Sunday, 27 March 2011

Babysitter

The invasion of Cassiopeia was age-inappropriate for the child: that much was clear.

All the worst words in the dictionary were being acted out live, and that violated the Standard with respect to age-appropriate subject matter. The child was present, which made the Standard paramount. On the other hand, duty was paramount.

The soldier was of the highest quality. No expense had been spared in his manufacture or maintenance. He was beautiful, too. He was as much a parade piece as a tool. Never the less, considering two things to be simultaneously paramount upset him.

The child bleated, "Where's my mom?"

The soldier devoted sixty neuronal clusters to this question while the rest of him appraised the situation outside the bunker. The sky was black with giant twisting bodies of smoke. They guttered, illuminated from within as anti-aircraft beams found targets. Enemy corvettes descended over a city still stunned from orbital bombardment. Kamari troops swarmed into the streets like spilled ink. Weapons flashed.

The soldier was a product of peacetime. The bunch of homos who designed him had probably been bored, so they overbuilt. It was easy for the soldier to settle on his best strategic options and still have plenty of processing power left over to be bothered about the child at his side. While in storage, this excess of thinking potential was a common topic of conversation among his product line.

The child was less than half a homo high. It had a squeaky voice and watery optics. Its rendering of the Common Verbal Protocol was idiosyncratic and error-prone.

"Are you a boy or a girl?" asked the soldier. His right arm split apart into sub-branches which unfolded each in turn into bristling arrays of weapons.

Nobody in storage had ever talked about anything like this. Nobody mentioned ever having seen it simulated. The soldier tried to imagine that the child's childness was less interesting than its inclusion the wider set of civilian homos. It was difficult. In peacetime, so many important things about the special status of a child had been impressed upon him -- principally because children tended to be on the front lines of parade audiences.

Despite the fact that there was a war in progress, the presence of a minor -- an exception-laden sub-class of uninjured civilian homo -- obliged him to take the Standard for Moral Decency into consideration at every turn.

He filed a bug report.

The soldier decided that his particular situation was unique, and this disappointed him because unique situations were unwieldy. In response, the average temperature of his cluster arrays rose by a tenth of a degree.

The child was not tall enough to see through the bunker's narrow horizontal slit to the outside world. Like all homos it was night-blind, so when the lamps went out the child had lost all visual processing capacity. Without input the child was succumbing to speculation. The soldier understood the nervousness this entailed.

"A boy," sobbed the child.

He popped open his maintenance hatch and allowed the bundles of thick cabling warmed by his secondary exhaust to droop out. Using the barrel of an unholstered surface-to-air phase cannon he gently ushered the child toward the hanging tangle. As hoped, it responded positively to the warmth and the softness with a slowing heart rate. "There there, boy-child," said the soldier. "There there."

Multiple targets crystallized in his vision as they scurried outside the bunker. He extended a sniper rifle and sketched some trajectories, then actualized them. The targets were randomized.

"What's that noise?" squeaked the child, pressing itself deeper into the bundle of warm cabling.

The soldier said, "It's a woodpecker."

He rotated his upper section thirty degrees and charged a long-range burster, then trained it on a troop skiff as it swept in to land. He released the burster. The cargo was dissolved and the skiff disabled. He sprung an internal coolant leak but believed he could compensate. The atmospheric pressure was dropping. Temperature remained below the seasonal norm.

A series of explosions tore through the parliamentary quarter.

"And there are giants," added the soldier. "Giant homos with big gay grins. You hear their footsteps as they stride across the city, dispensing rainbows from their nostrils."

"I want to see."

"You are too short to see. There there. Come come. I will tell you all about it."

The soldier tracked a friendly platoon and provided cover as they sprinted between ruined buildings. At the same time his radar view of the sky became increasingly complex. Great oblong warships were precipitating out of the clouds.

The soldier clamped down on the coolant leak. He tried to squeeze out another diagnostic assessment but his body was being rattled around too much by so many simultaneous discharges. Battery levels remained optimal. He queried his arms for an inventory of rounds and projectile stores, and they replied when they could. He updated his calendar to reflect that tomorrow's parade would almost surely be cancelled.

"Do you know where's my mom?"

