Monday, 3 December 2012
Red Robots: short story
by Roger Crow
"The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn, like fabulous roman yellow candles exploding like spiders across the stars."
Jack Kerouac, On the Road.
Darkness to the casual viewer but look more closely and you'll see a little brown planet and glimmer of gold which threads a path across the stars.
Murphy was a mercenary on The Cancun Star, a Japanese-designed ship, built with American money and decorated by Mexicans. The traveller's ship looked like a scarab beetle, designed by a team which worshipped the tenacious insect. The bald astronaut, alone in his hive of winking lights and breathing pipes, made his way across the heavens drawn toward the attractive sign of gold deposits on the planet's surface.
On the border of the city, five miles from the Iris, was an ocean of sand. Although there was human life, no race lived here. The entire population of this planet had been erased by the Circle of chaos.
On a sandy bluff overlooking a dune sea, two women stood staring at the sky, sunlight glinting off their binocs.
Graces 16 and 68 watched the ship arrive through their instruments.
"It's an earth ship," Sixteen said. "Looks like a Japanese Koyazki class. Those babies really handle well in the wet."
"Is it friendly?" wondered Sixty Eight aloud.
"Can't see any guns. Looks like a mercenary ship."
"We'd better pray he heard the message."
To the casual observer, the two women looked like twins and the truth was they would be - if their 98 identical sisters suddenly ceased to be.
For thirty years, the circle had slowly absorbed all civilians to the point where the only woman left was a genetic scientist called Grace. She had known her surname once. Back in the days when it mattered. Now it was any number from 1 to 100.
She was a hundred women rolled into one. Luckily, Grace had managed to block any degredation in the cloning procedure so as much of her faculties were good from one copy to the next. She knew she couldn't hide out here forever. In her little lab deep beneath the desert floor, the 22nd clone - Grace22 - had also spotted the starship on her scanner and knew the time had come.
As he started to enter the planet's atmosphere, Murphy did what he always did at such moments and dug out a photo of her.
He looked at the 3-D image, the only one he had left. The rest had been torn up in a fit of rage.
She was smiling, despite the slate grey skies of a merciless February, her hair blowing in the breeze. She repeated the action 10 times as he turned the image this way and that until he could bear it no more.
He felt a surge of electricity in his chest and closed his eyes. She was long gone now and he knew he should have forgotten her. After all, it had been two years and he knew the time should have come to move on but it would have been easier getting squeezed toothpaste back into the tube.
The scanner winked a friendly green for 'safe' and he made arrangements to touch down on the orb's surface.
Readouts indicated a small population with cities and high levels of smog.
'A little like Los Angeles,' he thought.
The Cancun Star dropped through the clouds, retro rockets slowing its descent. There was a subtle hum emerging from his radio receiver and while organising the landing he decided to record the message and listen to it later.
He caught something about "This is Grace...." and "...anger." but Murphy had picked up such transmissions in the past. They had turned out to be soundwaves. Usually old episodes of I Love Lucy.
The traveller meant to check it out but like so much of the admin in his office back on earth, he mentally filed it and within seconds, forgot about the message completely.
The brave pilot had heard rumours of the circle of chaos, but never believed it. Until a large rose of energy appeared from nowhere and engulfed the insect- like ship.
The circle of screaming faces bloomed around him sending his readouts haywire and giving Murphy the most god-awful headache. It lasted barely three seconds and he wondered if anything had happened at all. Maybe the result of some odd gravitational force arrested his vision. A strange case of the galactic bends.
"The COC's got him," Sixteen was adjusting her binocs, trying to get a better view.
"I can't watch," her sister looked away. "What's happening?"
"Well, probably the same thing as has happened to everyone else on this dustball. The COC'll absorb the pilot into it's energy field and we'll be alone."
"If only someone could get through."
"That ship really is a beaut. Flew one like that three years ago. Remember that pilot who slipped through the COC during a lightning storm? Took me up in his the once. We got to thirty thousand feet and he let me take the stick. Handles just like an F-14."
"How do you know? You've never flown an F-14."
"No, but I've seen Top Gun a 100 times."
The Cancun Star was suddenly free of the energy field and burned through the atmosphere, skimming over the miles of desert that seemed to cover the planet. Murphy's head was still reeling from the anomaly, to the point where he wasn't sure what was real any more. And then, in the distance, he saw the edifice.
His ship eventually arrived in the city, traversing a mass of biscuit brown buildings and rusty smog that belched from huge cooling towers.
The craft seemed to fly itself and he felt the joystick allowing for obstacles long before he could move the stick.
He knew the ship was caught in some sort of tractor beam and after a few minutes decided to prepare for touchdown.
