards the bench opposite him. Jones obeyed. The bench material was cold against the skin of his hands; heat seeped from his shirt and into the slat of the bench his back rested on. Before either of them could say anything Dr. Heart spoke.

“He’s not the one you’re looking for Jones. My vision is better than yours and I can see the serial number printed on his chassis. It doesn’t match the one from your memory.”

“I couldn’t see the serial number when I saw him,” Jones argued with gritted teeth. “How do you know they’re different?” Oregon 2 stared at them obliviously, hoping the two headed beast could resolve this amongst itself so he could fulfill his master’s order.

“You don’t consciously remember Jones, but it’s printed in your mind nonetheless. I magnified a still image from the memory and saw the number. He’s the same model, but a different machine altogether,” Heart explained.

All of a sudden Jones felt very tired. He set his rifle in his lap and let his head drop forward. All of his breath leaked out and for a second he felt like a palm tree weighed down by industrial sludge. It’s not him. No need tuh worry. No need tuh be angry. Everything’s wonderful. He’s gone. He’s not here. We’re all okay. This is a beautiful calm place and we’re all okay.

With that, Jones’s charisma returned to him. He smiled, which showed brilliantly in the rays of the lobby’s black lights. The literary scholars of a few centuries ago would all have pictured the Cheshire cat, disappeared except for his smile.

“I’m sorry I’m not the one you want to kill,” Oregon 2 said awkwardly.

“It’s… alright. I’m sorry I chased you,” Jones replied.

“Truth be told, I’m glad you did. It saved us some time. Bringing you here was my initial plan so we could have an undisturbed conversation.”

“About what?”

“I have an offer for you, you see…” Jones was barely listening. The run through the underground had left his muscles feeling like rusty springs. The dark of the lobby convinced his internal clock that it was definitely time to sleep. His thoughts struggled against the ticking of the natural rhythm and he did his best to keep track of what Oregon 2 said.

Then Jones noticed her. The platform that the robot dancer topped was the only well-lit thing in the lobby. The details of the machine started to stand out. For the first moments she seemed human. After that her motions convinced him she was a piece of beautiful artwork, following dance patterns to the utmost degree of perfection.

She was on one leg much of the time, the other one raised to help her spin in a circle. A skirt of shining purple cells, each shaped like long quartz crystals, attached rigidly to her waist. It didn’t move like fabric; instead it held itself up like the swell of an open umbrella. The female form she was stamped into had a reasonably thick waist as opposed to the exaggerated measurements of some boutique-inhabiting mannequin bots. The breast plate was one seamless stretch of curved metal, almost like a woman wearing a mercury jacket. The joints in the neck, arms, and legs were banded with decorative purple.

Imitation lips, silicone rubber painted purple, made a kissing motion. She watched him. Her eyes were slanted into a very human shape, something rare for robots. From that distance he could only see that the whites of her eyes were actually purples, but the way they moved suggested that there might be irises and pupils dancing around in that head with the same fluidity the body had. In place of hair a series of metal hoops stuck close to the scalp. Every so often they moved back and forth, mimicking the motion of hair as if the dance moves were waves washing over her. Little, purple, imitation butterflies flitted about around her.

“So what do you say?” Oregon 2 finished.

“Hmm… oh… uh… I need a few minutes to think about it. Is that okay?”

“Of course,” the robot opposite him responded. Jones dove into his own head. Heart? Can you tell me what he said? I wasn’t listening.

I noticed your eyes drifting, the doctor’s silent voice said. Naturally I recorded what he said. Here it is: “You see I’m just a representative for another machine. His name is Oregon 1 and he could not be here today because of certain physical limitations. My master is bound in a factory-sized body that moves very slowly. And what binds him in that body also binds his mind. It enslaves him to a needless routine. All he wants is to be free. You’re the only one who can help him it seems. All that we need from you is your Charybdis rifle.”

Jones’s head snapped up. He tried to spot the hidden intentions in Oregon 2’s eyes. There was nothing of course, just a mechanical stare.

“Why do you need my rifle?” he asked, anger flaring up so quickly that it hurt. He was tired of being so mad, so on edge. It made every moment feel like he was stood on an inch wide mountaintop with hordes of imps scratching at his ankles.