"Yes, I can see her now," claimed the soldier. "She is riding on a flying unicorn. They are flying in circles around the giants, catching the nose-rainbows in a basket. Candy apples are descending from the sky. They are landing in the city and kittens are coming out of them. The kittens are infiltrating the arterial skyways, moving westward while laying down a suppressing meow. I will now point my long-range petting cannon at some of them, and engage the love-trigger. Do not be afraid. I am simply petting the kittens. One, two, three, four, five bundles of kittens. The kittens are purring so much their fur is flying through the air and floating down like snow. Have you ever been out to the pole to see snow?"

"No," said the child. "But I saw penguins at the zoo."

Tactical nukes flared at the horizon. The ground rumbled, the bunker shuddered. "The giants think this is all so funny they are falling down laughing. They are laughing so hard they cannot breathe. Can you hear them gasp?"

The air was sucked out of the room briefly between the echoes of twin sonic booms. The child coughed and cried. "Make them stop!"

"Very well."

The soldier let fly a brace of very large charges. He mopped up with his particle guns, sweeping them back and forth across the blast sites. He contributed one third of his bandwidth to serve as an improvised communications node for nearby units. The coolant leak was worse than it had at first appeared. The notion that the appearance of a thing and the facts of a thing could differ further disquieted the soldier.

"Your mother has rallied the unicorns. They are charging. Can you feel the pounding of their hooves?"

"Who they fighting?"

"Sky goblins. Orbital bombardment pixies. Multiple-warhead self-guided faeries."

"Is my mom okay?"

"Her status is nominal," reported the soldier as he pivoted to let fly another burster. Steam jetted from his auxiliary ports with a hiss. He was deeply troubled by his ongoing predicament. Mechanical stress on his forward grappling foot spiked when he rotated. The font of medium-range rounds was depleting more slowly than short-term estimates had guessed. He craved to redefine the child as medical evacuee but he could see no sign of injury.

Coolant dripped down inside him.

"I'm scared!" squealed the child.

The soldier laboured to construe its fear as an injury but could not resolve the resulting protocol conflict. Fear was an expected response to war, at least for homos. "Do you enjoy fireworks?" asked the soldier, barrels barking. "Red ones, and green ones, and blue ones?"

The child covered its ears and made unintelligible singing sounds.

Kamari forces appeared at the end of the smashed boulevard, banners beating in the wind. Infantry scuttled ahead into the smoking debris, scanning for life and machines. At their heels rode cavalry, the hovering mounts captained by helmeted homos with robots in filigreed silver carapaces at their sides. Beyond that a line of tanks with roving turrets picked off whatever was left moving. The soldier understood the configuration well: it was essentially a parade.

A victory parade.

The enemy's march to the city's heart would take them directly over the bunker. Infantry swarmed into view. Only seconds remained.

The child was startled when the first drops of coolant dripped down upon its face. It blinked and pawed at the warm cables, kicking and squirming to roll aside. The soldier saw the liquid-spattered face of the child with his internal visual sensors, and recognizers deep inside his homo evaluation stack began to tickle.

The child appeared as if it were injured. The dark coolant on its pale hull resembled blood in the gloom of the soldier's inner cabling.

But it was not blood. It was coolant.

If the child were injured it would be a candidate for medical evacuation. The soldier would not be remiss in facilitating such an evacuation by whatever means he found available given the prevailing conditions. If the prevailing conditions were his imminent destruction, he could justify evacuating the child personally.

But it was not blood. The child was not injured. The sensitivity of the soldier's internal visual sensors was not sufficient to resolve the difference, but his understanding of past events was.

Vexed, the sampled temperature of his clusters inched higher.

"Have you ever been to the beach and seen crabs? Crab claws click on the rocks. We can hear them now, dancing in the street. Tip-tap, clickity-clack. The happy crabs are executing a sector search pattern augmented aperiodically by random expanding square sweeps, passing out red lollipops to everyone they meet."

Infantry units streamed over the pavement, the leading edge exploring the exposed boundary of the bunker that peered out from the historic hill crowned by the Cassiopeian parliament. They detected a target instantly: in the infrared the child glowed like a torch.

"Did you know that happy crabs love popcorn?" asked the soldier.

He randomized the swarm. Pop, pop, pop. His short-range particle guns spun down with a whine. His feet twitched as he longed to fire escape thrusters.

But he knew it was only coolant.

The soldier's duty was to defend the hill. His analytical stack was hardcoded for function first. Every assessment told him there was no conceivable way to trick himself into unknowing that the child was not injured. He could not will himself to blindness.

A second wave of infantry poured over the bunker, slithering inside the aperture and penetrating the sanctum within.

