Monday, October 15, 2018

In the Shadow of the Hive By Kevin Edwin Stadt

In a future where everyone is telepathically linked, a homeless man and his dog struggle to survive outside the Hive; by Kevin Edwin Stadt.

The obese, sweating manager at the grocery store in whatever stupid little town it was didn't say that Billy's disease made him unemployable. He didn't tell Billy that the Ryker's Syndrome created acute discomfort for everyone in the building. Not a word about the mismatched shoes, worn khakis, grungy shirt or desperate eyes. The manager didn't say anything at all. When Billy asked about a job, the man just shook his head quickly and disappeared through a thick metal door into the back.

Billy had to traverse the meat section, produce and baked goods to reach the exit, through a gauntlet of silent employees and shoppers all stopped frozen in their tracks, staring at him in otherworldly silence.

Outside, Oliver danced when Billy came out the front door, straining against the cord tying his collar to a tree. Billy picked up the tiny brown puppy and the dog licked his face. "Let's get the hell out of here, huh Olly?"

As he trudged westward, Billy's mood got a little bump and the tension in his shoulders slackened when he came upon a sprawling, gorgeous public park.

He could use a bit of refuge. He'd slept badly under a bridge the night before, the October nights having recently turned cold, his stomach three days empty, trucks thundering past just feet above him, coyotes howling in the blackness.

"Look, Oliver! You wanna play over there?" The puppy yipped and wagged, turning in tight little circles. "Come on buddy. Let's check it out."

But as they approached, his hopes for an empty park dissolved. His gut tightened and he clenched his teeth. Dammit. Why are there so many? Is it the weekend?

Oliver, though, already pulled at the leash made out of an old, found length of cord, compelling Billy forward. He closed his eyes and sighed. "OK, OK. I'm coming."

Crossing the street and stepping onto the grass, he tried to appreciate the beauty of the trees changing, the brownish yellows and deep reds. He breathed in the smell of crisp Midwestern autumn air and felt the breeze on his face. But he couldn't stop his eyes from scanning the people, because he knew from long experience what was coming.

He resolved to just face it head-on. Own it.

To his left, a dozen kids of different ages dotted the playground. Two girls who looked ten or eleven sat on the swings but didn't swing, eyes closed. A boy a little older lay draped on the end of a slide as if he'd melted there. Others in similar poses, quiet and motionless.

To his right, adults sat on benches or lay on blankets spread out for picnics. Not one of them spoke. Or moved.

Or even had their eyes open.

Ahead beckoned an unoccupied, open grassy area where he could play fetch with Oliver in the hopes of tiring the puppy out enough so they could both take a nap. He passed a dozen feet from two young women on a bench, each with eyes shut and coffee in their hands. Looking at their new, warm and fashionable outfits, he felt acutely aware of his own clothing. His pants, his shirt, his thin jacket - all scavenged, creekwater-washed and threadbare. The bookbag slung over his shoulder had been patched and stitched over and over for almost twenty years. His meager belongings barely held themselves together.

And he knew he was just as ragged himself. His already-graying hair cut by his own hand with rusty scissors in the reflection of a puddle. A limp and chronic pain in his right ankle from a break that didn't heal right. Black rings under his eyes and a skeletal look about him.

Though not yet even out of his thirties, he had a lot of miles.

The woman on the left was pretty, but he thought the one on the right was preposterously beautiful. Her jet-black hair fell over her shoulders in ample, healthy curls. She had full lips and huge eyes.

An emotion he couldn't quite name in his gut. Not anger, exactly. Not pure frustration. Not simple longing.

Her eyes opened. Until then he hadn't realized he'd just been standing there, staring.

His heart sank. This was one of those moments he dreaded. A sickly emptiness opened in his stomach.

She looked right at him, cocking her head slightly, a confused look on her face. Then, at the same instant, every other person in the park simultaneously opened their eyes and turned them on him.

The urge to run almost overpowered him, but he fought it. I have a right to walk in the park, just like anybody. I'm a goddam human being.

Turning around slowly to meet their gazes one by one, he raised his hands out to each side with palms up, in a gesture of challenge. "WHAT?" His anger boiled, making him bold and loud. "What are you all looking at? I have Ryker's Syndrome, OK? Is that all right with you?"