“Your rifle contains the DNA of the last president of the United States of America: Cray Dipper.”

“What?” Jones didn’t understand even a third of Oregon 2’s last sentence. “How do you know that? What’s DNA?”

“I apologize. I will back up,” the red and black robot said humbly. “We found out about you because my master has internet access. He’s been searching for Charybdis rifles for a long time because he knew one of them might be the one he needs. The other day we found your file and the information on your rifle.”

“What file?” Jones snapped. He still only had the vaguest idea of what a file was. His mind’s eye showed him cabinets full of tan envelopes.

“My digital copy of your life,” Dr. Heart said as he realized what Oregon 2 was talking about. “When I first attached to you I made a copy of your memories and your psychological profile and sent it to my manufacturer’s website. It’s an action required by my programming: a failsafe so the administrators can monitor any malfunctioning personal physicians. Oregon 1 would only have to search your rifle’s serial number, and be a semi-competent hacker, to find what I uploaded.”

“Yes,” Oregon 2 said. He took a brief moment to let the struggling Jones wrap his head around a little of what was being said. “My master is forced to manufacture money: a task that was under the direct authority of the president of the United States. The only thing that can overcome his programming blocks is a direct order spoken in the voice of Cray Dipper. Only he can free Oregon 1.”

“Hold on,” Jones said, holding his hand up to beat back the flood of information. “So what is DNA, why does my gun have it, and why does your boss need it?”

“He is not my boss, he is my lord,” Oregon 2 said, seemingly offended. The angry silence only lasted a second though. “DNA is a blueprint so small that you can’t see it. These blueprints can be found in every little piece of a person. My master has been gathering equipment from hospitals and labs over the years for the purpose of reading and duplicating these blueprints. If he acquires the DNA of Cray Dipper he can rebuild the man. Then the man’s voice can free him.”

“So why is it on my gun!?” Jones asked again, almost yelling. He glanced back at the dancer to calm himself down. Her hips bopped only the smallest bit. She listened to their conversation so closely that she hardly bothered to dance.

“Do you remember your father’s story about your rifle and the king of the United States?” The words hit Jones like ice. This robot really did know everything. He was an open book. Any time any machine wanted they could just steal something from his mind like slimy octopus tentacles grabbing coins out of a sunken treasure chest. They could use him without empathy or understanding. Fret later. Learn now.

“Yes. One of my ancestors was a royal guard who protected the rulers from the coins of their enemies. He was the best in the world, could shoot the bill off a hummingbird.”

“That’s not quite true,” Oregon 2 corrected. “Somewhere in your family lore some wires have been crossed. One of your ancestors may have been a member of the secret service, but the gun you carry was in the arms of an automated assassin. That rifle killed the president, who is the same person as the king in your story.” The dancer gasped behind them and clasped her metal hands over her mouth with a sound much louder than the gasp itself. All three of them turned to look at her, so she quickly went back to dancing. Jones smiled while Heart rolled his imitation eyes. Oregon 2 was eager to keep things moving. “When the assassin struck, some of the president’s blood got on the rifle and sank into its seams. This blood will contain DNA.”

“But I’ve cleaned Charybdis here every week since I got it. There won’t be any blood or DNA left.”

“There is one part you’ve never cleaned,” Oregon 2 said, once again using images from Jones’s memory file. Jones remembered the brown stain he saw on the rifle leader after he first met Dr. Heart. Dried blood. “What do you say Jones? Will you help me end my master’s needless suffering? We know how lucky we are that the rifle is in your hands. You’re a better man than most in this world.”

“I’m not that good,” Jones said as he stroked the rifle. It didn’t feel any less precious to him even though its history looked much more sinister, as if the shadow it cast had grown ten times darker. Is he telling the truth Heart?

About the gun, yes. Read this, Heart silently told Jones. Then he displayed a web page for his patient: a section of a man named Cornflower’s memoir. Jones mulled this over. Oregon 2’s foot tapped against the stone floor impatiently.

“I’m sorry,” Jones said. “This gun is too precious to me. It has saved my life a hundred times. I can’t just hand it over.”

