April 2019


Forsooth lie not in a slugabed’s place
Rouse thyself beyond a seal’s gangl’d pace
For youth and confidence are currency still
But cannot be redeem’d in a bedroom’s till
Rise up, what ho, on trembling knees
Venture forth with thy wearied limbs to see
What adventures wait in spring’s flow’ry grasp
And escape thee from fatique’s oily clasp

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Trace staggered backwards, snickering madly and desperately trying to keep Caleb’s order to be quiet. Sister, for her part, angrily wiped away enough mud that it wasn’t in any danger of slipping into her mouth.

“Aww, c’mon, sis,” Trace said as she glared at him. “It was just a little joke, huh? Have a sense of humor.”

“Oh, I do. I do have a sense of humor. You know what would be really funny right now? EATING SOME MUD PIES!” Sister swept her synthetic leg, knocking Trace’s lanky limbs from beneath him like ninepins. Like an expert wrestler, Sister had Trace pinned in a moment, despite his greater height and longer reach, and was forcing a double handful of mud into his face.

Trace flailed about; his cybernetic arm gave him the strength to flip Sister away after a moment, and he doubled over, gagging.

“You got my mouth all dirty,” he spat.

“Your mouth was dirty already,” Sister snapped back. “I just put mud in it. You should think next time you play a mean joke on someone.”

“Hmph,” scoffed Trace. “Grandfather didn’t mind. He used to encourage me. Thought it was funny.”

“And now he’s dead,” Sister replied. “Just like you’ll be if yo get me all dirty again.”

They were about to go at it again when they noticed Caleb had returned. He was leaning on a tree, nonchalantly observing them while quietly cleaning his rifle.

“If this is quiet,” he said, “I’d hate to see noisy and squabbling.”

The kids had already begun to point at each other, and accusations were already on their lips, when Caleb held up a hand.

“We’re being tracked,” he said. “Something big, something fast. We’re moving now, and unless you want to walk home by yourself, looking over your shoulders the whole way, we’d better get moving.”

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“Grandfather told us never to come to this place, but Tory thought we might find something to fix her here,” said Sister. “So we came here. I had to help her on account of her parts.”

Caleb nodded. Tory had been having considerable difficulty with her “parts” of late. While Sister just had one artificial leg, Tory had a complete set, two arms and two legs, and their construction was considerably more sophisticated than any of the others. The old Harvester Prime, “Grandfather,” had probably been using her as a prototype or test bed for a more thorough integration of the taken children into their rambling, thieving exoskeletons.

“You came even though Grandfather said not to? Even though he smacked us around for even asking about it?” said Trace, incredulous. If he had looked rather grown-up before, in the shadows of the abandoned laboratory he looked like a small, scared child–enough so that Caleb had to tell the boy to sling his gun, lest he trigger a panicked discharge by mistake.

“Caleb said to forget everything Grandfather said,” replied Sister, defiantly. “I wanted to help Tory.”

“He also told us to breathe sometimes, so better start holding your breath,” Trace snapped. “It’ll be nice and quiet ’til you pass out.”

“Trace. Sister. Let me ask you something. Could you talk about Grandfather back home, in your rooms, or around the campfire?”

“Yeah, I guess,” Trace said.

“Can you help find Tory around the fire?”

“Of course not!” said Sister.

Caleb folded his arms and looked at them both.

“Okay,” Trace said, sullenly.

“All right,” Sister added, getting the message a moment later.

“Now,” Caleb said. “Show me the room where the ‘robot tentacles’ took your sister.”

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“And…and…and…it came up and grabbed Tory,” Sister sobbed, sneaking words in between sobs and grief-panicked hiccups. “Arms, or…tentacles, maybe! I dunno, but she was screaming, and then it had her and then I ran…”

Caleb didn’t say anything more. Instead, he took Sister into his arms, returning his adopted daughter’s panicked embrace with quiet and resolute strength.

“The boys saw me cry,” she finished, as if it was the worst blow of the lot–worse than sneaking off to go exploring, worse than losing her best and only sister Tory.

“Listen,” Caleb said. “If I lost one of you, I’d damn sure be crying. And I wouldn’t care who saw it, because that kind of crying…well, it’s a strength. You don’t know what you’re doing in this world unless you have folks to cry over you, or some folks to cry over yourself, if they’re hurt or gone.”

“Then why aren’t you crying now?” Sister said, sniffling loudly.