A spark! The soldier simultaneously soldered his leak and took advantage of the fleeting local power interruption to reset the round count on the medium-range chamber even though it still contained live rounds. In this way, the next ammunition cartridge to be rammed inside the chamber would compress and detonate the extra rounds. By pressing his medium-range artillery stalk against his neuronal cluster vault, he could blow his own brains out.

"I don't like it!" screeched the child.

"There there," said the soldier.

Infantry leapt upon him, pincers whirling. The soldier took aim at the nearest and overrode the recommended ordnance flag, engaging instead with his medium-range barrels.

He fired. His head came apart into charred splinters and melted ionic gold.

The damaged unit toppled over sideways. Internal visual sensors detected a child with an apparent injury. Automated protocols took over and evaluated the spattered mammal as a medical evacuee.

External sensors evaluated the strategic situation and deemed it hopeless.

The headless soldier pointed his right fist upward and removed the bunker's ceiling. He tightened up his loose cabling and drew the child inside himself. His feet unfolded into thruster bells.

"What's happening?" the child cried, but there was no reply.

Rockets flared and roared. The ruined bunker dropped away beneath. They pierced the clouds and soared into the sunshine, leaving a trail of sparkling vapour...

"We flying wif unicorns now?"

They were. They were indeed. High above everything, forever.


Fin.

23 comments:

Tolomea said...

is there someway I can get signed up to just always receive all the comment emails?

SaintPeter said...

This may be one of your best lines EVER:
I will now point my long-range petting cannon at some of them, and engage the love-trigger.

1) Just finished rereading SoS, so it's exciting to see a little connected piece.

2) I love the conflict of "Highest priority". Reminds me of one of the Robocop movies. It also reminds me why Civilian control of the military is a good idea, but civilian COMMAND is a bad idea.

3) Us of "homos" is amusing and makes me really wonder about the culture of Cassiopeia.

4) War is generally age-inappropriate for people of all ages.

5) Yay, new updates, yay!

Cheeseburger Brown said...

Dear Tolomea,

Not that I know of. Does anyone geekier have any insights into the actual jiggery-pokery of the feature on Blogger's end?

Yours,
Cheeseburger Brown

Cheeseburger Brown said...

Dear SaintPeter,

1) I recently re-read a few random pages myself and was heartened that they weren't wretched.

2) The jockeying of priorities seems clinical and simple in the mind of a robot, but I think it's something most of us struggle with on an ongoing basis.

3) I admit I am amused lately by cheap tricks so far as double-entendres go ("We invite your barrister complex to blow us!", "bunch of homos", and so on). I think on a certain level there is some commentary built-in there about the semiotic schisms inherent in reading a text in a language that is, presumably, different than the characters speak. Also, I think sticking a random and nonsensical giggle into the middle of a tragedy is...somehow appealing to me on a deep level. As a bonus, in a story like this it could be read as a kind of critique of peacetime priorities as seen through a more military point of view.

4) This is indisputably true.

5) I'm not sure what's next. I have a TSM chapter cooking, but remain open to new possibilities. My wife is away so I have the kids all to myself this week, so I might end up getting more "thinking time" than "doing time." We'll see how it pans out.

6) Neither of you has yet commented on what I believe to me the rub at the heart of this story. I don't think it's essentially for grokking the action, but I am left curious to see if what I perceive as the sort of "literary punchline" will seem important to anyone else.

Yours,
Cheeseburger Brown

SaintPeter said...

I'm not sure - did you intend the punchline to be "You have to have only half a brain to save a child"?

I suppose there is some commentary there about peacetime militaries, parades, etc. Maybe I didn't read deeply enough?

pso said...

Wonderful! I loved it.

Regarding the literary punchline... It was interesting to see the robot look for wrong reasons to do what it was convinced was the right thing.

Cheeseburger Brown said...

SaintPeter suggested,

...I suppose there is some commentary there about peacetime militaries, parades, etc.

Well perhaps, but only tangentally so. I don't have ideological agenda to advance here. Neither character in the story is a metaphor for a political party.

pso put out,

...It was interesting to see the robot look for wrong reasons to do what it was convinced was the right thing.

Which, as a thematic element, ties the story somewhat to the previous one, The Seventh Rule.

I suppose when I say "literary" I mean to a certain extent "meta" or at least bestraddling the boundary between inside the story and outside of it.

