It was just before Labor Day when Waldo became the primary caregiver to a dying robot. Not immediately did he realize this was a terminal case: at first, he believed he’d come into the possession of a perfectly healthy servo-mechanism. Never having had much experience with robots in his prior life as a bean counter, Waldo was slow to apprehend the warning signs. Like most Americans — even those who still lived in Florida — he associated servo-mechanisms with the old and infirm, and avoided them accordingly. No matter how sleek their surfaces were, how cheerfully they whirred, they had the whiff of the sick bay about them. Rhythm monitors, low-impact exercise machinery and sensor prongs, white-walled rooms filled with servo-mechanisms dispensing medication: Miami Beach was full of robots. He didn’t want one. Waldo hadn’t come down here to join the procession of the unhealthy. Sometimes he wouldn’t even don the sensors that reported his vital signals and evolving genetic profile to LinkStar.
Dorothy felt this was rash. Irresponsible, too; LinkStar depended on total participation in order to anticipate medical problems. How was the system supposed to work properly if its database was incomplete? Technically it was not illegal to underreport, and a few recalcitrant old-timers refused the sensors altogether. LinkStar guaranteed a painless process, but they’d never quite managed to eliminate the invasive elements as they’d originally promised. Nobody enjoyed those.
Yet even the uncooperative couldn’t deny the spike in the quality of care. Anticipatory medicine had gone from a speculative field to an indispensable one. Dorothy, for instance, had been saved by the system. LinkStar had caught her affliction months before it was scheduled to manifest. So serious was the prognosis that she’d been assigned successive servo-mechanisms. The first had floated to the window port of her tower apartment flat with the bad news and a full syringe. Treatment had been so aggressive, and so successful — she’d never manifested a single symptom — that the relief servo-mechanism had been unnecessary. Still she’d held on to it, just in case she needed an extra jab. Until now: Dorothy was returning to Boston, soon, and doing so without full medical clearance. Somebody would have to see to the robot. Just until she got settled and validated her transfer with her clinician; after that, she’d be back to arrange for its conveyance north.
“You understand, I know you do. I just can’t take another one of these summers.”
“Have you been outside?”
“Oh, no, course not, you think I’m crazy? But it’s the oppressiveness of it. Always right there on the other side of the glass.”
Waldo fiddled with his fork. The vinyl seats of the parlor felt sticky against his calves. This wasn’t what he was expecting. He’d thought that at long last, and after months of frustration, he’d landed a date. Instead, he’d found himself in a robot custody transfer.
“Can’t you just stash the thing in storage?,” he asked. But he knew why not: ten thousand dollar fine and possible prosecution by LinkStar if Dorothy got caught.
“I’m starving. God, Fink, would you hurry up and win.”
Dorothy checked the LED readout on the wall. Four minutes of grueling suppertime battle left. On their table, which doubled as a screen, Sonny Fink staggered around the cooking amphitheatre with twenty pound weights tied to his wrists. Such were the challenges of Kitchen Apocalypse, the mealtime entertainment for most of elderly Florida — most, indeed, of the entire graying nation. Sonny Fink, one of the world’s great endurance chefthletes, had, on one prior episode, beaten the competition with one leg encased in a lead block. On another, he’d made a meal from the inside of the stove. Fink was the undisputed champion of Apocalypse, which rewarded feats of culinary strength; he hadn’t fared quite as well on Breakfast Armageddon, or Dinner Demolition, in which the chefs cooked while the test kitchen was destroyed by bulldozers, or Kitchen Kablooey, on which select ingredients exploded. The studio audience knew which; the chefs did not.
Another contestant could always triumph. But the odds were on Sonny Fink: the parimutuel betting readout on the electroticker behind the bar had him as an overwhelming favorite. Waldo and Dorothy had both wagered substantial amounts on Fink — nothing bank-breaking, but enough to get them a seat at the parlor. It was a nice one: one of the more exclusive dinner emporiums in Miami Beach. In seconds, the judges would declare Sonny Fink the victor, and the ejection slots in the table would spit out a replica of the winning dish.
An alleged replica, thought Waldo. It never looked quite as appetizing in person as it did onscreen. This was, he knew, a manifestation of the Fulminauer effect: the camera added the glistening sheen, the “digital sauce”, that made everything from a lamb chop to a pop star to a perky pill appear more appetizing than it really was. Nevertheless, he liked Apocalypse. Most of the other competitions relied on flavor analytics and molecular probes to declare their winner automatically. Waldo appreciated the use of human judges.
“They pretend so, anyway”, said Dorothy.
“What, you don’t think there are actual people tasting?”