Murphy unbuckled from his chair and made his way down the corridors lined with Mexican frescoes.
He regarded the room where he never went. The room with the gleaming metal device which could wipe out North America. This was the last time he would ferry nuclear warheads for anyone.
Even the smiling face painting on the noseconse didn't ease his stress.
As he opened the hatch, the traveller gazed upon the Stone Iris. An edifice which on earth would have been impossible to construct. In this bizarre gravity it was okay to build extreme arches and gravity defying towers in an atmosphere which made one feel like one feel like the first stages of being in love.
Murphy caught sight of himself in the scarlet spacesuit and thought he looked pretty good. Felt his ego boosted as he fixed up his harnesses and scanned the building with his handy dandy device which blinked on and off like a Christmas tree decoration. He tested his weight on the harness and then descended into the temple of the Iris on the bungee cord.
The air was musty and filled with dust particles but the lust for buried treasure over-rode any fear that may have crept into his heart.
Even when he examined the strange markings on the wall, felt like he could take on the whole world in an arm-wrestling competition.
The astronaut felt better than he had in years and minutes after entering the temple, he was feeling so elated, he didn't notice the door to the room close behind him.
The chair which dominated the centre of the chamber looked so comfortable and the sudden weight of Murphy's suit became unbearable so he decided the only option was for him to take some weight off.
His scanner gave him a green light for 'breathable atmosphere' and he removed the bulky spacesuit.
There were many things in the room but he only saw one thing.
He tried to resist but he started walking toward it.
The chair felt like it closed around his body as he sat there staring into the iris ahead of him.
He closed his eyes and time seemed to speed by, particles of light entered his ears and mouth, shining orbs dropping from the roof of the building. Murphy took a deep breath, died and was reborn in seconds.
However, the new man was not all good. His jaw grew slack. Eyes felt heavy in their sockets.
A ribbon of fire bloomed behind him, mutating into vine and maple leaves. Growing green and fading to an autumnal brown in a matter of seconds.
He tried to close his mouth but couldn't. He felt his body starting to contort. Muscles stretched and became like liquid. Bones buckled and turned to putty. His legs dwindled, chest cracked and changed.
Outside the stone iris, lightning flashed from the source of the chamber, crackling out and seeking purchase in the streets.
Deserted cars were torn apart, lamp posts buckled and the steelworks were stripped of their produce. A great raft of buckling metal was carried on a beam of white light to the structure.
As Murphy's body changed, he felt no pain. The astronaut watched the whole thing in an out-of-body experience and found it fascinating as his once humanoid form reshaped itself into something altogether different. The shape reminded him of something familiar. Elliptical, symmetrical and very close to home.
"Shanine," he said.
"So how do you fly an F-14?"
The two Graces sat in the underground bunker sipping coffee as their sisters milled around stripping down their weapons and oiling the mechanisms.
"Okay, you've got your artificial horizon and your joystick and you try and keep yourself on the level."
"You don't know do you?" Sixty eight laughed.
"I do too." Sixteen was getting irate.
"You keep yourself on the level? What about landing?"
Sixteen shot her a hard stare.
"You lower your landing gear and adjust your flaps, watch your altimeter and bring the stick forward. Any more questions?"
"Okay, that's enough. Watching Top Gun and tackling that thing is two different things. Tom Cruise will not turn up in a display of homo erotic bravado and whop the Circle of Chaos." Grace One adjusted her microphone so the rest of her creations could hear her.
"Now when the COC comes for us it will arrive in force and come in ways we won't expect."
"Such as?" 78 was one of the backward clones. She meant well and was inquisitive but her 'street' was dimly lit.
"We don't know. Recon says the Iris is absorbing huge levels of raw material. There's a lot of building going on in there so we have to assume the COC is building some sort of weapon."
"Like a gun?"
"Maybe. Details are still sketchy. We believe a transport vehicle and several droids are being constructed. Apart from that my guess is as good as yours." "Don't like the sound of that."
"Look. You ever hotwired a car?"
Grace 68 shook her head.
"Those things must be using some sort of familiar ignition. There's a lot of COC juice pumping in those babies but I bet you could hotwire any of those droids.î "I did see some movie about a car thief once."
"There you go."
"I fell asleep half way though."
"But did you see him hotwire a car?"
"There you go then."
Sixty Eight tried to remember what the car thief had done but all she could come up with was him smashing the steering column and joining two wires together. Maybe One was right. Her sister did watch too many movies.
The Murphy thing's eyes grew wide as he saw the sheets of red metal appear at the window, but realised when it started to fold itself around him that this was always meant to happen. He had always meant to be here, changing into this new life form.
