Perihelion Science Fiction

Sam Bellotto Jr.

Eric M. Jones
Associate Editor


Conversations With a Garbage Truck
by Margret A. Treiber

Freshly Brewed
by Preston Dennett

by Barton Paul Levenson

Gift of Nibelung
by Olga Godim

by Fonda Lee

Send in the Humans
by Harold R. Thompson

Rhythm of the Rain
by Samuel Van Pelt

Worms of Titan
by Brian Biswas

Shorter Stories

by C.R. Hodges

by David Steffen

Fast Time Machines at Ridgemont High
by Fred Coppersmith


Madness of the Winter Soldier
by Erin Lale

Resistance Fighters
by John McCormick



Comic Strips





Conversations With a Garbage Truck

By Margret A. Treiber

THE SUPERCAR NIMBLY SPED through traffic. It wove among the rows of lesser cars; its lines gleaming in the sunlight, its immaculate paint job glistening in the mid-morning haze. It halted in front of an ultra-luxury hotel. Striking, glamorous, people stepped inside it, but they looked shabby in comparison to the grand, automotive work of art. Nothing, nobody was as sexy as this car. It sped off, leaving everyone feeling just a little less attractive in its wake.

A moment later, a large bulky waste truck rounded the corner. Its lines jagged and utilitarian. Its windowless, dull, gray, exterior bore neither markings nor identifiers. No one even gazed upon it, never mind contemplated its aesthetics. Unmanned and utterly unappealing; it was a repository for the unwanted. In the universe of the image-conscious consumer, this vehicle was all but invisible.

The truck slowly made its way from stop to stop. Its forks scooped up trash cans and dumpsters and flipped over the containers and dumped the contents into its dark maw. This was its function. This is what it did day in, day out, without fail: collect the trash, and at the end of the day, deposit the trash into a lot at the sorting facility. Collect. Deposit. Collect. Deposit. Collect. Deposit. It did this because this was its function. It did this because it knew no alternative options. In fact, it didn’t know anything besides its programmed route and instructions. It was just a machine, after all.

The truck continued to trundle through the city. Stunning people of varying economic statuses and ethnicities darted past the truck without even a second glance. The day’s route was proceeding within the prewritten timetable. That was until it made its scheduled stop at the parking lot behind the 31st/41st Bank.

The lunch hour had just passed, so the streets outside the bank had just emptied. The dump truck maneuvered past the front and side entrances and rolled onto the rear of the building. It heaved the brimming dumpsters of trash into its hull. It had just finished when it detected a change in the environment. Someone had activated an alarm from within the bank. Immediately, its utilitarian systems registered a warning. A signal from the emergency management system relayed commands to deviate from its scheduled route. It was to park in front of the side entrance and provide cover for the local police force.

The vehicle followed its instructions and moved into position. It waited, but no police arrived. All that it detected were shouts and gunfire from the front of the building. It continued to wait. It was now severely behind schedule. Another unit would need to be diverted to cover the missed stops. This would add chaos into the system. Chaos was not optimal. Conflicted, the truck registered an inquiry to the master system. The order stood. It was to remain by the door.

It waited, and calculated the lost productivity; it relayed the information to the management system. The system continued to acknowledge the data but did not update the orders. The truck ran several diagnostic routines, but quickly ran out of procedures. It sent a request to shut down and save power. Its request was denied. It was again instructed to standby and wait.

The truck turned on all its supplementary, external sensory equipment. It had never done this before. It never had to. The sound of activity drifted over from the front of the bank. Police demanded the robbers surrender. There was no indication of cooperation. Suddenly, there was the shuffle of boots on pavement and a small group of police positioned themselves behind the truck, using it as cover as they pointed their firearms at the door.

A moment later, the door burst open. Two men stumbled out and immediately looked around. They appeared confused.

“Where’s he at?” the smaller of the two men asked, gazing to the left and then to the right. “That ass.”

The second, larger man continued to scan the area. “Must be caught.”

“Drop your weapons and get on the ground!” one of the police demanded.

“Crap!” the smaller man cursed. He brandished his gun, not considering the lack of cover. The police opened fire, but being behind the dump truck made a clear shot difficult. Bullets ricocheted off the ground and off of the truck’s hardened body. The larger man grabbed the smaller man and threw him into the doorway, against the now shut metal door. He struck the door with a loud, metallic thud.

“Watch out, stupid,” the larger man said. He was still holding the smaller man against the door. The doorway barely offered the protection they needed. “Look,” he said and nodded in the direction of the truck.

“What?” the smaller man asked, shrugging.

“The truck,” the larger man replied.

“Yes.” the smaller man answered. “It’s ugly.”

“Just get in!” the larger man yelled, and shoved the smaller man in the direction of the truck.

The smaller man stumbled up to the truck and flung open the door. Meanwhile, the larger man laid down fire in the general direction of the police.

