The Foot Race

By John A. Karr

The conveyor belt curled under the final roller, leaving a twenty foot gap between the dented cranium and the spindles of death. Artificial gravity added to the moon’s naturally weak influence and together they beckoned the narrow shoulders, the motionless arms, the gutted upper torso. Seven teenagers watched as the body plummeted at a listless angle toward the spinning shredders.

(Image by Marie Ginga courtesy of 안보영 via Pixabay)

Trent Wagner stood to the side of the glass wall, apart from the others. He tore his gaze away seconds after impact, just as the teeth tore into the chest cavity. The screech of rending metal carried through the microphones and echoed in the small operations office, as did the exclamations from the others.

Trent winced, but tried to clear it before anyone noticed. Gotta stay frosty.

Too late.

Ryz had seen in the reflection of the glass partition. He turned with his irritatingly confident smile, glanced at the younger teen and strode toward him. The others parted from his chosen path. He clapped Trent on the shoulder and laughed knowingly. Trent started to smile, but frowned instead when the others joined with blatantly scornful notes.

“C’mon, let’s give Twags here some O2,” Ryz told them. “He’s new to the scene.”

The blood rushed to Trent’s face. His inner voice scolded him again for hanging with his sister’s friends while she and a crew of other junior pilots took practice runs between the Mars orbiters and the red planet. Meanwhile he was stuck back here like a space ant in the Lunar One dome network, watching robot husks get sliced and diced instead of studying for college placement exams.

“Head first, spaceman!” one of the guys shouted, and everyone finally turned back to the show.

More laughter. The girls were particularly shrill about it.

The spindles sliced deeper and claimed more of the body. The bot’s legs were high, like a counter lever to the succumbing torso.

“Look at that action!” Ryz said.

“But you won with that bot,” Trent protested, fully wincing now.

Ryz’s gaze remained on the slicing. “Yeah, but it got beat twice.”

“When a race horse was done in ancient times, they’d put it out to pasture.”

“Yeah, if they were breeders, Twags. Most got a more – shall we say – abrupt ending. Time for a new bot, spaceman!”

Trent sought distraction and found motion beyond the shredder mouth. Loader bots had basic human attributes; central core with two legs, arms (four instead of two, however), and a ‘head’ that was just a powerful light bulb beside a camera lens for visual input. No facial features. At precise intervals they pulled other bots from a pile, placed them on the slow-moving belt and extracted the salvageable parts.

These images weren’t much better than the shredders. It was practically cannibalism.

Bots don’t have feelings, Trent reminded himself. Just programmed responses.

Conclusion: Robot destruction, a.k.a. “recycling,” was def not his thing.

Other conclusions: Instead of this, he should have surfed in the beach park or ion boarded over the cratered surface of the moon, beyond the bubbles. And in the grander scheme, he should have remained in strata with kids his own age.

He and Gwen had talked about it. She told him it was too late now; he might as well keep pursing the higher classes. She was a pain sometimes, but it would be cool if they could rap it out again.

But she was thirty-three million miles away now. And that was Mars at its closest.

He did wonder what it would be like to ion board over the Martian surface before SCONA tried to kick-started the cores with the thermo bombs. How to get there was problematic.

This def would be the last time he clustered with Gwen’s group. Ryz was cool, but kids were pulled into his orbit like asteroids around the sun. Trent was the opposite. The more people on a scene, the more he got eclipsed.

The older brother of one of the teens, Trent wasn’t sure which, was the operator of the recycle shredder station. He sat on a raised control chair with a hologram of buttons and controls around him. Trent had felt his calculating gaze, and now the guy tapped a holo-button. The screech of rending metal was replaced by an ominous hum as the shredders halted and waited to start again.

He told himself not to look down into the pit but that just guaranteed he’d look.

His eyes widened at the sight of the all-but consumed head and torso of the body. The legs were grotesquely extended upward now, toward the conveyer that was bringing the next victim.

“Friend of yours in there, kid?” the operator chided. If they could smoke in the recycling sector Trent was sure this guy would whip out a tube and start vaping.

“Don’t be such a wuss, Wagner!”

“Not like Gwen. She’s got lady balls!”

The blood rushed to Trent’s face anew. He wanted to tell them to shut up but it would come out weak. He again searched for distraction. The loader bots were in motion. What they did maybe was not bot cannibalism per se, but at least bot treachery.

“How many are you going to kill?” Trent said, quietly.