“It’s all for the show, Waldo. C’mon. I’m sure they use the same fine grain sensory assessment software everybody else does. Otherwise how could they be sure what tastes best? They’d be up against human error. You know how that goes.”
“But we don’t ever get to taste anything but the winning dinner,” countered Waldo.
You’re overthinking again, complained Dorothy. Just like you. That had been her regular line on him when they’d worked together at the financial services company in Massachusetts, which was, oh, so many years ago. Back then, it had been playful, teasing, leading; now it was just plain old hard. She’d been in the reception pool and he was a single man with some money. Waldo had flirted outrageously, and Dorothy, he recalled, had been quite receptive to his advances. He’d never made his move, though, because what was the rush?, there were plenty of nifty women around and he could pick up the spare whenever he felt like it. But all that muscle he’d built in his upper chest had become a latex ring around his midriff, and those curly locks had washed down a drain somewhere. To Dorothy, he must have looked like a parody of the man he’d been in his prime. A mark, maybe even. It’s a perfectly good servo-mechanism, barely used, she explained to him, and it wasn’t dedicated to medical use only. He could apply it to all sorts of stuff, whatever his interests were; what had he been doing down here anyway?
“Looking for friends,” admitted Waldo.
“You should have called me months ago.”
“I’d forgotten you’d moved here.”
“Right, like who in their right mind? If I could turn back time, believe me.”
A groan, loud enough to penetrate the frosted-glass partition between their booth and the rest of the restaurant, swelled from the parlor floor. Waldo looked up at the scoreboard. Sonny Fink had dropped the match. With seconds left to go and the reduction ready for plating, one of the chains to the weights had gotten caught in a blender. On their table, they watched the spectacle. Tethered to the mixmaster, the mortified chefthlete writhed in place.
“Gosh, I wonder if he’s slipping. Hey, look, the spot welders are on the scene. That’s a relief.”
“There’s gonna be a lot of hungry people tonight.”
“Aw, naw, I figure they’ll just — hey, wait, Dorothy, are you leaving? Stick around, Pantry Annihilation is up next. I’ll bankroll.”
She grabbed her bag and her hat. Be a pal, Waldo, take the robot. You’ll enjoy it. Take the robot and maybe there’s something in it for you. She winked. Boom there she was, pink-lipped and high-haired, her thin and cheaply-ringed fingers splayed on the corner of the table, standing over him, looking down at him. Waldo became conscious of the bald spot, spreading like a puddle of spilled milk, on the top of his head. Of course he’d say yes, yes; a provisional yes, but sure, okay, let’s see how it goes. How difficult could it be.
He rode alone in the TripStar back to his tower, and thought again of his strange predicament, and wondered what tidal forces had washed him up in Southern Florida — the inflamed proboscis of the North American continent. He was old enough to remember the final desperate tourist commercials, peddling a vision of a sunny, youthful paradise that was well out of date. Miami meant girls, gorgeous ones, awash in booze and spread-eagled on the hoods of cars, applying lipstick in tawdry club bathrooms, catching six inch heels in the grooves of the pavement, buying designer items of dubious utility, headphones on and hewing fast to a brisk, hotel-pool-shallow vision of life minted by the local media. There they walked, arm in arm, on Ocean Drive, dipping into surf shops, giggling, sunglasses on and flip-flops pattering on the pavement, fair game for any lepidopterist with a big enough butterfly net.
But even then, Ocean Drive had begun to slip under the surf. Much of it had since been reclaimed by the waves: seawalls breached, pumps overwhelmed, dunes pummeled, drainage plans scuppered as the water rose higher and faster than even the pessimists had anticipated. From the panel window of the TripStar he followed the barrier on the east side of Collins Avenue: on the other side, the sea. He’d wanted to retire here. Captive to an old dream, somebody else’s fantasy of a golden sunset: a happy ending, endlessly deferred.
A week later he ported his mobile shading unit to the Bay tower to pick up the servo-mechanism. Perhaps he’d coax a kiss goodbye out of Dorothy. To his disappointment he discovered her flat bare. She’d already departed for Boston. All she’d left was the robot. Dorothy had killed the air conditioning and the room was roaring hot — too hot for anything but a servo to survive. Waldo pulled a screwdriver and slipped its head between the fan and the posterior screen and searched for the catch, and caught it with the flat edge. Clumsily — he was no machine thief — he disabled the geopositioning plug-in beneath the wing panel. Now it wouldn’t be able to levitate; he’d have to angle the damn thing all the way to the TripStar. But it was the only way to be safe. Once he got it back to his place, he’d return the thing to full network compatibility. LinkStar wouldn’t notice the small transmission interruption. He hoped.