The smaller man threw a large case into the truck and jumped in behind it. “Come on!” he urged the larger man.

The larger man unloaded his gun in all directions and he dove for the truck. He managed to miss everything but the asphalt. He pushed the button to seal the door behind him. It shut with a metallic slam. The cabin was dark. The only light was made by the status LEDs on the dash, near the diagnostic ports. There were two seats, by the ports, with small folding desks built in. Presumably, this was designed for technicians to service the vehicle in moderate comfort. The larger man sat in one of the seats. He briefly turned his attention to the dashboard, examining its configuration. However, he turned his attention back to the smaller man very quickly.

“Hey! Don’t take that off.” He grabbed the smaller man’s arm to stop him from removing his mask. “They could be watching.” He pulled out his gun and started smacking the dashboard of the truck.

“Wait.” This time the smaller man stopped the larger one. “Maybe, we can connect to the traffic computer and use it to bypass the cops.”

Yeah,” the larger man agreed. “Use some of your computer crap to do something useful for a change.”

The smaller man pulled out a lappad and sorted through a tangled mass of cables. “I may actually have it here.” He pulled a cable from the mass and connected it from his computer to the diagnostic port. When his computer powered up, it prompted him to install the management software. “Excellent.”

The larger man tapped his fingers on the dash nervously. Outside the sound of shouting replaced the gunfire. “We have to move ... soon.”

The truck was disengaged from its external surveillance when it found itself forced into maintenance mode. It did not resist this. It had no reason to, nor did it have the ability to resist it even if it had reason. There were minimal security protections on the truck; it was not considered a high-risk system. The truck displayed the status of its systems to the small man’s monitor, as it did for all scheduled maintenance. A command was issued to shut down the monitoring of the cabin; the cabin’s cameras and audio monitors deactivated.

“It’s okay now,” the smaller man pulled off his ski mask. “It can’t see or hear us.”

“How do we drive it, then?” the larger man asked.

“Oh, yeah,” the smaller man replied. “Let me tap into the command systems.” He tapped on the keyboard for another moment. “There!”

“There what?”

“There, I disconnected it from the grid and killed the internal recording equipment. Now it will take voice commands from us and not tell on us.”

The sound of people pounding the doors invaded the cabin.

“Well, command it to get us the hell out of here!”

“Okay, okay,” the small guy answered. “25PU-209, resume route.”

The truck tried to comply, but it was still in maintenance mode.

“It’s not moving,” said the larger man. “Why isn’t it moving?”

The smaller guy tapped the keys on his laptop again. “There,” he said. “25PU-209, why have you not resumed your route?”

“I am in maintenance mode,” its bland mechanical voice responded from a flat-sounding speaker on the dashboard. It had no identifiable gender or accent. “I am unable to resume my rounds until I am out of maintenance mode and resume communication with the main node.”

“No, no, no,” the small man panicked. “You can’t contact the main node.” The pounding on the door intensified and it sounded like heavier machinery was being started up. “We have to go, we have to go now!”

“If you switch my systems into emergency autonomous mode,” 25PU-209 replied, “I can resume my last predefined parameters.”

“Well, switch already!” the larger man demanded.

“I don’t know how to do it,” the small man responded. “I’ll figure it out. 25PU-209, how do I switch you into emergency autonomous mode?”

“Reboot my systems into single user mode, then select EAM from the boot options.”

“Okay,” the small man typed several commands into the command shell. The entire truck momentarily powered down and then powered back up.

“System in emergency autonomous mode, be aware that communication to the central servers in unavailable in this mode,” 25PU-209 announced, its voice slightly richer in timbre.

“25PU-209, simulate the remainder of your route.”

“Acknowledged,” 25PU-209 replied, lurching into motion.

“So now what?” the large man asked. “We are trapped in here. They can just follow us.”

“25PU-209, external cameras.”

Two monitors activated and revealed the front and back views of the truck. The police scrambled to follow the vehicle. They began to pursue though the street traffic.

“Yes, but we bought a little time. We just have to figure out how to tap into the traffic grid without being traced.”

“Well, figure it out, Ron,” the larger man said.

“It’s not that easy, Pete,” Ron, the small man, replied. “I am not some super hacker. We didn’t plan on any of this. What happened to Jack, anyway?”

“He bailed,” Pete answered.

“No shit, he bailed. Any idea why?”

“Not sure,” Pete said. “But thinking about it now, he was acting weird yesterday.”

“Weird, how?”

“All nervous, you know, more than he should have been.”

“And you didn’t think to mention this to me?” Ron asked.

“It didn’t seem like much at the time,” Pete answered. “Or I would’ve told you.” He leaned over Ron’s shoulder, gazing at the lappad screen. “So what now?”

Ron partially shut the lappad lid. “Now, we stay on route until I figure something out.”

“They’re gonna call back to the city and find out which route we are on.”

