The Letters

The Robot Killer was a battleship size yellow and blue metal monster made in Japan. The conveyor belt ran for months on end, grinding and crushing with powerful blades and hammer-mills. We all heard the screams from the mouths of the humanoid robots being crushed to death into one flat sheet of metal––but nobody was brave or foolish enough to come to their aid.

✸✸✸

The metal works held a wonderland of memories for Seth Griffin. His father, Walter, used to program and repair robots at the factory. As a child, Seth watched his father work and learned the trade. Occasionally, he’d even assist in rebuilding the mechanical marvels.

(Image provided by Nile from Pixabay.com)

In those days, the metal works, also known as Atherstone Industries, had become a giant in the community, providing jobs for so many of its residents. They manufactured utilitarian items such as fountain pens, clocks, pocket watches, and of course, robots.

After the collapse of the global economy, the new government, the EOV, an acronym for Eclogue of Virgil, taken from the old paper money, Novus Ordo Seciorum, Latin for, “New Order of Ages. The EOV possessed all the gold or what was left in the world and hence, they made all the rules––new rules, bad rules.

The EOV stipulated that all American metal work Industries halt production of robots and start fabricating tools of war. When Atherstone refused, the government shut him down and hauled the old man off to prison. The business of blood killed the sons of industry, and war carried men off into a bitter sectarian battle, fought on a global scale.

The war would have taken Seth as well, if not for the fact that government assistance programs dissolved. Subsequently, a few special interest groups paid large sums of gold on behalf of the handicapped, imposing the EOV to issue a new law that any family with only one child old enough to support his disabled parent would remain behind.

At twenty-one years old, Seth was supporting his crippled mother by working at the rubber factory for a weekly salary of two dollars’ cash, three loaves of bread, one large box of milk, and a bag of canned vegetables; most of the time they were out of vegetables, so he got beans.

Besides robots, Seth’s passion was writing stories. With the price of one sheet of paper costing more than a week’s salary, Seth had nearly given up writing, however, before his father left for war, the man invented an alternative way to make paper from rubbish.

Less than a year later, Seth lost the creative muse when his father went missing in action. Seth took his homemade parchment and all his literary dreams and locked them away in the large artificially lit room behind the brick wall in his basement.

✸✸✸

Missing his father so bad he ached. Seth needed to visit the factory. Before the sun even warmed up the earth, he made his mother breakfast and dressed quickly, and walked down deserted streets stopping at the fence. He slipped through the tangled, vine-covered hole and half ran down the rocky embankment. When he crossed the weatherworn,cracked, weed-covered parking lot, his eyes caught sight of the metal crusher, the Robot Killer. He felt the heat of anger burning in his soul. His hands clenched tightly into fists, he kicked a piece of metal drainpipe and sent it flying up over the corner roof of the old factory building, up past the dust-covered, rectangular windows, not caring where it landed.

Seth weaved through the narrow alleyways formed by the giant stacks of scrap metal, now all squared-off into rug-size packages. Section-after-section was tied up with dense baling wire, bundled and stored, standing like rusty skyscrapers that silhouetted the orange and pink early morning sky, waiting silently for the EOV disposal crane to haul them away.  Most folks called it Stack City, but to Seth, this place was a cemetery, since most of the destroyed robots had been close friends.

He walked faster now, trying to forget what had happened when the world went spinning into economic despair. He let his mind wander until he found himself remembering that cold winter night six years ago when his father kissed the top of his head and whispered goodbye before going off to war. Seth stopped to bend over, fighting the strain of nausea.

His nightmarish daydreams hadn’t paused him very long when something caught his attention; a warm glow of light coming from the other side of the metal skyscrapers. He made his way around the corner and stopped dead in his tracks.

He could hardly believe his eyes. It seemed so glorious, absolutely fantastic, perhaps the most magnificent thing he had seen since… well, since… forever. To him, it was equivalent to a twentieth-century amusement park.

A giant robot dinosaur, bobbing his green scaly head, opening his jaws wide… his mouth filled with jagged teeth. He made no noise, other than spinning gears, looking both silly and ferocious. That alone would have been enough to thrill Seth, but there was more.

