THE BOSTON STRONGBOT'S naugahyde-like skin, durable as a truck bed liner, reflected the midday gleam of the chemtrail sky with a dull vinyl glow. Robokilrain pounded away, but nothing could stop the Strongbot's onslaught.
A clubbing left crushed Kilrain's nose, smearing wiring everywhere.
"Goddam you John L., rot in robohell."
"Eat roboshit, Jake," the Strongbot replied, delivering a blow to his opponent's midsection--the solar plexus, they called it--with the force of a horse's kick as the crowd roared.
The majestic serenity of the towering redwoods remained intact. Especially in the groves where every square inch sparkled in protective spray-on plastic like a vast department store Pompeii.
After the fight, when they had gotten paid, John L. and Jake stopped off at the cafe. Used to be the place didn't have anything to offer. Then a local contractor hired a bunch of androids. After that, the cafe started offering android-friendly energy items. But that wasn't what brought the Strongbot.
"Hey Robeo," Jake jeered, smashed parts of his face still shooting occasional sparks, "you gonna show some nuts this time?"
The town was crawling with tourists. Used to be hover cars were the rare ones.
"Must've hit you harder than I thought," John L. said. "You just mind your own business. That means you know them wires floppin' out your face? Shove 'em."
It was true, though. The waitress. She was a woman. A real woman. How would she react? Would she see that he was for real? As these thoughts passed through his artificially intelligent mind, the Strongbot, so closely resembling the long ago flesh-and-blood John L. Sullivan, first heavyweight boxing champion of the world, called in his day the Boston Strongboy on account he was from Boston and he was a very strong boy, noted a genteel contingent of Civil War re-enacting androids on loan assembled upon the patio beneath the welcome shade of the table umbrellas. The Civil Warbots called out heartily to John L. and Jake--John L. in particular--and praised them for the entertainment they had recently provided.
Upon receiving this information, a little human boy who had been watching asked his little human parents if that man over there really was the Boston Strongbot.
"Why don't you go ask him?"
The boy went over.
"What the hell do you want?" the Strongbot said.
"You don't sound like you're from Boston."
"You don't look like you'd know."
"What makes you so great?"
"Everything about me," the Strongbot said. "You always like this?"
"Everything like what?"
"Sonny boy, you just happen to be looking at the world's greatest fighting machine."
Sparks flew out of Robokilrain's face as he laughed.
"And the reason for that," the Strongbot went on, not noticing, "the one main reason even more than my piston-powered punches and durable, easy-wipe skin, is simply knowing that, eventually, everybody hates me. It's in my programming. Makes me a better fighter that way. The best."
"It's in your programming?"
"It's in my programming. When they made me, in order to get my personality just right, they studied the psychology of the toughest dudes ever prior to me."
"You mean not just the Boston Strongboy only? What dudes?"
"Well, this one samurai. Mind your business. Dammit, where's my sword?"
"Can I have your autograph?"
"If you were a real robofan you'd know I'm completely illiterate."
"You mean you can't even write your own name?"
"Did I stutter? Don't be stupid. Of course I can't write my own name. I just told you I'm completely illiterate. It's in my programming."
"Why does not being able to write help?"
Robokilrain spoke up. "Because if he was writin', then he wouldn't be bustin' folks in the ch-ch-ch-ch--"
The Strongbot slapped Robokilrain on the back.
The boy returned to his table. Swivel stools groaned as the bots sat down at the bar.
"Hey Robeo." Robokilrain nudged.
The Strongbot looked up. There she was.
"You boys ready to order?"
She had what they called a million dollar smile. And she didn't treat bots different from anybody else.
"You go on ahead," John L. told Jake. "I ain't decided yet."
"Yeah, you work on that decidin'."
"What'll it be, sweetie?"
The Strongbot's chair groaned.
"Did you hear that?" said Jake, turning his bashed face toward John L. "Never mind. Let's see, can I get a pint of Durasell?"
"Will that be all?"