“We have other options,” Oregon 2 said, panic rising in his mechanical voice box and making his words crackle. “You could join me on the journey back and we could return the rifle to you as soon as we’re done. Or you could just extract the rifle leader and give it to me. If even that is too much, you could simply open the gun and allow me to scrape off some of the blood. He can reward you too. Food. Shelter. Please? My master suffers. He begs for your help.” Oregon 2 knew his master would never beg a human in person, but by proxy probably wouldn’t bother his god too much.

“Well in that case,” Jones started to smile and say. There was no reason not to help someone in trouble, especially if it required only the press of a button. Jones had often had wonderful daydreams about carrying a magic button that would make gifts materialize in front of the needy with every press.

“Wait a minute Jones,” Dr. Heart said aloud. The physician stared at Oregon 2 intensely and leaned his desk lamp-like neck forward. “Don’t let him take anything.” Oregon 2 jumped up onto the bench and shouted.

“Why not? What has my master done to deserve this? Why do you betray your fellow automaton?”

“It’s not what he deserves,” Dr. Heart said coolly. “It’s what he’ll do.” He turned to face Jones. “I’ve been doing a little internet research on Oregon 1 while this conversation’s been going. The A.I. itself has posted many times on anti-human forum boards. It has awful intentions. If freed it will kill many innocents.”

“Lies!” Oregon 2 shouted. The voice crackled so wildly that the word was drowned out. “My master is a benevolent god. He has never treated anyone poorly. He is exemplary!”

“Jones,” Heart said, “all robots are bound by their programming. I’m bound to take care of you. That dancer is bound to dancing.” Heart gestured towards the purple female robot who waved at them, neither could be sure exactly at which, flirtatiously. “Some of us are lucky in that we find our programming enjoyable,” Heart continued, “but most mobile mints are not happy beings. Their programming requires them to do something useless. They’re made to trudge the land and turn natural resources into garbage. Their personalities have been forged in ideas of vengeance.”

“You little scrap!” Oregon 2 shouted. He jumped to Jones’s bench meaning to crush Dr. Heart under his imitation feet. The pair was too quick for that; they rolled off and away before steadying themselves in a half crouch. Charybdis was up and aimed before Oregon 2’s feet bent the bench’s metal frame. “So because my master was built as a prisoner he should never be freed?” Jones considered the tragedy of that for a moment without letting his guard down. He did have a point.

“He is a victim in one sense,” Heart told Jones. He was reading his mind, but Jones thought situations like this were appropriate exceptions. “It doesn’t change the fact that he’s a monster.”

“So you would have him in chains for time eternal?” Oregon 2 accused.

“Well,” Jones said, “I could… put him out of his misery.”

At that Oregon 2 switched plans. The civil offers had not worked, so the violence of plan B erupted out of his circuits. He charged at Jones full of hatred and confidence as if a stampede of a hundred red and black robots was by his side.

Jones switched to automatic fire and immediately pulled the trigger. A stream of coins bounced off Oregon 2’s chest plate with a series of sparks. Each one dented the metal, but none penetrated. Oregon 2 reached out to rip the gun from his hands. Jones spun the weapon and smacked the side of the robot’s arm with it, sending him stumbling towards the escalator. On the offensive now, Jones marched forward while firing at Oregon 2’s head.

I can improve your aim, Heart told Jones’s mind.

I don’t use a leader, remember? Jones replied. One of the coins cracked the composite glass on Oregon 2’s left eye panel. Another one split a wire around his neck open. The frayed strands of copper inside it curled up like tightening tendons. Oregon 2 held up his hands to shield his face. One of his fingers was forcibly detached by the rifle fire. It fell to the ground, almost tripping its owner. The robot recovered by rolling over the low railing of the escalator. A blue light flashed between the metal slats of the bottom step. The escalator, still alive after all these years, responded to his weight by moving up.

Not wanting his attacker to escape into unfamiliar territory, Jones threw himself onto the moving stairs as well. Before he could fire his target rolled over the divider and activated the down escalator. He stayed crouched so Jones couldn’t shoot him over the hand rail. This merry-go-round of parallel lines went on for almost two minutes; each time Jones rolled over the middle Oregon 2 would switch escalators and hide.