The operator’s lips pursed in contemplation, or maybe he was surprised Trent said anything at all. “Kid, the parts worth keeping are harvested by the time we get ‘em. The solar flare two Earth days ago cut down a dozen ‘em while working the bones of MOS-3. The Intake crew plasma blasts ‘em to get the nastiness out. By the time we get ‘em, they are dead on arrival.”

Mars Orbiter Three was in its early framework stage. Graphene-coated steel girders reached outward from a central core to form the lower outline of a skeletal circle. Space favors the orb. So like its predecessors already in position around Mars — atomizing and molecular bonding two tunnels to the cores in preparation for Detonation Event — MOS-3 was destined to become a manufactured mini-moon.

People and drones by the thousands were working on it.

Of course the bots weren’t alive. But they were sometimes a bit too human-like, though most worker drones were straight alloy and not plexi-skin for that very reason.

The next bot was laid upon the belt. It had steel rods for arms and legs, wires poking out its chest cover, and the conical light bulb that was its head was turned toward the control booth. Deep at the center of the bulb glowed a vague dot of red.

“Hang on, would ya?” Trent said.

“Nah spaceman, these gotta get shredded,” the operator checked the monitor for the identification chip. “SCONA doesn’t pay me to let these sit around.”

Trent hurried out of the control room, down the stairs and into the processing pod. One of the androids turned toward him but let him pass, as was their directive.

With a grunt he pulled the robot off the conveyer belt and it crashed to the floor. They were steel-framed after all – despite the dings and divots and peeled graphene – and SCONA’s artificial gravity mimicked Earth’s. It was a couple hundred pounds, easy. More than Trent weighed by sixty pounds.

The arms were stiff at its side. In the control booth he saw the others shaking their heads, laughing, flirting with one another. Then sounds joined to motions as the intercom squelched on.

“Uh, they’re not free, you know,” the operator remarked blandly, his voice slightly less bored now.

“How much?” This part, at least, he had anticipated.

“How much you got?”

Apparently that was also funny to everyone.

“Ten credits,” Wagner grunted, heaving upward.

The bot could sort of stand on its legs, though at an angle since one foot was completely gone at the ball peg ankle. He lifted the chest panel, hit the power switch off and on. The tiny glow solitary lamp lens of the head did not waver, despite his actions. The camera lens beside was a small dark eye.

“It’s still got power,” Wagner observed.

“It’s just leaking auxiliary juice from the chest board, kid. Power packs to the main body are pulled and recycled separately. You can have that junk for thirty creds.”

Wagner did a quick inventory. “Twenty, and I get a foot, replacement connectors and another power source — from the good boxes.”

“Have you been snorting asteroid dust? Twenty five with all those parts.”

“None of ‘em are new, spaceman.”

“Shop new then.”

“Twenty-five,” Trent offered.

“Most entertainment I’ve had all week! All right. Swipe it.”

Trent left the droid’s side and reached for the sensor pad on the wall. He punched in the number and held the card up. The indicator light turned green.

A crash behind him made him start. Laughter reinforced his suspicion as to the cause.

The droid was on its back on the floor, the bulb staring up at the ceiling with that faded red glow. With a grunt Trent started to pull it back up, then rested it on the floor again. The reality of his impulse move was setting in. He wasn’t exactly handy with tools and parts.

Ryz knocked on the glass, showing teeth again. “What are you gonna do, Twags, fix it up and take me on in the Foot Race?”

Every two weeks SCONA held a robot race outside the domes on the moon’s native surface. No ion flying allowed. One race for treads, one for bi-pedal. Anyone under the age of twenty-one could enter their bot. SCONA used it to promote innovation and engineering, and some entertainment. What started as a small local event had grown into a large viewership on the galaxynet and specialized broadcasts on Earth. It fell somewhere between sports and do-it-yourself repair shows.

Ryz’s bots had won several times over the last couple years.

“I dunno — maybe,” Trent said, more of a defensive reaction than any real intention.

“It can’t even stand on that peg!”

Much laughter.

Trent eyed one of the open memory slots and addressed the operator. “Five more for a good memory stick?”

“Free, if you enter that space junk in the next race!” the shredder operator said.

Apparently this capped the evening’s humor extravaganza. Even Ryz couldn’t control it this time.

His face flushed, Trent knelt beside his new banged-up bot. It had been on the verge of  destruction yet still had the slight red glow in the bulb. A flame of possibility flickered in his mind.

