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Free Felix
A short story from Cheeseburger Brown
CHAPTERS 1|2
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Free Felix, a science fiction short story by Cheeseburger Brown, illustration by Matthew Hemming

CHAPTER 1

Felix arrived by crate. In two crates, actually.

The larger crate was a colour that used to be white, lettered in English and Mandarin THIS SIDE UP with corresponding arrows. It contained his arms, legs, pelvis and viscera, with a padded compartment for his hands, feet and face. The smaller crate was as white as it had ever been, and in addition to the indication of preferred orientation it bore the plea, FRAGILE.

It contained Felix's brain.

Sheriff Tom sat down on the stoop to have a good, long look at the two crates. He knew they contained Felix on account of the manifest he had been asked to sign. The courier didn't care whether Tom had actually ordered anything or not. He gave Tom an address in the planetary metalibrary to contact with his complaint. He asked Tom for a glass of water, and Tom gave him one.

"I don't know what I'd have the feller do," Tom said to himself as he considered the crates after the courier had left. "Might do as well to keep him all packed up like he is."


Sheriff Wa Tom was law, order and mayor in the tiny pioneer camp of Naktong. He was a compact, barrel-shaped man with a fastidiously groomed mustache which, no matter how much attention Tom lavished upon it, resembled the peach-fuzz of a teenager more than anything else.

He wore a gauge-two heavysuit even though he would admit to his big brown dog in the quiet of night that he was feeling its drag on his bones these days, and that he secretly pined for a gauge-one. Sheriff Tom was seventy-three turns old.

Camp Naktong, on the other hand, had only been founded thirty-five turns ago. The entire settlement lived beneath only three small domes, crouched on a hillside overlooking the steaming flats of the Fortuna Fossae. About a third of the population at any given time were scientists of one specialty or another, using the camp as a base from which to launch their expeditions to Fortuna or the northern edge of the Noctis Fossae where the hills had stripes in them like an old-fashioned parfait dessert.

Just about everyone else at camp was either involved directly or indirectly in gathering, filtering, packaging, selling or shipping of spring water from the Fortuna or the Noctis in bottled or sack form to the larger camps down south at the valley. "Pure as Naktong" was an expression then in use at the growing twin super-camps of Nirgal and Huo Hsing.

A battered archway of sun-bleached plastic greeted visitors as they came through the main lock, proclaiming: Camp Naktong: Home of the Sweetest Waters on Mars. Pop: 142.

Sheriff Tom reminded himself to update the sign on account of Miss Vinovich's new baby. He had been meaning to update it for a week, but had not been able to find the instructions for the sign software.

Tom's wide verandah jutted out into the main square of the camp in the main dome, shelters of greater or lesser permanence ringing it on all sides. The square, like all the camp's streets, was made of fine, rust-coloured grains congealed flat and hard with a special kind of intelligent dilly the streetcleaners applied as a dust to keep the sand from getting kicked up and mucking with the ventilators. Across from Tom's verandah were the camp's two restaurants: Daddyeats where they served liquor, and Kidsyeats where they served milkshakes.

It was Daddyeats that Sheriff Tom felt would provide the counsel he sought, so he stood up slowly and sauntered across the lonely bronze street.

The doors swung open and shut behind him. He spotted a couple of campfolk and greeting them cheerily. He sat down and had Tabina bring him a glass of beer.

"What's in the package?" George Lee asked as he lumbered into Daddyeats. George Lee was a giant in the medical sense and a child in the mental sense -- every camp needed a lovable fool. "Tell me Tommy, please? What's in it? Can I open it?"

Tom snorted. "Dunno. Just arrived. This here paper says it's a feller named Felix."

"A ro-bot, you mean?" George asked, eyes wide.

"That's the way I have it pegged," Tom told him.

"My oh my," said Old Man Russet, who was rotting in the corner. "A rowboat. Say, where you going to row it, Tommy?"

"Not a rowboat, Russy, a robot. It's a sort of walking computer that acts like a man. You know the things."

Old Man Russet grunted noncommittally and returned to his drink.

George sat down at the bar beside Sheriff Tom, which made the glasses tinkle and quiver. "Can I help you build it, can I Tom? Please?"

