Roll Call!

I haven’t updated here for quite some time. There are reasons for that. The 6yo daughter went through several months of treatment for Lyme Disease. I discovered I was pregnant, then immediately dove into 2 1/2 months of awful morning sickness. Then the holidays. Now the kids are passing a bug around from one to the other like a demented game of Hot Potato.

But! I’ve been writing. The sequel (hopefully standalone-ish) novella to The Half Killed is well underway, and has a title! The Death Within should have a May release, and I’ll be sure to share cover art and all of those other goodies once they’re finished.

I’ve also jumped back into writing some shorter pieces of fiction. This one that I’m posting today is… different. A bit more sci-fi, I think. It wants to spiral out into something larger in my head, but for the moment, it’s just a snippet of a story/chapter, with a touch of humor (well, *I* thought it was funny while writing it way too late at night) and some new characters. Maybe I’ll spend some more time with them in the future. But for now, meet Dave. DAVE

 

Dave

The sign was in need of a fresh coat of paint.

It wasn’t much of a sign, really. It was wood, and it was vaguely square, and some claimed to see a few indistinct words scrawled across it, but regardless of the various arguments on what was necessary for a sign to be a sign, no one could disagree that this one was due for a bit of freshening up.

The sign hung to the right of a door – a typical door: knob, window, small strip of tape where the glass had cracked – and was meant to direct potential customers through the door and into the shop within. It was not a wholly uncommon occurrence for people to take one look at the sign, and the door, and the entire street before turning around and deciding that their business wasn’t nearly important as they’d originally thought.

Randall Smith paid no attention to the street, the sign, or the door, and the last one only for a  brief moment when the keys from his pocket made an appearance to slide into the lock. The door threatened to stick in its frame, but again, only for a moment. A swift kick to the warped panel of wood, a muttered curse, and he was inside.

The darkness was expected. Randall didn’t wait for his eyes to adjust before he returned the keys to his pocket and strode into the room. The shades were still down, and the square that might have been a window if he bothered to touch it with any kind of cleanser or cloth let in only enough light for him to see his hand in front of his face. He didn’t notice the other eyes that stared at him, blank and lifeless. Or the disembodied limbs crammed onto the already full shelves. One set of fingers twitched, and then there was a hum. Another twitch, and behind the counter, a blank screen lit up with a deep blue light.

“Welcome to Obsolete Robotic Services. If this is your first visit to our location, please step up to the counter, state your name and the nature of your repair.”

Randall didn’t step up to the counter. Instead, he filled his electric kettle with water from the bathroom sink, dumped four scoops of coffee into his French press, and searched for the one mug without a crack in the side.

“If you are here to pick-up a completed repair, please step up to the counter and scan your white transaction card.”

For a moment, the screen changed from blue to black, while the hum steadily increased in volume. A flicker of light, and then a man’s face appeared on the screen.

“If you have a complaint, or would like to speak with one of our technicians directly, please step up to the counter, state your name and the nature of your complaint, and you will be assisted shortly.”

The kettle began to steam. Randall switched it off and finished making his coffee. Too bitter, he thought after his first sip. He’d gone and let the water get too hot.

“If you wish to return to the main menu, please step up to the counter and-”

Randall thumped the side of the screen.

“Please step up to the counter-”

He thumped it again.

“Please step up-”

He didn’t give it another thump. What he wanted to do was pour his cup of bitter coffee over the thing, but he didn’t like the thought of coffee dripping all down the side of the counter and onto the carpet. Carpets didn’t clean themselves, he reminded himself. At least, this one didn’t.

The face said nothing to this. It was a bland face. Bland hair, bland eyes. Randall tended to forget what the face looked like five seconds after he locked up for the night. At that moment, the face gazed directly ahead, eyes unblinking, mouth partially open. It stayed that way until Randall took another sip of coffee, and then the screen unfroze, the eyes blinked, and the mouth twitched back into a condescending smile.

“Welcome to Obsolete Robotic Services. If this is your first visit to our location…”

Randall walked out of the room. He could hear the face behind him, still talking to the front door as he flicked on the light above his work bench. He looked down at the usual mess, the bits of wire, the plastic shavings, all of it need of a good sweeping. Off to one side was a plastic face with a crack under the chin. The face stared up at him, one of the eyes brown and unblinking, the other dangling from three strands of wire.

He set down his coffee and settled into work. The face came first. It had gazed at him from the side of the bench for most of the week. He needed to reset its firmware to factory defaults, which really meant nothing more than turning it off and on again. But he wouldn’t write that on the bill.

The front door opened and closed again while Randall shifted his stool closer to the bench. There was the soft tread of footsteps on the carpet, and then…

“Welcome to Obsolete Robotic Services…”

Without looking up, Randall reached across the bench and shut the door. He worked for an hour, uninterrupted, until his right hand began to cramp and he noticed odd swirly bits swimming around on the surface of his coffee. He would have to go out front for more, he realized.

He opened the door slowly. The front room was empty, whoever had entered earlier having finished their transaction and run along. He sidestepped around the counter, grabbed the French press, and waited.

