SepSceneWriMo #3.23 – BumbleBot

Touchdown occurred at six minutes past eleven that evening. The control room held the engineers who’d designed, built and deployed the landing vehicle and its industrious occupants. Terry performed the unnecessary verbal countdown. JimmyK had rigged the main screen to actually tick the seconds, and the numerals were, shit, twenty centimeters high. But Terry insisted.

“Three, two, one. And there they go.”

The event went off without a hitch. Only, it wasn’t a singular event. Touchdown of the Lunar Surface Etching Bots involved the rocket lander’s release of six balls that unsprung into round wire cages. These flexible cable structures possessed control-hubs containing radios, solarcells and pulley systems designed to reel and unreel twisted wire that would make the cages tumble along on the surface of the Moon.

The cameras in each BumbleBot, as they were called, flashed wildly as the balls spun in flight. The cages expanded and hit the surface, bouncing as they slowed in the powdery regolith that covered the Moon.

“We’re good on BBot number three and four. Yup, there’s number one.”

Eventually all six would tumble to a stop and report in healthy.

“How far off our mark?” Terry, commander and original investor, practically twitched in anticipation.

JimmyK, chief designer, looked affronted. “We’re not ‘off’ at all. We’re just closer to the middle of the ‘D’ than to the corner. But, hey, it’s a loop. We can get started as soon as we link ’em up.”

The six BumbleBots would need to inter-communicate to accomplish their mission.

“Damn-it Jimmy, you said the link-ups would be automa…”

“They are. See?” Jimmy thumbed at the screen. Six columns, indicating health statistics—green lights next to the ‘Paired’ labels—indicated successful swarm-connections between the bots. Although directed from Communication Central, ComCen would rely on the inter-communications between the robotic tumblers to orchestrate the details of etching logos into the Moon’s surface.

The bots were, in essence, celestial graffiti artists. Their subway walls, as it were, had been selected with great care and research. Mare Serenitatis, the Sea of Serenity, was a six-hundred kilometer-wide dark patch in the upper third of the perpetually Earth-facing surface of the Moon.

The team of BumbleBots would traverse a predefined path, their passing would leave a disturbed trail of lighter colored regolith traced in the charcoal-shaded bed of the mare. One hundred kilometers wide and twenty tall, the resulting scar represented the culmination of ten years of legal battles.

Just who owned the Moon?

It turns out, whomever could get there first.

Terry gave the command, JimmyK tapped the keys and the line of BumbleBots began their choreographed dance on the Moon. The process would take months. For the first day, the ComCen team hung around mesmerized by the snapshots the bots returned to the team’s monitors. Designed for attitudinal and situational awareness, each bot could adjust its path, reversing if necessary, take photos and even short clips at will. When a bot’s battery discharged too low, the bot would ask the other robots to pause allowing them all to position themselves for maximum exposure to the sun.

The whole process became routine. Darci Reyes took first watch while the rest of the team went home and logged in periodically to check progress.

Two months had passed as the path of the bots slowly revealed itself through the telescope trained on Mare Serenitatis.

JimmyK decided to take an extra shift. He’d dedicated himself to the project, always pulling extra duty. His shy demeanor belied his exquisite competency. He’d requested a bump in rank but Terry had shut him down.

As part of the minute by minute routine, the bots paths were checked and double checked per the contractual obligations designed into the system. The sponsor had insisted on anonymity until the deed was done. Public outcry, while the bots worked, was expected. Marring the surface of the Moon for capitalistic purposes, scraping ads into fair Luna’s face, would brand the company that performed the act as either a patron of progress or a pariah.

JimmyK took a sip from his Space-Ex coffee mug. He’d worked for the famous company for years before Musk and he had come to blows over Mars First vs Moon First. On the big screen BBot #1 flashed a course deviation.

“Hmm.” Jimmy tapped out a few commands. He stared at the screen. BBot #2 signaled its own unexpected course change. The remaining bots followed suit. He clicked the chat-channel’s ALERT button which notified the team of an anomaly.

“What’s up, Jimmy?” Darci’s comically high voice squeaked in the conference call.

“We’ve got a course problem. I can’t seem to correct it.”

The rest of the team popped in and eventually everyone had been brought up to speed on the situation.

Terry showed up last, calling in from a retreat in the Texas Outback. “You’re telling me we can’t override these goddamn things? They’re on their own?”