My question to you is this:

Did the child live or die?

Yours,
Cheeseburger Brown

Tolomea said...

> Which, as a thematic element, ties the story somewhat to the previous one

I had a half baked comment to that effect, now I wish I'd finished it.

It also reminds me of Jemimah at the end of SOS.

> Did the child live or die?

It seems likely to me that the child lived, the robot perceives the child as speaking after the head splodey event and I don't see why it would hallucinate, other parts assert that it was quite well made, so if it has a medical evacuation function one would presume that also functions well.

That said my general feeling was that it cared more about saving itself than saving the child although in a quick skim I can't find anything in the text to justify the feeling.

Only just twigged as to why it fixed the coolant leak, nice detail.

Mark said...

I thought the child died based on, "Automated protocols took over and evaluated the spattered mammal as a medical evacuee." But, then after the child spoke again, it appeared the "automated protocols" were mistaken.

But then I thought maybe the robot was destroyed and was dreaming it all. Do androids dream of injured children?

The robot clearly wanted an excuse to leave the fight, but beyond that I don't guess I get your literary meaning here. "High above everything, forever," seems to imply a heavenly realm... maybe?

Cheeseburger Brown said...

Preamble
Um -- people who don't like to get into the gooey nonsense in my head might just want to skip this part. You might just like reading the end product. How I get there can be convoluted and stupid.

The Thing
Here's the thing about this story:

It has two parts.

a) What Happened

b) How It Is Told

This is both a theme in the story, as well as a feature of its construction.

(This kind of rhyming between subject matter and container pleases me for some reason. For a crude example, I think that a story all about the number four thousand and eighteen should definitely be four thousand and eighteen words long, excluding title. I enjoy that sort of thing.)

CBB: "The truth is, the germ for this story was simply that I wanted to deliver a happy ending. No chopped off legs, no self-murdering thugs, no terminal trajectories. It occurred to me that I wouldn't dare hurt an innocent little child, so I should start there."

The setting is the invasion of Cassiopeia by interstellar assholes from Kamari Star (events described from a historical point of view in SIMON OF SPACE, for those of you keeping score on the connective sinew).

CBB: "My second goal was to write a story less than two thousand words long. I chose a pre-existing scenario so I wouldn't get bogged down imagining a backstory that would be extraneous to the point anyway."

The action is elementary: an invasion is happening, everybody is getting picked off, somebody got their kid into the parliamentary bunker before dying, the soldier takes care of it, blows some stuff up and flies away -- perhaps to safe rescue in orbit from friendly forces?

So all we're left with is (b) How It Is Told.

The point of view is third person, but we are party to the soldier's machinations in a way we're not to the child's inner world. I affected the pronoun "he" for the soldier and "it" for the child to reinforce this narrative distance.

Plot
The plot is really just one point: a soldier's programming forces him to lie to a child about what is happening.

The narrative he gives is filtered.

...And so is the narrative of the narrative. (Tee-hee! You see, that's how squares like me have fun!)

The key to this story is that the last line of the story can only be a lie.

CBB: "I was trying to make a happy ending, but the story thwarted me."

We all want a happy ending for the child. We all want to imagine that he is rescued in orbit, or that he is jetted out of harm's way in good enough shape for further adventures, plucky young thing as he might be. We want that because we're mammals.

The story knows this.

That's why the final line is hyperbole. The narrative has been filtered, and a substitution has been made.

While we might be persuaded to sign off open-endedly but hopefully with "leaving a trail of sparkling vapour..." and imagine things pan out for the kid, the story doesn't end there. The story suggests that the headless soldier and child are flying with uniforms "high above everything, forever."

Which, given the circumstances, is really quite unlikely. If you think about it.

The story lied to us.

Just like the soldier did. To protect our feelings.

It isn't open-ended. The kid died. He must have, or the story wouldn't need to fudge the details. Tricksy. But then again any other ending wouldn't have done the concept of filtered narrative any justice. For the story to be about anything other than moment, it had to jump the rails and go a little meta.

Anyway, that concludes this week's rambling edition of "Inside Cheeseburger Brown's Brain!"

Yours,
CBB

Cheeseburger Brown said...

s/uniforms/unicorns

Dennis Nezic said...

