Aphelion Issue 222, Volume 21
October 2017
 
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The Orphan Hunter

by Lou Antonelli




It looked like a post-apocalyptic ruin. But it was only a crapped-up abandoned Texas truck stop.

Bob Tully carefully guided his rusting pickup through the scattered patches of weeds in the crumbling parking lot and pulled up alongside a shiny new SUV.

Both men got out, and they shook hands.

“Dom Tessicini with Mid-Tex Properties,” said the second man. Tully held out his hand.

“Bob Tully,” he said. “Great to meet you in person.”

Tessicini smiled genially. “I’ve never met an orphan hunter before,” he said. “Thanks for coming.”

Tully followed as Tessicini walked towards the shuttered store. “This place is being torn down next week to make way for a new highway exit ramp,” he said. “This is your one chance to grab anything you want.”

“I guess stuff’s been picked through before?”

“Yes, but there’s still at least a dozen abandoned machines left behind. Three or four candy machines, two soda machines, a newspaper rack, and one machine--I don’t know what it is.”

Tessicini opened the padlock on a fence and the men walked to a covered patio behind the dilapidated store.

“This was where the employees smoked,” he said. “We stashed the abandoned machines here.”

Tully began to walk along the row of derelict machines. Tessicini followed him. “I’ve never figured out why some businesses never reclaim their vending machines,” he said. “We made sure everyone got a notice when the truck stop closed.”

“Some vending businesses are so competitive a route manager won’t admit he’s lost a location,” said Tully. “Sometimes it’s easier to forget a machine than transport it back to the warehouse.” He tugged at the door of a newspaper vending machine. “Then they become abandoned, so it’s left to a guy like me to take the little orphan machine home, rehab it--and maybe sell it again.” He lightly pounded on the plastic front of a soda vending machine. “No use for these, too big and too complicated inside.”

He stopped in front of a waist-high machine that looked like a cross between a stainless steel drinking fountain and a Wurlitzer jukebox. ”Okay, I’ve been doing this for 35 years, I’ve never seen one of these before. What is it?”

“Damned if I know. I told you, I didn’t know what one of these was.”

“But these were all inside the truck stop, weren’t they?”

Tessicini pointed. “Not that one. We found it dropped off in front of the store a week or two after it closed. The guys doing the inventory just pulled it back here with all the rest of the junk.”

Tully scratched his chin. He grabbed the machine and tried to rock it. ”Damn thing is heavy, solid. I can’t see where it opens.”

“Oh, I tried to open it a few times. I got nowhere.”

Tully looked around it.

“Well, fuck, I don’t even see a power outlet.”

“You can haul it off for scrap for all I care,” said Tessicini.

“I suppose I will,” said Tully. “I like puzzles.”


* * *

Back in his workshop, Tully unloaded the candy machines and newspaper rack before he turned his attention to the mystery machine.

Balancing it on his hand truck, he guessed it weighed at least 200 pounds. Once he set it down on the concrete floor, he took a clean rag and wiped off the dust and grime.

He gave it the gimlet eye.

“This thing looks like it was an expensive piece of equipment,” he said to himself. He walked around it. “I don’t even know if it is a vending machine. I wonder if it is a stolen piece of equipment, like from a hospital.”

He rapped the colored enamel top with the “Shave-and-a-Haircut” rhythm.

“Somebody probably just wanted to dump the evidence, and that closed truck stop was as good a place as any.”

He rapped the top twice.

“Two bits.”

There was a loud snap as a door popped open on the side.

He peered around and saw an outlet. “Ah, now we’re getting someplace.”

He went over to a reel and pulled out a thick extension cord. He plugged it in and the lights dimmed.

“Sonofabitch is drawing a lot of juice,” he muttered as the room filled with the piercing whine of a capacitor charging.

Tully took a few steps back. “I hope something lights up,” he said, raising an eyebrow. “Because I have no idea what I’m doing.”

The whine stopped, and was replaced by a strong humming. The top of the machine rose up as armatures shot out from the sides. Beneath, shining alloy tubes pushed the body of the machine up like a jackhammer.