Up in the booth the others quieted, watching him.

Trent stood. “I’ll do it, if you toss in an air dolly to get it home.”

✸✸✸

The train barely shook as it moved through two miles of titanium-meshed plexiglass tunnel that connected the second manufacturing dome to SCONA Central. The latter served as both hub and heart of the network of domes, laid out in a star schema. The hub afforded connections to all the end point domes, including the welcoming ports – commercial and private – and the other manufacturing, residential and entertainment domes.

Why not just have one city beneath a single dome?

Redundancy was SCONA’s mantra. Segmentation was its tag line.

Trent’s train was headed toward the second residential dome. Below, broad white stretches of lunar surface flowed by. Overhead, the sun’s rays were captured by solar filaments and generated electricity; enough to power the generators of the primary heaters and ventilation. A graceful arc in the tube led to the rise of the final dome, glinting in the sunlight.

This was the outermost limit of the colony. Here the moon’s surface was still marked by half-darkened craters of size. The grounds around the domes themselves had been smoothed by human activity but the larger craters remained. Beyond the dome, valleys ridges and boulders were constant attractions. Groups of solar buggies ran out here at all hours of the day, as well as ion board riders and hikers in space suits who used their spacesuit jets now and then to scale the cliffs or carry them farther away.

Trent glanced out the window but his gaze kept returning to the bot. The dolly used ion jets to transport its cargo in a supine position, but at rest it was upright and tilted back on sturdy support legs. Trent stood with one hand on the train’s support bar and the other on the shoulder of his unanticipated project.

It was the middle of the second shift, so the available seats were only sporadically occupied. The train slowed and stopped. He disembarked and received several curious glances as he walked beside the supine bot through the main and then feeder hallways. Upon arrival at his home pod, a neighbor’s door slid open. A kid about his own age strutted out, sleeveless shirt displaying well-formed arms. The guy made a sour face at Trent and the bot between them.

“Found a friend, Wagner?” Rod the Bod said.

“Yeah, something like that.”

“Stellar. That bumps the total up to one, reject.”

“Why don’t you step outside and inhale some fresh space, meat head?”

The punch darted over the supine bot and landed on Wagner’s bony shoulder. It hurt but he didn’t let on.

Rod grinned. “Look what you did!”

Trent’s arm went out as well, but not of his own volition. The dolly lurched sideways and pulled Trent along with it, forcing him to take a step or lose his balance. The machine shoved Rod the Bod back against the wall and pressed against his midsection. He tried pushing it away but the dolly didn’t budge.

“Get it off me, fool!”

Trent’s eyes widened. He hadn’t directed the dolly to do anything. After a moment of amazement – and a little satisfaction – he pulled the directional lever toward himself. Maybe it was his imagination, but for a moment the bot’s head bulb glowed brighter. Finally the dolly followed Trent’s order and drifted slowly away from the other teen. Rod the Bod’s face was red from exertion.

“Do it again and I’ll wreck you, Twags!”

“But I didn’t –”

“You heard me!”

With a final glare Rod the Bod moved down the hall, away from the dolly and the bot. And best of all, away from Trent.

After a moment to ponder, he concluded it had been some unconscious movement on his own part, or a short circuit in the dolly. The thing wasn’t in much better condition than the load it carried. He turned to the retina reader of his pod and it scanned him for entrance. After the door slid inside the wall, he directed the dolly and its airborne load inside.

Now where would one attempt bot repair?

Mom would not be cool with the living room or kitchen.

The tile of his bedroom was better suited against possible drips. He removed the area rug and threw down some plastic area sheets he had used when working on his boards, then had the dolly lay the bot down. Trent positioned it so its upper body was propped against the wall and legs were out straight. Behind it was a large poster of a surfer shredding the gnar at an Earth beach.

Its task complete, the dolly turned and headed for the door. Trent got up and let it out. The dolly vanished into the hallway and the door closed.

Back in his bedroom, he reached for the used power pack. Its indicator eye was also red. He plugged it into the wall socket and was satisfied that the red light faded in and out now.

“Real juice is on the way, bot-man,” Trent said, over his shoulder.

After a moment he turned and scrutinized the bot. The dented cover over the chest cavity central processor wasn’t a huge deal, but he could see now the entire body had once had armor, not just the chest. The barren steel framework was pitted and weakened where the coating had been stripped by the solar flares. Its structure was much too weak to walk and weld the framework of MOS-3. And the ball stub at the end of its leg had been sheared in half.

