Thursday, May 15, 2014

World without end

This is the first chapter in some new fiction. My four loyal readers get this as a freebie. If you don't like it, it comes with a money back guarantee.

Daniel Jackson pulled back on the reins and his mule gratefully stopped. It flicked its ears to shoo away a bothersome horsefly. Jackson dismounted, doffed his hat to wipe sweat from his brow, took a pull from his canteen. Highway 50 stretched before him and up into the mountains. Weeds poked through broken patches of asphalt. On both sides of the road were scattered foundations exposed to the afternoon sky, crumbling stucco walls, old Spanish tile moldering underneath the summer sun. A long abandoned settlement by the look of it. Jackson considered combing the ruins for supplies that other scavengers might have skipped but dismissed the idea. It was too hot to go digging for whatever crumbs might be left. What he really needed was more water.

Jackson gave his mule a pat on the nose. It had a milky white third eye just below its left eye which made it a handsome specimen these days. Jackson smiled. "You ready to take that hill pal?" he asked. They were resting at the base of a steep incline in the road. Trees were visible at the top, and where there were trees there had to be water. At least he hoped.

Jackson adjusted the mule's pack. It contained his only possessions in the world besides the clothes on his back and the pistols on his belt. "Enough lollygagging pal. Up we go." Jackson climbed into the saddle, nicked the reins. The mule gave a suspiciously human sigh and got moving. A sign by the road read, "Slow Trucks Keep Right." Some wag had spray painted below those words, "Like I give a shit."

Jackson wound his way up the hill. Other than the buzzing of flies and occasional snorts from the mule, the land was silent. Brown weeds gradually gave way to green grass pushing up through the remains of the highway. Jackson saw broken fence posts and the burned out shells of houses on his right. Old ranch country... he felt more at home already. If anyone still lived out this way, they'd keep close to the road to flag down any merchants who were passing through on their way to Tahoe. Jackson was running low on money, and he wasn't confident that any locals would be eager to put him up for the night, but he had been thrown out of worse places.

The sun dipped below the horizon behind him. Jackson sighed as the air got noticeably cooler. Summer in these parts was brutal but even he had to admit the nights were perfect for camping out under the stars. He was about to start scanning for good spots to bed down when he spied a column of smoke just off the road ahead. "That looks promising. Let's check it out pal," he said to the mule. It sighed again. Jackson sometimes wondered if this mule got more brains in the bargain for its mutant third eye.

Jackson urged the mule down an old off ramp. The asphalt grew patchier the further they moved away from the highway. A few street signs were still standing although they were so badly corroded Jackson couldn't read them. Overgrown trees crowded the road and they were soon underneath a leafy canopy. Jackson shivered as the sweat from the road turned cold. The column of smoke was getting closer. Crickets chirped. He cocked his head, listening. Sure enough, real non-mutant crickets. Jackson couldn't recall the last time he'd heard such a thing.

The trees began thinning around them. They'd been pruned or cut down. Someone definitely lived out here. As Jackson rounded a bend in the road, he saw a glow in the distance. Not only did someone live here, they had electricity too. Jackson began rehearsing what he would say in his mind. Hell, he wouldn't blame them if they drew a gun on him. Jackson knew he looked rough after so many weeks on the road without a haircut or a shave or a change of clothes. Well, if worse came to worse he'd just ask if they could kindly direct him to the nearest source of clean water. Might be a town nearby he could work for room and board.

A click. "What do you think you're doing there neighbor?" came a tinny voice from behind a tree.

Jackson pulled back on the reins and the mule stopped. He slowly raised his hands. "I'm just passing through neighbor. I don't mean any harm," Jackson said.

More clicks. At first Jackson had thought it was a pistol being cocked but now he recognized the sound was wrong. He turned his head to look at his new acquaintance. In the evening gloom he could only make out a silhouette at first. The figure was tall and freakishly thin. Jackson saw that the clicking noises came from its joints as it shambled over to the road. It stepped out into the last remaining sunlight and Jackson found himself looking at a robot.

The robot was human shaped in that it had two arms and two legs, but there the resemblance stopped. Its torso was studded with steel bolts. There were two small lights in its "face" which Jackson took to be its eyes. A mouth-like slit ran almost all the way around to the back of its head. Its movements were stiff as if it weren't used to walking.

