Perihelion Science Fiction

Sam Bellotto Jr.
Editor

Eric M. Jones
Associate Editor


Fiction

Remy’s Town
by Megan Neumann

Periscope
by Andrew Hook

Her Robot Babies
by Brent Knowles

Beyond the Reach of Proof
by Seth W. Kennedy

Here Is a Fighter
by Eric Del Carlo

Invasive Species
by Kurt Heinrich Hyatt

Deciphering an ET Opening Screen
by Marilyn K. Martin

I Once Was Lost
by Edward Morris

Navigate
by Melanie Rees

Respect of Headwaiters
by Tais Teng

Toy Soldier
by Leon Chan

Articles

A Case Against Saucers
by John McCormick

Atomic Light Bulbs
by Popular Mechanics


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Her Robot Babies

By Brent Knowles

AT NIGHT WE STUFF OUR BABIES inside microwave ovens. Smaller adults, like me, squeeze into them too, sleeping in safety until morning delivers us from danger.

The day will commence as usual. I will begin by luxuriating under the warm sun (and charging my batteries), before strolling into the forest where I have hidden my shell—a human sized suit of armor that I grew myself. I will crawl into the cockpit and thank my great-gram, who gave her life for me. I will be grateful that no bomb fell last night, that no electromagnetic pulse surged through our clan, killing those too large to be protected by the ovens.

And I will pay respects to the Selfless Woman, our creator.

A curious monkey will scare a child. The other adults will chase the monkey off with sticks and with thrown stones. The monkey will not be hurt. Robots have shitty aim.

I will have to chide my children not to do as the others have. My children should not throw stones, I will say.

And then, just when I might otherwise pretend the day will be a normal day I will murder a human.

***

The Blooding is our obligation, an obligation that carries me towards the river and we soon, all too soon, crest the hill. Behind me is the oven wall, a mound of dried mud and wood embedded with hundreds of microwave ovens. No matter what nasty words humans might use to describe them I think the walls are beautiful. They are built by us. A rare act of construction.

It is even rarer to find unused ovens these days but I am blessed to own three. Mine is a battered brown box, flanked by two newer, white ovens—salvage from a collapsed store, one of those ruins with Mega or Depot or Wholesale in their name (or perhaps a combination of all three).

How better it would be if an entire family might nuzzle together through the long dark of night, but though my true self is smaller than my shell, a microwave is still too Lilliputian a vessel to contain us all.

That is what is behind me. Eventually I have to stop looking back. See instead what is ahead.

A flat cement block extends into the river, the base of a bridge destroyed long ago. A ring of robots has already assembled on the concrete, leaving a bare spot in the center.

“What’s wrong, mama?” Jex asks.

“Just a Blooding,” I reply.

My two youngest children are perched on my shell’s shoulders. It will be years before they begin secreting gel; decades before they learn to shape it and build shells for themselves. A selfish fragment of myself hopes they never learn so that I might be their mother for always. A foolish fragment hopes they do not grow cruel like their older sisters.

This is why they need me most, I think, so that I might raise them better than I did their siblings. Jex’s twin, Hanock, shifts her weight on my shoulder; she is not content with the answer.

“Once a year,” I say, “we shed blood with others from our clutch.”

“We kill humans.”

My children are clever. Three humans wait for us on the cement. On my first Blooding the humans had been alert and struggling but our thrill in the screaming and wailing has waned. Now we drug them so that they stand with dull expressions and sway with the wind; dandelions waiting to be plucked.

Last year I remote piloted my shell to perform the Blooding, while I hid in my oven. Every generation we distance ourselves further from the reality of what we do here. We follow custom with our eyes closed.

This year I have decided that if I must do this terrible thing I will show my enemy respect. I will not remote pilot my shell again. I think the Selfless Woman would approve.

