"Old Man & Cyborg", by Kenn Brown

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The Old Man and the Cyborg
by M.F. Korn


Mr. Sam was an old man who ran the outmoded shipping lanes, picking up junk satellites that came up on the feely monitor. It had been a helluva slow week. Mr. Sam stared blankly at what was infinite beyond the plexy-hole. "Sentimental Journey" eked out on the rundown sound-sys. He stood next to his cyborg, Joe-x, who had been junking by his side for fifty-five terra years.

"You hunk a crap! You said there was some old Tel-star around here over three days ago!" Mr. Sam ranted.

"Yes, said that three days ago," droned the cyborg.

"Where in God's hell is it?"

Mr. Sam wiped his brow and squinted out into pitch darkness. He felt the feely-tracker with his old fingers because he was blind. He couldn't even see a playing card eight inches away from his face. He never bothered too much to look into space any more. You couldn't hit nothin' anyway out there, unless you were a dumbass.

"Matthews got it," droned Joe-x.

"Marsshit, jerk."

Dots of starlight drilled into the blackest void. In it, this sputtering trawler was just a clunky, third-rate garage-pod with a couple of frazzled towing lines, a grappler, and just enough battered engine to carry junk back to the little enclaves dotting the area.

"Shoulda decked you long ago," Mr. Sam muttered.

"You did, nine times," came the answer.

"God knows I shoulda fired you, trash."

"You fired me one hundred and seventy three times," the cyborg said.

Why the hell did it always have to talk back? Talkin' its shit. He looked over at it, barely making it out. It stood there, swaying on creaking leg pistons. Its micro-relays showing a sheen of outer wear. Joe-x was the last of its kind -- a junky relic. It had been in the Musso family for over four generations. It thought it felt for Mr. Sam as it had for Mr. Sam's grandfather, Captain Neil Musso. Why, he had commanded the Brewster's Ridgers against those damn loyalists at some Colony War. Back in the days when men were afraid of that mean ol' space. Not all this insta-deploy environs now for cowards. Not more than five cowards had expired in space since the treaty.

Joe often thought about Captain Neil, who died on Earth in the Kentucky hills a hundred earth years ago.

The cyborg was won in a cheating poker hand off Titan. The Mussos were thrown out of every colony.

At one time the cyborg had thought it knew what crying was.

It was sure in its think-chips that Mr. Sam was a cyborg, too.

"Maybe you should get some plasmic checks on your system, Mr. Sam," Joe-x stated out of the blue.

"You dumb bastard! I ain't no friggin' borg, you senile bucket a crap."

No answer but a standby hum.

"Shaddup," Sam added.

Joe-x thought Mr. Sam maybe wanted to spar with it again, like he remembered they did once at some dive on Venus. He believed through Boolean circuit-loops that Mr. Sam had been its playmate in the Geosystems factory on Earth, in New Zealand, but he wasn't quite sure.

Sam continued the abuse.

"Idiot! You were sold to great-grandfadder Musso off Titan. You used to be a damn forklift operator before the War."

Joe-x stepped over towards him. Joe-x's right shin piston had given out, and it had been kind of limping for thirty years. Mr. Sam had promised over and over to get it fixed, but he never got around to it.

Mr. Sam took a suck of tube-o-mash. He pointed it drunkenly towards Joe-x. "You want some? No, you don't want none. 'Cause you ain't got no esophagus. Now, just like I ain't got no metal in me. No bioplasmics neither. If they had maintained you better you might realize who the hell I am."

When it was time to sleep at fake-night, Mr. Sam turned off the cyborg's high-functs. Joe-x began dreaming recently about Captain Neil. Mr. Sam would bunk out across the cabin. Mr. Sam used to get so lonely he would make Joe sleep with him.