"Well shoot friend, I can't let you pass through without offering you some hospitality," it said. Its mouth didn't move as it spoke but rather seemed to broadcast its voice like a radio.

"That's mighty kind of you er... what should I call you?" Jackson asked.

"Deacon Joe at your service," the robot said. Its torso dipped at a ninety degree angle so it was looking at the ground. Jackson stared for a second before realizing that this was meant to be a bow.

"Daniel Jackson," he said, extending his hand. The robot, Joe, straightened up. It didn't have hands so much as three clawed pincers at the end of its wrists. Joe held one up and Jackson gripped one of the claws, giving it a firm shake.

"Mr. Jackson, it'd be my privilege if you'd grace our humble home with your presence for dinner tonight," Joe said.

"Thank you kindly," Jackson said. "You can call me Dan. You said 'our.' I take it you mean your owner?"

"Naw, Father Henry doesn't really own me. He took me in a few years ago when I was having a tough time. Now I stick around and help him out with whatever he needs."

"What kind of tough times could a robot have?" Jackson whispered under his breath.

"You'd be surprised friend, you'd be surprised," Joe said. "But Father Henry does a lot of good work for the community up the road and I'm happy to do my part."

"Good to know. Well, uh, lead the way I suppose," Jackson said. He dismounted, took the reins, and led his mule as Joe clicked and clattered his way down the road. After another few minutes of walking, Jackson could see a small cottage on a rise up ahead. It was recently built by the looks of it. The smoke was coming from its chimney. Jackson sniffed and his mouth watered. Real home cooking. He didn't even care what it was after so many weeks of old army rations.

Joe marched up to the door and beat on it with his forearm. "Father! We have a guest!" he called out. Jackson heard a deadbolt unlatching and the door opened. An old man greeted them, a fringe of white hair circling his otherwise bald head. He was dressed in black trousers and a short sleeved black shirt open at the collar. A strip of white plastic stuck out of his shirt pocket.

"Good evening to you young man," he said.

"Father Henry?" Jackson said.

"The very same. Father Henry Gladstone," he said. They shook hands.

"Daniel Jackson. It's nice to meet you. I didn't mean to impose but..."

"Nonsense. No trouble at all. Every guest is to be treated as if he were Christ himself."

"I hope that doesn't mean I'm about to get crucified."

Father Gladstone's mouth dropped. Jackson wondered if he had already gone too far but then the old priest guffawed. "I'm going to use that one," he said. "Please, come in, come in. You look like you've been on the road a while."

"I'll take care of your ride, don't you worry," Joe said. The robot excused himself and took the reins of Jackson's mule. Jackson followed the priest into his humble abode. The front room was illuminated by a single electric lamp on a table next to a reclining chair in front of bookshelves that stretched to the ceiling. A small fire burned in the fireplace with a bubbling kettle set over it.  On the left was the kitchen with a table and chairs. refrigerator, and sink. On the right was the priest's bedroom with a modest bed and more bookshelves. For such an out of the way place, Jackson thought it impressive.

"Nice place Father," he said.

"Thank you. Joe did most of the work."

"Where do you get electricity?"

"Joe took care of that too. He actually built this place around his, ah, pod. It's out back. He doesn't sleep of course but once in a while he recharges his batteries so to speak. His pod's a big solar battery as near as I can tell."

"He introduced himself to me as 'Deacon.' Is he, ah...?"

Gladstone chuckled. "No, no. That's just a nickname the people gave him because he assists me so much. As far as I know, the Church has never said anything about ordaining robots."

Jackson thought for a second. "Is that because he..."

"Lacks a soul?" Gladstone prompted. "I suppose that's the technical reason. Though between you and me, Joe is more human than a lot of human beings I've met. Please, have a seat. Can I get you anything?"

Jackson sat down at the kitchen table. "Water, please."

Gladstone took a pitcher of water from the refrigerator and poured glasses for both of them. Jackson gulped it down. Gladstone chuckled and poured him another glass.

"Where are you coming from young man?"

"You can call me Dan. I'm coming from Fresno, on my way to Tahoe."