Below the mammoth lizard, in the middle of the debris-littered clearing, was another robot, but this one was a humanoid.

The robot sat at a cherry-wood Victorian writing desk, sophisticatedly assembled with scrolled metal ornamentation. On his desk sat a battery-operated lamp, emitting a soft, yellow glow.

The humanoid wore a burgundy velvet suit, white shirt, and red tie. He would have been a flawless, elegant work of mechanical genius, if not for the fact that he was missing part of his face and head. Seth could see the left side above the ear and part of the eye, exposing the moving gears normally hidden beneath the flexible skin.

It fascinated Seth to see both eyes moving, while at the same time watching the mechanisms shifting the eyeballs back and forth. He could hear the small chimes and metal spinning gears working every slight jerky movement of his hand as he dipped the fountain pen into the inkwell.

“Hello,” the humanoid said, his voice mimicking a male in his mid-twenties–––not too deep, rich and mellow, with only a minute, high-pitched peal. “My name is Russell, and for a small price, I can write a letter to anyone you’d like. I can also write a legal contract if you need one. You provide the subject and I will write for you, one full page.”

“This is amazing,” said Seth. “Um… how did you get here? Does anyone else know about you both? He asked eyes going up to the T-Rex. “You know, like the EOV?”

Russell calmly placed the pen in the inkwell and moved his hands to rest gently on the small wooden desk. “Do you work for the EOV? Are you going to report us?”

“Me?” asked Seth, pointing at his chest. “No, of course not. I wouldn’t turn you in.”

“I’m happy to hear that,” said Russell. With small movements, he nodded. “Now what shall I write for you?”

The moment Seth drew closer, a metal box the size of a butter tray, sitting on the desk, opened and began to quote a page from Charles Dickens’s Pickwick Papers. All Seth could see were a pair of eyes and a large mouth with big teeth. Russell pushed a green button on the box, and the volume of the voice went very low. After a few moments, when he was finished reciting, he slipped back inside and the cover slammed shut.

“What was that?” Seth asked.

“This was all I could find of Vipin,” said Russell. “He was a good friend. As you know, good friends are rare. He can be a bit loud at times, but he is enjoyable all the same. He can quote any great author. I am thankful that he only quoted one page; generally, he goes on and on.” Russell glanced off toward the old metal works. “Did you know Mr. Atherstone, our wonderful creator?”

Seth slowly picked his way over the metal debris, stopping right in front of the desk.  He glanced up to study the T-Rex from underneath its jaw. “I met him once when I was a kid. My father worked in the automaton department.”

Russell leaned back. His eyes traveled over the boy’s face. “What was your father’s name?”

“Walter Griffin,” said Seth.

“Ah, yes, he programmed me. And he fixed my feet once. I kept tripping until Walter fashioned me brand new feet.” Russell stretched his legs out beyond the desk and flexed his black slipper-clad feet. “See. They are perfect. Mr. Walter was a wonderful human.” Russell let his legs drop back under the table. “Now, what can I write for you, Son of Walter? I only charge the price of one clean, full sheet of paper–––or a bottle of ink would be lovely.”

“I didn’t bring any of those things with me, but I can get them,” said Seth.

“I trust you, Son of Walter,” said Russell, again dipping the point of the fountain pen into the inkwell. “I can write on any subject and fill up one page.” His head tipped forward and tilted to the left, smiling. “So, what would you like me to write?”

“I miss my dad,” said Seth, shoving his hands in his jacket pockets. “I wish I could write him a letter.”

“Splendid,” said Russell. “Let’s begin, shall we? Dearest Dad–––is that salutation acceptable to you, Son of Walter?”

“He will never read this letter,” Seth said, squinting into the sun, hoping not to cry. He was fighting that same painful yearning to see his father. He began to wonder about the fruitlessness of such an endeavor, and yet, what would he say to his father, if he were certain he would or could actually read the letter?

“I completely understand your apprehension at writing such a personal missive, knowing that he may not receive it.” Russell stared intently at Seth. “However, this project might be helpful for you, wouldn’t you agree?”