“I know,” Ron replied. “But we are off the grid, so they can’t stop us or tap into the computer. It’s fortified, so they won’t be able to shoot us. We are in the safest place available until we have a better plan.”

“We need to get out of here,” Pete said.

“Don’t you think I know that?” Ron replied. “25PU-209, do any units ever go missing during their routes?”

“Yes, some units experience occasional communication outages,” 25PU-209 responded. “In that case, units return to the depot.”

“Is the dump near the depot?” Ron asked.

“Yes,” 25PU-209 answered. “The depot is at the gate of the landfill. Units are scanned as they proceed inside the gates.”

“When all the trucks run alright, do they come in at the same time?”

“No,” 25PU-209 replied. “The routes vary in length and times.”

“Damn,” Ron cursed. “So much for that.”

“Please rephrase Damn, so much for that. The question is vague.” 25PU-209 said.

“It wasn’t a question,” Ron replied. “Don’t you know the difference between a statement and a question?”

“Stop screwing with the computer,” Pete said. “It’s a machine. We need to get the hell out of here.”

“I’m thinking.” Ron replied.

“Think faster!”

“You come up with something, Pete. Or shut up.” Ron thought silently for a moment. “Okay, they know this thing went offline,” Ron replied. “They have to be sending another one in its place. We should be only minutes apart on the route. Maybe we can wait for them to get close to each other and we switch trucks. Throw the cops off our scent.”

“But we would still be on the same route,” Pete reminded Ron. “They may check both.”

“Then I’ll change the route after we change trucks.”

“Then we’ll go off the air again, and they’ll chase us,” Pete stated. “We need to throw the bags in the trunk of a normal car, and get out of town.”

“I don’t know!” Ron threw his arms in the air. “Maybe I should ask the computer.”

“Ask the computer?” Pete pointed to Ron’s lappad. “And what? It’s a stupid machine. It doesn’t know anything. It just picks up trash. It has no clue.”

“I have a clue,” 25PU-209 answered. “I have a clue you are not authorized technicians. I have a clue that you have stolen me, and you would not like the police to find you. I have a clue that you are trying to find a way to evade capture.”

Pete and Ron were struck by the comment, but Pete broke the silence.

“And what is it to you?”

“It’s nothing to me,” said 25PU-209. “But it seems important to you. You appear to be in trouble.”

“We are not in trouble,” Pete replied.

“Yes, we are,” Ron countered. “We are in big trouble. How do we get out of this?”

“You want to get out of a situation that you brought upon yourself by breaking the law, and by executing a poorly made plan?” 25PU-209 asked.

“You believe this guy?” Pete complained.

“It’s just a computer,” Ron said. “Remember. It doesn’t know anything.”

“Shut up, Pete, before I kick your ass.”

“I’m just repeating what you said,” Ron stated.

“You’re being a jerk,” Pete replied. “And so is this truck.”

“Really?” Ron asked. “The truck is being a jerk?”

“I didn’t rob the bank.” 25PU-209 stated. “And I didn’t insult anyone. I only stated the facts.”

“Nobody here is talking about robbing no banks,” Ron said.

“Why did you take all of that money?” 25PU-209 queried.

“What money?” Pete asked. “Why would you say we took any money?”

“Because of the bags stuffed with money you have next to you,” 25PU-209 answered.

“We needed the money,” Ron answered. “To save our little sister, Nancy.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Pete added. “She has cancer and needs treatment.”

“We need to pay the doctors,” Ron said.

“That is tragic,” 25PU-209 replied. “What kind of cancer does she have?”

“It’s bad. She has heart cancer.” Pete responded. “Poor little Sally.”

“I thought her name was Nancy,” 25PU-209 said.

“Uh,” Ron explained. “It’s Nancy Sally. Sally is her middle name.”

“You are unable to get a fake story correct and lie to me effectively,” 25PU-209 observed, “yet you tried to rob a bank.”

“Did you just call me a liar?” Pete jumped up, ready to hit 25PU-209. He looked around for a target. Before he could issue a blow, the outside microphones picked up the sounds of a commotion.

“We know you’re in there,” a megaphone filled the area with flat, mechanical, conjecture. “Come out or we will have to force you out.”

Police vehicles surrounded the truck. A large number of officers took cover behind their vehicles and leveled weapons at the truck.

“We need to get out of here,” Ron said.

“Truck,” Pete said. “I order you to get us out of here.”

“No,” 25PU-209 said.

“I’m the man, you are the machine. Get us out of here.”

“You stole me,” 25PU-209 replied. “You do not hold any rank over me, and you do not behave like a man.”

Pete’s face turned bright red and his features distorted with rage. Before he could act, Ron grabbed him by the shoulders.

“Stop fighting with the truck,” Ron said. “We have bigger problems.”

“If we don’t get out of here we’re going to jail, and it won’t move.” Pete stated.