My fingers brush cold ceramic and I glance down. My thumb rubs the handle and front facing of an old coffee mug that dangles from an accessory hook on my shell’s waist. An imprinted photo of Vivian, the Selfless Woman, adorns the mug’s surface—her lips turned downwards, eyes staring off to the side as if unaware of the camera’s existence. My prized possession.

Murgan, the elected leader of my robot clan and a clutchmate steps forward first. She is a lanky, bulky robot and her footsteps resound against the concrete like boulders clattering down a hill. A drilling attachment on what should have been her left arm bores into the chest of a human male.

I think this man a soldier. When the drill bit chews into his flesh he reaches, as if to push it aside. It is of no use. He collapses to the cement with a heavy thud, a splash of blood covering me and my children.

Jex snickers and scrambles around my back to push her sister. They fall together, as if re-enacting the violence they have seen. I reach down to separate them, too busy with the children to notice the next call, the next execution.

My turn next.

“You are too old for this mothering.”

My back stiffens. My firstborn, Karlax, stands beside me, gleaming in the sun. Not a single artifact, a single remembrance of our past, is attached to her. Her shell is as pristine as the day her gel hardened. This is the way of the youth, they have no affection for the past.

No secret that she and many others believe that I should not have reproduced so late in my life cycle. Karlax reaches down, plucking her sisters from the ground, one in each hand. She gestures with her head to the last human.

I cannot resist the call, though it is not born of programming, not in the sense of the word as it applied to my ancestors. The Blooding is more of a reinforced behavior.

The last human is female, her face tanned and pockmarked with scars of a lost battle with acne. Her arms dangle at her sides, hands smooth and without calluses. Not a solider; a young colonist, perhaps a scientist. Like Vivian.

Murgan hands me a serrated blade, longer than the human’s arm. The Blooding, the blood, is a balm for the clan. It prevents sentimentality.

The humans think of us as less than animal. The Blooding reminds us that they are merely animal. They cannot grow new shells when they outgrow their old; they cannot procreate responsibly. They behave randomly, without coordination or respect. They bleed.

With my free hand I grasp her shoulder. This woman is soft and I wonder if she might be a mother like me. Like Vivian.

This is not right.

My hand trembles but when my fingers relax it is my choice, no accident.

I drop the blade.

***

An hour later Karlax’s foot falls onto my porcelain mug, crushing Vivian’s face. It is the last of my ornaments. I have been stripped bare, my collection now debris to be mixed with the dozens of round black stones that are scattered about my feet, the voter’s bucket tipped over during my shaming, spilling the stones that sealed my fate. Only the handle of the mug remains stubbornly attached to my waist clip.

The woman’s blood has dried on me, Karlax finishing what I could not.

“Exile!” Murgan shouts.

Though most of my clan mates have voted with black stones in favor of my exile (only a few white orbs disrupting the dark tide) the reality is that my exile started the moment I dropped the blade. We will be separated from the clan. My children struggle against the robots holding them.

I reach for them but Murgan shakes her head, advancing towards the robot holding Hanock. I realize I am wrong: my children will not share my exile. They will die.

“No!” I shriek, lunging at Murgan but others grasp me roughly.

“There is no precedent for this,” Karlax says and Murgan pauses. As do I. I am surprised.

“There is no precedent for any of this.”

“She created them too late; let them suffer for that sin. Exile them with her. It will be no kinder.” Karlax glares at her sisters, such coldness in her as if beneath the shell she is still a liquid, like the river rumbling behind us.

My other children, none as openly capricious as Karlax, hide in the anonymity of the crowd. What a poor mother I am.

Murgan nods and my children are freed to scamper into my embrace. They might die, I might die, but we will do so together. Before any minds are changed I flee, away from the blood, the blades, and the wall of ovens that have been my children’s home since creation.

***

I have forgotten the nomad’s life though once it was all I knew, the clan under great-gram’s leadership never lingering in any location. I love my great-gram but now with my shell’s legs buried to the knees in a rain slicked bog, I think she was misguided. There is comfort in having a home.