When Tom hesitated to answer Tabina warned, "Now don't tell me you're thinking of sending it on its way, Tom..."

Tom sighed. "Well, I dunno. Maybe I should."

Nolan Chow, an amicable hydroareologist from Camp Nirgal, sidled up next to the sheriff to make his appeal. "You know as well as I do that Grace is getting too old to fix every seal failure, especially in that leaky west dome. I bet she'd appreciate a robot around to lend her a hand."

"It sure would make hauling the kegs easier," Tabina pointed out.

"I don't want any damn eggs," retorted Old Man Russet.

"Aw, come on Tommy," begged George. "Having a robot'd be fun. He could be like your deputy."

Sheriff Tom nodded slowly. A deputy! Now that would be something. He began thinking about all the things the robot could do for the little camp, and a smile bloomed on his thin lips. "I reckon you folks might be on to something," he admitted.


Putting Felix together didn't turn out to be as difficult as Sheriff Tom had at first figured. By the end nearly everyone at camp had lent a hand one way or another. Kalil the buggy man volunteered his garage for the purpose. Tabina brought some cheeseburgers by. Chad Beardley, a medical scientist originally from Nirgal but staying on after his research post at Naktong had expired, had some experience with surgical robots so he was selected to help Tom actually get the thing started up.

It was standing in the middle of Kalil's garage, all of the sand buggies having been parked off to one side. The robot was light brown in colour, with skin made from a soft, leathery plastic. The eyes were black and shiny, set within a face whose contours suggested a human being: the mouth, lipless but clearly pliant, the nostrils little more than slits. The "skin" around the eyes looked pliant as well, but currently hung lifelessly slack. The robot lacked fingernails, a navel and any evident genitalia -- but there was a ridge, a suggestion of a spine, running down the back.

Tabina thought the robot looked like it could use a good meal, and said so. Tom pointed out that robots probably didn't need to eat. "Au contraire," said Chas. "They eat just about anything, but they don't need much of it. A little oxygen will do him just fine if he gets peckish."

As its only insignia on the right shoulder the robot bore a simple numeral 8.

Kalil's chimpanzees were sitting in the corner eating, the big mother occasionally glancing over her shoulder warily at the silent man-shape in the middle of the garage. One of the little ones ate an ant, and was scolded.

"Well," said Tom slowly. "How do we boot it up?"

"Well," said Chas. He added pensively, "H'mmm."

George blinked.

Chas put his ear against the robot's chest and listened. "I don't hear anything," he reported.

"Should you be hearing anything?" Tom asked.

"Does he have a heart?" George wanted to know.

"Heck no, he ain't going to be having a heart, George," said Tom.

"On account a' his being a robot?"

"That's how I have it pegged."

Chas shook his head. "He has a heart. But I'm pretty sure it isn't in his chest. I'm trying to hear his power source. It should be ticking over on battery, even in storage." After a bit of fumbling he managed to find the pressure-points that opened the robot's chest panel. "Ah," Chas said abruptly.

"Ah?" echoed Tom.

"No go."

"No go?"

"There is no power source."

"Ah," said Tom.

That left them in a bit of a pickle. Tabina brought a couple of beers over to the garage, and they all stood around the inert robot and noodled the problem. Nolan Chow wandered in and asked how everything was going, then joined the ring of glum and pensive faces.

Kalil came by in the tow hauling a battered old buggy. He had been out-of-domes, so when he hopped off the tow he let loose a cloud of sand and snow which drifted sedately to the floor. Chad snapped the robot's chest shut quickly to avoid mucking up the innards. Kalil pulled off his masque and googles, and made a few quick signs to his co-pilot chimp who scurried off to do his bidding. Kalil shook the dust out of his hair. "What gives with the rowboat?"

"Ro-bot," corrected George helpfully.

"Whatever."

They brought Kalil up to speed. He wished them good luck and turned his attention to the buggy he'd brought in which two of his chimps had now freed from the tow. Kalil replaced the main battery quickly, then hooked the buggy up to the leads from the garage grid. He flipped two switches and the engine purred to life.

"Red is plus, black is minus," George mumbled to himself.