It was a Rain-E unit. A Rain-E 4000, Waldo believed, but he couldn’t be bothered to disassemble the saw effector beneath the rear bumper to find out. The less he molested it the better. Truth was, it was such a smooth and miraculous object that he would have preferred to have left it disconnected. At once he understood why the Bass had devoted a special exhibition to LinkStar aesthetics. And Dorothy hadn’t lied: it was barely used. None of the white paste in the cracks between screens so common in utility servos that had seen emergency duty. No medical odor, either — just an inviting inorganic smell reminiscent of a freshly opened can of tennis balls. Yes, it was cool. Dust and sand had collected on the top reflector, but after Waldo carefully removed it with a wet washcloth and gently rubbed the streak marks from the panel, it shone with freshness. Waldo felt much as he did when he’d get a new comic book as a boy: the corners so sharp, the ink so bright, the pages so free of creases, that he couldn’t bring himself to open it and read it.
Once powered, the Rain-E began to flit about the apartment. This was expected. The unit needed to acclimate itself to the contours of its new surroundings. Waldo would have to speak to it in many different tones: proud, menacing, cajoling, sarcastic. He ran down the list of guide sentences. LinkStar had experimented with robots that spoke back, but soon found that the talking units prompted a much higher incidence of machine damage. No matter how nice the corporation made the servo, users still found them impertinent. Newer units recognized language and responded accordingly, but had nothing to say. Nobody wanted a robot that resembled a person anyway. Humans were oily, inconveniently designed, infectious, laden with unpleasant connotations.
Waldo did not anticipate much interaction with the robot. He had always been healthy. Each morning and evening he expended his calorie obligation on his stat bike. Among his cohort of riders his vitals checked out best; then again, many of them were from France and Germany, where the oversight was nowhere near as scrupulous. They always seemed to want to ride through Scandinavia, too; Norway, or Iceland, somewhere among the fjords. Waldo recognized that their Nordic fantasies were no more absurd than the nostalgia that had brought him to Florida, but he’d tired of trips throughout the snows — especially since he knew the ice was no longer there.
It was in this way that the Rain-E had first ingratiated itself to Waldo. The servo presented him with a menu of tropical rides that took him deeper into the jungle than he’d been before. That was good. Better still were the cruises through idealized versions of old Latin American cities: stucco in the sunlight and the spray of blue-green waves, musicians slapping double basses on wrought-iron terraces, long-legged women with long-stemmed glasses of wine. After some experimentation Waldo discovered that his new interface allowed him to split the viewer into segments while riding. Now he could, simultaneously, enjoy a trip through Havana while watching Wellness Cataclysm, on which the chefthletes competed to create fortifying concoctions. Wager properly and there’d be a green shake and chilled magum waiting for him on the kitchen portal. Guess wrong and, well, there was his incentive to get on the bike and try again.
After a few weeks of hard riding, his heart began to soar. If only Dorothy could see him now, he thought, reversing the entropy that had tugged him into the gutter of late middle age. Each morning he’d connect the Rain-E to the bicycle, prong by prong, careful never to scuff any of the indentations and gentle with each thumbscrew. By noon he’d be awash in numbers and graphs, rendered on the anterior screen in rich color and stylish fonts. All the indicators were positive.
Thus Waldo was startled when the Rain-E presented him with a pill. A single red capsule, about the size of a marble, rested in the center of a rubber disc like a jewel in a crown. It slid from the machine’s lateral application tray and lingered, at the end of a silver stick, under Waldo’s nose as he snored. He screamed when he woke. The Rain-E retracted the tray about an inch and dilated its sidereal aperture. Soothing images flashed on the pyramid screen: flowers, moons over frosty mountains, the smiling faces of Mexican children.
“Wha — huh, no, I don’t need that”, he stammered.
But he wondered if he did. He couldn’t pretend he was young anymore. Unseen enemies were at work in his body, puncturing cell walls, hijacking the machinery of replication; it wasn’t just him, it was everybody who’d passed a dangerous milestone. Science had unraveled the genetic basis of disease, and predictive medicine insisted that no matter how many revolutions a man made on his stat bike, the bugs would eventually catch up with him. Had they? Uneasy, Waldo hooked himself up to the network that evening, right after Kitchen Apocalypse. Sonny Fink had been in top form, successfully completing his reduction while fighting off wolves. But Waldo couldn’t concentrate on dinner — all he could think of was the coming examination. With a groan, he slipped the sensors into their docks, taking special care to affix the virility monitor securely. That one had a habit of falling out.