Gladstone clucked his tongue. "That's a long haul Dan. May I ask what's in Tahoe?"

"I'm not sure," Jackson admitted. "Let's just say Fresno isn't real friendly for me right now." Gladstone cocked an eyebrow.

"I"m not in trouble with the law or anything," Jackson said. "But, well, I didn't get along well with some of the... other elements in the city."

"I think I understand," Gladstone said.

The front door opened and Joe came clattering his way in. He ambled to the kettle over the fireplace and plucked off the lid with his pincers. "Soup's on!" he cried. Gladstone got two bowls from a cupboard and set silverware. Joe entered the kitchen and poured them bowls of a thick steaming broth. Jackson's mouth watered.

"Shall we?" Gladstone said. Jackson picked up his spoon but stopped when he saw the priest bow his head, hands clasped. "Bless us O Lord, and these thy gifts which we are about to receive from thy bounty, through Christ our Lord, Amen. Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them. Amen." He opened his eyes. "Dig in," he said.

Jackson stirred his soup. Real vegetables and real meat. He tried a spoonful and felt like he was in heaven. "My compliments to the chef," he said.

"It weren't nothing at all friend," Joe chirped. "Father Henry grows the veggies and I catch the squirrels!"

Jackson paused. "Squirrel? This is squirrel soup?"

Gladstone nodded, trying to suppress a smile.

Jackson stirred his soup, took a chunk of meat in his spoon, and gulped it down. "Best soup I've had in years." Gladstone laughed.

Jackson and Gladstone engaged in small talk as they ate. Joe puttered around the kitchen. His pincers were surprisingly dexterous as he swept the floor with an old fashioned broom and wiped down the windows with an old rag.

"So Joe," Jackson said, "Where do you come from? I've never seen a robot like you before."

"I'm an ArmsCo ACU Model 42-B," Joe replied.

"Okay... what does that mean?"

"I don't rightly know," Joe said. "My memory's not the best right now."

"I found him in his pod when I first came out here seven years ago," Gladstone said. "I got him up and running again but I don't know enough about machines to go poking around in his innards too much. According to the label on his pod, I think he once belonged to the United States government."

Jackson scooped up the last mouthful of soup. Joe pointed at the kettle and Jackson nodded. May as well take as much advantage of their hospitality as he could. Joe poured him another bowl.

"What are the United States?" Jackson asked.

"A long, long time ago it was an empire that stretched across this entire continent from sea to shining sea as the song goes," Gladstone said.

"What happened to it?"

"The same thing that happens to all empires: it fell. That was before my time, my father's time, and probably a  few generations before that. Only reason I know about it at all is my uncle left me a lot of those old books. Some of them are three hundred years old."

After the two men finished their meals, Joe took their dishes to the sink to wash them. Gladstone led Jackson to the back porch where there were two rocking chairs. Joe's pod was ten feet away from the porch, a tall cylinder of metal, glass, and plastic. A cable snaked from the pod and into an outlet on the side of the cabin.

"Join me for a smoke?" Gladstone asked, offering a cigar. Jackson accepted, lighting it with one of his few remaining matches.

"Father, I can't thank you enough for everything you've done," he said.

Gladstone nodded. "You're quite welcome Dan."

"If there's anything I can do..."

"Don't worry about it, I'm always happy to help a traveler in need."

"Well," Jackson said, "I guess what I'm asking is, is there any work around here? I'm a little low on cash right now."

"Ah, I see. Well, not here, no. Joe takes care of a lot of my day-to-day needs. You might have better luck in Cameron Glen just up the road. That's where my parish church is. You're welcome to come with me tomorrow morning when I head up to say Mass."

"This may be a stupid question..."

"There are no stupid questions Dan. I can't guarantee my answer won't be stupid."

"You're a... Roman Catholic priest?"

Gladstone smiled. "Yes sir. My bishop and I are in full communion with his Holiness Pope Gregory XIX."

"Okay. I thought you might have been a Local Catholic Priest, but your handshake was too firm," Jackson said. Gladstone laughed.

"That being said Father... before I turn in for the night, would you hear my confession?"

"Of course my son."

"It's been a few months."

"That's what I'm here for."

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