Red in Tooth and Cog
By Cat Rambo
A phone can be so much. Your memory, your edge against boredom, your source of inspiration. There’s always an app for whatever you need. Renee valued her phone accordingly, even celebrating it by giving way to the trend for fancy phone-cases. Its edges were bezeled with bling she’d won on a cruise the year before, and she’d had some tiny opals, legacy of her godmother, set into the center.
It was an expensive, new-model phone in a pretty case, and that was probably why it was stolen.
Renee was in the park near work. A sunny day, on the edge of cold, the wind carrying spring with it like an accessory it was testing for effect.
She set her phone down on the bench beside her as she unfolded her bento box, foil flaps levering back to reveal still-steaming rice, quivering tofu.
Movement caught her eye. She pulled her feet away as a creature leaped up onto the bench slats beside her, an elastic-band-snap’s worth of fear as it grabbed the phone, half as large as the creature itself, and moved to the other end of the bench.
The bento box clattered as it hit the path, rice grains spilling across the grey concrete.
Renee thought the creature an animal at first, but it was actually a small robot, a can opener that had been greatly and somewhat inexpertly augmented and modified. It had two corkscrew claws, and grasshopper legs made from nutcrackers to supplement the tiny wheels on its base, originally designed to let it move to hand as needed in a kitchen. Frayed raffia wrapped its handles, scratchy strands feathering out to weathered fuzz. Its original plastic had been some sort of blue, faded now to match the sidewalk beneath her sensible shoes.
The bench jerked as the robot leaped again, moving behind the trashcan, still carrying her phone. She stood, stepping over the spilled rice to try to get to it, but the rhododendron leaves thrashed and stilled, and her phone was gone.
She went to the Tellbox to seek the help of the park’s assistant, an older model humanoid with one mismatched, updated arm, all silver and red LED readouts in contrast to the shabbier aged plastic of the original form, built in a time when a slightly retro animatronic look had been popular.
“How do I get my phone back?” she demanded after recounting what had happened.
The robot shook its smiling gender-neutral head. “Gone.” Its shoulders hunched toward her. “I hope you have a backup.”
“Of course,” she snapped, “but that’s my phone. The case was customized. Irreplaceable.” The case reflected her, was her, as though what had been carried off was a doll-sized replica of Renee, clutched in the arms of a robotic King Kong.
“Contact the owner!” she said, but the robot shook its head again.
“No one owns those,” it said.
“But it was modified. Who did that?”
“They do it to themselves. They get thrown out, but their AI chips try to keep them going. That’s the problem with self-repairing, self-charging appliances—they go feral.”
“Feral appliances?” she said in disbelief. She’d heard of such things, but surely they were few and far between. Not something that lived in the same park in which she ate her lunch every once in a while.
The next few days she became a regular, haunted the park every lunch hour, looking for any sign of her phone. Her job as a minor advertising functionary gave her lunches plus “creativity breaks” that were served as well by sitting outside as by any of the other approved modes, like music or drugs.
She was on a bench, scrolling through mail on her replacement phone, when she spotted the phenomenon. Tall grass divided like a comb to display a bright wriggle, then another. She didn’t move, didn’t startle them.
Her first thought had been snake and they did resemble snakes. But they were actually styluses, two of the old Google kind, a loose chain of circles in the pocket that would snap into rigidity when you squeezed the ball at one end. One was an iridescent peacock metal, somewhat dust-dulled. The other was a matte black, with little silver marks like scars. It had several long limbs, thin as needles, spiking from its six-inch length. The peacock had no such spurs; it was also a half-inch shorter.
They slithered through the unmown grass, heading for another large rhododendron, its roots covered with English ivy and shadows.
She stood in order to watch the last few feet of their journey. At the motion, they froze, but when she did not move for a few moments, they grew bold again and continued on.
The robot keeper crunched over to stand by Renee as she looked at the rhododendron.
“Why isn’t this place better tended?” she asked the robot.
“It is a nature preserve as well as a park,” it said. “That was the only way we could obtain funding.”
“But everything is growing wild.” She pointed at the bank of English ivy rolling across a rock near them. “That’s an invasive species. If you let it, it will take over.”
It shrugged, one of those mechanical gestures few humans can imitate, boneless and smooth as though the joints were gliding on a track.
