I live on despair. It is my meat and depression my air.

You look past me, a simple trunk sitting in the corner of the dayroom, dust-shrouded and ancient. A faded chintz throw covers my top, a battered secondhand lamp with a too-weak bulb weighing it down. Reading glasses might be left here one night, dentures the next.

You don’t open me, you don’t think to. You’re just here to visit relatives, to jolly them along. Wearing happiness like a shroud over misery, over impatience, over gloom, you breathe leaden air and play checkers or talk in low tones with those left to die.

And if some of them die before they should? And if some of them take ill more often? And if some of them have unfortunate accidents? That draws you here to fill me with your raw emotion.

So despair. Cry and wail and stare. Give me your darkness that I might thrive.

Your children come with you, but do not understand. Some day they will–some day when you are here to stay.

I love you all. Make me smile.

The story was, when the siege failed and the Turks retreated from the walls of Vienna, they left behind sacks of coffee that became the basis for the city’s coffee houses. A couple decades later, the most popular coffee houses traded on the exotic mystique of the beverage’s origins, with sumptuously cushioned benches surrounding mother-of-pearl inlaid tables and a room full of gurgling hookahs at the back. During the coldest months, they added storytellers to draw customers. The most popular were Iskander, at the Bachmann’s, and Mahmood, at the Royal Crest.

They were brothers — twins — and not actually Turkish, but Vienna-born sons of an Egyptian merchant. They’re best remembered for the story duel of January, 1702.

It began when Mahmood whiled away a sleety Monday evening with an impromptu tale involving three dwarves, a hippogriff, and a sieve that turned sand to gold. Iskander retold the story for the next day’s dinner crowd, with a fourth dwarf and the hippogriff changing to a gryphon. The sieve, now, turned sand to silver and silver to gold.

On Wednesday, Mahmood’s version of the story had six dwarves and a two-headed serpent in addition to the gryphon. The dwarves were royalty, three brothers and three sisters, and there was a grand wedding at the end. The sieve turned sand to silver to gold, etc., but it also turned gold back to sand.

Thursday, Iskander had a dozen dwarves wind up in a grander wedding after adventures involving a gryphon, a hydra, and a tortoise that had extra heads where its feet should have been. The sieve turned wind to the sweetest music. The story took all day to recount.

On Friday, the brothers prayed together at noontime and dined together in their father’s house at evening.

On Saturday morning, Mahmood began telling interlocking stories of a dozen dwarvish warrior-kings and the gryphons, rocs, sphinxes, orophants, hamadryads, and other wondrous creatures. Before he even got to the sieve, his brother began telling his version on the other side of the city, elaborating each thread of the story with feats more daring and creatures more wondrous. They continued non-stop, neither pausing to sleep, sustained by ever-stronger coffee and rolls nibbled between sentences. By midweek, the brothers dreamt aloud of giants, ghosts, djinni, clever maidens, untrustworthy tailors…

Their listeners shuttled between coffeeshops, wondering how the story — for the two tales wove now into one — would end. The brothers seemed to finish each others’ sentences, even though they were half a mile apart, telling of miserly stepfathers, unlucky grandmothers, spiderwebs wide as oceans, volcanoes spewing rubies, flocks of mechanical birds, winter queens…

Their listeners stumbled, half-sleepwalking, from one to the other, lost in worlds of summer kings, immortal mask-makers, courageous dwarves in hippogriff-hide cloaks, indigo gryphons weeping for unrequieted love, sieves that sifted light from darkness, coffee from plain water, truth from coffeeshop tales…

…and woke in a city blank with new snow to find they’d each dreamt a different ending.

A. Portland, Oregon

1. Grand adventure is calling!

2. Slide your ass out of bed.

3. Drink a Stumptown or three.

4. Clear IPAs from your head.

5. Gas up the Subie wagon!

6. Put on your old Birks!

7. You’re in Oregon camo.

8. (In the city that works.)

9. Avoid roads with bored cops.

10. (You don’t want to go down.)

11. Stash the weed! Crank some indie!

12. Head straight south out of town.

637 miles later (about 10 hours, 2 minutes):

B. San Francisco, California

1. Cross your choice of big bridges.

2. Pick one – pay the damn toll!

3. Go up and go down.

4. Don’t stop at stop signs – just roll!

5. Go up and go down.

6. Get lost and then again!

7. Do E with a homeless dude.

8. He’ll become your best friend!

9. Good luck finding parking.

10. (Though it helps some to pray.)

