MOST OF THE HOMES you see in town aren't real anymore. Folks sold quietly out. Now the neighbors in the houses here are animatronic, while the people who used to live there are probably on their way to the moon. Either that or one of those floating cities, or Mars. Most prefer the moon to Mars, being closer for return visits.
I took a walk down to the river today and saw the trees and the rocks on the way...differently. How would these things look one last time before leaving? I wondered. What if some other place looked about like this? Wouldn't that be a letdown?
I wish they'd upgrade to androids here. Animatronic neighbors are boring. They're immobile cuckoo clocks doing the same thing over and over. Now, maybe if there was some kind of an interesting android woman around, that might change things. I could at least invite her over for dinner. You hear about how there are all these jobs available fixing animatronic people and pets, but none of the work ever pans out for me. I ain't never seen no Gold Rush in repairing puppet neighbors.
Some people in town rent parts of their property to the park for the paying public to see, and get to watch improved animatronic versions of themselves go through the motions of life in fixed positions while they themselves ride out less-viewed existences aging.
What must it be like on Mars, with all the radiation? And the moon, too. Always being stuck inside, everything tenuous, dangerous. Plus all the less considered adverse effects. On the other hand, if you think about it, it's probably kind of bizarre that visiting androids sometimes stand around and watch the humans here. Myself included. I'm not immune to it. A lot of the androids with any sort of wherewithal you see look like dead celebrities. Android versions of dead celebrities are always a big hit. Sometimes the celebrities aren't even dead yet. We've all seen plenty of those. We had an android William Shakespeare open a play here not long ago. And then there's always the ongoing hunt for RoboPoe.
Hunting RoboPoe. I used to wonder why anybody would watch it. It's all such bull, I thought. First serial killer robot, yeah right. Isn't that strange that there's always security camera video of RoboPoe morosely skulking around some crime scene, taunting the public and the police with stories and poems he leaves behind, and yet no one can ever find him, he's always just barely slipping out of reach and into the next episode? The whole thing's totally staged, I thought. They excite everybody about catching RoboPoe and getting the bounty as a distraction while they dismantle the world. Sales of RoboPoe hunting kits galore.
Then I saw the show. And I have to say, the more you get into it, the more you want to be the one who gets him.
When I'm not working, I'm training. They say RoboPoe moves around in hiding throughout the county because there's something he wants at park headquarters. Either that or the supposed Area 51-type underground Dreamland base they have somewhere nearby. Some of that may be true. He also might like taking advantage of the coverage in the forests. The trick to catching RoboPoe will be getting inside his head. It's not like there's a regular economy around here anymore. Best I can do for now is try to get as many hours as I can with the park. Paddling canoe in my coonskin cap down at the river affords me lots of opportunities when working to train not only physically, but mentally, as well.
Got into an argument with my closest remaining flesh-neighbor over my training. She's got the lot adjacent to the back yard and came over to the fence while I was shooting arrows at a target with RoboPoe's face. (You can get stacks of those cheap, by the way.) She wasn't attacking how I train so much as why. For someone who's never even seen the show, she sure was acting high and mighty. I used to think she was an all right neighbor, too. I used to be glad that she hadn't sold out.
"Whatever happened to Due Process?" she said, basically blaming me.
I told her, "Yeah, I know, I understand, I get it, but there's nothing I can do. I need money to live. That's not my idea. Personally, I think we can do better, way better. But until that happens, it's all just fantasy. In the real world, dumping the body of RoboPoe on the Slab of Justice will solve my problems. I'll finally be able to get out of this hell hole and afford to live offworld."
"Anti-gravity cities!" she scoffed. "They're all going to fall right out of the sky."
"No," I said, "they're not. You have no idea what you're talking about."
Sure wish RoboPoe would come down here and stuff her up a chimney before I kill him. Obviously she has no idea how hard I have to paddle in order to keep a robot from getting my job. Obviously she doesn't care in the slightest about those innocent people he killed, supposedly. I read what he did to that old man. How they tore the floorboards up and found him. Left another guy chained in a basement behind a wall he'd built. He knew to do those things because of the stories. It was all part of his Poe-gramming.