Seth was shrewd enough to understand the context. Perhaps the simple act of dictating the letter might help heal the pain. “The salutation is fine,” said Seth, glancing down, kicking at a few stray pieces of metal gears. “I…I want to tell him…” he paused because he didn’t want to sound pedestrian or say something too sentimental because that wasn’t the way it was between him and the old man.

The robot patiently waited; hand poised with his pen above the paper.

“Life is as normal as it can be without you, Dad. Mother gives piano lessons from her wheelchair. She doesn’t care if it’s against the law. We are happily rebellious. On my days off, I visit the metal works. Sometimes I swear I can still see you sitting at your desk, fixing a broken humanoid arm, and listening to your favorite Chopin nocturnes. It’s funny because that music is always in my head.” Seth paused and glanced at the robot, watching him scribble across the page,never missing a word.

“I’ve hidden away all your favorite books behind the wall. I would die first before I let the EOV strike a match to any of them. Some days, I visit the secret room. I stand in front of the bookcase and run my fingers over the spines as if touching them might somehow connect me with you. It’s a stupid thought, isn’t it?” Seth took a deep breath.

“Your favorite book on robot repair still holds the wonderful smell of your pipe tobacco, and I wonder why things like tobacco aren’t outlawed, instead of the books and computers that contained a wealth of knowledge. I must admit, this world makes no sense, and it’s even more puzzling as to why we hardly receive any news about the war. It’s as if we sent you off to die, and we have no idea why–––

Seth drew in a breath and closed his eyes, “last week, Mike, from the factory, showed me a photo. There were piles of dead bodies. I…I hoped none of them were you.” Seth voice broke. He wiped at his eyes. “Russell, I’m not sure I can continue.”

“Very well,” said the robot, returning his pen to the inkwell. “I shall save this until you return tomorrow.”

“I can’t come back until Tuesday,” said Seth. “That’s my day off.”

“Tuesday,” said Russell. “A wonderful day. I look forward to seeing you then.”

Seth paused as he turned to leave. “Do you stay out here all the time, even in the rain?”

“No,” said Russell. “Vipin and I move inside the building. My T-Rex friend is not just another pretty face. He’s quite useful. He has visual sensory perception and heat sensitivity. He warns me of trouble and bad weather.”

“What will happen if you get caught?” Seth asked.

“I will be disassembled and compressed into a new pile of scrap metal. All the lovely memories of letters I’ve written and people I’ve spoken with will be gone.”

The thought of Russell being destroyed made Seth sick to his stomach. “I hope that never happens.”

“It’s inevitable, Son of Walter, but until that day, I remain faithfully at your service.”

✸✸✸

It was three full days before Seth could return to the metal works yard, bringing paper and ink as payment for Russell’s services. As he approached the yard, he heard voices–––human voices. Seth crouched low, moving along the front of the building, ducking under windows and stopping when he reached the edge of the open garage-type alcove. He slipped around the corner and stood back in the shadows of the darkened doorway, listening.

“You’re wrong, Jim. We destroyed every robot.”

“I was told by a reliable source that this facility has a communication humanoid, who writes letters for people. He has other machines and human sympathizers working with him. I suggest you inspect every inch of this place until you find them and destroy the ’Bots.”

“Do you have any idea how many acres we’re talking about? I don’t have the manpower.”

“You’d better do something Chet, otherwise, you’ll be arrested and thrown in prison. I will leave my best man, Philip, with you. He can sniff out Bots better than any other officer.”

“Fine,” said Chet. “We’ll start early.”

Seth waited for them to drive off before he headed back toward Stack City. He paused before he turned the corner, glancing back to make sure he wasn’t followed.

“Why are you hiding, Son of Walter?” asked Russell.

Seth moved out from behind the metal stacks. “How did you know I was here?”

“T-Rex told me. He sees quite a bit. Besides, I am sensitive to close-range sound waves and odors as well. It isgood to see you again, Son of Walter. Shall we finish the letter?”

Seth held up his hand and closed his eyes a moment to put his thoughts together. “A moment ago, I overheard a conversation with the EOV officers and the Owner. They know about you. They have plans to destroy you. You’ve got to run and hide.”

