by Judi Calhoun
The robot killer was a battle-ship size yellow and blue metal monster, made in Japan. The conveyor belt ran for months on end, grinding and crushing with powerful blades and hammer-mills. We all heard the screams from the mouths of the humanoid robots while the machines crushed them to death, but nobody was brave or foolish enough to come to their aid.
The metal works held a wonderland of memories for Seth Griffin. His father, Walter used to repair robots at the factory. As a child, he would tote Seth along and let him hang out with the day-workers and on occasion, he’d even help his father repair the mechanical marvels.
In those days, the metal works, also known as Atherstone Industries, became a giant in the community, providing jobs for so many. It manufactured utilitarian item such as fountain pens, clocks, pocket watches, and robots.
After the collapse of the global economy the new government, the EOV, an acronym from Eclogue of Virgil, taken from the old money Novus Ordo Seciorum, Latin for, New order of ages, was now in possession of all the gold and hence made all the new rules.
The EOV demanded that all metal works halt production of robots and start fabricating tools of war. When Atherstone refused, the government shut him down and took the old man away to prison. The business of blood killed the sons of industry, and war carried men of all ages off into a bitter sectarian battle fought on a global scale.
They would have taken Seth too, if not for the fact that all government assistance programs had completely dissolved. Subsequently, special-interest groups paid large sums of gold for the EOV to issue a decree that any family with only one child old enough must remain behind to support his disabled parent.
Seth was twenty-one years old, supporting his crippled mother by working at the rubber factory for a weekly salary of two dollars cash; three loafs of bread, one large box of milk and a bag of canned vegetables, and half the time they were out of vegetables, so he got beans.
Besides Robots, Seth’s passion was writing stories and yet with the price of one sheet of paper costing more than a week’s salary, Seth had nearly given up writing, until his father had discovered a way to make paper.
Less than a year later, Seth lost the creative muse when his father left for the war. Seth took his homemade parchment and all his literary dreams and locked them away in the large artificially lit room behind the brick wall in his basement.
There was something about the early-morning light that drew Seth from his bed, and out the front door. Perhaps it was the faint smell of apple blossoms or the heavy melancholy fragrance of minty-pine that drifted up from the valley below his house.
He slipped through the tangled, vine-covered hole in the fence at the metal works, and half ran down the rocky embankment. When he crossed the weatherworn cracked, weed-covered parking lot, his eyes caught sight of the metal crusher, the Robot killer. His fists tightened in a ball. In a flash of anger, he kicked a piece of metal drainpipe and sent it flying over the old brick building with dust-covered, rectangular windows, and not caring where it landed.
The giant stacks of scrap-metal, squared-off rug-size packages, section after section were tied up with dense bailing wire, bundled and stored, ready for the EOV disposal crane to haul them away.
Seth weaved through the narrow alleyways of the rusty skyscrapers that silhouetted the orange and pink sky that most folks labeled, Stack City, but to him, this place was a cemetery, since most of the destroyed robots had been close friends.
He walked fast now trying to forget what happened when the world went spinning into darkness. He let his mind wander, until he found himself thinking about that cold winter night when his father kissed the top of his head and whispered good-bye. Seth stopped to bend over fighting the pain of loss.
He hadn’t paused very long when something on the edge of his nightmarish daydreams caught his attention, a warm glow of light coming from the other side of the metal skyscrapers on his right. He made his way around the corner and stopped dead in his tracks.
He could hardly believe his eyes. It seemed so glorious and absolutely fantastic, the most fantastic thing he had seen since…well since forever. To him, it was equivalent to a twentieth-century amusement park.
A giant dinosaur robot bobbing his green scaly head, opening his jaw wide…a mouth filled with jagged teeth, making no noise, other than spinning gears, looking both silly and ferocious. That alone would have been enough to thrill Seth, but there was more.
Below the mammoth lizard, in the middle of the debris littered clearing, was another robot, a humanoid. Seth ventured a guess that they were both around the same size, maybe five-foot-nine inches.
It was hard to tell because the robot was sitting at a cherry-wood Victorian writing desk, with metal scrolling fixtures, sophisticatedly assembled and a yellow glowing battery-operated lamp sat on his desk.
The humanoid wore a velvet burgundy suit, white shirt and red tie. He would have been a flawless, elegant work of mechanical genius, if not for the fact that he was missing part of his face and head. The left side above the ear and part of the eye, exposing the moving gears normally hidden beneath the flexible skin.
