Free Felix is a short story of two chapters, posted serially by me, your chronicling host, Cheeseburger Brown.
Our slice of Martian pioneer life ends today, but not without a promise from me that we will be returning to Felix's story before too long. It's a long story and it spans eras, so we could drop in next anywhere or anytime.
With that, we conclude our tale:
"Is that your back bothering you again, Tommy?"
Wa Tom looked up slowly and nodded. "Ayup, that's what it is, Kwong. And no, I don't want anything for it, damn it. I'm a hundred and fifteen turns old, and a man can't ask for much more than that. Back be damned: I'll be dispatched soon enough."
Dr. Kwong shook his head and chuckled. "You're as stubborn as ever, Tommy. You're even healthy -- for a man your age. So clear out of here. I'll see you at the Daddyeats later."
Dr. Kwong leaned on her cane as she sat down. Tom craned his head around. "Now just where in the hell is that chimp of mine? Melita! Melita, damn it, it's time to leave."
Melita was a strong twelve-year-old chimpanzee with braided black fur and big brown eyes. She poked her head out from behind Tom's chair and hooted quietly. Tom spotted her and shuffled over. Melita handed him his cane, and then got into position to let Tom lean on her shoulder if necessary as he walked. She wore a simple white tank top and shorts, the top emblazoned with the red palm of her order. She was very fond of the old man, and thought he would never admit it for fear of disgracing the memory of his long passed favourite dog, Tom was pretty fond of her, too.
If they argued -- which they did, for Tom was stubborn and, as he grew older, more often wrong than right about the little things -- Tom always ended up saying, "Look, when you were born I was already over a century old."
To which Melita invariably and infuriatingly replied by signing, "Exactly!"
Camp Naktong was no longer the humble place it had been thirty years ago when Wa Tom had been sheriff. Where the arch over the main lock had once said Home of the Sweetest Water on Mars it now sported a display of wondrous facts, scrolling in English, Mandarin and Marsgo ten times an hour.
The sign said things like: Welcome to Camp Naktong, City Class 1, Boreal Valles Marineris...Population: 19 540...Visitor Information Kiosks are located All 16 Domes...Buggy Borrow see Dome 1...Plant Workers see Dome 9...The current dome temperature is 22C with a humidity index of ten...Out-of-domes temperature is -100C with strong western breezes of up to 90 kph, sand clearing by mid-day...Earn workhour bonuses through State Service, see City Hall in Dome 2...Water of Ares shares up 7.13 on Terran Exchange...Population Update: 19 541...
Beyond lay a broad avenue of smooth stone leading straight through the Old Quarter and directly on to the new administrative complex in Dome 2. The old medical building had been lifted and moved back to accommodate the wider street, and Tom grumped about that for a bit while shuffling down the steps with Melita's help. He was preparing himself for the trial of crossing the avenue, which was always bustling with careening buggies or speeding cars or clots of obnoxious young people.
Tom recalled a conversation from years ago when he had heard from Kel Programmer down in Camp Huo Hsing. Kel had said, "You're in for a bit of population explosions there, Sheriff. Ares is growing up, and the pioneering days are coming to an end. I'm sending you a magistrate to take some of the load off your hands."
Tom had indeed been busy, and he was thankful that he wouldn't have to arbitrate every little scuffle. Youngsters poured into the little camp by the dozens and then the hundreds -- youngsters who weren't interested in exploration or securing the nascent ecosystem: instead, they came for jobs, markets and society.
Tom found himself in charge of a police force who could have been his grandchildren. He had a devil of a time just understanding what they were saying half the time, their speech riddled with bizarre neologisms and baffling slang.
Eventually Kel Programmer sent in a fire chief, and then a full-time mayor. Shortly thereafter Wa Tom retired with no regrets. The camp was too big for him, anyhow. He remembered fondly the days when he knew the names of everyone in camp...
Melita was tugging his arm, pulling him back to the present. Tom looked down. She was signing, "Pay attention, cross street." Tom nodded and allowed her to adeptly guide him through traffic. He followed like a lamb.
Once the street was successfully forded he said, "Melita, take me to Kalil's. I've been fixing to have a conversation with our Felix."
Kalil's garage was a garage-in-fact no longer. The simple colonist shelter that Kalil's father had erected turns and turns ago was still there, but a more permanent structure stood around it. The quaint inner shelter still bore the original sign that said Kalil's Buggy Bay in big green letters, with smaller blue type beneath reading The Robot is 'in'.