“Not a one is responding to admin overrides.” JimmyK never reacted well to Terry’s cursing. “No, that’s wrong. They respond but ignore our directives.”

“Shit, shit, shit.”

The sound of the course alarms echoed through the call’s connection.

Terry’s call dropped and reconnected. “…down!”

“Sorry, Terry, we missed that.”

“Shut the fucking things down.”

“I’ve tried.” JimmyK sounded defeated. “I think the bots may have been tampered with.”

“Who the hell would want to screw with our project?”

JimmyK emptied the can into his mug and took another sip. He flipped the empty into the trash where it clanked with the other Pepsi cans sitting there. “Got me.”

 

SepSceneWriMo #3.22 – Nighttime

“Whither the wind blows, there you will find me driftin’, my wings stretched wide, my chest full of song.”

Every time I’d come to visit Dad, he’d have some little saying all ready and practiced. I’d act surprised and compliment him. The truth was, I’d heard such quips and proverbs all my life.

He’d fold his notebook and grin that lopsided grin. Seeing him smile always brought me back to times when we were out hunting, fishing or just walking the dog along some misty morning river. Smiles came easy back then. Even crooked, they still stung the corners of my eyes.

I blink hard. “That’s one for Hallmark. What’d you think they’d pay for that?” Fortunately, today’s oration hadn’t ended in a fit of coughing.

“What kind a goddamn card would they put that on? Weepy will-o-the-wisp cry yer eyes out because I’m dead, card?”

Now the coughing starts. I pass him the box of tissues and he plucks two, but by the sound of it, he probably needs three. He wipes his mouth, the tissue catching at his unshaven chin. He waves the trashcan close, shoots and hits.

“Three points,” he says with a flutter still in his throat. He clears it and swallows. “Naw,” he corrects himself. “That only be a free-throw, one point.”

That’s a surprise. Growing up, he never used sports metaphors unless they were true sports, fishing, hunting, mountaineering, no points involved in those. If you needed a ball and rules, it was a game. He’d told me long ago he’d learned that from Hemingway. True or false, Dad’s life had been organized with classifications like that. “Sure you have to fudge from time to time. But most things fall neatly into their allotted place. Provided,” he liked to pause for caveats. Caveats always made him smile. “Provided you had the foresight to categorize correctly in the first place.”

We chat for a while. That is, I chat, he listens. That’s one of his redeeming qualities. “Gather all that’s offered before you make the mistake of blurting out some half-cocked interpretation.”

I tell him of my goings on and he tries to follow my too-technical descriptions of the kids and their lives and how they are in constant conversation with each other.

“Like walkie-talkies? They talkin’ all the time? That must get on your nerves. That would get on my nerves.”

I’ve explained how this all works before and he catches himself and this false assumption.

“Typing. They’re not talking, they’re tap, tap, tappin’. I recall, now.” He pauses for a moment. “But that must get on your nerves, all that tap, tap, tappin’.”

I notice he’s sitting uncomfortably and imagine he’s been that way for some time. “You want my help?”

The smile he gives me is not the cheerful one like before. This one is his, “shut up and don’t embarrass me with my decrepitude,” smile. I help him from his reading chair and notice the wet spot on his pants. He brushes off my help and disappears into the room’s attached bathroom for a while. He keeps a commentary going so as to keep me from barging in. I would never do that. I know the man’s pride is wounded by age and ensuring he retains the last fragments of his dignity is one of my highest priorities.

“Alright if I read through your Hallmark highlights?”

“You go right ahead. Always was a busybody, you know.”

I can’t help but nod in agreement.

He’s got some good stuff in here. Like he said, will-o-the-wisp kind of language, but there are other pieces that have a solid, melancholy ring to them. Then there’s this one:

—The day is gone. Night has come and soon, even it will pass. Morning was joyous, with berry-pie and swings and the sound of Forth of July. Noonday came and life was hard. But struggle makes you strong. Church bells rang and soon the laughter of children, stories before bed, and graduations flowed like river water. Afternoon, I’d hoped to be easy, but my Jemma ached for autumn leaves and their reds and yellows and she went with the coming of winter. The darkness is not complete, not yet. Lights come and go. My son, and Tina and their two make four and I make five and five alive and at times I think the night is not so bad. But, as candles go, this one has dwindled low. Between the flickering I see the space that’s filled with darkness, emptiness, and peace.—

I close the page and set the flimsy notebook back on his side table.

