3/31/2006

Robots Bury the Dead


A science-fiction short story about wilful bewilderment.


There should have been rain, but rain isn't something they do here.

I was the only man in the cemetery -- besides my brother, of course, whose presence was mitigated by death. The other mourners attended only by proxy, translucent holographs projected over the bodies of the robots whose senses they commandeered.

The silver carapace of one robot winked in the sun as its head drooped in an attitude of misery, the overlaid features of my sister grimacing, ghostly tears vanishing into the air as they dripped from her jaw.

"...And so we commend his body to the ants, so that his vessel might give new life and new glory to this cold world."

The last words were spoken. The pastor's projection faded. Six robots with somber grey armour assembled around the coffin and took hold, their metal fingers clicking against the wood. They heaved in perfect concert without so much as a nod for ready, and the coffin was gracefully propelled toward the waiting hole.

"Goodbye, Vim," I tried to whisper, but didn't.

And then it was done. The coffin sank from sight and bumped quietly on the bottom of the grave. The robots in grey took spades to the waiting pile of rich, black soil and began to industriously move it into the hole in a neat six-part clockstep. The others, now denuded of their puppeteers' shadows, regained themselves and walked away across the grass between the tombstones.

I hate funerals.

* * *

I tried not to look up as I crossed the crowded plaza outside the cemetery gates. Everyone else seemed indifferent to the cloudless black void hanging over our heads, punctuated by the unholy striped eye of Jove.

My head was pounding. When I waved to hail a ride my tie kept bobbing up in my face. I blew at it in frustration. "Taxi!"

A car pulled up and the hatch yawned open. As soon as I was inside we were aloft. The driver found my accent hilarious. Despite this, an understanding was reached and I was gratefully released from conversation with him.

I pinched the bridge of my nose and closed my eyes, trying to find solace in the lulling motion of the ride. I had almost succeeded when I was jostled roughly against the glass. "Fornicator!" bellowed the driver angrily.

Warning chimes sounded. I opened my eyes in time to see another car whip by overhead, the thrum of its alarmingly close engines shuddering through the cabin. "Are you trying to kill me?" I asked.

"Listen Martian," he replied brusquely, "you want to get there today or you want to get there tomorrow?"

I smiled tightly. "You might not know: it isn't polite to use that name."

The driver snorted and turned back to the controls. "Oh, I know alright."

* * *

My brother's estate was in another dome -- smaller, older, opaque. The apparent sky overhead was even tinted blue, because the pioneers of this moon thought they would miss the real thing more than they did. I was relieved to be free of Jupiter's stare.

Whether it was in fact night or day on Callisto's surface or even how such things were reckoned in the Joviat was unknown to me. It had been less than a season since I had graduated from business school, and my first official errand for the family's interests was to attend to the affairs of my eldest brother's passing so very far from home. I was alone, and I had never felt so alien.

I was determined to demonstrate my efficacy, however, and thereby once and for all earn the family's trust. I would show them I was no longer the baby -- I was a man of business.

At the estate gates I was greeted by a tarnished bronze robot whose identification code was illegible beneath the grime on his shoulder. When he bowed clods of dirt dropped off his flexing shins. "Fiscalite Sander Yi, welcome to Sanderfield's Wild," he said in a tinny voice.

"I'm here to look after the closing of the estate," I told him.

"The staff is aware, sir. Pre-liquidation cataloguing has already commenced. If you will follow me, sir, I will show you to the study."

The dirty robot bowed again and then set off between the gates. I wondered how badly things had gone awry for the staff to be in such a state of disrepair. I was further concerned by the unruly tangle of plants that seemed to have taken over the grounds. I had been told for years that Vim ran some sort of fancy gardens at Jupiter. I'm not quite sure what I had imagined but it was surely something more grand that the artless miasma of green I saw on either side of the drive.

We entered the house. Various low-grade robots were industriously ferrying boxes into neat stacks, or rolling tapestries, or checking knick-knacks against glowing manifests. None of them spoke. Like the robots at the funeral their duties were somber and many, a wake for a house heralded by the organized removal of its contents.

I was escorted by my bronze guide through the busy main halls and into a spacious, sunny study with walls that undulated gently in the breeze. There were two desks in the middle of the room -- one messy, one clean. Arrayed around them were shelves and shelves of informatic plates, spines arranged by format and density.