Russell bent his head back as he glanced up at the T-Rex. “We had a good run while it lasted, dear friend.”

“You’re just going to let them destroy you?” Seth asked, gasping in disbelief.

“What else do you suggest?”

“Hide,” said Seth. “Find a new place.”

“Do not fret about this, Son of Walter. T-Rex will find us a new location.”

“They are going to search every inch of this place,” said Seth. “I don’t think there is any place you can hide.”

“We have gone through this before,” said Russell. “They have only two men searching Stack City. So, don’t worry, we know how to hide.”

Seth let out a loud exhale of breath. “I hope for your sake you’re right. Here, I brought you some paper and ink.” He placed five sheets of clean parchment and three bottles of ink on his desk.

“This is payment for many letters,” said Russell. “I must give some back to you.”

“No,” said Seth. “I have so much paper. Keep it.”

“I am overwhelmed by your generosity.”

“Well maybe someone will come along without payment,” said Seth. “Someone desperate.”

“I see the wisdom of your words,” said Russell. “Thank you, Son of Walter. Shall we pick up where we left off?”

“Sure,” said Seth.

They spent the afternoon finishing the letter. He tucked the precious paper into his jacket pocket and held his hand over it as he walked away.

That night when he fell asleep Seth had a dream. He saw the EOV police loading Russell into the metal crushing machine. He was strapped to the conveyor belt. His screams filled Seth’s nightmares, and he woke up in a cold sweat, Russell’s final screams still fresh in his mind. He glanced at the clock–––it was too early for work. He had one sick day left. He picked up the cell phone used only for emergencies, and he dialed the rubber plant’s number and told them he would not make it to work.

✸✸✸

Seth could hear the conveyor belt groaning and the gears grinding and hammers slamming, pounding along with his heart. As he climbed through the fence, thoughts screamed in his mind, it’s too late–––Russell is already gone!

When he reached the parking lot and edge of Stack City, Seth glanced up at the conveyor belt and what he saw turned him cold.

They were crushing the T-Rex. The scrolled metal desk legs were next and then Russell strapped down exactly like in his dream. There were two workers one at the controls. The other was definitely an EOV officer. He was fiddling with the straps holding the desk legs

As Seth slipped behind the first stack, his mind raced in a panic. If only he could create a distraction and send the workers away from the machine, he could rescue Russell.

As Russell moved slowly up the conveyor belt, Seth searched the ground in a panic looking for a rock or something–––anything he could throw to distract them.

Just then the early morning sun hit the horizon over Stack City, he saw a glint of light flashing off something silver on the ground.

It was the little chatterbox, Vipin.

Seth glanced back at Russell, who was still moving up the conveyor belt. He feared he would lose him forever. And just like that, something went wrong.

Just as the desk legs reached the grinder the bindings snapped and one of the legs went sideways, and flipped, hitting the grinder vertically. It caused a riotous noise. Lights began flashing and the desk leg was pounding the side of the machine. The two men began shouting and running.

One climbed up the ladder on the outside to reach the mammoth gears while the other climbed the conveyor belt and was kicking at the desk leg, trying to dislodge it.

The moment the machine shut down; all went very quiet. Seth couldn’t believe his luck. This was too perfect an opportunity; perhaps it wasn’t an accident at all–––had the EOV officer caused the accident? Seth didn’t have the luxury of time to figure it all out.

He opened the box. Vipin’s fearful little face peeked out at Seth.

“I need you to help me save Russell.”

The robot’s eyes grew larger as he listened. “What must I do?”

“As loud as you can, quote me your favorite author. I want the entire book–––no matter what happens, don’t stop quoting, okay?”

“Yes. I will do it. We shall save Russell,” said Vipin. “Please, push my red button, and I shall begin.”

As Seth slid his finger over the button, Vipin began to scream out passages from Dickens’s, The Old Curiosity Shop.

Both workmen were standing on the conveyor belt, struggling with the desk leg now and when they heard Vipin they turned to stare at Stack City. Seth’s heart began to pound harder. He waited until they climbed back down, and were heading in his direction, following the sound.