Tully fell backwards onto the floor, startled as colors began to dance across the shiny surfaces of the device.

At the top, a dome pivoted upwards and it took Tully a moment to realize it appeared as a human face. He half rolled over and scrambled to his feet. As he did, he turned away. As he jumped to his feet and looked back, he saw it had transformed into the image of a young woman, with panes of colored hair like stained glass, and a series of rectangular ivory-colored buttons across her chest. He staggered back up against a candy machine. The machine stood there, impassive as the hum diminished.

“What the heck are you!” he blurted out.

Her eyes opened. “I am a Wurlitzer Jukebox Recreation Simulacrum. Model 2300,” she said in an unnervingly lifelike fashion. “You may call me Wurley.”

She turned her head. “You look afraid. Have I done something wrong?”

“You’re a robot,” he said flatly.

“A rather outdated term,” she said. “You still speak in 20th century vernacular.”

Tully stood straight. “I can’t help it, I was born in 1957.”

“That’s irrational, that would make you 327 years old,” she said.

He leaned forward. “What year do you think it is?”

“One hundred and six, 2284 old style,” she said.

He took a step forward. “Are you dangerous?”

“Of course not, I’m an entertainment unit, I have no offensive capabilities,” she said.

“Well, you’ve been shanghaied, as we say in the 21st century. It’s is 2017, old style I guess, and I found you in a scrap heap.”

Wurley remained impassive for a moment. “I recall being deactivated at the resort I was assigned to,” she said. “I assumed I would be reactivated in a similar setting.”

“Is time travel normal where you come from?”

“Not at all. It is experimental at best, and highly dangerous--uniformly fatal to living organisms.”

“Well, somebody obviously time-traveled you,” said Tully, “and then dropped your deactivated self on the side of the road.”

“Thank you for reactivating me, then,” she said.

He slowly walked around her. “I can see the nod to the old fashioned record machines that were copied by your designers. So you are a music player of some kind?”

“Yes, I can dance, accompanied or unaccompanied, or remain stationary.”

“Is that all you do?”

“I am not designed to realistically mimic the human form, I am not dual programmable with a sexual surrogate function.”

She turned her head to face him as he walked around her. “What is your occupation?”

“I am self-employed. I’m called an orphan hunter. I search for and buy abandoned mechanical vending machines, restore or recondition them, and resell them. I found you in a lot of machines behind a closed retail store.”

“You were not aware of my function?”

“Shut down and shut up as you were, no, not at all.”

“If what you say is true, you are not familiar with models such as myself,” she said. “If this is the year 163 B.C., as you assert.”

“B.C.?”

“Before Contact.”

Tully shrugged. “Okay.”

He stood in front of her. “Now what?”

“In the absence of any other instructions, I should obey yours,” she said.

Her gaze shifted past him. “This is fascinating. All these forms of mechanical devices.”

He looked around, and looked back at her. “For a robot, you look almost…? Eager?”

“This is like a museum of my origins.”

Tully snapped his fingers. “Hey, many of these machines are broken. Could you help me fix them?”

She looked him in the eye. “I would enjoy that very much.”

“Then we can work together, and maybe somewhere down the line, we can find a clue as to how you got here,” he said. “I have some clothes inside the house left over from an old girlfriend.”

He smiled. “It will be good to have some company.”


* * *

A man and a woman with a floppy hat got out of the shiny pick-up and walked over to a man by a van outside a closed supermarket.

“You’re welcome to anything left inside,” he said. “We have two soda machines, a claw and grab, six candy machines, and out back on the loading dock, there’s some machine--I have no idea what it is.”

Tully glanced at his companion. From under her hat a bright eye gleamed, and she smiled.


THE END


2017 Lou Antonelli

Bio: Mr. Lou Antonelli has had 109 short stories published in 14 years, as well as three collections and one novel. He is a two-time finalist for the Hugo award and a finalist for the Sidewise Award for alternate history. Aphelion published his short story "Video Killed the Radio Star" in December 2008.

E-mail: Lou Antonelli

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