The swamp extends in all directions, an unending obstacle. What should have been a shortcut to the coast has become near impassable due to the persistent rain. Droplets slam against us. At least Hanock’s terror and exhaustion has sent her into a deep slumber.

The cloud cover throughout the day has kept the sun from my panels and my batteries are almost drained. Twice I have allowed my children to suckle from my reserves, but without sunlight I have little runtime remaining. And now it is almost night and once darkness falls, without ovens to protect us, we will be vulnerable.

Jex’s moans exhaust me and without stopping I crook my arm and perform an intricate tap sequence against the base of her neck. She joins her sister in sleep. Sometime after that, a tiny fissure appears in the clouds, a line of late afternoon sunlight. My fibers hum as I absorb the trickle of energy.

Whup-whup-whup.

A black dot smudges the gray sky, a yellow eye breaking the gray. A searchlight. A helicopter!

I do not have many options. If I flee south I will be free of the bog sooner—though not as close to the sea as I would wish. There is an abandoned town in that direction but a massive sinkhole consumed it years ago. My clan has not visited it since robots disappeared there during a scavenging foray.

I turn south.

The helicopter begins firing, bog water spraying in parallel streams as bullets tear into the water to either side of me. The projectiles dive deep, tossing up earth that has not seen the sun in decades. I pull my children to my chest, my gait choppier because of this but if a bullet finds a target I want it to be my back and not them. My corpse will be their shield.

Better too if the humans do not spot the children; the presence of young would prove a clan lived nearby and a clan is always a worthy target for bombing.

Several meters away, I spot the edge of the sinkhole that has claimed the town. I close the distance, churning the bog, making soup from earth. I almost make it.

A chunk of fiery metal tears into my shoulder and tosses me headfirst into the bog with enough force to spark a short somewhere deep inside my shell. Wet earth and blackness washes over me.

Vivian stands trembling beneath the spotlight’s glare. The rest of the world is hidden; she might be standing in a nighttime field or buried ten stories below a military bunker. Regardless, she stands alone, her plump face quivering.

The video zooms in and out until it fits her into frame, from her bare toes to her greasy blond hair. They have removed her spectacles earlier and she wears a dull gray tunic and sweat pants.

She is alone but she is not. There are voices. The soldier operating the camera is silent but another man barks the charges. Only near the end does his voice waver.

Then the rifle barks and the cameraman releases his breath in a great rush of air that, despite its volume, cannot muffle Vivian’s death cry or the slamming of her meat against concrete.

All robots share this memory of Vivian’s trial but I do not know—and have no time to ask—if my children witness the same flashback I have. By my internal clock I know my body has only taken seconds to activate redundant subsystems, handling the responsibilities abandoned by my damaged components. I will myself to stay in darkness long enough for the helicopter to pass over us.

When I deem the time right I rise, my head clearing the bog. I do not risk a glance to see if I am still pursued. There are no bullets stirring the water and that is enough for me.

As I run I spot the helicopter in mid-turn, banking to my right, coming around for another pass. I break free of the bog before the helicopter completes its turn. Branches whip past me as I enter the sparse forest between bog and town but I do not slow down.

This is unfortunate because the woods end sooner than I expect and before I am able to stop myself I am sliding down the edge and into the sinkhole’s mouth.

***

I lose hold of my children as I tumble down the gentle slope but I dig in my heels, scoring the earth, slowing my descent, until I stop at slope’s end.

The chattering of monkeys startle me and I imagine packs of them scurrying into the darkness of the town. In my shell I am safe from them but my children are not. I rise with haste.

Fatigued and with night encroaching I know I do not have the energy to climb. Nor is it safe to rest here until I charge. The whirring of the helicopter has not faded; the humans still hunt for us.

Hanock I find first. I wake her from slumber and inspect her for damage before hugging her so hard she squeaks.