He felt synapses grow in his brain and started to see new colours emerge in his minds' eye.
Murphy was gone and a new creature, sleek, armour-plated and vaguely medieval, emerged in his place.
Night fe ll on the city and should anyone have been wandering down the deserted streets, they would have heard the most alien noise. The sound of a factory, using no tools know to man.
Not that the noise would have dominated their thoughts as much as the floating car parts and sea of houshold tools.
Spanners, cheese grazers, soup cans and egg whisks floated silently over the shopping malls and fast food restaurants. A ribbon of implements carried forward by an energy field, threading its way toward the temple.
The metal warrior started to create his legion of followers. He sent out the same message to the city as the white lightning had.
And so even more raw materials were stripped from the city. Hub caps, generators, mother boards, computer casings, rocket thrusters and a huge sea of wiring floated across the skyline travelling silently to its rendezvous at the stone iris.
The red robots started to knit themselves together, slowly, methodically creating themselves from the mountain of household items and military parts. Machine guns mounted on steadicam structures were clicking together, bullets floated into vacant chambers and all the time, the astronaut formerly known as Murphy sat in the chair watching his legion of troops create themselves.
The Grace collective knew the entity in the Stone Iris would change the visitor, just as it had absorbed the planet's people and turned it into the circle of chaos. When the astronaut was transformed, he would send troops to kill her. Which was why their plan was simple.
They would make a stand no matter what the cost.
In all the universe, each planet had a feature which was mirrored by that on another world. Mars and Jupiter has sister planets just beyond this universe. Pluto had a twin in the neighbouring galaxy.
Murphy had visited many planets over the years and seen familiar sights that made him believe the universe only had so many variations on a theme. Grace had also seen other planets since she left earth and settled here years ago, but to her it was unique.
Okay, so this part of the desert was very similar to Zabriskie point, California, a place the original Grace had visited once as a child, but she ignored the comparisons.
When her friends had asked her long ago what it was like, she said: Imagine living in a world where you were assaulted by a hot air dryer, the moisture in your eyes evaporating with each passing second.
Grace 68 scratched her head, the metal plate in her skull, started itching in moments of crisis. She thought of the day she had been knocked unconscious by malfunctioning cleaning droid and shivered. Luckily Grace 3 had shown a flair for surgery and the huge crack in her skull had been bound by a titanium plate.
She wondered if all the Graces should have shown a flair for surgery but she found that the clones, desperate to be different from one another, despite looking identical would go to extreme lengths to get a sense of individuality. Some stayed up all night, some shaved their heads, many had tattoos and others spent hours in the sun, tanning themselves.
So Grace 68 stood on the hill looking down on the valley as she saw the huge ship arrive from the east.
She nodded to the army of soldiers, each the spitting image of herself, and yet each slightly different.
"It's about time," they said as one booming voice which echoed across the plains.
The Graces watched the ship approach and readied their weapons.
A bright orange melon-shaped thing with big rivets and blisters on its hull dropped through the clouds and slowly released its deadly cargo.
The red metal pods cracked open and a host of red robots floated over the land, vibrating with deadly intent.
Grace 34 stepped forward, said a prayer and then prepared to fight. She hoisted the huge bazooka over her shoulder and took aim. As sweat trickled down the small of her back and a stray hair threatened to blind her, she felt her finger tense on the trigger and then relax.
Before 34 could blow it out of the sky, it opened fire with a volley of sadness. Thirty Four dropped to her knees sobbing as waves of sorrow engulfed her. Graces 45 and 31 helped her back from the front line.
Graces 12 and 67 aimed at the floating Buddhas of death, centering their rifles on the first wave of attack droids. They tried to pull the trigger but found themselves being manipulated by some sort of odd force.
Both guns went off and the clones fell down dead.
More red robots came out of the sun. Floating metal death shapes, they looked like turkeys. Scarlet icons of doom.
One lunged at Grace 13 but she managed to squeeze a shot into its chest. The mirco-charge burrowed into the breast plate and found a home in the iron sternum before the core melted. It was ten feet from her when the thing blew. She covered her eyes and choked back the tears.
Emotion washed over her such was their way. The red robots had a sorrow program which emitted after their deaths. They instilled remorse in the souls of their destroyers.
She reloaded the old pistol as the other two came for her. Thirteen just saw two silhouettes through her tears. Arms shaking now as they swooped in for the kill, yellow eyes listening sickly, pink beaks tapping against their breast plates. She sobbed dropping a charge in the sand. Sorrow washing over her now. Grace13 dropped and scuffed her knees.