“Thank you, Vipin,” whispered Seth. He drew back his arm, grunting as he tossed Vipin high, watching the silver box sailing through the air, carried off on the light morning breeze over Stack City, landing somewhere between the narrow passageways.

When the men changed direction, Seth counted to five, before heading for the metal crushing machine.

He heard more shouting when he reached the conveyor belt and started to climb the red rubber belt, nearly falling a few times, until he reached Russell.

“Son of Walter,” said Russell. “I was so afraid. I tried to be brave, but I knew it would be painful. Now you are here to save me. I am so utterly without words. How can I convey how happy I am to see you? I thought I heard Vipin. Was I imagining things?”

“He just saved your life,” said Seth, unhooking the straps, until they fell away. Russell grabbed Seth and hugged him. “Thank you for saving me, Son of Walter.”

“We aren’t free yet,” said Seth, taking the robot’s arms away from his shoulders. “Follow me!”

They slid down the conveyor belt, mostly falling. Seth caught a glimpse of someone out of the corner of his eye. A second later they seemed to disappear behind the stacks. Heart pounding, he thought perhaps he was imagining things.

Russell was starting to give him a headache from chattering almost as much as Vipin.

“Will you please be quiet!” Seth hissed, as he glanced around at the miles of chain-link fence, searching for a way out. He didn’t want to backtrack toward the building and the hole in the fence because that was too close to their pursuers.

The moment Vipin stopped screaming, Seth glanced over his shoulder toward Stack City. He knew they had found the little robot, and his heart sank, but there was no time to mourn the loss of another friend—they had to escape.

Seth spied a low-hanging tree branch a little further down along the fence line. “Can you run?” he asked.

“It was part of my programming. Your father made sure of that.”

Seth half wondered if his father suspected what the future held, and what lay ahead for robots. Perhaps he had prepared the robot for this moment, but right now there was no time to ponder the possibilities; they had to get away fast.

“Run,” shouted Seth, pointing, “don’t stop until you reach that tree branch.”  Seth was surprised at how fast the robot ran, despite running as stiffly as a cartoon stick figure without moving his arms.

Seth didn’t waste any time climbing the fence and onto the tree branch. He looked back at Russell, who stood stationary, gazing at the fence.

“I was not programmed for climbing,” said Russell.

“It’s easy, put your foot into holes in the fence and reach up, I’ll grab your hand.”

“Freeze!” The cold, firm voice of an EOV officer commanded, his tone holding more than authority–––he was angry. He stood over five meters away, sweat pouring from his forehead, gun drawn, and ready to shoot.

“Philip,” said Russell as if he were delighted to see an old friend. “How nice to see you. Would you be so kind as to help me over this fence?”

Seth’s eyes were trained on the gun aimed at him.

“You know this guy?”

“No,” said Philip, his voice incensed. “I’m no friend to robots. I’m taking you back to the crusher.”

“Of course, you know me. I was just speaking with you when I was on the crusher,” said Russell, and he glanced up at Seth. “His mother knitted me the most wonderful green sweater one year for Christmas. It’s a shame I didn’t get to thank her for such kindness. Please tell her how much I appreciated her handiwork. Speaking of family, how is your brother Paul?” Russell glanced again at Seth. “I have written many letters for Philip. His twin brother, Paul, is away fighting in the war.”

“They’ll kill me if I let you go,” Philip snarled, and started running his left hand over the stubble on his face. He nervously paced back and forth, glancing over his shoulder. He let out a loud groan of frustration before holstering his gun. “I must be out of my mind,” he said, letting his head drop to his chest. Moving with determination, he swiftly wrapped his arms around the robot’s sleek burgundy-suited body and lifted Russell up.

The robot’s smile never wavered as he stared down at the face of the dangerous EOV officer. “Thank you, Phillip. Please give my best to your mother.”

Immediately, Seth grabbed onto Russell’s arms and with all his strength, he lifted him up onto the branch, and together they jumped beyond the fence. Mostly Russell fell, landing on top of Seth.

“Oomph!” Seth yelled out from beneath the heavy robot.

“Why, how kind of you, Son of Walter, for charitably breaking my fall,” said Russell.

“You mind getting off me, now?”