Kalil's son restored so-called "classic buggies" in the front, and Felix lived in the back.
Not too many folks came to see Felix these days, for the young people didn't -- and couldn't -- know about him, and the older folk were mostly gone. When the magistrate had arrived Felix had to kept out of sight. Oddly enough, the biggest problem was not that Felix was not the camp's property, or that he had been entirely misdelivered, but instead the outstanding tab for the misdelivery. Apparently, as Tom had learned several turns ago, Felix had been wildly misdirected and the charge for freight was high.
"Where the hell is Saotario?" he had asked, squinting at the screen as Kalil explained the particulars of the shipping fiasco.
"What else does it say?" Nolan Chow wanted to know, smacking his toothless lips pensively.
"Tea-Ex? Oh. That's Texamerica."
"Texamerica -- it's a Terran continent. Didn't you ever go to school, you old coot? This robot was supposed to go to north-western Terra."
"Holy smokes!" said Sheriff Tom. "The Earth!"
Indeed. And as the population explosion went on the disused shelter in the corner of Dome 1 was forgotten. Kalil passed on, followed by just about everyone else Tom knew. He blinked away the past and barked at Kalil's son, San, to fetch him a glass of water and an apple for Melita.
He settled down on his chair and said his helloes to the robot. No one else sat in Tom's chair, and if they forgot Felix reminded them: "It defies local protocol to occupy that chair, if you please."
Felix had quite a bit of play on his cable so he was able to walk over and sit by Tom's chair. "Felix," Tom began, "you know I'm an old feller. I'm not going to be hanging around too much longer, there's no doubt about that. Hush now, Melita. Now Felix, it has bothered me for a dog's age how you've never had a proper whatchamacallit so's you could walk around like anyone else. Thing is, by my figuring, when I dispatch I'll have enough workhours left over to get you one."
"I could not wish for your untimely demise, sir."
"Untimely is exactly wrong," chuckled Tom. When he had gathered his wheezing under control, he continued: "Fact is, the time is just about right. Melita, fetch me my purse. Thank you. Now see here Felix? This is my will. You can see I've left you the entire bundle, along with a completed order form for your whatsis."
Felix held the small screen in his hand and peered at it.
Tom went on to say, "As soon as you get word, you execute that order. You follow?"
"Word of your timely demise, sir?"
"That's the ticket."
"Yes sir, I understand your instructions."
There was a moment of silence between the two of them. Tom cleared his throat. "Say Felix, I really appreciate the way you've helped all us folks out over the seasons. I mean, even when you were just there to listen, you were helping. Remember when Xi Po lost her baby? We all couldn't have got through it without you Felix. What I'm trying to tell you is, I sure am glad you got shipped to us instead of to some fool Earthman."
Uncharacteristically, Felix jumped as if startled. "Pardon me, sir?"
"I say, you were originally supposed to be shipped to the Earth. Haven't I ever mentioned that to you, in all these turns? You knew you were misdirected, of course."
"Yes sir," said Felix, his voice still a little strange. "I had not understood that my original destination was Terran." He paused. "To whom do I belong, sir?"
"You belong to the camp, I guess, but the camp don't know it anymore so I guess you belong to me. And I suppose that when I'm gone and you have your thingy-magicky in your chest instead of those cables, you'll be no one's property but your own."
Felix seemed to consider this. "Would I then be free to pursue my own interests, sir?"
"You would. Where do you want to go?"
"I should go to Terra, to my intended mailing address."
"You're an upstanding feller, Felix. Do you think they missed you?"
"Insufficient data to guess, sir."
"How do you reckon you'll travel?"
"Insufficient data to guess, sir."
"I'm sure you'll think of something."
"Thank you, sir."
Tom paused, and patted his pockets ritualistically. "Well okay then," he declared. "Melita, have Kalil's boy start me up a buggy. And get me a suit -- we're going for a drive out-of-domes."
Felix continued to live at the garage for many turns, even after he received his cold fusion micropile in the mail and had Kalil's son San install it in his chest. San and Felix more or less adopted Melita, who had been deeply troubled by the death of Wa Tom out-of-domes and needed to be surrounded by friends. Nolan Chow's kids brought their kids by to play with her, and after a few months she began to cheer up.