“Find anything you like?” he asks, as he emerges refreshed. This smile is his mischievous one and I’m certain he fully intended me to find that bit.

“A hard sell to Hallmark. But some would make pretty good tweets.”

“Tweets, you reckon?” He sticks a finger in the air. “I recall tweets. I ain’t that far gone.”

“Never said you were.”

“Well, tweet away. I’ll have more next week.”

“Great,” I say, thinking back on that last one.

“You’ll bring the kids next time?”

“You bet, Dad.”

“Super. Backgammon?”

“I could fancy a match.”

“Set ’em up. I’ll let you go first.”

SepSceneWriMo #3.21 – Lucy

With the moss scraped away, the dates on the gravestone showed clearly: Born July 1, 1877, Died May 17, 1881. Lucy Winifred Townsend had failed to reach the tender age of four.

Micola sprayed the mottled surface with a cocktail of vaporous cleansers and began to gently brush the carved granite. This would be her eleventh today.

The cemetery’s manager had stood listening to her pitch, his fingers sliding the brass clips on his suspenders up and down. He’d managed the Boone, North Carolina City Cemetery since his daddy died twenty-two years ago; run over by a tractor—the funeral had been closed casket.

When Micola described her process and then proceeded to show him photos of her work at other cemeteries, he had to ask, “You film you-self scrubbin’ these here stones, which you do for free. And that’s all you do? No job or nothin’?”

Micola had smiled apologetically. Time and time again folks balked at her request. “Clean old gravestones without pay? How’s a girl to survive?” She’d attempt to explain the vicarious nature of viewing methodical labor, how it soothed the minds of folks trapped behind computer screens all day. Only a few locals she spoke to understood the concept. The fact remained, the location of the most historic graves were in the small forgotten towns whose heyday had passed a century ago. Towns where high-tech had yet to encroach. Towns like Boone, mired in their history.

As she scraped and scrubbed at Lucy’s stone, she uncovered an epitaph, no doubt written by the child’s mother:

Our cheer awaits us
where little Lucy
sits and laughs with God.

Micola stood back and sprayed the gravestone, rinsing away the green muck the brushing had released. “Nearly one hundred and fifty years ago this child skipped to church, ate corn cake and peaches. And unfortunately…” She tapered off. Of all the plots to pick, this one had had quite the story. Ol’ Suspenders had known it well.

“Rumor has it,” he’d begun, “Lucy, she was only three n’ change when she died, liked to dance at twilight on the porch of the Townsend’s cabin. Now,” the manager pulled hard at his elastic bands, “they say twilight was when the Townsends would line up their candles outside on a little table and light each one. The smoke and bother would drift away on the wind, don’t cha know.”

The man bent down to try and brush away the lichen that had attached itself to the top of Lucy’s gravestone. Micola had yet to start on its rejuvenation.

“Well,” he continued, “little Lucy had a nightgown that her grandmother had ordered from New York City. A silly, frilly thing.” Suspenders grinned at this alliteration. “While the other children had run inside to fetch the parents for to bring in the light, Lucy danced right into the table after all the candles had been lit.”

Micola’s fist had risen unconsciously to her lip.

“Her gown caught fire and, we’re told, rather than roll on the ground like any sensible adult would do. Once, even I had to put myself out…” He cleared his throat, catching his sidetrack. Micola might have frowned at the diversion.

“Where was I? Ah, yes. Little Lucy ran screaming into the night, the poor child. By the time they found her, which wasn’t long after, she’d inhaled the flames, burn her lungs and suffocated.” The manager seemed to consider this detail for a moment. He breathed deeply, stretching further his burgundy straps. “That’s what they say, I’m told. These ol’ stones, they got some stories, I tell you. And we won’t ever know the truth. That’s what I say.”

Micola stowed her tools including the industrial bottle of cleanser and surveyed her work. In the noonday sun the stone would dry quickly, but it’s light grey facade would not show until the residual bleach had a chance to work its magic. Lucy’s gravestone showed dark now but was clear of blight, its chiseled letters and dates easily read.

At its base, Micola had discovered the visage of an angel performing a pirouette, tiny wings aloft, and the flare of a dress at her ankles.

She shifted her work to the next grave site, a man who’d died eighty years ago. As she worked at his stone she found herself returning to gaze at little Lucy’s plot and the thought of so much cheer being so violently erased from the world.

Lucy?