Bot appendages were snap-ready by design. Soldering with hot irons was not permitted inside living quarters in space. If you couldn’t snap, splice and re-connect, it generally wasn’t allowed, and SCONA sent constant mind-texts about using caution, backed up by legions of thermal detectors.

The stub fit easily into the receiving socket of the ‘new’ foot, but without the full circle of steel to form the ball joint, there was not enough catch to the fitting, and the foot pulled off with an easy tug. Not great.

Taking the bot to a repair shop would disqualify him from the race – but maybe he didn’t need to. He pulled a small utility bin from his closet. From his ion board project he had several leftover cubes of graphene steel and pills of solving agent. Not enough steel to create the entire half of the ball joint, but maybe he could improvise a bit.

He wrapped aluminum foil around the half-ball joint, used the salad tongs from the kitchen to hold the cube of graphene after placing one of the solving pills on top. Tiny bubbles formed on the surface of the cube and an acrid smell rose. Drops of liquified graphene landed on the aluminum, seeping into the cracks and forming a coat around it. He used the back of a wooden spoon to smooth it over, did his best to coat the ball evenly. It was imperfect, but maybe it had a chance.

It only took a few minutes to harden and dry. After it did, he pushed the foot and its receiving socket against the improvised ball. It went on and stayed on, even after manipulated it. Screeched a little, but seemed to move okay otherwise. A few more drops of graphene sealed the ankle.

Grunting, he hauled the bot up to a standing position and worked the legs into a stable position. The legs were stiff as no hydraulics were circulating, but the foot at least held the weight.

Statue status achieved!

“One small step for bot …” he murmured, emulating Neil Armstrong’s Apollo 11 saying, over two hundred years old now.

Six displayed no expression.

It had a small head, really. Beside the conical bulb, a small oval box was attached to the  rods of the metal spine. The cover was easy to open, and exposed an array of empty memory slots. Trent only had the one memory stick. He plugged it into one of the bays and closed the box. Between the bulb and the memory case was the camera lens. From it snaking wiring that ran down the spine to the chest power pack.

The faint red glow in the bulb seemed like an eye, almost regarding him — which was crazy, since it was the camera lens next to the bulb that would be responsible for visual processing.

Trent blinked. He needed to get busy. While present, the glow was fading.

The universal warning color was never optimal when it came to machinery.

Even Mars – the focus of SCONA’s core tunneling and ultimate terra-forming efforts – held a natural warning with its coloring. Lifeless. Dangerous.

Six’s torso wiring wasn’t as bad as Trent had initially feared, and he actually knew a couple things about it from his old science kits. He swapped out a few connectors and leads and according to his meter, was rewarded with a closed circuit.

So, yeah. He knew something about wiring.

Not really optimistic but figuring he might as well (myzle!) continue, he unplugged the battery charger and snapped the power source in the main slot on the bot’s chest. The battery icon on the surface was filled in to roughly seventy percent. Ought to be more than enough.

Trent waited for the bot to come online. The tiny body lights should illuminate, and even  verbal acknowledgment from the speaker.

Instead, the red dot in the head bulb began to shrink.

“No, no, no! Ah, come on, bot-man.”

After a few moments of checking connections, Trent sat hard and blew out a long breath. The circuit board had suffered too much damage, evidently. He sat the bot down, with its back against the wall once more, and legs extended before it. His attempt at the foot connection looked desperate.

He groaned and squeezed his temples.

What the flyin’ space snakes was he doing?

Foot Race?

He doubted the appendage would stay on after three strides!

His computation and analysis abilities didn’t help a lot for the situation. Maybe it would be best to have the bot hang around like a suit of armor, after all. It would look frosty.

And that way he wouldn’t have to try.

… or fail.

Somebody else was better at this. Somebody else always was.

Ryz, for instance.

This bot would likely join his pile of abandoned projects; the homemade surfboard, ion board, holo projector, solar garden. It wasn’t that they were completely inoperable, but they weren’t first or even really second rate, either. The ones for sale were always light years better, so what was the use?

Trent leaned back against the wall, across from the bot. He picked up a wrench and tapped it against his palm.

Who was he kidding? The stupid machine would end up right back at the recycle bin!

“Catch.”