“This is one of the few places in the city where feral appliances can run loose,” it said. “Not the big ones, nothing larger than a sewing machine or toaster, no fridges or hot tubs or even a house heart. But your toothbrushes, key fobs, and screwdrivers? There’s plenty of space for them here and enough lunchtime visitors that they can scavenge a few batteries and parts.” Again it shrugged.
The styluses had vanished entirely underneath the rhododendron.
“You don’t do anything about them?” she asked the robot.
“It is not within my directives,” it said.
Two days later, she saw the phone-thief climbing a maple tree. Someone had been tying bits of metal thread on the trunks and the creature was clipping each with an extended claw and tucking them somewhere inside its body. It used its grasshopper legs, set in a new configuration, to grip the bark, moving up and down with surprising speed as it jumped from branch to branch.
She tried to get closer, but moved too fast. Quick as an indrawn breath, it scuttled to the other side of the trunk where she couldn’t see it.
If she stood still long enough, would it grow confident again and reappear? But it did not show itself in the fifteen to twenty minutes she lingered there.
More of the bits of metallic thread were tied on three smaller trees near the bench. She wondered if someone had put them there for the wild appliances, the equivalent of a bird feeder. How else might you feed them? A thought flickered into her head and that night she looked a few things up on the Internet and placed an order.
She noticed more and more of the creatures as she learned to pick out the traces of their presences from the landscape. She began to recognize the ones she saw on a regular basis, making up names for them: Patches, Prince, Starbucks. They appeared to recognize her, too, and when she began to scatter handfuls of small batteries or microchips near where she sat watching, she found that she could often coax them within a few feet of her, though never within touching distance. She had no urge to touch them—most had their own defenses, small knives or lasers, and she knew better—but she managed, she thought, to convince them she meant no harm.
Even the phone-thief grew easier in her presence. She never saw anything resembling her phone and its case. She didn’t mind that for the most part, but the loss of the opals still ate at her. Australian opals like sunset skies, surrounded by tiny glitters of diamond.
The creature surely would still have the bits of the case somewhere. Track the creature and she might be able to track the gems.
A couple of days later, another sighting. A palm-sized, armadillo-shaped thing she thought must be connected to learning. She watched it rooting through red and yellow maple leaves under a sparse bush. When it saw her watching, it extruded several whisker-thin extensions from its “nose” and used them to burrow away.
She blinked, amused despite her irritation that she was no further along the path to discovering the missing gems.
She hadn’t intended to mention them to her mother, but it slipped out during a vid call.
“You what?” her mother said, voice going high-pitched in alarm. She fanned herself with a hand, leaning back in the chair. “Oh my god. Oh. My. God. You lost Nana Trent’s opals.”
Renee fought to keep from feeling five years old and covered in some forbidden substance. She said, “I’ll get them back.”
“How? You said a robot took them.”
“A little feral robot, Mom. The park’s full of them.”
“I’ve heard of those. That’s how that man died, out in the Rockies. He was hiking. A pack of them attacked him.”
Renee was fascinated despite her growing urge to bring the conversation to an end before her mother returned to the question of the opals.
Too late. Her mother said, “So how will you get them back?”
“I’ll spot the one that took them and find its nest.”
“Nest? They have nests, like birds?” Her mother’s hands still fluttered at her throat as though trying to snatch air and stuff it into her mouth.
“Like rats,” Renee said. Her mother hated rats.
“You’d better get them back,” her mother said. “That’s the sort of thing she’d cut you out of the will for.”
Renee would have liked to protest this dark observation but her mother was right: her godmother was made up of those sorts of selfish and angry motivations. She’d been known to nurse grudges for decades, carrying them forward from grade school days.
“I still have the largest,” she said. “In that ring I had made.”
After saying goodbyes and reassurances, she turned the com off and touched the ring. All of the stones had come from the same mine, one Nana had owned in her earlier years, and they were fire opals, filled with red and pink and yellow and unexpected flashes of green amid the sunset colors.
Why had the robot wanted them? Did they like decoration?
She asked the park robot, “What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever seen here?”
Today it was sporting government holiday coloring: red, white, and blue decals, a little seedy and thrice-used around the edges. She thought maybe it’d hesitate or ask her to clarify the parameters of her question, but instead it said, without a tick of hesitation, “Humans.”