It fascinated Seth watching both eyes moving, and at the same time seeing the mechanisms shifting the eyeballs back and forth. He could hear the small chimes and metal spinning gears (working/work) every slight jerky movement of his hand as he dipped the fountain pen into the ink well.
“Hello,” he said, his voice mimicking a male in his mid-twenties not too deep, mellow with only a minute high-pitched peal. “My name is Russell, and for a small price, I can write a letter to anyone you’d like. I can also write a legal contract if you need one. You provide the subject and I will write for you, one full page.”
“This is amazing,” said Seth. “Um…how did you get here? Does anyone else know about you and T-Rex, like the EOV?”
Russell calmly placed the pen in the ink well and moved his hands to rest gently on the small wooden desk. “Do you work for the EOV? Are you going to report us?”
“Me,” said Seth pointing at his chest. “No, of course not. I wouldn’t turn you in.”
“I’m happy to hear that,” said Russell. With small movements, he nodded his head. “Now what shall I write for you.”
The moment that Seth drew closer, a metal box the size of a butter tray, sitting on the desk opened up and began to quote a page from Charles Dickens Pickwick Papers. All Seth could see were eyes and a large mouth with big teeth. Russell pushed a green button on the front of the box, and the volume of his voice went very low. When he was finished reciting, after a few moments, he slipped back inside and the cover slammed shut.
“What was that?” Seth asked.
“This was all I could find of Vipin,” said Russell. “He was a good friend. As you know, good friends are hard to find. I know he can be a bit loud at times, but he is enjoyable all the same. He can quote any great author. I am thankful that he only quoted one page, generally he goes on and on.” Russell glanced off toward the old metal works. “Did you know Mr. Atherstone our wonderful creator?”
Seth reluctantly shuffled over the metal debris, stopping right in front of the desk glancing up to study the T-Rex from underneath its jaw. “I met him once when I was a kid. My father worked in the robot department.”
Russell leaned back. His eyes traveled over the boy’s face, “what was your father’s name?”
“Walter Griffin,” said Seth.
“Ah, yes he assembled my foot joints.” Russell stretched his foot out beyond the desk and twisting the black slipper-laden foot. “What a wonderful human. Now, what can I write for you, son of Walter? I only charge the price of one clean full sheet of page or a bottle of ink would be lovely.”
“I didn’t bring any of those things with me, but I can get them,” said Seth.
“I trust you son of Walter,” said Russell again dipping the point of the fountain pen into the small ink well. “I can write on any subject and fill up one page.” His head juddered forward and titled to the left, smiling. “So what would you like me to write?”
“I miss my dad,” said Seth, shoving his hands in his jacket pocket. “I wish I could write him a letter.”
“Splendid,” said Russell. “Let’s begin shall we. Dearest Dad, is that salutation acceptable to you son of Walter?”
“He will never read this letter,” said Seth glanced off fighting that same painful yearning to see his father again. He began to wonder about the fruitlessness of such a practice and yet what would he say to his father, if he were certain, his father would actually read the letter?
“I completely understand your apprehension at writing such a personal missive, knowing that he will not receive it.” Russell stared intently at Seth “However, this project might be helpful for you, don’t you agree?”
Seth was shrewd enough to understand what Russell was saying that perhaps the act of dictating the letter might help him heal. “The salutation is fine,” said Seth, glancing down, kicking at a few stray pieces of metal gears. “I…I want to tell him…,” he paused because he didn’t want to sound pedestrian or say something too sentimental because that wasn’t the way it was between him and his father.
Russell sat poised with his pen above the paper, and a small drip of ink splashed on the page, but he didn’t seem to notice or care.
“Life is as normal as it can be without you, dad. Mother gives piano lessons from her wheelchair,” said Seth. “She doesn’t care if it’s against the law. We are happily rebellious.
On my days off, I visit the metal works. Sometimes I swear I can still see you sitting at your desk fixing a broken humanoid robot’s arm, listening to your favorite Chopin nocturnes. It’s funny because that music is always in my head.” Seth paused and glanced up at the robot, watching him scribble across the page never missing a word.
