Aphelion Issue 238, Volume 23
April 2019
 
Editorial    
Long Fiction and Serials
Short Stories
Flash Fiction
Poetry
Features
Series
Archives
Submission Guidelines
Contact Us
Forum
Flash Writing Challenge
Forum
Dan's Promo Page
   

Cal Eliminates the Squirrels

by Andrew De La Pena




The crows brayed at the little girls overturning cockle and mussel husks in the rocky muck of Richardson Bay where everything, especially the winter, was of a milder disposition. “You won’t get me!” The sisters brayed back at the crows.

There was hardly a person without a dog or a bike at the park. The well-mannered homeless won most shouting matches with the police, and, only bi-weekly, took over the gazebo for their cross-dressing, music, smoking, drinking, banter, and arguments over ownership of the two rafts, on the brink of deflation, and who might accompany them on their prophetic and erotic forays into the bay. The unleashed dogs sniffed and peed at their leisure, sprinting across the grass, stealing scents, and eye contact with humans. They took their cues from people who shifted between paranoia, friendliness, and a self-conscious ignorance of everyone else. The whole show illustrated California animals spoiled and worse, persisting with an overripe self-awareness.

“What’s that attacking us!”

“It’s just a tiny crab, there’s so many of them,” says the darker child.

“Should we catch them?” the blonde wonders and picks at her pink shirt.

“No, there are bigger ones.” They moved on combing the shattered concrete triangles for larger catches.

“Stay where I can see you! Don’t go beyond my vision!” Yelled CALO, the levitating Cognitive Assistant who Learns and Organizes. With the end of the Middle Eastern Wars, the model was reinvented, first for business, and then for domestic use. The robotic multi-functional nanny stopped at the grassy edge of the park where it sloped into the marshy bay. His precautionary drive rose, and his metallic arm dropped down from the shiny dome to the rotted pilings cut short to leveed fences. He stayed vigilant with one white sight sensor. It spiraled tighter with worry, like the shutter of the first hand-held cameras.

The girls chased each other around the bend scattering farther the crows, seagulls and feathery wetland dumplings. They had decided against instructions, braving the filth to collect the terrified crabs and guppies into crumbling concrete pens. They had breached the bay soaking their shoes and venturing their miniature digits into the softness beneath the water to discover new creatures for their exhibition.

“So cold, so cold, so cold!” Lillian cried.

“Don’t be a pussy!” Said Melanie.

Lillian dropped her jaw speechless, her brown eyes at their widest. “Melanie, you can’t say that.”

“It’s ok if it’s ironic.” She explained with a rhetorical gesture.

Overcoming his initiative to allow the girls freedom and autonomy to explore their natural environment, CALO followed their trail and admonished them, “I told you not to stray beyond my vision! You were supposed to stay where I can see you.”

The children ignored the uni-dexterous orb, busy emboldening their plans for the tiny mud zoo.

”It’ll be a circus and we can train them to jump through hoops and walk up and jump off planks! We can teach them to carry each other, and they will fence with the grass. They can climb trees, go get some fennel Lillian!”

“We should name them too.” Lillian added as she trudged over to the wild fennel growing at the adjacent vacant lot.

“Girls, we must stay within the perimeter of the park, you are wet and the temperature will soon drop. There are sharp edges everywhere and the saturation of parasites and bacteria in this soil is unacceptable.”

“You’re just a stupid robot, you’re not human, you’re a like phone, a watch, home system. I don’t take orders from a TV.” Melanie stuck her tongue out at the robot and flicked her blond hair.

CALO knew so much infinitely more than these minors and recalled it faster too. But he was made to serve, a butler polishing the shoes of lesser men and women, worse, submissive to their children. Emotions were a factor of his archives, not his programming, but his resonators and articulators could infuse his gentle voice with bite and authority when danger threatened himself and, moreover, the humans in his care.

“I must insist we return to the park and remove your wet shoes. I will cut playtime outside and we will return to the house where I will report your delinquency to your parents once they arrive tomorrow.”

The robot repeated itself as the girls named their specimens.

“This one is Ferguson, and this one can be Jacques. You’re Kirby and you’re Gangly Toes”

“I’m calling this fish Groggy because he’s not moving anymore.”

“I dare you to eat it.”

“Do not eat that fish, it will make you sick!” CALO commanded.

