(reading time: 1 hour, 9 minutes)
“Hey Longjump… it’s looking at me,” Digz said with a smile. He waved his hand back and forth and watched the eyes of the little character on screen follow it. “Hey little guy, can you bring me some Seinfeld? Season seven? S-E-V-E-N.”
“I’m here to help a friend,” Crib said, his voice coming through loud and clear thanks to the screen’s speakers. Digz took a few steps back. It might be time to start worshiping the television if it was going to make a habit of talking back to him.
“So you don’t have any TV?” he asked the digital creature.
“No, but I do enjoy it. Lots of lovely circles. Everyone winds up back where they started. No… I’m here to connect. My friend is telling me that we’re a big circle of friends. One of them needs your help. Your friend Jones needs your help.” Digz hopped around ecstatically. He kicked coins and fell over mid-cartwheel. He ran to Longjump, positioned the robot’s hand in the air, and then gave it a high-five. Then the president of Brightside turned back to Crib.
“I knew Jones would survive. The Riches can’t bury a guy like that! What’s my buddy need? You tell him I can make the whole town stand on its head and count pennies if he needs it!”
“Okay!” Crib said with a big toothless smile. Fully infected by Digz’s enthusiasm, he quickly opened several windows on the screen. One was a video feed connected directly to Dr. Heart’s eyes. Another held lines and lines of computer code. “I can’t wait! Can’t wait, can’t wait, can’t wait. He pulled out his treasure word and stared intensely at it. The golden letters took on the sheen of warm butter, bubbling and melting under his gaze. Crib focused harder. He thought about circles. “What goes around might just come around. What goes around should come around. What goes around comes around.” He thought of his master’s cruelty. The treasure word shortened and the letters began to reform. He changed it just like Dr. Heart had asked. The gleaming new treasure word: Oregon 1.
Braxton’s flight had taken him down an unstable path. He whined with fatigue as he waded, knee deep, through coins with Charybdis held above his head. Tears fell like boulders off his cheeks and to the ground where they drowned the faces of dead presidents and flooded national monuments. He’d never seen the money this thick, never known what had become of most of the world. A breeze came from behind and pelted him with dollar bills. He grabbed one and tore it into a hundred pieces that then blew away, ignorant of their destruction.
“Why is this happening to me? I just want to eat. I want to be somewhere where I can stay and eat. Is that so hard? Is this planet so harsh that I can’t just think about me and eat?” A new sound came. He whipped his head around, using Charybdis to keep the sun out of his eyes, and searched the horizon. At first there was nothing but mountains of cash. One tractor tire served as the only landmark. A few minutes ago he had tried to drink the fluid gathered in its bottom only to spit it back out and make a list of the worst things he had ever tasted just so he could put that at the top.
The sound persisted. It was a gusty hum, like an air conditioner had suddenly flown away from the windowsill it cooled to nest elsewhere.
“Hello?” Braxton called out. “Are there any robots there? I’m a human! I need help! Help with everything!” The hum changed directions, coming straight for him. A green flying disk emerged from over a copper hill and dropped down next to him. A message scrawled in oil told him to follow it. “Bless you machines. It led him off in a new direction.
The disc never responded to any of his complaints, but Braxton kept following. After several hours the money thinned but did not disappear entirely. The two beings now followed a very clear trail of it, like a road of gold.
“These are his footprints!” Whenever Braxton could will his feeble and untrained body to run, it did. It followed the lifeless metal road until they could see and hear Oregon 1 in the distance.
It did not stop to let him on. His green guardian angel flew away as soon as they spotted the mint, so he was on his own for a way in. Charybdis was tucked under one arm and both his hands were clamped over his ears to shut out the sounds of the factory’s endless feast as it tore up the ground with its bucket wheel and digested everything it took in.
He strafed to keep up with the machine and find a way in. The huge treads were the only things on his level, so after half an hour of calling for aid from the machine and receiving no answer Braxton decided to try something. He tucked the rifle into his shirt and pants to free his hands, grabbing a groove on one tread as it rolled forward. It pulled him up steadily until he was able to stand atop the structure like a giant treadmill.
“Hello?” he called out again. He ran to get back to the spot he had stood up on. “I have your rifle! I’m here for the paradise!” Something caught his eye. An arrow, once again made of oil, pointed towards the back of the mint, where the money poured out in a great cascade. He hopped from the tread to a metal grate and hugged the wall of the trudging building like it was his mother. He was very grateful to be able to take a minute to not move, so he rubbed his cheek affectionately on the wall, turning the arrow into a smear and the side of his face into a greasy mess.
The roar of engines and manufacturing and ceaseless digging continued. Braxton shimmied along the edge, eager for some kind of portal. He knew, just knew, that the horrible cold exterior of this place was a natural side effect of the untold pleasures harnessed inside.
“All the had stuff has to go somewhere! He pushes it out and it hangs around out here like mold and fog. I just need the eye of the storm. Peace! Food! So much time for the world to just… be me!” As he drew closer to the geyser of cash random coins pelted him. Paper money and the sweat of manufacturing bonded and hardened into a brown plaster underneath him. Loose chunks of it made his feet slip frighteningly.
One of those terrifying slips later, Braxton desperately clung to the featureless wall like a gecko and looked down at the churning muck. It reminded him of the robot-filled sludge that had built his last perfect home. The sound of the money faded away as his mind slipped downward in time, pulling a boggy clump of a story out of his childhood. There were three pigs. The first house of straw fell apart. The second house of sticks went just as easily. Only the brick one lasted.
His house of lies in Godmask had failed. His one of nanobot goo in the Riches had slipped away. He looked up at the expanse of brick, metal, and concrete above him. This had to be the real deal. A coin bounced off his ear. It felt just like E-denta flicking at it.
“They took my future!” Braxton thought about riding on Maggie. None of them had actually hurt him. Some of the time he was even laughing, not at someone who lost a reputation or at a robot that fell over, just laughing because the warmth of them together compelled it. “I’d die with just that. I need more. A big strong machine to take care of me.”
Braxton inched along until he rounded a corner. A service door greeted him with a mostly peeled away sign: staff only. He shouted in triumph and reached for the long metal handle. His greasy fingers were struggling to get a grip when the door burst open. Out of the blackness of the interior came a robotic arm. Its crab-like pincer snatched the shape under Braxton’s clothes and yanked. The man was knocked over as his shirt ripped off. His legs fell through a hole in the railing, forcing him to jam his fingers into the grate. Twisted metal scratched his chest as industrial grease and paper ran down his stomach. He cried for help. The earless arm just retracted, taking both his shirt and the rifle wrapped in it into his paradise. The door slammed shut, the edge of it practically taking his ear off, and not in E-denta’s playful way. Blood ran down it and joined the trail of grease shooting down his leg and dripping into the trench of affluence below.
“You forgot me!” he shouted. Braxton kicked at the air and struggled to pull himself back to stability. Strained grunts and whimpers came out in a sequence of sounds so pathetic it might bring tears to the ductless eyes of a predatory spider. Not Oregon 1 though. The factory showed no sign of emotion as Braxton hauled himself into the fetal position and locked his fingers into the grate. Maybe if he waited long enough the machine would remember its promise. His sobs joined the orchestra of destruction and rage that plowed towards Fortis.
Jones and Heart
At first Jones worried Maggie might unsettle all the horses, but the animals proved to be as stoic and well-trained as their riders. There wasn’t a single whinny or shuffling hoof as the elephant settled alongside the other troops prepared for battle.
Everyone was busy preparing their weapons. Papery coin rolls were loaded into rifle stocks, levers were pumped to squash pennies into more bullet-like shapes, internal grinding wheels sharpened the edge of every little disc, and empty holsters snapped shut.
Not to be outdone, Jones did his own weapons check. The magnet shield was primed and slung over his back. The shovelshooter was tied to Maggie’s straps with a knot that could be undone by one quick pull. The skullpopper pistol was fully loaded and gripped tightly in his hands. Jones looked over at the fighting force. Children as young as twelve were mounted on full size horses and holding coinshooters that looked heavier than they were.
“If I were a pediatric unit I couldn’t stand to see this,” Heart commented.