I've been reading Poe's works as part of my training in order to get inside the killer's mind. Gotta say, Poe's stories are inspirational as hell. Tortures leap out of my brain regularly now. Before I started watching the show I probably would have thought my coming up with tortures was a sad indication of my being dehumanized. I can see that. But it's not true. RoboPoe isn't human. In reality, I only want to do a good job. I want to get as many points as I can from the scoring audience when the time comes. When somebody spotted RoboPoe last week behind a mini-mart, she got a brand-new sofa for chucking a Molotov cocktail at him. Not only that, she got to meet Rutger Hauer in his new body, looking exactly like that android he played in Blade Runner. He presented her with the Medal of Vigilance right in front of the Slab of Justice and everything.
Some guy up north made the news for shooting up a room of rich old white flesh thinking RoboPoe was inside. My neighbor thinks it's crazy he still gets to walk around free, and screamed when I told her they can't take his guns. The fact that it was rich old whites for once did put a slant on things. Softened the blow, as it were. Maybe even a deliberate hit on behind-the-scenes competitors is possible. An inside joke, you might say. Whatever the case, now cameras are on the guy who shot them up, so of course my neighbor says it's crazy that all the stations have his whole life story to suddenly draw on, and show endless video of, and his every moment is always captured arguing with his wife in the camper.
I know it sounds awful, but after you watch a few episodes you do want to see if the sister-in-law shows up. Mostly everybody on the show just kind of stands around looking poor and saying this is their greatest adventure ever. But that sister-in-law's got a sweet rack and cusses funny.
He's around here, my enemy. Skulking in the woods nearby. That ol' skunk. Where's a dog? I need a dog to drink my beer with and talk a little trash 'bout RoboPoe. If I had a plastic rocking chair and a plastic shotgun on my lap, I could park it next to my trusty ol' animatronic dog and keep a real good lookout for that ol' skunk and arch-enemy. Maybe get a loop of cricket sounds piped in. I can feel it. I can feel the show getting closer. And I really do have to get that money. It's the only way I'll ever get out of here and be able to make a real life. I overheard some visitors while I was paddling canoe, trying to ignore the increasing feeling that I'm over-training again. (Can't cut a single hour.) It sounded like they were scouting locations for the show.
Yesterday I took the bus an hour north by car. Takes three times as long on the bus because they go a weird roundabout way, frequently stopping. I had all my gear packed up as carry-on sufficient for me to camp out a couple nights. There's an area I researched that holds a lot of terrain suited to RoboPoe's sensibilities. Initially I planned on reading Poe's works aloud in however many Gothic locales it takes until hearing his work respectfully presented draws him out. That was the ideal plan, if I got lucky. However, after meeting a woman on the bus, I figured I'd get better results if she did the reading.
Taking the bus was a tawdry experience. Seating so compact as to verge on inhumane. Half the people there all sharing hacking coughs, threat of disease on every surface. The people in back said there was a guy just on who sat talking on the bus for literally fourteen hours straight and never stopped talking for even one second the whole time. The woman next to me, very petite, was a good deal younger than me and wore a hoodie that hid her close-cropped hair. By the paint on her clothes I surmised she was an artist. She was dressed quite well. But there were just a couple of bits of paint splash--perhaps even placed there for effect, like the torn spots in the form-fitting jeans with the stretchy material hugging her lithe legs. These she held straight in the air against the back of the tall vacant seat leaning in front of her the whole time that we talked. She seemed pretty impressed to find I'm hunting RoboPoe. Some people around us were listening in. One was a repo-man with a Ph.D. in something mathematical, I forget. Another guy knew everything I know about UFOs and related subjects. It was incredible. Like meeting my other me. And then we mustn't forget the woman who talked to herself. Bless her heart, most of the things she had to say were exceedingly lewd. A woman who got on and who stayed till the next stop asked if I'd heard about the earthquake. "What earthquake?" I said. She said it was all over the news, that an earthquake was going to happen. "What?" I said. "Since when do they predict earthquakes?" To which she replied, "No, it's for real. It's on all the news. There's going to be a gigantic earthquake. It's over. It's all over." I asked her a little further and finally she said she knew because God told her.