Five minutes later Waldo had his readout. He was clear. One hundred per cent fine, clean as a lab specimen in a vacuum-sealed bag. This was reassuring, but not exactly sufficient to dispel his fears. It was possible that the Rain-E, living with him in intimate quarters as it did, had picked up on something that the network could not. The LinkStar robots were designed to anticipate need. Fused as it often had been with the stat bike, it was privy to the body under duress and its rather more desperate information.
The next morning, Waldo was roused from his restless sleep by the servo. This time there were three pills on the tray. Dosage had increased. He considered tossing the medication into the portal, but there was no way to do it without the robot seeing him. A resident patient was under no legal obligation to obey the prescription of a servo-mechanism, but nonconforming behavior would certainly be reported to LinkStar. This would jeopardize his ratings. As a retired person, many of his financial benefits were pegged to his indicators. He’d worked hard on the stat bike to push all his graphs into the green. All his vital charts were impeccably zigzagged. Waldo put the pills on his tongue and washed them down with leftover magum.
Only later, cycling by the resorts of pre-war Cancun, did Waldo consider another possibility: perhaps the little fellow had malfunctioned. Occasional rogue units had acted in contravention to the LinkStar guarantee; not often, but two or three times, enough to make a headline news story a few years back. Generally LinkStar confiscated the robot at the slightest hint of a compromised transmission. If anything was wrong, he’d expect to see a technician’s face at the window port. Nevertheless, doubts nagged at him. He’d noticed a shift in the tone of his bicycle scenarios. More and more of the women on the beaches were topless. One brown skinned girl stood in the middle of the road, totally nude, legs forming a perfect traffic cone. Skyscrapers of the cities jutted toward the sky with priapic urgency; various phallic symbols poked out into the bike lanes. Shops on the side of the road hawked X-rated movies and merchandise.
Waldo didn’t mind any of this; in fact it excited him. He understood that the robot, concerned for his health, was simply enticing him to ride more. It was capable of adjusting to the physical prompts he’d provided: if his pulse rate spiked and his focus sharpened at the sight of an exposed, suntanned thigh, moist with lotion, its internal processor would generate more content of that variety. Still, it seemed shocking that a square and glassy machine could contain such prurient algorithms. The zeal with which the servo plunged Waldo into these fantasias did not correspond to his idea of clinical detachment. Again he told himself that the Rain-E simply knew his body better than he knew it himself, and he pedaled on.
Other imperfections troubled Waldo, too. Occasionally response time to voice commands seemed sluggish; he wondered if it was worsening, but didn’t have the heart to use the timer application, or even run diagnostics. Sometimes the top screen of the Rain-E would flash red for no reason. One night, awake on his bunk, Waldo heard a long, slow hiss, like the escape of air from a punctured tire. He prayed it wasn’t the robot, but feared it was. It occurred to him that he could ask Dorothy whether any of these conditions pre-existed the transfer of the servo. But he hadn’t heard from her in months, and to be fair, he hadn’t tried too hard to get in touch with her. Their aborted date, that and the Rain-E pickup — those had been his last forays outdoors.
Waldo took his magum to the panel window where the robot was hovering. Together they looked out on the teal terraces, storm shutters, and glass-door clinics of Collins Avenue, its parlors and TripStar chutes, and the artificial beaches, mostly disused, on rooftops. It was possible to get down to the Atlantic, but nobody did. It had become too perilous.
“It’s a trip, isn’t it?” the man asked the robot. The Rain-E, recognizing an unclear antecedent, said nothing. Waldo grabbed a cheesecloth and gently wiped a fingerprint smudge off the rear panel. The little machine held perfectly still. It emerged groomed, all fans purring.
But the fidelity to life of the bicycle scenarios continued to deteriorate. Waldo’s trips were increasingly sexual and increasingly preposterous. He only minded, and even then only briefly, when he split the screen. The juxtapositions between the bare breasts of Brazilian women and the competitive chefthletes scoring and roasting ingredients always took him aback at first. After a few seconds, he’d get into the groove of it. Waldo guided his bike along a dirt-brown trail in the raucous backstreets of Rio De Janeiro, enjoying the sunshine. After a few miles, he noticed undulations in the surface; after a steady uphill grind, the edges of the path began to curve inward. The road before him took on a moist, lustrous, pound-cake quality, a voluptuous denseness, sweet and delicious to ride rubber tires over. He sunk the wheels deeper into the dirt, and was surprised to see the road give a little and bounce right back in place. The tan swath widened. Waldo felt the rhythm of the ridges, saw the rise and fall of the horizon line, hot red highlights in the distance, and realized: his tires scored a trembling, breathing naked body.