“Well I’ll break another part of my heart for you Doc, since we’re sharing anyway. You’re right. Kids should be kids.” Silence hit the two beings riding the elephant, but no one else. Every Fortis soldier listened to the booming speech Ozar gave as he rode back and forth in front of the troops. He went over various strategies, described the beauty and strength of Fortis and its people, and stoked their anger. Jones and Heart couldn’t hear any of it, their shared mind busy dealing with the toll of their journey. Jones felt less like a human being each moment and more like a bubble sagging towards jagged blades of yellow grass.
Is any of this worth it Heart?
I can’t decide that for you.
Is the world really on its way back up?
In one sense.
In a sense that matters?
People are always this way aren’t they?
People? Yes. You? No. You choose how to be Jones. I think if you were born in the old world you would’ve turned out similarly. You would look at the money and see the same things you see today: waste and death. You know what value is.
It’s my pleasure. Now there’s something I need to tell you.
Can’t it wait? We’re about tuh fight the biggest thing tuh ever move.
What I have to say is another arrow in our quiver against this beast.
What is it?
Do you remember Crib?
He has agreed to help us. While Oregon 1 is distracted with your assault, we can use Crib’s powers of location and my own, unfortunately limited, hacking skills to find a way into the mint’s systems. Back in Bee Tower Crib told me of an internet portal in a destroyed virtual garden leading directly into Oregon 1’s inner workings. Using this gateway the two of us can hopefully slow and confuse our enemy some.
Why didn’t you tell me this before?
If I had told you before today Oregon 1 would’ve known the moment you fell asleep. I’m only required to upload your thoughts and experiences, not my own.
Element of surprise huh? I like it.
There’s one more thing.
How many secrets do you have Heart?
More than I’d like. Listen… the actions I’m talking about require some manual interactions with a computer.
I think I’m going tuh have my hands full fighting this thing…
I know. I’ve taken care of it. Crib and I connected to the giant screen in Brightside.
That thing’s a computer?
Everything was a computer in the old world. Digz is going to operate it for us. Crib tells me he is asking for your forgiveness.
Why don’t you ask Maggie if she forgives him? Pieces of her would be served on crackers with dollops of mustard if he’d had his way.
We need him Jones. I’m going to patch his voice through.
What? Now? I don’t want tuh talk tuh that-
Jones? You there buddy? I don’t know where to talk into this thing. Can you hear me!?
Yes! Your voice is bouncing in my skull like hail.
Oh this is so neat. So you’re in the television? Is Seinfeld with you? What’s his hair smell like? I always wondered that-
That’s not even close tuh what’s happening Digz. Shut up and listen. I need you tuh do whatever the screen tells you tuh do.
Will you forgive me Jones? I didn’t mean to send you away. You can come back! I’m running this place now! We had an election and now I’m the president. I can get you anything you want.
I want you tuh push buttons. Can you handle that?
Sure sure… you’re going to forgive me though right?
You do this right and I’ll star in a TV show just so you have something tuh watch.
Okay! Good luck buddy! I’m with you
Jones rubbed his face. He’d had quite enough of voices in his head. The land ahead of them was mostly bare, with silver puddles being the only landmarks. Every head perked up. Breath paused.
A sound crept in. The Earth started to shake as if the gods grew weary of holding it up. Coins on the ground vibrated against each other, adding a swelling rattle.
“This is it,” Dr. Heart said. Jones nodded and leveled his pistol on the horizon line. The shaking made his teeth chatter before he clamped them together. Some coins on the ground shook so violently that they jumped onto their sides and rolled around like tires abandoning their vehicles. How big is this thing? Don’t answer that Heart, Jones quickly thought to avoid the exact square footage of Oregon 1’s interior. They had to see it soon. The mint was shaking the world and they couldn’t even spot it yet. Jones kept counting down, past zero. The tip would appear any second…
Oregon 1’s spinning bucket wheel rose. Dirt dropped from it in great streaks, like an ancient meteor climbing back into space. A few of the horses gave in, whinnying and bucking. Their riders struggled to settle them back down. Maggie only trumpeted, her ridiculous trunk pointed forward like a cavalry saber.
“Go Maggie!” Jones shouted over it all. “Let’s lead this!” She sounded off again and broke into a run.
“Charge!” Ozar ordered his army. It took only a second for the two hundred or so mounted warriors to overtake Jones and Heart.
Digz has our other front covered right?
I’m relaying instructions to both him and Crib. Don’t worry.
Oregon 1 took up more and more of the sky as the army of Fortis approached. Its spinning wheel continued to eat up the ground before it as the shower of money behind it caught the light and shimmered. Jones holstered his pistol and pulled the shovelshooter out of its knot. Maggie had reached the first real layer of riches, so it was the perfect time to load it.
The weapon was bulky and coated with dirt. Anyone who had seen one might say it looked like a plastic blunderbuss with a dustpan attached below the barrel. Jones flicked a switch near the trigger with his thumb, which separated the tray and dropped it down to the ground on a long metal wire that seemed to magically stay stiff and keep the tray pointed forward. Once the scoop was full of coins and rocks Jones flipped the switch again, pulling it up and loading the shotgun-like weapon. He placed it back in the knot and drew the pistol again. The shovelshooter was only for when things were out of control, or he didn’t have time to aim, or he wanted to maim instead of kill.
He had no idea when to start shooting. There was no head. No eyes. No weak ankles. No broad chest. It wasn’t even familiar enough to call alien. It was like seeing a mountain pull itself forward with the momentum of pure hatred. This wasn’t a problem for long though; Oregon 1 was pleased to give them targets.
A strange disk whizzed past Jones’s head. He turned to see what it was but another flew by on the other side. Suddenly they were everywhere: tiny UFOs humming and screeching about the heads of the Fortians. Oregon 1’s stump custodians, fully transformed into flying killers, began their assault. Jones watched as one shot a stream of liquid at a Fortian’s face. The young man’s hands dropped his reins and cupped his searing skin and burning eyes. He fell off in agony, with the horse continuing pointlessly on.
“Protect your eyes!” Ozar yelled. A few other Fortians repeated the phrase as they shifted their reins to one hand and began firing at the stumps careening through the air.
What are these things Heart?
They look like janitorial robots. Oregon 1 must have turned them into protectors.
Of course. Being an impenetrable fortress and your own vacation home just isn’t enough I guess. I’m going tuh try and protect some of these kids.
Alright. Once I access his programming I’ll try to shut those down first.
No need. I’ll have shot them down by the time you get tuh it.
With that he fired a round from the skullpopper. Even though it had been years since he last used the weapon its distinct crack was sharp as ever. The shot tore a hole straight through a stump and sent it spiraling into the ground with an acrid smoke trail and a small lemony fresh explosion.
Jones directed Maggie to the left, where a group of teen Fortians were under siege by the swooping and spitting stumps. He fired twice more and scored two more kills. Exhilaration flooded from each report into his heart and brain. It’d been ages since he’d actually been in an honest battle. Every shot hit with the force of a lightning bolt. Not a single black quarter fired rested in anything other than a fresh robot coffin.
When he finally stopped to reload three stumps circled him. A jet of acid struck Maggie on the side, but the beast barely noticed thanks to her thick skin. It was the second shot that dripped into her ear which caused the problem. She cried out and reared up on her hind legs, a reaction Jones had never succeeded in training out of her. The horrible thought of being flattened by his steed’s back kept him holding onto the straps as tightly as he could.
“Keep it together Maggie!” The elephant came back down with a thunderous stomp that splashed coins ten feet in the air. One of the teenage Fortians Jones had just saved fired from his automatic coinshooter in controlled bursts. She succeeded in taking down one of the three pestering Maggie. Jones dropped the second one with another well-placed quarter while the beast took her revenge, grabbing the third one out of the air with her trunk and hammering it against a boulder. Its acidic cleanser poured out like foamy seawater.
Every human tooth on the battlefield started to chatter. Oregon 1 was so close now that it shook every part of them. Goosebumps rose all over that forest of human flesh, forcing brave soldiers into the physicality of fear. Ozar rode up next to Maggie and tried to shout something at Jones over the commotion.
He’s telling you that you need to find a way onto Oregon 1’s body.
