Below is Chapter 1 of my new #SciFi tome, If A Robot Play The Blues Do It Still Be Funky?, available now on Amazon.
If you like Chapter One, “What A Wonderful World,” how about giving the rest of the book a go by clicking on the link above. You can also find more info or read a longer sample on my author site. Enjoy!
1 – What A Wonderful World
Riley had been working the rivet line for as long as he could remember. Sure, the boss was convinced that he was ready to be promoted to screws, but he was far less certain. The rivet line was almost completely automated. All Riley need do was set up the machinery at the start of the day, ensure it was running according to specifications, and take random samples of the rivets throughout the manufacturing runs. With the screw lines, given the extraordinary diversity of the Cetusians’ product lines, during any single ten-hour shift, Riley might be expected to tear down and set up six different runs. He operated four machines at once, prepared the different gauge wires for the headers, and inspected fully two-and-a-half percent of the outputs. The Cetusians were fastidious, and Gohke Brothers Manufacturing prided itself for its workmanship. Or rather, it prided itself for knowing precisely how to produce less than the contracted fail rate by spreading bad screws across different lots. That was Riley’s key skill—doing the quick math required to spread out the fails and not waste any of the Gohkes’ precious metal. No one ever explained to Riley why they wouldn’t just pull the fails and send them to Smelting instead of shipping them to the customer. Knowing his bosses, it likely had something to do with decaunits of a credit’s difference in the incremental costs of rework versus shipping.
That, or his bosses were just assholes.
Assholes, he was beginning to understand, delighted in getting away with whatever they could. Riley only wished his mother had done a better job of teaching him how to distinguish the perpetual asshole from the ordinary once-in-a-while jerk. He had often been prone to surrounding himself with the wrong kinds of people, mainly due to his not being able to distinguish them from the right sort. He was pondering that on Day One of the screw line when his new supervisor, Mr. Janks, called him over.
“R3, come here a tock,” said Janks, waving two fingers at him.
Riley trotted over and stood tall, though that placed his eyes only at the lowest whisper of Janks’s beard hair. “What can I do for you, boss?”
Janks shook his head. “None of that boss, jive, R3. We’re an informal crew here.” When Riley nodded his understanding and forced out a smile, Janks continued. “I need you to tune the machines’ rejection protocols down …” He stopped and checked his notes. “… six-point-three percent.”
“Won’t that spin out more fails, boss … er, Mr. Janks?”
“It’s Jossa, kid. And yes, it will, but it’ll also speed up the inspection processing by seven percent, and that gain will increase our throughput accordingly.”
Riley blinked his confusion for a dash or three and then asked, “What do I do with the added rejects?” He counted in his head. “That’ll spit out at least, what, two and a half percent more rejects than the spec?”
“Three percent, yeah. But it’s okay. We’re running a deal for the Kanit, and it allows us a higher fail rate. The bit you was running in the morning was for Kattal. We pop a screw or fail a rivet too many for that crew and somebody springs a leak.” Janks popped the chewed end of a cigar in his mouth and scratched his dirty blond beard. “No one cares if one of them rabbit types has a wonky screw or two. Them domes they’re building won’t fall just because we pushed up to our fail limit.” Janks pulled out a match, scratched it along his hairy jaw line, and lit his cigar, speaking through clenched teeth. “Now hop to it. This little talk of ours has cost us three hundred credits of profit.”
“I’ll reset the boxes to the new fail rate and start the run,” Riley said, nodding.
“Good man. Good man.” Janks smiled at him. “You’re gonna do alright here, son.”
Riley faked another smile and headed back to his station. It was thirteen minutes past the end of the lunch break, and the shine had already rubbed off the new job. It seemed to defy logic to intentionally fail a job right up to the contractual limits of doing so just because you could, but arguing was a good way to get demoted. Like most of the workers, he didn’t earn a salary, but the credits he picked up enabled him to shop at the Gohke Brothers’ Store and made life for his mother and grandmother bearable. Mom was recently retired, and grandma had never worked, so they needed whatever help he could give them. He would fail as many as they told him and would keep his opinions to himself. Besides, like Janks said, no one would die because of it.