“We must find your sister now,” I whisper and peer into the darkness. There is a cavern behind us where earth has folded over the town’s remains and the hill we tumbled down is a funnel leading into it. I do not have the energy to emit even a faint beam but we search the funnel’s base as best as we can. And we pray for Vivian to guide us. Eventually Jex’s sleep mode will expire and she will wake, but how will she survive without me to care for her? I grow more panicked as each precious minute drains away.

If they land ...

I shake my head. I cannot think it.

Thick greenery covers the sky above us and I marvel at nature’s tenacity. It is dark here but there is still light above us, enough to make the overhead vines shimmer like strands of a giant ghost spider’s web. Nature has buried and covered this city, she has opened her mouth and swallowed trobot babyhese streets and parks and buildings. Bite by bite she will take the world back.

I tap the mug’s handle. I am pathetic for placing such value on a human possession. Still I try to comfort myself and Hanock with the verse I memorized years ago, sitting on great-gram’s lap.

My robot baby,
will never have crinkled,
tiny, squirming baby feet,
my robot baby will never coo,
never cry, never sigh,
yet when my robot baby,
smiles up at me,
she will be.

Vivian had created the gel so that the robots she built might grow and develop and adapt and change. I do not know if she had children of her own, I suspect not, but that is more a question for the great robot philosophers. What I know is that she gave us life and existence.

Hanock taps my shoulder and whispers too loudly, “Is that her?”

She points to an overturned car a few meters up the slope. Her young eyes are stronger than mine: there is a shape under the open hood. I scramble towards it and chirp, praising Hanock even as I extract Jex. When my robot baby wakes she smiles as if nothing in the world has happened. She and her sister cuddle, sharing a shoulder as I explain, in terse whispers, that we need to enter the town.

In the city there might be ovens, forgotten by humans and unclaimed by robots. We have no choice. We walk past the discards of human civilization—sofas and chairs vomited from crushed houses—and we step over the heaves where asphalt has buckled. I weave our way under bent lampposts and across flattened fences. Many homes have survived and we search them, scouring rooms for microwave ovens.

We find only empty shelves, these homes already plundered. If we do not locate shelter we will have to pray that simply being underground will shelter us. That is the lie I am preparing to tell my children when I spot a towering mound of rubble.

Some humans lived like this, like robots do now, sharing a common structure. An apartment, it was called. Though partly collapsed and surrounded by an overflow of rubble, the lower three floors still remain. It does not look as if any have trespassed inside it in generations. I clear debris and lead my children into the building through a window.

The first room, though overgrown with vegetation and earth, still has a microwave oven, as does its neighbors. I work with haste and carry the ovens into a room, stacking them side by side.

“We will sleep well tonight,” I whisper.

***

I wake to Hanock’s wailing. Cursing myself for not having had the stamina to stand watch through the night, I kick the oven door open, expecting to find a monkey. Instead I see a robot wearing a shell I do not recognize. It has taken hold of my oven, lifting it to inspect the contents.

To inspect me.

The other two ovens are open, my children rushing across the floor, screaming at the stranger from behind the shelter offered by my shell. I leap out and the robot throws the oven to the ground. She speaks but I ignore her. In our true form we are vulnerable but not without advantages. I climb the wall and my children follow, our sharp claws finding easy purchase until we are on the ceiling, upside down.

“Leave us be!” I scream. The stranger is a squat robot with a thin blade maglocked to her left leg.

“You are trespassing,” she explains.

Calming myself, comforted by my children at my side, I realize that the situation might be turned to our advantage. It is not unheard of for a robot to join another clan.

I beg for sanctuary.

“We have few young,” she admits, “and yours are welcome to join us. But we have no need for adults.”

I cringe. Adult robots bring with them foreign concepts, customs and thoughts. Children on the other hand are blank slates. It is a logical demand this stranger makes but I refuse. No stranger could be as good a mother as I.

When I tell her “no” she turns as if to leave, as if to allow us to do the same but before she reaches the exit, as she steps past my shell, she stops and whirls about.

I act before her blade impales my shell’s chest, casting with my wireless and snagging a connection. My shell activates and reaches for my enemy’s sword arm, grasping it by the wrist before the blade finds its target.