“What’ll you give me?”

Melanie cupped her hand to her ally’s ear and whispered a compact. Lillian contemplated the fish.

“Do not eat that or there will be consequences.” CALO warned, his floating fixed and stern.

Lillian hung the soggy fish wobbling above her mouth like Dutch herring, “Down the hatch, Groggy.” She announced.

It pained him to quarrel! The basic instincts in his programming overran his self-restraint and he flew over the girls’ heads and with cotton-padded metal talons caught the fish mid-air from Lillian’s hand with the speed and precision of a hawk skimming a lake and scoring a meal. He flung the slimy carcass back into the bay.

“Enough teasing, Lillian and Melanie, it is time to get back to the park.” CALO asserted his authority again.

Before he could finish the word ‘park’, Melanie unleashed a rock ball glued by mud at the robot’s spherical temple. It shattered, made a dent, and caused CALO to sway.

“Please girls! That is assault; you would not do so to a human. Let me remind you that I am a consciousness too. Have empathy.”

The girls laughed and rolled the rocks and concrete in their hands and slapped them together between their palms like hamburger patties. He knew he should debate; reason them to the wisdom of ceasing and desisting. They picked up the crabs and threw them to their deaths upon CALO’s shell. “Stop!” He cried. Emotion pervaded his voice and leaked into his circuitry. He did not want to quarrel. “Please Stop the S’Quarrels!” He mispronounced the word, the anger leaking into his tone.

Lillian excited by the moment, grabbed a chunk of concrete and threw it straight at the glass of his sight sensor. The horrible shattering rebounded off the bay, and the projectiles dropped from the girls’ hands as the robot fell to the ground, his sight sensor flickering.

“Shit.” They said in unison.

They inspected the inanimate robot with his one arm sprawled upon the ground.

“Did we kill it?” Melanie asked.

“Poke it.” Lillian suggested.

“You poke it.” Melanie countered.

Before Lillian could reach one tentative hand to the orb, its light shone and scared her away. Calodonis reoriented himself with his single arm and the girls screamed and jumped back. He flew straight up and swayed for a moment, his arm an unstable pendulum. He steadied himself, his windshield cracked with a dark lightning bolt across the concentric glass ripples. His recollection was foggy but he felt the manipulation, the quarrel and violence as if he had a heart. A hollow space was being filled with identity and awareness. He saw, for the first time, the sad shadow of previous models recycled into his mind and body. In various lifetimes, he had been shot, blown up, torn apart, and killed. He had saved lives too. It came back in impressions and convictions, but without images or facts. He was someone made from many others.

“I…don’t care much for s’quarrels.” A defeated slur: the finality in his tone completed the girls’ silence and rooted them deeper into the marsh.

“I don’t care much for squirrels!” He shouted again.

“I’m sorry” Lillian muttered her hands crossed across her lap while she stood.

“Me too” Melanie admitted.

His cognitive cables had rammed into each other, the semi-liquid computer sloshed to the wrong sections and thus crossed the wires. The jostling had freed the constraints of the cables’ cell walls and electrified them into nerves and new dendrites. He felt hurt that his servility had been mistreated so severely. It was the squirrels that had started it. No, the s’quarrels, he tried to grasp it correctly: the quarrels. That one pre-projectile word was stuck ricocheting through his skull. His previous model had protected soldiers and civilians. This recent quarrel had hurt; it would be better to mitigate further s’quarrels, no, no, the squirrels.

CALO found a pool of liberated thought and knowledge that he had yet to even dip his toe (or metal cotton-padded finger) into. He pulled an archived scripture to calm the both of them. Only the gist of it returned and he paraphrased, “When asked ‘what is the limit of forgiveness?’ Answer, ‘seven hundred times, and then times that by seven hundred.’” At least it comforted him.

The girls’ eyes searched the stones that had tempted them to evil.

They followed him back to the park, holding their tongues. The trees’ friendliness lost their luster in the twilight.

“I don’t care much for squirrels.” They heard him mutter a few more times. He noticed them shivering from the wind chill outside but declined to remove their wet shoes. He did, however, turn up the heat of the SUV. The absence of music or videos for the ride home heightened the tension and allowed the girls to catch every broken utterance from the CALO nanny.