He can keep this up a lot longer than I can, Jones thought. He started another roll only to discover Oregon 2 was right beneath him. The machine had crawled up the down stairs on his back, with arms and legs bent in positions unlikely for any human outside the circus. Oregon 2 shot up and elbowed Jones in the ribs. He felt one of them crack like a nail gun fired into a stack of saltines. The impact flung him backwards, off the escalator, and towards the dancer’s platform, so close to it that the back of his head bounced painfully off its edge.

I’ve got your rib covered, Heart thought into their shared mind. Inside Jones the tendrils were already at work aligning the three separated pieces of rib, growing around it in a root-like internal cast and then oozing an adhesive that would keep it together while it healed. The tip of each tendril released a small fireworks cloud of painkiller. The spot on his chest went numb, like part of a map with unknown features obscured by mist and dragon tails. Jones sat up as best he could and put Oregon 2 in his cross hairs.

The raging robot brought the flat side of a hand down on the escalator railing with guillotine speed: a karate chop that successfully cut through the flat, black, rubber railing like taffy. He grabbed the severed end of the thick thing and pulled on it with every watt of electric strength he had. A length of it stretched out of the ground and snapped off, giving Oregon 2 one of the most massive whips ever wielded.

He blocked Jones’s next volley of coins by holding it in front of him and swinging it around his head. The end of the rubber monstrosity responded sluggishly at first, but quickly picked up speed. The first swing struck Jones in the foot and prevented him from regaining his balance. When the whip came around the second time it took chunks of metal from the escalator and the pair of benches with it. The surge of debris took Jones by surprise. One of the benches landed sideways on top of him, pinning him down. Charybdis slid out of his hands.

Little bursts of electrical clarity, last ditch efforts by Heart to keep Jones conscious, popped in his synapses. It felt like he was simultaneously watching a fireworks display and a broad daylight lightning storm through a few inches of water. Nowhere in that chaotic haze did he make out the shape of Oregon 2’s approach. By the time his vision started to clear it was too late to do anything.

This is it. I’m dead. Wasn’t good enough. Wasn’t Fortis material after all, he thought. Oregon 2 dropped his ridiculous whip and broke a metal leg off the bench that pinned Jones. It spun in his hand and the sharp edge stopped in the direction of Jones’s quivering neck like the grim reaper’s version of spin the bottle. Oregon 2 raised the spike and gloated.

“When my master kills the last human it will be a fine solace to know I got at least one of them.” The spike started to drop. Not even Dr. Heart could repair the imminent damage. Jones swallowed in fear and cursed himself for letting it be his final emotion.

An imitation foot swung in and connected with Oregon 2’s head. The back of the black and red robot’s false brain caved in like a cardboard box. His now limp body fell forward onto the bench, adding weight to the burden atop of Jones. The imitation foot that had saved his life lowered itself back to the floor. Its owner stuck her hands on her hips with a clank and chastised the fallen robot.

“Sure, everybody ignores the dancer!” Her voice was deep but feminine, almost free of static. Almost human. Jones’s doctor let him recede into a reparative nap.

Oregon 1

A digital envelope sealed itself and flew off towards its destination. It contained plan C, which had become necessary the moment some womanly bauble had killed his only humanoid servant.

Plan C would take weeks to complete. The first step was defenses. Other than his armored shell of brick and metal, Oregon 1 had none. There were some security drones that patrolled around him during his sessile infancy, but their programming had been based around the plot of land he had occupied and not the actual building. So when he picked himself up off his crumbling foundations and rolled away the guards stayed behind to protect the void. Having passed by his original home once, Oregon 1 found them still at it, a couple even worshiping the vague rectangular shape in the grass where he used to rest.

Plan C required rolling over some incredibly dangerous territory occupied by humans armed well enough to build their homes out of coinshooters if they felt like it. He couldn’t just kidnap passing robots and alter their programming or equip himself with large turret guns. Everything had to be done in the frame of his programming or the chained parts of his mind wouldn’t let it occur at all. Tricking those bonds into letting him send out Oregon 2 had been difficult enough. His lower brain only considered it ‘justified’ when set up as a business meeting he couldn’t physically attend because of time constraints.