"Yeah, that'll do. Didn't make as much today as I'd hoped."
"And what can I get you, sweetie?"
Sparks crackled as Robokilrain chortled. "You heard it. She called me sweetie first."
The Strongbot's fist slammed into Jake's face so hard, it knocked him off the stool and into the wall several feet behind. The imprint of John L.'s fist was left in Jake's demolished face. The sprawled body of Robokilrain lay lifeless on the floor.
The boy pleaded with his parents to watch while the Boston Strongbot bashed open Robokilrain's head to get the chip inside, but they wouldn't let him. They turned him away and shielded him so that all he got to hear were a couple of thunks and the loud crack when the head burst, followed by the robust cheers of the Civil Warbots.
"Make that just the one Durasell," the Strongbot told the waitress, pocketing Jake's chip.
"Are you gonna put that chip in a new robot?" said the boy.
"I won't be the one to do it. But yeah, that's what'll happen."
While the Strongbot watched the waitress work, he imagined driving her. Together they could head out to the beach. He could see his reflection in the sliding glass door of the beer fridge. In the right light his eyes glowed laser red. He imagined being tender with her. Of gentle places to touch her. The small of her back, behind her ear. He imagined touching her face. What must her skin feel like? Soft, probably. Tender. He would be so careful. But it wasn't just touching her he wanted. She was exciting, yes, but in the end he wanted to give her something real. He wanted to take care of her.
Lines between organic and artificial life were crossed all the time. Legal cases kept cropping up where it was hard to make the call. Sometimes people took on roboparts, and sometimes the other way around. Generally speaking, if you saw a celebrity, it was actually artificial. Then of course you saw people dressing up in costumes so that tourists would think they were androids. Fleshbums and robohobos alike equally eking existence, finding shelter in the woods wherever possible.
"Busy today," the Strongbot said as the waitress passed by. Packed to capacity, the cafe rang with a cacophony of multiple animated conversations and the clinking sounds of people eating. Music from out on the patio blended with the noises of the televisions inside.
She smiled and nodded. "They keep me hoppin'!"
Her voice was like music to him.
Wiping down a table, she glanced up at the clock. "Only ten more minutes and I'm free!"
Apparently studying the better part of the pint of Durasell in his mitts, John L. grew contemplative with this news. Was this the time to ask her if she'd like to maybe do something with him sometime? The Strongbot wondered this while a commotion at the window drew attention.
The boy had his face pressed to the glass."It's him," he said, "it's really him!"
One of the Civil Warbots standing at the window let loose a long, low whistle. Then looked over at John L.
The bell on the cafe door jingled.
"Well, well, well," a voice pronounced in the doorway. The cafe hushed as a dapper figure entered.
"You're Gentleman Jim Corbot!" the boy cried aloud.
The Corbot ignored the boy. "Well, well, well," he repeated. "Look what we have here."
The tortured seat squeaked relief as the Strongbot rose and stood nose-to-nose with the Corbot.
"This ain't 1892," said John L. "Ain't been no three damn years since my last fight, neither."
"No point arguing with progress, old boy. You're looking at the face of the future."
"You about ready to get that bank clerk face of yours bashed the hell in?"
"Ha! You think you want to try? You don't have the skills! We all know how this turns out."
From among the Civil Warbots, the Nathan Bedford Forrest android spoke. "Alrighty fellers, let's take this on outside now," RoboForrest said. "No sense bustin' up the cafe."
""Mom! Dad!" cried the wide-eyed boy. "Did you hear that? We're gonna get to see them fight!"
A palpable excitement arose, quelled quickly by the waitress stepping around from behind the counter and pulling at the Corbot's arm. "Come on," she said, "there's nothing to prove. Besides, you promised you'd take me to the fair."
The words struck the Strongbot like sledge-blows to his head. The Corbot...was her date?