Chas furrowed his brow. He opened the chest panel of the robot once more and peered inside. The small cavity he had accessed through the sternum was made of a dark, dull metal, the surface of which had several apertures and connection ports. He spotted two small, unremarkable cable ends near the back bearing the symbols "+" and "-" in tiny white type.

"You getting an idear there, Chas?" prompted Tom.

Chas nodded. "I reckon I am," he reported thoughtfully.


"I don't know about this..." murmured Kalil.

"Aw," groaned Tom petulantly, "you know we'll discount your power, don't you fret." He turned his attention back to Chas Beardley and Nolan Chow who had just finished checking the soundness of their connections. Two long cables hung from the main panel of the garage grid, snaked across a couple of light fixtures, and ultimately were plugged into the chest cavity of the robot.

"We're all set," said Nolan.

"Well okay then." Tom nodded at Kalil who grumpily stood and punched the appropriate controls. Power ought now to be flowing into the robot. Tom looked at Nolan, who looked at Chas, who put his ear against the robot's ribs.

Chas straightened. "I don't think it's working."

"Good afternoon," said Felix crisply, "and welcome to Felix, a professional-grade twelfth-generation precision automaton derived from the eighth pool. I exist, operate, and am at your service."

Everyone jumped, and George spilled his beer.

The chimps hoot-panted excitedly, for they reasoned that the strange patient had finally been successfully revived. They began to sign emphatically, their big hands blurring with the intensity of their gestures. "Want cup water? Throat dry? Want cup water?"

From that day forward is was not certain whether the small camp of Naktong had a robot or an extremely clever and courteous garage. As Felix continued to remind them, he lacked a Type 3 Cold Fusion Micropile Set with External Auxiliary Temperature Control Unit 44M. He indicated that his preferred brand would be Sony. "Do you have any idea how much one of those puppies costs?" Sheriff Tom asked Felix. "Jeeze Louise!"

And so Felix was permanently attached to the camp's power grid through the buggy bay at Kalil's garage. During the first week everyone at camp came around to have a boo at him, and maybe stop for a chat. Most folks had seen robots before -- at least from a distance -- but most of them had never spoken with one, or even had occasion to be near one of the ones that could speak intelligibly.

The children pestered Felix with questions. "How strong are you? Do you have a wife? How high can you count?"

"I can exert twelve hundred fifty Newtons of force. I have no wife. My calculations may enjoy any number conceivable." Felix always answered in a precise and refined manner, with gentle emphasis and polite tone. He spoke English when he had been activated, but seemed equally comfortable in the Marsgo of the campfolk.

Despite the immobility of his new deputy, Sheriff Tom stuck a golden star to Felix's breast. "If you see any trouble, you have the authority to sort it all out," Tom said solemnly.

"Yes sir," said Felix.

"Now, don't be using undue force unless it's warranted, you hear me?"

"Yes sir," said Felix.

"Well okay then," agreed Tom.

When the scientists came home after a long day out-of-domes they would stay and gab a while with Felix after sending the chimps to park their buggies. They would ask Felix his opinion on any particularly thorny problems they had encountered, and sometimes ask him the favour of doing a little number crunching for them if their computers were too full, or on the fritz, or if the metalibrary connections were too slow.

"So, do you think we're on solid ground with our estimate of the crevasse dimensions?"

"Given available data, the probability is ninety-seven point three nine four six repeater percent in your favour, madam."

More and more people found questions that they felt Felix could help them with, and after a while no one even needed an excuse to swing by and shoot the breeze with the camp robot. Tabina even opened up a little stand outside Kalil's garage during the afternoon to refresh the visitors and spoil the chimps with bananas. Whenever there was a problem at camp, the general advice was to head on down to Kalil's and ask.

Felix was eternally obliging, and always polite.


* * *

CHAPTER 2

"Is that your back bothering you again, Tommy?"

Wa Tom looked up slowly and nodded. "Ayup, that's what it is, Kwong. And no, I don't want anything for it, damn it. I'm a hundred and fifteen turns old, and a man can't ask for much more than that. Back be damned: I'll be dispatched soon enough."

Dr. Kwong shook his head and chuckled. "You're as stubborn as ever, Tommy. You're even healthy -- for a man your age. So clear out of here. I'll see you at the Daddyeats later."