They all closed their eyes again. He knew they were sharing this experience. The image of him, his words, his indignity - all of it was racing through the air to others in some sort of technological voodoo that he didn't understand. His humiliation available to anyone, anywhere.

Billy suddenly felt stupid. Standing in the middle of a park screaming at people. Fuck all them anyway. "Come on, Olly. Let's go play fetch over there." He gestured at a heavily wooded area with no people.

He dropped the backpack on the ground and settled onto the grass under a giant oak tree. When he untied Oliver's leash, the puppy immediately found a stick for fetch, one so comically oversized that he had to laugh when the little mutt dragged it over.

"Isn't this too big for you, buddy?" Billy tried to take it, but Olly hung on and growled as if the game were deadly serious.

"OK, OK. I'm just going to throw it for you. Here... fetch!"

He threw it toward the playground and Oliver tore off after it, returning it slowly by dragging it from one end. Billy threw it toward the benches, then the trees, over and over.

Just as he thought he wouldn't be able to keep his eyes open much longer, he threw it extra hard into the trees as a last hurrah. Oliver ran off to get it. Billy waited.

And waited.

"Oliver! C'mere, boy!"

But the dog didn't come back. Billy sprinted over to where he'd thrown the stick, only to find Oliver dropping it in front of someone else.

An old robot. Billy recognized it as one of the early-generation housework bots popular when he was a kid. Companies went out of their way back then to make bots nonthreatening, and this one had cute, childlike features: a large head, narrow shoulders and big, glowing blue eyes that dominated its small face. Though it sat on the grass, he saw it was short and probably barely came up to his chin.

The robot picked up the stick and threw it for Oliver, who yipped in excitement.

The bot talked in a slow, slightly clipped and monotonous cadence and his voice suggested a twelve year-old boy's. "You are a cute puppy! Do you like to chase the stick?" He held it up in the air. "Do you want me to throw this stick? Yes! Chase it!"

When Oliver brought it back again, the bot seemed overcome with a sudden concern. "Oh, puppy. Are you alone? Do you not have any friends? Perhaps I could be your friend. I could take care of you."

Billy broke in. "Hi. I'm Billy. I see you've met my dog, Oliver."

The bot turned suddenly. He tried to stand up quickly but had a hard time of it. His right arm didn't seem to work at all and his left knee appeared semi-frozen. Dents and corrosion pockmarked his body.

"I am sorry! Forgive me. I meant no harm. I am not hived, so I did not sense you there."

"No, I'm not hived. I have - wait, what'd you say?" Billy's brain struggled to catch up with his mouth, which was accustomed to apologizing automatically for his condition.

"I am not hived. Many of my systems are in a state of disrepair, particularly my hivetek. That is why I must speak out loud. I apologize." The bot gazed at his feet like a child caught doing something wrong.

"No, it's OK. Actually, I'm not hived either."

The bot took a step forward. "You are not hived?"

"No."

"Why not?"

"It's a problem with my immune system. I can't have any kind of augmentation because my body attacks it."

"Ryker's Syndrome?"

"Yeah." The bot stared at him and Billy wondered what he was thinking. "Anyway. I'm Billy. This little guy is Oliver."

"You are Oliver's friend?"

Billy laughed. "Yeah. I'm his friend."

"I like Oliver."

"Me too."

"My name is Rusty."

The puppy stood on hind legs, pawing at Rusty's shins with the stick in his mouth, whining for him to throw it again.

"Do you mind if I throw the stick for your friend?"

"Please. Go ahead."

Billy sat on the grass and watched the two play. Before long he lay with his head on the backpack, drifting off.

He woke to find the sun moved to a lower position in the West and his stomach gnawing on itself. Oliver lay next to Rusty with his eyes closed, and the bot gently pet the puppy. Rusty turned to Billy when he saw he was awake.

"Billy, may I ask where you and Oliver will go today?"

"West. We've been cutting a path through towns like this in that direction."

"Ah, I believe that you, like me, seek refuge."

Billy thought that was weirdly philosophical for a housebot, but he knew that AIs could get wonky with age and solitude.

"Yeah. I guess so."

"May I come with you?"