Trent lobbed the wrench at it. A functioning bot could easily snatch the tool. This wrench just struck the bot’s power pack and tumbled lamely to the floor.

The red light in the bulb vanished.

“Great move, Twags,” he muttered. “Now it’s really dead.”

A cone of light suddenly burst forth from the bulb, blinding him. His hands rose to shield it off.

“Hey, what? Cut it out!”

The light blast narrowed progressively, then the white light split into a dancing pallette of colored laser threads.

“Wha?” Trent murmured.

Images flooded the holo.

The vibrations pointed toward a human point of view. Military training. Army. Lots of yelling from drill instructors with bulging neck veins. Lots of physical conditioning, combat training with live fire plasma rifles, entries and exits from various transportation, including ion jet power from back packs. A drill instructor yelled in the face of the host for doing handstand push-ups instead of regulation push-ups.

A scroll of dictated sentences rolled beneath the images.

The DI kept addressing the recipient of his ire as the number six.

As in, “Did Six think the United States Army was his personal playground? Well, surely all the members in the platoon would like to play with Six in his special playground! What’s that, Six? Push-ups instead? And regular holy galactic cosmos push-ups at that? Well, by all means, tell your fellow platoon members to drop with you and pump out fifty!”

Nick-names were popular with DI’s in boot camp, apparently.

The image changed.

An email. From Jana Fransix to Asa Fransix, with words about children and please, please, please be safe!

Another image change.

A group of soldiers dotted a barren landscape, rifles kicking bursts of plasma bullets toward a walled fortification built against a rocky rise. Dust and rock exploded and melted around them. The view narrowed to take aim with the viewer’s rifle. Several rounds spat out, and large chunks of the walls blobbed out of existence. The nearest soldier shouted as incoming rounds melted desert rock and sand around them. “Six, go, go, go!”

The holo’s point of view bobbed up and down. Legs running legs while flashing bursts lit up the end of the rifle.

The images greyed, then faded into darkness.

A woman’s face appeared, mouthing words he could not hear. Two children climbed on him

The laser beams altered to show new images.

Back on the combat field. Six’s sleeve was on fire. He rolled on the ground to snuff it, as rounds burst around him. Two of his fellow soldiers were hit and died instantly. Another was wounded. He shouted for medics. Shouts to keep moving. He returned fire, crawled to the wounded soldier.

He went down again and again, crawled, fired, crawled again. The rifle tip flashed and the scene briefly jumped with each shot he took. He picked up the soldier and ran toward a boulder.

The battlefield faded to a home, somewhere safe.

Jana’s face again. Older. Some grey. He held her as they stood and looked out a mountain range, she in his arms. Another shift, a dinner table. The children were adults now. One had a spouse and a baby. In the backyard the kids were trying head-stands. They turned and laughed as Six’s viewpoint upended. The ground was up and the sky down, and moving as Six walked on his hands. When the view went normal, the kids gleefully dove upon his chest.

And then the holo stopped.

Asa Fransix never gave up and had made it out.

Trent pursed his lips, then stood.

“Stand up, Six.”

The bulb turned one hundred and eighty degrees left, then all the way around to the right. The camera seemed to be taking impressions. The fingers slowly turned to one side, then the other, then fixed upon Trent again. Suddenly it leaped to its feet.

“Whoa!” Trent said.

The light in the bulb was now green, as was the indicator light on the bot’s chest.

“Arm out,” Trent said, thrusting his own to the side. “Repeat my actions.”

Trent moved his limbs, twisted, and the bot emulated.

“All right! Now, small ups and downs, like this.” Trent performed some light squats. Again the bot mimicked without difficulty. “Belly down, then push up into a surfer position!”

The bot could be riding waves. Trent laughed, raised his rear hand for some flair. The steel man also raised his hand.

“Okay, okay, cool! Now, bigger stuff. Jog in place, lightly, this way.” Trent jogged, knees up. This would impact the ankle joint hard for the first time.

Six did, but the grating noise from the point of attachment wasn’t great.

He didn’t notice the front door open and the approaching steps.

“This is interesting!” Dr. Wagner said, standing in Trent’s doorway. She was in her gym clothes. Her white lab coat partially protruded from the bag she now placed on the floor.

“Know anything about fixing bot feet, Doc?” Trent said.

“Not since med school. Genetics is a little different from orthopaedics, honey.”

“Well, I know one hundred percent more than I did two hours ago, and I don’t think that’s going to be enough to really fix his foot.”

