Low slung sun by Trenlin Hubbert
The flaming radiance of a low slung sun, danced across the silver skin of a robot made like a cheetah. Loping over the tundra, the bot aimed for a group of dome-shaped cairns. Set in a circle, the twelve rounded piles cast lengthening shadows, across dirt the color of putty. The bot had barely begun to explore the first pile, when a grey cloud scudded into view, dragging a flock of others not far behind it; a sign of promising weather. Using the claws of one paw, the bot scratched into a narrow band of green turf.
From years away, Tyler’s voice broke the silence. “Runner?” she asked, “Can you spare some energy for a short conversation?”
The bot stopped tearing at the turf. “As you wish, Dr. Tyler.”
Dr. Chandler’s voice interjected, “Another blurry image, Runner. Maybe combining motions would procure a better outcome. From now on, track with your head and sweep with your eyes, simultaneously.”
“I will do that,” Runner said; immediately revising the image-capture protocol.
“The problem is,” Dr. Tyler conceded, “the lens was not designed for sharp focus on lateral motion.”
Time weighed as precious. Once the sun tipped past the horizon for a long winter sojourn, the solar skinned bot would shut down until spring brought return of the light. To speed the conversation forward, the bot volunteered, “I’m standing by a cairn. As posited, the green rings are vegetable matter.”
“Any more tracks?” Chandler asked.
“No new tracks, as of yet; but I am finding small organisms embedded in these roots,” the bot advised.
“What type of organism?” Tyler asked, eagerly.
“Perhaps a type of grub; I will take a photo now,” the bot answered.
“Yes, they do look like grubs!” Tyler enthused.
Runner explained, “They are evenly dispersed through the section of turf, I’ve disturbed.”
“Perhaps it’s a farm,” Chandler said.
“Could be,” Tyler consented. “Seems, our luck has changed. This is very exciting news. We better let the bot get after it, Chandler. Later, Runner.”
“We’ll check back in a week, Runner,” Chandler clarified.
Desiccated air stole back the first drops of rain; but ultimately moisture was the victor. Fat drops wet rocks, secretly piled into spheres; half their shapes hidden beneath the ground. Between the stones the water flowed down to the belly of the ball, where a gap gave way to a subterranean hole.
The moment the Water Steward saw the cloud, she took off at a run. Stout legs sprinting, she careened into the tunnel where the lick of her tail bolstered her balance. She was quick enough to arrive in time. Holding one keen eye on the ceiling, she caught her breath with her hands to her knees; and her dewlap fluttered, rapid as her heart. Her effort did not go unrewarded. The first drop condensed to existence while she watched. Breaking free, the liquid ball plunked out a ripple; several more drops fell in rapid succession ahead of a gush that spilled to the center of the pond.
The wind was picking up. Runner sniffed the humid air. Perhaps the breeze would harden some tracks in the newly wet soil. Three months ago, a cluster of dry mud marks had given the bot its first break after a considerable interval spent in wandering. Inconveniently, the tracks led Runner away from the sun, to a region soon interred by a lasting darkness.
Nose leading, Runner set off at a slow trot. Traveling from one cairn to its opposite, Runner measured the diameter of the space at about a kilometer. Built for speed, the bot could easily sprint that distance in less than thirty seconds. Sighting one of the tiny critters in a place so wide would be the primary challenge.
Two Water Stewards crouched over a crater in the soil while a third nervously tongued the air for any sign of intrusion.
“What could have made these?” chirped one of the crouchers.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” the other croucher said; “See how the marks occur in a series. These are tracks.”
“But that would be a monstrous beast,” the first one chirruped; “The marks are as far apart as twenty of us, lined up nose to tip!”
“Scatter!” the vigilant one hissed. They scattered.
Runner was hunkered down close to a cairn, waiting in ambush. With the sun capriciously close to the horizon, the bot could no longer afford to squander its diminishing store of energy. Every joule must now be reserved.
Breaking the bot’s focus, Chandler announced, “More blurry photos, Runner.”
“Yes, divergent motion,” the bot responded.
“New plan,” Tyler announced. “Obviously, we were hoping to photograph a live sample of the species,” she said, “but we really have run out of time.”
“How shall I proceed?” Runner asked.