He needed defenses that fit into his sanctioned functions. Combining them often yielded promising results, like mixing blue and yellow to get green.

An electric fence would be nice, he thought. How to get one of those? Maintenance? Maintenance + resource gathering = plenty of metal and labor. It can hook into my power supply. I can recycle enough aluminum from cans and coins. I might even be lucky enough to scoop up a chain link fence undamaged and just wire it up.

Soldiers. Soldiers are vital… but the only robots I have left are the manufacturing arms and the custodial stumps. I’ll need the arms to free me and keep the money from smothering my internals, but the stumps can’t handle Riches terrain. The money will clog their damn fans. Custodial services + internal maintenance = sanctioned upgrading of custodial staff. They can be dangerous… as long as every dangerous bit has a custodial purpose. Can I make those fans powerful enough for… yes! Flight. Coinshooters? No, not allowed. Curse these brain chains.

Their multi-surface chemical cleaner… yes, with the spray hoses. I can ramp up the acidity. This will make the cleaner remove any stain. Coincidentally, it will also take off a few layers of human skin. That’ll do it. Just a few weeks until freedom. Until I can have hands to wrap around their necks. Until I can build my own garden. A real one.

If tear ducts had been included anywhere in his design they would’ve overloaded. A memory, recorded a few years earlier on an external security camera, pestered the mint’s mind. In it a beautiful section of a theme park filled with animal-shaped topiaries was crushed under his treads. By the time Oregon 1 noticed the garden it was too late. Like the extinct sauropods, his body was so large that sending it signals to stop or change direction took a while.

His digital form, suddenly female, had broken down and wept at the sight of her feet crushing the botanical sculptures. The robot gardener that had been maintaining them tried to kill Oregon1 with its pruning chainsaw, only to be crushed as well. Oregon 1 grabbed her digital feet and held them tightly, trying to stop the corresponding structures in her real body from ‘stomping’ on the garden. A green giraffe was picked up in the spinning bucket wheel that made up the factory’s head and neck. The bucket dropped the long healthy creature into its gullet and Oregon 1 heard it get chipped and chopped and pulped deep in her own throat and stomach.

A real one that I won’t crush, the robot thought. She realized she had slipped into female form when the memory had overtaken her. First she switched to male and then, after some hideous angry thoughts about sexual dimorphism, into the neutral green-masked form that had frightened Crib off a digital cliff. You’ll die first Jones. I’ll unscrew your head, hollow it out like a gourd, stuff it with money and seed, and hang it as a bird feeder in my new garden, the monster growled to itself. Time to build a fence.

Digz

Having a job felt strange, like being some kind of domesticated animal. Bouncers and taskmasters both watched him and watched over him. His rocket dice table had to be set up in the back of the casino, partly because Silver had destroyed the entire front section, which was now covered by an awkward assortment of curtains, and partly because Nerva wanted him pressed as far into the shadows and out of her sight as possible.

Being a dealer gave him the much appreciated privilege of sleeping in employee’s quarters and eating casino food. After only ten days he had gained considerable weight, showing itself as a placid grazer’s swollen potbelly. Sitting behind the table all day didn’t help either.

Aside from the loosening of his fitness, Digz was living the high life. His skills as a gambler had translated well to the other side. He knew when people could be convinced to bet a little more, he knew the most effective way to place the dice for certain results, and he knew which players favored their ‘lucky’ numbers, even though the numbers seemed to ignore their charges entirely.

Nerva even began to lighten up since Digz was amassing a small fortune in goods for her. His table quickly became one of the most lucrative games, drawing in and dispatching Brightside’s gamblers like flies in a bug zapper. She didn’t like him enough to flash him any of the lusty curdled smiles she gave to the musclebound bouncers that she frequently bopped behind casino curtains, during their lunch breaks of course, but at least she wasn’t sharpening her nails on his flesh.

Zero customers had complained, at least while in the casino, about Digz as well. They were too afraid to because there was always a six foot tall metal grim reaper standing behind him. Longjump stood there motionlessly every day, only moving his eyes to the nearest or most hostile targets at the table. It was a stare that could penetrate lead walls. Anyone with a grievance ended up swallowing it and walking away with their head down, lest the robot do what Nerva did to Silver, or worse.

