Good Robot, Bad Robot, No Robot

April 21, 2010

Part I: Technodyssey

Arturo White sagged out of bed and turned up the charge on his alarm clock. His body had yet again grown accustomed to the electric shock that it sent through his bed, with the result that this morning he felt distinctly less than refreshed.

He hit the remote control he kept by his bed, turning on the coffee machine in the next room. As he dressed he ambled towards it, and saw that it was already done.

“Shit,” he thought. “I’m getting slower. A lot slower.”

Every second he delayed the machine automatically upped the concentration of the serum, correctly interpreting the wait as a sign of increased sluggishness in its owner. He hurried up and put the intravenous drip into his wrist, and took his morning milligrams.

Arturo’s television clicked on.

“Hi Art,” said Walter Jeffreys, his supervisor. “I’ve got a great opportunity available for you this morning. There’s double-pay if you can be in by 8:15. Over and out.”

Arturo pulled the drip out of his arm and ran out of his apartment door. As he walked down the corridor he uncrinkled a five for the elevator. His caffeine-accelerated thoughts dinned around his head and came out with, “Have I ever taken the elevator on the way up?”

He got in and saw there was only one other person taking the lift that morning. She was a woman and she was still putting on her make-up, so Arturo averted his gaze. This was pretty hard given that every wall of the elevator had a wide mirror along it.

“Aren’t you a good little boy,” she sneered, seeing his efforts had left him in the far corner looking directly down at the floor. “Don’t worry, I’m all done now.”

Arturo never saw what ‘all done’ meant, because at that point the elevator touched bottom, the doors flew open, and the woman was out.

“Still losing time,” thought Arturo, as he found himself still standing in the elevator. “Shit.”

He hailed down a passing bus.

“Are you going past the Wachstum Bank on Pickering Street?” he asked, standing in the door, being stared at by a hundred passengers.

“I’m headed to Elridge Plaza, for twenty I’ll take you there after,” said the bus-driver.

It’s going to take him another ten minutes to reach Elridge, and then at least another five to Pickering. And there might be traffic; better not risk it.

“I’ll give you fifty if you go direct,” Arturo told him.

“A hundred and twenty,” the bus driver said, “I have a lot of people already paid for Elridge, so it’s at least that to change direction.”

“I’ll pay you another thirty to go straight to Elridge,” called a voice from the middle of the bus, “that should bring it to a hundred and fifty for him to change course.”

“If it goes above two-hundred,” thought Arturo, “that’s going to cancel out most of the gain of making it by 8:15.”

“I’ll pay you a hundred and eighty,” said Arturo.

“Seventy to ignore him,” the voice.

Fuck it.

Arturo left the bus and ran down Kingsley Avenue. He got to the gates of the moped-park and the attendant called out to him as he approached, “Two-hundred and fifty for a bike this morning.”

“I can’t pay you more than one-fifty.”

“You can and you will,” said the attendant, quietly, with his arms crossed, leaning against the high-wire fence to the yard. “I know you Art. you only ever come here when the traffic’s too bad for anything else, so I can charge what I like. You’re paying two-fifty.”

Shit. “Two-hundred,” he pleaded, “come on, if I pay more than that I lose money on getting to work at all. Two-hundred or I don’t take anything.”

The attendant laughed. “Poor Art,” he chuckled, “poor, pathetic, Art. Look at you! You cry then you try to act tough. No one believes the act, Art. I don’t think even you do.”

He laughed some more. Arturo hated it when people called him Art.

“I’ll tell you what,” said the attendant’s finally subsiding laugh, “I feel sorry for you. I actually feel sorry for you. So you know what? Fine. I’ll let you beat me this once. Two-hundred for the bike. Just make extra sure to bring it back on time, because I’m not going to go easy on the fines too.”

Arturo gave him the money and jumped on the nearest moped, not looking at the laughing man again.

“There was the time I moved in obviously,” Arturo thought, “obviously I had to go up on the lift then; I had furniture.”