“You are swift enough, but your camera is not,” she said. “Therefore, I want you to capture, neutralize, photograph.”
The Water Steward saw the approaching danger. Flying in from the fringes, the silver skin moved like liquefied land and sky. The monster was a tempest of speed, rendered nearly invisible. So, the Water Steward froze steady as a stare. Becoming almost belligerent with fear, she spewed a spastic cack-cack-cack to let loose some tension. Still, she kept her focus, holding her ground while the beast bore down. Now, the steely glint of teeth arrived—too committed to alter course. Away! She shot clear.
Again and again, Runner failed; finally running out of time. No longer a ball; the sun was a misshapen blaze of red mashed against the skyline. With energy faltering, and the darkness brewing, the bot sought a safe place to park. To avoid frightening the targets into permanent relocation, the bot traveled some few kilometers distant from the cluster of cairns. Finally, it settled into place. Facing where the sun would someday come again, Runner…departed…from awareness.
The sun did not rise. The sun did not set. Darkness was the faithful ruler. But not everybody slept.
When the sun finally commenced to rise, consciousness flickered, expanded, solidified. Subsequently, the bot realized something was amiss. There were broken connections. At some point during the long slumber, Runner had been rendered a simulacrum; a sculpture; a statue. The bot was permanently neutered: only its eyes were still equipped to move.
“Your assessment is correct, Runner,” Dr Tyler affirmed; “I find no software glitches. Your mobility systems are mechanistically inoperative.”
“But how can that be?” Dr. Chandler objected. “This makes no sense. Being a priority asset, we designed the mobility system with redundancies…with diverse redundancies!”
“Yes, we did,” Tyler said. “Perhaps….”
“…Perhaps?” Chandler pressed.
“Perhaps Runner was deliberately disabled,” Tyler said.
“Sabotage….” Chandler murmured. “But…. If true, the implications are…tremendous.”
Runner was a shiny silver sphinx, no longer capable of performing the function that construed the bot exceptional. While Tyler and Chandler discussed its fate; the bot held vigil on a circumscribed view.
“It was built for speed; if it cannot move at all, it should be retired.”
“The camera still functions.”
“What good is a stranded camera?”
“I don’t know; but patience will cost us nothing.”
Runner watched the orange sun bank to the shallow zenith of that first day. Wherever the tundra chanced to roll above gossamer shadows, it was warmly burnished by the lazy light. Inside the stillness, Runner saw a flicker of motion. Then a stir of shapes pulled free of a shadow. As if born from the pores of the sandy clay, they materialized to an advancing column. Bold as a canal, they flowed straight into the paws of the stationary robot. Their bodies were covered with lustrous blue scales, paling from their shoulders to startling white at the tips of their five-fingered crests. On arriving, those nearest the bot stepped apart; whereupon the cavalcade opened like a zipper until the parade was transformed into an orderly crowd lining both sides of an implied avenue. From deep in the distance a figure wavered into view. As the lone personage approached, those at the far end of the twin columns curled into her wake to follow.
When the leader arrived to the silver monument, she spat into the soil between Runner’s paws then dipped out of view. Each of the others followed the example by depositing some spittle before stepping from view. When all had disappeared, there was naught left behind, save a large clay ball.
“Seems you’ve been promoted…or maybe demoted,” Dr. Tyler said; “I believe you’ve been made into a tamed god, Runner.”
“Frustrating to have more questions than answers,” Dr. Chandler said.
“Don’t be ridiculous; this is an amazing turn of events.”
“For all we know, there is a fertility rite happening at stage left. If only Runner could turn its head….”
“This is perfect, Chandler. Runner just needs an accomplice.”
Dj-j-j-jit dj-j-j-jit jit jit. Scarab’s rudimentary wings produced a resonant tremor of sound as the golden beetle plunged from Runner’s shoulder to the ground. Once there, Scarab folded its soft inner wings under the protective hard case of the outer wings. After snapping everything securely into place, the robot was a lustrous gold cabochon with tiny spiny legs.
Runner watched Scarab toddle after the departing congregants of the annual sunrise ritual. Runner watched the little beetle dissolve to be a sporadic glint of light. And when an occasional gust carried the soil into the air Runner watched.