“Because I can’t. When we know for certain what’s happened, well…then you might see some tears. But until then, I have to be the dad here. I have to lead you kids in doing something about this.” He looked Sister in the eyes. “I need you to know that I’m crying on the inside about this, okay, Sis? I do care, and if it looks like I don’t, it’s because I’m just trying to get Tory home safe.”

“All right,” Sister said.

Caleb let her out of the embrace and trotted over to his gun locker. He pulled out his hunting shotgun and something new, something that Sister had never seen before – a long, black rifle that looked like it meant business. Slinging one over each shoulder, he handed Sis her own small weapon. “Gather up some ammunition. .223 and 12ga for me, .22 for you.”

Then, he opened the door to the workshop. The boys were huddled there, clearly terrified–too scared to listen at the door, but not so scared as to turn and flee. “Trace,” Caleb said. “As the oldest, you’re coming with me. Come on into the workshop, we’ll get you kitted out. Switch?”

The quietest boy of the lot looked at Caleb, artificial eyes glowing quizzically in the dark.

“You’re next-oldest, and the best shot besides. You’re staying here. Come on in and get your kit. Then you’re leading the other boys down into the old radio room, and you’re going to stay there until I get back.”

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“Caleb Caleb Caleb, I found this in the dump, can I keep it?”

Trace thrust a mangy-looking cat, which had a put-upon but resigned expression, onto Caleb’s workbench. The automatic rifle sear that Caleb had been carefully grinding down was immediately displaced, with its recoil spring disappearing into the corner with a weak ‘sproing.’

“Is this what you meant by catpacitors?” Chip added. “How do we soldier it into our parts?”

“IT’S VIBRATING!” cried Fuse, with his hands pressed to the feline’s flanks.

Caleb carefully scooped up the remaining pieces of his gun and swept them aside, taking special care to make sure that nothing was pointing at the kids–or their cat. “Why don’t you take that…catpacitor…outside?” he said. “If it decides to stick around, maybe it can do something about the mice.”

Trace, Chip, and Fuse excitedly grabbed up the cat and carried it off, leaving a pool of unidentified fluid and a fistful of identifiable hairs all over the workbench.

From the corner of the room, Sister looked up. “What? Why do the boys get to play outside? Do I have to steal TRACE’S parts to be allowed to play outside too?”

Caleb looked over at her. “You said you wanted to learn how to shoot,” he said. “The first 90% of shooting is learning how to degrease gun parts with a toothbrush like you’re doing.”

“Hmph,” Sister said, dropping the Hello Kitty toothbrush she had been using to scrub out the bore of a disassembled 9mm automatic. “You didn’t make the boys brush gun teeth when they pranked me.”

Caleb looked over at Sister. “You mean when you woke up and somebody modded your inputs?

“Yeah! They made it so that the sun looks like a big grinning scary face and the trees looked like fingers.”

Caleb chuckled a bit. “It took me hours figuring out how to fix that.” Then, his smile turned harder. “And in the meantime you was sobbing in terror as the sun kept setting and getting closer and closer.”

“And you told me never to let the boys see me cry,” said Sister, indignantly.

“It’s tough,” said Caleb. “I know. But if you let them see you cry, they know they’re getting through to you. And do you remember what else I said?”

“Always, always, ALWAYS get even,” said Sister, flatly, by rote.

“Exactly,” said Caleb. He pulled a small data disk from a drawer in his workbench and tossed it to her. “I think you’ll find that, sooner or later, that program will somehow find its way into the boys’ wireless hub,” he said with a wink.

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“So this is why it’s always a good idea to keep your eyes open,” said Caleb. He held out the branch he’d stripped, drooping with ripe red morsels, as well as the motherboard salvaged from the CPU of a Watcher. “These berries are edible, and these kinds of capacitors can be soldered into your parts as replacements”

“So eat the capacitors?” said Trace, from the back of the group.

“Soldier the berries?” Chip cried. “How do I soldier berries?”

“When is LUNCH?” added Fuse. His voice was higher than the others and warbled, coming as it did from the artificial synthesizer installed in his neck.

Caleb sighed. “Okay, you can go eat. Go gather something and bring it here to eat with what we packed. Bring it to me first. If you poison yourself, don’t come crying to me.”

The kids dispersed. Within a few moments, the grove was filled with shouting and whirring as the kids began to roughhouse, putting their various cybernetic limbs and accoutrements to the test.