Waldo took off the headset and looked down at the Rain-E, still leashed to the stat bike. All its small trays were tucked into its chassis, its crescent indentations covered by clear plastic membranes. It was an entirely self-contained unit, aware of his presence but volunteering nothing. At once Waldo felt its innocence.
He needed a tech who wasn’t on the grid — someone unlicensed who could give him an objective assessment without threatening to repossess the unit. LinkStar had done its best to stamp out rogues, dispossessing those they found, but some were still out there in the swamps. The braver ones would float right up to your flat. Waldo piloted through the darker directories until he found a name. Then he turned the dials, set the apartment to private, and waited.
The tech looked the part: withered from exposure, dehydrated and vinegared, an old pot chipped in the kiln. Waldo offered him half a shake but he turned it down. Careful not to disturb the transmission signal, he knelt perpendicular to the Rain-E visual cone and wiggled an allen wrench into the top hex until the restrainor cap popped open. He shone a penlight into the aperture, prodding the latex chips on the capsule floor.
“How’s it look?”
“It really hasn’t been much trouble. It’s been a perfectly salubrious machine. There were a few glitches I noticed is all.”
With a pocket-mirror click, the cap snapped shut.
Not just shot, he explained, but also dangerous. You see that char. Once the main cable drifts out of place frays, the brain card becomes brittle and couldn’t be swapped. Moreover, LinkStar no longer supported the Rain-E 4000, which had always been a lemon; what he wanted was a RainBro, fully upgradable and also modular. This particular servo-mechanism wouldn’t even do for a trade-in. It was, ‘fraid to say, obsolete. Waldo hadn’t been taking any meds dispensed by this robot, now had he?
“I don’t understand. It’s a new unit. It had barely been touched until a few months ago.”
Cross-armed, the tech shot him a look. Don’t play dumb with me, I don’t have the time for games. This machine has been modded. Badly.
“Modded? Me? I wouldn’t know how.”
“Come on pal, nobody gets a Rain-E 4000 unless they aim to jailbreak a robot. I don’t tell on you, you don’t tell on me. Though I trust you are aware of the penalties for tampering with a LinkStar networked machine.”
Waldo knew. In his prior life in Boston, he’d handled the transfer of the estate of a man caught reprogramming medical robots. His actions, the judge had ruled, jeopardized the wellness of millions of citizens who had come to rely on the integrity of the network, the completeness of its data picture, to deliver their healthcare. He’d become a virus in the body politic, and was treated accordingly.
Would the tech turn him in? LinkStar offered bounties, and occasionally granted amnesty to rogues if they performed a meritorious service. This one seemed a bit too far gone for corporate work, but there was no way to know for sure. Alone in his flat with the Rain-E, he looked it over. There were grease smudges all over the chassis from where the tech had scraped the cap open. He’d been a rough handler; he’d scuffed the posterior, too. Waldo deliberated over whether to groom the machine and declined. He’d leave it to the robot, silent and blinking, to riddle out why.
“Waldo? What the — how did you get this number?”
It hadn’t been easy. She wasn’t in Boston after all; instead, he’d found her, after two sleepless nights searching databases, living on a walled island on the Chesapeake side of the Eastern Shore of Maryland. Probably decommissioned government housing. There was a lot of that, and it wasn’t so hard to land if a person had the proper connections. You slipped me a dud, a lemon, Waldo told her. You stuck me with a modified robot and skipped town.
There was a long pause. Waldo thought she might have disconnected. When she spoke, she did so quietly, evenly, with the restraint of a mother delivering a threat to a disobedient child at a party. One with a balloon, and a t-shirt stained with chocolate cream.
“That’s a hell of a thing to accuse me of. On an open line even.”
“It’s not an open line. I’m at a call station and I’m using sonic encryption.”
“I don’t believe you. And what, you just figured this out now? About the servo?”
“So you admit it!”
“You were never dim like this in Boston. Florida got you dim, Waldo.”
It was a basic sex mod, she explained, nothing too complicated or radical or coercive, just something fun for him to play with, a kind gesture from her to him. She’d got it for cheap from some crazy kid in a public market and did the rewiring herself. But she hadn’t really used it or anything, and it looked to her like Waldo needed it more. Didn’t he hook the Rain-E up to the autostimulator? She figured that would be the very first thing he’d do. Get it home and fire it up.
“The autostimulator, no, why, I was trying to get with you! Actual, real, in-person sexual contact with you!”
“Ew, Waldo, that’s gross.”
