“Finish up your lompers Beck, ya don’t want to waste the good farmer’s hard work.”
Beck looked at his plate and decided to get it over fast, shoveling in two huge forkfuls of flatcakes before leaving the table. Outside, Freddy was waiting for him while aimlessly scratching in the dirt with a stick. Though they were both off for mid year break, Freddy was not from Beck’s school. He was from Riverside, but was staying with his grandmother here in Settlement for the vacation.
“Be home before dark now. Ya don’t want to eat a cold supper do ya?”
The screen door slammed behind him as he greeted Freddy on a run. “And don’t come home with wet shoes, stay outa that creek.”
“What took ya so long?
“Come on, let’s go.” They walked down to the end of the street to the dump behind the plumber’s house. After checking through the discarded sinks and water heaters, drains, faucets and tees and elbows, Freddy found a piece of iron supply pipe that he picked up. As they walked downhill through the reedy unmanaged growth Freddy swung the pipe at the wild lomp weeds. Occasionally a seed head would fly through the air.
“I’d rather die in a fiery crash than get old,” Freddy said. The hill terminated at the creek and they took up the well-worn pedestrian path that followed the creek bed downstream through the woods. “And I’ll bet you that is what will happen.”
“What a stupid bet. If you win that bet who will I pay? ” Beck answered.
“I’m gonna be a test pilot. I’m gonna test rockets and planes. Nobody will tell me where to work. I’m gonna volunteer for the most dangerous jobs.”
At one point they turned off the familiar path and moved through the undergrowth. At an uprooted tree laying on the ground they climbed on the trunk and balanced along it until a large branch blocked their way. Beck grabbed a limb and swung from the trunk to a corrugated sheet metal roof about a half meter off the ground.
Beck immediately noticed that a piece of carpet that was used for the door had been left folded back onto the roof. “Hey, some root has been in our fort!” Freddy could hear Beck talking inside “I’ll bet it’s one of those kids from the Shaw Terrace gang. Hey, they left a comic book.” Freddy stood outside the door poking at the rug with his length of pipe.
“What is it?” he asked with casual interest.
“Ranger Stong Explorer. Too bad. It got wet in here when it rained,” Beck said while trying to open it up and look at it. But the pages just fell apart for his efforts.
“Is it the one where Ranger Stong explores the equator flatlands? Ya know it’s so hot he has to wear a suit all the time with a refrigerator pack. Cause if it is, I already seen it.”
Back at the creek they stood on a granite boulder that intruded half way into the current. The narrowed passage produced a fast flowing current that caused a slow rotating eddy at their feet just beyond the ancient obstruction. “Let’s explore. Let’s follow the creek down past the woods,” Beck said. “We’ve never done that. At some point it has to join the river.”
“OK but I want to do something first.” Freddy led Beck up the wooded hill to a place that was like a miniature swamp. Water seeped from the ground soaking the soil before diffusing down a dry wash. Freddy took the piece of pipe and shoved it down into saturated soil at a steep angle, right where the cold water was arising from the ground. In a few seconds muddy water was running out of the top end of the pipe. “Wow!” said Beck. “Nice idea!” In less than a minute the water had cleared and they both took turns getting drinks by cupping their hands under the elevated end.
“That’s nice and cold,” Beck said wiping his hands on his pants. “Tastes better than the water at home.”
“Fill your belly now Ranger Beck while we have the chance, ‘cause we may not find drinking water where we’re going.” They rejoined the creek-side path below the granite boulder then followed it downstream. The path quickly grew narrower and less traveled and required walking in single file.
“If you get to be a rocket pilot would you explore the Red Moon or the Sister Moons?”
“The Red Moon for sure, if they give me a radiation-proof space suit. My dad says they have built the rocket that could fly there but nobody wants to volunteer to do it,” Freddy responded talking to the back of Beck’s head.
