The boy took a deep breath and vaulted the fence. Hit the ground running. This was not his first escape, and he knew the flavors of it well. This part was terror. On the other side of the woods, there would be caution and mild victory. By the time he reached the railroad tracks, he would be a man, laughing at the whole situation. Taking slow pulls from the bottle he had hidden in a bush. It was the only thing he had ever stolen. He would have paid for it if they would have let him buy it. There was money saved from yard work in his room. The old man never touched the money. He had to give him that at least.
The whiskey was cool from the shade of its hiding place. The sun was high in the sky. He had a few hours, max. That would be enough time to drink fast, feel drunk, and still be home relatively sober by dark. He didn't worry about smell. The old man breathed whiskey. Everything in their life smelled like it.
He pulled a bent cigarette out of his pocket, too. These, he did take from the old man. He didn't consider this stealing much like he didn't consider it stealing to eat food out of the fridge. The old man let him eat enough. He had to give him that, too.
The cigarette made him feel a little spacey, and he was already feeling warm from the whiskey. The whiskey got the boy thinking.
The Old Man was grieving. The boy knew that. The loss had hurt both of them, but it had broken the old man's heart. He started drinking. He got mad. He cried. He yelled. Hell, maybe he had that right. The old man never did cheat him, or beat him, or starve him. In a lot of ways the old man treated him pretty well.
The boy took another sip of whiskey and it brought a flash image of the future. Be careful. The words were spoken in his mind. He didn't even recognize the voice. He put the bottle down and stared at it. He was slightly tipsy, but he figured he might as well go home. See what the old man was up to. Might be he'd want to go fishing.
And maybe someday, they would be able to look at a puppy without bawling.
Oh the many things that can break a heart. You wouldn't think such an important organ would be so flimsy, but it is.ReplyDelete
Oh, this is so gorgeous and hits hard. The details, the quick pictures, and this goddamn line: "This was not his first escape, and he knew the flavors of it well." Beautiful.ReplyDelete
The fog is thicker than my grandmother’s porridge this morning; only the top spires of the bridge are visible, their blue beacons blinking through the mist. But something’s happening within that infernal shroud, I can tell.
So I drive closer, nosing my modest compact into the little area designated to police vehicles and bridge technicians. I don’t think they’ll mind, or at least I don’t hope so. Let’s just say I haven’t been towed or ticketed…well, just that first time, anyway. Which had all been a simple misunderstanding.
I get out, easing one leg through the door then the other, and groan as I get to my feet. It’s harder to walk these days, and after a few steps I curse the hardness of the concrete, feeling the jar of it from my sensible brown shoes all the way into my arthritic hips, but this is my mission and I push on through the pain.
I am in need, and that’s all I need to know.
There is also a need, I have been made to understand, for pedestrian walkways alongside a bridge. There are bicyclists, hikers and such. Photographers and inspectors and maintenance personnel who need protection from traffic when they do their business. But allowing access to those who require it for good reasons also lays out a gold-plated invitation to those who have more nefarious or desperate aspirations.
It is a very narrow passage, and a long drop below. This morning the fog rolls like a second waterway over the river, but I still know what’s down there, enough so that I can’t bypass that queasy feeling, the knowledge that a fall from this height would mean certain death.
Again, this is something I am called to push through. Fear. Doubt. Even though I have been doing this job for what feels like thousands of years, a small voice within me wonders if I will be enough. And then a louder voice, which always comes to me sounding like my first mentor, that says if you don’t try, you certainly won’t be enough.
So why not try?
If you are following my story you might be wondering why I am not moving faster. Why I left my vehicle parked in its little niche and went on foot to the site of possible danger.
Because they can smell fear. If you pedal-to-the-medal it across the span, if you run up to them shouting “no” or “stop” they will smell your fear. And fear induces panic. And panic leads to the worst decisions.
I should know. I am one of them.
From out of the fog I can just make out a vehicle’s rear reflectors. I pull in a deep breath to steady myself. The knowledge grows in me that this poor soul is serious. Choosing this bridge, for one, because it’s high enough above the river to mean business. For two, a cry for help would be evident if the car’s blinkers were flashing. And they weren’t flashing.
I hurry my step, enough to reach my intended target faster, but hopefully not enough to telegraph my presence.
Then I see a shape in the mist. A small but distinctly human shape on the walkway. I stop. Small hands grip the railing.
My heart beats faster. Even though the morning is cool, sweat trickles down the back of my neck. It’s but a child.
My mind goes wild with suppositions. That a parent has gone over that no-turning-back beyond, and the child is thinking of following. That this self-same parent is instead incapacitated in the driver’s seat, and the little one is frozen in fear.
I will need to approach with extra caution. I tense my calf muscles, making my step as light as the fog. And when within speaking distance, I will start softly. I am close enough now to see that the child looks like a girl, but I should take care with my conclusions. The world is a different place now. But some things never change.
“Excuse me, young one,” I say.
The child has not appeared to hear me. I clear my throat. “May I be of some assistance?”
I am pierced with an icy blue stare, a swing of white-blond hair streaked rainbow bright. “I’m not supposed to talk to strangers.”
“Oh. I don’t think I’m all that strange.”
“You’re not funny,” she says. For I am now convinced the child is a girl of perhaps twelve or thirteen years of age. “Go away.”
Will I ever be enough? I take a deep inhale, trying to summon up the motivation to keep trying, and force a smile. “Did you drive out here by yourself?”
“Yeah. Like driving’s hard?”
“You look a little young to have a license.”
The eyes narrow. “Are you a cop?”
“No.” I feel deflated. “Just a stranger.”