Paulina, the lithe-legged artist, showed me some of her work on her laptop. Ads kept popping up for the TV show with dead celebrity android endorsements looking exactly like the real thing and all saying the same thing: "I want you to know...I'm Hunting RoboPoe!"
We're all Hunting RoboPoe! Together, we can show him what for. We will never forget what this monster has done. Honor the heroes. To enter a book burning event near you and finally feel the freedom to let loose with a hearty, "Hell with ya, Bradbury!" among like-minded people, click here.
We want you to know...we're Hunting RoboPoe!
"Your ass is grass, boy!" I heartily pronounced, following it up with an uncontrollable whoop as I looked at Paulina's legs bouncing around. She loved how much I wanted to kill him. She literally said so. I told her she was a great artist while we looked at her work, and when her legs jostled off the seat and down into my lap on a bumpy turn, why, she just kept them there and I sure didn't mind helping at all. "No, no," I said, "this is fine, I really love your work." I did, too, although naturally I was hoping to at least be encouraging no matter what. But all of Paulina's various renderings were incredible. As I got closer to her, I noticed that she wore a necklace from which depended a bright golden ladybug, similar to the scarab in Poe's story, particularly considering the context of the white skull on the black t-shirt she wore.
On the bus I found pretty much everybody knew what was up on any given subject. Inside-job, aliens, globalization, people knew. Pick a topic, any topic. You name it. But the thing was, no one felt anything could be done, and everyone was, at bare minimum, economically trapped. We could all see a certain Hieronymous Bosch-ness, that's for sure, even those of us who never even heard of Hieronymous Bosch. The woman who talked all the time to herself, more or less hoping somebody would join in, I think, happened to mention that she'd been on the streets off and on since childhood. I wondered how they knew that one guy had been on for fourteen hours. Turns out some people stay on the bus as long as they can because they have nowhere else to go.
It felt weirder than usual to sit without paddling. The foliage was incredible. Muted mustard and brilliant explosions of deepest orange dotted the tall green forest rising all around. The day was gray, and heavy gray clumps of fog drifted over the river and held fast throughout the mountains. At one point the bus driver pulled over, got up from the seat, stood facing everyone on the bus, and in an authoritative manner declared, "All right! I smell weed!" To which everyone on board correctly yelled back as one, "IT'S A DEAD SKUNK!" Apologizing, the driver sat back down and pulled off. When I called out, "Not that we wouldn't smoke a dead skunk," everybody got a kick out of it. Paulina couldn't believe I'm single. She said she bet my girlfriends all loved coming to the park for canoe rides.
"All of them, right. You're so nice to me," I said. "I can't believe you're single, either."
"Oh good," she said, "because I'm not. Although I might be soon," she quickly added, followed up by the subject-changing question of which of Poe's works I planned to read first.
"Well, you know, I was kind of hoping you would do it." We had been spending so much of our time looking at each other as we talked, neither of us noticed the stop until we were suddenly on it. For a horrible moment I had to wonder if she was going to get off the bus with me. I couldn't ask her though, not in the rush of having to grab up my carry-on and swiftly vacate. Moving as fast as I could meant no time to even turn around to see if she was following me, like in a Greek myth. Was it really too good to be true?
Then, ah, when I saw that she got off with me, just the two of us in front of the run-down gas station where the bus had stopped, the excitement I felt watching the bus roar away in a cloud all its own was a million times better than anything I had ever felt before, and as we adjusted our packs pretending to care about old notices on the cork board outside the tiny market adjacent I totally hoped she didn't have any diseases at all.
Looking at Paulina's heart-shaped face I saw such self-sufficiency. You knew everybody always came onto her, and this made you want to smash, but you could tell that she was picky. To roll from advances smiling was simple for her. Just as we entered the market--I wanted to get us a couple things--I saw one car only drive by, and it was a gold bug.
