“Piss around long enough
and eventually someone gets wet.”
On the outskirts of a squatter’s settlement.
Eight drudges moved in formation inside a paddy of short crops. Each was assigned a row and each was responsible for weeding, snipping non-fertile shoots, testing root water, destroying pests and a bunch of other shit for each of the crops within their reach. The fifty centimetre high robots weren’t originally designed to roll through shallow, flooded fields like the one they were in. Often they would struggle to find traction in the muddy soil woven with roots. But, the drudges managed well enough to stop at each stalk and carry out their programmed chores.
Their appendages and gimballed tools were a dog’s breakfast of old, mismatched and customized parts. By classification, they were robots, but by eye they were ugly little machines cobbled by tape, crude plastic welds and decades of jury-rigging that extended their use beyond what life span was originally allotted to them. All of this was par for the course, as intended purpose was forced to give way to necessary function. Seventy years of labour had left its mark on the little bastards, no doubt, but they would work for years yet to come. Damn the leaking fluids. Damn the frequent spasms and damn the constant threat of breakdowns.
As though on cue, the third drudge from the south paddy side began to have trouble. Without reason, it rotated three times in a circle before going back to its tasks. The little bastard was glitching, which on any other day would have been bad enough; but, this was just a symptom of a bigger problem. At the next stalk, one of the robot’s three rockers, each one having a bogie attached, unexpectedly went in reverse. This caused the drudge to jerk to the left. It tried to correct itself, but an apparent moisture issue was fogging up its computing. Thirty seconds later and it was well on its way to being fucked.
It was now out of its assigned formation, dragging the paralyzed rocker-bogie. To make matters worse, from inside the drudge’s housing, came a machine-gun noise of plastic knocking on metal. This lasted only a few seconds before a sharp twang silenced it. The pinion, or perhaps the axle pin—or some other fucking unknown part—had snapped in two.
The drudge lurched towards and through its neighbour’s line. The two good sets of rocker-bogies tried to compensate, but this only managed to further drive the malfunctioning piece of shit further to the left. At this point, it would be reasonable to assume some sort of fail-safe or other automatic shut-down would have been activated; but, those had stopped functioning a decade ago.
A thin wisp of smoke snaked out of the differential housing on the robot’s side. At least the navigation system was still working. It forced the drudge to cut a bias through the paddy. Fuck yeah—it would take more than this buggering to keep the little worker down. With its two working rocker-bogies and a determined navigation algorithm, it pressed on in search of plants.
Over the next ten minutes, the little robot would climb up the paddy embankment, move down and up out of a dry irrigation ditch and roll its way inside a ramshackled quonset shed where Ronnie Tarrack was playing.
Ronnie is a seven year old dumb shit. He’s been told time and time again not to play in the hydroponics hut. The little mouth-breather has been told even more times than that to not play beneath the rotary planters and their rickety-as-fuck support legs. For Christ’s sake, anyone could see the supports are in desperate need of repair; but like so many things on a poor man’s farm, it would typically take a breakdown for them to see any attention. So, what does Ronnie do? He makes straight for the double rows of low-standing rotary planters and crouch-walks his way deep beneath them.
In his hand is a metal pipe; but in his mind, it’s a shock-baton like those used by the outland Rangers. He wields it in defence against pretend creatures and other threats. Stupid. He can’t even stand up under there. He has to kneel beneath the lattice of weak struts holding up the slowly tumbling planter machines. He shuffles back to where he first crawled in and arranges some stones along the entrance of the pretend cave. The stones are his door; a door for dumb shits.
As always, Ronnie’s parents were busy elsewhere. Likely chest deep into some broken machinery or busy stuffing their work gloves with rags to keep one-up on the blisters sprouting through the holes.
The goddamned farm wasn’t even theirs. They were the hired help on this crop sharing shit-show some twenty kilometres outside of the only legal port city the planet offered. They had to work long hours just to stay this close to the bright lights and promise of better work beyond the horizon. This left little time to police the stupidity of their dumb-as-shit son. Even less time to teach the boy what they had already learned: that, life off Earth isn’t filled with pleasant opportunities for those with strong backs, it was only filled with stark inevitabilities for those without.