If he didn’t want it, if he was worried about getting caught, disable it, discard it, Dorothy didn’t care. Get rid of the whole robot, it was a hunk of junk anyway, she’d only requested a Rain-E 4000 because she knew LinkStar didn’t care about them. Pull it apart at the joints, sell off the valves and diodes for scrap, deal off the clouded glass at the black market bazaar, straight up trash the worthless thing. And while Waldo was at it, could he please lose this number, too?
Angry, cursing the state of his life, its shallowness, its petty frustrations, his isolation, Waldo returned to his stuffy apartment. The Rain-E was there to greet him with a fresh bouquet of pills. He shooed the servo-mechanism away. It followed him down the hall, hovering, whirring a little, the tray of medication sticking out of its dorsal slot. Waldo had misrecognized the robot’s advances. Its presumption offended him. Dorothy had done this; Dorothy the inept reprogrammer, mischievous and bored and not even really sick, in a Florida peninsula that had reverted to miasmal swamp. Somewhere inside that carapace, electronic crosstalk had scrambled the Rain-E’s sense of proportion and dented its robotic reserve. It was showing its cards. It had become an object of desire.
Waldo grasped for the robot’s leg. Recognizing his malicious intent, it darted up and way toward the panel window. But the ceilings in the tower were low. Man grabbed machine by its squared corner and wrestled it down to earth; the Rain-E bobbing in place, twisting, practically lifting Waldo off the ground, Waldo grunting, scrapping with fingernails in fan grooves, tugging at loose wires. Finally he seized the conductor cable and pulled. His index finger found the round indentation on the bottom of the servo and there he pressed and left it, counting five, four, three, two, one, until the power went off and the screens went dark. The little robot fell to the floor with a clatter. The hard floor put a vicious crack in the anterior screen.
On his knees in front of the quiet servo, Waldo jammed the flat end of his screwdriver between the fan and the restrainor cap. He twisted his wrist and pushed back a plastic panel. There it was, jammed into an empty space, its squared, black edges out of conformity with the rest of the chip sets. Its crude irregularity felt positively organic, like a busted lip or a swollen knuckle. Processor boards and wires scratched at Waldo’s arm as he shoved it into the breach, felt for the implant, and wiggled it free. It came loose in a mess of thin red cables, each of which stretched taut and then snapped with a satisfying pop. For a moment Waldo wished there were more modifications to rip out. He carried his extraction to the kitchen portal, stuck it in, pressed the button, and that was that.
Waldo dragged the inert Rain-E to the corner. Then he sat on his stool for a long time, looking at nothing, failing to simmer down. It would feel good, he thought, to burn off some of this irritation on the stat bike. He’d missed a full night of exercise while searching for Dorothy’s number, and he’d missed this morning on the phone with her. His indicators were probably all askew; he couldn’t bear to look. The basic network programs were still available to him. And there was his old cohort, plowing through the Scandinavian snows as usual. Waldo tried to join them, but after a mile or two, he had to admit to himself that he found the ride unfulfilling.
The chip was out of the Rain-E. Guerrilla wiring had dragged its brain card into the gutter, and Waldo with it; with its electronic libido expunged, the robot might return to purely healthy pursuits. Waldo brought the little robot back over to the stat bike and fitted the prongs into the sockets. Its screens blinked back into full color. He slipped the headset over his face and began to pedal.
His first thought: he’d dislodged the video processor. Aw rats, all that rooting around and I damaged my robot. Should have called that tech back. All he saw was black. Audible in the headset: muffled cries and something that sounded very much like applause. The signals were compromised — attenuated by his rough handling. Then, like a speedy daybreak, white light exploded in a band at the horizon and grew to cover the sky. Waldo found himself staring, straight up, at the latticed ceiling of a studio set. He snapped his head to his right and his left. Drugged humans, arms and legs trussed with thin black rope, lay on a large stainless steel slab. Over their heads, swinging a twelve-inch knife, stood Sonny Fink. Waldo knew the show too well to kid himself about what was happening. He wasn’t watching Kitchen Apocalypse — he was part of Kitchen Apocalypse. He was the offering: the theme ingredient, dead meat.
Outraged, terrified, furious at the Rain-E, he attempted to pull the mask off his face. But he couldn’t move his limbs to do it. His arms were tied behind his back. When Waldo began to holler for help, Sonny Fink stuffed an apple in his mouth.
“Eat up”, quipped Sonny. The studio audience roared.