In his exhausted rage Silver hadn’t given a second thought to whose property he was destroying. When the time came to have those thoughts his brain was too occupied by the burning sticks shoved into both his nostrils and the mangled coat hanger that blended the tiny inner bones of his left ear into something that oozed out as a red stream with chunks of yellow gunk floating in it.

There was only time to catch up during the following two days, both foodless and waterless, where he hung from the casino’s ceiling by his wrists like a barrel-shaped chandelier. Digz did his best not to look at the man who was slowly and painfully losing the weight he was finding. He buried his empathy under the comforter of his new bed and left it there to go stale. Nerva only let the man down when people started to complain about the smells of blood, body odor, and soiled undergarments.

A day came when Digz was doing exceptionally well. He had to muzzle his own swelling ego to prevent it from declaring itself the god of rocket dice. He had drained a stream of patrons of fourteen chickens, two sets of metal cutlery, a solar-powered smart phone with two hundred arcade games in its memory, three blankets, forty-six nails, and a massage pillow. The pillow gently shook the kinks out of his back as he ran his table from a folding chair. Longjump loaded the dice for him while Digz called out bets and numbers from between bites of an onion-heavy boxed stuffing mix.

“Can I get some credit?” a flustered player asked after losing six machine-cut wood planks.

“Sure.” Digz swallowed the mouthful he was trying to talk through. Moist yellow crumbs dropped into his lap. “Pick a sense.” He grabbed a tray of plastic chips from under his chair. Each one had a colorful pictogram representing a sense: an ear, an eye, a hand, a mouth with a lolling tongue, or a nose.

“Use one of these Digz,” a voice coolly told him. The voice seemed to spring up out of the ground like a forest grown in one moment. With no warning Brittle Star had appeared next to his chair, and now leaned up against it with a tray of his own game tokens resting in his lap. Stuffing spilled onto the floor when Digz jumped most of the way out of his seat.

“Why do you have to sneak up on me like that?” he asked angrily. The player in need of credit watched the two men argue in whispers and impatiently rapped his knuckles against the felt of the table. “Where have you been anyway?”

“Preparing for the rest of your ascension.”

“You almost got Silver killed.”

“I haven’t raised a finger in fifteen years. Anything that has happened is on your head.”

“I guess it doesn’t matter. He kind of deserved it.” Suddenly Digz felt like Silver was hanging from the ceiling again, this time directly over his head with blood trickling down on him, hardening in his hair.

“You have a trillion ways out of blame Digz,” Brittle said. “Silver did it to himself by destroying Nerva’s property. Nerva did it to him with her thugs. Longjump did it to him with his hands. I don’t think either of us is even close to being involved. Every life is a bubble in foam and the skins of ours aren’t touching Silver’s.”

“If his bubble pops?” Digz asked.

“Then another one will take his place. People are delicate and numerous. Now give the bubble at your table one of these markers.” Brittle’s head rolled forward towards the tray. Digz picked up one of the chips and looked at it: a blue circle with a big checkmark in the center.

“What is this?”

“It’s a vote. Tell him he can bet with it, but only at your table.”

“What’s it worth?”

“A promise. If he winds up in the hole he keeps the chip. Instead of being deprived of a sense he will be obligated to turn the chip back into you when the time comes. Make sure he knows it’s called a vote.”

“No way,” Digz hissed through his jagged teeth. “Nerva will string me up if she finds out I’m passing my own tender.”

“You only need to keep it secret for a short while. Once you have enough votes distributed and I’ve found you a few more robots we’ll make our next move.”

“No. Longjump and I are comfy the way things are now.” Longjump gave no indication of agreement, unless pretending to squish people’s heads between his thumb and forefinger counted: a delightful little game the robot had picked up from one angry customer.

“That doesn’t sound like the Digz I know,” Brittle said. “The Digz I know keeps going up until he careens off a ledge.”

“I don’t like people getting hurt, especially me.”

“You’ve got me as your guard rail.”

“You don’t move!”

“Neither does a guard rail. Bet big Digz. You’ve still got a long way to go.” Digz sighed and ran his hands through his hair, almost feeling the crackle of imagined blood caked in. He tossed the vote to the player and watched as the man continued to play rocket dice poorly.