They were on the leg home now with an empty hold. Not one damn project had come up on the feely-tracker. Joe-x was so stupid he couldn't even sched a rendezvous anymore. Mr. Sam didn't even let it go outside much. Several times it had forgotten how to get back in. Joe-x was dangerous, a bother. But dammit, Mr. Sam couldn't see anymore. Couldn't afford new eyes. Still, he was going to junk it. Yessir, get one of those brand-shiny-new borgs. And ol' Joe would go to the iron farm where all the others were dead and buried. That's why Mr. Sam had to tell Joe-x the Mussos were buried there, so he would go. Then he had to keep lying to it. A while back Joe-x had requested to be laid next to Captain Neil's grave, which wasn't even there. One thing it did remember -- it had saved that man four times in a battle of scorchin' hellfire.

Now a dream-state came to Joe-x's thinkchips. The rusty face lay slack and relaxed in rotted rubber joints. It mused about New Zealand, where Mr. Sam Musso had been created right after him. One day, on a lark, they had gone with some of the staff to the beach. Wasn't Mr. Sam Musso the cybernetic synthezoid who had to have extra multiplexers put into his head? Joe's id-chip tandems stabilized and flatlined as it lapsed into deeper simul-snooze next to the filthy plexyhole. Deep space leered at them in the shadows of the rank, smelly cabin. The sun was a yellow ball way back behind them.

The grapple-alarm beeped for a good seven minutes before it woke Mr. Sam.

"You S.O.B., get up! I think we got us one!"

A crenelated metal sphere spun wobbly in the void. Joe-x was still booting up, but Mr. Sam was already trying to bring the ship around by finger-touch.

"Get your little ass-chip out there! Grapple onto that thing! I don't care what I said before about you going outside! We ain't goin' home empty-handed now."

Sam didn't know that the sphere was valueless, not even good junk. Joe-x barely managed to limp through the airlock. There was a time when he used to do pretty damn good in a vacuum. Some of the long-dead Musso brothers had made him believe he couldn't breathe in a vacuum. Which wasn't really a lie.

"You don't breathe no-how, X-man! How many times I gotta tell you?"

Joe clung to the side of the ugly little ship. Mr. Sam diddled the grappler arm. Joe motioned to Mr. Sam through the dirty glass to maneuver the ship over a bit to get that better angle, but Mr. Sam could hardly see him. It would be a few minutes. Mr. Sam hummed "Moonlight Serenade" and sucked on a day-old coffeestick. The black void swallowed the small figure. Although the borg eased his loneliness, Mr. Sam would have to scrap him. It was just gettin' too dangerous. He was broke and old.

Mr. Sam sighed. Joe-x was the family legacy. He couldn't tell Joe-x to its face. Hell, he always lied to it anyway.

It was still and quiet. Mr. Sam pressed up against the glass and squinted. Finally, he saw Joe-x waving its arms frantically. It had been caught between the massive fifteen-foot sphere and the ship's ugly underbelly, right where the metal arm came out. Mr. Sam made the metal arm slip.

Mr. Sam panicked. He tried to back the ship away from the sphere immediately. He couldn't see very well at all. Mr. Sam didn't know Joe-x was missing that bad foot now. The arm groped in the blackness for Joe. The sphere was now twirling away erratically. After a full fifteen minutes, Musso got the crippled borg into the hold. Once the airlock was sealed, Mr. Sam hurriedly floated down the ladder, checked the air pressure, and went in.

What was left of Joe-x was lying awkwardly on the floor. The old man hunched over the torso. A tear coursed down Mr. Sam's face, winding through the paths of road-map wrinkles.

Joe-x was rambling phrases of nonsense from the shattered mouthplate, "235w$^)(987>>>."

"I didn't mean it," Sam cried.

Nothing but nonsensical static. Mr. Sam noticed the missing foot. He looked at Joe's gray, mottled faceplate, the rust, the two deep-set eyechips he had replaced several times. One side was bent a little where it had been damaged in the Brewster battle. The left hemisphere of his head was twisted from another, much older accident. The left leg lay still, stripped micro-fibers coming out the end, node-strands and dazi-dot circuitry crushed beyond repair. Its eyes flickered from within as it looked Mr. Sam in the face.

"Send back the battalion. We need backups now..."