Caleb settled into a position in the middle of the group, quietly crunching on his own lunch while keeping an eye on the kids and another on the horizon, for wanderers or wildlife attracted by the ruckus.

“Hey Caleb!” It was Trace, always the babbler. “If Sister is sleeping, can I take her cool prosthetic foot? She doesn’t need it while she’s sleeping. And it’ll make me twice as fast I bet!”

Caleb looked at him. “Give it back.”

“Give what back?” Trace said, awkwardly shifting his weight and trying to conceal something wrapped up in his homeknit sweater.

“Now.”

Trace sheepishly handed over the cybernetic limb, a springy blade made from the cold-forged rotor of a long-downed helicopter. Caleb whistled sharply from between his teeth, the familiar signal for all the children to gather.

Sister hobbled in, bouncing on her one organic leg and red-faced. “Take my foot and I’ll BEAT you with my other one and then reformat your memory so you won’t remember a thing,” she roared at Trace.

“Remember what we talked about?” Caleb said. “Once you’re old enough to change your own britches, folks can only touch you if you let them. Sister, are you old enough to change your own britches?”

Sister looked down at her pants, which she had dyed and sewn herself from an old red parachute that had faded to pale pink. “I sure am,” she said.

“And did you give Trace permission to take your leg?”

“How could I? I WAS ASLEEP.”

“Well then,” Caleb said. “When you touch without permission, you forfeit your own protection. Looks like Sister gets to hoop on you a little bit to teach you a lesson you seem to have trouble learning.”

Sister had just finished reattaching her leg; she quickly bounded off, cackling, after Trace, who had wisely booked it through a nearby stand of pine trees.

“How many legs has Sister gone through kicking butts?” Fuse asked.

“Oh, I’d say about three or so,” said Caleb. “The boys’ll get the idea soon enough.”

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When Caleb left the shattered husk of the Harvester Prime behind, bleeding out what it called the knowledge of a thousand generations onto its own mechanical innards, he had collected all the other Harvesters he could, pulling them free from their mechanical cocoons, their prisons. Most were very young, mere children; their leader had mentioned how quickly the Harvesters burned through a body that wasn’t young and resilient.

The oldest Harvester had refused Caleb’s help, defiantly pulling put a piece of vital circuitry and leaving the world on her own terms. A younger one, a teenager, had refused Caleb’s help, piloting his machine into the wastes with a grim purpose.

“You’ve no fuel and no plan, son!” Caleb had shouted after him. “What are you going to do?”

“Find a purpose,” came the reply over crackled loudspeakers. “Or die trying.”

The others had agreed to come or been so young that Caleb felt he had no choice but to take them. They were all cybernetically enhanced to various degrees, apparently at the whim of their departed ‘grandfather,’ but Caleb was able to fashion parts to replace their limbs–each child was missing an arm or a leg, with their connection to the Harvesters apparently passing through instead, an extension of the self in the form of a ten-ton hand.

So, when Caleb set out on his long trek home, he was accompanied by a wagon and nine children aged five to ten. They’d been given names by the Harvester Prime that seemed to imply he saw them as the components of a vast and sinister circuit board–parts soldered into place to serve a purpose like any other. “I/O” had chosen to take her own life, and “CPU” had trundled off to parts unknown, which left Trace, Diode, Switch, Transistor, Capacitator, Chip, Resistor, Breaker, and Fuse in Caleb’s convoy.

Transistor was utterly unable to pronounce her name, rendering it variously as “tray-sister,” “trog-sister,” or even “trap-sister.” By the end of the long ramble to safety, Caleb and all the others just called her Sister. Capacitor proudly and pointedly pronounced his full name every time, but Caleb had little patience for it: “I’m not using four syllables to call you unless I’m mighty angry, kid. You’ll go by Cap when I’m in a good mood.” Resistor, who was the same age as Sister and might have been a sibling or twin, was ironically the most pleasant and pliable of the children. She was “Tory” by the end of the journey.

Trace, the oldest, walked alongside Caleb as he led the wagon crammed with the others. “What’ll you do with us when we get to your home, mister?” he asked once his early fear of Caleb’s grizzled and laconic affect had faded.

“I can’t say I’ve decided,” Caleb said. “But I’m not the sort of guy to leave helpless kids to the jackals. I reckon I’ll teach you a few tricks, give you some books to read, show you how to shoot half-decent and forage for salvageable machine parts.”

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