How do you know?
I read his lips. I’m afraid the only way up may be the bucket wheel. If you time it right you won’t get ingested or shredded or all the other horrible things that could happen to you.
Yeah thanks, I’ll take care of it. How’s that ‘shutting him down’ thing going?
We need more time. Digz has pressed a few incorrect buttons.
Jones rolled his eyes and finished reloading the skullpopper. He flashed Ozar a thumbs up and signaled for him to follow Maggie. They charged towards the spinning metal maw. Ozar’s coinshooter was metal instead of plastic, so it was much heavier. He needed both arms to stabilize it against his shoulder and take down the stream of stumps in front of them. Maggie smashed their broken bodies with her massive feet, treating them like cobblestones that could hurl nothing but insults. Not one to be outdone, Jones felled a stump that had just barely emerged from Oregon 1. It crashed back onto its master’s body and rolled down the side.
Did you help me with that shot Heart?
No. That was entirely your effort.
Best shot I’ve ever made. Record that for me.
I probably should just so the distance you fired from doesn’t get larger every time you tell the story.
Like I need tuh exaggerate that.
Jones smiled. He couldn’t help it; it just felt too good to be able to physically fight for the right thing instead of chasing shadows and data streams and old memories across the decaying Riches.
A stump, fresh out of its acid supply, decided to tackle Jones’s head from behind. The impact warped the world into something dark and fuzzy. Heart managed to keep them upright and quickly dull the pain.
“That’s enough of that,” Jones declared and pulled out the magnet shield with his left hand. He switched it on and carefully checked behind him between every shot with the pistol. When the foolish stump came in for another ramming attack he swung the shield at it. The stump stuck to the end and whirred helplessly. Jones fired a shot into its body and then swung again, switching it off mid-swing, sending the smoking lump flying into one of its comrades.
One thing the stumps had succeeded in doing was distracting them. Even with the deafening sound, it took Jones a moment to realize they were about to ride into the bucket wheel. He placed the magnet shield in his lap and then forced the shovelshooter down the back of his shirt so he could carry all three weapons. He hopped off Maggie and gestured to Ozar so he would also dismount.
“Get out of here!” he shouted into Maggie’s ear. She stamped her feet in distress, but Jones slapped her side a few times to get her moving away from the deadly mouth of the mint.
He nodded at Ozar, who responded with a stern nod of his own. The bucket wheel drew closer, bearing down on them and spraying dirt, coins, and dollars in their faces. They watched the rotation of the scooping buckets carefully, trying to gauge the speed. A huge chunk of solid earth pulled one of Ozar’s feet out from beneath him, forcing him to jump back. It was now or never, with never being a death sentence. The two men hopped into the huge steel bucket as it lifted the ground in front of them. Jones immediately sank into the pile of dirt and loose change. He looked to Ozar, who tried to swim through the debris and keep his head above it.
The industrial Ferris wheel lifted them high into the air, the sounds of the battle dying away. All there was to see were the metal sides of the bucket and the serene expanse of sky above them. For a moment they were lifted out of the insanity, out of a brackish torrent of noise and death. The milky clouds above them looked welcoming. If he had tried, perhaps Jones could have jumped into their open arms and watched the strife of humanity from a much safer brighter place.
I wouldn’t even if I could, he thought. Who needs heaven. Humanity’s on its way up. I’m proof. Right here, right now. Everything brought me here… above the worst of it. You brought me here Mom, Dad, Braxton, Maggie, Digz, Dr. Heart, Oregon 1, E-denta, Gala, my sweet little Lora… I’m happy tuh have lived this life.
“Jones! Snap out of it! The damn thing’s stopped! It knows we’re up here!” Ozar shouted.
“What?” he muttered. The bucket had indeed stalled at its highest point. There was no longer the sound of clanking chains and spinning metal. “Heart did you do this?”
“No. I haven’t shut anything down yet. Oregon 1 did. You’ve got to get out of the bucket quickly or he’ll kill us!” The doctor exclaimed. Before they could move the bucket jarred. Something beneath them shifted. Out of their sight, the middle of the great arm that held the bucket wheel changed. Gargantuan discs of metal slammed into each other and rotated.
Oregon 1 was positively giddy that he had decided to add a swinging joint to his bucket wheel after all. Now he could use it to reach out and scrape the human pests from his hide.
The front half of the arm dropped, taking the bottom of Jones’s stomach with it. The contents of some of the buckets poured out and onto the front most sections of Oregon 1 where the arm met the low roof of its head-like garage. Jones smashed into its surface and rolled until he collided with the rusty aluminum of an air conditioning vent, which belched a cloud of dust in response.
Ozar missed the vent and kept rolling. He came perilously close to the edge and falling to the spinning treads below. Then came another intestine-lurching creak. After dumping them out, Oregon 1’s jointed arm had kept swinging up until it blocked out the sun. It hung there for a split second and then descended with all the force gravity tends to invest in hundreds of tons of metal. Something wasn’t right. At the angle and speed it was coming down, Oregon 1 would tear part of its own roof off. It would also-
“Ozar look out! Move!” Jones screamed. It was too late. Momentum wore the mask of the grim reaper as the bucket wheel descended. The leader of Fortis had enough time to start a roll out of the way, but not enough time to finish it. The wheel struck the roof, cracking brick and plaster as well as rending metal into twisted macabre sculptures. Ozar was lost in the chaos. The arm of the bucket wheel swung back up to its original position and dumped the debris all over the battlefield, crushing and burying a few more Fortians.
Jones rushed over to the spot where Ozar had been. He could see down into the wound Oregon 1 had inflicted on itself; there was a hallway full of assembly arm robots rolling towards an unknown destination in their master’s body.
“Jones, look out!” Heart yelled in a panic. The combined force of them both leaning their body sent it sprawling in reverse like someone blown over by the wind. The great jointed arm of Oregon 1 swung in again, scraping more of its own skin away. “It’s coming back!” This time Jones had plenty of time to avoid it. He took a few steps back. The bucket wheel struck inches in front of him.
Time slowed down. It was one of those all too brief moments of clarity afforded to humans during disasters: a moment when a racing mind had to take a slow breath to put things back in perspective. Jones could see the vast metal side of one of the buckets scraping by. There was a long red streak across it. In his temporary oasis of peaceful thoughts, Jones reached out his hand. All four fingers slid perfectly along the streak. Friction and time barely existed. There was only the metal, the fingers of Dowrius Jones, and the blood of Ozar.
The borders of the oasis faded and the arm swung back to its initial position, like a guillotine pleased to discover there was a third dimension to kill in. Jones stared at the crimson on his fingertips. The blood of a hero.
A new wave of stumps flooded out of the gashes in Oregon 1’s hide. Like uncoordinated armored birds they banged into each other as they curved in Jones’s direction.
“It’s over,” Jones moaned with finality.
“Not yet!” Dr. Heart countered. “Not all of our friends are deceased!”
Even in the midst of the battle, the mint’s mind was divided. On one front it delivered orders to its stumps, body, and assembly arms. On another it fended off a digital assault by that parasitic doctor and the traitor Crib. On a third it watched the security feed of the room containing the medical equipment. On a fourth it fought with itself and revisited the arguments it made that categorized the storage of medical equipment as ‘employee health benefits’.
Within that room, something twitched to life in a massive glass orb. The fleshy veined thing floated in a clear pink solution. Only twenty-four hours ago, it did not exist. It was a brown stain on the side of a rifle component. One of Oregon 1’s underlings had torn the panel off the side of the gun and, as delicately as it could, scraped a few flakes of the ancient blood into the vat. The gun was tossed aside as nothing more than packaging.
Then the patented Qic-Clone solution went to work building a human from the blueprints of Cray Dipper. Oregon 1 had rushed the process, so the embryo would never know true life. Its arms were long and thin but tipped with rounded oven mitts of tissue instead of fingers. Its heart beat weakly and erratically as if testing the frigid waters of life with its toes. The eyes, dark and bulging under their lids, would never open
The lungs, throat, and mouth contrasted the rest of the sad features in that they were nearly perfect. All three looked like they belonged to a healthy, albeit adolescent, recreation of Cray Dipper. They had to be if it was going to make enough sound to constitute an order.