On a sofa by the window sat an expensive but worn robot with a blanket over his legs. He wore a faded green tie whose end was weighted down with decorative beads. I batted my own tie down from my face as it bounced up in low-gravity slow-motion, inspired by the inertia transmitted from my body as I came to a surprised halt.

"Oh!" I said. And then, "Hello?"

The leather on the old robot's face and neck was wizened by long use, and it creaked as he turned toward me. His inscrutable black eyes fixed on me after a strange moment of wandering. "?Vim?" he asked in a quiet voice.

"My name is Yi," I told him. "I'm from the family."

"You've come to close down."

"Yes. I?wasn't aware --"

"I am Ready Farmer. I am caretaker of the wild."

I frowned. "I was led to believe Mr. Farmer was a human being."

"Your brother frequently did me the courtesy of misrepresenting my status, in order that I might act more freely."

I blinked. "Why?"

Ready Farmer seemed to sigh as he looked down for a moment and adjusted the fold of the blanket in his lap. "Because he was my friend, and he loved me," he said at last.

* * *

An ancient model with rusty curlicues engraved on its torso wheeled in a silver tea service and invited me to partake. As I made use of each utensil to prepare my cup it was taken up by the robot, wrapped in a plastic envelope, and passed to another robot who packed the envelopes into a box labeled TEA SERVICE, SILVER, ARESIAN, ANTIQUE.

Ready Farmer regarded me sedately. Behind him was a floor-to-ceiling window that looked out over a knot of twisted vines and choked bush. "Unbelievable!" I couldn't help but exclaim, shocked at the estate's squalor.

Ready nodded. "Indeed, sir. This is the largest wild in the Joviat, covering over ten square kilometers, sir."

"This -- is part of it?" I squinted at the clots of green. "It looks like a mess?like he's just let everything grow all willy-nilly."

"Indeed, sir. It is a wild."

"It looks utterly unmappable."

"Indeed, sir. Mapping is forbidden."

I raised my brow. "How curious. Whatever is the point of such a garden?"

"Sir, it is a wild. The point is to create a space in which people can get lost."

"Get lost?" I sniffed. "What do you mean?"

"The state of being lost occurs when a human being becomes sufficiently confused as to facilitate a complete break from navigational orientation."

"Like being drunk?"

Ready shrugged, tarnished shoulders clanking against his collar. "I am sorry sir, but I cannot validate that analogy."

"Why should anyone wish to be disoriented?"

"It is a rare luxury on an engineered world, sir. I am told it allows one to feel?natural."
Two sepia robots stepped between us carrying a large holographic portrait. "My great-grandmother!" I cried. "My goodness it's been a long time. I'd nearly forgotten her face."

Ready cocked his head. "Shall I hold the robots, sir?"

"Hold them?"

"Perhaps you should like to retain the portrait for the family." He raised his hand and flexed it significantly. The sepia robots froze in their tracks, hovering beside the tea service box.

"I?" I trailed off, looking into my great-grandmother's eyes. "I was not instructed to bring anything back with me to Ares."

"Very well," replied Ready, flexing his hand again. The sepia robots marched the portrait out of the study and out of sight. I felt a quivering pang of loss, and coughed to break the moment and regain myself. "Pity," said Ready. "It was once a treasure of Mars."

"Please," I interrupted gently, "let's leave the old names behind -- Imperial Mars is over, and Mother Ares has risen. There's a new spirit downwell and a new peace for every world that wants it."

"The Joviat's memory is long," said Ready.

I smiled tightly. "Yes. Of course."

* * *

Ready Farmer looked over his dented shoulder and out the window, the diffuse fakelight casting soft shadows across his crinkled features. "The forfeiture of this wild is a tragedy. I despair that I lack your brother's eloquence to defend it to you."

I sighed and spread my arms helplessly. "It would make no difference. I have no authority. But I'm sure my brother's legacy will not be quickly forgotten if these ?wilds' are as important to the Jovians as you suggest, Mr. Farmer."