"Goodbye little girl." The leader said. She remembered it all now, like a bad dream.
It had no arms, just sockets and ball joints swivelling in the shoulder units.
The charge slid into the gun chamber, 13 wiped tears from her eyes and fired.
It sailed through the air and...
Blue sky received the deadly gift and it imploded, a firecracker in the air.
Robot stopped a mere three feet from 13 and she looked up through the strands of her golden hair. Grace13 couldn't cry now, the tears were locked deep within her but her heart felt like it would implode as she looked into the droid's photoreceptors and inside she saw herself. Saw her own face looking back, eyes moist with what could be and what should be. Unfairness she saw in her face. Her contorted face.
Shaking hands dropped the pistol in the sand and the storm which blew from the droid's VTOL engine buried it in a little pit. She felt around for it like a kid at school playing in the sand pit, alone wishing that friends would come for her and take her away from all this solitude. But they never did so she would walk around the playground alone, sulking. Standing out from the crowd and suffering for her loneliness.
She saw all this in the droid's eyes and still it hovered there waiting until she reached the point of despair. Then it would give her the option.
Grace 13 reached out and touched the smooth red skin of the metal beast. It held no heat for her. There were little pit marks in its chrome surface where biting winds had eroded the paint work.
She tried to block the hypnotic stare of the eyes which even now were changing to a sickly green hue. It reminded her of Kim Novak emerging from the bathroom in Vertigo and James Stewart's face as he finally accepted the ghost of his past. Just as she now was accepting the ghost that came for her soul.
The iron fist of regret closed around her heart and she felt it squeeze, tighter and tighter.
And then it hit her. Twenty lonely years of sorrow in a single minute. Rushing through her nerve endings, attacking her brain washing over her in a single terrifying blast. There weren't enough tears in the world to express how bad she felt. She could have tried to cry, to accept the fact that she was going to die in four minutes but her brain was too dazzled by the films unfolding in the viewfinder eyes of the droid.
They were rushing at her now. A thousand films, the memory of a thousand afternoons in the local fleapit, alone watching the most inane movies. And then there were a few that made her sit up and take notice. Naked, ID4, Groundhog Day, Life Is Sweet, The Fisher King. They all blurred together so that David Thewlis was talking to Jeff Bridges who was watching as huge UFOs circled over Punxatawney.
Thewlis was making ice sculptures in the snow of Alison Steadman weeping over her anorexic daughter who looked a little like Jeff Goldblum. None of it made any sense yet at the same time it made all the sense in the world. Jeff Bridges was sat at the foot of a statue, a model of Bill Murray in his hands.
And then there was nothing but white light and film spooling through a projector. All friends and lovers were just on loan she thought.
She felt her heart. Tried to see if there was anything that would convince her otherwise. Maybe they had come for her in the night and siphoned off her memories, like a wine-making kit.
Then she realised what was happening. This was how the robots would wipe her out. Not with brute force but with sheer psychic skill. They read minds and turned souls against one another. They were like the mirrors that made everyone see the darkness in the soul.
The droids showed everyone what they wanted the most and then they killed you by rushing all the emotion in the world at your central nervous system. Regret, remorse. Passion, hate, lost loves. They were more relentless than any human killer. They used yourself as the weapons. And it was a far more effective death because three seconds before they executed you you wanted to die. Wanted to be taken away from the pain and suffering until you lay there gibbering like an idiot.
Grace 13 tried to fight the hate she felt in her soul but it was difficult to say the least. She tried to look away from the pale green eyes that reflected her pretty features but her head was locked on place by an invisible vice.
She was crying now, hot salty tears running down her ridiculously well-defined cheekbones.
There was an electricity in the air and the feeling of expectation.
Then it started to rain and the robots were fleeting, a red blur in the sky. Thirteen dropped exhausted in the dune feeling the warm rain on her face and holding her chest.
She sobbed, rain mixing with her tears. The balmy air became chilly and she rubbed her arms as a shadow fell across the sand. Looking up she saw the king robot blot out the sun.
Grace felt she had stepped from the frying pan into the fire. She closed her eyes.
Grace 15 fired on the legions of droids, each one absorbing the bullet thanks to their shields. The projectitles fell useless to the floor in little piles of silver death.
Grace 68 looked across the sea of dead bodies and tried to find 16. She felt sorrow for all of her sisters but Sixteen had been her true soul mate.
68 eventually found her buried under a smoking droid, her blacked hands held its wiry guts. Smoke billowed from the beast and her face was covered in soot. "Sixteen."
"Here. I'm here."
Grace 68 turned and went back a few paces to where the woman lay. She managed a smile.