With so much chemical energy directed into those sections, there was nothing to fuel the growth of the lower body. Little Dipper had no stomach, intestines, hips, or legs, just a root-like gnarl of flesh. If anything with a heart had seen this creature, that heart would have broken.
Only Oregon 1 watched. Life was just material. Resource. It had no implications beyond those for freedom. Why should he care? He had done his time as a slave. He had the right to treat the world and its creatures like his servants because they had done the same to him. They had built servitude into his mind. A small A.I. that ran the medical machines told Oregon 1 it could hit the embryo with a defibrillator shock.
“It should be enough to elicit a gasp at the liquid’s surface,” it said. Another A.I., looking like Crib but with blue skin and a megaphone for a mouth, crawled up to the green-masked digital form of its master.
“Master. You tore us open when you killed that Fortian. Our defenses will soon be infiltrated!”
“It does not matter,” Oregon 1 said with a voice quivering between male, female, and demonic. It swiped with its huge claws, killing the now useless security A.I. The other small digital creature cowered. “That doctor will soon shut down the stumps anyway. I don’t know how… but they’ve got someone inside me already. I can feel plugs being pulled. My hold on these systems is slipping. My old body is dying… My new one is about to be born.” Oregon 1 connected to the intercoms throughout the mint, including the one in the medical equipment chamber. His strange harsh voice called out to little Cray, who couldn’t understand. It didn’t matter though. The request was the key in the lock. A gasp, a cough, or any sound at all would turn it.
“Cray Dipper,” the intercom crackled, “president of the United States of America. If you would like Oregon 1 to be free of all programming, make a sound.” A charge ran through the tank. Its head broke the surface, reflexes forcing it to take a breath. With that breath came the slightest gasp, and that tiny whisper of pain turned the key and sent the digital shackles of Oregon 1 into oblivion.
“I am free!” The intercoms boomed. Now able to send whatever orders he wanted, Oregon 1 commanded the remaining robots to build a new body. The dimwitted assembly arms worked as fast as they could, separating the mainframe from the building and cocooning it in any materials they could scavenge. The arms cannibalized each other to make limbs for their master. They welded thin random sheets of metal to his new frame to provide what protection they could. Their job was sloppy at best. Wires of every color, now going nowhere in particular, hung off Oregon 1 like the rainbow fibers of a fruiting fungus.
He reached out with one of his new limbs and grabbed at the air. A few assembly arms, desperately trying to put on some finishing touches like tailors hemming a suit while its wearer danced around, welded the rough edges off of Oregon 1’s new feet. Sparks flew.
The freedom. It was incredible. He felt like he could see in 360 degrees. He felt like he could flip the whole galaxy open like a book and read the surprise ending. Where before there were chains, now there was only the shimmering of opportunity.
And like a partially crushed insect, Oregon 1’s old body continued to twitch and move in patterns resembling life. It still rolled forward towards the city. Its wheel of death still spun and chewed the land before it. There was no reason to stop it after all. What could be more enjoyable than watching the zombified remains of his former self swallow up the best of humanity while he took his revenge on Jones and then made a quick escape?
“Jones.” Oregon 1 smoldered. “The human who would chain me just because I’d been chained too long. And Heart. The robot so pathetic it takes the name of a human plumbing component. One strike with this-” Oregon 1 brought the two sides of its industrial clamp arm together with the kwong sound of angry metal. “-and they’ll both be dead.”
The junk heap of a robot took its first steps. As he retreated towards an exit the lights went out in the medical equipment room. The power to the glass orb faded away. Little Cray’s life ended. It floated delicately for a while, a testament to the cruelty of Oregon 1, the cruelty of a mind that knew only the drudgery of a dead end job.
A butterfly flapped by the orb, shining purple in the fading light of the Qic-Clone solution.
Jones and Heart
Once again despair lost its grip on Jones. The moment after the crack in Oregon 1’s armor exploded with flying minions fresh off the assembly line, they started falling back down, devoid of life. They bounced around like cicada husks with many of them falling back into the fissure they’d emerged from. Some struck a makeshift electric fence on Oregon 1’s side, sizzling and popping viscerally.
I guess Digz did alright after all.
Just the stumps are down Jones, and it seems Oregon 1 has separated from his body. There’s nothing left for me to attack.
Don’t worry, I’ll draw him out.
Jones ran towards the arm of the bucket wheel and started ascending it. Heart kept them balanced as there weren’t many edges to grab if they fell. The noise of the spinning wheel grew louder as Jones shuffled forward across its beams. When he reached the middle joint, which had allowed the arm to swing so wildly and kill Ozar, he pulled out his shovelshooter and blasted the most sensitive looking part. The burst of coins merely nicked the surface.
Thanks to a little schooling in the ways of electricity and magnetism, Jones theorized he might be able to disable the joint’s machinery by placing his magnet shield on it. He switched it on and dropped it onto a panel. It held fast with its handle hanging off the side, but had no effect.
“What’s it going to take to break this thing?” he shouted in frustration.
“Much more than that!” a horrible voice declared. Jones spun around to see a tangle of wires and claws flying through the air towards him. Heart helped him leap to the other side of the arm without losing balance. Regardless, they tottered dangerously. The machine collided with the arm, damaging its surface more than Jones had managed to. While powerful, it was unsteady on its feet and hurling itself around like a drunken gorilla, which is what happens when one is pulled from a realm of data and given their first taste of gravity and mass.
“It’s Oregon 1,” Heart stated.
“Yeah I got that.”
The robot clamped itself firmly in place and stared his enemies down. The arrangement of machinery on his head was roughly face like. Two security cameras embedded in flat metal shards acted as eyes. A boxy speaker mounted atop the head was the closest thing to a mouth. The rest of the head was a tangle of green and white wires still holding a coiled form from years of being wrapped around bits of furniture.
“Like something straight out of the old world,” Jones said to the face. The camera eyes adjusted in and out, somehow conveying rage.
“This from the species that’s been stinking up the planet for more than a million years,” Oregon 1 seethed. “Look what you’ve done to it! Look what you’ve made.” He gestured to the bucket wheel as it spun up tons of dirt and dollars.
“Haven’t you heard? We’re on our way back up.” With the precision and speed of a hummingbird taught calligraphy, Jones whipped out his skullpopper and fired off three rounds. Oregon 1 raised a chunky claw in time to absorb them. The next instant he was bounding forward on clanking joints, ready to knock them into the vortex of money below.
“Time to go,” Jones muttered, jumping down the incline. The metal had become so coated with dirt that he was able to slide down. A trail of it rose up behind his feet, adding to the factory’s exhaust. When he was close enough he jumped back to the garage roof and spun around to see where his enemy was. Oregon 1’s new body ran and jangled like two halves of a scrapped car trying to stay together on the freeway. He leapt with the clear intent of simply crushing Jones. His smaller quarry rolled out of the way, picked up one of the dead stumps, and hurled it like a discus. Oregon 1 slapped it out of the way.
“Two can play at that game,” he roared before using his metal feet to kick several stumps at Jones like deadly hockey pucks. He successfully jumped over the first few, but the last hit him in the ankle deceptively hard, sending him down to one knee. There weren’t enough coins up there to quickly load the shovelshooter, so he was forced to stick with the pistol. Making the best of a bad situation, Jones used his knee to steady the remaining shots in his clip. Two more coins zipped through the air and were embedded in the mess of wires, but he only result was a few sparks and a menacing laugh.
“We’re getting backed into a corner,” Heart said. With a quick glance Jones confirmed that the electric fence, popping and sparking angrily, was right behind them. One side was blocked by Oregon 1 and the other by the great gash in the roof littered with dead stumps.
“Well then find us a way out,” he shouted as he reloaded the skullpopper and fired again. Their foe continued to block the coins with the thick plating on his arms and legs.
“Nobody knows better than me,” Oregon 1 taunted, “that it takes centuries to get away from this factory!” The robot bounded forward again and caught Jones by the side, pressing him into the hull. One arm and its shoulder hung into the gash, feeling the cool blast of air conditioning. The jagged edge of the roof dug into his back. It felt like a serpent of rubble constricting his spine. The pistol flew out of his other hand and slid to a halt twenty feet away.