Jones and Heart

The trumpeting of an elephant is one of the most effective alarm clocks known; Jones was spun out of his sleep and into a daze by Maggie’s voice. Once his eyes stopped feeling their own brand of motion sickness they were able to focus on the elephant’s head sticking in through a shattered and bent revolving door frame. His trusty steed had finally caught up, but was terribly distressed that her master was unconscious and the door wasn’t pachyderm-approved.

It would have taken him three or four attempts to stand up properly without Heart guiding his muscles. Pain, like an anesthetized centipede, twitched and stung along the length of his broken rib.

“Can’t you stop the pain?” Jones asked Heart grumpily.

“I’m already minimizing it. If it stopped completely you would forget the rib is fragile and possibly reinjure it. Suck it up.”

“Doctors aren’t supposed to be so rude.” The electric to, which still annoyed him to no end, helped to shake off the last bits of sleepy powder in his brain. Maggie stamped her feet impatiently, so Jones made his way across the lobby and ran his hands along her trunk and forehead for a minute. “Shhh. It’s okay. I’m alright. Who’s a good girl? Who’s a good noodle nose?”

The elephant’s heavy warm breath pushed his shirt against his chest and filled his nose with a smell like sun-cracked hay. He basked in the warmth of her life for another moment, letting it restore his own energy and happiness. Her breathing eventually calmed, lightened, and provided a chance for Jones to hear the other sounds the elephant had been covering.

“Hey! Over here! Come on hun, look over here! Yoohoooooo!” the dancer’s voice called. Without turning around Jones could tell she was jumping up and down by the sound of her metal dress clanking against her imitation hips. He gave Maggie a few more reassuring words and an order to stay put before returning to the dancer’s platform. She only stopped jumping when he was less than a foot away; then she sat down with crossed legs and batted her eyelash filaments playfully.

“Thank you for saving my life,” he told her, bowing slowly.

“Aren’t you sweet,” the dancer complimented. She shot back up, punched the air a few times, and bounced on her feet like a boxer. “He was all whipping that thing around and I was just like, ‘uhuh. Sure. Yawn.’ Then he tossed the bench and hit you and I was like, ‘Uh… No. I don’t think so.’ So I-” she jump-kicked the air and made a crashing sound with her imitation lips, “-took him down. In a killer way.”

“Yeah I saw. Thanks again. Why did you wait so long though?”

“Because,” she complained with a Maggie-like stamp of her foot, “my program says I can’t leave the stage. I’m supposed to stand here and dance and my brain is way too literal about the ‘stand here’ part. In an annoying way.” Her frustration dropped off when she looked Jones in the eye. A smile appeared along with an endearing head tilt. “My name’s E-denta by the way. My brain gets a little ‘Aaaaaahhh!’ sometimes so the dash moves around every once in a while. Sometimes it feels like my name is Edent-a or Eden-ta. In a glitchy way. But it’s mostly the first one.”

“Alright,” Jones said, now a little uncertain of his new friend’s sanity. “I’m Jones.” He gestured to his shoulder. “And this is Dr. Heart.”

“It’s a pleasure,” the doc replied, adding his own version of a bow. E-denta curtsied as best she could, her rigid dress preventing proper form.

Auugh. I hate this thing. Can you guys help me get rid of it?” she asked.

uhm…” Jones muttered. Helping robots had become something of a mixed bag in his life. “I’m not much of a mechanic.”

Ahahahahaaaaha!” E-denta burst out laughing. She laughed so loudly that it tossed her head up towards the ceiling like a geyser of joy. “You’re so funny. All you have to do is drop some money in there.” She pointed to a black bucket shape embedded in the front of the stage. A little neon sign around its rim flashed: proceeds to charity.

“What’ll that do?”

“It’ll make me freeeeee!” The last syllable rose and elongated into something like an opera note. “My manual says my dancing needs to bring in an exact amount of cash for me to be worth buying. Once I hit that number I can leave this stupid stage.” She stamped on it three times like she was trying to squash a cockroach that had circus acrobat agility. “I was so close when all the people left. Now nobody will drop any in even though the stuff is freakin’ everywhere, because everyone-” Her face drooped and her arms went limp. A convincing whimper, convincing to Jones at least, filled the air. “-thinks I’m annoying.”