The robot shook his head. "It takes a special vision to divorce a project like this from architecture -- to free it from design and intent. It is no mere maze, not a vegetable manifestation of a game, not a labyrinth for promenades. Its plan is organic and wily, its paths dangerous. Only your brother's charisma and influence won the loopholes in legislation and fought back those who would try to shape it into a park. This wild is your brother, Mr. Sander. He understood the need for Jovians to have respite from order and sensibility."

"It sounds mad."

"It is arguable that some degree of madness is beneficial to a society as a prophylactic against stagnance, demophobia and horror urbana."

I flushed, not sure whether that was a reference to the riots at Huo Hsing. I let it go. No use letting a robot get my goat. "How long has?the wild been closed to the public?"

"A week, sir."

"It's empty, then."

"Possibly, sir. There may yet be visitors out there."

"Lost, you mean?"

Ready nodded. "Yes. Some people die for the experience, sir. Me, for example. I was due for an upgrade, but it seems now it will not come."

"What will happen to you?"

"I shall die."

I shifted uncomfortably in my seat. I drained my teacup and put it down. A robot picked it up, wrapped it in a plastic envelope and arranged it in the box on the floor. The lid was closed and the box carried away.

I stood up, slapping my tie flat as it drifted up to tickle my chin. "I will take a moment," I announced, and left the study.

* * *

On a balcony overhanging a shallow valley of splintered trees felled by rushing muck I smelled the damp, random air and wondered whether Vim had been the sanest member of the family or, as more usually characterized, the least so. I wondered about his wild and his devoted artificial protégé, and caught myself violating the spirit of the place by trying to find landmarks in the dome's imperfections by which I might retain my orientation were I to wander below.

I rested my elbows on the ledge and leaned out over the green. What if something great was in my hands, and I was even now acting as a party to squandering it? Could the idea of being lost truly be a treasure to these Galilean upwellians, an artifact of a more primeval existence forgotten in the paradises of the inner worlds?

Was it rational to stand up for something I did not understand?

I started to go back inside the house but stopped. I turned in small, pointless circle and fiddled with my tie. I coughed. And then I slipped my telephone out of my pocket and found a node in the downwell tissue. I patched in and listened to the interplanetary static hiss between the clicks. The recording agent connected and said, "Approximate transit delay twenty-eight minutes." I cleared my throat.

"This is Yi. We're making a mistake on Callisto. And -- I'm putting a stop to it. There is something here, mother. There is something to Vim's gardens. Something important. And I'm not sure I can live with the decision to end it all without understanding what it is we're meddling with. Please don't be angry. I feel?I feel that I must do this. Vim is owed that much. By all of us."

I folded away the telephone. I took a deep breath, and then pulled off my tie, stuffing it into my pocket carelessly. Laugh if you will but for the first time in my life I felt fully a man.

Standing tall, I strode back inside to announce the stay of execution for Sanderfield's Wild.

* * *

There should have been tears, but tears aren't something robots do.

A metallic quartet was ranged around Ready Farmer's chair, his blanket folded in a neat square on the floor. They worked without comment or expression, industriously detaching lifeless limbs from his still torso and packing them in a box labeled simply SCRAP.

They broke down each component: digits from hands, palms from wrists, arms folded at the elbow and wrapped in plastic. At last the dumb head itself was carefully separated from the neck and packed snugly between two leather-padded feet and a scratched section of pelvis.

"Stop," I tried to whisper, but didn't.

The box was lidded, sealed, and freighted away. I tracked it sadly, my arms hanging limply at my sides, my left hand tickled by a bloom of abandoned tie sticking out of my pocket.

Too late, too late!

I sagged. I shrank. And then I wept for Vim, and then for myself.

A robot touched my elbow. "Sir, may I be of assistance?"

"No," I said brusquely, stepping away from the reach. I cast my gaze out the tall windows over the wild once more. A moment of numb cloudiness passed through my mind and when it cleared I found myself making a brisk pace for the main hall. I heard robotic footfalls trailing me. I veered around a stack of boxes and began descending the front steps into the courtyard two at a time. Ahead: a wall of mad green.

"Sir, where are you going?" called the last steward from the porch.

I licked my lips and drew my jacket tight.

"To get lost," I said.


12 comments:

Simon said...

Nice elucidation on your previous post. Sort of makes a guy want to get up and get lost for a while.