Mr. Sam wiped his old eyes full of space and memories.

"Joe. Mio. It's me. Don't you remember?"

Joe-x looked away, around the ship, and back to him.

It said, "Remember New Zealand...#%^8436...when we went to the beach? They let us walk around 'la plage'. #%&834...wouldn't let us go in the water."

"No, damn you!"

"In the Mood" cut in on the morning wakeup.

Mr. Sam shot the torso up with a syringe of fixi-juice and micro chiphealers. The needle easily punctured the rotted rubber breastplate. The electrolytes and micro machines seemed to ease the storms of pain going through its guts. Joe's circuits cleared for an instant.

"#%&...Am I fired?"

Mr. Sam winced. "You're gonna make it, Joe."

Joe wasn't gonna make it. Sam would have to pull its plug.

"We are gonna get you a new boot, put new fixers in. Classy new joints." The old man ran his fingers through his frizzy white hair.

"I fired?" the robot said monotonously.

"No. You're dying."

"This is what it's like...)(*&^09...to die?"

Static came from the mouthpiece.

I was gonna let you retire anyway, Mr. Sam thought.

"Hunk of junk." He cried softly. The vista of space loomed through the dirty plexyholes. His prized sphere was out of sight. No way he could get it now. Mr. Sam the garbage man.

The cyborg began shaking violently.

Mr. Sam suddenly said, "Remember the beach? Them scientists and computerheads let us walk the whole beach? You know! I was your bioplasmic playmate."

Joe-x laughed -- a cheap upgrade one of the old Mussos had taught him.

"Tell them I want to be near Neil on the iron farm."

"It's true, Joe. I am bioplasmic. We were built together."

Mr. Sam grabbed a small knife and cut a gash into his arm. Blood oozed out.

"%&^*%...Not electrolyte Go-Juice. You are the great grandson of my master." Mr. Sam wiped away the blood. Joe's main daziboard finally went dead.

The muddled hum of injured works was gone. Joe-x was gone. The old man slowly dragged the thing above and laid it out on front-view. Mr. Sam drank himself silly that night, eight tube-o-mashes. The ship went full tilt by its brain back to a familiar enclave-dive. It eked out moonside with a blind old man at the helm.

The sheer junk of the spaceport surrounded the ship. Mr. Sam trembled as the tower talked him into an empty loading bay.

Miller's ship was being loaded by a cyborg. Mr. Sam still couldn't see, even with the bright docking kliegs. Musso shambled past old man Miller and shook Mel-2's hand. Mel-2 stood there, not noticing or understanding. Bob Miller looked at Mr. Sam.

"You nuts, Musso?", and then he stopped.

"Your old clunker. Dead?" Miller guessed. The old man nodded. Mel-2 turned away for a second, then asked to see Joe-x.

"Sure. Go right ahead."

Mr. Sam went to the Rusty Nail Bar.

That night a crusty longshoreman called Musso a queer man for sleeping around with cyborgs. Sam knocked out three of the guy's teeth.

The next week they dropped the clunky body into a dingy pit at the iron farm. Cyborgs could be just jettisoned as trash -- some folks did that, but other people had feelings.

Two weeks later the crap-trawler shot toward a sector full of space debris. Sam's deceased brother-in-law's old cyborg had plotted the course a bit off.

"Goddammit, Jim-4! How many times do I hafta tell you?" He grabbed the controls and fingered the green feely-pattern on the screen. "I'm gonna fire your ass."

"Sir, I..."

"Don't 'Sir' me, you jerk. I work for a living." The old man smiled. They caught five stray heaps that day. Good ones, too.

Mr. Musso squinted at Jim-4 through dizzy eyes clouded with tube-o-J&B. The lonely old man rolled over on his back, threw an arm around its shoulder, hugged him close, and smiled. He slept all the way back to the junkport. They docked on the side where it's always dark -- even for those who could see.

Story copyright 2002 by M.F. Korn http://hometown.aol.com/tiresius1/

Illustration copyright 2002 by Kenn Brown kennb@shaw.ca

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