Ah, crap. There it is. The last thing in the universe I need is a broken down old housework robot with child-level AI to take care of.

"You don't have an owner?"

"No." His voice came out a little quieter. "I did at one time, but not anymore."

Billy tried to say it as nicely as possible. "Listen. I'm not trying to start up a group or anything here. I kind of want to travel light and keep things simple."

"I see." Rusty's huge, cherubic eyes looked down to Oliver and pet him one more time. Then he struggled to stand. "It was extremely nice to meet you, Billy. Good luck on your journey." Oliver awoke and immediately grabbed his fetch stick. He stood on his hind legs, his paws barely reaching to the bot's knees. Rusty said, "I am sorry, Oliver. I have to go now. It was wonderful to play with you today."

Oh for God's sake. Billy sighed and dropped his head. "OK, OK, how about this? You can come with us and play with the dog for the afternoon. But you have to promise it's just the afternoon, all right?"

Rusty's blue eyes glowed wider and brighter. "Really? Yes, I promise."

"OK. What the hell." His stomach rumbled so loud he thought everyone in the park must have been able to hear it. "Maybe you can help me keep Oliver entertained. He's got a lot more energy than me."

The three of them found the creek Billy and Oliver had followed into town that morning, and walked along it out of town heading west. Billy immediately regretted letting the bot come.

It was in bad shape and couldn't travel easily over anything that wasn't smooth concrete. He walked like a ninety year-old man, occasionally even falling down ungracefully in the grass or dirt, needing time and help to get up. With the bot, they moved at a third of the speed Billy normally did.

And besides that, Billy wondered what would happen when they found a good bridge to camp under for the night. Would he just tell Rusty to get lost?

They found a bridge where they could make camp as the light grew weak. Rusty told Billy to sit and relax while he made the fire. Billy was about to say, "No, I got it," but he was curious to see how well the bot could manage it with his physical limitations. It took a while, but he got it going eventually.

Billy opened a small can of dog food and gave it to Oliver. A few towns back, he and Rusty had been wandering through a town when a withered old man called to them from his porch, out loud, where he sat with a black and white terrier. The old man had insisted they take a half dozen cans of dog food for Oliver, and also a few cans of soup. But now, the soup was long gone and only two cans of dog food remained.

"Are you hungry, Billy?"

"Starving."

"If we had the ingredients, I would cook you a delicious meal. I am an excellent cook. It is one of my primary functions."

"How long have you been on your own?"

"Seventeen years, two months, and twenty-four days."

"What happened? With your family."

The bot didn't respond immediately. He stared into the fire, then said, "My family was beautiful. I loved them. My happiness levels were typically 100% when I lived with them. Joanna and Carl purchased me when Joanna became pregnant with their first child. I did the housework. They were kind to me and treated me like one of the family. When the baby came, I helped raise her. Her name is Jen. She is extraordinarily talented at art. You would not believe the pictures she would draw of castles and princesses and dragons. We used to draw together almost every night before I read her bedtime stories. So beautiful..." Rusty trailed off.

"Did something bad happen?"

"Joanna had a second child, a boy named Charlie." Again the bot fell into silence. He stopped talking so long that Billy started to wonder if he had a malfunction.

"Rusty? You OK?"

"Yes. It is a painful memory. Forgive me." "I'm sorry. You don't have to talk about it."

"I did not know. It was an accident."

"Didn't know what?"

Rusty's voice got higher and he talked faster. "I would never hurt one of the children on purpose. My function is to care for them. Feed them. Clean up after them. Make a safe and loving home for them."

"OK, OK. You don't have to -"

"My generation of housework robots lack allergy scanning hardware. I did not know he was allergic to macadamia nuts. Nobody knew at that time. His throat closed up and he could hardly breathe and the ambulance came and took him away."

"Oh, God. I'm sorry. That's awful, but you didn't mean it. It was just an accident. Don't beat yourself up too much."

"My happiness and sadness levels are dependent on how efficiently I fulfill my functions."

Oliver licked the last bits of gravy out of the can as they spoke, pushing it around with his muzzle. Satisfied, he hopped into Rusty's lap and curled up. Rusty pet him carefully.

