Wednesday 22 November 2006

Free Felix, Part One

Free Felix is a short story of two chapters, posted serially by me, your derivative host, Cheeseburger Brown.

This story is written in a style that pays homage to the late, great Clifford D. Simak, a writer whose mid-twentieth century pulp stories defied science-fiction conventions through an enduring fixation on dogs, country life, and common folks.

Simak's work has charmed me since I was a boy, and I've always wanted to write a Simak-like story. Well, here's my crack at it.

And now, we begin our tale:


Felix arrived by crate. In two crates, actually.

The larger crate was a colour that used to be white, lettered in English and Mandarin THIS SIDE UP with corresponding arrows. It contained his arms, legs, pelvis and viscera, with a padded compartment for his hands, feet and face. The smaller crate was as white as it had ever been, and in addition to the indication of preferred orientation it bore the plea, FRAGILE.

It contained Felix's brain.

Sheriff Tom sat down on the stoop to have a good, long look at the two crates. He knew they contained Felix on account of the manifest he had been asked to sign. The courier didn't care whether Tom had actually ordered anything or not. He gave Tom an address in the planetary metalibrary to contact with his complaint. He asked Tom for a glass of water, and Tom gave him one.

"I don't know what I'd have the feller do," Tom said to himself as he considered the crates after the courier had left. "Might do as well to keep him all packed up like he is."

Sheriff Wa Tom was law, order and mayor in the tiny pioneer camp of Naktong. He was a compact, barrel-shaped man with a fastidiously groomed mustache which, no matter how much attention Tom lavished upon it, resembled the peach-fuzz of a teenager more than anything else.

He wore a gauge-two heavysuit even though he would admit to his big brown dog in the quiet of night that he was feeling its drag on his bones these days, and that he secretly pined for a gauge-one. Sheriff Tom was seventy-three turns old.

Camp Naktong, on the other hand, had only been founded thirty-five turns ago. The entire settlement lived beneath only three small domes, crouched on a hillside overlooking the steaming flats of the Fortuna Fossae. About a third of the population at any given time were scientists of one specialty or another, using the camp as a base from which to launch their expeditions to Fortuna or the northern edge of the Noctis Fossae where the hills had stripes in them like an old-fashioned parfait dessert.

Just about everyone else at camp was either involved directly or indirectly in gathering, filtering, packaging, selling or shipping of spring water from the Fortuna or the Noctis in bottled or sack form to the larger camps down south at the valley. "Pure as Naktong" was an expression then in use at the growing twin super-camps of Nirgal and Huo Hsing.

A battered archway of sun-bleached plastic greeted visitors as they came through the main lock, proclaiming: Camp Naktong: Home of the Sweetest Waters on Mars. Pop: 142.

Sheriff Tom reminded himself to update the sign on account of Miss Vinovich's new baby. He had been meaning to update it for a week, but had not been able to find the instructions for the sign software.

Tom's wide verandah jutted out into the main square of the camp in the main dome, shelters of greater or lesser permanence ringing it on all sides. The square, like all the camp's streets, was made of fine, rust-coloured grains congealed flat and hard with a special kind of intelligent dilly the streetcleaners applied as a dust to keep the sand from getting kicked up and mucking with the ventilators. Across from Tom's verandah were the camp's two restaurants: Daddyeats where they served liquor, and Kidsyeats where they served milkshakes.

It was Daddyeats that Sheriff Tom felt would provide the counsel he sought, so he stood up slowly and sauntered across the lonely bronze street.

The doors swung open and shut behind him. He spotted a couple of campfolk and greeting them cheerily. He sat down and had Tabina bring him a glass of beer.

"What's in the package?" George Lee asked as he lumbered into Daddyeats. George Lee was a giant in the medical sense and a child in the mental sense -- every camp needed a lovable fool. "Tell me Tommy, please? What's in it? Can I open it?"

Tom snorted. "Dunno. Just arrived. This here paper says it's a feller named Felix."

"A ro-bot, you mean?" George asked, eyes wide.

"That's the way I have it pegged," Tom told him.

"My oh my," said Old Man Russet, who was rotting in the corner. "A rowboat. Say, where you going to row it, Tommy?"

"Not a rowboat, Russy, a robot. It's a sort of walking computer that acts like a man. You know the things."

Old Man Russet grunted noncommittally and returned to his drink.

George sat down at the bar beside Sheriff Tom, which made the glasses tinkle and quiver. "Can I help you build it, can I Tom? Please?"

When Tom hesitated to answer Tabina warned, "Now don't tell me you're thinking of sending it on its way, Tom..."

Tom sighed. "Well, I dunno. Maybe I should."

Nolan Chow, an amicable hydroareologist from Camp Nirgal, sidled up next to the sheriff to make his appeal. "You know as well as I do that Grace is getting too old to fix every seal failure, especially in that leaky west dome. I bet she'd appreciate a robot around to lend her a hand."

"It sure would make hauling the kegs easier," Tabina pointed out.