Dr. Kwong leaned on her cane as she sat down. Tom craned his head around. "Now just where in the hell is that chimp of mine? Melita! Melita, damn it, it's time to leave."

Melita was a strong twelve-year-old chimpanzee with braided black fur and big brown eyes. She poked her head out from behind Tom's chair and hooted quietly. Tom spotted her and shuffled over. Melita handed him his cane, and then got into position to let Tom lean on her shoulder if necessary as he walked. She wore a simple white tank top and shorts, the top emblazoned with the red palm of her order. She was very fond of the old man, and thought he would never admit it for fear of disgracing the memory of his long passed favourite dog, Tom was pretty fond of her, too.

If they argued -- which they did, for Tom was stubborn and, as he grew older, more often wrong than right about the little things -- Tom always ended up saying, "Look, when you were born I was already over a century old."

To which Melita invariably and infuriatingly replied by signing, "Exactly!"

Camp Naktong was no longer the humble place it had been thirty years ago when Wa Tom had been sheriff. Where the arch over the main lock had once said Home of the Sweetest Water on Mars it now sported a display of wondrous facts, scrolling in English, Mandarin and Marsgo ten times an hour.

The sign said things like: Welcome to Camp Naktong, City Class 1, Boreal Valles Marineris...Population: 19 540...Visitor Information Kiosks are located All 16 Domes...Buggy Borrow see Dome 1...Plant Workers see Dome 9...The current dome temperature is 22C with a humidity index of ten...Out-of-domes temperature is -100C with strong western breezes of up to 90 kph, sand clearing by mid-day...Earn workhour bonuses through State Service, see City Hall in Dome 2...Water of Ares shares up 7.13 on Terran Exchange...Population Update: 19 541...

Beyond lay a broad avenue of smooth stone leading straight through the Old Quarter and directly on to the new administrative complex in Dome 2. The old medical building had been lifted and moved back to accommodate the wider street, and Tom grumped about that for a bit while shuffling down the steps with Melita's help. He was preparing himself for the trial of crossing the avenue, which was always bustling with careening buggies or speeding cars or clots of obnoxious young people.

Tom recalled a conversation from years ago when he had heard from Kel Programmer down in Camp Huo Hsing. Kel had said, "You're in for a bit of population explosions there, Sheriff. Ares is growing up, and the pioneering days are coming to an end. I'm sending you a magistrate to take some of the load off your hands."

Tom had indeed been busy, and he was thankful that he wouldn't have to arbitrate every little scuffle. Youngsters poured into the little camp by the dozens and then the hundreds -- youngsters who weren't interested in exploration or securing the nascent ecosystem: instead, they came for jobs, markets and society.

Tom found himself in charge of a police force who could have been his grandchildren. He had a devil of a time just understanding what they were saying half the time, their speech riddled with bizarre neologisms and baffling slang.

Eventually Kel Programmer sent in a fire chief, and then a full-time mayor. Shortly thereafter Wa Tom retired with no regrets. The camp was too big for him, anyhow. He remembered fondly the days when he knew the names of everyone in camp...

Melita was tugging his arm, pulling him back to the present. Tom looked down. She was signing, "Pay attention, cross street." Tom nodded and allowed her to adeptly guide him through traffic. He followed like a lamb.

Once the street was successfully forded he said, "Melita, take me to Kalil's. I've been fixing to have a conversation with our Felix."

Kalil's garage was a garage-in-fact no longer. The simple colonist shelter that Kalil's father had erected turns and turns ago was still there, but a more permanent structure stood around it. The quaint inner shelter still bore the original sign that said Kalil's Buggy Bay in big green letters, with smaller blue type beneath reading The Robot is 'in'.
Kalil's son restored so-called "classic buggies" in the front, and Felix lived in the back.

Not too many folks came to see Felix these days, for the young people didn't -- and couldn't -- know about him, and the older folk were mostly gone. When the magistrate had arrived Felix had to kept out of sight. Oddly enough, the biggest problem was not that Felix was not the camp's property, or that he had been entirely misdelivered, but instead the outstanding tab for the misdelivery. Apparently, as Tom had learned several turns ago, Felix had been wildly misdirected and the charge for freight was high.