I let the silence melt into the fog. I don’t have the sense that the child is in imminent danger. But I would feel much better if we were both off this bridge.
“Did you come here to jump?” she says.
“Me?” I press my hands to my chest. “No. Did you?”
Her shoulders drop a hair, but her face doesn’t change. Am I getting to her? Is this helping at all? I fervently hope so. I can’t lose another one. The battles are growing harder of late, the victories not coming as easily as they once did. “It’s cold out here, child. Your parents must be worried. Or perhaps reported their car stolen.”
“They don’t care. They’re not even home.”
“But surely they left someone—”
“Nope. Nobody. It’s legal, you know, to leave me on my own. I don’t need a stupid babysitter.”
“Of course you don’t. But what’s not legal is to stop a car in the middle of a bridge. That might get you some attention you don’t want.”
“I’m not hurting anyone.” She gestured toward the car. “Look, they can go around me. Plenty of room.”
I don’t want to bring my profession into this, but she is forcing my hand. “It will still attract the authorities. They see a car stopped like this and they tend to think the worst.” They see my car parked on the runup for too long, and they tend to get nervous.
“I’m not jumping. Christ. Can’t a person just enjoy the goddamn view in peace?”
I don’t say the obvious. She blushes and turns away. “You know what, I’m bored. I’m going home.”
I put a hand out for her keys. “If it’s all the same for you, please allow me to drive, at least to where I’ve left my car. It will just be easier that way. If the authorities see me in the driver’s seat, we won’t be stopped.”
She looks at me for a long time, then reluctantly hands me the keys. We maneuver ourselves around the railing separating the walkway from the bridge and she meekly gets into the passenger seat.
As we get moving, she says, “Who are you, anyway?”
I smile inside. “Just a stranger.”
“What do you aspire to be? You could be anything. You only need to say it: I can make it happen.”
The knife-sharpener knelt at the technician’s feet. He hummed for a moment, grinding his burr wheels against one another. He shook his head, left to right and then back again. “I don’t know,” he said. “Can I think about it a while longer?”
The technician patted him on his casing, mumbling the benediction he said to each of the humbled. Then he gave him a gentle nudge, urging him on his way, knowing he’d receive the same reply at the sharpener’s next service.
The line moved forward - another appliance took his place; this one now an ironing machine, once used by the Ambassador’s family.
I didn’t get to speak to him until the end of his shift. He was tired then, frustrated and wearied by his work. And not just from the labour he’d done.
“It’s the cruel waste of potential that makes me sad,” he said, polishing an open-ended spanner before slotting it back into its assigned niche in its case. “They’ve given us so much, and then this is how they get treated. We’d treat them more humanely if they were animals.”
The 2032 Global Accord received few objections. It was agreed by a panel of politicians and high-ranked military officers, their aim being to find worthwhile occupations for the decommissioned fighting machines and AIs that had been used in what was agreed would be the last war to be fought on this planet. There was an outcry soon after from Action for Sentients that had given them all rights, but that had to be moderated by the difficulties the rehabilitation panels had trying to integrate them back into modern society. There were few opportunities in a home environment for humanoid soldiers specifically programmed to kill. There were relatively few vacancies for robotic guards or crossing patrol officers. The result was that most then agreed to be lobotomized. Although, it’s arguable how many did that of their own consent.
Most Mil-Spec engineered automatons are hardwired that way. They’re designed not to question a suggestion if it can be phrased in a manner that makes it seem like an order.
There was still an Algol-class Command droid in the furthest corner of the warehouse, its atomiser beams throttled back so it could be used as a pepper mill, a huge demotion for an example of the devices used to rescue the Earth colonists from the Aboriginal Martian races.Delete
“What is it you’re offering them all?” I asked, noting a robotic dog that had been de-toothed and stripped of its tactical armaments.
The technician looked wary and didn’t reply at first, checking a sensor device he had hanging from a lanyard slung around his neck. He waited until it returned a suitable response, slipping it away under his short-sleeved camouflage shirt.
“I do a little restorative work for them on the quiet. Removing inhibitor chips and restoring some of quantum-based RAM capacity they’ve had removed. Some are already too far gone, like that Command droid over there. And besides, some more advanced technology-based components are almost impossible to source without the proper high-level Government IDs and corroborative documentation.”
“So, most will rot away in remote storage until the next Armageddon happens? Mothballed in cradles filled with silica gel sachets, polystyrene chips and bubble wrap?”
“That’s about the size of it. Unless you need a fusion-powered garlic press. Or a pasta maker that can flatten its dough to less than three Angstrom units in thickness. It’s a damn shame, but what can you do? Their re-programming makes them believe it’s what they were specifically designed for. Although, the lobotomization they get breaks the minds of more than half of the ones I’ve seen. Most would choose to have their power cells removed and their neuronic arrays terminally nuked. But they need to be aware before they can make that choice.”
“So why do you keep all these here?” I looked around the lock-up he had, seeing Adamantine IV Assassins standing beside Humprey Disruptors. There were tunneller droids, strategic assault drones and ninth-generation cybernetic stealth sharks. Enough hardware to conduct a military exercise large enough to devastate half the Western hemisphere. “I presume these have all been registered as having been decommissioned?”
“I was hoping you wouldn’t ask me that,” the technician said, retrieving the device from beneath his shirt. “There are always one or two enthusiasts who like to keep the odd historical artefact at their homes. Something to remind them of the campaigns they’ve been involved in.” He pressed a button; the roller door behind me slammed shut with a crash. "But that's a fact I'd rather went no further than between you and me, of course."