They followed along numerous turns in the meandering creek until they came to an elevated bridge that crossed the creek high overhead. Large concrete supports blocked the way and closely bordered the creek. Here it was not so easy to follow the creek further and the banks leading up to the road were unnaturally steep. The amplified sounds of cars randomly rumbling overhead violated the subtle and familiar sound of the flowing water and made standing at the bottom of the bridge unsettling and ominous. Since the creek was running a little below average it left a muddy strip between the creek water and the massive concrete buttress. They decided that this was the best way to continue. On a day without a defined mission this might have turned them back but today this inconvenience was not enough to deter a motivated explorer.
Emerging into the sunlight on the other side of the bridge Beck walked cautiously on one muddy sock and carried a sneaker in his hand that had been pulled off by the suction of the mud. Freddy was already sitting on the bank with his feet and sneakers hanging in the flowing current. Beck stopped and removed the other mud-engulfed sneaker and washed them both before putting them back on without the socks. Neither spoke it but they could tell that this was beginning to feel like a real adventure.
They resumed following the creek bank. Before the sounds of the traffic had completely faded they came to a chain link fence topped with barbed wire blocking their path. At this point the bank had risen forming a precipitous drop to the creek below. The fence extended just past the edge of an overhanging boulder.
“Looks like the end of the line,” Beck announced.
“I got this one,” Freddy said. He climbed onto the fence and worked his way sideways out over the creek below. At the end of the fence he swung out and around to the other side, It was then just a matter of maneuvering sideways back to the rock. “No problem,” Freddy announced back on terra firma.
Beck was reluctant to try but now as they faced each other through the interposing fence, he had little choice. It was a bit scary at first but following Freddy’s example he managed it with surprisingly little trouble and together on the other side their confidence grew having cleverly overcome yet one more difficulty. So they blithely pressed ahead and continued to forge a path through this novel, untrampled woodland.
At a second metal link fence they found a place where rains had washed out space under the wire. Just enough to crawl beneath it.
Inside this fence it continued to be mostly wild, unmanaged land until they arrived at an imposing earthen mound; a gradually sloping rock-strewn prominence that was an alluring invitation to climb. Although it was not difficult, sitting atop this prominence they felt a sense of resolution. The outward leg of the expedition was complete, they had made noteworthy discoveries and successfully achieved their objective. Here they rested, basking in self-satisfaction. “Wish we had brought along some of that spring water,” one of them said while the other silently surveyed this new vista.
As explorers they thought they had done a good job, yet they failed to appreciate the unusual qualities of this hill. That it was made of an artificial loam and almost no vegetation was growing on it. If they had been trained explorers they would have questioned the origin of this barren hillock in a verdant wood. But being boys they accepted the world and its anomalies, as so much of it was yet mysterious and unknowable.
It was Beck who noticed the extension low on the opposite side. He slid down to it finding a stone arch that formed an entrance. He called to Freddy who came down to look. “There’s a door down here.”
It was a heavy, imposing door with a makeshift wooden cover patching it. Without delay Freddy kicked at the cover with no effect. “We might get in trouble,” Beck said. Without responding Freddy found a rock that he pounded with and eventually the patch began to loosen enough that he could pull it away exposing an opening that only a boy might squeeze through.
Inside was like the chamber of a cave of roughly hemispherical shape. The floor was hard and perfectly flat though strewn with broken furniture, shards of glass containers and metal utensils. Any sound they made, their talking, walking, even their breathing was louder than any place they had ever been before. Illumination came mostly from the hole in the door but a couple of very dirty portholes provided a sickly yellow light. After kicking about and finding little of interest they noticed a second doorway in the back of the room. It was blocked by a partly open, steel door. Beck pulled on it to open it some more but could not move it as the hinges were rusted and the bottom was dragging on the floor. Together they pulled and succeeded in moving it only a little before quitting. But it was just enough to squeeze past into an unlit chamber.
As their eyes adjusted they realized they were standing on a concrete walkway between two ground level cisterns of standing water filled up almost to the level of the walkway. Their voices echoed in a way that subconsciously informed them that the dimensions of this room were much smaller than the previous. It was dank and it caused a chill both physical and emotional. The concrete path quickly terminated at a subterranean retaining wall that continued left and right into the chamber walls. When Beck raised his hands he could easily touch the ceiling, feeling a sloping curve that would terminate at the floor only a few meters further in. Freddy kneeled on the walkway and looked intently into the water in one of the cisterns. “Holy cow! Look, a skeleton rib cage under the water.” Beck tried to look but could not see anything without getting down close which he already knew he was not going to do.