“Okay. Hey, don’t get bot fluids on the floor.”

“Hence the plastic.”

She came closer and took it all in. “Okay, good. So what are your plans for the Tin Man here?”

“Gwen’s friends joked me about the Foot Race. Told ‘em I would but it’s probably a tragedy waiting to happen.”

She paused and nodded. “Why not give it try? Think you can you split your time with studying?”

“Not sure placing out of the next physics level is best. The Tin Man is like my only buddy since Gwen bailed.”

She regarded him before answering. “You want to get to Mars before Detonation Event, right? They take vacationers, but not on our budget.”

“I got it the first ten thousand times, Mom.”

“Okay, well, at least you’re trying something. Finish the studies and apply for a job on one of the orbiters. That’s how you get to Mars.”

“Sounds so easy.”

“It’s not. You just need to get the build going.” She went to her room and then the bathroom. He heard the burst and hiss of spray misters as she showered.

Back to the effort here.

Trent wondered if drizzling more graphene on the ankle would stiffen the joint too much. It wouldn’t come off as easily, though. He applied a thin coating and had Six test the movements. Up and down, side to side. To his amazement, the foot worked fine, with only a small squeaking noise now.

“All right, let’s test a little more.”

He and Six walked, then jogged side by side through the corridors. The knees and hips and shoulders all squeaked. He’d need to do some greasing.

Trent nodded. If nothing else, they’d at least made it this far.

As they slowed a few apartments before the door to home, Rod the Bod approached.

“Hey fool,” he called to Trent. “Got some payback for ya!”

The Bod closed in and Six took a step forward. Its arms were at its side but it blocked the path to Trent, whose brows rose in surprise. Not unwelcome, though. Bod tried to sidestep to get to his prey but was thwarted each time, then was forced to back up as the mechanical man edged forward.

“Yeah, never mind,” Bod said. He turned to the retina reader of his apartment and tapped the wall. As soon as the door slid open he vanished.

“Thanks, spaceman,” Trent said, to Six.

The bot’s joints squeaked and grated as it followed Trent inside.

✸✸✸

A short ride in a lunar rover brought Trent and Six to the race track.

“Racer managers to the observation deck,” someone said.

Along with Ryz and a dozen other young women and men, Trent walked to the raised dais at the finish line.

The starter tree was a light pole, a throwback to dragster races. The highest section was steady red, then went black as the next section down went yellow, then the next and the next until the very last section went solid green.

Go!

The bots shot forward, kicking up moon dust and shredding the ribbon. Aided by the weak gravity, the mechanical herd flew short distances with each stride. Ryz’s bot in particular ran with precision and grace; one leg fully outstretched, the other fully extended behind them until the next impact. It broke from the pack and pulled to the lead.

In contrast, Six was wobbly at the back of the pack and started to fall behind. Trent had a sinking feeling it would be over for them a quarter mile down the first stretch. But then the bot compensated and straightened out. His – its! –  upper body moved in unison with an increasingly long, human-like gait. Out a mile and into the first turn, Six closed in on the pack.

But the group itself began to alter.

One, then another bot fell in a dusty heap. One was stone-still, the other wriggled and writhed. Neither continued.

Six avoided them and had to leap over another that fell and tumbled in a dusty sprawl.

Trent’s hopes began to build, despite himself.

He held his breath as the racers rounded the first turn and attacked the straightaway. Six moved with purpose, but something was different. Trent zoomed in with the helmet lens and swallowed hard. A slight angle had returned to Six’s gait, but perhaps it would get no worse.

Still the bot ran, once again compensating and keeping up with the pack. The racers ran down the side of the first crater, were visible only with the overhead drone cams, then raced up the other side, trailing a cloud of moon dust.

Trent started. In his ears the crowd noise surged. The announcers shouted.

Six has taken the lead!

For a quarter mile, time seemed to slow. Trent stared in amazement for a moment, then remembered to cheer his racer on.

Ryz’s bot emerged from the pack. Stride after sprinting stride, it closed the gap with Six until the two bots ran alongside one another. They were machines running on the surface of the moon, with the sun over their shoulders and their shadows racing beside them.

Ryz looked over at Trent, his eyes wide with surprise.

Six again tilted away from the compromised right leg and allowed the left to do more work. Around the second turn the two bots sped, kicking up moon dust in the faces of the pack. Steadily, however, Six’s gait became more stringent, and its upper body took on a harsher motion.