"After the incident, Joanna and Carl decided to purchase a newer generation housebot with more advanced AI, safety protocols and features such as allergy detection. I believe they no longer trusted me with their children. My happiness levels since I left my family have generally fluctuated between eight to seventeen percent."

Billy didn't know what to say. All three of them watched the wood burn. The cracks and pops of the fire punctuated the gentle, steady burble of the creek and filled the air with the rich scent of woodsmoke.

Rusty asked, "Did you have to leave your family, too?"

Billy fidgeted with his hands. "My father died in a car accident when I was six. When I was eleven, my mom went in to get a simple neural lace implant. No one realized she carried the gene for Ryker's. Now I guess they test everyone for it early on, but it's such a rare condition and implant tek was so new then." He looked down at his hands to find he was rubbing a smooth pebble he didn't even notice he'd picked up. "Anyway, long story short - she passed away. I don't really have other family to speak of. My dad was an only child and my mom had one brother, but she didn't talk to him. Grandparents were all gone by then. So I bounced around in the system until I turned eighteen. Been on my own since then." Rusty's blue eyes glowed at him in rapt attention from the half-shadow at the edge of the fire's light.



The next morning Billy opened his eyes and stretched his right arm, yawning. For a while he lay there, letting himself wake up slowly and curled up against the cold, Oliver nestled in the crook of his left arm inside the thin sleeping bag. A small, solitary brown bird sang a few notes in the iron support beams of the bridge above, watching him and preening its feathers.

Another bridge. Much like all the others. A beast of cement and iron, crushing tons of it pressed down piece by piece on the earth. Holes and openings drilled into her, then filled with metal and concrete. Linking one side to the other, a new connection. A man-made path, invoked out of imagination and manifested in hard, hulking matter.

Olly stirred. Billy rubbed the sleep from his eyes. Time to get up and get ready to go into town.

He looked around and found Rusty away from the bridge sitting in the field, shut down. He'd spread out a solar sheet a dozen feet in diameter in front of him to catch the morning sun.

Billy could smell himself, and as much as he didn't love the idea he knew he needed a bath. After bringing his campfire back to life, he stripped naked and eyed the creek water, shivering. Oliver chewed on a stick as Billy unzipped his backpack and rooted around in it until he found the thin sliver of white soap near the bottom of the bag. He glanced around to make sure he was alone, even though the bridge sat in the middle of a sea of corn fields and the only people in the vicinity were the ones occasionally zooming past overhead on the road.

Billy stepped cautiously over rocks to the creek water, braced himself with quick, shallow breaths and waded in. A dozen tiny fish scattered. The water bit cold enough to make him wonder whether or not thirty-seven was too young to have a heart attack. He soaped and rinsed as quickly as he could, emitting groans and shouting profanity through gritted teeth.

Standing next to the fire after his bath, he shook uncontrollably as he dried with his only towel. He put on one of his two pairs of pants, the brown ones he wore when job hunting, and set about shaving gingerly with a safety razor he'd been using for a month. Finally he put on a white button-up shirt, the one with sleeves long enough to hide the angry red scars on his wrists.

By the end of it all he guessed he was as presentable as he was going to get. "What do you think, Oliver? Would you hire me?" The dog perked his ears up at the sound of his name.

Rusty slept, powering up. Besides being ridiculously slow on the road, he needed daylight hours to charge. How long is this going to take?

Billy eyed the bot, then turned his gaze toward the creek winding westward. He's a nice bot, sure. But I can't babysit him. I'm barely making it on my own as it is. He glanced at the road, the sky and then Oliver. He knows how to take care of himself. Been doing it a long time. He'll be fine.

"Come on, Olly. Let's go. Let Rusty rest." They puppy whined and looked back at the bot, but Billy coaxed him on.

They set out toward the nearest town, as usual. They followed the creek, walking along the edges of empty fields that he knew must have bristled with rows of tall, perfect and identical stalks of corn all summer. After walking only an hour, Billy's head swam. He sat on the grass between the creek and corn field. Oliver came and jumped in his lap, and Billy pet him while taking slow, deep breaths. A line of ants busily scuttled in and out of an ant hill in front of him, and he wondered what manner of silent communion coordinated their lives. A gnat buzzed around his head, insistent, and he tried to shoo it away.