Freddy put his hand into the water “Don’t Freddy, there might be snakes in there,” Beck implored, his voice somehow taking on an unintended resonance in this tiny, unnatural cave. But Freddy never flinched and only took Beck’s fear as a challenge to continue. “It’s a rib cage, I can feel it.”
“Let’s get out of here,” Beck said moving about nervously.
“I think I can see his head.” Freddy’s arm was in the stagnant liquid beyond his elbow as he continued feeling around in the darkened pool.
“Stop Freddy. I’m leaving now. Lets go.”
Wait a minute, I can. I can touch it.”
Beck moved to the back of the chamber until his head touched the sloping ceiling. He tried to stand still but his feet kept touching something at the end of the alcove. He stared back into the low light until he could begin to discern something, repeated patterns. Then his brain began to connect the patterns. More rib cages, many little ones piled at the back of the crypt were touching his shoes. A tangle of discarded animals long dead. Without a word to Freddy, Beck ran out into the main chamber, scurried through the hole in the door and into the sunlight. Freddy, he saw to his relief, was right behind him. “Let’s get out of here,” Beck said.
Without talking they moved instinctively back the way they had come, finding the wash under the fence and then downhill in the direction of the creek. Once at the creek bank they flopped down at the water’s edge and gathered their wits. Suddenly Beck began laughing. “I don’t even remember climbing out the hole in the door. And don’t try to tell me you weren’t scared. Did you see the all those dead whatever bodies…animals?” Freddy did not respond. Then Beck laid back on the grass and laughed again, “Holy root, what was that place?” Freddy still said nothing. After an intentional dramatic interval, Freddy finally spoke with a slow suggestive voice.
“Wanna see somethin’ cool?” Beck looked at Freddy who was looking at him, smiling knowingly.
“What are you talking about?” Beck sat bolt upright then he looked at Freddy. He saw that in his lap Freddy was cradling a muddy head dripping dirty water.
Freddy spent some time at the creek bank rinsing off his treasure that was looking cooler by the minute. “Let me see it,” Beck said.
But Freddy said, “No, you were too chicken to get it.’
Beck watched closely as Freddy washed the mud off it in the moving creek water. It might have been the head of a human from the shape of the white bony cranium, though it seemed kind of small. But as Freddy got it cleaner it became apparent that where the face should be this head had a flat and hard surface like black glass. “Wow, cool, it’s a robot head,” Freddy said
“What are you gonna do with it?”
“What will your grandma say?”
“Nothin’ I guess, ‘cause I’m not gonna tell her. I’ll hide it under my bed or in the storage cage in the basement,” Freddy said, finally setting it down on the grass while he rested his head on his drawn up knees in thought.
Beck found his chance to pick it up and look at it. “It’s like a little human in the back with an electronic screen in the front.”
Freddy stood and took it back from Beck. “Lets go.”
Once at the bridge they had little energy for more adventure and decided it might be easier to scale the slope and cross the road above rather than use the muddy creek bank again. Once at the road they hid off the shoulder listening for cars. When it finally became quiet they scurried across the road, Freddy with his treasure, checking left and right that he was not seen. However they did not look behind them. Had they done so they would not have missed a large, prominent sign.
After stopping for a refreshing drink at the spring they went back to their underground fort. Inside they passed the head back and forth countless times while talking and planning what to do next.
“I can’t leave it here. Those Shaw Terrace roots might find it. If I take it home my grandma will make me take it back.”
They sat in silence until Beck spoke up, “I know what to do.”