The foot turned inwardly now, and the prints in the moon’s surface attested to such, until the others trampled them away. Still Six pressed on, though Ryz’s bot pulled away, and the others caught and passed it. The next straightaway found Six at the rear of the pack, with a discernable wobble to the foot as the leg rose and fell.

Trent watched, dread filling his belly. Six took another stride. On the back kick the foot flew high in the thin atmosphere and spun like a planetoid. The bot ran with just the peg, which bit deep into the ground before pulling free, slowing the machine.

The audience cried out. The announcers seized giddily upon the event.

Six tried to keep up with the others but they pulled away.

Trent started to send instructions for the bot to halt and re-attach the foot, then stopped. The appendage would just come off again.

Six tripped and went down. Through their shared link Trent called out to the sprawled form, now alone on the track. Trent examined his racer’s diagnostics via his arm computer. Everything appeared functional but the foot. The bot clawed at the surface, and for a moment Trent wondered if he/it was in pain.

“It’s all right, Six,” Trent said. “We gave it a shot. Hold on, I’ll come get you.”

As if in rebuttal, the bot lurched up and stood, searching. It limped quickly to the foot and re-attached it. The head bulb turned toward Trent, then to the group of racers down the track. Six sprang forward, took three strides before the foot flew off again.

Six kept going. The peg leg bit into the surface several times before the body succumbed. Again it sprawled on the ground. It repeated this again and again.

Trent looked away, then thought how lame a reaction that was. His racer needed help! He  scoured his mind for options.

… and found one.

Moving away from the others, Trent’s fingers worked the keypad of his arm computer as he issued commands to his bot. Out at the track, the dust-covered bot halted. The large bulb turned from the other racers to center upon his manager. After a quick wave, Trent placed his hands on the floor and swung his legs up high. He overshot and hit the floor on his back, scrambled to try again. With help from the moon’s lighter gravity, he was able to walk on his hands a few paces before crumbling in a heap. He popped his head up to find his bot.

“Too bad!” one announcer said. “Looks like Team Twags is out of the race!”

“Hey, play that again,” responded the other. “Was race manager Trent Wagner hand-walking?”

“He was! And … look at racer Six!”

The compromised bot leaped high with arms extended, as if to dive into the moon. He landed on his hands, palms flat and arms fully outstretched. Effortlessly Six held a handstand.

Exclamations from the crowd and announcers.

For a moment Six remained perfectly balanced, legs over torso, one with a foot and one ending in a peg. The bulb head turned backward, further than any human could perform, until it could see through its arms down the length of the race course.

“Go!” Trent shouted.

Six burst forward. It scrambled, flinging moon soil and dust as it ran on its hands. Down the stretch and into the next crater it ‘ran’ on its hands, arms reaching, pulling, and pushing off with robot strength and speed. The steel rods of its arms blurred. The fingertips flung dust high behind it.

Faster and faster Six’s arms propelled it toward the pack of other racers. More of them stumbled, went down and did not rise. Going into the final turn, only five remained. Coming out of it, the lead was held by Ryz’s bot, and the hand-running Six.

Ryz’s bot had speed and powerfully long strides and left the surface a second at a time. Graceful, amazing to watch, but when not in contact with the surface it did not generate speed. Six matched that length with three push-offs, but remaining grounded enabled it to gain on the leader. Metal hands were practically on the heels of Ryz’s bot when they crossed the finish line.

Ryz’s bot tore through the checkered ribbon stretched across the track. Six crossed next and soon came the others. The audience roared in the ear microphones of Trent’s helmet. The announcers kept up a stream of wonderment and rule book checking. There was nothing in the rule book to disqualify Six.

Trent sprang from the manager dais and ran down to his machine. Six saw Trent, swivelled on its shoulders, placed the good foot and then the peg down, then stood upright.

Trent couldn’t help but laugh while clapping Six on its hard shoulders. He couldn’t recall the last time he actually laughed out loud and now he could barely contain it. When Six gave him the thumb-up, he laughed even harder.

Ryz’s bot went to the winner podium, where he collected his next medal and waved to the audience and cameras. Trent applauded him, then turned with Six toward the rover that would take them to the train station. As they settled in a seat, Ryz mind-texted him from the winner’s podium.

Good work, Twags.

Trent texted back. Thanks, congrats on another win.