"I don't want any damn eggs," retorted Old Man Russet.

"Aw, come on Tommy," begged George. "Having a robot'd be fun. He could be like your deputy."

Sheriff Tom nodded slowly. A deputy! Now that would be something. He began thinking about all the things the robot could do for the little camp, and a smile bloomed on his thin lips. "I reckon you folks might be on to something," he admitted.

Putting Felix together didn't turn out to be as difficult as Sheriff Tom had at first figured. By the end nearly everyone at camp had lent a hand one way or another. Kalil the buggy man volunteered his garage for the purpose. Tabina brought some cheeseburgers by. Chad Beardley, a medical scientist originally from Nirgal but staying on after his research post at Naktong had expired, had some experience with surgical robots so he was selected to help Tom actually get the thing started up.

It was standing in the middle of Kalil's garage, all of the sand buggies having been parked off to one side. The robot was light brown in colour, with skin made from a soft, leathery plastic. The eyes were black and shiny, set within a face whose contours suggested a human being: the mouth, lipless but clearly pliant, the nostrils little more than slits. The "skin" around the eyes looked pliant as well, but currently hung lifelessly slack. The robot lacked fingernails, a navel and any evident genitalia -- but there was a ridge, a suggestion of a spine, running down the back.

Tabina thought the robot looked like it could use a good meal, and said so. Tom pointed out that robots probably didn't need to eat. "Au contraire," said Chas. "They eat just about anything, but they don't need much of it. A little oxygen will do him just fine if he gets peckish."

As its only insignia on the right shoulder the robot bore a simple numeral 8.

Kalil's chimpanzees were sitting in the corner eating, the big mother occasionally glancing over her shoulder warily at the silent man-shape in the middle of the garage. One of the little ones ate an ant, and was scolded.

"Well," said Tom slowly. "How do we boot it up?"

"Well," said Chas. He added pensively, "H'mmm."

George blinked.

Chas put his ear against the robot's chest and listened. "I don't hear anything," he reported.

"Should you be hearing anything?" Tom asked.

"Does he have a heart?" George wanted to know.

"Heck no, he ain't going to be having a heart, George," said Tom.

"On account a' his being a robot?"

"That's how I have it pegged."

Chas shook his head. "He has a heart. But I'm pretty sure it isn't in his chest. I'm trying to hear his power source. It should be ticking over on battery, even in storage." After a bit of fumbling he managed to find the pressure-points that opened the robot's chest panel. "Ah," Chas said abruptly.

"Ah?" echoed Tom.

"No go."

"No go?"

"There is no power source."

"Ah," said Tom.

That left them in a bit of a pickle. Tabina brought a couple of beers over to the garage, and they all stood around the inert robot and noodled the problem. Nolan Chow wandered in and asked how everything was going, then joined the ring of glum and pensive faces.

Kalil came by in the tow hauling a battered old buggy. He had been out-of-domes, so when he hopped off the tow he let loose a cloud of sand and snow which drifted sedately to the floor. Chad snapped the robot's chest shut quickly to avoid mucking up the innards. Kalil pulled off his masque and googles, and made a few quick signs to his co-pilot chimp who scurried off to do his bidding. Kalil shook the dust out of his hair. "What gives with the rowboat?"

"Ro-bot," corrected George helpfully.


They brought Kalil up to speed. He wished them good luck and turned his attention to the buggy he'd brought in which two of his chimps had now freed from the tow. Kalil replaced the main battery quickly, then hooked the buggy up to the leads from the garage grid. He flipped two switches and the engine purred to life.

"Red is plus, black is minus," George mumbled to himself.

Chas furrowed his brow. He opened the chest panel of the robot once more and peered inside. The small cavity he had accessed through the sternum was made of a dark, dull metal, the surface of which had several apertures and connection ports. He spotted two small, unremarkable cable ends near the back bearing the symbols "+" and "-" in tiny white type.

"You getting an idear there, Chas?" prompted Tom.

Chas nodded. "I reckon I am," he reported thoughtfully.

"I don't know about this..." murmured Kalil.

"Aw," groaned Tom petulantly, "you know we'll discount your power, don't you fret." He turned his attention back to Chas Beardley and Nolan Chow who had just finished checking the soundness of their connections. Two long cables hung from the main panel of the garage grid, snaked across a couple of light fixtures, and ultimately were plugged into the chest cavity of the robot.

"We're all set," said Nolan.

"Well okay then." Tom nodded at Kalil who grumpily stood and punched the appropriate controls. Power ought now to be flowing into the robot. Tom looked at Nolan, who looked at Chas, who put his ear against the robot's ribs.

Chas straightened. "I don't think it's working."

"Good afternoon," said Felix crisply, "and welcome to Felix, a professional-grade twelfth-generation precision automaton derived from the eighth pool. I exist, operate, and am at your service."

Every jumped, and George spilled his beer.