I'm reminded of Marty the zebra's line in the movie, Madagascar:
"I'm going... to the WILD!"

(So reminded because my son makes me watch it at least a couple times a week.)

Can I assume all those superfluous question marks are the result of the cut&paste job from your text editor to the blogger posting frame?

Mike said...

Glad to see that you are starting another story.

Do you know yet if this will be a full-length online novel like SoS, or something a bit shorter? Either way, I'll be looking forward to each post.

Cheeseburger Brown said...

Simon,

I despise Microsoft Word, and I defecate on its HTML export options.

That being said I've now cleaned up the code (a little) by hand, so the annoying question marks should be gone. (Correct me if I'm wrong.)

Mike,

This is just a one-off, but there's more stories to come.

Love,
CheeseburgerBrown

Cheeseburger Brown said...

PostScript for Simon:

My daughter has seen to it that I've now memorized every line of dialogue in every single Pixar movie. Fun? Wow.

Love,
CheeseburgerBrown

Simon said...

All the fiddly marks are cleaned up, yup.

I am constrained by the same feculent software at work, but at home have gleefully embraced the wonder that is Open Office. It is an aberration of the software world that a good general rule of thumb is that the free stuff is usually better.

As for Pixar, my own son assumes an air of prescience with each movie he watches since his face reflects the emotion of the scene just ahead of the one he's watching. Weird.

Cheeseburger Brown said...

Simon,

I am at work, and thus have little choice. At home I'm using NeoOffice, which is somewhat slow but generally good.

OpenOffice for OS X is still a bit of a cludge, partly because X11 for OS X is slower than molasses. StarOffice isn't even available for my neglected platform.

My daughter tells me what is about to happen in every scene just before it happens, lest I get carried away by suspense.

Love,
CheeseburgerBrown

Moksha Gren said...

Excellent story, Mr. Brown. It's got me fondly remembering times when I was truly turned around in the woods. I thank you for that.

I'll respectfully level one small criticism. I would have liked to seen Yi wrestle with his dicision a bit more. The end felt a bit rushed. I'm picturing a scene where we see him go just a little way into the wild before getting scared and turning back. Then he would have tasted a bit of the fear and catharsis of being lost and could understand the value of the full experience.

That said, I really enjoyed the story. The writing was great and the world was worn and real and interesting. Thanks for sharing it with us.

Cheeseburger Brown said...

Moksha,

Thanks for your thoughtful feedback. I'm not sure the end as written works for me, either. I'll certainly keep your notes in mind if I write a second draft.

Love,
CheeseburgerBrown

Onigiri said...

CBB,

I love it! Now I want to get lost too. Wonderful seeing you get back in that world. Can't wait for the next installment. BTW, Any news on SOS publication?

Mandrill said...

Nice. I often envy my wife, who can get lost crossing the street (and its not a very wide street). I, unfortunately, seem to have been cursed with a near unerring sense of direction and so find it quite difficult to get lost. Though I'm sure if you blindfolded me and took me somwhere I wasn't familiar with I may very well be able to tell you where north was but would be unable to make much use of the information.

Had me worried at the beginning of this peice Mr. Brown, I thought your brother had died. I was glad to find out that he hadn't.

Jim said...

I have to admit, it took me until the third paragraph before it dawned on me that this was fiction ... I had to read this phrase three times: "The other mourners attended only by proxy, translucent holographs projected over the bodies of the robots whose senses they commandeered."

I thought you were speaking metaphorically (!), and I had a hard time figuring out what the hell you were talking about! ;-) So I'm pretty dense!

Great story, leaving me with a wistful sense of loss for the days in which I could look forward each day to a new installment of SoS. I'm glad you can find time to write with all that's going on in your life.

Cheeseburger Brown said...

Onigiri,

Re: SOS Mark II
There is a lot of rewriting to do. SOS Mark I was a public first draft, and there's much cleanup needed. My editor is working diligently to produce chapter by chapter notes, the progress of which was stalled recently when she suffered a minor injury.

Mandrill, Jim,

Ooops -- I obviously should've prefaced this with my usual "This is a science-fiction short story..." intro line. Apologies for the scare/startle/whatever.

Love,
CheeseburgerBrown