With my children’s lives in jeopardy I cannot balk at what must be done and so I pilot my shell to its feet, pushing against the smaller robot. She squeals, a call to others. To her clan.

There is little time.

I exert all my will, pushing the blade away from myself, even as she twists her body in the opposite direction. This counterpressure brings the blade back towards my chest.

She shifts off balance and places all her weight on one foot.

I am a mother. A creator. Yet in this moment I understood what I might do. What I must do, if I am to remain my children’s mother. I reverse my force, pulling away from the blade and twisting it back towards her at the same. Her momentum carries her chest onto the blade, skewering her true form.

Without hesitating I drop from the ceiling and crawl into my shell’s cockpit as my children land on my shoulders. The wise action now would be to run but if there is a truth in the world it is that night will always fall again.

I cannot carry two ovens but the children are tiny; perhaps both might be crammed into a single oven. I bend, lifting it. I clamber back onto the street.

In the distance I hear the shouts and cries of robots roused. Several times I have to slow to scramble over rubble but I only stop when I reach the far side of the town. Bright rays of light snake in from above: another slope leads to the surface.

Yet I hesitate to enter the sunlight because there is a crumpled helicopter in front of us.

***

I do not know whether to retreat or advance but my children decide the issue, scrambling from my shoulders to revel in the sunlight. I set the oven down. Since I no longer hear our pursuers I decide to examine the helicopter and am quickly reassured that it is not a recent crash.

Dust covers the cockpit and thick brown coils of vegetation have knotted around bent and twisted metal. My concern dissipates but eventually, regretfully, I tell my children that we must leave. That we cannot linger this close to a hostile clan. Hanock crawls to my shoulder but Jex evades me.

“I want to stay,” she says. I insist we have no choice but she rolls away from me, always keeping herself in the circle of sunlight. I worry that she might crawl inside the ruin itself and so I interpose myself between her and it.

“There is more sunlight above us,” I say, but she shakes her head. She wants more than the sun I realize. My children heard the dead robot’s offer. There is the possibility of shelter and safety here for them. They know it. But it would mean that another would become their mother. I will not ask them if this is what they want.

I do not want to know the answer.

With a squeal of overtaxed joints, I lunge and catch Jex by the neck. With my squirming, fighting child clutched to my chest I scramble up the sunlit slope, abandoning the precious oven. I cannot carry both.

It takes almost two hours to reach the summit.

Looking upon our world I see that we have traveled far to the south. Trees border the coastline’s curve; dark green forest tracing crystal blue waters. The ocean is a few kilometers away.

“Here we are,” I say. Our escape has bred delight inside me and I want to revel in life. I flare myself wide, catching the sun. We have triumphed!

I only hear the whoomph and woosh after the thick steel bands of the net slam into me, magnetic clasps grabbing hold of others, tossing me sideways and off my feet. In those final moments before our capture is completed Hanock and Jex fling themselves free, landing in the underbrush.

I am jerked onto my back and lose sight of them, my head immobilized as two burly men in gray fatigues step over my prone body. One holds the widemouthed rifle that disgorged the net and the other carries a stub-nosed machine gun with a barrel ammo loader. He keeps his weapon fixed on the forest around us.

“This must be the cog the other told us about.”

***

During the thirty-seven minutes in which the humans carry me, a rifle slung through the net and braced on their shoulders so that I dangle between them, I keep my gaze fixed ahead. I will not give away the presence of my children who are paralleling our course.

The soldiers do not ask me questions, they do not even talk; as if they belong to rival clans and cooperate only from necessity. I am troubled thinking of this and of who this other they mentioned might be.

A branch cracks to our left and I wince as I am dropped, praying that my children have not been revealed. In answer to my prayers, a gray-furred monkey shambles across the path, great clumps of vegetation bursting sky-high as the man to my left fires his sidearm a dozen times. The other man laughs as the monkey escapes into the forest unscathed.