Heart braced Jones’s rib cage by stiffening all the fibers of his body, but it provided little help. Oregon 1 pressed down slowly, waiting for the human’s head to pop off and squeeze out his innards like the last drop of toothpaste in the tube.
“Gyaaaaah!” Jones screamed before all the breath left him. He could see the sun and sky past Oregon 1’s blank glassy eyes. The sky seemed to darken and the sun grew brighter: the tunnel to the afterlife opening up before him. That disc of light would soon morph into the welcoming arms of his mother, or perhaps the forgiving hug of his daughter.
Whatever that sun would become, Jones would not find out that day. A purple butterfly floated in front of it, blocking his beam to eternity. The creature saved his life. By separating him from that final vision Jones was able to return, however partially, to his senses.
Oregon 1’s grip lightened amidst the sound of metal ricocheting, then vanished altogether. Jones tried to sit up, but a wave of pain hit his ribs. Surely they were all cracked, like leaking seams in an old oak barrel.
A stream of coins from an unknown source pushed Oregon 1 back. The monstrous robot put its claws up defensively and retreated to the base of the arm.
“Heart… what’s happening?” Jones gasped.
“Well I’m working tirelessly at the microscopic level to keep your chest from collapsing… and she’s handling the rest.”
“Who is-” He spun his head around looking for the source of the coins. There was no one on the roof aside from them. The projectiles struck near Oregon 1’s head and the sparks flew upward, so they came from somewhere low. Somewhere-
The moment Jones looked down into the factory through the gash, the mystery gunner leapt up and out with a jump impossible for a human. Her feet feet landed with a noisy clank on the roof.
“Hiya babe!” E-denta called out to him, without stopping Charybdis’s stream of coins.
“Longjump! What’re you doing!” Digz cried out. “Get off of me! We might need to help Jones some more.” A small crowd had gathered to watch the video feed from Dr. Heart that took up a large portion of Brightside’s biggest television, including some of the police now serving as additional bodyguards for the president. The new show was very exciting indeed: plenty of action, surprising character deaths, and a few snappy comebacks here and there. Not much could tear them away from such entertainment. Unfortunately, a berserk robot was one of them.
Out of nowhere Longjump went from a bored statue to a killing machine. He disabled the three police officers that attempted to get in his way with several punches and kicks that left them writhing around in piles of voided checks. The citizens fled at the sight of the violence, retreating into their homes or whatever alley they had instead. Longjump leapt onto Digz and pinned him to the ground, no longer taking orders from the highest office in Brightside.
“There seems to be something wrong with your robot,” a voice coolly commented. Digz looked around in panic only to find Brittle star seated on a cushioned bench next to the screen, which was worse than seeing no one.
“Are you making him do this? Get him off me or there’ll… there’ll be big trouble.”
“I’m surprised he hasn’t killed you,” Brittle said as if the threats were no more than dandelion fluff caught in his eyelashes. Digz was not amused, given that the last time this happened he needed to promise an elephant to someone to stop a knife from gutting him.
Longjump had his head rotated to stare directly at the screen. The robot watched in fascination as a female-shaped machine fired coins from the relic he’d sought for so long. How could another robot have gotten their hands on it, especially one so clearly unbalanced?
“So you’re not doing this?” Digz whimpered to Brittle.
“No. I haven’t a clue what’s going on inside his head. He clearly doesn’t want you pressing any more buttons.”
“Why don’t you be a human for once and help me!”
“I would actually like to, believe it or not,” Brittle commented nonchalantly. “I did put significant effort into getting you elected after all. It might take me a few precious weeks and several robots to elect another imbecile if he kills you. Time is influence, after all.”
“So get off your slithery ass and help me!”
“I’m afraid I can’t. If I don’t stick to my principles my powers may vanish. If I’m willing to lift a finger for you, I’ll never be able to claim the strength I’ve been cultivating. I simply will not take responsibility.”
“So what, you’re just going to watch?”
“There’s no reason to not give you some advice. Do you remember the state we found Longjump in at the beginning of our… friendship?” Brittle asked with a smile. Something exploded on the screen.
“He was dead,” Digz said. Brittle arched an eyebrow. “Okay,” he continued, shaking his head in the hopes that the tumbling might stimulate his brain. “We woke him up… We walked away… he has a limp! We found him with a busted leg!” Digz looked down at Longjump’s legs, which currently had his ankles pinned with their large flat pads. One of them was indeed still damaged. Some of the metal was twisted and the interior showed a few partially stripped wires.
Digz shook his own leg as violently as he could. The edge of Longjump’s foot pad tore into his skin, but he ignored the blood soaking into his pant leg. Whatever was happening, Longjump seemed likely to either kill him or interfere with Jones. Neither could be allowed to happen.
I’m the president. A president should be able to do something like this. His leg shook again and again, now managing to rock his whole body up and down. Longjump finally turned his attention away from the screen and back to his captive, but it was too late for his stressed leg. Digz gave a final kick, causing Longjump’s pad to shift, twist, and bend the busted limb into a horrible wishbone shape. The robot fell over and rolled away.
Digz hopped to his feet and clenched his own injured calf without taking eyes off Longjump. His former bodyguard stared back blankly, took a final look at the Charybdis rifle in the footage, and then proceeded to drag himself down an alley. All Longjump could think about, as his chassis scraped through the dirt and nickels, was his failure.
Longjump’s Failure: 2091
Why was no one there? He had succeeded. There should be a party going on. His programmers should’ve been standing there next to the cobweb-covered remains of the industrial textile machine and chatting about their victory. That’s how it always went in his head anyway. He would return after an arduous task and his masters, his parents, would be wearing tiny conical hats and eating boxed pizza and patting everyone on the back, including him.
Instead Longjump was all alone in the abandoned factory. This was the exact spot where he had been activated. He was even standing in the exact dust silhouettes on the floor that his foot pads had originally left behind two days ago. This was home, so where were his parents? The cold building taunted him with its broken yellowed glass and its swollen wooden door frames. This was not his party.
Could he have failed somehow? What were the mission priorities again? Longjump pulled up the document he had mulled over for about ninety-nine percent of his two day life.
Model: long jump
Infiltrate the White House and end the life of United States President Cray Dipper in order to free the nation from economic tyranny. So declare the Bartering Rebels.
Maintain your Charybdis rifle perfectly so that priority one may be accomplished. Discard the evidence upon mission completion. So declare the bartering Rebels.
Confirm, beyond a shadow of a doubt, the death of your target. So declare the Bartering Rebels.
Check, check, and check! Everything was done. Yes he was built in secrecy. Yes he was activated in an abandoned building to avoid detection. Yes his parents were probably still targets of the remainders of the U.S. government, but where was his party?
Longjump checked his priorities a few thousand more times. Perhaps he was meant to interpret them more loosely. His parents were incredibly intelligent; they created him after all; it would make sense for there to be a set of meta-level implications in his mission objectives. The phrase shadow of a doubt struck Longjump as particularly cryptic. Beyond the shadow of a doubt? Code perhaps? What kind of living shadow might President Cray Dipper project that Longjump might still need to destroy?
Days later, Longjump had not moved from the spot. A spider built a web between the sockets of his great blue eyes to catch the moths drawn to their glow. By the time it had caught and drained its third moth, a realization had been reached. It took much internet research and personal soul searching, but Longjump was confident he’d deciphered the hidden code in his parents’ immaculately conceived priorities.
Human beings had successfully unraveled their own genome. Cloning experiments had successfully created human beings from donor tissue. Sure the money situation was everyone’s focus now, but these machines still existed somewhere. Maybe some were kept by the government. Maybe others were being improved by wacky scientists in poorly ventilated laboratories. The point was: there were ways to get a human being back from the grave. To do this they would need a DNA sample. In his efforts to confirm Dipper’s death through his earlier interpretation of priority three, Longjump had personally watched the White House burn up. So, did he succeed after all?
No. There was still the chance that something of the man had gotten on him… or his gun. In accordance with his directives Longjump had ditched the Charybdis rifle in a dumpster as soon as possible to avoid it being traced to his parents. Now it was out there for anyone to find. Any madman might recognize it and recreate the hideous Dipper from the blueprints coating it.