He began tuning his station to the new specs and caught the eye of a co-worker, a Crull female named Oorg. He could tell she was female by the slightly warmer yellow of her skin compared to the male Crulls. Besides, she’d chosen to shape herself like a humanoid female, since the mostly Cetusian management team could never tell Crulls apart, and her artificial co-workers rarely could.
“Janks tell you we’re screwing up worse than usual, on purpose, for this gig?” she asked.
Riley nodded in the affirmative.
“Seems just as easy to tune the damned machines to never fail, but you didn’t hear that from me.”
Riley made an expression as close to a confused frown as he was capable of, with the skin between his dark eyes knitting into a brown fold. He tried to remember from whom he might have previously heard that perfection on the line was as cost-effective as hitting the new fail targets, but he couldn’t recall having the discussion prior to speaking with Oorg. After five ticks, he said, “I am almost certain you are whom I heard it from. You just said it, just now.”
Oorg gave a robust laugh that made her gelatinous torso wobble with delight. Her literal waves of laughter gave Riley his first real smile of the day. “Riley, you are one funny dude. Did you know that?” He did not. “Come on, we best start pooking shit up or the bosses will think we ain’t trying hard.”
Riley did as she suggested, though the logic of her statement puzzled him for the remainder of the afternoon. By the time the evening bell sounded, he had completed the Kanit gig and retooled for the next day’s run, a deal for the unalterably fastidious Darlushians. Their allowable fail rate was zero-point-zero percent, and Riley knew the fact that he was even being allowed to work the deal meant the company trusted him. That knowledge was almost enough to make the work seem worth doing. Almost, but not quite.
“R3!” called Janks as he was leaving. “I need you here first thing tomorrow. Those yellow douche nozzles get all jumpy if we don’t run the inspection protocols twice.”
“Right, Jossa. I’ll be here before the doors open.”
“Good man,” said Janks, grinning at him through a cloud of pungent smoke.
Riley turned and headed out the door and into the dimming red haze of twilight. Soft hands clapped him on both shoulders, and he felt the full weight of a familiar body press against his back. “Teacher’s pet. First day on the new gig, and the boss is already fawning over you.”
“Hey, Nilda,” he said, reaching around to pull her legs around him. “I’m not the favorite. He just thinks I’m the one he can get to do whatever dirty work comes up.”
“He don’t know you like I do,” she said.
He could feel all thirty-six of her teeth grinning against his back. It made him smile too. “Nobody knows me like you do.”
“Not even your mama.” Nilda leaned around him and kissed his cheek. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see her looking up at his hair. “When you gonna cut this shrubbery of yours?” she asked.
He gave a shrug. “It just grows back. Kind of a waste of time.” Riley’s hair was combed up from the back and was swept back from the front, culminating in a rounded bush of silky mahogany-hued hair that sat five inches above his five-foot-ten-inch frame. Ringlets streamed even higher above that soft bun, looking like blooming flower stalks.
“If you ever do cut it,” said Nilda, “I think I just may fall down and die.”
Riley stopped walking. “We’ve spoken about your saying things like that, Nil. We agreed, no more talk of dying.”
“You agreed. I never did.” She pulled against him, meaning to set her feet down on the ground. When he didn’t yield, she said, “Let me go, Riles. I can walk.”
He put his hands behind him, cupping both cheeks of her considerable derriere. “I know you can. That’s got nothing to do with why I’m carrying you home.”
She leaned into him, the blooming pink of her face contrasting with the black and white strands of hair that flowed to her shoulders. “Then why are you still carrying me?” He began walking, trying to ignore her. It didn’t work, which wasn’t surprising, considering she’d begun trying—fruitlessly—to find a ticklish spot along his sides. “No fair. You turned your skin off.”