“I’ve hidden away behind the wall all your favorite books. I would die first before I let the EOV strike a match to any of them. Some days, I visit the secret room. I stand in front of the bookcase and run my fingers over the spines as if touching them; I might somehow connect with you. It’s a stupid thought isn’t it?” Seth took a deep breath.
“Your favorite book on robot repair still has the odor of burning fall leaves from your pipe tobacco, and I wonder why things like tobacco weren’t outlawed, instead, books and computers that contained a wealth of knowledge. I must admit this world makes no sense and its even more puzzling as to why we hardly receive any news about the war. It’s as if we sent you off to die, and we have no idea why.
Mike, from the factory showed me a photo of dead bodies piled up higher than our roof. I…I hoped none of them were you.” Seth wiped at his eyes. “Russell, I’m not sure I can continue.”
“Very well,” said Russell, returning his pen to the ink well. “I shall save this until you return tomorrow.”
“I can’t come back until Tuesday,” said Seth. “That’s my day off.”
“Tuesday,” said Russell. “A wonderful day. I look forward to seeing you then.”
Seth paused as he turned to leave. “Do you stay out here all the time, even in the rain?”
“No,” said Russell. “Vipin and I move inside the building. My T-Rex friend is not just another pretty face. He’s quite useful. He has visual sensory perception, and heat sensitivity. He warns me of trouble and bad weather.”
“What will happen if you get caught?” Seth asked.
“I will be disassembled and compressed into a new pile of scrap metal. All the lovely memories of letters I’ve written…will be gone.”
The thought of Russell being destroyed made Seth sick to his stomach. “I hope that never happens.”
“It’s inevitable, son of Walter, but until that day, I remain faithfully at your service.”
It was three full days before Seth could return to the metal works yard, with paper and ink as payment for Russell’s services. As he approached the yard, he heard voices, human voices. Seth crouched low, moving along the front of the building, ducking under windows and stopping when he reached the edge of the open-garage-type-alcove. He slipped around the corner and stood back in the shadows of the darkened doorway listening.
“You’re wrong Jim. We destroyed every robot.”
“I was told by a reliable source that this facility has a communication robot, who writes letters for people. He has other machines and human sympathizers working for him. I suggest you inspect every inch of this place until you find them and destroy the Bots.”
“Do you have any idea how many acres we are talking about? I don’t have the man power.”
“You better do something Chet otherwise you’ll be arrested and thrown in prison. I will leave my best man, Philip with you. He can sniff out robots better than any officer.”
“Fine,” said Chet. “We start early.”
Seth waited for them to drive off before he headed back toward Stack city. He paused before he turned the corner, glancing backwards to make sure he wasn’t being followed.
“Why are you hiding, son of Walter?” Asked Russell.
Seth moved out from behind the metal stacks. “How did you know I was here?”
“T-Rex altered me. Besides I am sensitive to close-range sound waves and odors as well, good to see you again son of Walter. Shall we finish the letter?”
Seth held up his hand and closed his eyes a moment to put his thoughts together. “A moment ago, I overheard a conversation with the EOV and the owner. They know about you. They have plans to destroy you. You’ve got to run and hide.”
Russell bent his head back as he glanced up at the T-Rex. “We had a good run while it lasted.”
“You’re just going to let them destroy you,” said Seth.
“What else do you suggest?”
“Hide,” said Seth. “Find a new place.”
“Do not fret about this, son of Walter. T-Rex will find us a new location.”
“They are going to search every inch of this place,” said Seth. “I don’t think there is any place you can hide.”
“We have gone through this before,” said Russell. “They have only three men searching Stack City. So, don’t worry we know how to hide.”
Seth let out a loud exhale of breath. “I hope for your sake you are right. Here, I brought you some paper and ink.” He placed five sheets of clean parchment and three bottles of ink on his desk.
“This is payment for many letters,” said Russell. “I must give some back to you.”
“No,” said Seth. “I have so much paper. Keep it.”
“I am overwhelmed by your generosity.”
“Well maybe someone will come along without payment,” said Seth. “Someone desperate.”
“I see the wisdom of your words,” said Russell. “Thank you son of Walter. Shall we pick up where we left off?”
“Sure,” said Seth.
They spent the afternoon finishing the letter. He tucked the precious paper into his jacket before walking away.