Arturo got to the Wachstum Bank building at 8:11. He nearly killed himself cutting in ahead of a modified battle-tank some arsehole was driving into work. He gave the parking-attendant an old and scrunched up ten which was worth less than it’s face value because the omnipresent vending machines of the centre wouldn’t take it, and anyone who had time to look at the bill would demand another. In exchange Arturo got a filthy look as he drove into his park-box.

He got off the bike and leaned against it as it was lifted up into the higher reaches of the automobile filing-cabinet built into his building. Strapped for parking space, it had long since become economically viable in any livable city for every major building to have its own autostacker. Only a single entry or exit point existed for the whole garage, through which were cycled small steel boxes containing one car each. In the small spaces around the car, each box also came with a small bathroom to give occupants waiting to get in or out of the carpark something to do with their lives. Arturo passed his trip up to the tenth floor preparing his time-card and trying to fix his helmet hair.

He walked out squinting into the ultra-bright Stay-Stay-Awake lights on his floor, and put his time card into the machine to his right. He read it as it came back out. 8:15 exactly.

He walked into his office and slumped into his chair. He was the only one of three people who worked there who’d gotten in early. He spent the next fifteen minutes calculating how much money he had actually made for his troubles that morning. Twenty-six dollars. One scratch on the bike and he’d lost money.

As he finished his sums he turned his computer on and his coworker, Craig, came into the office. “Craig?” he said.

“Yeah?” he’d never called him Art.

“What do we do here again?”

“I don’t know what you do, Arturo,” he said, picking up their office printer, “but I spend my time on the net looking for a better job.”

“Have you found one?” Craig had walked to the window and was trying to work the rusted-in key.

Craig sighed, unable to open it. “Kind of,” he said as he picked up the printer and threw it directly through the pane of glass. “Look out the window.”

Arturo, a little stunned and terrified, approached the shattered glass and saw all around them the glittering skies of a Luddite revolution.

“We have the best jobs Arturo,” explained Craig, “so this is all that’s left to do. It’s up to you though. I can tie you up and if this all goes wrong you can claim you tried to stop me.”

Arturo had to stop and wait as his thoughts got off the bus from Elridge Plaza and mounted the stairs to his office. Craig, meanwhile, was destroying everything.

“I made a decision,” Arturo announced.

“That’s good,” said Craig, beating in the ceiling-lights with a chair, “it’s good to make your own decisions, Art.”

Arturo winced, but nevertheless jammed the shredder full of stationary and rammed it through the office door.

***

Part II: Good Robot, Bad Robot, No Robot

Arturo somehow managed to shrink into the back of the council, even though there were only five of them there around a really noxious fire in what used to be a corridor in an janitorial supplies repository.

“Arturo will stand to attention tonight,” said Steven, looking at him, “okay?”

Arturo’s hands were still raw from the last night he’d been at attention, but then so were everyone’s. “Okay.”

They were on their way north for the summer. They couldn’t afford to stay where it was warm because without the cold their senses would grow sluggish, and they would be easily killed by all the creatures who hadn’t spent the last five thousand years getting weaker and weaker.

As the meeting broke up and the other four went to sleep for the night Arturo watched the fire die down until there were only embers left. He picked some up and and clenched them in his fists.

The sleep that had been threatening him, and by extension his whole group, fled. He was so invigorated he had trouble not screaming.

“Here, at least,” he thought, “is the proof. In all my life in all those towers, not the hyper-attention-inducing lights, not the televised motivatory messages, not the full array of electrical-stimulators could make me concentrate like real, natural, fire.”

He sat for a while concentrating all his strength on trying to still his body. Soon he was as silent as the blacked-out night.

Beside him one of the travelers, Gavin, stirred in his sleep, the rubble beneath him crunching, like gravel under tires, as he moved.

Arturo struck him once as hard and fast as he could, now-dark ash flying out of his fist. Gavin made no protest and went back to sleep. They all had to train their bodies to sleep in perfect stillness if they were to survive. None of the others woke up while this was going on.

