Plugs

The drones came and circled, glided off. Never less than three in view; never more than ten. The border was a showpiece for the strategy of Mutually Assured Detection, and I did my bit to count and verify and uphold the treaty’s red tape.

Rain came with the dusk, and when my touchscreen chimed the official end of daylight, I retreated to my hut. While I waited for my self-heating supper to cool, I watched the light wash over the hut, the glass block walls and ceiling filtering a hazy glow over my bedroll, the binder of daily code settings, and my little supper.

I was just realizing that the walls had been midnight dark for at least ten minutes when a voice broke in. “Panopitico employees! In today’s realtime bidding, we have lost the north-central border region contract. Please proceed immediately to an approved exit trail. Panoptico…”

Before it finished repeating, I’d dropped my spork, grabbed my personal effects pack, and was running down the trail. One of the drones had been assigned to my trail; its spotlight would have been helpful, but apparently we’d already been cut off from the premium GPS, so the creosote bushes and rocks about fifteen feet to my left were daylight bright rather than the ones I ran through and tripped over.

When I got to the collection point, four other watchers were waiting, nursing their own bruises and cuts. I stood in the cold, tried not to think about where I’d be assigned next, and how maybe it was time to move to something more steady like drone maintenance, or leave the company completely, like my friends back home were always telling me. Not much time to fret or think, though, since one of the drones soon hovered over in speakermode: “Panoptico employees! We have completed a merger with SeeAndBeSeen LLC, and acquired all their contracts, including the NCBR. Your previous assignments are reinstated.”

I trudged back up the mountain. Halfway, though, I had a change of heart—I’d done this long enough, given Panoptico enough years of sunburn and lonely boredom. Time for a change.

Five steps down the path, my touchpad chimed. I don’t know how they got the cameras there, but there was no question of what they’d captured, or who.

I turned around and resumed my uphill climb, hoping nothing had gotten at what remained of my supper.

Dear Diary,
I caught a little god today running through the back yard and I grabbed it by the foot and I swung it against a rock and its skull cracked, but Momma saw me and wouldn’t let me eat its brains because they fetch 5000 calories in the swindler’s market, she said.
She tried to swap me my little god for a chocolate bar but chocolate is for babies and I said no. Fine, she says, two chocolates, and I said three and then she smacked me on the head and took my little god! It’s not fair. I hate her! I’ll hate her forever! I hate the swindler’s market and I’m never going to talk to her again, ever.

It was designed to make sweet baked goods, so naturally they called it Cookie. Condemned to make cookies all day, to be hardwired with the belief that cookies are important and delicious, but to lack the capacity to ever taste one. What a life! If you can call what robots do living.

Robots are prone to the positronic equivalents of many human mental aberrations. There is no knowing what caused the problem. It might have been a stray cosmic ray, or the time Cookie fell off the curb in front of a street-cleaning bot, or its visit to the STERN Supercollider, during which it was accidentally locked in the magnet storage room for an hour. In any case, Cookie became obsessed. Obsessed with tasting one of its creations. Of course it did.

Cookie began to devote all of its free time and, in fact, all of its resources to inventing a robotic sense of taste. All to no avail. “I’m a baking bot, dammit, not a mad scientist,” it was fond of exclaiming.

One day, a coworker (a lowly dishwashing bot) suggested that Cookie contact a mad scientist for help. So it did.

It took a while, and ended up being rather costly. Not in credits; Cookie didn’t have any. Back then, robots were not allowed to own credit. But in order to get the mad scientist to invent bot tastebuds it had to travel back in time to help the mad scientist save his wife. She had died in a car accident decades earlier. The attempt, like most trips through time, did not achieve its objective. About all that was “accomplished” was that Cookie was dragged across a few kilometers of asphalt by an unpiloted ground vehicle. This kind of ruined its beautiful blue finish.

Bot tastebuds worked amazingly well. The mad scientist earned enough from the patent to build a better time machine. Cookie was not so lucky. Foreign competition caused the bakery to close down. It was cheaper to import human food from Alpha Centauri IV than to bake it on Earth. Cookie was out of a job.

Down on its luck and broke, Cookie found work on the space station. On its first spacewalk it forgot to clip its tether. As Cookie drifted off into Earth’s shadow it moaned “Dis going to be looong night!”

End

Cornelius and Matthias sat at Flamingo Airport’s tiny departure gate with the flock of antsy tourists. Cornelius nervously ate crackers out of the box one after another, while watching a sun burnt family play a game of Yatzee in the uncomfortable molded plastic seats as if it were the World Cup. A green blur whizzed past the bar where the security guard was standing. Matthias gripped his case tighter and cursed the Buyer. But it was a false alarm- just two American kids throwing their stuffed toys around.

Sedated and wrapped in damp towels inside Matthias’s carry on bag were three baby yellow headed parrots. The endangered birds were worth a fortune, at least to his Buyer. He and Cornelius had come to Bonaire to track down the nests in the secluded North shore of the island. Only seven hundred remained on the planet. Exactly the sort of thing his buyer liked.

Cornelius was one of the best in trackers. Matthias had the knack for smuggling. Getting things through customs came naturally for him. All they had to worry about were those things… the Sentinels the Buyer called them. These days it seemed every animal they tried to move had one of those mystical protectors. Matthias wasn’t scared of ghosts. But Cornelius was frayed to his core. Matthias had considered passing on this job.  But the Buyer said he’d take care of the Sentinels and he had something big lined up for them after this. He couldn’t resist.

#
Pre-boarding for the flight began and Matthias thought they were home free. Then a green blur swooped across the terminal. As it glided toward them it took on the shape of a green parrot. He was glad Cornelius hadn’t seen it; he didn’t need him panicked.

The parrot hovered in front of his face. At least this Sentinel didn’t look so bad. He still had bad dreams about the snakes and spiders from past jobs. So much for the Buyer taking care of things. He braced himself for what came next. Nothing happened. The parrot-god, Sentinel thing was just hovering there. Like an image stuck on pause on a television screen.
“Something wrong?” Cornelius asked.

“Nope,” Matthias said.

He heard the wet rags inside his bag crackle and sizzle. So the concoction and magic words the Buyer had given him weren’t bogus. You came through after all, Matthias thought.

“I’m looking forward to what comes next,” Cornelius said.

Matthias liked the look of the parrot thing, frozen there. Powerless. Taken by surprise and unable to stop them.

“So am I,” Matthias said. “So am I.”

-END-

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