Well, surely such a sophisticated and well-equipped soldier has a low-level (akin to the homo Hypothalamus :p) first-aid escape-pod protocol built into it. I have little doubt that they made it into space. Whether they managed to sneak past the corvettes and orbital bombers is another matter, but possible -- given the relatively minute size of the pod. Whether they had enough oxygen to make it to a safe destination is another matter. The only thing which really implies their demise is that they were flying away "forever".

Except for the last paragraph or so, the story was kindof a futurization of "Life is Beautiful (1997)" :-).

The concept of conflicting protocols, especially when handled by robots (perfectly rational things), is fascinating -- I think it's a useful way to see the entire implications of a protocol. I'm sure the scenario in this story wouldn't be the only time the Standard came into conflict with the soldier's duty. (Ie. perhaps they are completely contradictory, and can only coexist insofar as the contradictions are ignored.) Did Asimov ever write a robot-rule to handle such contradictions? Aren't we now getting quite philosophical about finding a non-contradictory protocol :P.

Anonymous said...

what a great little story. I am late to the party as usual but just like to point out, we advanced mammals can choose to interpret things how we like. We can indeed lie to ourselves, unlike Soldier in this story. I choose to believe the happy ending, today...

any time I manage to squeeze out my work day/night to visit your site is alway worth it, CBB.

Orick of Toronto.

Tolomea said...

> The only thing which really implies their demise is that they were flying away "forever".

It's kinda of a subtle thing, but the point about that line is it is totally out of character with regard to the rest of the narration which is very clinical.

Thus the read in is that the last line is a complete lie.

To be honest it was a bit subtle for me, but now that I see it it reminds me of this totally unsubtle movie http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0511124/.

That in turn reminds me of Cowboy Bebop where it took me a good long time to accept the truth of the final outcome.

I personally would suggest expanding the last sentence a little so the disconnect is stronger.

Teddy said...

When you mention the self-murdering thugs, I presume you mean the one about the people who get copied in transit. I didn't think that was sad at all - the thug was a jerk anyways, scamming and stealing and charging people for free stuff. Sad little king of a sad little hill. The copies of the girl and the guy lived happily ever after though, so that was nice.

TRH

Sheik Yerbouti said...

I think I'm glad to know I was right about that last line -- though of course I didn't want to be right, so I guess I'm lying to myself.

Either way, CBB, you've done it again. Amazing, the way you put your brain inside your character's head... even when the character is an automaton.

I got a small internal chuckle with the homos as well.

That sounded weird.

fooburger said...

Ending was non-specific enough that a dork like me doesn't need any excuse to make up his own ending.

But when it comes to literary sophistication, I'm definitely a redneck.

Jason Kellerman said...

Seriously WTF is this? I understand surrealism...but it should be done to add to the story, not just for the fuck of it. Wanna read real writing? try this one out: thegcs.blogspot.com

Cheeseburger Brown said...

Dear Jason,

I really appreciate you taking the time to comment on my work. Conflating the experimental narrative approach here with "surrealism" is not a criticism I've heard before. Every bit of feedback is valuable.

I look forward to reading some of your "real writing." I hope I am appropriately humbled by your mastery of the craft.

Please put some work into your manners.

Yours,
Cheeseburger Brown

Cheeseburger Brown said...

Dear Jason Kellerman,

I went to your blog to read some of your chapters, and even posted some helpfully non-profane constructive criticism on your latest post.

But, for some reason, the comment has disappeared!

How could this be? Do you have a support ticket open with Google to address vanishing content?

...The only alternative, unthinkable as it would be, is that you're too much of a chicken-hearted hypocrite to allow critical comments on your blog.

Yours,
Cheeseburger Brown

Sheik Yerbouti said...

I just read some of it. What are "marco molecules"? Do they need to be balanced by "polo molecules"?

Cheeseburger Brown said...

Dear Sheik,

Did you leave a comment? He seems to delete any contributions to his blog feedback rather reflexively.

He's re-organized his opus now, though, so at least the front door leads to a prologue instead of dropping us right into the middle of a confusing and derivative stream of muck.

...Though I would be remiss in failing to mention that for Internet fiction it is well punctuated.

Yours,
Cheeseburger Brown

Sheik Yerbouti said...

CBB,

No, after hearing your account, I
figured I'd just keep the discussion over here in case it wasn't welcome there. I believe there's a way to turn off comments, which might serve his purpose better.

The change must have happened before I showed up, since I had no such confusion. His premise was creative, but it didn't take me anywhere -- perhaps I need to give it some more time.

Good point about the punctuation. We could use a bit more of that in the wild.