Later in the night Arturo heard slivers of glass breaking under a heavy foot. He stopped breathing as he listened closer.

It was too heavy to be peaceful. A bear, or a cougar even. It was not impossible that they had moved so far from the mountains by now. When he heard the sound of sniffing, Arturo moved.

He woke the others, and mouthed to them the word “bear.”

Within what used to be a minute all of them were up and packed. Arturo took a small bag and tore it open, rubbing each man’s chest with the leaves inside. They were instantly refreshed by the stinging herb.

With the echoes bouncing across myriad corridors and concrete walls around them it was impossible to tell where the sounds had actually come from. Nevertheless Arturo pointed to the corridor he thought lead away from the animal, and the group began to make their way.

They didn’t speak or look at each other as they walked. All of them were totally focused on avoiding all the glass and rubble that lay around to be stepped on.

Signs along the corridor told them that they were heading to a stairwell. Steven pointed at one and whispered to Gavin behind him, “we exit through there.” The message was passed along until it reached Arturo at the back.

As they turned the corner they stopped. The corridor had collapsed. They would have to go back the way they came.

It’s suicide to go back the way you came.

The sounds of padding following them had been echoing for a while. So the men built a small fire where they stood, tied what rags they could spare around their clubs and set them on fire.

They sat waiting, paranoid, the sounds of the coming bear- they were sure it was a bear by now- keeping them awake.

“Is anything in nature this hungry,” thought Arturo as the violently emaciated giant came into view, “or did it have to come to the city to find this.”

The bear was almost totally furless, its skin black and red from when it had bathed itself in pools of battery acid or tried to scale an electrical substation. Arturo saw its weirdly white teeth through the hole in its face.

It watched them as it approached. It saw the fire, it saw that there were five of them. The bear kept padding towards them at the same speed. It made no sounds.

“It wants to eat us,” said Gavin, “there’s no point trying to scare it, when it passes that fire-extinguisher we rush it. Understand?”

Some nodding.

Some waiting.

As they ran towards the bear it stood up on its hindquarters. It came down swiping with its full force behind it, but after that Arturo could not see any more of what went on.

The bear was pressed back against a wall, and Arturo behind the bear. The burn on his chest from the herb felt strangely soothed by the cold mucus from the beast’s back. All he could see was a red mark in blackened skin, like an inverted cartoon of a spring sky. Still the bear made no sound.

His arm pinned, Arturo thrust the fireless end of his club into that point with the little force he could gather. As the bear pressed itself more desperately against the wall, Arturo began to feel his chest being crushed. He could only take faint breaths, and his panic alone had had him panting for over a minute. He hit the bear harder, not from any hope that he could help kill it, but from his body’s need to do something, anything, as it was being destroyed by forces it couldn’t accept having no control over.

He felt heat. First warmth. The slug-warmth of a warm bed. He was suffocating, and the warmth brought quicker a dreary coma.

Then fire. He felt real fire, the kind of burning that without seeing it you can’t distinguish from falling into cracked ice. Then he saw a lick of flame in what little of the world was visible to him, and the pressure slackened as the dead bear fell forward. Arturo crawled away, gasping, then choking in the smoky corridor.

He saw the smoking cadaver, still and now forever perfectly silent, as two men, he couldn’t see who, pulled him and began running out of the corridor. They had no time to look back, with smoke fast filling the unventilated halls and the fire spreading. He saw the corpse upside down, his head below one of the arms he was being pulled up by. There was too much blue in that fire.

He slipped on screeching slivers of glass as they ran, and nearly lost his footing.

They dropped along the stairs of a different fire exit, jumping steps and slingshotting themselves around the banister.

But in all this flurry Arturo felt like a rag-doll. He was still asleep from the fight with the bear, the moment in which he had burned with the corpse not enough to pull him out of his smoky stupor. He stuttered a black, ashy cough, not sharp enough to hack it out fluently. “Later,” he told himself, “later I’ll wake up.”

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