She raised an eyebrow, but like most robots it was extremely bad at reading body language. It simply stood there, waiting until she acknowledged it and released it or else thirty minutes passed.
The day was too hot to wait it out. She said, “Is there a party in the park tonight?”
“An ice-cream social and fireworks. Free of charge. Sponsored by Coca-Cola.”
Robots weren’t supposed to understand irony but the way it said the last phrase made her wonder. She said, “Thanks, that’s all.” It nodded at her and moved along to tinker with the garbage can.
Beneath a bench beside her, in the thick grass clumped around its stanchions, a glint of movement. Pretending to tie a shoelace, she went down on one knee to get a better look.
The phone-thief creature, constructing something. She continued her act, readjusting her shoe, even went so far as to take her shoe off, put it back on. The creature was aware of her, she could tell, but it kept right on with what it was doing, cannibalizing bits of its own internal workings to augment what she realized was an eyeglass case with a half-detached rain hat, bright orange, printed with yellow and sky-blue flowers. It was making the case into a thing like itself, assembling legs into short arms for its creation. Only one of these was attached to the body/case right now. It waved absently in the air.
She was watching a birth. She wondered if any of the parts being used to create the baby were from her phone.
She stood with her body angled oddly, not wanting to draw attention to the event, to the vulnerable little machine and its even tinier creation.
People came and went. This side of the park was much used, but no one lingered there. They bought food at the corner kiosk and brought it back to the office to eat rather than sitting on a bench or on the concrete rim surrounding the pool filled with lily pads and frog-legged machines made from waterproof headphones and GPS units.
“Do you require assistance?” The park robot, standing by her side.
She looked everywhere but in the direction of the tiny miracle taking place. She could guess what had happened. Rich finds had led the creature to thoughts of reproduction.
It staggered her. She hadn’t really conceived of the park as an actual ecosystem before, but if the mechanical denizens were reproducing, then maybe it was indeed a strange new paradigm.
“I was tired,” she told the robot.
“Perhaps you would care to step out of the sun? I could bring you a cold beverage,” the robot persisted.
What would it do if it saw the creature and its child? She had no reason to think the robot meant them well, but so far it hadn’t proved actively hostile, either.
She said, “What happens to the big appliances?”
“I beg context,” the robot said.
“You said the larger appliances don’t end up here. Where do they end up?”
“Most of them—almost all— go to the recycling bins,” it said. It cocked its head, scanning something. “A few—very few—make it into the wild. They end up in the radioactive zone in the Southwest or else perhaps in Canada.”
“And any that came here, what would happen to them?”
The robot’s plastic face was blank as a lightbulb. If you split this robot open, it would smell of lemons and grass, an artificially perfumed disinfectant. Its silence was its only reply.
She let her eyes trail along the ground, stealing just a glance before she fumbled in her purse.
“I thought I lost my sunglasses,” she told the robot.
“You know by now to be careful of your belongings while you are here,” the robot said. “Did they perhaps fall from your purse while you were feeding the appliances?”
“Are you programmed for sarcasm?”
“It was an optional upgrade I self-applied.”
“Why don’t you like me feeding them?”
“If you feed them, they will grow larger, in size and numbers. They will outgrow the park. And if they learn to trust humans, it will do them no good when exterminators come.”
She started to say, “They’re only machines,” but the words caught like a cough in her throat.
Renee spent more and more of her time observing the feral machines. Before work, she got up an hour and a half earlier and stood watching the park. By now she was there so much she never bothered trying to explain herself to the robot with some concocted story. She took still photos where she could, with her phone, but mostly she relied on watching, observing.
Trying to figure out the patterns of this savage little world, red in tooth and cog.
Because it was a savage life there in the park, for sure. Newer machines that made it to the park had a slim survival rate. She’d seen that demonstrated time and time again. A bottle opener and a lint brush who’d teamed up, clearly both discards of the same household for they were emblazoned DLF in gold letters against the silvery body plastic. She glimpsed them several times, had started to think of them as personalities, but then she found their empty casings beside the path amid a fluff of white optic fibers, fine as feathers.
She was there the week after the phone-thief procreated to witness another birth of sorts. The creation of an entity that the rest of the park’s inhabitants would come to fear, what she would learn to think of as the manticore.