The chimps hoot-panted excitedly, for they reasoned that the strange patient had finally been successfully revived. They began to sign emphatically, their big hands blurring with the intensity of their gestures. "Want cup water? Throat dry? Want cup water?"

From that day forward is was not certain whether the small camp of Naktong had a robot or an extremely clever and courteous garage. As Felix continued to remind them, he lacked a Type 3 Cold Fusion Micropile Set with External Auxiliary Temperature Control Unit 44M. He indicated that his preferred brand would be Sony. "Do you have any idea how much one of those puppies costs?" Sheriff Tom asked Felix. "Jeeze Louise!"

And so Felix was permanently attached to the camp's power grid through the buggy bay at Kalil's garage. During the first week everyone at camp came around to have a boo at him, and maybe stop for a chat. Most folks had seen robots before -- at least from a distance -- but most of them had never spoken with one, or even had occasion to be near one of the ones that could speak intelligibly.

The children pestered Felix with questions. "How strong are you? Do you have a wife? How high can you count?"

"I can exert twelve hundred fifty Newtons of force. I have no wife. My calculations may enjoy any number conceivable." Felix always answered in a precise and refined manner, with gentle emphasis and polite tone. He spoke English when he had been activated, but seemed equally comfortable in the Marsgo of the campfolk.

Despite the immobility of his new deputy, Sheriff Tom stuck a golden star to Felix's breast. "If you see any trouble, you have the authority to sort it all out," Tom said solemnly.

"Yes sir," said Felix.

"Now, don't be using undue force unless it's warranted, you hear me?"

"Yes sir," said Felix.

"Well okay then," agreed Tom.

When the scientists came home after a long day out-of-domes they would stay and gab a while with Felix after sending the chimps to park their buggies. They would ask Felix his opinion on any particularly thorny problems they had encountered, and sometimes ask him the favour of doing a little number crunching for them if their computers were too full, or on the fritz, or if the metalibrary connections were too slow.

"So, do you think we're on solid ground with our estimate of the crevasse dimensions?"

"Given available data, the probability is ninety-seven point three nine four six repeater percent in your favour, madam."

More and more people found questions that they felt Felix could help them with, and after a while no one even needed an excuse to swing by and shoot the breeze with the camp robot. Tabina even opened up a little stand outside Kalil's garage during the afternoon to refresh the visitors and spoil the chimps with bananas. Whenever there was a problem at camp, the general advice was to head on down to Kalil's and ask.

Felix was eternally obliging, and always polite.


Anonymous said...

First comment! Takes me back to the Simon days (kind of like this story). This is fun; I hope we get a pleasant ending for a change.

So is George a throwback to Steinbeck's Lenny?

Moksha Gren said...

Cheeseburger's tuiumphant return to robots! Really enjoying this story and the hard work you've been putting into your craft is making a difference. You've always been a gifted story-teller, but your writing has been improving noticably of late.

Anonymous said...

I like the hickish accent.

I myself use to talk like that untill I moved to Jersey. Now I got "Joisey" drawl.

Good story.
No matter how much you discribe Felix I still keep seeing Jeremiah from SOS.

Happy Turkey Day All


Teddy said...

Felix...Felix the Traveller. Eight pool, that would be the predecessors of the strains presumably. I was always quite curious as to what Felix's story was. The whole business of "Something Wicked This Way Comes"

Please tell that story eventually, CBB!


Mark said...

Oh, it makes me pine for SOS. Coming in 2007, right? Early 2007, perhaps?

Looking forward to more about Felix and the cast of characters that you so quickly make interesting.

Cheeseburger Brown said...

Dear all,

I have to say, I love the way I can count on Teddy to instantly see any connection to events described in Simon of Space -- I just knew he'd remember who Felix would turn out to be.

Mark: I'm working on it. I haven't finished yet. I still owe Marsha a couple more rewritten chapters. I wake up in the night sweating about them. Soon!

Sorry I've been absent from the annals of the comments this week -- work is thick. Speaking of which, gotta go work.

Cheeseburger Brown

Anonymous said...

Your universe continually expands through time, space and imagination. I'm begining to wonder whether the faery of the last tale was not a natural product of the secret maths, its betterment dust being an evolved defense mechanism.

I'm going to have to go back and read SOS again to get the reference to Felix. Which reminds me I'll have to get my copy back off my dad.

Veriword: Myamu, childlike assertion of cowhood
Veriword 2 (though I'm certain the first was right): kcqojxst, The chemical formula of faery dust.

Anonymous said...

"Felix the first, of the first strain."

Sounds like a different executive.

Cheeseburger Brown said...

Dear Anonymous,

Sounds like a different executive.

That would be because this Felix is just a robot, for the time being.

Cheeseburger Brown

Nick said...

So wait - this robot wants a Sony battery? Hope they work better on Naktong.

Now I'm wondering where the "Free" fits in - is it a command or and adjective? No matter.. looking forward to part 2.

ictzkxkq: Similar to "xyzzy", this magical phrase will instantly transport the speaker to the nearest news stand. Very useful.