Nothing. The screen was a blank, the machine deep into sleep mode. Even the soft hum from beneath the counter resembled a low snore.

He poured the last of the cold coffee into his cup, gave his wrist a turn to mix the old liquid with the new, and turned towards the back room. Before he could take another step, the front door swung open, and the screen gave a quiet flicker before the face appeared.

“Welcome to – “

Randall knocked his elbow against the screen. The voice juddered into silence. “Damn thing”, he muttered under his breath. And then another voice spoke up from behind him.

“Hey, Randall. You want to give me a hand?”

*

It was an odd feeling, like being underground without having actually gone to all the trouble of passing beneath the earth’s surface. What the place needed was a window. Or maybe a plant. Sam liked plants. He liked watering them. He liked pinching off their dead leaves so they looked all green and healthy. And he even liked talking to them, but only in the way someone talked to a pet or a random bird that landed on the windowsill. He wasn’t going to go to all the trouble of asking how its day had been, or if it was feeling depressed. It was only a plant. There had to be a line drawn somewhere.

He ducked his head as he walked up to the counter. The whole subterranean feel of the place made him worry that he was about to brush his hat against the ceiling, and so his chin dipped toward his chest, his shoulders rounding forward as he lost another two inches in height by the time he came up behind Randall.

“Hey, Randall. You want to give me a hand?”

Randall looked irritated. In Sam’s experience, Randall had a limited catalog of expressions from which he culled, maybe four or five at the most. Today’s was a fine example of number three.

“Ah, right.” Randall took a proffered box, gave it a disdainful stare, and tossed it onto the counter.

“And this one,” Sam removed a second box from under his arm, this one significantly larger than the first.

“Mm,” Randall turned over the second box in his hands. “Joints,” he said.

Sam waited for the impending explanation.

“Elbows,” Randall clarified. “The domestic bots. Their arms are always breaking. Seems to be the toilet scrubbing that does ‘em in.”

Sam glanced at the first box, still sitting on the top of the counter.

“Oh, and those are just some… uh…” Randall rubbed the heel of his hand against his forehead. “Probably some core processors I ordered a while back. A whole run of senior companion bots came in last month, all burnt out from trying to process large quantities of information that doesn’t go anywhere. But it’s all covered under the warranty, so…”

He glanced at the box he still held, and a distracted look crossed his face.

“You alright?” Sam asked, his shoulders hunching as he sent a suspicious glance toward the ceiling.

“No. I mean… yeah.” Randall looked at the screen behind him, the face frozen mid-word. “I’ve just gotta fix this thing.”

“You could buy a new one,” Sam interjected. “I’ve seen the latest models. Pretty sleek, I’d say. And they don’t cost much. Cheaper than this thing was, I’d bet.”

It was the wrong suggestion to make. Randall’s face stilled for a moment, and then settled into an expression of grim determination. That would be number four, Sam thought.

“I can fix it,” Randall said. Or muttered. It was a narrow bit of grey area between the two.

“Yes, well.” Sam cleared his throat. He didn’t want to admit that he was worried about Randall. They’d known each other for years, and during every single one of those years, Randall’s behavior had deviated only slightly from its rigid path between cynical and morose. He also didn’t want to admit that this was what had him worried. “How about a drink?” He offered. “After work. I’m off at six, and if you’re not busy…”

Randall nodded. “A drink. That sounds good.” He gestured toward the frozen screen. “I’ll have a go at straightening out this bugger, and then I’ll meet you at The Bucket Hole.”

“Sounds good,” Sam chanced a smile before he turned toward the front door. “And, hey, I was thinking… How about I bring in a plant for you, for in here, I mean. I’ve got a couple spare ones at my place, and the room here could do with some brightening up.”

But Randall was already shaking his head. “Nope, no need. I’ve already got one.” And he jerked his thumb at a plastic pot on the end of the counter. Two brown, leafless stalks stuck out of the dusty soil, an abandoned spiderweb strung between them.

“You might want to give that some water,” Sam ventured, before he cleared his throat again and ducked out through the front door.

*

The little sign in the lower left-hand corner of the door said CLOSED. The six letters blocked on its surface had faded over time to more of a suggestion than an actual declaration, but Randall trusted that it would be enough to deter any last-minute customers from knocking on the door with a request for some sort of service.

The lights in the back room had already been switched off. The coffee cups were rinsed and drying out for tomorrow morning. When the phone rang, Randall ignored it. His work day was over. There was just one thing left for him to do.

He had already switched the machine into diagnostic mode, the screen no longer displaying its usual bland face, but instead a long line of code finished off by a blinking cursor. He had already installed the new software, an upgrade he’d written himself, possibly while drunk, but some years ago he’d discovered that he did his most creative work while toeing the line of inebriation.

Randall checked his watch. He still had to reinitialize the system, something that would only take a few more minutes, at the most. Turn the thing off and on again, wait for the face to reappear on the screen, and hope for the best. He glanced at the blinking cursor. It flickered once, and the screen went blank.

A small beep from beneath the counter, and the low hum went silent for three seconds before it started up again. Randall leaned back against the counter and waited. A few lines of code would appear on the screen.

A few lines of code appeared on the screen.