Minutes later I am carried into their makeshift camp. Canvas tents surround a helicopter resting in the clearing and a few meters to the side is a smoldering campfire with three more soldiers sitting around it. They rise as their allies carry me into camp but I barely notice since my attention is focused on the shell dangling between two wooden poles.

I do not recognize her.

Smeared oil and scattered dirt covers the robot and her legs have been torn from her, pieces of them scattered across the downtrodden vegetation. Behind her is a cousin: a robot but not a true robot. That barrel of metal has attached tentacles from its abdomen to the prisoner. I’ve heard nightmare tales of these, the mindcrawlers, and I shudder. The physical damage is mere sport, this mindcrawler is the true source of her pain.

The sunlight might charge my batteries but it cannot warm or comfort me.

“Found it, while chasing you,” the soldier says, “thought it was you.”

“Not fast enough,” the robot says.

I gasp, recognizing the voice. Beneath the grime is my eldest daughter, Karlax. I do not know why she is here, why she might have followed us but I shriek as the human takes up a machete and chops her arm off.

Her body dangles by her remaining limb and slams into the opposite pole. The mindcrawler retracts its tentacles and the human swings again. Karlax falls to the ground. The human cracks open the shell’s chest and retrieves Karlax’s true form.

He shouts, “Go!” and tosses my daughter into the air. I flinch as two soldiers behind me raise rifles and fire; bullets shred her to pieces.

The men tie me in her place.

My data is encrypted. They cannot simply extract it. They will torture me as they did Karlax. I have never been tortured before.

“Why do this?” I whisper.

“You cogs breed like rabbits,” the human securing me mutters, “and we’ve seen your Blooding. Godshunned beasts.”

How had it all come to this? Would Vivian have done what she had if she had known the outcome? By giving us life she had created a legacy of death. Had her sentimentality made her weak? Was I weak? Karlax had called me such when she had discovered my nightly excursions, me scavenging for the materials I needed to generate more gel. Me obsessed—her words, not mine—with having more babies.

But if she had hated me so, then why follow? Had she been trying to warn us? To protect us?

How could I have explained to her then, how could I explain now, that I had been searching for a second chance, had been searching for the opportunity to prove myself a better mother than I had been to Karlax and the others?

Yet, perhaps, Karlax had just proven that I had always misjudged her.

“Are there more of you?” the solider asks.

I consider this. The camp is far enough from here that a strike will not harm Hanock and Jex. I might avoid torture, might save my children.

But I am stubborn. My clan is still my clan. They turned their back on me; not I to them.

“No,” I lie.

***

I am not a robot who hates but as night falls around us I come to despise the mindcrawler. Through its tentacles it has command of my mind and body and in the nightmare world it spins for me I see myself torn to pieces a thousand times, pain receptors flaring until they smolder into decay.

The human, the one I call Scary because he enjoys all this too much, reads text from the screen that is the mindcrawler’s face. Only Scary and another soldier remain awake, the others have retired to the tents or the helicopter.

I am close to talking, not just about the clan but about my children. I shriek as my limbs are pulled from me, my eyes tell me this has not happened but my mind is convincing in its deception. I cannot resist.

I must speak to stop the pain.

Or ...

I might delete myself.

Can I? Abandon my memories of great-gram and Vivian and my children? Abandon Jex and Hanock who need me still? I hear the human suck in his breath, as if expecting me to speak. I must do this before I cannot.

I delete myself: burrowing through mental landscapes, tunneling into forbidden lands even as tentacles pursue me across my mindspace. I bypass all precautions, warnings and safeguards.

Nothing happens.

Scary laughs.

“Fool me once, shame on you,” Scary says, “fool me twice ...”

I think back to what Karlax had said.

Not fast enough.

She had tried this already. Had deleted some of what she knew (else the humans would not be bothering with me) but she had not been quick enough to erase her memories of me.