Ronnie was too busy carelessly swinging his pipe beneath the planters to notice the drudge dragging its dead rocker-bogie into the hydroponics shed. It stopped and spun in place, like it did before in the paddy. Then, it continued further inside towards the aforementioned rickety-as-fuck support legs surrounding Ronnie.
As if preordained, the drudge singled out the wobbliest support next to Ronnie’s stupid rock door. It miscalculated the distance and bumped into the strut, pushing it dangerously askew. Not that Ronnie had noticed. It was only after the robot began its gardening cycle on the leaning strut that Ronnie turned and saw what was happening.
Seven years old or not, he should have been able to put together the cause and effect of the drudge’s action. But, not Ronnie—dumb shit that he was. Nope. He incorporated the drudge into his playtime.
“You stay back! I’m a Ranger and I protect these parts.”
Ronnie threatened the drudge with his pretend shock-baton, but the malfunctioning robot continued thrashing away at the strut with heavy-handed and misplaced purpose. Dirt and dust began to lightly fall onto Ronnie’s head and shoulders.
“You’ve been warned, outland devil”, he shouted. Then, with all the imagination power afforded to a halfwit, he added, “My shock-baton will shock you.”
Ronnie shimmied forward on his knees, roared like an idiot, and swung his metal pole at the drudge. It glanced off the robot’s casing and firmly struck the already weakened table strut. But, disregarding the playtime fantasy imposed upon it by Ronnie, the drudge continued it’s work.
The dumb shit shifted his knees and tried again. This time, the pole connected soundly and cracked the housing on the back of the robot. Again, without the presence of mind—or whatever the artificial intelligence equivalent may be—the drudge carried on with its work. This forced Ronnie to actually pause and think, almost like a regular boy would. He knew he needed more power if he was to defeat his foe, but he simply couldn’t generate enough power while kneeling.
The light of an idea glowed weakly in Ronnie’s mind. He dragged one foot into position beneath his body. Then, with a coiled force, he sprung upwards with the baton posed aggressively. Of course, his melon-shaped head smacked into the scaffolding above. There followed some rapid snapping sounds. The entire unit above his head, scaffolding and planter, began a slow collapse.
Ronnie was rubbing his wounded head while this was happening. The drudge continued to ghost-garden while the rotating hydroponics assembly and support lattice folded. Dumb shit Ronnie caught the full weight of the plastic, metal and wood wreck and was crushed against the ground. He shrieked in pain and fear. The planter machinery ceased tumbling. The drudge continued to garden the open air.
Rescue would come, but not for a full eight minutes. During that time, the drudge would move on in search of another object to apply its purpose to.
Ronnie’s mother would arrive seconds before her husband. Both would be concerned with the swelling and odd angle of Ronnie’s left wrist and the stream of blood running down the back of his neck. His mother in particular would fret about internal bleeding and the possibility of a concussion. His father would also be concerned, but would add to it the financial burden of a trip to the clinic.
They would speculate at the cause of the accident. Ronnie shouldn’t have been under the rotary planters, they knew … and he sure as shit shouldn’t have been swinging a pipe. Ronnie’s father would regret not having mended the supports a month ago when it was first noticed. His mother would blame herself for not keeping a closer eye on her dumbass son. Separately, and in deep secrecy, both would question whether or not there was something mentally wrong with Ronnie.
They both would blame the drudge for malfunctioning. Piece of shit! They would reason it should have been decommissioned a decade ago; then, they would extend that blame to the farm owner for not providing a liveable wage that encompassed proper equipment maintenance. They would decry those bastards for being allowed to stockpile profits while working conditions worsen daily. His parents would bitch that there should be laws to protect the safety of hard working people. Ronnie’s mother would cite the accident as proof they were better off living on Earth among the global poverty and pollution; at least they knew the dangers there.
Perhaps in the hours after Ronnie’s accident, his parents would find that assigning blame helped to put their misery into a reasonable order. Perhaps decoding that order is the key to avoiding future pain. Or perhaps, fuck it—they would just settle on this being how life goes on the new planet frontier.
You have to hand it to the drudges – they go about their business in a programmed and entirely logical manner but unfortunately have to deal with periodic stupidity of humans. I know from your previous novel that you are a strong advocate of the primacy of reason and personal responsibility.It looks likes this new novel is going to be an indictment of irrationality and irresponsibility.
Nail firmly hit on head, Mick. Thanks!