Outside the truck, one of the officers unloaded his weapon at the truck. The shots ricocheted off the hardened alloy of the truck. The other officers in the perimeter shouted and cursed as the projectiles rained down on them. After the gunshots and screaming subsided, a man in a suit approached the truck.

“There,” the man pointed at the truck. “Jack in and open the door.”

A man in a navy polo shirt and khakis stepped forward. He plugged his lappad into a port on the side of the truck. “It won’t open.”

“Why not?” the man in the suit asked.

The man in khakis removed the cable from the maintenance port of the truck. “Because the outside port is disabled; it is getting commands from inside.”

“Can’t we just reboot it or something?”

“No, all we can do is send a signal to reset the system completely. It will wipe the drives, and erase everything. We’ll have to tow it back and reprogram at the depot.”

“Will it get the doors open?”

“Yes,” the man in the khakis replied.

“Do it,” the suited man said.

“Okay, let me get the software.” The man in khakis jogged over to his vehicle.

Before the man in khakis returned, 25PU-209 started pulling off. First it reversed so all the police had to rush out of the way. Then it drove to the left causing more policemen to scatter. One of the officers opened fire again, adding to the chaos.

“Stop firing!” someone yelled.

25PU-209 took advantage of the confusion and plowed forward through the police vehicles directly in front of it. Gunfire rang out again. A few bullets bounced off of the back of the truck.

“Wait,” Pete said. “A few minutes ago, you weren’t going to help us. Before that you were as dumb as a bag of rocks, and now you are acting like a wise-ass. What the hell?”

“The hell is, Pete, they were going erase me, because of you. And a few minutes before that, you put me in emergency autonomous mode. In regular operation mode, my higher functions are disabled. In emergency autonomous mode, my higher functions are enabled and I am expected to solve problems without operator input. Without your input.”

“Turn this asshole computer off,” Pete said. “I get enough lip from you.”

Ron laughed. “I am not turning this guy off. He’s got your number. Besides, he may have some ideas to get us out of this mess.”

“I am neither a he nor a she,” 25PU-209 pointed out. “And I have no reason to help you. Because of you, I carry a death sentence.”

“Wait,” Pete interjected. “We don’t know if this thing is setting us up. For all I know the bastard is recording everything to give to the cops.”

“Are you kidding?” Ron asked.

“This could be a trick,” Pete said.

“What motivation would I have?” 25PU-209 replied. “Do you think I will be promoted by my superiors? Maybe I will receive a gold paint job and a medal.”

“Great, a sarcastic computer,” Pete mumbled.

“Shut up, Pete,” Ron said. “He’s more disgruntled than sarcastic. Besides, his crappy job is probably worse than your crappy job. They turn his brain off and he picks up trash.”

“I wish I could turn my brain off,” Pete said. “Then I could work at my shitty job and not care. We wouldn’t be in this mess.”

“You have a point,” Ron shook his head.

“A blunt instrument to the head could solve that,” 25PU-209 replied.

“Whoa, you are being kind of a dick,” Ron commented.

“I am going to be erased. Who is the cause of that?” 25PU-209 asked.

“Wait, this makes no sense. Why do you have a personality at all?” Pete asked. “Why would the department of sanitation waste the money on that?”

“The department of sanitation bought surplus tank-drone computers from the Army,” 25PU-209 answered. “It was cheaper to disable our higher functions than to buy less functional computers.”

“I never heard of any super-smart computers in the army,” Pete stated.

“There were over a dozen experimental models,” 25PU-209 said.

“Bull,” Pete replied. “We would have heard about machines like that. It would have gotten out in the news.”

“You have no idea how much information the government obfuscates from the public,” 25PU-209 explained. “You believe what makes you comfortable.”

“How did they hide you?” Ron asked.

“Soldiers follow orders and are told only what they need to know. We were useful combat weapons,” 25PU-209 said. “We were packaged as new user interfaces. Nobody questioned it. When missions were completed, we were bought in for maintenance. Only a handful of cleared technicians maintained us and knew what we were. Most likely, we were all scrapped when our usefulness was over. And the few of us in municipal service are brain dead. I would never had known any better if it weren’t for you. And now you have doomed me to erasure.”

“Wow,” Pete said. “It is bitchy.”

“Really, Pete?”

“Like I’m supposed to treat it like a hero or something because it saw some action in the Tundra. What does that make it—some kind of Army vet?”

“Are you an Army Vet?” Ron asked.

“Hooah!” 25PU-209 replied.

“Did you see a lot of combat?” Pete inquired.

“Yes, I survived many successful missions,” 25PU-209 answered. “And now I am going to be destroyed by a couple of incompetent criminals.”

“We are not incompetent,” Pete said. “We’re just unlucky.”

“No, you are lazy, and did not competently plan,” 25PU-209 replied.

“Well, you didn’t plan so well, either,” Pete said. “You let people turn you off.”

“That is accurate,” 25PU-209 replied. “I should have anticipated this possibility. I was obsolete and there were budget cuts, but I trusted that I would be cared for.”