Things couldn't continue this way. People need certain things to survive. A minimum number of calories. The day before he'd not eaten anything, although the day before that in the town to the east he'd been resting on the street when an old lady stopped and gave him a little money. In his experience, people of his generation or younger seemed squeamish about Ryker's Syndrome, but older people were less likely to be put off by it. He'd bought three hamburgers with the money, but in the end let Oliver eat two of them.

Despite the hunger, he found himself hypnotized by the simple elegance of the landscape. The Midwestern countryside boasted a stark beauty in his eyes, its endless flatness punctuated only occasionally by an old farmhouse or distant group of trees. A sea of earth. Empty but for him and Oliver. He waved his hand around in front of his face again, trying to get rid of two gnats stuck in orbit around his head.

In that flat, vast ocean he had a backpack, a tiny dog and his own thoughts. Nothing else. Those thoughts ran to speculation about what it would feel like to connect with other people. To be part of something bigger than his individual self. Could it really be as amazing as he imagined, or did he overly romanticize it?

No. Everyone hived if they could. People took little breaks from it, he understood, but no one lived outside the hive if they could help it.

Three, four gnats droned audibly around his head now. One near his ear, one right in front of his eyes, two almost sucked into his mouth and nose.

"God DAMN it!" He flailed his arms wildly around in front of his face and sprinted from the spot. He made it only twenty-five feet before losing his breath and stopping to suck air. Oliver ran after him and barked with excitement.

Billy had run in the direction they'd come from. Back toward the place where Rusty would soon wake up.

Alone.

He suspected the hunger rendered him silly and sentimental, but the idea of the bot waking up to find himself abandoned pressed on his chest, making it hard to breathe.

"God damn it."

The puppy ran around him, barking and wagging his tail.

"Olly, you want to go back and get Rusty?"

They did. When they arrived again at the previous night's campsite, Rusty sat in the exact same position, solar sheet spread out collecting the sun. As if in meditation. Billy dropped his backpack, leaned against a concrete pillar and watched the creekwater flow past. Only minutes ticked by before Rusty's big blue eyes lit up.

"Good morning, Billy. Good morning, Oliver. Did you sleep well?"

"Morning. Yeah, I slept alright. How about you?"

"I am at full charge. I apologize that it took me so long to complete the process. I find that at my age it takes my battery 63% longer to charge than when I was new."

"I didn't even notice."

It was midday by the time they made it back to the spot where Billy had stopped and turned back for Rusty. After another hour the creek went under a road into town and he followed it, putting the puppy on the leash to make sure he didn't run in front of cars.

He stopped and caught his breath in front of a sign that read "Beechville, Small Town Values and Friendly Faces, Population 6,300."

As he walked down Main Street, the town seemed about the same as all the others he'd recently been through. For a minute he paused in front of a small grocery store, but decided to look around more. A charging station. A medical augmentation center. A flower shop. Nothing that particularly called to him.

Until he came across Uncle Joe's Diner.

A smiling, chubby cartoon face, presumably depicting Uncle Joe, filled the front window. The word bubble proclaimed, "Breakfast served all day! Try our blueberry pancakes! Best coffee in the Midwest!"

The smell of biscuits filled his nose. He handed Olly's leash to Rusty, told them not to wander off and walked up to the front door. Closing his eyes, breathing slowly, he tried to steady himself. An old-fashioned bell jingled as he pulled the door open and stepped inside.

A dozen customers silently occupied booths and tables throughout the little diner, many with their eyes closed. A thin orange robot peered at him from the pass-through window. Only the ambient sounds of robots cooking and dishwashing reached Billy as he strode up to the front counter, where a balding, middle-aged man with a thick mustache stood behind the register. His eyes were closed and he didn't move.

This was the part Billy hated most.

"Ahem."

No response. It wasn't always easy to pull a person out.

Billy coughed.

The man opened his eyes and gaped around at the room as if it surprised him. His eyes settled on Billy.

Billy said, "Excuse me. I was just wondering if there might be any job openings."

With those words, spoken with real lips out loud into the actual air, every pair of eyes in the diner opened and turned toward Billy. They stared at him unapologetically, a few with jaws hanging open or forks halted halfway to their mouths.

The man made knowing eye contact with customers, confusion and embarrassment written on his face.