Like a sack of potatoes, Waldo was dragged by his ankles across the floor of the test kitchen. Two muscled sous chefs hoisted him to a large wooden chopping block. Sonny Fink began to work Waldo’s muscles, rubbing his exposed flesh with a coarse mixture of salt, coriander, and cayenne pepper. His pores screamed. With a broad paintbrush, Sonny daubed thick globs of marinade on Waldo’s chest. The acrid stink of vinegar went straight up his nose and he coughed the apple out. Unperturbed and grinning, Sonny ground it deeper into Waldo’s face. By the ears he was slid to a massive skillet. Then he began braising. Low heat licked Waldo’s arms and the soles of his feet. The sous chefs began dumping in the roux: flour, diced onion, whole celery stalks, carrot and parsnip. Sonny grabbed the cleaver. Waldo’s eyes widened. With a great pair of iron tongs, Sonny severed the ropes and forced Waldo’s limbs wide. One powerful arm holding him in place in the burning pan, the other lifted the blade and sent it crashing down.
An electric shock seared through Waldo’s ears. It felt like a sawblade at his head. At once he regained control of his hands. Sweating, breathing heavy, he tore off the headset. He was back in his flat with the innocuous little machine whirring away, still hooked up to the stat bike, deeply inward, uncommunicative, engaged in a private experience. Waldo glared at it. Placidly it gave Waldo the who-me look; impressive, he thought, since it had no eyes.
The silence dropped away like a curtain. Somebody was buzzing the door. Waldo looked through the panel window and saw a man in the familiar uniform: black collar with red trim and the gold insignia of LinkStar. The man buzzed again.
“Act natural,” Waldo told the Rain-E.
The LinkStar man had a blank, cheerful face: blonde hair, a broad and featureless forehead, thick cheeks, a nose like a hook stuck in plywood. An ass face, basically. He shook Waldo’s hand with minimal enthusiasm and introduced himself as Robert. A passive name, a handle with no connotations, appropriate for an age-neutral individual. Robert made himself at home in the flat. Unlike the rogue tech, he accepted Waldo’s offer of a swig of leftover magum.
“Is everything kosher with the servo-mechanism?” asked Robert, wiping his lips. “We’ve noticed several lengthy transmission interruptions.”
“Oh, it’s fine. It’s just fine. You know these Rain-E 4000s. Always malfunctioning.”
“That’s a misapprehension. The Rain-E 4000 is actually quite an advanced model. Its central processor learns to anticipate its owner’s needs and proclivities much quicker than the RainBro does. That’s why it isn’t favored by our customers. Some find its clairvoyance a bit… creepy, shall we say.”
“I’d heard it was obsolete. No longer supported by LinkStar.”
“Again a misapprehension.” Robert smiled.
Robots assigned by LinkStar, he explained, were tracked scrupulously. Only an official decommission performed by a LinkStar agent could pull it from the network. For instance, we know that this unit — here he tapped on the cap of the servo, which whirred its inarticulate consent — was initially stationed about ten blocks from here.
“Records indicate a curious hiccup in the geopositioning data.”
“I’m holding it for a friend.”
“I see. Did you, or she, file the requisite transfer forms?”
“How did you know she’s a she?”
Robert pulled a small transcription device from his briefcase, pressed two buttons, and cracked his knuckles. We’re people just like you, he told Waldo. LinkStar understood the contingencies of people’s lives. A certain amount of monkeying around with the robot is tolerated and, in some cases, even expected. Even superficial tampering, while frowned upon, wasn’t always fully prosecuted. The LinkStar man leaned forward. But today, he said, today he could not help but notice a transmission interruption of two and a half hours. No pings, no nothing. Then an emergency signal.
“This robot called you for help?”
“Not us specifically. It was a sudden-burst transmission: a sort of electronic panic button built in to the CPU in case of a threat to the soundness of the machine.”
Waldo said nothing. Robert ran his finger along the fissure in the screen. Although he was no robotics expert, he’d seen enough here to recommend a fuller investigation. Don’t go anywhere, he told Waldo, don’t disable any of the robot’s transmission devices. We’ll be in communication with it, and with you. Everything, he was sure, would check out fine, and then he’d have full access to the servo-mechanism back, and, with it, latitude for reasonable action within the parameters allowed by LinkStar.
That’s it, thought Waldo after the man had gone, that’s all. I’m going to be dispossessed and jailed, and you, he said to the Rain-E 4000, you’re going to be severed from the network and disassembled. They’ll rip out your burnt brain card and pry off your chipped screens and melt the rest of it down to molten metal. All because Dorothy shorted your circuits. He was moved to call her one last time, curse her out, let her know that he was in the soup and it was her damn fault. But what good would that do? She’d escaped from the swamp: me and you, he told the unit, we’re left behind, marooned together in this tower, at the end of the road, waiting for the decommissioning engineer to haul us away.