SepSceneWriMo #3.20 – Pain

It’s the wailing of a dog that draws me across the train tracks to a campfire set amongst a copse of pine trees. The two men lookup at my approach, both bearded and wrapped in layers of mottled brown clothing, most of it ragged, some with logos stitched on shoulders. The one, Cabella, turns and spits a syrupy jet into the fire. I can see him shift his tobacco between his cheeks.

The other, he’s got Santa’s eyes, has a small dog at his feet. He twists a cord and the beast yowls in pain. “You heard that, I bet. Come to investigate.”

There are a number of log-rounds on end and I pick one furthest from the men. I sit, my eyes never leaving the pair. “You get a kick out of torturing creatures smaller than you?” I’ve already picked out a sturdy branch only part-way into the fire.

“Well that’s the thing, ain’t it?” Santa twists and the dog yelps.

Cabella spits again. “Yousef and me, we was just having a philosophical discussion. This here mutt is having his say, too.” He choke-chuckles, hocks up a wad of phlegm and shoots it toward the fire, only, it’s stringy and ends up on his knee. “Goddamn it. I just found these pants.”

“Found em?” Santa Yousef seems fascinated with the slick on Cabella’s pant leg as it slides glimmering into the dirt.

“Yeah, found em too close to the exit of that fancy outdoor store.”

The dog begins to whine, high pitched, beseeching me to intervene.

“What kind of heinous discussion involves the torment of a little dog?”

Santa Yousef perks up. “Exactly.” He gives a solid yank and the cry that emerges from the dogs throat nearly drives me to seize the stick and beat the living crap out of Satan Santa. The man sees me flinch and nods knowingly. He soothes his victim, for I’m sure that’s how he views the dog—his victim, with a series of strokes down its side.

Cabella crosses his arms and legs and arches back. “Go on, Yousef, your turn at rebuttal.”

I haven’t stopped giving Yousef the hardest stare I can. I see that he’s missing fingers from the hand that holds the rope. He tilts his whole frame to one side, too, like he’s been suffering from scoliosis for decades. “Yeah, Yousef, rebuttal your way out of this.” I attempt bravado, but using the man’s name is pushing it.

He laughs though. “We were discussing the purpose of pain, if you care to know.”

I tilt my head and give him a confused look.

Yousef smiles and holds up his misshapen hand. “Pain’s evolutionary purpose is for survival. Agreed? If it hurts, you run, you hide, you pull back your hand, you do whatever you can to stop the pain from going on and on. And you remember. Right? You remember the next time you see pain comin’. Nuh-uh, no way. Not this time. You get me?”

Then he takes the cord and really gives it a twist sending the dog into spasms of agony. And he keeps at it and the dog howls so loud another dog, miles away, picks up its call and howls back.

I come off my seat. “Stop it. Goddammit, stop!”

Over the noise he yells, “But why does pain keep on keepin’ on?” He quits and the dog collapses into wretched huddle. “What’s the purpose of pain that never ends? Of chronic hurt and misery that gnaws at your mind like a cancer, feral and relentless? Why does the Universe give us pain like that? Evolution? Bah. You don’t learn from a paper-cut you just stupid. Stove hot? That’s plenty to teach a youngster. But pain don’t stop at ‘just enough’. No, pain has to drive poison nails into your skull, into your back and muscles. Why? No reason. No reason a’tall. It’s the Universe saying, your suffering means nothing. So, suffer you will.”

My mind reels at the torture and the man’s callous indifference. And his words. From somewhere deep, my fascination with the balance of nature opens a door. “What about joy? Joy beats pain any day.”

I can see the look of approval on Yousef’s face. It doesn’t last. From within the folds of his garments he pulls a baggie. When he begins to finger its contents, the hound’s ears perk up. Yousef hands the dog a treat and gives him a pat. The dog, oblivious of its recent treatment, snuggles up to the man’s legs.

“How many treats of joy would you say little Dizzy here has earned tonight, all of them?” Yousef dumps the bag onto the ground. Dizzy gobbles them up in seconds.

Cabella snorts. “Hey, you were gonna share those.”

“Fact is, pain is inexhaustible. Joy? Joy is over and gone by the time the pain returns and consumes every living fiber in your body and mind. Ain’t that right, little Dizzy. Ain’t that right.”

“Please don’t hurt the dog anymore.”

“Oh he won’t. He thinks he won the argument. ‘Specially with an audience like you ’round to act the acolyte.”