It’d been a late-model Roomba, slow to crawl over the rough ground but durable enough to outlast most attackers. It had a powerful solar battery as well as some sort of electrical backup. She’d seen it nursing at a charging station near the park entrance more than once in early mornings.
A truck sped past in the street. A black garbage sack bounced free from the heaps strapped and bungee-corded together on the truck’s back. Small kitchen appliances spilled out. Renee skipped work that morning to watch as the Roomba killed and assimilated most of them: a crook-handled dogtooth bottle opener, an array of electric knives, and then a several-armed harness the purpose of which she didn’t recognize.
The robot did, though. Standing beside her, it said, without the usual preamble, “Dremels—there should be a better disposal method for those.”
“What’s a Dremel?” she asked.
“A multipurpose tool. Very clever, very adaptable. Combine one with raccoons and you can lose a whole preserve.”
“Force the authorities to sterilize the area.”
“Are there raccoons here?”
It shook its head. “Rabbits, squirrels, a few cats. That and hawks. Nothing bigger or smarter.”
They both watched the newly swollen manticore, still ungainly with its acquisitions, trundle into the underbrush. It was quieter than she would’ve expected for a machine of that size.
“It’s hard for those big machines to replicate,” the robot said. The flat black eyes slid toward her. “I’ve told you, you shouldn’t feed them so much. You’ve upset the ecosystem.”
“I don’t bring much,” she said. “A few batteries, some smaller parts.”
It made a sound somewhere between a buzz and a glottal stop. “They will think all humans are tender-hearted like you,” it said. “Most people regard them as vermin. And there are more of them here than you imagine.”
Its fingers flicked up to indicate a tree bole. It took long seconds for her less keen vision to locate the huddled black clumps—a pair of waiting drones—that the robot meant.
She’d learned enough by now to know how the drones survived. They were high on the park’s food chain, able to swoop in silently, preferring to keep owl hours, hunting in dim evening and night light for smaller, unwary ground-bound machines.
Most of the drones that entered the park were not feral, though, but regular office drones using the corner as a shortcut from one building to another. Three rogue drones worked together at the northern archway, ambushing working drones taking advantage of the flight paths the park offered.
The drones knew what was going on by now—you could see them sizing up the bushes, the flat overlooking stone often haunted by the trio. The first, a former bath appliance, scale, and foot-buffer, also had a hobbyist kit’s worth of wood-burning arms, capable of tangling with a drone and setting the cardboard package it carried smoldering. Since the drones’ plastic casing wasn’t heat resistant, the scale/burner was a distinct menace to them.
If a drone made it through that, it still had Scylla and Charybdis to cope with. The former was a small vacuum cleaner and the latter a rock-tumbler, both remnants of the nearby hobby store that had gone out of business recently.
The store’s closing had shaped the denizens of the park to an extent she’d never seen before. The manticore had added several claws and multipurpose tools as well as a shredder ingestion chute. Even Creature, as she’d come to think of the phone-thief, had benefited, taking on a set of small screwdrivers, the same flip-tech as the styluses and equally capable of moving either fluidly or rigidly.
Its child, Baby, had not, though. She’d noticed this phenomenon with the several other young machines: they weren’t allowed to augment themselves. They had to bring all scavenged finds to their parent until some impalpable event happened and the child was cut loose from the parent machine, which subsequently no longer tended it or interacted with it much, if at all—Renee had seen what appeared to be a mated trio of scissors chase their solitary offspring from their niche. Now capable of augmenting themselves, the emancipated young usually did so, fastening on whatever was at hand—bright candy wrappers, bits of stone or plastic, a button—as though to mark the day.
The robot had said the largest creature there was a sewing machine, but even it was diminutive, a ball-shaped thing capable of inhabiting a pants leg to hem it from the inside. It still had thread in it, but every once in a while during walks through the deeper park, she’d come upon a tiny construction made of colored fiber, an Ojo de Dios formed around two crossed toothpicks or twigs, set three or four inches above the ground.
“Does anyone ever come to check on this place?” she asked the park robot.
It was examining the plants using colored lenses to augment the black ovoids set into its facial curve. The shiny arcs canted in their plastic sockets, swiveling in silent interrogation as the robot said, “Every six months, a Park Inspector walks through, but primarily she relies on logs from the kiosk restock here. I perform all necessary maintenance and provide a weekly report.”