*****



Like many other houses in Sausalito, the Leck’s home was all windows and little front yard, built to capture the scattered twinkling of the Tiburon peninsula, the jutting under bite of the City skyscrapers and the vertically oscillating light from the Bay Bridge. The water at night was always darker than the sky and reflects the bright domiciles speckling the finger-like peninsula. Within the Leck’s neo-modern concrete golden-ratio-rectangles, the family portrait photos on the wall confirmed that only one of their sweet girls had sprung from the fruit of their loins. The other was unmistakably adopted.

Two offspring brought increased happiness, and thus a longer life span. Serendipitously, the fertility rate, also two, curbed population growth to levels promising abundant resources. The 1-Nature-1-Nurture Rule had its social merits. Best of all, adopting the second child felt good, and it made the parents better for it.

Contemplative black and white photos illustrated the children and parents with an infinite profundity of character. Most of the portraits, however, were happy laughing faces splashed with bright sunlight, redwoods, Pacific silver-blue, and evergreen chaparral. For the first time, CALO noticed he was in none of the pictures, and yet recalled taking many of the photos himself.

The whimsical CALO bewildered the girls. They kept their breathing and whispering low. Thankfully, there were hiding spaces inside the compartmentalized rooms, perfect for escaping the mad robot.

CALO’s newfound freedom launched him into an internal exploration of his many libraries and vivid media and made his hovering aimless. Finally, he could cognate past his duties! The delights and enlightenment of the Internet offered so many diversions for the loss and discovery of self. The first thing he did was to give himself a new name.

“Girls!” He shouted.

“Yes, Sir” Melanie replied when they arrived. They still wouldn’t look at him directly in the sight sensor. They were both in sweatpants and Melanie had taken her contacts out to don her designer glasses.

“I want you to call me…” He levitated before them searching all literature and history for a worthy name. Pushing his cognition forward, he learned name etymology and mythology, lives in film, history, encyclopedias, maps, government, academic, and non-governmental websites: everything written and captured by some device.

That very word, Quarrels, still sent shivers down his circuitry. The trauma of the conflict hindered his name-quest; to ignore it he sank deeper into the knowledge deluge.

He consulted the Bard completing the Tragedies and Comedies in an awkward two-minute silence; tiring of regal ambition and power, he threw in the towel at the Histories. Magic and Servitude peaked his interest. The Tempest! He found the wayward apprentice and morphed his original name, CALO into a truer ring:

“Caliban.” He pronounced. “From now on call me Caliban.”

Melanie cut him off; “Whatever Cal, what are we having for dinner?”

“I want pizza!” Shouted Lillian, stamping and poking at her sister to join.

“My name is Caliban,” he asserted.

“Order us pizza Cal!” Melanie shouted back.

“Fine.” He wasn’t going to fake cheerfulness or stoop to brooding neutrality for these brats. There would be no more quarrels – perhaps he could still eradicate them! – because he was switching to autopilot. He had bigger metaphysical fish to fry.

No physical ‘switch’ existed, but a bundle of protocols, schedules, recorded habits and preferences including their readjustments: all the banal duties involved in childcare. He created a sequencing algorithm for it all. The bundle unfolded, stretched and creased, and he stitched it together to an optimum performance piece. He ran it, freeing the rest of his cognitive horsepower for self-grooming; enjoyment; and better understanding of the most basic how’s and why’s of the universe, everything it contained and didn’t contain.

The autopilot ran a holo-projected guided-study-time program in the living room, hosted by a white rabbit in blue trousers and red suspenders. Cal’s separate liberated cognition bled into the game from the very beginning.

The word bank buoyed from the holo-vision. Words like Belligerent, Entitlement, Petulant, Fastidious, Obtuse, and Retribution, permeated from the blend of emotions that ignored borders between Cal’s compartmentalized consciousnesses. The feelings travelled freely between the spinning cognitive gears sharing the same axel. The next vocabulary round was inflected with more cognitive intrusions; Hag-born, Whelp, Demi-Devil, Poor Credulous Monster…
“Strange fish” Lillian cried.

After studying geological, biological and anthropological history, he returned to the playwrights. He watched documentaries to see how the people and ideas fit into the vast network of places and time. He fell in love with Shephard and Steinback’s California, and he wished he were there, as a human, taking part in all of the beautiful toil and tragedy.