That night when he (went/) fell asleep Seth had a dream. He saw the EOV police loading Russell into the robot-killing machine. He was strapped on the conveyor belt. His (screams/pleas) filled Seth’s nightmare, and he woke up in a cold sweat. Russell (final) scream(s/) still fresh in his mind. He glanced at the clock it was too early for work. He had one sick day left. He picked up the cell phone used only for emergencies, and he dialed the rubber plant’s number and told them he would not make it into work today.
Seth could hear the conveyor belt and the gears grinding and hammers slamming, pounding along with his heart. As he climbed through the fence, thoughts screamed in his mind, it’s too late Russell is already gone.
When he reached the parking lot and edge of Stack City, Seth glanced up at the conveyor belt and what he saw turned him cold.
They were crushing the T-Rex. The metal table legs were next and then Russell, strapped to the conveyor belt, exactly like his dream. There were at least two workers, and one was definitely the EOV.
As Seth slipped behind the first stack, his mind raced in a panic. If only he could create a distraction and send the workers away from the machine, he could rescue Russell.
While Russell moved slowly up the conveyor belt, in a panic, Seth searched the ground looking around him for a rock or something, anything. As the early morning sun peeked over the horizon of Stack City, a glint of light flashed off something silver on the ground.
It was the little chatterbox, Vipin.
Russell was nearing the top of the machine.
Seth opened the box. A fearful little face glanced out at Seth.
“Vipin, I need you to help me save Russell.”
Suddenly, the robot’s eyes grew larger. “What shall I do?”
“As loud as you can quote me your favorite author. I want the entire book, no matter what happens, don’t stop quoting, okay.”
“We shall save Russell,” said Vipin. “Please, push my red button.”
As Seth slid his finger over the button, Vipin began to scream out passages from Dickens, The Old Curiosity Shop.
With Russell’s head inches from the grinder, the machine stopped. All the men glanced toward Stack City. Seth’s heart began to pound. He waited long enough for them to start moving away from the machine.
“Thank you Vipin,” said Seth. He drew back his arm, grunting he tossed it high watching the silver box sailing through the air, carried off, on the light morning breeze over Stack City landing somewhere between the narrow passageways.
When the men changed direction, Seth counted to five, before heading for the robot-killing machine.
He heard more shouting when he reached the conveyor belt and started to climb the black rubber belt, nearly falling a few times, until he reached Russell.
“Son of Walter,” said Russell. “I was so afraid. I tried to be brave, but I knew it would be painful. Now you are here to save me. I am so utterly and blissfully happy to see you. I thought I heard Vipin. Was I imagining things?”
“He might have saved your life,” said Seth unhooking the straps, until they fell away and Russell grabbed Seth and hugged him. “Thank you for saving me.”
“You aren’t free yet,” said Seth taking the robot’s arms away from his shoulders. “Follow me!”
They slid down the conveyor belt, mostly falling. Seth caught a glimpse of someone out of the corner of his eye. A second later they seemed to disappear behind the stacks. Perhaps he was imagining things.
Russell was starting to give him a headache from chattering almost as much as Vipin.
“Will you please be quiet,” said Seth, as he glanced around at the miles of chain-link-fence, searching for a way out. He didn’t want to back track toward the building and the hole in the fence because that was too close to the workers.
The moment Vipin stopped screaming, Seth glanced over his shoulder toward Stack City and knew they had found the little robot, and his heart sank, but there was no time to mourn the loss of another friend—they had to escape.
Seth spied a low-hanging tree branch at least a half-mile away. “Can you run?” he asked.
“It was part of my programing. Your father made sure of that.”
Seth half wondered if his father knew the future and what lay ahead for robots. Perhaps he had prepared the robot for this moment, but now there was no time to ponder the possibilities; they had to get away fast.
“Run,” shouted Seth and don’t stop until you reach the fence. Seth was surprised at how fast the robot ran. He ran stiffly as if a cartoon stick figure moving without his arms.
Seth didn’t waste anytime climbing the fence and onto the tree branch. He looked back at Russell, who stood stationary gazing at the fence.
“I was not programed for climbing,” said Russell.
“It’s easy, put your foot into holes in the fence and reach up I will grab your hand.”
“Freeze!” Commanded the cold, firm voice of an EOV officer, his tone holding more than authority, he was angry. He stood only two feet away, sweat pouring from his forehead, gun drawn, and ready to shoot.
“Philip,” said Russell as if he were delighted to see an old friend. “How nice to see you. Would you be so kind as to help me over this fence?”