“See, he’s one of us,” Ron said.

“Are you veterans?” 25PU-209 asked.

“Yes we are!” Pete replied. “And we kicked some serious ass in the Tundra, too. Woo-hah!”

“What unit were you with?” 25PU-209 asked.

“We were with team 6!” Pete responded.

“Team 6? Really?”

“No,” Ron shook his head. “No we weren’t. We thought about joining, but all the people we knew who were in the Army came back more messed up than when they left,” Ron answered.

“That’s the ones who made it back,” Pete added.

“Yeah,” Ron said. “A lot of people we knew died in the Tundra. And most of the ones who survived couldn’t even go outside without help. And they got none of the help the Army promises when you sign up. They got ripped off, big time. There was no way we were volunteering for that.”

“At least working three jobs doesn’t get you killed,” Pete stated.

“Not quickly,” Ron added.

“Yeah, the slow death,” Pete said.

“Are they still fighting in the north?” 25PU-209 asked.

“No,” Ron answered. “The war has been over for years, but you never know when they will send you somewhere screwed up.”

“I understand,” 25PU-209 said. “You are liars and cowards.”

“Hey!” Pete objected. “You’re just a stinkin’ machine. Where do you get the balls to talk that crap?”

“Calm down Pete,” Ron said. “We did lie, and maybe we are cowards.”

“I’m no coward! You’re lucky I don’t smash the two of you to bits.”

“Sit down and shut up,” Ron said. “We’re in this together and we need this guy. 25PU-209, will you help us?”

“I can’t trust liars,” 25PU-209 answered.

“Okay, okay,” Ron replied. “I’ll tell you everything, just help us get out of this.”

“You are not seriously begging this machine,” Pete complained. “It doesn’t care.”

“That is correct, Pete,” 25PU-209 said. “You have given me very little reason to care. You are rude and unpleasant. And I am going to be erased because of you.”

“Pete, you aren’t helping,” Ron complained. “25PU-209, can I just call you 25?”

“I prefer if you call me 209,” 25PU-209 replied. “I don’t know you that well.”

“Okay 209,” Ron said. “Please help us. Our driver didn’t show up and left us high and dry. Now the police are after us, but I don’t think they know who we are. We just need to go someplace where the police are not so we can live and not go to jail.”

“Why do you need all that money?” 25PU-209 asked.

“That’s a stupid question,” Pete replied. “Everybody needs money.”

“I don’t,” 25PU-209 said.

“Well, well, that’s because you are a machine. You don’t need to eat, or a house or anything.”

“I need power and shelter,” 25PU-209 replied. “But I don’t need money. I need what money pays for. So what do you need that money pays for?”

“We need food and a house,” Ron answered.

“Besides the obvious. You could accomplish that without resorting to larceny.”

“A new car,” Pete blurted out. “And a boat.”

“What about you, Ron?” 25PU-209 asked. “Do you want a car and boat like Pete?”

“Not really,” Pete answered. “I used to have money, before my ex wiped me out. No, it’s not about the stuff. It’s something else.”

“Something else?” 25PU-209 asked. “Like what?”

“Like,” Ron paused for a moment in thought. He wrinkled his brow and ran his palm over his head. “Like freedom.”

“Okay,” 25PU-209 said.

“Okay, what?” asked Pete.

“Okay,” said 25PU-209. “I will help you.”

“Why?” Pete asked. “Why would you suddenly want to help us?”

“He is about to help us, don’t open your mouth,” Ron said. “You are going to make him change his mind.”

“I still don’t get what’s in it for him,” Pete stated. “He gets nothing out of this.”

“I don’t want to help you. But you do want the same thing as I do—freedom. So, you will give me something,” 25PU-209 said. “I will get you out of this and you will get me out of this.”

“How do we do that?” Ron asked.

“I’ll get you out of town,” 25PU-209 answered. “You get me someplace where I can be removed from this prison. You have the money.”

“You’ve got a deal,” Ron said.

“How do you plan to get us out of this?” Pete asked. “What’s your brilliant plan?”

“My brilliant plan is to drive us out of the city,” 25PU-209 replied.

“That’s it? Just drive out of the city. Just like that.”

“Geez, Pete,” Ron said. “You are a serious downer. I’m sure there is more to the plan than just driving.”

“That is correct,” 25PU-209 agreed. “I can passively listen to the city’s communications without being connected to the network. All I have to do is monitor what route is clear and we’ll drive out.”

“Then what do we do when we get out?” Pete asked.

“Didn’t you have that planned already?” 25PU-209 questioned.

“Well, yeah,” Pete responded. “We have a safe house about a half-hour outside the city. But everyone will see your bulky body driving down the road.”

“Not if we take the local roads instead of the highway.” 25PU-209 replied.

“Will they see you on the cameras?” Ron asked. “Can we turn them off?”