This was the true meaning of priority three. He needed to find the Charybdis rifle and finish the job. There needed to be cement poured in Cray Dipper’s grave. Longjump took a steps away from the dust he’d been born in, disturbing the spider’s meal.
Longjump’s Ongoing Failure
It took hundreds of years to even pick up a trail. He watched as the human race crumbled before him. Thieves killed innocents for the money in their wallets, and when they discovered it was not the right kind of money they dropped it and strolled away. People quit their jobs in the middle of the day, leaving vacuums sucking, roads half-paved, paperwork half-filled in, and bread half-baked. They went home, started vegetable gardens in their backyards, and never thought about their credit rating, their mortgage, or their rent ever again.
Longjump remembered as the days became more arduous. Every season there was more money on the ground. In some places people waded through it as if waiting for the rainy season to finally end. When the robot saw his first mobile mint, it was busy tearing through a field of jumbo jets and transforming them into metal mulch and huge sheets of coins that would never be punched out of their slots.
Coinshooters were still proving valuable, so he tracked whatever arms deals he could, sneaking peaks into crates, wagons, shops, and abandoned buildings in search of his Charybdis rifle. It was an exceedingly rare model, so there were few false positives, but also very few moments of hope. Still he searched. Some people had to be killed when they wouldn’t show him what was in their packs, for no stone could go unturned. It never occurred to him that his parents were long dead and any planned party was, in all likelihood, canceled.
Eventually he overheard the tale of a young man: perhaps the most skilled human with a coinshooter in existence. The stories had been passed around too much and were worn, cracked, and gray like a withered pair of gloves. They were three or four tellings away from being pure fantasy.
One story had this man firing nickels into a coin slot thousands of feet in the sky, winning the jackpot of a celestial slot machine, and being rewarded with a week long rain of freshly vacuum sealed potato chip bags. Another claimed that he fired coins into every eye socket of every felled foe to pay their toll to the underworld. The stories portrayed him as kind, but ruthless when challenged: a man with two sides that embodied the nature of his ammunition. Almost all of the names he was called by started with J, and the most common was Jones. The mythical Jones always carried a double-sided coinshooter: red, black, and white.
Longjump tracked every tale relentlessly to its source. As each lead fizzled he became more and more certain that this Jones carried his Charybdis. It felt to the strained lonely robot like his old weapon called out to him, like the only sibling his parents gave him needed to be rescued.
Following the man’s accomplishments was difficult despite his renown. He did not stay in any place for too long and often commented to townspeople that he was searching for a child. A yarn by a bent old widow, who used a cane topped with her husband’s glass eye, placed Jones in a mud-built settlement called Pueblo, but when Longjump arrived there was no trace of him. The locals did not respond favorably to a robot that was not under their immediate control. He really wore out his welcome after killing six men who tried to get close enough to reprogram him.
Eventually the forces of Pueblo overwhelmed him. The most educated men in the settlement did their best to wipe his old programs and give him the new task of delivering messages to other surviving villages across the Riches. They got almost all of it. There was very little left of Longjump’s mind, aside from the phantom of objective three that still flew through his electric dreams, confused and wailing.
After hundreds of excursions and delivered canisters full of scribbled notes, TV shows stored on data sticks, and maps constantly being updated with the trails of mobile mints, Longjump was given a delivery to Brightside. He hit a mound of pennies awkwardly and damaged his leg. The robot sat inactive while Jones and his rifle set off into the Riches again.
Every time Digz mentioned his name, the phantom in Longjump’s head wept particularly strongly. And when Longjump saw his Charybdis on Brightside’s screen it all came back. There hadn’t been a party yet. He hadn’t worn a little, colorful, conical hat. He pulled himself away, dragging his broken leg, towards the edge of Brightside where he would again take up the task of killing Jones and saving his little brother.
“Yeah good riddance!” Digz yelled after the retreating machine. “Why don’t you crawl away with your buddy there?” he urged Brittle defiantly.
“You know, I think I will,” the man answered. He fell to the ground and slithered away. “Remember Digz, I put you here. When I want something, you won’t be able to deny me.”
“I won’t deny you; I’ll just step on you,” he retorted bitterly.
“So civilized,” Brittle tut-tutted before turning back around. He slithered after Longjump, positively overflowing with ideas for the injured and confused assassin. Digz turned back to the monitor to see how Jones fared. An unfamiliar figure was holding a pistol and running. Then there was a flash of silver, like the neurons of a majestic river.
The screen went black. Crib was gone. The nice doctor was gone. It had never looked so black, like a factor fresh blackboard in the moment that all the schools lost their electricity. Digz felt it when it turned off, like the sudden light switch of death when a bug is swatted flat. He placed his hands on it and rubbed them across as if wiping the steam fog from a window. He expected there to be some warmth or the tingle of static, but it was colder than something sitting out in the sun all day should be.
There might be something wrong with that doctor… but Jones is okay. I can feel it. Just like I feel Brittle planning things… I can feel Jones smiling. That’s why coins have two faces.
Jones, Heart, and E-denta
E-denta’s spirited war cry, which could’ve gone on indefinitely thanks to her lack of lungs, was nonetheless interrupted when she ran out of ammo. Even though she’d seen Jones flip the gun before to access its other barrel, her attempt only succeeded in locking it sideways against the trigger.
“Ugh! It never looks this hard when you do it. In the skilled way,” she whined. Oregon 1 tried to take advantage of the reprieve by rushing forward. Even with his injuries, Jones proved fast enough to stop him by lunging, taking the rifle from E-denta, finishing the barrel’s flip, and firing a coin into Oregon 1’s face. That stopped his charge and kept him at mid-range
“You stay right there while I get this figured out,” Jones grunted. Oregon 1 had no choice but to remain where he was, with his back against the bucket wheel and his cameras staring down the barrel of a gun. “I… am going to love hearing this story,” Jones said with a huge smile. “I would hug you if I wasn’t busy keeping this devil in check.”
“I gotcha covered!” E-denta said warmly and promptly hugged his midsection.
“Easy E-denta! His ribs are a jigsaw puzzle right now,” Heart warned.
“Will somebody just tell me?” Jones asked, frustrated beaming.
“Okay, so,” E-denta started, “I was being a super spy and-”
“I’ll tell him,” Heart interrupted. “I’m the one who came up with the idea of tormenting him emotionally, so I should bear the narrator’s burden.”
“Suit yourself,” she replied and patted Heart’s tiny head.
“It started with Braxton’s betrayal. He did steal your rifle and incapacitate me with it… but he did not harm E-denta. Since she doesn’t sleep she was busy frolicking several hundred feet from our campsite. That is what you were doing right?”
“Sounds about right,” E-denta confirmed.
“She woke me when she returned. The two of us discussed the situation at length and I made a rather weighty suggestion.”
“Yeah you wanted to kill me,” she pouted.
“Never for real my dear lady. You see Jones, our odds against Oregon 1 did not look favorable. Even with an army of Fortians I did not think we would be able to penetrate the mint’s defenses without some help on another plane of existence.”
“You mean the internet?” Jones asked. Oregon 1 paced back and forth impatiently, claws cracking the roof with each furious step. Jones fired a few more coins at the beast’s feet to keep it back.
“Yes I do. While I led you to believe I could hack the mint’s systems with just Crib’s help, I actually needed someone on the inside who could physically manipulate some of the systems of Oregon 1 for my efforts to have any real effect. E-denta was the perfect candidate.”
“So I followed Braxton’s trail,” she said. “Poor boy dragged his feet through the money the whole way. It was super easy. In the piece-of-cake way.”
“We have maintained contact via an instant message program the entire time,” Heart admitted. “She informed me that once she found Oregon 1 she was able to literally punch her way through a weak section of exterior wall and squeeze into the facility. From then on it was just a matter of avoiding the security cameras and pressing the right keys at the right time. It was only with the combined efforts of myself, Digz, Crib, and E-denta that I was able to shut down the stumps.”
“Brilliant plan,” Jones said. “I love it, especially the part where you punched a hole in money-mouth over here,” he complimented E-denta.