"Where the hell is Saotario?" he had asked, squinting at the screen as Kalil explained the particulars of the shipping fiasco.

"What else does it say?" Nolan Chow wanted to know, smacking his toothless lips pensively.

"Saotario, Tea-Ex."

"Tea-Ex? Oh. That's Texamerica."

"Who?"

"Texamerica -- it's a Terran continent. Didn't you ever go to school, you old coot? This robot was supposed to go to north-western Terra."

"Holy smokes!" said Sheriff Tom. "The Earth!"

Indeed. And as the population explosion went on the disused shelter in the corner of Dome 1 was forgotten. Kalil passed on, followed by just about everyone else Tom knew. He blinked away the past and barked at Kalil's son, San, to fetch him a glass of water and an apple for Melita.

He settled down on his chair and said his helloes to the robot. No one else sat in Tom's chair, and if they forgot Felix reminded them: "It defies local protocol to occupy that chair, if you please."

Felix had quite a bit of play on his cable so he was able to walk over and sit by Tom's chair. "Felix," Tom began, "you know I'm an old feller. I'm not going to be hanging around too much longer, there's no doubt about that. Hush now, Melita. Now Felix, it has bothered me for a dog's age how you've never had a proper whatchamacallit so's you could walk around like anyone else. Thing is, by my figuring, when I dispatch I'll have enough workhours left over to get you one."

"I could not wish for your untimely demise, sir."

"Untimely is exactly wrong," chuckled Tom. When he had gathered his wheezing under control, he continued: "Fact is, the time is just about right. Melita, fetch me my purse. Thank you. Now see here Felix? This is my will. You can see I've left you the entire bundle, along with a completed order form for your whatsis."

Felix held the small screen in his hand and peered at it.

Tom went on to say, "As soon as you get word, you execute that order. You follow?"

"Word of your timely demise, sir?"

"That's the ticket."

"Yes sir, I understand your instructions."

There was a moment of silence between the two of them. Tom cleared his throat. "Say Felix, I really appreciate the way you've helped all us folks out over the seasons. I mean, even when you were just there to listen, you were helping. Remember when Xi Po lost her baby? We all couldn't have got through it without you Felix. What I'm trying to tell you is, I sure am glad you got shipped to us instead of to some fool Earthman."

Uncharacteristically, Felix jumped as if startled. "Pardon me, sir?"

"I say, you were originally supposed to be shipped to the Earth. Haven't I ever mentioned that to you, in all these turns? You knew you were misdirected, of course."

"Yes sir," said Felix, his voice still a little strange. "I had not understood that my original destination was Terran." He paused. "To whom do I belong, sir?"

"You belong to the camp, I guess, but the camp don't know it anymore so I guess you belong to me. And I suppose that when I'm gone and you have your thingy-magicky in your chest instead of those cables, you'll be no one's property but your own."

Felix seemed to consider this. "Would I then be free to pursue my own interests, sir?"

"You would. Where do you want to go?"

"I should go to Terra, to my intended mailing address."

"You're an upstanding feller, Felix. Do you think they missed you?"

"Insufficient data to guess, sir."

"How do you reckon you'll travel?"

"Insufficient data to guess, sir."

"I'm sure you'll think of something."

"Thank you, sir."

Tom paused, and patted his pockets ritualistically. "Well okay then," he declared. "Melita, have Kalil's boy start me up a buggy. And get me a suit -- we're going for a drive out-of-domes."


Felix continued to live at the garage for many turns, even after he received his cold fusion micropile in the mail and had Kalil's son San install it in his chest. San and Felix more or less adopted Melita, who had been deeply troubled by the death of Wa Tom out-of-domes and needed to be surrounded by friends. Nolan Chow's kids brought their kids by to play with her, and after a few months she began to cheer up.

Felix never complained about restoring classic buggies, but San suspected that Felix was carefully watching the workhours accumulate in his numbered account, waiting for the day when he judged he had enough resources to ship off for Terra. As the turns went by and Felix did not act, San began to wonder whether the robot intended to go or not -- who could know the mind of a robot, a not-quite-aware thing?