“I didn’t turn it off. Skin doesn’t turn off. I just deactivated my sensitivity for a bit. He gave her a half smile. “I know your tricks.”
Nilda stuck her tongue out at him. “You’re no fun.” They continued in silence for a time, she now contentedly on his back. They wound through the cobbled streets until they reached the row of neat, though cheaply constructed, two-level houses that most of the factory’s workers lived in. The company owned them, not the workers, and as a result, few showed any personal touches that would indicate an actual family had taken root within and blossomed. Most sat forlorn above dying grass.
“Weeds grow like these huts,” Riley said, turning downhill toward Lansdowne Street where Nilda’s house lay. “They try to plant flower bulbs in a bed of weeds and are surprised when nothing grows out of them but more weeds.”
“What you mean? Me and Miru is weeds? We live here too, you know.”
“No, I mean the weeds are choking the life out of you two. Soon, there will be nothing left. You need to leave. Go where there are real doctors, not these company … bots … whose programming is limited to ‘Do you still have two functioning arms? Then get back to work.’” He glared, a brief flash of ire painting his handsome brown face. It was a nice oval face covered with full eyebrows, a trim beard and mustache, and full lips that, combined with his perennially sad-looking eyes, made it seem as though he might be lost in thought or pouting about some unknown wrong done to him ages before. It was his mother’s face, and Nilda’s second favorite in the entire universe.
“Put me down, Riles,” she said, gently tapping his arm. He did as she asked, without question. She faced him, looking up into his eyes. “We can’t leave. You know that. I owe too much to the company. And even if I didn’t, who’s going to pay for this fancy medical treatment of yours? You?”
“I’m already working a second job to save up the money. You know that, Nil.”
“I know it, and if the company ever finds out, they’ll terminate you, and you’ll still owe them credits for your mama’s house.”
“Nobody knows. My other job doesn’t even know I’m not …” He stopped short, unable to say the words.
“They don’t know you’re an artificial. Shit.” She inhaled and blew out a gust of wind. “Lord, boy, if they ever find out …” Nilda reached up and fluffed his hair, playing with the twin ringlets that dangled before each ear. “Well, your mama did a good job by you, that’s for sure. If folks didn’t know what to look for, they’d never figure it out.”
“I look like her,” he said. It must have been the thousandth time he’d said it to her. She nodded for the thousandth time and smiled. “I don’t think anyone knows what I am,” he said. “They just think maybe I’m a bit, I don’t know, off.”
“Plenty of organics act like you, Riles. Not everyone always knows how to react to us emotional types. You do alright by yourself.” She sighed again and then tiptoed to kiss his cheek. “You just keep your head down at this new job of yours.” She leaned back and frowned. “Where are you working, anyway?”
“I am wait staff at the diner over by Alcetum. They do a huge business for the midnight work crews.”
“Well, as long as you serve quickly, no one will expect you to smile on cue.”
“I know how to smile,” Riley said. He gave her one of his best.
“You don’t need to furrow your brow when you smile, honey. It makes you look nervous, not happy.”
He tried to look up at his forehead without success. “I didn’t know it was doing that.”
Before she could respond, an automated cart rattled itself down the street, accompanied by the vegetable vendor who operated it. Riley instinctively averted his eyes, looking down at the street. Nilda looked defiantly over her left shoulder at the vendor. She was tense, obviously expecting something. She got it. The vendor reached onto his cart, pulled up two spoiled heads of bella-bella and hurled the stinking, rotten shells at Riley. The first one missed, but the second caught her artificial friend square in the chest. Riley didn’t duck. Didn’t frown. Didn’t flinch.
“Robot Scum, taking jobs from people who need it. What the clot you gonna do with money? Upgrade ya’ clottin’ software?” The man went to pick up another head of bella-bella, but Nilda stood in front of her friend. The vendor stopped but didn’t drop the vegetable.
Riley said, “I don’t get money. I am paid only in credits.”
“Credits that organics could be earning,” said the vendor. “Clotting faux.”