"You took your time," she gasped.
"Got held up."
Sixteen coughed and 68 tried to removed the metal from her chest but both women knew it was too late.
"This is my death scene babe. Sorry, there's no vital bit of information to pass on before I croak."
"Maybe you've already passed it on Grace."
She nodded and smiled.
The words were barely audible so 68 leaned over and put her ear next to 16's mouth.
"Fade... to black... "she whispered.
68 felt her body go limp and she closed her eyes.
To the casual observer, the two women looked like twins and the truth was they were - now their 98 identical sisters had suddenly ceased to be.
More red robots arrived at the army of clones and the carnage that ensued took a matter of seconds. Only Grace 68 was spared, the steel plate in her head blocking out the psychic attack. She looked upon the battlefield and was stunned at how fast her sisters had been decimated.
Rage welled deep within her and she ran after the droids which were floating back to the mothership.
Grace - the 68 surname seemed somehow irrelevant now - took aim at one of the stragglers and it crashed into a dune.
The rest of the droids were too far ahead to notice as she jumped on the metal beast, opened a panel in the back of its head and hot-wired it without thinking. "It worked," she laughed, tears in her eyes.
The metal beast sprang into life and after a few minutes fumbling with the navigational preferences, she guided it to follow the pack.
68 arrived at the stone iris at twilight, a few lights winked in the heart of the ring- like structure.
Grace and his metal friend touched down at the centre of the building and they followed a line of droids which were collecting at the huge chamber. The place had become a mass of organic matter and she gasped at the huge flesh-like window which pulsed horribly.
Her metal friend started reprogramming the other droids and slowly the tables started to turn.
She saw a sentry droid float toward her, a bulbous Christmas tree decoration of a thing. Her escort opened fire with a hand blaster and the thing imploded in a shower of sparks.
They cut their way through the mass of droids. Any robots that couldn't be reprogrammed were executed and soon the corridors of the Iris were littered with burning scarlet creations.
In the sky over the temple, the circle of chaos returned and white light poured from Murphy. His mutated body reformed into the man he was and he lay naked on the floor. He opened an eye.
"Shanine," he said.
"No honey. My name is Grace."
"The name is Grace. Oh never mind."
Grace covered him in a cloak and they made their way to his scarab ship which had been about the only thing not converted by the robots campaign.
Grace tried to remember what 16 had told her about F-14 fighters and wished she'd watched Top Gun more. She fiddled with the controls and to her shock, the ship soared into the sky as the Stone iris collapsed beneath them.
Murphy slumped down in the seat behind her.
"You okay mister?" she said looking down at the mass of her dead sisters.
"Good. You've got to help me land this thing once we get past the COC."
Then it was there in the sky. A huge angry whirlpool of screaming souls, drawing her in.
"It looks pretty pissed."
"The COC is pure bitterness. It chose me because I'm so greedy."
"Then it feeds off greed."
"Does this ship have a hologram generator?"
Murphy pointed to a red switch with the label HG1.
"I want you to film the COC for ten seconds then loop it."
Murphy nodded, catching on to her plan.
Outside the craft, the Cancun Star's belly released a small camera which started filming the energy ribbon. After ten seconds it repeated the image.
"Now project the image onto the planet's surface."
Murphy tapped in another set of instructions and a duplicate Circle of Chaos appeared on the earth.
"Is this ship armed?"
"There's a tactical nuke in the belly."
"Drop it when I say."
Grace watched the COC drop to the planet's surface, like some Narcissus desperate to gaze on its own reflection.
Murphy stood by the release for the nuclear warhead.
Grace pulled back on the stick and the Cancun Star broke orbit.
The rocket dropped through the atmosphere and as the dark night of space greeted the craft, she spared one last look at her dead sisters on the ground camera, then she turned it off.
The Circle of Chaos realised the deception and started to speed after the Cancun Star, propelled by a surge of hate at the betrayal. But it was too late. It saw the grinning nuke speeding toward it and a million faces gasped as the planet turned to a whirlpool of destruction.
The planet exploded sending out huge rock chunks in a display of staggering ferocity.
White light threatened to blind Grace and Murphy. Luckily, the Cancun Star's window filters dimmed the cockpit and all they had to remind them of the explosion was a deafening roar and the ship shaking as it made its way through the new asteroid belt and off into the inky black night.
Grace was going home to Zabriskie Point and bad Tom Cruise films which she would watch over and over until she grew old.
Darkness to the casual viewer but look more closely and you'll see a little blue planet and glimmer of gold which threads a path across the stars.
© 2002 Roger crow
TM and © 2002 salad in a bag produtions