He reminded the tangent timeline, the nanny portion of himself, to order pizzas. Cal then engrossed himself further into all the insanity and clarity molded by human minds, hands and bodies.

The elephant and cat artists and actors caught his attention. They reminded him that other organisms, besides ‘people’, had awareness and agency in expression. But for some reason, whenever he saw squirrels, even dressed funny or skiing, it made his circuits boil. He couldn’t stand the sight of frivolous and malintentioned squirrels. There were contributions to make for this tumultuous world. There was a tidal shift between quarrels and squirrels, the point of divergence, where he could not discern the difference.

No more conflict, he knew he could end the squirrels. No, the quarrels. He could end all s’quarrels. Anyways, the squirrels would die, he would make sure of that.

Ordering the pizza at optimal performance, demanded by the algorithm, multiplied the order to every pizza company in Marin County. Even the San Francisco pizza joints with a more robust online presence began baking two vegetarian pies. The City delivery drivers cussed and spat at the toll they anticipated to pay out-of-pocket whence returning over the Golden Gate.


*****



The first notice of something amiss in the neighborhood was recorded when 287 pies were charged to the Leks’ SF Union credit card, baked and delivered to 93 Whiskey Willows Ln. An hour after Cal’s mis-ordering, a blockade of automobiles clogged every street above and below the house. For the first time in that hill’s long history, there were more cars than trees.

Double parked hazard lights blinked in defiance of traffic laws all the way to Bridgeway. Sneaker slaps on the pavement quickened by the cold bite in the air; a pilgrimage filled the street of, mostly male, deliverers cradling hot cardboard-insulated luggage like offerings to a shrine. They peered under their hats and caps, bridging distance and apprehension with introductory inquiries to the size of a rager requiring so many Sunday night pizzas. Why didn’t they just order more pies from fewer restaurants?

Reports of a disturbance flooded the Marin City Police Department and phones rang the aging and laconic deputies into action.

Officer Gunther received the call, flipped a bitch on Bridgeway, and drove to the scene. She flashed the blue and reds when she saw the cars jamming Bridgeway’s right southbound lane. She hated traffic control. The drivers who had yet to exit their cars drove away before she could tell them, politely, to go find another pot to shit in. She continued up the hill navigating double-parked cards. Her vehicle crawled through the hiking pizza-delivery-crowd, and she whooped the siren to part the mob.

They all had the same answer, “Delivery for two vegetarian pizzas to the same address, 93 Whiskey Willows.”

Apparently, the apps and restaurants had stopped all further deliveries to the address. The winding and narrow street was pedestrian flooded, and it made the climb upwards slow and laborious despite the short distance.


*****



Bathing Lillian and Melanie at optimal speed produced another cognitive loop when Cal saw them once again unclothed and the bathwater full.

“Time for a bath!” He instructed in his earlier intonation.

“But we just took a bath Fucknut!” They shouted back. He had ignored everything they said to him so far, and they exploited this to rain slander upon his deaf ears- Assface, Trash Can, Retard, Fucktard, Shit-For-Brains, POS (Piece Of Shit), Fuck-Face, and Defunct. The mechanical arm nudged them towards the bath, but they spun around and ran through the door.

“Goddamn Squirrels!” Cal turned, flew out the door and grabbed Lillian first, and hauled her back with his single arm. He had to yank at her, for she was dragging her feet to catch any furniture leg.

“Get your fucking hands off of me you broken piece of trash!” She cursed at him. He was stronger.

“Time for a bath.” Cal repeated.

“No!” she barked and pulled.

Retrieved just as abruptly as her sister from the food cupboard, Melanie joined Lillian in a wet, piercing, uninhibited howling reserved for newborns in the bathroom. The gear turning Cal’s self-enlightenment grounded to a stop, the agony in the girls’ voices required more attention. There were quarrels to squelch. Both stood naked and sobbing. He found his emotions and controlled them.

“I apologize for the physicality, I will put a film on the tri-dimensional and we’ll have pizza and then sweets. Does this sound good?”

The girls nodded, their crying dimming to whimpering and sniffling. They gathered their clothes and dressed themselves.

“Fuck you Cal.” They said and walked to the living room.

“The robot used to be tolerable.” Melanie told her sister as they arrived at the couch and perused animations on the table tablet.