I take Cabella at his word. I rise to leave but Santa hasn’t finished with me yet.

“Come around same time tomorrow. We’ll be discussin’…”

Cabella reminds him. “Fear.”

“We’ll be talkin’ about fear.”

SepSceneWriMo #3.19 – Meena

Meena eats worms for a living.

Although, “eat” conjures “chewing” and chewing is not in her nature. Gulping. Meena gulps worms for a living, tugging them from the moist earth, their blind heads probing up between grass blades. Meena snatches their pink ends, though snatching is unnecessary—languorously selecting would better serve her purpose but, Meena snatches nonetheless. She snatches other creatures too: beetles, crickets, butterflies, so the technique works.

Meena jealously guards what she takes from the earth. Other Meena-like creatures try to steal her hard-won prizes but Meena rebuffs them with flashing slaps from her wings. There is one, though, with whom she cannot compete.

Hawk broods at the edge of the field, talons wrapped around the fence rail that borders the meadow’s high side. Below, Meena and dozens of her sisters and brothers bob, stop and snatch breakfast from between their feet. Hawk scans the group, watching for the telltale motion—the arched back and long pull of a worker extracting a mature earthworm. With eyes that can spy the metalic green bands that a few Meana-likes wear around their legs, he waits until he sees the dark line of a worm get stretched taught. Then he leaps and takes flight.

He glides low, his outline blending with the treeline behind the fence. Meena-likes startle and dart for cover as the kite-like menace passes overhead. They are not his target. Nearly too late, Meena senses the darkening of the sky. She struggles for a moment with thoughts of abandoning this fine meal but, her innate sense of self-preservation sparks instant action, she releases the worm and escapes Hawk’s descending strike.

Hawk steals worms for a living.

It’s only a part-time gig. He’d been soaring over this part of the country and noticed the shapes of dark-grey bodies flitting randomly in a field below. He fanned his vast wings to a halt and landed on the lightening-killed branch of a tall fir. From there he observed the spectacle below. Small birds made poor prey, his size and limited agility precluded them from his diet. But these dark worms the workers fed upon, they intrigued him. He decided to taste one.

As he learned later, his presence distracted the workers, dispersing them in frantic retreat from his approach. He finally managed to scare one in mid-flight who dropped its meal. Swooping around he located the worm, plucked it from the grass and ate it whole. It squirmed a bit going down, and was but a fraction of a meal but, in numbers…

Eventually he worked out his technique. Surely new rabbits would be born soon and he would resume his hereditary lifestyle. But, until then, he’d exploit the situation to the workers’ disadvantage.

As soon as he’d swallowed the worm, Hawk launched his heavy frame, beat to gain height and vanished back over the fence. He’d learned to initially disappear and observe from a distance, returning to his spot on the railing only after he’d seen renewed activity in the field.

Meena looked on from the brush nearby. This was the fourth meal she’d lost to Hawk since the rain had quit, two days past. But what could she do? Surely her brothers and sisters had no ability to fight, no will to risk their lives and no mind to organize.

But, enough was enough. She would get the robins of the meadow to rebel. Meena did her best to rally the troops and form a committee of sorts. How to combat this thief? Direct assault was out of the question, though, together, they could incessantly annoy and distract. The threat to any one soul stymied consensus. No one wanted to risk their lives for the betterment of the whole.

Discussion came to a snarl. Above them, the silhouettes of a pair of ospreys, a hunting couple, flashed their shadows below. Meena had a thought. She burst from cover and rose in tighter and tighter circles to the elevation of the raptors. There she danced midair enticing the handsome pair with flashes of her orange breast. Her teasing worked.

Down she plunged, barely in the lead. She spotted Hawk nodding at his fence-post station and made for his position. He awoke at the shriek of the male osprey. Meena cut to Hawk’s left and flew exhausted toward the trees.

Too late, Hawk realized his situation. He leapt and dodged but the osprey couple strafed the lumbering bird of prey with needle-sharp talons designed to pierce skin, fur and feather. Hawk dove for cover, but the nimble osprey followed him across the field, tormenting him with deafening screeches and threats of further injury. Safe in the trees, Hawk found a private stoop and hunkered in to recover. The osprey circled once and left the scene, heading to the river.

All the Meena-likes, poised in the bushes, waited in rare silence. Meena joined them and within minutes, witnessed Hawk drop from his roost, angle across the meadow and vanish over the far treetops, never to be seen again.