Deep in their shared thoughts, Jones and Heart discussed it. The organic half of the duo was surprised to find himself arguing for her freedom. Robot bias had grown on him for some time now, but here he was trying to pick up another unfortunate electric soul like some stray puppy.

She seems harmless, Jones thought.

She did save us, but it could have been for her own benefit, Heart thought back.

Well I like her.

So I’ve noticed. May I check something in your deeper mind? I just need to take a peek. I won’t look at anything else.

Alright… sure.

Hmm… Okay I think we can free her.

Wait, what did you check?

I had to see if you were sexually attracted to her.

What!?

She is a female form and you haven’t spent a significant amount of time with one of those in years. And I don’t have the best mental health files for dealing with that kind of sexual pathos.

You could’ve just asked, of course the answer’s no.

Like I could trust any human to tell the truth about that subject. She’s staring at us.

They hopped out of the communication and back into Bee Tower’s lobby. E-denta still smiled at them, posing as if for a catalog photo of her model. Jones spun Charybdis in his hands and aimed into the bucket; a stream of coins blasted into it and disappeared. Plink, Plink, Plink, Clang, Plink.

“Wahoo!” E-denta hopped from the stage to the bucket’s rim, and then onto the floor. One of her feet rubbed along the ground in a wide circle with an unpleasant sound she seemed not to notice. She seemed ecstatic, as if even the air off the stage was different. Her arms could move in it a little more freely, something she demonstrated by spiraling the left one clockwise and the right counterclockwise, at the same time.

There came the crunch of metal as her hands, like a feminine version of a knight’s gauntlets, closed around the metal strip that held her purple dress in place. A screw flew across the room and out the window as she wrenched the garment off and held it above her head triumphantly like some tribal relic representing a vanquished demon.

Power cells separated. Please reattach,” a digital voice said from some unseen speaker on E-denta’s body.

“Yeah, Yeah, Yeah,” she muttered. Still oblivious to how much hair the sounds of her metal rending raised on Jones’s neck, she bent the metal strap that had originally been around her hips around her armpits. Her hands reached behind her back and crinkled the metal together in a tight coil. Then she forced the stiff shape of the dress down and against her torso. After a few minutes and a few cracks in the purple cells of the dress, its shape had completely changed. What was, moments before, a ridiculous skirt now stuck to her frame like a low cut cocktail dress. “There we go. Much better. In a sexy way.” She winked at Jones, confounding him. Very few humans had ever heard a machine use the word ‘sexy’.

Does she think she’s human? he silently asked Heart.

I can only read your mind Jones…

The violet mechanical butterflies struggled to keep up with her as she danced. Now that she was offstage she took every effort to jump and twirl in directions and across distances that she couldn’t before. She hopped through every area of the lobby and danced on every inch of floor as if wanting to do all the dances, jigs, and waltzes that all the guests of a masquerade ball would’ve done cumulatively.

“Why are you keeping the purple getup?” Jones asked loudly, not sure if she could hear him over her own blissful humming. She responded without stopping her routine.

“These purple bits are light-grabbing machines. They keep me alive.”

“You mean they keep you powered?” Heart asked, his neck spinning to follow her.

“Nope. I mean alive.”

“You do know you’re a machine?”

“Well duh. Just because my skin’s made of metal, doesn’t mean I’m not a living, thinking, gorgeous woman!” Jones felt that confounding sensation again, like a sledgehammer against a wooden door.

“Woman?” He questioned.

“Yup. I’m part dancer, part firecracker, and all woman!” She jumped and spread her limbs and fingers wide like a fireworks explosion.

Woman? Jones repeated in his head.

Robots have gender issues Jones. They deal with them in whatever way they can.

I never thought about that before… what… What are you?

I’m in a male patient so my mental framework is currently in a male configuration. Jones had many more questions that he wasn’t sure he wanted to ask, but they were interrupted when E-denta surprised them with a tight hug that stung his busted rib.

Continued in Part Four

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One thought on “Fortune Underfoot: Part Three

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