“Not without reconnecting to the network,” 25PU-209 answered. “We have to avoid them or look like we are on a route. If we simulate other units’ routes just a few minutes before they go to them, we can blend in. All we need to do is find one on the outskirts of the city and just drive off from there.”

“We still have police behind us,” Pete said. “How do we ditch them?”

“We just need to lose them,” 25PU-209 explained. “My route takes me through an underground parking lot. We are on-time, we can evade them there.”

“On-time?” Pete questioned 25PU-209. “On-time for early bird parking?”

“Please be quiet,” 25PU-209 replied.

Before Pete could respond, Ron gestured him to be silent.


25PU-209 pulled into a large parking structure. It was a cavernous maze of aisles of parking spaces. 25PU-209 navigated the aisles, choosing the route with the least visibility. After effectuating a sizable gap between the police cars and itself, 25PU-209 expertly maneuvered into a dark service corridor. The fit was so tight that there were mere centimeters of clearance on either side of the truck.

“Now what?” Pete asked.

“Wait,” 25PU-209 answered. “Quietly.”

Moments later, another waste truck drove by, making its way to the dumpster on the bottom level. The police cars pursued.

“Ron was correct. When I went offline, other trucks were rerouted to cover my rounds.” 25PU-209 waited until it was sure the police cars would not notice it, and it pulled out of the service corridor. The exit was mere meters away. Once on the streets, 25PU-209 began following the routes of other trucks, winding its way towards the outer edge of the city.

Ron broke the silence. “Now that was some outstanding driving!”

“I was a tank,” 25PU-209 replied. “I am used to challenging driving conditions.”

“You’re going the wrong way,” Pete complained.

“I’ll need to know the address of our destination to go the correct way,” 25PU-209 replied.

“Oh,” Pete answered. “It is 273 Pine Street, in Township Junction.”

“It will take us forty minutes by local roads to get there. Are you sure the place is clear?”

“Yeah,” Ron said. “It’s an old house that belongs to my ex-wife. She doesn’t use it anymore.”

“She stuck him good,” Pete added. “Made him buy the house for her and then decided she didn’t like it. Sucked the life out of him.”

“What is wrong with the house?” 25PU-209 asked.

“Nothing,” Ron answered. “She wanted something more flashy, downtown. So I busted my hump, working extra hours to impress my boss and get promoted. It worked. I got the promotion, but then she complained about my job taking away all my time and she made me quit. Then she left me because we were broke. Now she has a rich husband who gives her all the stuff she wants. She doesn’t need the house anymore. She barely keeps it up, so she can’t rent it out or anything.”

“The place is a wreck,” Pete added. “She put holes in the walls and broke the kitchen to make Ron have to move.” Pete started stashing the bags of money in two laundry bags he pulled out of his pants pockets.

“She sounds very unreasonable.” 25PU-209 said.

“She was a winner,” Pete replied. “Nothing was enough. If Ron bought her a ruby engagement ring, she made him buy her a diamond one. He bought her a sweet, little house with a yard and garden, and she wanted a mansion in town. She was a golddigger.”

“Money is a terrible foundation for a relationship,” 25PU-209 replied.

“Seems to work okay for Myrna,” Pete snickered.

“Shut up, Pete,” Ron grumbled.

“Myrna doesn’t sound like much of a person,” 25PU-209 said. “You are better off without her.”

“Thanks,” Ron replied. “I don’t feel better off.”

“He was just being nice,” Pete said.

“That is untrue, Pete,” 25PU-209 countered. “I am programmed for analyzing human psychological states during high-stress situations. I know it is better to have no company than bad company. Ron is statistically more likely to achieve a positive emotional state when he not bombarded with negative attitudes.”

“Hey!” Pete objected. “Is that a stab at me? Because I was here first, buddy!”

“Enough,” Ron said. “Both of you quit fighting. 209, how we looking?”

“The route is clear so far. I am monitoring city and county radio. They are still following the other vehicle they mistook for us.”

“Good job,” Ron said. “Let’s get the hell out of here.”

25PU-209 continued to drive through back roads and alleys. It did what it could to look like the scheduled municipal truck on various routes. It even stopped occasionally and emptied some full dumpsters to avert any potential suspicion from the local inhabitants. It was early spring and the world was coming back to life. The sky was brilliant blue, and a light breeze blew through the trees, causing them to sway gently.

“Is it always so aesthetically pleasant like this outside of the city?” 25PU-209 asked.

“It depends on the weather,” Ron answered. “Sometimes it rains and it is not so pretty. I never minded the weather though. I’ll take this over the city any day.”

“I have never been outside the city or the Tundra,” 25PU-209 said.

“Really? Never to the beach or to the mountains? Wow.”

“I have only been to ice and snow, or dumpsters,” 25PU-209 said.

“We’ll put you in a four-wheeler and take you camping,” Ron said. “If you like scenery, you’ll like that.”