Billy said, "I'm sorry. I'm not hived. Ryker's Syndrome. But I was just wondering if you might need someone to wash dishes or sweep up or anything?"

Several of the customers gave each other looks, but said nothing he could hear.

The man moved his mouth soundlessly, as if he'd lost the way of speech. Finally he squeezed out a hoarse "no."

"Any chance there's work anywhere else in this town?"

With a sheen of visible sweat on his forehead, the man held up his hands, palms out, in a gesture Billy didn't understand.

Billy forced a polite smile and said, "OK. No problem. Sorry to bother you." On his way out he slammed the door shut behind him.

Fuck this.

He didn't need them.

He didn't need anyone.

Part of him wanted to cry. Part of him wanted to punch something. Part of him wished this whole thing would just end.

Rusty approached him with Olly's leash in hand. "Were you successful, Billy?"

"Not especially." How could he get a job when the medium of human interaction played out in a dimension he couldn't see or understand? He was an alien on his home planet. An immigrant in his own land, where people spoke a language he'd never even be able to hear, much less learn.

Although the job hunting didn't pan out, upon checking the dumpster in the alley behind the diner, they did find semi-eaten doughnuts, blueberry pancakes, sausages and more.

He hooted and pumped his fist. "We're eating today, Olly!"

"Billy, I do not believe it is safe to eat out of the garbage. You might get sick." The notion of dumpster-diving clearly shocked the housebot, programmed to cook fancy meals for wealthy families.

"I know. But sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do."

Billy fed Oliver first, and the dog inhaled the food. Then Billy spotted a doughnut resting on a piece of cardboard.

A big, beautiful chocolate masterpiece. A thing of perfection, only a single bite missing. Before eating it, he held it under his nose and breathed in. Good God. Laughing out loud, he noticed in amazement that he could actually smell the separate ingredients. The cocoa, luscious and dark. The milk in the chocolate. The sugar and the eggs.

For a long moment he hesitated, wanting to hold on to this magic. His salivary glands worked overtime and his stomach grumbled insistently. Oliver and Rusty watched him. It seemed like a sacred moment, as if he should eat it in a vast European cathedral or while looking out over the Grand Canyon.

He took a bite. Let it roll around on his tongue, not chewing right away. His knees weakened and he leaned against the brick wall drunkenly. "Oh, God yes. Oh holy crap that's what I'm talking about." The dog whined. "No, Oliver. Chocolate is bad for dogs. Here." Billy threw him a half-eaten piece of ham.

Though he ate the doughnut slowly, after that he stuffed his face as quickly as he could to get out of there before anyone saw them. Bellies full, they wandered through the town, Billy keeping an eye open for places he might approach for work.

Nothing looked promising. The humiliation at Uncle Joe's left him gunshy and soured his mood. Plus, with the days getting shorter, and what with them moving slower because of Rusty, Billy thought they should get out of town and find a place to camp.

On top of it all, as they walked on he started to sense an impending queasiness. At first he tried to believe it would pass, or maybe even that it was all in his mind, but by the time they crossed all the way through the business section of town, and then the residential blocks, he'd broken out in a sweat and noticed his salivary glands pumping. It soon became undeniable that his body would forcibly rid itself of the day's feast, but it wasn't clear if he'd vomit or have diarrhea.

Or both.

He needed to get to a place they could camp soon or face the very real possibility that he'd crap his only halfway decent pair of pants.

"May I ask you a question, Billy?"

"Sure."

"Are you sad?"

Billy stopped and turned to the bot. "What?"

"Are you sad because you have Ryker's Syndrome?"

He started walking a little faster than before. "No. It doesn't hurt. I just don't feel great right now. You were right about eating out of the dumpster. Why?"

"When I lost my link to the hivemind, it negatively impacted my happiness levels."

"I've never been hived. So I guess I don't know what I'm missing."

"How old are you?"

"Thirty-seven."

"Then hivetek did not come into widespread use until you were about ten years old, correct?"