Felix never complained about restoring classic buggies, but San suspected that Felix was carefully watching the workhours accumulate in his numbered account, waiting for the day when he judged he had enough resources to ship off for Terra. As the turns went by and Felix did not act, San began to wonder whether the robot intended to go or not -- who could know the mind of a robot, a not-quite-aware thing?
San got an inkling, however, when he noticed Felix quietly making some unusual purchases -- that is, unusual for a robot. From the Nirgal Complete Catalogue he ordered large work-boots, two pairs of large slacks, an overcoat and a smattering of sweaters. From the camp haberdashery he bought a fine hat, and from the salon he bartered for bags of old hair.
San said, "I get the feeling we're going to be missing you soon, Fe."
"I will miss you too, sir," replied Felix.
San nodded to himself, cracked open a bottle of water and downed it. "Pardon my nosying into your business, Fe, but it seems like you're working up a plan that's got to be six kinds of crazy."
Felix regarded him levelly. "Which element is most likely to fail, sir?"
"Well," said San, slapping his knee, "let's take a looksee. You want to try on your get-up for me?"
Felix disappeared into the equipment locker he had called his home for a few turns and San heard him rummaging around. A moment later he emerged, oversized clothes stretched on his bulky frame, a hand-stitched beard hanging awkwardly from the lower half of his smooth face. With great dignity he placed a grey belted hat on top of his head.
San rubbed his jaw thoughtfully. "Huh. Well. How do you like that?"
"Do I appear to be a human being?" asked Felix.
San frowned. "Maybe a human being put together by a six-year-old," he admitted, trying not to chuckle. "Why don't we take you down to Minnie's Esthetics and see if we can't improve on this a bit?"
"I would be most grateful, sir."
And that's how Felix's tenure at Camp Naktong came to an end: a chilly night, Minnie, San and Melita huddling for warmth on the tram platform waiting to see him off once his ride arrived.
Minnie had done an exceptional job: Felix truly looked like a man. He stood on the edge of the platform practicing his smile, the skin-like makeup covering his plastic face bunching in an almost realistic way at the corners of his mouth. "Remember not to show your teeth," Minnie reminded him. "Use a closed mouth."
"Yes, madam," said Felix.
"And don't be too polite, it's a dead giveaway," said San.
"Yes, sir. That is to say: okay, buddy."
Melita pant-hooted sadly and offered Felix a banana, which he only accepted after Minnie told him he'd have to at least pretend to eat or the other passengers might get suspicious. San sighed. "There's a hundred ways this can go wrong, but if there's anyone who can pull it off, it's you, Fe."
"Thank you," said Felix. "Your assistance has been invaluable, my friends."
Minnie sniffed. "It's going to be weird around here without you, Felix. We'll all going to miss you something terrible."
"And I you," agreed Felix. "But Sheriff Tom always felt it was important for me to conduct my own destiny."
San nodded. "Well, there's no arguing that. It's a part of growing up. At least, for humans it is."
The tram whisked into the station with a gush of freezing air from outside. Felix doffed his hat to each of them and presented a small bow, then picked up his suitcase and advanced to the edge of the track. A scuffed yellow and black robot with a transit crest on its shoulder stepped out of the doors. "Ticket, please."
Felix handed over his ticket, briefly revealing the golden star pinned to his sweater as he opened his overcoat.
The transit robot was satisfied. "Please step aboard, sir."
Felix looked over his shoulder. "I will never forget you, my friends. I will carry you with me always. Thank you for everything."
Minnie sobbed. San put his arm around her. "You get now, you hear? Don't you look back, Felix. We're all rooting for you. And if you get yourself in any trouble, don't you hesitate to call. You got that?"
Felix nodded. "Goodbye," he said.
The doors slid closed behind him. Felix chose a seat in the empty tram and picked up a newspaper to read, crossing his legs the way Minnie had shown him. The transit robot withdrew into his cubicle and a warning chime echoed through the station. "Next stop: Camp Huo Hsing," said the tram. "Please stand back while I am in motion."
The tram pulled away and accelerated with a rising hum. San and Melita waved.
"Do you think we'll ever see him again?" asked Minnie tearfully.
San nodded, rubbing his chin. "I don't doubt it. This is just the beginning of Felix's adventures, not the end. I bet you workhours to whizbees he'll come back and visit us some day."
"I hope so," she said.
The station was quiet. A light snow fell on the glass ceiling. Soon, the sun would rise.