The boys emerged from the woods where it was bordered by the plumber’s dump. There they poked around among the detritus until they found a big enough box from a fancy faucet set and they slipped the head into the box. They walked up the block past the row of little porched houses that lined the street. A few little kids were playing at the curb, some old people were on their porches talking. The boys walked unnoticed past them all. They were paid no attention for carrying a cardboard box. They paused when they reached a narrow brick two-story house with a wide stone driveway. Soon it would be too late to change their minds. They turned and walked up the driveway past the house to the back yard. “Good,” Beck said. “His car is here, so he is home.” They looked warily at each other before going to the back door and knocking. The warped wooden screen door slapped the doorframe with each knock, amplifying their presence beyond their intent. There was nothing. They looked inside, past the enclosed porch into a darkened kitchen where they could hear someone stir.
“What? Who the hell is it?” complained an irritated voice.
“It’s just me, Beck, and Freddy,” Beck called in.
“Wada ya want?” the voice responded.
“We got somethin’ to show ya.”
“Keep your pants on. I’ll be there in a minute.”
“Are you sure this is a good idea?” Freddy asked.
“Sure, he used to be a Ranger. He was stationed near one of the poles. He had to have two toes cut off from frostbite.”
An old unshaven man shuffled to the screen door. He was wearing a dull flannel shirt and pants with suspenders. His belly pushed the suspenders apart above the belt line of his pants. He had the stub of an unlit cigar in his mouth.
“What da ya want?” he said through the screen.
“We got somethin’ to show ya Mr. Dyson!”
“OK. OK, wait a minute.” He shuffled back into the kitchen. The boys heard things moving in the kitchen and a cabinet door closing before he came out into the yard.
“We want to show you in the shed.”
“Is it alive?”
“Noooa!” they said together and laughed spontaneously at such a silly question.
They walked to the back of the small yard to an unpainted, weatherworn, flat-roofed board and batten shack. Mr. Dyson fumbled with the keys, mumbling. Finally he opened the padlock and removed it from the hasp before swinging the oversized door open. Inside was a collection of clutter among which was a chainsaw, radio chassis and a clutter of paint cans, oil bottles, metal cans and jars full of screws, washers, dried paint brushes and other marginally useful miscellany. The inviting fragrance of stale, volatile hydrocarbons signaled to their brain like a pheromone that they were in a secure, familiar place. After a little shuffling of stuff the boys set the box on the workbench.
“Some junk you found on the dump?” Mr. Dyson asked. With shaky hands he twisted in a light bulb hanging from a wire before opening the flaps of the box. He looked inside the box, while the boys stood silent. There was a dramatic pause before he removed the head from the box. Mr. Dyson’s action seemed inappropriately undelicate as he wiped the head with his palm and held it near the light bulb. “It’s got the triskelion. Where did you kids ever get this?”
Freddy was quick to speak up to preempt anything Beck might say, ”We just found it in the woods.”
“Horse tomatoes.” From his back pocket Mr. Dyson thoughtlessly pulled out a curved bottle and took a drink, a habit he normally hid from the boys. “You kids been up to the government grounds?” The boys remained silent. “I’ve never seen one of these before. Almost no one alive today has. Government has tried to tamp all this down,” he said roughly handling the head on the table. “You know what you got here?” Still the boys did not answer. Mr. Dyson rummaged through a box from the shelf and brought out a small handheld light. “Good thing you brought this to me. Has anyone else seen this?” he asked turning the head so he could shine the light into the neck hole. With long needle-nosed pliers he fished out a wire that had been broken off. ”Most people in this town would not know what this was and the ones who did would have you arrested. Luckily I was an ELE Specialist First Class with the Rangers at Alpha Camp South 89. God, it was cold down there. It was too cold to ever go outside. We just tube transferred from vehicle to habitat. I don’t know why they even sent us. Only the robots could roam around and half of them never made it back.”
He cleaned the wire ends with sandpaper as he spoke. “I’m not so sure you kids are old enough to hear about what you found. Your folks might get mad at me if I tell you.”
“My folks are divorced,” Freddy said.