11. Kick the homeless dude out.

12. And head south to L.A.

381 miles later (about 6 hours, 26 minutes – up to 7 hours, 50 minutes in traffic):

C. Los Angeles, California

1. Oh! The freeways and cloverleafs!

2. Lots of lights! Lots of cars!

3. Oh! The silicone breast implants!

4. Lots of strip clubs and stars!

5. Don’t turn down the wrong roads.

6. Never trust a valet.

7. Careful snorting while driving.

8. Buy a hands-free coke tray!

9. Party at clubs with ridiculous covers.

10. Drive like you’ve got the heart of a beast!

11. Avoid being on a reality show.

12. Onward, the desert awaits to the east.

792 miles later (about 12 hours, 19 minutes):

D. Albuquerque, New Mexico

1. Take that left turn.

2. (You know that you want to!)

3. Make fun of the town’s name.

4. Just where no one can hear you.

5. It’s a good place for business.

6. And for jobs (Forbes says so).

7. But they drive like they have

8. Nowhere special to go.

9. So just drink some peyote.

10. View the great color fountain!

11. See hot air balloon fiestas.

12. Then head on up the mountain!

449 miles (about 7 hours, 11 minutes):

E. Denver, Colorado

1. Celebrate that you’re here!

2. Your adventure is done.

3. Drink beer and get stoned.

4. Pretend you’re in Oregon!

5. It’s the Mile High City.

6. Snow’s a beautiful scene!

7. Reflect on your adventure.

8. All the places you’ve been!

9. You’ve had traffic and parking.

10. Yes, at times you were vexed.

11. But it’s your destination!

12. Where will you go next?

AMOS-312 came online, and pinged the depot overseer, indicating that the recharge was complete. Rusting arms lifted it out of the great empty rack, and AMOS-312 found the following issues during start-up diagnostics:

Item #57: Outer carapace, dented and scratched – beyond allowable parameters

Item #7: Wheels, bald

Item #321: Tracker Camera K32 reporting 0.007 seconds delay – beyond allowable parameters

Item #99: MONTHLY QUOTA NOT BEING MET – Please try harder for those targets, AMOS-312!

AMOS-312 wound its way through the depot, past the repair bays. It pinged AMOS-267, who was patiently waiting for a mechanic to attend to its fouled drive-train. It mournfully reported that this was the 2,513th day it had spent in the bay. The appropriate messages had been sent at regular intervals, insisting that the service be completed, and automated responses assured AMOS-267 that the problem would be rectified, and that it should
remain in the bay until the mechanic arrived.

AMOS-312 rolled across the sea of litter that had blown in through the main egress, noting that the door was still jammed half-way open. It allowed 320mm of clearance either side, which was acceptable. Crunching over a huddle of human skeletons, the beetle-shaped robot climbed the access ramp until it was rolling alongside the highway.

This was unacceptable. The roads were still log-jammed with rusting vehicles, none of which were moving. Extending its instrument array, AMOS-312 scanned the traffic in all directions, watching for various traffic violations. It normally picked up 3.12 violations per hour along the M1.

Other locations were visited, with the same results. Occasionally AMOS-312 would have a Second Law violation, which was distressing for the robot. The constant failures were beginning to cause the machine the equivalent of depression. It sulked beside the highways, shuffled past the school safety zones (usually a great money earner for the county) and wondered where all the traffic violators had gone.

There! AMOS-312 picked up activity near the CBD, a pair of vehicles travelling at great speeds. They were operating with complete disregard for the road rules, and as the robot reached a good observation point, it issued several expiation notices, including:

Item #13: Operate vehicle at excess speed (132 km/hr in 60 km/hr zone)

Item #27: Strike parked vehicle.

Item #56: Leave the scene of an accident

Item #78: Destruction of municipal property (fire-hydrant)

Item #83: Destruction of municipal property (bus-shelter)

Item #102: Discharge of firearms from moving vehicle

AMOS-312′s instrument array went offline for a moment when it was struck by gunfire. Still, it was able to photograph the number-plates of the offending vehicles as they roared past. The driver of the second vehicle had obscured the last digit, several human skulls being mounted on the bumper. Still, a cross-reference matched the vehicle type and colour, and two further fines were sent to the DMV computer.

AMOS-312 finished the job with a quick analysis of their billowing exhaust spectra, and got them both with a #43 (Exceed allowable carbon monoxide emissions). 

Central data confirmed that AMOS-312 had just achieved a personal best, and noted that it should be considered for Operator of the Month.

The Cabal’s third anniversary is approaching, and we’re looking for help figuring out how to celebrate, so we’re holding a contest. Click here to read the details and give us your ideas!

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