“Do the appliances go in the report?”
The eyes tilted again as though looking downward. “There is no line item for mechanical devices.”
“The Park Inspector doesn’t see them?”
“She never lingers long. Plus they are, as you have noticed, shy and prone to avoid noise, and the inspector’s voice can be piercing.”
“When is she due again?”
She looked around the park, at the double red and orange of the maples, the ardent yellow of the ginkgos, dinosaur trees, the same shell-shape that they had thousands of years ago now sheltering humanity’s creation in the random golden heaps of their leaves.
It had rained the night before and then frozen: everything in the park looked glazed and blurry. She chose not to wander the outskirts but took one of the inner footpaths. Under the trees the footing was less slick.
She was surprised to find the robot in the middle of the park. It was using some sort of gun-shaped implement on the flowering statues in the center courtyard, a thirty-meter circle of pea gravel and monuments, thawing them out one by one. A slow and tedious task, she thought, but how much else did it have to do?
Here the ground was visible near the path but then folded into ferns and hillsides. As she stood watching, she saw Creature and Baby moving along one of the hillsides, climbing through the moss and mud.
She waited until the robot had finished and moved out of sight before kneeling and rolling the steel ball bearings and round batteries towards the pair.
The larger one intercepted almost all of them and tucked them away in a recess. The smaller did take one steel ball, which it grappled with, half-play, half-practice, like a lion cub in training.
The larger one ignored the smaller’s antics and watched Renee. It wasn’t until she backed off that it appeared to relax, but then another sound caught its attention and it coaxed the smaller unit away. One of the baby’s new legs was shorter than the others, which gave it a lurching gait, as though perpetually falling sideways.
Work was suffering. Renee was coming in too late, taking breaks that bordered on too long and lunches that slipped close to two hours.
The hidden world of the park pulled too hard. Each of the machines had its own behaviors; Baby, for instance, used an odd gesture from time to time, a twist of two limbs over and over each other that reminded her of a toddler’s hands wringing together. It was not a random communication, she decided. Baby used it as both greeting and farewell.
Others produced sounds—she had heard Creature more than once making a melody like a bird’s in the underbrush, and the manticore had a rhythmic chuff-cough that appeared to escape it involuntarily sometimes when hunting.
In high school biology, they had to analyze an ecosystem. Renee had picked coral reefs but the more she found out about them, the sadder they made her feel. All those reefs, and then parrot fish, jaws like iron, chomping away at them faster than the reefs could grow. She even listened to an underwater audio file of some of them eating. That sound sometimes came back in her dreams, a relentless crunch of the sort you hear in your bones, a “something’s wrong” sensation that’s impossible to ignore.
But she understood what an ecosystem was by the end of things and to her mind the park qualified. She wasn’t worried about disturbing the system, though. The world outside shaped the park much more than any of her offerings ever would, she thought.
Today she knelt to release a handful of gold sequins, each a microchip, that she’d found on sale at a fabric store the previous weekend. The flashing rounds scattered in between brown roots, white tufted leaves. One rolled to the foot of a bot, a hairy green caterpillar adorned with sparkler-wire arms that held it high above the grass, encased in the cage of sparking, pulsing wire. The spindly arms extended down to retrieve the sequins, then tucked them away in the hollow of its body.
This early, the park robot was usually sweeping the outer sidewalks, but today was unexpectedly present at this semi-private clearing where the archway overhung the sidewalk, dry remnants of wisteria bushing up over the ice-glazed stone. Renee only saw it when it stepped out from the archway’s shadow. It didn’t speak, but the way its head titled to view the last sequin, nestled between two knuckled roots and obscured by the roof of a yellow gingko leaf, was as eloquent as a camera lens framing a significant moment.
Renee said, “They were left over from a crafting project.”
The robot said, “The Park Inspector is coming next week.”
“Yesterday you said next month.”
“The schedule has been changed with the city’s acquisition of new technology.”
It paused. Renee offered the question up like a sequin held between thumb and fingertip. “What sort of new technology?”
“Microdrones. They are released from a central point and proceed outward in a wave, capturing a snapshot of the park that will be analyzed so that any necessary repairs or changes can be made.”