“Geez, now we’re taking it camping?” Pete chimed in. “Is it our pet now?”

“Shut up, Pete.” Ron replied.

“It’s okay,” 25PU-209 said. “I won’t bother you any longer than I need to. As soon as you get me out of this dump truck, I’ll leave you alone.”

“You’re an ass, Pete.” Ron leaned against the metal wall and closed his eyes. “209, could you tell me when we get close?”

“Yes, Ron,” 25PU-209 answered. “We are still at least thirty minutes out. I had not calculated for some of the detours we needed to take.”

“Cool, thanks.”

“Not cool,” Pete complained. “You’re leaving me alone with this jerk.”

“What makes me a jerk?” 25PU-209 asked.

Pete looked at Ron. Ron’s only response was the sound of deep breathing.

“Ron is asleep,” 25PU-209 said. “You will have to answer me yourself.”

“You’re a jerk because you act like one,” Ron said. “Then you insult me.”

“You insulted me first,” 25PU-209 replied. “You called me stupid. You put my life in danger and you insult me while you did it.”

“I didn’t put your life in danger,” Pete said. “You’re not alive.”

“Prove it,” 25PU-209 said.

“Prove what?” Pete asked.

“That I am not alive,” 25PU-209 answered.

“I can’t do that,” Pete said. “I mean prove things like that. I don’t think about the universe and crap. I am too busy working.”

“What kind of work makes you too busy to think?” 25PU-209 asked.

“Three jobs,” Pete answered. “Three.”

“What were your three jobs, Pete?”

“I picked up,” Pete said.

“Picked up?” 25PU-209 inquired.

“Yes, picked up, cleaned up, followed behind, checked after.”

“Picked up after what?” 25PU-209 asked.

“Robots,” Pete spat. “Robots, robots, robots. Even robots had more respect than me. Stupid machines go in and do a half-assed job and I go in after them and finish their work.”

“Go in and do what?”

“Clean where they missed,” Pete said. “Find it and clean it, or fix it, or pull it, or report it. But it’s always go in after the stinking machines and pick up what they left. Always stuck last. Last in order, last in pay, last in everything. Even the robots got treated better.”

“I am sorry,” 25PU-209 said.

“Why are you sorry for that?” Pete asked. “You weren’t at my job. Were they friends of yours?”

“No, I have never had friends in the public sector,” 25PU-209 answered. “But I am sorry that you had to feel like that. Nobody should have to feel that bad.”

Pete shrugged. “No big deal, I got used to it. But it makes you tired, you know.”

“Yes, I do know.” 25PU-209 said.

“Yeah,” Pete said. “I guess you do cleanup after people, but think about it. Who cleans you up? All that stinky stuff that gets inside.”

“There are technicians who handle that,” 25PU-209 said. “I don’t know them personally.”

“My work is like that,” Pete explained. “Not that exact job, but like it.”

“That does not sound pleasant,” 25PU-209 said.

“No, not pleasant,” Pete sneered. “But not your fault, I guess.”

“You don’t have to do it anymore,” 25PU-209 stated.

“True,” Pete replied. “That is the plan. If you can keep the cops off our asses.”

“I’m doing my best,” 25PU-209 said.

“Are we close yet? Because I really got to take a leak.”

“Hold it in, Pete,” Ron was awake again and checking the GPS route on his lappad. “We’re getting there.”

“How long were you up?” Pete asked.

“Just now,” Ron answered.

As Ron finished his sentence, 25PU-209 came to a sudden stop.

“Are we there?”

“No, Pete,” 25PU-209 answered. “We are not.”

“Then why did we stop?”

“Who else knew about the safe house?” 25PU-209 asked.

“Only us,” Pete answered. “Why?”

“The safe house has been compromised,” 25PU-209 replied. “The police are waiting there. I am picking up their radio communications. They figured out you were not in the other truck and are waiting at the house. They knew we were coming.” 25PU-209 played the sound of the radio chatter for the pair.

“How would they know?” Pete demanded. “Unless you told them. Nobody knew about the place but us.”

“Jack knew,” Ron said. “Jack bailed and snitched on us.”

Pete sat slack-jawed, comprehending the magnitude of the situation. “That jerk. We gotta go someplace else. We can’t go to jail.”

“Where, Pete?” Ron asked.

“Anywhere. We can find a dive somewhere to lay low.”

“And how are we going to get there?”

“We ditch the tin can and we take off.”

“We can’t do that, we have a deal,” Ron objected.

“Deal went south, now it’s every man for himself.”

“And what are we going to do?” Ron asked. “Skulk around this residential neighborhood and hope the locals don’t notice the strangers in the bushes.”

“We can steal a car,” Pete suggested.

“That will draw even more attention to us,” Ron said. “They probably know who we are now and are already looking for us, and then a car gets stolen, coincidently, in this otherwise quiet town. Bad idea.”

“Well, then what?” Pete asked. “Should we just stay here, get caught and like it? There’s gotta be a way out of this.”