Well, screw that. If they were coming for him, he wasn’t going to make it easy on them. He’d run. When he was wrestling with the Rain-E, he marveled at the power of its uplift, its maneuverability, and the effortlessness with which its levitation engine operated. He’d never been a big man, and the last few months of exercise had made him trimmer than ever. Waldo was certain: the servo could carry his weight. As he disabled the geopositioning chip, his hand slipped, and the screwdriver gashed the chromium paint on the front of the chassis. He’d really put this poor servo through the paces. It was just the two of them now. They were going to have to learn to be better to each other.
With the butt end of his magum mug, he smashed the panel window. Waldo wrapped his legs around the cylinder and pushed. The robot steadied itself in mid-air, Waldo riding it as it bucked, clinging to the top of the cap. Seconds later, they were outside the tower and forty stories above the sleepy city.
The air outside the tower was inhospitable: damp and smelly, like a wet rag, and menacingly hot, even in lavender twilight. Flocks of seabirds, perching on every terrace, gave them cover; clouds of gnats stung at Waldo’s face and caught in the crevasses between the plates of the floating Rain-E. But despite the discomfort, Waldo was delighted. Riding the robot was not unlike being on a bicycle — he could guide the servo’s movements with shoulder swivels and knee pinches and even accelerate a bit if he leaned forward forcefully enough. The little machine responded beautifully to minor variations in weight and pressure. From his perch atop the cap, Miami Beach looked beautifully endangered, precious, water encroaching on all sides and coughing up from the sewers to cover Collins Avenue. He could see the boats pitching in the bay and the roiling Atlantic beyond the seawall. He felt an urge to protect it, hold it close to him, feel the warm sand score his fingers before it slipped through.
Waldo steered the Rain-E down Collins, keeping cover in the long shadows of the glass buildings. So many of them had been deserted, and were now overgrown with scrub: moss spilled out of high windows, vines climbed the water-stained walls of handsome old hotels, loose palm fronds, broken free by the winds, clogged the grand arches of tower doorways. The clinics, however, did a brisk business — below him, TripStars deposited their cargo at the entrance ports, and floating servos and their medical assistants in lab coats guided the patients into the emergency rooms. Had this strip ever belonged to the young, Waldo wondered, or was that always a marketer’s hyperbole? Were there really dance clubs, all-night restaurants open to the air, roller skaters in parks and volleyball girls with their spikes and set-ups, and young people, everywhere, flirting, kissing on main streets, teasing and fighting, crashing together and breaking apart, bringing their sad and glorious stories to each other, melded in electric communion under the stars? It did not seem possible, but he hoped that it really had happened.
The Rain-E lurched. Waldo grabbed on to the fan grill with his fingertips. Something was wrong with the robot. It listed to the side, no matter how hard Waldo tried to right it. They were losing altitude, too. The rider looked down at his mount, and for the first time, he saw it as sickly, terribly ill: bobbing and circling, unsteady, like a fly in November, all its instincts dulled and primed for the swatter. Narrowly they dodged the top deck of a tower, swerving just in time to miss the tall spire of the LinkStar satellite dock, and scraping up against the seawall. Waldo exhaled in relief. But now they were high over the Atlantic Ocean, its evening whitecaps dashing up against the barrier and pounding the narrow strip of beach. With a frantic hip swivel, Waldo tried to guide the robot back toward the shore. It wouldn’t take the command. It proceeded on, away from the setting sun and over the disused weather buoys.
Perhaps he had overburdened the servo-mechanism. It sagged in flight, caught itself, and levitated back up toward the night sky, but couldn’t achieve much forward momentum. Anything it had done to him; well, he’d probably deserved it. A memory came back to Waldo in a rush: a day spent on the Singing Beach north of Boston, as a very young adolescent, surrounded by bigger boys and their girlfriends frolicking in the surf. He watched them as he dug a deep hole and piled the wet sand in a heap next to him. You trying to get to China, asked one girl, barefoot in a bikini. He’d tried to speak but only stammered. She’d rolled her eyes, waved him off, and run to join her friends in the surf.
A whir of distress, like the sign of a broken drive, brought him back to the present. Beneath him, Waldo felt a pop and heard a small click. The indicator lights on the Rain-E went dead. At once there were no rules but gravity. Waldo knew the exhilaration of speed, and the thrill of the thrown rock off the tower rooftop. Over Florida, the ocean parted to take them in. Together, man and machine plunged into the deep waves.
– Tris McCall