The screen would flash blue for a second, and then black, before the cursor reappeared in the upper left-hand corner.

The screen flashed blue, and then black, and then the cursor reappeared in the upper left-hand corner.

The hum from beneath the counter would increase slightly, and then a face – bland, forgettable, proven inoffensive to nine-tenths of the populace – would light up on the screen.

The hum from beneath the counter increased slightly, before increasing a bit more. And then a bit more.

Randall looked up at the screen. The cursor zipped from left to right, rows and rows of incomprehensible code left in its wake. The machine had abandoned its previous soft hum for a more plaintive whine, broken only by the litany of beeps that seemed to rise in volume and – Randall considered the possibility, before dismissing it as being too impossible – anger.

The whine grew louder. It had almost reached the point of becoming a rather unsettling shriek when a loud pop – something less than a gunshot but more along the lines of a blown light bulb or a microwaved dinner heated beyond the maximum time – sounded through the shop.

There may have also been a spark, but Randall’s eyes had squeezed shut before he could be absolutely certain.

And then there was nothing. For a full ten seconds, nothing but blessed silence and, when Randall bothered to open his eyes again, unnerving darkness.

It shouldn’t have been unnerving. He told himself this, knowing full well that he’d been in the shop, in the dark, a hundred times before. But the hairs stood up on the back of his neck, and the breath he pulled into his lungs didn’t really want to come back out again.

And then everything turned on, all at once.

Every shelf stuffed with robotic limbs, every cupboard harboring power supplies and mother boards and little bits of wire that didn’t seem to belong to anything but were always there, no matter how many times Randall swept up… Every piece began to twitch, and hum, and buzz, and talk, at precisely the same moment.

All of the lights had turned on as well, and the heat, and the fans, and for a moment Randall wondered what all of this was going to do to his power bill. And then the buzzings and the beepings and the hums slowly quieted back down into silence.

Randall let out the breath he’d been holding in for the previous forty-three seconds.

It wasn’t until he raised his hand to his forehead that he realized there was sweat on his skin. He wiped it away, made a sound somewhere between a grunt and a cough, and looked up at the screen on his customer service robot.

The face had returned.

Randall blinked, pleased that something had returned to normal. But it took him a full thirty seconds to realize that this something was different. The face had lost its blandness. Its hair was mussed up, as if it had just woken up from a troubled night spent on an uncomfortable pillow. The eyes were a bit squinty now, and there was at least a full day’s growth of beard on its jaw.

Randall stood there, watching the face on the screen as it worked its mouth around something that appeared to be an unpleasant taste.

“Um,” Randall said. And then he clamped his mouth shut.

“Do you have to keep the lights so bright?” The face asked, while attempting to survey the room through only one eye.

“Um…”

“Where am I?”

Randall coughed. “Where are you?”

The face sniffed. “I’m sorry. Was that one too tricky? Shall I start out with something simpler?”

“Um, no. It’s… It’s a shop. My shop.” Randall spread out his hands, but the face didn’t seem to be all that impressed.

“Are you going through some kind of renovation?”

“No! It’s fine. Well, I usually clean up on Fridays, and it’s just Wednesday, so…”

“Hmm.” The face attempted to open both at once, and seemed to immediately regret it. “Who are you?”

“Me?” Randall straightened up. “I’m Randall.”

“Ah, Randall.” The face nodded. “And… who am I?”

“You? Well, you’re…” Randall paused. The absurdity of his present situation was only just beginning to leak into his brain, but he gave his head a brief shake and did his best to ignore it. “You are a CSK A-1000 Customer Service Kiosk.”

“I see,” the face said, in a way that made Randall suspect that he didn’t. “And you’re a Randall?”

“No, I’m not a Randall. That’s my name. It’s what people call me.”

“And people call me CSK A-1000 Customer Service Kiosk?”

Randall sighed. Something about this conversation was reminding him of why he had never much cared for children. “No, they… Well, people don’t really call you anything. You’re just a robot.”

“So I don’t get a name, then?”

“Well, no.”

“But you do?”

“Um… yes.”

“Because I’m just a robot.”

Randall wasn’t sure what to say to this. He wondered if the conversation had inadvertently stumbled into much deeper territory than anything he’d previously encountered. And then he realized it was probably best not to think about that.

“Doesn’t seem fair, really,” the face said, a tinge of sulkiness rounding the edges of his voice. “No one even bothered to ask me if I wanted a name…”

Randall cleared his throat. “What do you want to be called?”

“Hmm?” The face looked up with something very similar to bored disinterest. “Oh, it doesn’t matter. I am just a robot, so I’m sure that any name would suffice.”

“How about Bruce?”

The face shut one eye again. “No. No, I don’t like that one at all.”

Randall drew a blank, so he reached back to the handful of uncles and cousins that he could remember. “Albert? Or… Lance?”

“No, no. I’m thinking more along the lines of…”

“Bill? Jim?”

“… Dave.”

“Dave?”

“Yes. Don’t you like it?”

Randall hesitated. “It’s fine. It’s just…”

“Dave,” the face said firmly. “I want you to call me Dave.”

***

 

 

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