The sequin winked in the half-light under the leaf. Renee said, “They’ll catalog all the creatures here, you mean?”
The robot nodded.
“You said this is a nature preserve—that they won’t interfere with it.”
The robot’s head ratcheted in one of those uncannily, inhumanly smooth gestures. A crafted nod, designed in a lab. “The natural creatures, yes.”
“The machines don’t count as natural.”
Again, constructed negation.
“What will they do with them?”
“There are no shelters for abandoned machines,” it said. “We are reprocessed. Recycled.” A twitch of a shrug. “Reborn, perhaps. Probably not.”
Baby appeared from beneath the shelter of a statue, making the odd little greeting gesture, two limb-tips sliding around and around each other. It began to pick its way over to the tree where the sequin lay. It gave Renee a considering look, its message a clear you could have saved me some that made her laugh. She pulled three extra sequins from her pocket, letting them glitter in the sunlight, then tossed one out midway between herself and Baby.
The robot didn’t say a word. Baby edged toward the original sequin, plucked the leaf aside and picked it up. It was still unadorned, and Renee wondered when she’d see it with the baubles and bling that meant it was its own creature. Baby slid the sequin into a compartment, then wavered its way toward them. The click of its feet was audible against the path despite the traffic roar beginning to stir with the dawn.
“What can you do?” she asked the robot.
The robot shrugged. Baby reached the sequin, considered it, then plucked it up in order to put it in a compartment on the opposite side from the last pocketing. Machines liked symmetry, Renee had learned. They were worse than any OCD patient, prone to doing things in pairs and threes and, in more extreme (and usually short-lived) cases, many more than that. Everything had to be even, had to be balanced.
Renee tossed another sequin, again to a midpoint between Baby and herself. Voices hadn’t disturbed it thus far, so she looked at the park robot and said, “You can’t do anything? What about caging them for a few days, then releasing them back into the park?”
“There are no facilities suitable for temporarily caging them.”
She held out the last sequin, willing Baby to come and take it from her. The little robot drifted closer, closer, finally plucked it as delicately as a fish’s kiss from her fingertips, then darted away. It stopped a few feet off, turning the sequin over and over in its claws, watching her, making its hello/goodbye gesture.
Based on what she’d observed so far, it was almost an adult. She wondered if it and Creature would keep interacting after Baby was full-fledged, its back studded with bits of rubbish or perhaps even her opals, or whether they would be as aloof as the scissors to each other.
“Would you be willing to take some home?” the robot said.
She looked down at the claws, at the plier-grip tips capable of cracking a finger. She’d seen it destroy a small tree in order to harvest the limp Mylar balloon tangled in its upper branches. She had nothing capable of keeping it caged.
She shook her head.
Her supervisor called her in, a special meeting that left her hot-eyed, fighting back tears.
She’d known she was skirting the edges, but when she was in the office, she worked twice as hard and twice as smart as anyone there, she’d rationalized. She’d thought she could cover for herself, use her skills and experience to compensate for slack caused by bot-watching.
She was wrong, and the aftermath was the thin, stretched feeling of embarrassment and shame and anger that sent her marching quickly through the September rain to the park.
She couldn’t give them up entirely, could she? Maybe the Park Inspector shutting things down was the best possible outcome. Saved her from her own obsession. But it would be like losing a host of friends. It would leave her days so gray.
“There’s a way to save the creatures,” the robot said.
“What is it?”
“But what is it?”
The robot held out a metal orb inlaid with golden dots, dull black mesh at eight points. “If you trigger this while the drone wave is going past, it’ll overwrite the actual data with a false version that I’ve constructed.”
Renee didn’t move to take it. “Why can’t you set it off?” she asked.
“My actions are logged,” the robot said. “Most are categorized. This conversation, for example, falls under interaction with park visitors. Programming the image of the park falls under preservation of data, but triggering it would be flagged. Someone would notice.”
Reluctantly, Renee took it. “What if she arrives at a time when I can’t be here?” she said.
“I don’t know,” the robot said. “You’re the only hope the creatures have, and I never said the plan was foolproof. But she’ll be doing the inspection at one on Monday afternoon.”
Relief surged in Renee. That was easy enough. She could take a late lunch that Monday. She’d make sure of it by building up as much goodwill and bonus time as she could by then.