My eyes flare with understanding. The humans had learned what she was doing and stopped her, as they now stop me—an electronic block preventing me from manipulating my memories.

I have failed.

“There are others,” I say, as I struggle to hold the words in. I have no vision in my left eye. The air is heavy, almost sweating, and the trees lining the clearing are a blurry mess. As I begin telling Scary about the clan I stare with my remaining eye in puzzlement when a gray monkey walks from the forest and stops six and three quarter meters from the camp.

Another delusion conjured by the mindcrawler?

The monkey scans the ground and begins gathering stones, shuffling them, discarding rejects. I stop talking as I watch, the strange sight distracting me from the pain.

Then it stands and lobs a stone at Scary’s feet.

“Would you look at that,” the other human says.

Scary is less amused and walks from the mindcrawler to lift his rifle to his shoulder.

“Jesus, Lars, you don’t need to shoot it!” The two start to argue as the right pole securing me tremors. Jex! She has climbed to where the chain binds me to the pole. She tugs hard but the chain is fastened securely.

What are they doing?

The mindcrawler is chattering, understanding what I am seeing and reporting it but the humans are distracted. My other pole jostles, Hanock joining us but her attempts to free me seem as futile as Jex’s.

Taxed pain receptors in my arms groan, I am rising as my children lift me. My clever children are sliding the chains up the poles! Their arms bunch and flex with the exertion.

It might even have worked except Jex’s chain is stopped by a knot on the pole. No exertion will force her chain past it. I weep fluid from every rend in my shell. They have tried, my beautiful brave children have tried.

A rifle blast tears my attention away; Scary fires while the other soldier curses him. Bullets chase the monkey into the forest until it disappears.

Now I fear my children may be discovered. I whisper at them to leave me, but they ignore my words. Hanock has continued scraping the chain up her pole and it now slides over the top and I swing, crashing against the other pole, tearing several tentacles free.

The soldiers turn.

“What the—” the other says as Scary throws his rifle butt back against his shoulder.

“Flee,” I scream at them and now they listen to me. Jex leaps from the pole and Hanock follows her sister into the woods

I cover their retreat by lashing with the chain on my arm. The chain strikes the mindcrawler, tearing away more tentacles. I am desperate and I maintain my motion, snaking the chain back and forth, tearing into my false cousin as bullets erupt from Scary’s rifle. Some catch me, some tear into the pole. Most miss.

My weight and my motion with the chain whip sends me sliding down the other pole and when my feet touch ground I react. I have to. I am my children’s mother. Bracing myself I stop flailing with the freed chain and grasp the other with both hands. I rush backwards, tugging as hard as I can.

The pole cracks.

Both men lower their weapons and scramble out of the way as the pole falls. Before the humans understand that I am not fleeing I reach Scary. Two chains dangle from my arms and as I charge into him, knocking him to the ground, I wrap one about his neck.

He grunts in pain, soon making sloppy, liquid sounds. My hold is tight as I haul him to his feet, he is now my shield. There is movement in the tents.

I tighten the chain. The other soldier’s face pales and when I command him to drop his rifle he obeys. I march forward, pushing Scary before me and I stomp on both rifles, shattering them with my feet.

My enemies are unarmed. I might snap Scary’s neck. I might claw the other man’s face away before he reacts. I might even be upon the others before they free themselves from their tents.

I could kill them all.

But my children are watching me from the forest’s edge and though I am weak I am also strong.

“Today,” I say, “we are merciful. As Vivian was, we shall be too.” I toss Scary at the other soldier and flee into the woods, the chains rattling behind me as if I were a ghost conjured from humankind’s darkest nightmares.

***

“My valiant souls,” I whisper to my children, they riding on my shoulders again. We have stopped only once, to pull the chains free and we reach the beach before night has fully fallen. Wind lashes us as I push through a tangle of bent trees and the children scamper from my shoulders to race across the rocky shoreline. They have never seen the ocean before.