San got an inkling, however, when he noticed Felix quietly making some unusual purchases -- that is, unusual for a robot. From the Nirgal Complete Catalogue he ordered large work-boots, two pairs of large slacks, an overcoat and a smattering of sweaters. From the camp haberdashery he bought a fine hat, and from the salon he bartered for bags of old hair.

San said, "I get the feeling we're going to be missing you soon, Fe."

"I will miss you too, sir," replied Felix.

San nodded to himself, cracked open a bottle of water and downed it. "Pardon my nosying into your business, Fe, but it seems like you're working up a plan that's got to be six kinds of crazy."

Felix regarded him levelly. "Which element is most likely to fail, sir?"

"Well," said San, slapping his knee, "let's take a looksee. You want to try on your get-up for me?"

"Certainly, sir."

Felix disappeared into the equipment locker he had called his home for a few turns and San heard him rummaging around. A moment later he emerged, oversized clothes stretched on his bulky frame, a hand-stitched beard hanging awkwardly from the lower half of his smooth face. With great dignity he placed a grey belted hat on top of his head.

San rubbed his jaw thoughtfully. "Huh. Well. How do you like that?"

"Do I appear to be a human being?" asked Felix.

San frowned. "Maybe a human being put together by a six-year-old," he admitted, trying not to chuckle. "Why don't we take you down to Minnie's Esthetics and see if we can't improve on this a bit?"

"I would be most grateful, sir."


And that's how Felix's tenure at Camp Naktong came to an end: a chilly night, Minnie, San and Melita huddling for warmth on the tram platform waiting to see him off once his ride arrived.

Minnie had done an exceptional job: Felix truly looked like a man. He stood on the edge of the platform practicing his smile, the skin-like makeup covering his plastic face bunching in an almost realistic way at the corners of his mouth. "Remember not to show your teeth," Minnie reminded him. "Use a closed mouth."

"Yes, madam," said Felix.

"And don't be too polite, it's a dead giveaway," said San.

"Yes, sir. That is to say: okay, buddy."

Melita pant-hooted sadly and offered Felix a banana, which he only accepted after Minnie told him he'd have to at least pretend to eat or the other passengers might get suspicious. San sighed. "There's a hundred ways this can go wrong, but if there's anyone who can pull it off, it's you, Fe."

"Thank you," said Felix. "Your assistance has been invaluable, my friends."

Minnie sniffed. "It's going to be weird around here without you, Felix. We'll all going to miss you something terrible."

"And I you," agreed Felix. "But Sheriff Tom always felt it was important for me to conduct my own destiny."

San nodded. "Well, there's no arguing that. It's a part of growing up. At least, for humans it is."

The tram whisked into the station with a gush of freezing air from outside. Felix doffed his hat to each of them and presented a small bow, then picked up his suitcase and advanced to the edge of the track. A scuffed yellow and black robot with a transit crest on its shoulder stepped out of the doors. "Ticket, please."

Felix handed over his ticket, briefly revealing the golden star pinned to his sweater as he opened his overcoat.

The transit robot was satisfied. "Please step aboard, sir."

Felix looked over his shoulder. "I will never forget you, my friends. I will carry you with me always. Thank you for everything."

Minnie sobbed. San put his arm around her. "You get now, you hear? Don't you look back, Felix. We're all rooting for you. And if you get yourself in any trouble, don't you hesitate to call. You got that?"

Felix nodded. "Goodbye," he said.

The doors slid closed behind him. Felix chose a seat in the empty tram and picked up a newspaper to read, crossing his legs the way Minnie had shown him. The transit robot withdrew into his cubicle and a warning chime echoed through the station. "Next stop: Camp Huo Hsing," said the tram. "Please stand back while I am in motion."

The tram pulled away and accelerated with a rising hum. San and Melita waved.

"Do you think we'll ever see him again?" asked Minnie tearfully.

San nodded, rubbing his chin. "I don't doubt it. This is just the beginning of Felix's adventures, not the end. I bet you workhours to whizbees he'll come back and visit us some day."

"I hope so," she said.

The station was quiet. A light snow fell on the glass ceiling. Soon, the sun would rise.

Fin.


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