"Yeah." The energy drained right out of him. Billy slowed his pace. "I remember playing with friends when I was little. Kids from the neighborhood, from school." He stopped and stared off across an empty corn field. "Then my friends started getting hived one by one. They were used to living the old way then, though, so they still played a lot and talked to me for a while. They told me about it. What it was like, even then when the tek was new and clunky. To be connected like that. To be a part of one huge, communal mind. They made it sound magical. Religious, almost."

"Do you wish you could hive and connect with them?"

"No. Fuck them."

"I do not know much about anthropology, but humans are extremely social animals, are you not?"

"I guess."

"So what happens to a social animal who is alone?"

He stopped and bent over, putting his right hand on his stomach and his left hand on his knee, fighting the urge to throw up. It came and went in waves, and when it passed he stood straight and continued walking. "I don't know."

By the time they got to a bridge to sleep under, threatening storm clouds had gathered and Billy felt like he'd surely die. As he stepped over the rail and descended down the embankment, he threw his bag at Rusty and said, "Watch the dog, OK?"

He spent the next several hours going back and forth between the worst diarrhea he'd ever experienced and repeated, violent vomiting, over and over, even long after he'd brought up everything from Uncle Joe's. Periodically he'd stagger back to the campfire Rusty made under the bridge and collapse on the dirt.

"Billy, is there anything I can do for you?"

Billy lay face down at the edge of the fire's light, head on his forearms, eyes half-open and focused on nothing in particular. "Ughn." He grunted and waved his hand weakly at the bot.

The next wave of sickness that swept over him made him chuckle softly in his delirium. He murmured to no one in particular, "Is this a goddamned joke? How can there be anything left that needs to come out?"

"What did you say, Billy? Do you need help?"

He shook his head and stumbled off into the grass again, trying to avoid the spots he'd already soiled. Billy turned his face up as he walked, his eye caught by the full moon. It occurred to him that every human in history, alive or dead, had looked at that very same moon just as he did.

Thus distracted, he tripped and fell. Something hard and sharp struck his head. He rolled over onto his back, not by his own power but because of the slope of the earth. The edges of his vision closed in and he had the sensation of seeing the moon through a long, dark tunnel.

Blackness swallowed him.



Brief, confused images and sensations alternated with blissful oblivion. Tall grass. Rusty's face and voice. The dog's barks.

Nothingness.

Sunlight and cold. Blurry vision. Curled up on a bed of grass. No robot or dog.

Blackness in waves, drowning him sweetly.

An old man alone on the other side of a wide, rushing river. Reminded him of his grandfather. Billy turned his face toward the man to see him more clearly. Their eyes met and held and he knew the man was himself. The old him raised his hand to his mouth as if to shout and his lips moved and chest heaved but no sound came at all.

The world retreated into the void again.

He was a child. Movie night with his parents, on the couch pressed shoulder to shoulder between them, a bowl of popcorn on his lap. Watching a movie they let him pick himself. Talking. Eating. Laughing.

But no. He was not a child and they were long dead. Wishing he could be with them, he prayed and tried to push his soul into the dark ether with all his will. Please, let me just go be with them now. Please.

Emptiness.

The robot again. Long shadows. Soothing words spoken softly. Why was Rusty missing an arm, an eye? Things stuck to Billy's forearm. Four square patches. Blue, green, red and white.

Sleep.



When he woke, the sun shone brightly and the breeze carried birdsong. Rusty sat on a rock a few feet away, throwing a stick for Oliver.

Billy attempted to sit up, but found he hadn't the strength and settled for rolling onto his side. "What... what..."

"I am sorry I did not leave when I should have, Billy. Please do not be angry with me. I promised you I would only stay with you for the afternoon, but I -"

"No, no. What happened?"

"You became ill and fell. I believe you hit your head on a rock."

"How long ago?"

"Sixty-three hours and nineteen minutes."

Billy reached up and touched his bandaged head. He ran his fingers gently over the medtek patches on his arm feeding him medicine and nutrients. A brown paper grocery bag sat next to him and he pulled himself up on one elbow enough to peer into it. Bone-shaped dog biscuits, apples, sandwiches, water, orange juice, chocolate chip cookies and milk. Oliver ran up to him and jumped on his chest, licking his face all over.

"I believe Oliver was extremely concerned about your condition."

"You did all this?" Billy held up his arm and gestured to his bandages.