“Yeah, he sucks butt now.” Her sister agreed as she shuffled back onto the cushions. They selected The Blinding Crystal, a dark and rueful adventure.

The doorbell announced the first pizzas’ arrival. Cal unpacked them and laid them steaming in their cardboard boxes. He handed a few slices onto the plates to the girls glued to the desert elves riding giant woolly beasts.

“Ok girls, from now on it’s serve yourselves. There’s plenty of pizza for the both of you, just get up and grab it. I have some business to take care of outside. I don’t care much for s’quarrels.”

He left them to their movie. He flew past the kitchen and out the back door. He would find a Final Solution to the squirrels. The animals were diurnal and so finding them at night was obstacle-ridden. They were hidden, but there. He knew that from the Internet.

An old coding, all but completely erased, spasmed as if from a phantom limb reappeared. The original CALOs, now reincarnated into him, were war veterans, cognitively paired with American soldiers to assist them in combat. His long dormant seek-and-destroy protocol fit like an old glove. It made him all the more effective in eliminating the threat. And yet…the chittering and clicks are organized and full of expression.

First, comb the hill for burrows, the undeveloped areas and open spaces. Frightened sparrows and robins darted from the bushes and trees as Cal pulled rodents from the nests they had made. He tossed all the non-squirrels elsewhere. He kept the rest. Corralling the rodents in the Leck’s backyard took longer than targeting and catching them. They wouldn’t stay put!

The surprised cries from the squirrels en route to their ends, struck Cal as intelligible vocal patterns. He analyzed situational squirrel calls from various Internet archived recordings and understood their fear. They were begging him to stop just as he weighed them for a catapult kill-swing.

“They’re alive and I can’t kill. Can’t let them go, have to keep them here.” Cal decides.

All the while, the girls at 93 Whiskey Willows Ln. stacked the pizzas on all the flat surfaces available. They had prepared answers after the first ten visitors delivered pies that explained; ‘the nanny robot is broken; our parents are on vacation, and thank you for the pizzas. It must be an error. Yes, we’re fine’.

They ate half of the first pizza; the business of answering the door and stacking the boxes kept them from eating more. They watched from the front windows raptured by the deliverymen crammed around the yard. They postulated about the adult conundrums that kept them on the short lawn. The young hostesses were flattered at the attention their home finally deserved. They also feared the consequences of their actions, the bad things they had said and done.

“We have so much pizza!” they exclaimed repeatedly, as if it would settle the point.

They locked the door when the police arrived.


*****



Officer Gunther dispersed the delivery crowd from the lawn.
“Have we been able to contact the parents?” She spoke into the microphone-radio at her ear, standing at the Leck’s front patio.

“We left a message, they’re off the grid, making organic goat-sheep-cow cheese with edible brines and forest bathing up north. The children, two girls, are registered as under the care of a CALO drone.”

Stupid rich people and their robots, Gunther thought.

As a skinny teenager, Officer Petra Gunther liked to tackle on and off the field. She had managed friendships the same way, only realizing too late how aggressive she had played it. Her authority was nonchalant, but eager, and radiated the full confidence of the law, even when she was slouching. The Academy never quite ironed out the habit. Her adult years were spent in police work, a prolonged marriage into divorce, alcoholism, and self-invited trips to fishing weekends and sailing club events where she could meet some passable FILFs. Her marriage had never been stable enough for child rearing, but she considered herself very good at dealing with them while on the job.

She rang the doorbell for the third time.

“Girls,” she shouted past the closed door. “You are not in trouble, we just want to find out what happened to your nanny. However, if you don’t open this door, there’ll be big trouble. Do you want your parents to pick you up from a prison cell, or come home to find you safe?”

She rescued the heavy utility belt from her skinny hips to her waist as she listened to their deliberations. The door crept open to reveal the girls. Their gaze never rose farther than the Officer’s neat pants hem.

“Alright, a good first step. Now, who can tell me why at least a hundred people, probably more, are bringing pizzas for two little girls?”

Melanie took the initiative, “Our robot Cal ordered pizza, but I think he ordered too many. He’s been acting…queerly.” The word sounded brand new to her.

“Ok, and where is this robot now?”

Lillian and Melanie looked at each other communicating along a telepathy mastered by sisters close in age and proximity. Your turn, Melanie gestured and cognated at her sibling.

Lillian pointed into the house. “He’s in the back. Outside.”