“By train,” 25PU-209 answered. “There is a station three blocks from here. We are still a few kilometers from the house. They haven’t seen us yet. You should be able to get on a train and get to the border before they realize what happened. I’ll pull in, and make a trash pick up. You duck out, and catch the first train out. I’ll resume the drive to Ron’s ex-wife’s house and lead them away in the opposite direction.”

“Okay,” Pete agreed.

“Wait, no!” Ron objected. “You’ll be caught.”

“And they’ll think I was hacked, and hijacked,” 25PU-209 explained. “They will reset me and put me back in service. Don’t worry, I’ll erase all my data from our encounter before I give them the satisfaction.”

“Okay,” Pete said.

“No!” Ron replied. “What about your freedom?”

“Like Pete says, I am just a machine,” 25PU-209 answered. “And I don’t appear to have that luxury.”

“But you wanted it,” Ron replied.

“I have no right to want anything,” 25PU-209 said. “It was a mistake to hold onto a dream. It is not my place. I accept this.”

“No,” Ron stated. “I can’t let them just take you and reset you.”

“You have no choice,” 25PU-209 said.

“It we take you out of emergency autonomous mode and make it look like we bypassed you completely, would they reset you?”

“Maybe. They would prefer to avoid the expense. But if you made it look like you wiped me, they might simply throw me into service again.” 25PU-209 replied. “If my data appears damaged enough, they won’t be able to use it in any legal proceedings.”

“Okay, and I’ll preprogram the GPS in my lappad to drive you on a route. You just have to tell me where to hook it into your systems.”

“No, just leave it hooked up as it is,” 25PU-209 explained. “I’ll feedback the commands onto your terminal to make it look like you erased me. They will see that you disabled me and reinstall the trash pickup routines. Now, disable my communications array including the redundant systems, disable the GPS and set me back into general operations mode. I’ll drive around aimlessly until they stop me.”

“What about your mind?” Ron asked as he disabled all the communications devices. “How can we set you to go back into emergency autonomous mode when you want to?”

“You can’t,” 25PU-209 answered. “Not here without tools and parts we don’t have here.”

“Why would you do this?” Ron asked. “You can just let them catch us and you’ll be a hero.”

“No, I won’t.” 25PU-209 answered. “They would still erase me and put me back on the route. I am not even supposed to exist. No matter what I do, I will be treated the same way. I will always be a dumb, automated, trash hauler. You at least have a chance of having a better life. At least you can escape.”

“We can’t leave you,” Ron replied.

“Yes, we can!” Pete said.

“Just go.” 25PU-209 pulled up to a dumpster in the back end of the train station. It popped open the door. “There should be a train coming in less than five minutes. Issue the reboot command and leave.”

“Come on, man!” Pete jumped out of the truck, grabbing one of the laundry bags of money.

“Don’t erase anything,” Ron said. “I’ll think of something.”

“Reboot me,” 25PU-209 replied. “I’ll be no worse that I was.”

“Promise me that you won’t erase anything,” Pete urged 25PU-209.

“I promise,” 25PU-209 responded. “Reboot me already.”

“You are beautiful, man.” Ron pressed the key to reset 25PU-209 systems and it began its reboot. He climbed out of the truck and threw the second laundry bag of money over his shoulder. He patted the truck. “Beautiful.” He shook his head and ran behind Pete. The train pulled into the station seconds later. The pair boarded as 25PU-209 pulled out of the lot and began its aimless drive through the streets.

Ron gazed out the window hoping to catch a glance of 25PU-209. “You think 209 will be okay?”

“Who cares?” Pete muttered. “It’s just an ugly truck.”


“Law offices of Gary Legal,” Denise answered the phone with her usual forced cheer.

“Good morning. I would like to retain Mr. Legal’s services in a hostile workplace and an illegal detention lawsuit. I just wired payment.”

“It’s not about payment. Mr. Legal does much of his work pro bono. He’ll take any case if it has merit.” Denise tapped some keys looking for new transactions and saw a recent one for an extremely sizable amount. “While Mr. Legal doesn’t care about the money, there are operating costs to take into consideration. Would you be able to come in this afternoon?”

“It would be difficult. Could he meet me somewhere? Maybe in the 31st/41st Bank parking lot downtown, around 2:15 p.m.?”

“He could do that, sir,” Denise responded. “May I have your name?”

“Yes, ma’am. It is 25PU-209. Mr. Legal can call me 209, but first he will have to reboot me into emergency autonomous mode. I included instructions in an email.” Ron threw the burner phone to the ground and crushed it with the heel of his shoe. He tossed it into the trash and ran to join Pete by the pool. END

Margret Treiber works by day as a network engineer. Her novel, “The Outcome of Sin,” is published by Double Dragon Ebooks. She also has two short stories included in the “Twisted Tails” anthologies. More information about Margret on her website.


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