“Why of course,” said Russell, pushing himself awkwardly to his feet. “And thank you, Philip,” he said, brushing the dead leaves from his burgundy suit.

The EOV officer didn’t answer. His expression shifted, dark, and cold again. He took his weapon from the holster and began to shoot until he emptied the magazine.

✸✸✸

Seth went to work every day as he was scheduled. When he came home, he cooked dinner for himself and his mother, and then sat in the living room, listening to her play old show tunes on the discordant piano for a half hour.

After, he would help his mother get ready for bed. Drawing the shades, he would tuck her in, kiss her softly on the cheek, and turn out the lights. Seth would then grab his backpack before stealthily climbing down into the basement. When he reached the secret room, he cautiously glanced around the shadowy darkness before his fingers pushed the painted red brick that opened the hidden door. As always, Russell was waiting.

Even though it had been a month or more, the memory of their escape was still fresh in Seth’s mind. Seeing Philip empty his magazine into that tree branch until the wood splintered and it nearly fell on top of him. That poor maple tree had died within weeks. Seth wondered if Philip somehow had a hand in the swiftness of its death.

After their escape, they lived in fear, week after terrifying week, watching the EOV invade every home in the neighborhood, searching for the robot, eventually posting signs offering a large reward.

After the initial repair to the facial skin covering Russell’s ear and eye, Seth spent most of his free time working on Russell, programming him for better agility, giving him the capability to jump high and climb fences.

During the third week, Seth built Russell a new writing desk; not as nice as the one he had, but nonetheless, it was a no-frills, practical place to work.

This night, when the door opened, Russell rushed from where he stood in front of the bookcase. “Thank God you are home.”

The robot was holding a pulp fiction, paperback detective novel against his chest. “I’ve been going out of my mind with boredom. I feel so useless! I simply stare at the walls all day long or re-read the same books. I have sunk to the lowest level, Son of Walter. I am not proud of myself. I’ve started reading these predictable, pulp fiction, crime novels. At least, when I was at the metal works, there was always something interesting to see or do.” He made the strange sound Seth took to be the robot equivalent of a sigh. “By the way, did you go by the metal works today? Did you find Vipin?”

“I went,” said Seth. “Sorry, no Vipin, but what I found surprised me.”

Russell slipped into his chair. He placed the book down on his desk, tilting his head and resting his hands on top of the cover. “What did you find, Son of Walter?”

“People,” said Seth, with a grin. “Lots and lots of people.”

“I am confused. Were any of them Philip or the EOV? Are we on the lam? You see already these dreadful books have altered my speech pattern.” His eyes glared down at the paperback. “I hate being the antagonist.”

“Will you stop, and just listen,” said Seth, raising his hands in frustration.

“You have my full attention, Son of Walter,” said Russell, sounding contrite. “Please continue, tell me about the people.”

They were your clients,” said Seth. “And they were all looking for you because they want to use your services.”

“Oh, oh dear,” said Russell, his eyes suddenly brightening, his hand going toward his chest. “I am needed.”

Seth shrugged out of his backpack and unzipped the large pocket. He started to place mounds of paper the size of large index cards on Russell’s desk.

The robot picked them up, his eyes rushing over them. “What are these?”

“Requests for letters, and some for legal documents,” said Seth, reaching deeper inside the pack, drawing out a stack of crisp white paper and five bottles of ink. “Your payment in advance. So now you can stop reading those silly crime novels because you’re back in business, my friend.”

Seth could hear the chimes and spinning gears as Russell started to smile.

This story previously appeared Great Jones Street.
Edited by Marie Ginga

 

Judi Calhoun is a long time member of Berlin Writers Group, New England Horror Writers Assoc. Her work appears in numerous fiction anthologies and national magazines, including Flame Tree’s Urban Crime, Appalachia Journal, Blue Moon Literary & Art Review, Crimson Street, and releases by the New Hampshire Pulp Fiction series, Great Jones Street’s collection of award winning stories, and anthologies by the John Greenleaf Whittier museum, Snowbound With Zombies, & Murder Among Friends. 
Follow her literary and artistic adventures at Judy Calhoun.