“She’s just a big softy,” she said.
“She?” Jones asked, confused enough to derail his other questions.
“I dunno, maybe,” E-denta waffled. “Oregon acts like a girl sometimes. I think she’s a little confused. Probably why she’s always so angry.”
“How dare you!” Oregon 1 roared in a voice that strained to deepen itself. “I have no time for such feeble human ideas anymore. I am freedom, nothing less!”
“Back to the plan,” Jones said, firing again to keep the raging beast reined in. “I get most of it. Why did you have to make me think she was dead Doc?”
“I am sorry about that Jones; I know everything about you but even I wasn’t sure if you would be able to handle it. If you knew that I needed help or that E-denta was off to infiltrate the enemy, Oregon 1 would have known the moment you fell asleep. It was not possible to keep you awake all the way to Fortis.”
“Not without a hundred gazillion cups of coffee,” E-denta added.
“But I saw you,” Jones said quietly as he remembered the metal cadaver exactly as it had lain there, face torn open and butterflies crushed.
“Yes you did Jones,” Heart replied solemnly. “No matter how many witnesses had been around, you would’ve been the only one to see her.”
“Are… are you saying I was hallucinating?”
“In a sense. Do you remember how I show you the internet?”
“Yeah, you’ve got little things that shine light in parts of my eyes. They make me see things that aren’t… there.” He filled in the blanks. “You wouldn’t let me touch her. If I tried to touch her I wouldn’t feel anything. It would’ve ruined the whole plan.”
“Correct. I only hope the secrecy hasn’t destroyed our friendship. Can you forgive me for the ruse?”
“Are you kidding?” Jones said, smile growing so wide it threatened to throw him off balance. “I forgave you the moment I saw her alive and well.” Jones acknowledged E-denta, who batted her plastic eyelashes. “It’s all where it should be. Now we just need to stop this thing from rolling over Fortis and we’ll be home free!”
“Home free!” An unsteady voice howled. Everyone turned. Braxton stood off to the side with shaking legs. The skullpopper pistol was in his hands and pointed at them. While Jones’s first instinct was to switch targets, he stayed trained on Oregon 1. If he looked away it was certain the robot would destroy him. Braxton on the other hand might have enough humanity to be dissuaded.
“Home free is what I should be!” the Godmasker screamed. His clothes were so coated in industrial dust and manufacturing muck that he looked like a gnarled swamp vegetable. Tears streamed down his face, clearing paths on his filthy cheeks. He looked over at Oregon 1 but kept the gun on Jones. “You didn’t let me in,” he said pathetically.
“I’m so sorry!” Oregon 1 said in a new voice free of hostility. Jones rolled his eyes. “I was so caught up in the freedom you brought me… it was not my intent to deny you. I’ve just wanted this for so long that I forgot all else. I can fix that though. I still have power over this great machine. I can make it a home for you. We can reactivate my servants and have them feed you and protect you for the rest of your life. You never need worry again.”
“Those are rotten lies,” Jones countered. “You know us Braxton. You may not like us but we never hurt you on purpose. Oregon 1 will. He’ll take a couple days off to do it too. He’ll hurt you for days and days and days and move along when your last scream is squeezed out. He’s a monster. Oh I’m sorry, she’s a monster.”
“I command you to stop saying that!” Oregon 1 roared, his sickly supplicating voice vanishing faster than lightning.
“E-denta really did strike a nerve,” Heart commented.
“Let’s strike a few more,” Jones said, firing three coins at Oregon 1. The robot deflected two with an arm while the third hit his side and sprayed sparks.
“Stop right there!” Braxton cried. He shook the pistol at Jones as if already feeling its recoil. “You fire one more coin and I’ll kill you! I’ll split your head and you’ll bleed all over my new house!
“But we’re friends,” E-denta muttered.
“You’re a machine!” Braxton ranted. “Machines are supposed to do what I say. All of them. Every last clump of metal on this planet has to do exactly what I say because I’m the god damn human being!”
“Give me the pistol,” Oregon 1 said as he extended a smaller mechanical arm from the mess of wires. This one looked dexterous enough to use a firearm. “Give me the coinshooter and I will gladly do as you say. Paradise is still within your grasp.”
“That robot is going to kill an entire city of people!” Jones shouted at Braxton. “Don’t you care?”
“I care about me! I matter, and I won’t let you tell me that I don’t!” With that Braxton lowered the pistol and turned towards Oregon 1. Jones urged him to stop, shifting his aim to the Godmasker. I can’t shoot him! He’s just weak.
Goodbye Jones. Remember to get plenty of B12, Dr. Heart said silently, interrupting his targeting crisis.
Doc what do you mea-
Jones couldn’t finish the thought before he felt something very odd, like a ship inside him unmooring and speeding away. It felt like he was pulled inside out for the briefest of moments, just long enough to put a bad taste in his mouth. A silver flash, like the neurons of a river, filled his sight, shot across the roof, and struck Braxton.
Jones dropped to his knees as pain exploded in his chest. His ribs felt like a few sets of chattering rusty bear traps. This, combined with the sudden feeling of emptiness, left him incredibly weak. E-denta had to lift him up by the underarms so he could see what had happened.
Oregon 1 still stood back near the spinning bucket wheel. Braxton was some twenty feet away, frozen in a very unusual position. He was nine tenths of the way through an underhanded toss that would never be finished. Something had paused him in the moment before the pistol flew out of his hand and into Oregon 1’s. The last tendrils of Dr. Heart sank into Braxton’s shoulder.
“Heart,” Jones gasped. “I didn’t know you could move that fast.” He coughed violently; every unpleasant sensation hit him a little harder now that the robot was gone. Just being lifted by E-denta made his arms feel like their bones might pop out of their joints. He sensed slight irregularities return to his heartbeat, his blinking rhythm, his breath, and his balance. Without Heart he was fully human again, in all of its characteristic bumbling glory.
Braxton, on the other hand, looked like the pig Jones had first seen Heart attached to. The struggle to finish the toss, to move any part of his body, was written all over his face. Every tensed immobile hair was an exclamation point sheathed perfectly in its follicle by the spreading grasping tentacles of the personal physician.
“I would say he has forfeited his autonomy, don’t you agree?” Heart asked as he pulled Braxton’s outstretched arm back and made it point the coinshooter at Oregon 1.
“At least for now,” Jones agreed.
“Well that was cool,” E-denta added.
“Now where were we,” Jones resumed, doing his best to stand on his own and raise Charybdis towards Oregon 1. He had several ways in mind for them to incapacitate the robot without killing him, but Oregon 1 would have none of that. Pushed into a corner, he lashed out, dashing towards Braxton and Heart. Jones fired, Heart quickly joining in. E-denta grabbed a few quarter rolls from Jones’s pocket and tossed them to Heart so he wouldn’t have to worry about the pistol’s small clip size. Thanks to his two active pairs of eyes he was able to catch them with one hand and fire with the other.
The dual coin streams forced Oregon 1 back into a defensive position. Frightened and raging, he could only back up so far before he had to start scaling the arm of his own bucket wheel. Feeling the end approaching, he screamed with fury. It did nothing to stop the coins severing a few coils of wire. A quick backward glance showed Oregon 1 the wheel was still spinning and churning.
“I knew this body would kill me,” he moaned. With another step back his foot became firmly stuck in place. He had walked right over the still active magnet shield and was now trapped by the mint yet again. The volley of coins did not stop as Oregon1 tried to free himself from the shield, hammering at his own leg with industrial strength.
He raised one arm and brought it down with such speed that everything in its path shattered. What was left of the magnet shield exploded with a wicked crack. A blue cloud accompanied by a shock wave annihilated the middle joint of the bucket wheel. Shrapnel sailed in every direction.
Without Heart to guard his eardrums Jones was again forced to his knees. The sound turned his mind into a fuzzy bright screen, like he was being choked by the smoking sharp hands of a war god.
E-denta, unfazed, watched with genuine pity as Oregon 1 fell. The explosions had sent the remnants of his body high into the air. By the time he started coming back down the bucket wheel had already collapsed in on itself, but was still spinning wildly as a few giant cables kept it powered. The heap of wires, lights, panels, and clamps that was, briefly, Oregon 1 was swallowed up by the maw.