Riley felt the sting of the racist term but showed no visible reaction. He was a faux, short for faux organic. He was infrahuman; a terroid, nearly Terran; a farroid, almost Farran; an ersatz man; a pakkot, from the Cetusian ‘pakkotuuy’ meaning forced laborer; or even a metapakk, which was somehow meant to be a compliment. What he was not, apparently, was a man.
“You know damned well that the credits he earns are less than the cost of food and the rent they charge,” Nilda said. Her hands were on her hips, a sign she meant business. “And I earn real money, but even that barely keeps my head above water.”
“Still.” The man sneered in Riley’s direction, showing missing and tar-stained teeth. “These damned autobots take from the likes of us. What we needs pakkots for in the first place?”
“Maybe to teach you basic manners and good grammar, to start,” she answered. “My friend here is trained to run that fucking factory, but he took a shitty low-end job just so he can take care of his Farran mother and her mother-in-law. His organic Farran mother, by the way. Instead of sitting on his cute butt and waiting for a supervisor to get sick and die, he started on the line. Do you have any idea how much an android of his caliber is worth?” The vendor said nothing, shaking his head in the negative. “Let’s just say he’s worth ten of me.” She looked at the man, her face flushing pink. “Probably twenty of you.” She’d begun to perspire. Her breathing began to labor.
Riley took her arm and she calmed. “She didn’t mean that, sir. She’s just angry.”
The vendor looked from Riley to Nilda and back. “S’okay. I probably deserved it.” He turned back to his cart, picked up two fresh bella-bellas, and held them out to Riley. The android resisted the urge to flinch. “Take ‘em. Give ‘em to your mom to cook up. They’ll spoil anyway, if nobody uses ‘em.”
Riley stepped to the man and took the vegetables, remembering to thank him, but choosing not to smile, in case it just made him look nervous. The vendor muttered something to his cart, and it started up again, rattling and clattering along the stony streets. The sky had gone from pink to gray now, meaning night had fallen, or at least the dingy twilight that passed for nightfall on his part of the planet.
“How do you suppose he knew I was an artificial?” he asked, watching the vendor disappear around a bend.
Riley’s expression looked to Nilda to be a cross between worry and hurt feelings. “I don’t know, honey,” she said, “but you better be careful at your waiter’s job. There could be others as sharp as him.” She reached up and stroked his soft head. “Especially those who work with the public all day.”
“Perhaps I should have Mom look at my code. Maybe there’s a glitch he picked up on.”
“You don’t have glitches, honey. You’re just … you.” She blinked back a proper dose of sadness and forced a smile at him. “If I was twenty cycles younger, I’d marry you.”
Riley tilted his chin at her and frowned. “I would say ‘yes’ to that.”
Nilda bloomed a smile and said, “I best get going, Riles. I need to pick up Miru. You know how she gets when I’m late.”
Riley gave an exaggerated shudder and smiled. This time, he looked happy and not at all nervous.
Nilda noticed and returned the smile. “She loves you too, you know.” Riley blinked at her and stood still, looking like a trim soldier in a white shirt and brown pants. Instead of an insignia, however, he wore as a badge of honor a gold chain about his neck with lettering that read “Riley.” His grandma had given it to him on his last “birthday.” Nilda fingered it affectionately, then tiptoed and kissed his soft cheek. “You should come by this weekend. Miru will be happy to see you.”
“I’ll try,” Riley said.
“Try hard.” She brushed a finger along his arm. “That skin of yours is organic. It needs nutrients.”
“I don’t get them from food. Mom makes me an oil to apply to it.”
Nilda frowned. “Oils can’t stimulate your pleasure center. Come by, learn how to eat. It’ll throw off the folks at your new job.”
“I’ll … I’ll try,” Riley said. “No promises.”
Nilda kissed him again and then began down the road. Without turning, she yelled back, “I’ll tell Miru you promised to come by.”
“But I said, ‘No promises!’ Nilda!” Riley heard her giggle, but she didn’t reply. Sometimes, Nilda could be very confusing.