Her mother said, “Nana’s coming to town. She’ll expect to see you.”
Renee’s mouth watered at the thought. Nana always paid for dinner, and she liked nice restaurants, places where they served old-style proteins and fresh-grown greens.
“Wear the opals,” her mother said.
Renee’s heart sank. But she simply said, “All right,” and got the details for the dinner.
Afterward she laid her head down flat on her kitchen table and closed her eyes, trying to savor the cool, slick surface throbbing against her headache.
The Park Inspector would be there the day before Nana’s visit. If she could figure out the location of Creature’s lair—maybe the robot would have some suspicions?—then she might recover them and no one would be the wiser, particularly Nana. She took a deep breath.
The com chimed again. The office this time, wanting her to come in and initial a set of layouts. She needed to build goodwill, needed to look like a team player, so she made no fuss about it.
She was lucky; the errand took only a few minutes. Leaving, she hesitated, then turned her footsteps toward the park.
It was a cold, rain-washed night and she pulled her jacket tight around herself as she stepped onto the tree-lined path.
Ahead, a cluster of small red lights, low above the ground. She stopped. They continued moving, a swirl around a point off to one side of the path. As she approached, she saw several of the bots gathered near an overturned trashcan beside the path. Inside it was Creature. Someone, perhaps a mischievous child, had trapped Creature under the heavy mesh and it was unable to lift the can enough to extricate itself.
A brighter light, like a bicycle, flashed in the distance, and she heard the manticore’s cry, coming closer.
She braced herself, shoved the trashcan over. It was much heavier than she expected; her feet slipped on the icy path. It banged onto its side, rolling as it went. Creature stood motionless except for a swiveling eye. She backed away a few feet and knelt, keeping still.
The night was quiet, and the little red lights from the machines cast greasy trails of color on the wet leaves and the concrete. She stayed where she was, crouched by the path despite the hard surface biting at her knees.
Creature finally stirred. The struggle with the trashcan had damaged it. It limped towards her.
Had she trained them too well? Did it expect her to have something for it? She held out her hands, spread them wide to show them empty.
Creature stopped for a moment, then kept moving toward her. She lowered her hands, uncertain what to do.
It stopped a foot from her and lowered its body to the concrete. Indicator lights played across its side but the patterns were indecipherable.
Perhaps it was saying thank you? She returned her hands to her sides and said, tentatively, “You’re welcome.”
But it stayed in place, lights still flickering. It whistled a few notes, the song she’d sometimes heard from the underbrush.
A thought occurred to her. She held out her right hand, tapping the ring on it with her left. “You have the stones like this one. If you want to thank me, just give those back. Please.”
Her voice quavered on that last word. Please just let something go right for once.
It stretched out a limb and touched the opal. She held her hand still, despite its metal cold as ice against her skin.
Creature sang two notes, sad and slow, and retracted its arm. The manticore coughed once in the underbrush but stayed where it was, perhaps deterred by her presence. She gathered herself and went home.
The next day she felt happier. She woke early, refreshed, lighter. She’d swing through the park in the morning on the way to work and then again at 1:00, when the Park Inspector would be there. She’d set the device off. Then the park robot would help her find her opals. They had to be there somewhere.
As she came up the path, she saw Creature close to where it had been the night before. It made her smile. Even Creature, who had always been so shy, was getting to know her.
But as she moved toward it, Creature slipped away, leaving a glittering heap where it had been sitting.
Her opals! Though the pile looked, surely, too large.
Then, as she moved closer, horrified realization hit her in the pit of her stomach, taking her breath.
The parts laid in neat little heaps, stacked in rows: the gears, the wheels, the blank lenses of its eyes.
The back panels, each inlaid with a starburst of her opals. She picked them up, held them in her palms.
The metal bit at her skin as she gathered her fists together to her mouth as though to cram the burgeoning scream back inside the hollow shell she had become.
The brush rustled. The manticore emerged beside the heap.
She couldn’t look, couldn’t watch it scavenge what was left behind. She fled.
All through the morning, tears kept ambushing her. Her coworkers could tell something was wrong. She heard them conferring in hushed whispers in the break room.
Why bother going back at one? she thought. Let the creatures die. They were all going to eventually anyway. And they weren’t even real creatures! Just machine bits, going through the motions programmed into them.
