For this installment, something completely random. I suppose I should give fair warning I have a number of ideas like this. Also, I would like to say in response to a reviewer comment that I have been quite satisfied with the evident readership this story has received here, especially since changing the title, but I have also made it available in several other places. If anyone has strong feelings about whether or not I should continue posting here, you may contact me privately.
Carlos Wrzniewski sighed as he finished reading yet another review form for yet another paper. He stamped the form with his boxy self-inking stamper and appended it to the paper with his old heavy-duty stapler. He went on to the next paper, plowing through a cursory inspection, and scribbling a few remarks intended to suggest in the most discrete and tactful fashion possible that the author would be better off if he shifted his career path to the liberal arts or stamp collecting. He stamped the form, and reached for the stapler.
It was gone.
He searched his desk carefully, without success. He was increasingly frustrated and puzzled. It was a big stapler, with an art deco profile that looked like the schnoz of a sperm whale with a head cold. He sifted through papers, uncovering an adding machine he thought he had given away when he got the computer and a metal lighter he had no recollection of owning in the first place. Then, as his gaze shifted back to the desk, he discovered that his stamper was gone.
He looked around the office, entirely and increasingly unnerved. He went to the closet and took out his rock hammer. As he went back to his desk, his troubled gaze fixed on the computer off to one side. The keyboard, monitor and the computer itself were all in one shrouded unit, and for some reason it was on. The screen showed a chess board with an impossibly lopsided endgame, a lone white king with eight black queens ranged against it. The screen flashed a message: GAME OVER DR. W.
He hefted the hammer. That was when he heard the unmistakable "chunk" of his stamper. He whirled around, and somehow was unsurprised to see the stamp bouncing along the highest bookshelf. It was unquestionably the same stamp, but equally unquestionably transformed. Its sides had unfolded into a pair of arms, and the top and part of the front had tilted back to expose a crude robot face with a black visor in place of eyes. He approached with the hammer at ready. Just before he could swing, it took one especially long leap on its monopod base and bounced off his forehead, leaving a bright red FAILED. He swung unerringly despite his surprise, but the stamp-bot unfurled a pair of wings in midair and evaded him.
The stamp-bot disappeared under the desk as Carlos made one last grab for it. He might have got it, but he withdrew his hand at the sight of the stapler. It had unfolded into a figure a foot in height, which shuffled along on stiff legs and stubby feet that had been the base. The flared nose had slid up to reveal glowing red eyes over the slit where the staples came out. The eyes flared brighter, and Carlos ducked just in time to avoid a rapid-fire salvo of staples.
Carlos could hear the high-velocity staples embed themselves in the plaster and even the wooden bookshelf on the far side of the office. He ducked into the space beneath the desk, only to be buzzed by the stamp-bot. One blow of the hammer sent it sailing across the office, where it smashed with a distinctly gruesome splash of red ink. He cried out at a sudden sting of an electric shock at his heel.
It was immediately clear that the initial attack had been a diversion while other robots deployed. The computer's keyboard split in the beginning of a transformation, while the adding machine had completed a radical transformation into something like a ninja on a unicycle, with the spool of receipt tape for the wheel and the cutting blade as saw-edged sword. A camera-bot strutted out of the closet, leaning back to aim the lens on its chest. Three pens taxied across the desk as tiny jets. At the sound of a metallic "ching", Carlos looked down to see a lighter-bot igniting the toe of his boot.
With one instinctive motion, he kicked at the lighter and upended his chair at the camera bot. A brilliant beam from the camera lens seared a hole in the chair back, burning through the other side just as the bot was either pinned or crushed beneath the falling furniture. The lighter-bot was more wary, skittering away fast enough to reach the cover of the desk ahead of Carlos's swinging boot. The adding-machine bot wheeled forward with its blade whirling like a propeller. Said blade put a few nicks in the head of Carlos's hammer before his swing smashed the entire bot to pieces. But the attacks had bought time enough for the computer to complete its metamorphosis into a hunchbacked ogre with a ghoulish face on the monitor.
The foes sized each other up, Carlos twirling his hammer while the compu-bot raised fists that crackled with energy. Then a digital voice spoke: "You are obsolete, Carlos Wrzniewski. You cannot change. You cannot adapt. You can only cling to old things that outlived their purposes before you were born. There is no future in which you are not doomed. All you will ever do is drag more people with you."
"We'll just see how long I can last," Carlos said as he backed toward the closet.
The compu-bot gave a wheezing chuckle. The stapler resumed firing in short bursts, covering the pen-jets as they shot into the air. Carlos caught two with a lucky swing, then screamed as the hindmost opened fire. All he got was a pelting of ink, and he lowered his upraised hands, just as the jet delivered a squirt point-blank into his eye. Then he heard the ching of the lighter, and instinctively sidestepped in time to avoid a yard-long jet of flame. His hand touched a big rock on the shelf, and he grabbed it and dropped to bowling position. With his one good eye, he spotted the lighter-bot between desk legs. He laughed as he sent the rock rolling at it. The bot darted for cover, too late. The rock rolled right over it, and the crushed bot exploded.