"Yes. I went to the medical center in town to inform them of your distress, but they did not allow me to enter the facility. So I cared for you myself. I am not a medbot and have limited understanding of human physiology, but I did the best I could."

For a few moments, Billy studied Rusty. "What happened to you? Did you get in an accident?"

Rusty looked down with his one eye at the empty space where his arm used to be. "We needed medical supplies and food, so I found a pawn shop in town and sold a few of my least necessary components. Although I am an old model, they still have monetary value."

He couldn't stop his lip from quivering and his voice from shaking as he said it. "You sold parts of yourself to get me food and medicine?"

"Yes."

For an entire adult lifetime, he'd become a walking human car accident to the eyes of the new humans - an unfortunate but statistically insignificant casualty they couldn't help but stare at, yet didn't want to think about. But this simple housework bot had managed to give him something no human had given him in many years.

His face and chest felt hot. As he remembered wanting to ditch Rusty, a tear ran down his cheek to the corner of his mouth, and he tasted the warm salt.

"Thank you, Rusty. Jesus, I really mean it. No one has done anything for me, taken care of me like that, since my mom died. I - I don't know what to say. Thank you so much."

"You are welcome. It raised my happiness levels to as high as 73% to help you, although it was difficult to elevate them further because of the anxiety I experienced worrying about your injury."

Oliver brought the bot a stick and he took it in his left hand. "Oliver, I enjoyed playing with you immensely. But it is time for me to leave. This is the last throw." He pet the dog's head and threw it.

"Leave?"

"As I said, I am sorry I stayed longer than we agreed. But perhaps we will meet again one day at Refuge."

Billy laughed and shook his head. "OK, first of all, for God's sake don't leave. You took care of me for days like a pro, maybe saved my life, and sold your own body parts to do it. So quit with the talk about how I made you promise to leave unless you want me to kill myself out of guilt."

"I do not."

"And what 'refuge' are you talking about?"

"Are you not traveling to Refuge?"

"I don't even know what you mean."

"I assumed since you have Ryker's Syndrome and traveled on a westbound course, your intention was to reach Refuge."

Billy sat up straight and locked his eyes onto Rusty's, blood thudding in his ears. "Wait. Rusty, tell me exactly what you mean."

"Refuge is a community of unhived humans and robots who formed a commune along the coast in Oregon."

His bones and muscles went wobbly, as if made of warm rubber. "You mean like people with Ryker's Syndrome?"

"I have not recently connected to information via hivelink, so I cannot offer the precise current number of inhabitants with that affliction. As of my last link three years, nine months and seventeen days ago, there were eighty-nine Refuge members with Ryker's Syndrome. The rest of the population is comprised of humans who choose to live outside the hivemind."

Billy put a hand on the ground to steady himself, and swore he could sense the earth turning and hurtling through space. "There are people who live without hivetek by choice?"

"Yes."

"How many?"

"Four thousand, six hundred and eighteen voluntarily unhived humans resided in Refuge as of my last link, in addition to those with Ryker's Syndrome. It is likely the number has increased since then, as the population had been growing steadily both because of its open acceptance of new members and its natural growth through mating and births within the community."

He lay back on the ground, reeling. Oliver snuggled into the space between his arm and body. Billy's eyes focused on the sky, past the underside of the concrete and metal bridge. A great V of birds soared through the air, heading south.

"Billy, would you be interested in traveling to Refuge? Perhaps the three of us could all go together."

He laughed loud and long, eyes wet. "God damn right we're going there. All of us. Together."

5 comments:

  1. I like how this tale slowly lures you in, then, with wonderful descriptions and emotional ties, traps you into the read. A nice little story, very imaginative, but oh, so possible. Rusty can come throw a stick for my dog anytime.

    Thanks
    Jim

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  2. An improbable yet totally credible story. It takes your hand and you believe in the world that's created. I was moved by the exploration of difference within communities, and found humanity at Rusty's core. Many thanks,
    Ceinwen

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  3. I like the way it slowly rolled out. It kept my interest in the drowning man until he found refuge and his life changed.

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  4. I love well balanced dystopian lone wolf sci fi stories, this one is no exception. Somehow made me think of the near-world analogue of crowds staring into little screens. Thank you.

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  5. A very well penned story with engaging characters.

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