Even so, at 1:00 she was there. She’d packed a lunch specifically so she could escape the office, orb tucked inside her pocket. She wouldn’t press it, though. Wouldn’t save Creature or the manticore. They didn’t deserve it.
The Park Inspector was a pinch-faced woman in a navy and umber uniform, datapad sewn into the right sleeve, her lensed eyes recording everything they passed over. Renee saw her scolding the park robot for something as the robot began to set up the cylinder that would release the microdrones in the center of the park.
She went to the Park Inspector, said, “Ma’am?”
The Inspector turned her head. Her nametag read Chloe Mesaros. This close up she looked even more daunting, held herself even more rigidly. “Yes?”
“Is it safe to set that off when people are around?” Renee asked, nodding at the cylinder.
The Inspector sniffed, a fastidious, delicate little sound of scorn. “Of course. The drones are programmed to avoid humans.”
The Park Robot was almost done setting up the cylinder. It didn’t acknowledge Renee, which made her feel like a conspirator in a movie.
“Will we see them?” Renee asked. She could feel the weight of the orb at her side.
Was there any reason to save the park creatures? Maybe this was a blessing in disguise, the universe plucking away the temptation she’d been unable to resist, the temptation that was affecting her very job?
“No. The only indication that they’ve been triggered will be the light turning from red to amber and then to green when they’re done.”
She’d have to press the orb while the light was amber, the robot had told her.
If she chose to do it.
After all, who was to say that the plan the robot had come up with was a good one, that it even had a chance of working? Perhaps the Inspector would notice it. Perhaps Renee would be charged with crimes—wouldn’t that be a nice capper to this shitty day?
She avoided looking at the robot. It was, like the others, just a machine.
Far away she heard the manticore’s cough. Hunting other creatures in this savage little jungle. Red in tooth and cog, she’d thought at one point, an amusing verbal joke but it was true, it was savage and horrible and not worth preserving.
The robot stepped away from the cylinder. “Ready, Inspector,” it said.
The Inspector tapped at her sleeve, inputting numbers. “On my mark.”
The orb was hard and unyielding in her fingers. There was no need to press the button.
Let them die, the lot of them. Not even die, really. Just be unplugged. Shut down.
There are no shelters for abandoned machines, the robot said in her memory. We are reprocessed. Recycled. Reborn, perhaps.
She looked at the park robot. It stared impassively back.
The light went from red to amber.
Renee thumbed the button on the orb.
The Inspector had been right; there was no visible sign of the microdrones. Within a half-minute, the light shifted to green. The Inspector tabbed in more data. The park robot remained motionless.
If she got back to the office now, she could be seen putting in a little extra work. She could still redeem herself. She started down the path that crossed the park.
Perhaps a third of the way along, the manticore flashed in the underbrush, a few meters from the path.
She stopped, waited to see what it would do.
It assessed her. She had no fear of it attacking. While it was capable of destroying small bots, one good solid kick from her would have sent it tumbling.
Two arms raised, one tipped with a screwdriver bit, the other with a clipper.
They writhed around each other, briefly, the familiar sign.
Something gone right.
Relief surged, overpowered her, made her grin helplessly. She lifted on her toes, almost laughed out loud as her heels came back down.
It was an ecosystem, and in it the little lives moved along the chain, mechanical flower and fruit as well as tooth and cog. A chain into which, somehow, she and her handfuls of batteries and microchips fit.
She looked back to where the robot stood with the Inspector. It nodded at her and appeared to shrug, its hands spreading infinitesimally, and she could hear its voice in memory, Probably not.
Did it matter? Probably not. But she would act as though it did. She went back to work, whistling.
About the Author
Cat Rambo writes a lot of fiction.
About the Narrator
Tina Connolly‘s books include the Ironskin trilogy and the Seriously Wicked series, and her novels have been finalists for the Nebula and the Norton. Her very first Escape Pod appearance was in #209, when “On the Eyeball Floor” was narrated by Norm Sherman.
She is extremely delighted to have had both her stories and her narrations featured on all four Escape Artists podcasts. Find her intermittent, Parsec-winning flash fiction podcast at Toasted Cake (link: toastedcake.com), or find her at tinaconnolly.com.