Inside we left our packs behind the counter with a greasy-haired young blonde woman wearing a t-shirt that said Now In Decadent Candy Bar Flavor. The TV bolted securely into a corner at the ceiling trained everyone's eyes on the hunt for RoboPoe. I didn't want to advertise the fact I was in on it myself, and was glad that Paulina didn't mention it. I grabbed us a couple orange juices, a few bags of peanuts, some chocolate, a package of four baked tofu squares, and a mini-size mouthwash.
"They're making a RoboPoe movie now," the cashier said. We were the only ones in the sliver of a store. "Gonna use actual androids in some roles, they say."
"It's enough to make your mind shift in your skull," I said as I paid, "like a frog re-positioning itself in mud." Recalling the Doors line I laughed aloud without explanation and we left. Not long thereafter while we were walking down the old dirt road, enjoying the silence, or so I thought, Paulina remarked on my inexplicable bark of laughter in front of the cashier.
This reminded me that people who jump quickly into favor with each other tend to jump just as quickly out, and put me in the slightly awkward position of having to defend myself successfully without making her feel foolish or beaten. I managed, barely. Mostly because it started raining, and I had the snacks and the beers.
That's about half-kidding.
"You aren't going to record me reading anything aloud are you?"
"No way," I said, anxious to avoid any further kinks in the carpet. "I will not record you reading anything at all."
"Don't you think he'll suspect a trap?"
"Absolutely," I affirmed. "But I intend to shoot him before he spots me. He thinks he's so smart, his ego is his weakness. If you look at the history of Poe, he can't turn down a challenge. Thinking of Napoleon's bravery facing his own troops, and hearing Beethoven, he accepts any challenge assured of his extremely satisfying victory and his conquered adversary's ignominious defeat. If I read Poe right, this android will show up, sooner or later, thinking he'll be able to best me and win you."
"What makes you think he won't?"
"Because I'm better."
Sure was glad I'd brought protection. Didn't want to rush anything too fast though, so I started pitching the tent. She had her own, but mine was bigger and I noticed that she left hers packed. Felt good about that while I checked my weapons. Bow assembled, .44 pistol loaded, kukuri machete sheathed at my side, I grabbed my hatchet and some throwing stars and a couple of swords and found a spot between a couple trees concealed in a stand. We were in a sandy, rolling high river bar spot with little groups of trees here and there. In the distance we could see house on a hillside flat, looking to me as though it were ready to sink into a tarn. Ragged mountains rose all around. Nearby, the rain-brown river carried occasional limbs which spinning got caught against the verdure hanging at the bank. The dark started early in the shadows of the towering mountains. I got everything all set up, figured where she should stand and read based on the terrain and my position.
"Now remember, I'm a really good shot, but even I'm not perfect, so as soon as he shows up, you make sure to squat down in this stump. I'll hold my fire as long as I can."
"Oh my God, are you serious? You're really going to shoot at him?"
"Honey, I'm in it to win it."
"Well you have to be sure you don't shoot when I'm in between!"
"Don't worry, I'll be careful. You just be sure to duck. Go down when I tell you and stay down till I say you can come up. Got it?"
"You be careful now!"
"Which one are you going to read first?"
"I was thinking 'The Premature Burial' unless you want something else."
"No, that sounds fine. You have my flashlight?" Paulina clicked it on. "Remember to read slowly," I said. "And enunciate. You can do this. Don't worry, I'm not going to start suddenly flailing around. I'll see him long before he reaches you. You're safe in this stump. Once he shows up, just crouch down."
"What makes you so sure he'll be here?"
"This is Gothic country, his terrain. The show's been steadily moving this direction, and I've seen signs, Poe-tents. Hold on...what's this?" Not far off I spotted it. The shadow of a skulking figure. "Get down," I whispered and pulled out my pistol. "It's him, he's found us, it's RoboPoe!" I started shooting.
My first shot hit a fallen tree a couple of feet from where I saw his head and left a hole...