Dapper and smirking, Gentleman Jim Corbot escorted the lovely young woman outside to his waiting hover limo. A small crowd followed the pair out, marveling at their beauty. The Strongot watched while the two got in the car. When they were in, a black window descended. The Corbot motioned to the boy, who stood nearby visibly disappointed in the absence of the fight. The Strongbot watched the boy receive an autographed glossy photo, and a message from the Corbot which the placated boy relayed as the hover limo swiftly slid out of town down the Avenue and into the serenity of the majestic redwoods.
"Hey, Strongbot!" cried the boy, holding up the signed glossy of the smiling Corbot's face for everyone to see. "He said to tell you that in a week and a half you have to be at the fair for a scheduled fight and everything, on account that's when he's gonna kick your ass!"
From among the Civil Warbots came a couple more long, low whistles. Only longer than before. And a good bit lower, too.
A hollow feeling filled the Strongbot which he had never known, and did not understand. He dealt with this feeling the only way he knew how, and that was physically.
Long white stockings donned, bold black sash wrapped about his waist, the bare-chested Strongbot chugged along redwood grove trails winding well-shaded hillsides with his perpetually shaved pate and an uncommonly dour stamp writ upon his dark and glowering visage.
The first android fist fights ever held, originally precise renditions of the earliest filmed bouts, gradually became so well-known to the robocombatants that they increased the speed, power and overall performance of each programmed fight, until eventually the bots found they could originate movements of their own. The Strongbot and the Corbot weren't the first bots ever constructed, nor even the first robofighters. They were, however, solid samples to have around town, Madrani never being an A-list robo draw.
Seeking solace in the redwoods, the android aimlessly roamed, sometimes encountering colorful transients who stepped respectfully aside and nodded in deference to the famed bot, fleshbums and robohobos alike, some of whom the Strongbot recognized. Among the transient artificial life forms, or TALs, to be found in abundance throughout the southern half of the county, John L. knew of many, notably one named Yuka, who had escaped from an android-staffed hotel, and several totally incredible but lesser-draw celebots, such as the Beethovebot, whose tortured robogenius produced symphonies, and none other than the great California robowriter himself, John Steinbot. Though the public did not know it, the Strongbot and the Steinbot were in fact good friends. Much like Aldo Leopold inspiring Steinbeck's creation of Doc in CANNERY ROW, John L. even served as the inspiration for a character in a largely non-fiction novel the Steinbot wrote, a study of TALs titled BOT AND SOULED: THE STARTLING PHENOMENON OF TRANSIENT ARTIFICIAL LIFE.
All around town, down in the grove, anywhere was a good place and anytime the perfect time for John Steinbot to start reciting to a real audience again. For actual pay, back when. Now just for respect.
Robohobos: We've all seen them. Robots on the road. Robots that accost. Whether some androids choose to drop out and congregate in the forest and in public places, or whether this global crisis lies in the fault of the programmers is a topic of heated debate. Broken androids trapped in cycles of disrepair. Yet despite the controversy, Transient Artificial Life forms rarely are allowed to have their voices heard. For the purposes of this article I visited a grove reputed to hold a community of TALs in numbers estimated between twenty and forty. According to one anonymous resident, "It's probably closer to a hundred." Where the androids came from, the purposes for which they were produced, what they did, how they were treated, and how they got away is all subject of much speculation. "People call us Robohobos," another resident says. "They don't care about us. We're not real to them. And they're not real to us, either." Self-harming TALs describe the dim awareness of their own assembly, and how they felt when they learned that the Czech word robot means worker slave.
The Steinbot's writing used to sound like bad Steinbeck, until eventually the android began to develop his own style. He wrote from his own experience as an android originally installed secretly in a community, thought by his neighbors to be human like themselves. The plan at that time was to sell the public on the idea of artificial life through years of a trickle-feed campaign, so that by the time everyone was ready to accept the idea, it would already be implemented.
The Strongbot didn't want to be illiterate. The image of the Corbot sitting with the woman in the hover limo and autographing the picture of himself still blazed in his chip...