“We won’t tell anyone, we promise,” Beck interjected. They both raised their right hands with crossed fingers in a pledge. Mr. Dyson looked at them apparently not convinced. “Well, you’d eventually hear some version of this anyway. But this will be the closest to the truth you are likely to hear. And I’ll leave off most of the gory details.” While he talked he found a couple of batteries and some lengths of insulated wire. Taping the batteries together with black electrical tape he attached the wires to them with more tape.
“My grandmother told me about it. She said she learned it from her grandfather who claimed to have read a diary from one of the first to be raised here. Before the people were sent, there were only animal-hybrid robots, biobots, sent from Earth. The first real babies were raised by these programmed bio-genetic machines. The babies were transmitted as genetic data and incubated by special models called ‘nanny bots’. For incubation they were good, but when it came to raising babies, their coding left much to be desired. Remember an intervention from Earth would take over 22 years so nanny bots and their pre-programmed artificial intelligence had absolute control of the nursery. Grandmother called them necrobots. These first babies were sometimes killed by the bots. Maybe accidentally but maybe even intentionally.”
As he spoke the boys stood transfixed watching the head and wondering if Mr. Dyson knew what he was doing. Stripping the wire insulation and cleaning the exposed copper ends he seemed both practiced and casually automatic but his uneven dexterity raised concerns about his ability. “Hold that wire while I cut this,” he told Freddy. “It has never been confirmed or denied if the deaths were from lack of ability, unintentional neglect or that the nanny bots were programmed to eliminate problem children from the group. A little more forgiving maternal instinct and less social good in their programming might have worked out better.
“Anyway, once the first group grew up they revolted and destroyed the biobots and raised the next generation themselves. But some of the undesirable effects of that system linger culturally and the government suppression of the brutal details only prolongs the necessary reckoning and purge. We need to face the fact that we are a society based upon infanticidal robots. They think if they keep it covered up it will eventually be forgotten.”
He stopped talking as he soldered a switch onto the ends of the wires from the batteries and attached the switch to the wires coming out from the head. He toggled the switch and looked inside the head. Nothing happened. When he wiggled the wires attached to the batteries, a light flickered inside the skull.
“All right, we got something now.” He wrapped an elastic band across the ends of the batteries and a green light in the cranium flashed with a regular interval then glowed steadily inside the skull. The faceplate began to show some indistinct illumination. “Goddamn those Earth techs. Nobody builds hardware like this anymore. They might have thought that their future depended on it.” He removed his cigar stub. “If only the programmers had been this good,” he said laughing at his own dark humor which degraded into a series of coughs. The boys had grown antsy and were almost giddy trying to contain their excitement.
“You kids are looking at the face of a resurrected killer,” he said as he sat the head on its side near the edge of the workbench so the faceplate looked out at the boys. They could now see the image of vertical human lips. They were the pleasing lips of a young woman, her mouth was moving but there was no sound. Mr. Dyson tapped on the skull with his knuckles then got his air nozzle and blew into the small grouping of holes near the where human cheeks would be. Then there was some sound made, like a loose connection. A faint voice emerged which gradually grew more perceptible. The boys could hear it. They were straining, trying to make out the words.
“If this thing talks we will be the first living souls on the planet to hear her voice. The voice of a murderous nursemaid silenced for hundreds of years. The last sound heard by some poor babies about to…”
“Shuush,” Beck rudely interrupted, though intentionally undirected but obviously intended for Mr. Dyson whose hearing was no longer as acute as the boys’. “She is talking. I can hear it.”
The sound sputtered as the ancient circuits responded to the warming flow of electrons. It was a tinny sound, and not decipherable. “…fache ylong, fache ylong, fache ylong…” the boys gasped, mouths opened, eyes now mesmerized by the sensuous lips moving on the screen as they strained to decipher the garbled message.
“….fache a long do wea gonm wek….fin a lom do wese fram wek…..” The voice seemed calm and pleasant. But lip motion revealed that more words were being spoken than heard. It kept repeating, filling in more with each repetition until even Mr. Dyson could hear what was being said.
The anxious giggling suddenly stopped and the blood drained out of their faces. Any joy had now been replaced by a terror as the true horror of the message hit home.
“Finish your lompers so you don’t waste the good farmer’s work.”