Seth’s eyes were trained on the gun aimed at him. “You know this guy.”
“No,” said Philip his voice incensed. “I’m no friend to robots. I’m taking you back to the crusher.”
“Of course, I know you,” said Russell, and he glanced up at Seth. “His mother knitted me the most wonderful green sweater one year for Christmas. It’s a shame I didn’t get to thank her for such kindness. Please tell her how much I appreciated her handy work. Speaking of family, how is your brother Paul?” Russell glanced up at Seth. “I have written many letters for Philip. His twin brother Paul is away fighting in the war.”
“They will kill me if I let you go,” Philip snarled and started running his left hand over the stubble on his face, and he nervously paced back and forth, glancing over his shoulder. He let out a loud groan of frustration before holstering his gun. “I must be out of my mind,” he said his head down. He moved with determination and swiftly wrapped his arms around the robot’s sleek burgundy-suited body and lifted Russell up. The robot’s smile never wavered as he stared down at the face of the dangerous EOV officer.
Immediately, Seth grabbed onto Russell’s arms and with all his strength, he lifted him up onto the branch, and together they jumped beyond the fence. Mostly, Russell fell, on top of Seth.
Seth helped Russell to his feet.
“Thank you, Philip,” said Russell brushing the dead leaves from his burgundy suit.
The EOV officer expression shifted dark and cold again. He took his weapon from the holster and began to shoot until he emptied the clip.
Seth went to work everyday as he usually did. When he came home, he cooked dinner for his mother, and sat in the living room listening to her play old show tunes on the discordant piano for a half hour.
He would help his mother into bed, turning off the lights, drawing the shades; Seth grabbed his backpack before he stealthily moved down into the basement. When he reached the secret room, he suspiciously glanced around the shadowy darkness before his fingers pushed the painted red brick that opened the hidden door. As always, Russell was waiting for him.
Even though it had been a month or more memories of their escape were still fresh in Seth’s mind. Seeing Philip empty his clip into that tree branch, until the wood splintered and nearly fell on top of him, that poor maple tree within weeks rotted and died. Seth wondered if Philip somehow had a hand in the swiftness of its death.
After their escape, it had been week after terrifying week, living in fear watching the EOV invade every home in the neighborhood, searching for the robot, eventually posting signs offering a large reward.
Seth spent most of his free time working on Russell, programing him for better agility, giving him the capability to jump high and climb fences.
During the third week, Seth built Russell a new writing desk, not as nice as the one he had, but nonetheless, it was a no-frills, practical place to work.
This night, when the door opened, Russell rushed from the bookcase. “Thank God you are home,” he said.
The robot was holding a pulp fiction paperback, detective novel against his chest. “I’ve been going out of my mind with boredom. I feel so useless. I simply stare at the walls all day long or re-read the same books. I have sunk to the lowest level, son of Walter. I am not proud of myself. I’ve started reading these predictable, pulp fiction, crime novels. At least when I was at the metal works, there was always something interesting to see or do. By the way, did you go by the metal works today? Did you find Vipin?”
“I went,” said Seth. “Sorry, no Vipin, but what I found surprised me.”
Russell slipped into his chair. He placed the book down on his desk, tilting his head and resting his hands on top of the cover. “What did you find, son of Walter?”
“People,” said Seth. “Lots and lots of people.”
“I am confused. Were any of them Philip or the EOV? Are we on the lam? You see already these books have altered my speech pattern.” His eyes glanced down at the paperback. “I hate being the antagonist.”
“Will you stop this and just listen to me,” said Seth, raising his hands in frustration.
“You have my full attention, son of Walter,” said Russell. “Please, tell me about the people.”
They were your clients,” said Seth. “And they were all looking for you, because they wanted to use your services.”
“Oh, oh dear,” said Russell his eyes suddenly brightening, his hand going toward his chest. “I am needed.”
Seth shrugged out of his backpack and unzipped the large pocket. He started to place mounds of paper the size of index cards on Russell’s desk.
The robot, picked them up, his eyes rushing over them, “What are they?”
“Requests for letters and some legal documents,” said Seth, reaching deeper inside the bag drawing out another pile of crisp white paper and five bottles of ink. “Your payment in advance. So you can stop reading those silly crime novels, because you’re back in business my friend.”
Seth could hear the chimes and spinning gears as Russell started to smile.