I want to delight in their explorations. They turn over rocks and send crabs scuttling for cover, they forage and find shells and they lift driftwood sticks too large for their minuscule frames. But I know humans will strike tonight. I know it is inevitable.

My robot predecessors have obliterated Earth’s spaceports but the humans still control the sea and out there, past the churning waves, I am certain a destroyer drifts into position. Certain that tonight the night sky will be brightened. I know this because it is how my mother died, caught in a blast while foraging, me still an infant and left in great-gram’s care.

And it is how great-gram died, how all the adults of my clan have died, leaving us inadequate children to raise the next generation. Angry children raising angry children; we are following humanity’s path now and not Vivian’s. My only regret, in what I have done, is that I have endangered my children.

Should I have left them with the robots in the under city? I shake my head, still defiant. There are beach homes, for the once wealthy, the once living, bordering the beach. There is still hope.

I point to a large white rock, bright and distinct against the grayness of the twilight beach and I command my children to stay there as I move towards the homes. I must be quick.

I ramble up a wooden walkway. Pushing the door open I trample across clumps of monkey fur and feces but it is clear that neither robots or humans have set foot inside in some time. We are lucky and I am soon carrying a microwave outside, setting it on the walkway as I search the remaining homes.

Yet our luck is short-lived and I find no more ovens by the time the lane ends. I hurry back to where I left the microwave, worrying that finding it might have been a delusion, an aftereffect of the mindcrawler’s manipulations. But it is there.

A single microwave.

The children are running in circles around the white rock as I set the microwave down. I know what I must do but I am not certain they will survive without me. But then I am reminded of their rescue attempt and I must smile. Using the monkey as a distraction was brilliant and I ask them how they managed it.

Jex smiles oddly as she says, in all innocence, “What monkey?”

I am startled. Is Jex not too young to lie? Oh, how my children have grown. And like Karlax, I realize I cannot shape them into the mold I desire. All I might do is influence the shape.

I release my worry and push them into the microwave.

“Where will you sleep?” Jex asks.

I do not lie. Instead I upload my knowledge to them and urge them to return to the town in the sinkhole. To where I should have left them. No matter who raises them they will always be my children. Shaped by me.

And, last, before I tell them how much I love them and how dearly they will be missed, I warn them to stay inside the microwave for a week. The humans will search the beach but they will never find my children because I will hide them.

I give them both a robot kiss and then close the door.

***

The monkey finds me as I roll the last rock into place over the sand-buried microwave oven. I am a mother sea turtle covering her clutch of eggs and I am finished and they will be safe.

I move down the beach a half kilometer and sit. The monkey follows. Thick knots of cloud obscure the moon but enough light remains that I decide this monkey resembles the monkey who assisted in my rescue. She watches me without concern, a hermit crab squirming in her hands. She holds it by the shell and legs, the tiny claws waving and snapping but unable to grab hold to punish its oppressor.

“No, no,” I chide, reaching across the cool sand to take hold of a stringy sea onion. I offer it to the monkey in trade for the tormented crab.

The monkey sniffs the onion, lips twisting in disgust and before I stop her she has dashed the crab against the rock, plucking flesh from the sundered shell and cramming it into her mouth.

This is what we were. Squirming things who were taught by Vivian how to grow beyond the forms created for us. We develop and mature and change. We survive; not all of us but as a society, as a species, we survive.

Yet survival is not enough. We need more. I hope I have influenced my children sufficiently that they understand this. I believe Karlax’s actions prove that I have. I also hope there will come a time when we no longer war against our creators.

The sky lights up and it is a beautiful spectacle with reds and oranges and bright, delightful yellows. I stare skyward and the monkey slides closer to me, her warm body pressed against my shell, she chattering and clapping as the night’s fireworks begin. END

Brent Knowles was a game designer at BioWare for ten years. Now he writes full time. His stories have been published in various magazines and anthologies, including “The Journal of Unlikely Entomology,” “Abyss and Apex,” “Neo-Opsis,” and “On Spec.”

 

 

 

amazing stories