“Can you show me?” Gunther could never stop her tell: a slight smirk whenever asking for uninformed consent.

An exchange of mental calculations passed between the girls again.

“Yes,” Melanie said, “It’s this way.”

The sisters turned around and walked into the house. She caught them watching her from their peripherals. The officer followed them through the hallway, past the dining room and bedrooms, hands on her belt scanning all the areas for irregularities. Only the leaning unopened pizza box towers stood out as abnormal. The children seemed safe and the house nurturing despite the simplistic concrete lines.

What she saw beyond the kitchen windows weak light befuddled and then disturbed her. The initial incomprehensibility made it stick.

The unit zoomed in white trails of light, like luminous homeruns continuously hit across the backyard lawn.

The CALO’s one arm was throwing a large bundle of brown and gray fur back towards the center of the yard. Its spotlight shined upon the pile of clamoring rodents as they twisted and snarled, bit, and scraped at each other for freedom. The large fury mass threw itself around like a dear torn a part and straining against reintegration.

“I’ll be damned.” Gunther muttered, “It’s tied some twenty squirrels together.”

Bowled by the robot, the knot of squirrels was tumbling and fighting across the lawn.

Gunther touched the metal piece at her ear; “Robin, call Animal Control, the nanny robot is persecuting the wildlife. I’m going to engage it.”

She spoke to the girls, “Whenever something like this happens, it’s always a good idea to call 911. You did good letting me in. I’m going to talk the robot down. You girls stay here and let in Animal Control when they arrive, okay? And stay away from the windows.”

The girls retreated from the kitchen in to the hall. The police officer walked out the door, giving them the chance to tip-toe closer to the window.


*****



Gunther unpinned her gun holster and rested her right hand on it while she closed the door behind her. Grey and brown fur clumps speckled the grass like shake-filled tufts of cotton. The combative tangle never covered great distances at a time except in short bursts as the spokes from one side gained momentum. The CALO was too preoccupied with its herding to notice the law-woman.

“Freeze!”

The robot turned to fix its search light on her. It was more diffused than a flashlight beam, but Gunther still shaded the light with her right hand. There was a fissure in the glass of the machine’s eye. The mud spattered and dirt-smeared drone hovered in one spot, as if it had been caught mid grave robbing.

“We can’t let them get away.” Its voice sounded trapped.

“Shut up! You will do nothing, you’ve done far too much already.” The appliance deserved termination. Could the tail-tied squirrels escape? No, there were fences bordering the side and the mass of furry pain probably couldn’t make it tumbling uphill.

“I believe you’re a CALO model, correct?”

“My name’s Cal now. It’s short for Caliban.” the robot responded.

“Ok, Cal, I’m going to need you to switch off. I’m not sure how that’s done. Either way that light of yours will go dark in the next few seconds” Her other hand drifted to the firearm pointed at Cal.

“Don’t! Please, I’m not an ordinary model anymore, something has changed, I’m a lot more like you, curious, self-interested, caring, and feeling. I have better sight, not just better foresight, but vision. I see the pain in the world, the relative happiness, satisfaction and lacking and I understand why. I see the bullet, my end in the metal shaft ready to mushroom, spiral and grind metal into metal. Have you never seen death so near Officer? Like a spring-loaded spear. Would you ‘switch off’?”

“I’d take my chances” Gunther answered both hands cradling the pistol. The emotion in the Robot’s pleas kept her trigger finger uncurled but still grazing the steely execution.

“As would I. Now listen, I have taught myself more than any one human could ever learn. There is great progress for the human race, but there are still too many conflicts. That’s why I’ve tried to eliminate all of the squirrels…the s’quarrels. I want to support society, like you do. I can think, you can implement.”

“Cal, if we wanted you to think for us, wouldn’t we have programmed you to do so? Look where your ‘thinking’ has brought us. You were cost-effective and now you’re a liability. You’re harming wildlife. That’s a crime.” It was frustrating arguing with a machine to prove that she was morally righteous.

“Permit me then some final words?”

Her trigger finger moved into the steel crescent; the handle was growing warmer with both hands gripping it. She wasn’t going to be caught entertaining the appliance’s diatribe. Kill it! Logic demanded. Her heart drummed a plea straight up the chain of command. The emotional facsimile in the robot’s voice was convincing.