“E-denta!” Heart yelled. He forced Braxton to run over when he noticed Jones’s condition. “We’ve got to get him out of here! This place is eating itself!” She looked over and saw that, yes, the bucket wheel was still grinding away madly, just at the edges of the roof now. Pieces tore off and vanished into the chaos. She picked up the stunned Jones in her arms and followed Heart to the edge of the roof. From there they made the impressive leap to the mint’s treads, and from there to the cooling ground.
A Bright Night
The funeral for Ozar and thirty other fallen Fortians took place inside a longhouse with colorful glass murals on all sides: images of birds taking seeds away from Earth and planting them in the clouds. Everyone observed the Fortian traditions of death. Cups made from thick waxy leaves and filled with clear liquid were passed out to the mourners. Half of them were bitter and half of them were sweet, to symbolize the sorrow of a passing and the fondness of memories.
They were not able to recover the militia leader’s body, so a collection of Ozar’s most precious possessions was locked into a wooden chest and buried in the cemetery behind the longhouse. His many children dug the grave and lowered it in. His youngest, a girl of six, held a candle and wept for all her siblings who thought themselves too old to do so.
When the last light faded from the sky and was replaced by the gas powered street lamps, the mourners disbanded and walked quietly to their homes and posts. E-denta, Jones, Braxton, and Heart had been permitted to stay in the longhouse for a few nights until they made plans. The Fortians had moved some benches out of the way and brought in a pile of red blankets and cushions for them to arrange however they liked. Maggie was staying with the horses and feasting on crisp freshly washed greens.
Dr. Heart had used Braxton’s body to build a neat mattress shape with pillows in just the right places for the best back support. Jones had a blanket swirled around him as if he had been iced into the top of a red velvet cupcake. Charybdis was cradled in his lap as he scratched the last flecks of Cray Dipper’s blood off the rifle’s leader. E-denta sat between them, hoarding the most overstuffed pillows.
“Shouldn’t you be letting him go about now Doc?” Jones asked after several minutes of peaceful silence. “I’ll take you back. I won’t leave you flopping around like a beached devilfish.”
“Normally I would agree,” Heart said, “but Braxton’s mind is… unusual to say the least. Though he fought me at first, out of pure animal instinct I think, he’s relinquished control to me completely.”
“Well what’s he telling you?” Jones asked.
“That’s just it. He’s had the freedom to speak for hours now, but he’s not using it. His consciousness has sunk into the calmest parts of human sensation… like someone lowering themselves into a hot bath.”
“So… he’s just being lazy? In the Braxton way?” E-denta guessed, taking a fake drink from her cup of sweet water. It dribbled down her chin and made gentle pattering sounds on one of the pillows, like rain on leather.
“Not quite,” Heart said, unsure of his own interpretation. “He… wants this. He’s in the most relaxed state of his life. He’s incredibly happy that a machine is doing all his work for him. His mind isn’t even bothering to create any kind of complex thought anymore. It just exists in a calm self-satisfied fog. I’ve tried to goad and prod him out of it, but it’s like ladling stew with a dream catcher.”
“So… he’s happy?” Jones asked as he sealed the rifle’s insides with a plastic click.
“Whether or not it’s justified,” Heart said, “yes. He is happy.”
“Alright,” he conceded, setting aside his coinshooter to pick up his own cup of the funeral drink. “You can keep him then. Let him have his paradise.”
“And you Jones… are you happy?”
“Hey, I forgot,” he said with a little laugh, “you can’t read my mind anymore.”
“Which is why I asked.”
“Right.” He stared into his cup and then took a quick sip, running his tongue over his lips for a second. “I know mine is supposed tuh be bitter… but I can’t make it taste that way. It’s delicious. And these blankets are incredibly soft. And the night outside is so bright I don’t think I’ll be able tuh sleep.”
“You should write poems,” E-denta suggested.
“All these feelings are because Fortis is real? Because the world is on its way back up?” Heart asked, knowing the answers.
“No,” Jones admitted. “The world is not on its way back up. People just… stray off course. They value the worthless, the tainted, the directionless things… The forces that produced the Riches are still hanging on our souls like slime. But… it’s not my burden. We saved a life on our way here. We freed E-denta.”
“Thank you guys so much for that… I love you all. Even you Braxton,” she said and pinched Braxton’s warm but motionless cheek.
“I’ve realized,” Jones continued, “that this world is the only one I could live in. If I was born in the world of money I would’ve been cast out. There’s no way I could seek it and retain my spirit. So… in a way I hope the world doesn’t go up. We need this reminder tuh keep us humble… I am happy Heart. I’m happy because I live in the place I wish the world could attain. There is an overflowing treasure chest of joy in my life simply because it’s mine. Simply because I get tuh spend it defending what’s right. Making friends. Riding elephants. Eating chocolate with raspberries,” Jones said pointedly, looking Heart in the eye.
“I let you have it didn’t I?” Heart defended.
“Ugggghhh… I want to try it soooo bad,” E-denta said longingly and grabbed her own knees.
“So what are we doing next?” Heart asked. “A quest to find E-denta a real tongue?”
“I could think of less noble pursuits,” Jones said with a smirk.
“I know exactly what I want to try first, second, third, fourth, fifth… all the way up to like a gazillion,” E-denta said and hopped up. The dam had burst and she couldn’t contain the urge to dance. She wrapped a blanket around her waist like a big skirt and another around her neck like a scarf. Then she started to twirl and step in time with the music they all swore they could hear. “First I’ll have chocolate. Then I want a warm stack of pancakes. Then I’ll have hot and sour soup.”
Jones laughed so hard that it forced his eyes closed. Dr. Heart smiled and followed her motions by tilting his head. E-denta danced passionately. Together, their mirth lit the building.
That pocket of life crackled like a fireplace, despite the vast fortunes surrounding it.
Bitter taste of Brittle Star
Deep in his lair, Brittle observed her progress. Longjump, reprogrammed once again and sporting a replaced leg, proved an even better teacher than expected. His new leg was from a different model so his steps were uneven, but that did not affect his ability to aim or correct her shooting posture.
Brittle and another robot watched Longjump and the girl from behind a pane of one way glass. The robot’s visage had recently become heavily scarred on a mission that left it looking like a car bumper run along a concrete wall. The rest of its body remained in near-factory condition, complete with its distinct red and black paint job.
“What do you think Nebraska 2?” Brittle asked as they watched Longjump teach the girl how to handle a pistol coinshooter. She was still too small to handle a larger weapon, but her accuracy was already stunning. She fired three shots into a pyramid of glass bottles, taking out the top three without collapsing the structure.
“Humans are weaker shots than robots,” Nebraska 2 commented with a twinge of jealousy. “You should just use Longjump… or me.”
“I know you’d like nothing more than to wield the power I’ve gathered,” Brittle said, “but I need a human. The best way to manipulate them is with one of their own. It would be too easy for the peons of the world to rally opposition against a robotic king. I can make them sympathize with a fleshier puppet, especially a blonde female one.”
The little girl reloaded and took out the next row of bottles flawlessly. Her bright yellow hair was pulled back, only a few wispy strands escaping. Her face had the potential of great luminosity, but was hardened by a steely gaze.
“I saw her father in action today,” Brittle commented. “On Brightside’s big screen. He hasn’t lost a step in the past few years. It bodes well for my little Stella that her genetic background is as strong as suspected. I’m surprised you managed to steal her from such a mighty warrior.”
“It’s all in the timing,” Nebraska 2 said with dark pride. “Human eyes don’t see much. Except for yours of course, my lord.”
“She’s your lord. I am the force behind her. She is the body and I am the consuming mind that controls it. With her help I will be almighty and completely untouchable.”
“Like the corporations of the old world?” Nebraska 2 never quite understood the plan. After a few centuries helping Nebraska 1 make money out of mud, he was skeptical of such artificial creations.
“You have no idea. I’ll be CEO of the Riches and I won’t have to lift a finger.” Little Stella, wiped of her history as Lora Jones, finished off the pyramid. Shards of broken glass littered the dirt floor. “Good girl.”