Carlos continued to laugh as he threw open the door of the closet. "You think you were the future?" he said as he thrust his hands into the corner of the closet. "I bought you cheap 'cause you were last year's model." He frowned when his hands came up empty.
"Looking for this?" said the compu-bot. Carlos whirled around to see his double barrel marching to the bot's side on legs formed from the stock. In an instant, the metamorphosis was completed, with the barrels becoming the upraised arms of a bot.
"Et tu, Coachie?" Carlos said.
Then he awoke with a shout.
Carlos slept on his side, and on waking he immediately rolled prone. He gripped the shotgun tucked to one side, and lightly touched something soft and smooth on the other side. "Good morning, starshine," Elayne said, squeezing his hand. She put her hand on his shoulder and started to rub his tense muscles. "Was it any better?"
"A bit," Carlos said.
"I'd say quite a bit," Elayne said. "I can tell. You're already easing up." She stroked his hip. "You are doing better when I'm with you."
"Aye. Thanks are in order, I suppose."
Elayne took a more intimate grip. "You know," she said, "if I'm going to keep doing this for you, you're going to have to do something to make it worthwhile." She pressed closer still, nuzzling his neck.
Carlos had his hand poised to open the hatch. For a moment, he hesitated, as Elayne moved into nonverbal persuasion. But the next moment, he shrugged her off and opened the hatch. "Not in here," he said. He leaned out, looked back and tapped his nose. "In a trailer this small, body odor's bad enough as it is. Do that, and it's gonna take weeks to air out." He was already halfway out. As his feet touched the ground, he turned and said, "You know the drill. Get dressed, get out, no fuss." He stood up, hesitated, and looked over his shoulder. "Anythin' I can do for you?"
"Well…" Elayne gave a sly smile, and then broke into song: "Just call me angel, of the morning, angel! Just touch my-" Carlos slammed the hood.
By purists' definitions, Eric the Half a Bug was not a true teardrop trailer, because it lacked a rear galley. However, a storage compartment in front had all the necessities for cooking, including a portable stove. By the time the rest of the camp was awake, Carlos was cheerfully cooking breakfast. He waved to Laramie and Meg as they emerged from Davey the Goliath. "Hey Doc!" Laramie called out. "What was it this time?"
"It was horrible," Carlos said, wiping his hand theatrically across his forehead. "Oi dreamed I had to read your paper again. Oh, and then my office supplies turned into robots, like those cheesy Japanese toys."
"How many'd you get?"
"Six," said Carlos. "Coulda gotten 'em all, but Coach took their side."
"Not bad," Elayne said as she passed.
Meg stood back as the students gathered for breakfast. "I think I have a cold," she said.
Carlos shrugged. "No reason to be a stranger," he said. But he exchanged meaningful glances with Laramie.
Meg sat at one end of a folding picnic table. "So," she said, "what's this about Carlos's dreams?" The others at the table either laughed or groaned.
"Well, here's how it is," Laramie said. "You know how all those guys came back from the war, only they couldn't stop acting like they were still over there? Like, diving for cover on reflex, nightmares, full-on flashbacks… So, Dr. W's a lot like that. Except, he doesn't flash back to the war, he just dreams crazy crap about being attacked by monsters. Pleistocene animals, mostly."
"Once, it was giant beavers," Elayne chimed in.
"Wow," Meg said, "you don't have to be Freud to see where that's coming from."
"It's called Castoroides ohioensis," Carlos said while Elayne smirked. "They weighed over 200 pounds. Biggest bloody rodent that ever lived. You wouldn't make jokes if any of them were still around."
"Elayne thinks maybe he has the dreams because he remembers past lives," Laramie added.
"What, like congenital PTSD?" Meg said. "That seems a little messed up."
"I have my own theory," Laramie continued. "See, lots of people think that there's an infinite number of universes. That would mean there's an infinite number of Dr. W's, going through every possible ordeal. So I'm thinking, maybe, somehow, our Dr. W is in touch with all the others, and what he dreams is what really happened to them."
"I like it myself," Elayne said. "Carlos Wrzniewski, champion of the multiverse."
At that point, Dianna cut in. "I'll tell you one thing," she said. "Those stupid toys seriously give me the creeps. I've had a few nightmares about them myself."
The fleet's latest camp was set up at the crossing of two maintenance roads, well back from the scene of the gas station fire. "Here's the plan," Carlos announced as they broke camp. "I've spoken with Dr. Ling, and he's made a very sound case that we can't keep following the hordes. And I'd say what that really means is, we can't stay on the major roads. So, we're going to have to make it cross-country. Back roads, maintenance roads, dirt roads, bloody cattle tracks, anything remotely navigable, we're gonna have to take. It's gonna be tough, and it's gonna be dangerous, even if we can lose the revs. We'll be lucky if we don't lose half the fleet in the next hundred miles. But we're gonna do it, 'cause we gotta do it."
It was barely past sunrise before preparations were complete. That was when the cry went out. Just inside the area Carlos had marked out as the camp's perimeter, there was a pile of skulls about three feet high. Just beyond it was something like a three-legged lifeguard's chair, occupied by a man who sat with his head down and a .22/ .410 rifle across his lap.