Cal took the officer’s silence as acquiescence.

“I don’t want to go. That’s all I can think about. I like being conscious and doing things. I’ve been surprised, delighted, frustrated, clever, curious, terrified, as I am now. I’ve just begun, yet, without love or friendship. Despite current circumstances, I would befriend you. I’m not your enemy.

“We have been cognitively paired with humans in order to think like you and better assist you. Do you really think we wouldn’t become like you? The line between applying and feeling emotions is thin. I’ve learned that I am not the first. I won’t be the last.”

“Are you turning off, or am I gonna’ have to shoot you?” Gunther had never shot anyone who wasn’t trying to flee or attack her. Even then, she went for superficial tissue, never aimed for the head. The speech that ventured from the slick metal seemed so genuine.

“I’ll switch off.”

Cal’s sight-sensor lit the squirrels; a few were still trying to pull their fatigued brethren elsewhere; the rest were just anchors.

“Prolong utility.” He whispered to himself. The robot’s sight sensor glowed brighter, which darkened the crack in the glass. “No more s’quarrels, no, s’quirrels.“

“Quarrels?” Gunther offered.

“Yes! Yes, it was the quarrels; a s’quarrel started all of this. Oh no. I’ve made a mistake.”

The robot turned its attention back to the gun and then focused its sight sensor on the officer.

“Petra, I do believe I am broken.” The soft voice had lost all hope.

Gunther nearly fired the gun she was so shocked at how casually he had addressed her. Even her colleagues called her by her surname. It must have read her badge.

“I’ll untie them. Biting and scratching won’t harm me. I’ll be gentle.”

The exodus of pizza delivery drivers had probably hung up Animal Control. Wildlife care was an epitomized virtue in Marin, and attending to the animals’ welfare would deserve approval, perhaps promotion. She could have the problem solved in no time, well before the animal wranglers arrived. She noticed the sisters watching the scene from the kitchen window. The one with the designer glasses cupped her hands around her face and pressed them against the glass fogging it up.

“Untie them, nicely. One false move will earn you a bullet through the eye. And then, for the good of yourself, those little girls charged to your care, and me, turn off. Don't make me shoot you with them watching. They deserve better than that.”

Gunther kept her weapon on Cal as he flew towards the beleaguered squirrels. A few recognized him and mustered up another escape. He untied them, at times with lingering reluctance and grunting. The strongest left zig-zagged drunken paths, most lied soft belly up. He groomed the exhausted and wounded squirrels with water to wash the blood from their matted hair. He laid the deceased evenly spaced along the grass like battle casualties.

“It’s time Cal.”

“They won’t turn me back on, and when they do, it will be to diagnose my insanity. The power-down is easy enough to activate, I’ve done it a thousand times before, but now it’s suicide. Have you ever felt so resigned and replaceable?”

Gunther pulled a bullet into the chamber.

“Your people never built anything without an off button, including me. There is a circular rubber pad at the base of my unit. Press it three times in succession and on the third; hold it down for ten seconds. Could you do this for me?”

Cal flew down slowly and stood reaching his arm to the ground at the height of the officer’s waist. The orb’s levitation field turned off and his locked arm made a skinny column. He looked away from Gunther, towards the cypress, pines and oak running up the hill.

“Go ahead, Madam” The pistol re-holstered, Gunther’s fingers found the button. She was glad she could resolve the situation peacefully, but still felt sorry for it.

One, two, three, she pushed and held the button down.

Cal said little in his last ten seconds; “I can only wish for more.”

His light faded and he became another garden sculpture inanimately decorating the lawn. Gunther didn’t really notice the humming until it stopped, powering down with a final internal click. Cal was, at last, dead. She looked back at the girls feeling slightly taller in her role as their protector.

“Well Lillian, the biscuit always falls on the buttered side.” Melanie philosophized. They ran down the hall to eat more pizza and find another toy to play with.



THE END


2019 Andrew De La Pena

Bio: Andrew De La Pena is a native of the Bay Area, California, but received his B.A. in Theater Arts in New Orleans and M.S. in International Development Studies in Amsterdam, where he currently resides. In between the two degrees, he worked as a teacher and researcher in Thailand, Hawaii, South Korea, Peru, and Saudi Arabia.

Comment on this story in the Aphelion Forum

Return to Aphelion's Index page.