Someone retrieved Six’s foot and gave it to him. Trent held on to it and settled back as other  managers boarded the rover and congratulated him and his bot.

Later that night, he and his mother dined with a holo of Gwen at the Galaxy Restaurant.

“You and Six crushed it, little spacebro!” Gwen said.

“It was exciting! Great job, son!” Karen Wagner toasted Trent with her wine glass and Gwen followed suit, from forty million miles away.

“It was all Six, really,” Trent said. “His full name is Asa Fransix. He’s got human memories. Army vet.”

A lean man in old-style black jeans and a simple collared shirt looked over at Trent from the nearby bar. He had grey starting in his close-cut hair, a scar slashing through one brow and a gaze that was both keen and a little weary. He came over and Trent’s eyes widened.

The man extended his hand. “Congrats on the race, Trent Wagner.”

“Thanks, but who are you?” Trent said, shaking with him.

“Ry Devans. Was the co-pilot of PS-4 from MOS-1, on ice for now.”

“Ice?”

“Yeah. Shuttled in from MOS-2 after PS-4 exploded. Evaluation stuff. Didn’t mean to eavesdrop, but it’s just me and a beer and lab pretzels on that stool. What name was that associated with your bot? I’m ex mil. I can run a quick check in the database.”

Trent repeated it.

“Interesting. Well, you and your lovely mom and holo-sis continue with your dinner and I’ll run this.” He returned to the bar stool, took a swig of beer, then his fingers danced on the key pad of his arm computer.

Gwen’s holo eyes were large. “You guys, First Officer Devans is famous out here at Mars space!”

Ten minutes later he left the barstool and walked up to their table. “Sorry to interrupt again.”

“Not at all,” Karen Wagner said.

Trent noted the smoothness of her invitation. He could understand why; she had been at odds with Dad for a long time before they finally split.

“Asa Fransix was in the Twelve Infantry Division, Ion Fight Brigade, later an infrastructure engineer in the private sector. He worked here on the moon for SCONA until an accident took his life. He must have used one of the portable memory sticks now in your bot as a memory back-up.”

“Yeah, I was thinking the same,” Trent said.

Devans nodded. “His widow is Jana. She’s on Earth. She posted on social media that she is not well. I’m thinking … well, she might appreciate having a version of Six around.”

Trent looked away. “You mean give him up?”

“Maybe just the memory stick? She could upload the rest to a computer.”

Trent pulled a deformed memory stick from his pocket. “It got damaged in one of his falls. The impulses and images he displayed would be imprinted in the core processor. The part of him that remains is part of the machine now.”

“Ghost in the machine,” Gwen said.

“And the entire machine would need to go to Jana Fransix.”

“Entirely your call,” Devans said.

Trent gazed through the transparent wall to the stars shining beyond. “Six is … a friend now.”

Karen nodded and looked up at Devans. “It’s been difficult on Trent since Gwen’s been away. Won’t you sit with us?”

“Thanks, but I’ve got another psych test to fake my way through.”

The women laughed. Trent was deep in thought.

“I’ll do it,” he said, finally. “I’ll send Six on the next Earth shuttle.”

Devans nodded in appreciation. “Well, look, SCONA wants me to take a couple weeks off down on Earth. I’ll travel with Six. That way I can explain a little of the weirdness.”

They all agreed.

“By the way, the announcers said this was your first race,” Devans said.

“Yeah, first one.”

“You did really well.”

“We didn’t win,” Trent said.

“No, but you and Six competed. Didn’t give up when it looked bad. That’s a personal win. Plus you showed innovation.”

Trent nodded. “I guess so. Thanks.”

Devans tilted his head and arched his good brow. It made his piercing gaze somewhat more disturbing, until he smiled. “Hey, if I make it through all the tests, I’m going to try and pull a shuttle crew together for a cosmic ton of Mars runs before Detonation Event. Are you interested in the red planet?”

This story first appeared in New Reader Magazine March 2018, Vol. 1, Issue 1.

From his home in Wilmington, North Carolina, John Andrew Karr writes of the strange and spectacular. He is the author of a handful of independent and small press novels and novellas, including the Mars Wars science fiction series. Short stories have appeared in Rogue Planet Press, Flame Tree Publishing, The Weird And Whatnot, Danse Macabre, Allegory and others. And his guest post The Allure of Mars was recently published in Locus Magazine. Visit his Amazon author page here and visit his website here