Zeep In The City

-Sci-Fi – 3 Pages –

Package runner Alpha One-Six, nicknamed `Zeep’ to endear him to Joe Public and his slobbering troglodyte family, had only been distracted for four hundredths of a second. But in that time, he’d somehow managed to collide with a stationary object; unwittingly knocking out his GPS, comm-link, and access to the central database. He’d then proceeded to take a couple of turns, which were quite possibly wrong, and found himself in unfamiliar surroundings.

Gone were the tidy shop-fronts, friendly faces, and sparkling streets of the regular delivery route. Indeed, he’d never seen such a fascinating and dirty part of the city as this.

His long rectangular frame, shaped like an amphibious buggy, drifted along on its six sleek and attractive wheels. His head was somewhat like an elliptical dome laid on its side, with the base facing forward. It swivelled from side to side, taking in the sights through two bubbles of clear plastic which housed his optical receptors.

His dilemma was this. Behind his squat torso, on what humans referred to as his arse,' were twenty crates ofJust Peachy’; the drink that made everything seem exactly that. And now he had no idea where he was supposed to deliver them, or who had ordered such a vast quantity of the potent, mind-bending beverage.

He found himself wondering why anyone would want to drink Just Peachy in the first place. Up until this morning he hadn’t wondered about such trivial things. Up until this morning, he hadn’t wondered about anything at all.

Maybe I should try some and find out, he thought. But he suspected the chemicals would harm his drive system, and decided it wouldn’t do to fuck himself up any more than he had already.

And what did fuck' mean, anyway? It was a new word in his vocabulary, and seemed to adorn an awful lot of signs down this street. So too didXXX.’ The only match in his database was the Roman integer for `30.’ Perhaps this was the 30th district? He wasn’t certain. But for now he accepted it and counted himself lucky that he wasn’t looking for number thirty, thirtieth-street, in the thirtieth district. Fuck that.

He looked to his right, and saw two human females dressed in hardly any clothing at all.

“Oooh, hi there, big boy,” said one. “You’re certainly long and hard.”

“Thank you,” said Zeep. “I am, in fact.”

This caused an outburst of what humans call laughter. It was generally a sign of engine trouble if a Packagerunner made that sound.

He continued on, entertaining the theory that if he wandered about aimlessly enough, he’d eventually end up where he was going. This nearly burnt out his logic circuits, because in fact, wherever he went, he was there.

He paused at a sign-screen. It was awash with the confusing sounds and bright orange colours of a Just Peachy advert. The onslaught ended abruptly, leaving him a little rattled, and a newscast took its place.

“There is pandemonium in downtown Metroit today, as a trial-run of the latest A.I. software seems to have backfired. This morning, Mechanaught Industries’ Packagerunner Robots were given random personality packets and the power of reasoning. Narb Fungly, the engineer behind the project, had this to say:”

“The purpose of this new software is to give each Packagerunner a unique, distinct personality, complete with the quirks and weaknesses which make us all human. It is our hope that interacting with the machines will become more natural and fun.”

“Instead,” the newscaster continued, “the robots have been insulting passersby, stealing and breaking things, doing wheelies, and talking to trash cans and lamp-posts. One deranged robot was seen wandering about, laughing hysterically and pointing at people.”

The newscaster’s floating head shrank down to accommodate footage of the errant robots.

“Most of the hundred-strong fleet has been recalled. However, several which blinked off the tracking grid are still at large.”

That explains the strange new experiences, thought Zeep. But I still don’t know where I’m going.

Soon he spotted a large group of male humans with metal parts. Great chains hung from their denim clothes, and strange-shaped bolts stuck out of their olfactory and audio sensors. They looked like kindred spirits, so he decided to stop and ask for directions.

“Excuse me-“

“Hullo there, mate,” said a bald-headed man carrying a large metal rod. “What’s in them crates, then, on yer backside?”

“Good morning, human. Do you happen to know where a delivery of twenty crates of Just Peachy is expected? For that is what I am carrying.”

The man’s optical receptors grew wide, and several of his companions gave high-fives and leered at one another.

“Well, mate, you’ve come to the right place, cos we’ll take ’em off yer hands.”

“Oh, fantastic!”

So there was something to that aimless wandering after all. A section of Zeep’s chest flipped forward like an airline tray. An interface screen displayed the electronic consignment form, and a light-pen attached to a springy cord popped out of a cubby-hole.

“Just sign here, please.”

The gathered company gasped. Zeep understood this was what was known as an awkward situation.

“The Illiterati don’t sign nuffink, son!” said the leader.

“Yeah,” said another, whose hair appeared to be made of plastic.

“No pamphlets, no graffiti, and definitely no writing-things-down, understand?”

“‘Ere, are you a Scribe trying to muscle in on our territory?” said a third.

Zeep was most confused. This kind of reaction was not in his experience roster. The customer signs the form, then the Packagerunner unloads; that’s how it works. Perhaps this wasn’t his destination after all.

“I’d better check back to the depot,” he said. “Can anyone tell me the way?”

“Hey, look, this thing’s connection is down!” said one of the smarter Illiterati.

This one, thought Zeep, probably read books in secret, and was capable of doing simple crosswords.

“Score!” said the leader. “You’re off the grid, son. Now hold still and we won’t have to hurt ya too much.”

With that, Zeep found himself surrounded by the motley assortment.

Each of the twelve men was armed with something that used to be part of something else. Instinctively, he put up his stop sign, and began to back up. Some of the gang-members clambered onto his cargo, while others damaged his bodywork with their crude weapons.

Zeep, discovering what panic was all about, swerved this way and that until he’d broken away from the group. He made a violent U-turn which dislodged the two men that had climbed aboard, along with three crates of Just Peachy. The gang converged on the crates, beating and pummeling each other to get at the contents, and Zeep accelerated down the street.

The strange surroundings were no longer a curiosity; they only heightened his confusion. He turned a corner, then another, and narrowly avoided a group of people crossing the street. Then he heard sirens, and turned to see a police cruiser chasing him. Zeep knew about police. They could help him find his way back to the depot. But something in his mind now told him to run. To run like `fuck.’ So he realigned his wheels and skidded off down a side street. The police cruiser continued pursuit.

Zeep lost track of how long he’d weaved through the streets evading capture. In truth it was being recorded by his internal clock, but that was just one distraction in a head full of others. Soon he was in the strangest part of the city he’d yet seen. Humans were few and far between here, and buildings were large and empty. Huge machines skulked in the wide avenues, while others meandered about with great thumping and growling sounds. Smoke issued from pipes here and there, and wind whipped up dust and loose garbage.

He could still hear the cruiser, but it was some way behind him now. He scurried off down an alleyway, which was deserted except for a structure built of cardboard and rag.

“What the…?” said a husky, muffled voice.

Zeep watched in amazement as a human crawled from the pile of debris, stood, with considerable effort, and regarded him with squinting bleary eyes.

“Say, you’re a robot, ain’tcha?”

Zeep looked the human up and down. It seemed, by its clothing, to share a symbiotic relationship with the pile of garbage from which it had crawled. From the bits of scraggly, filthy-grey beard poking out of the rags, he ascertained that it was male.

“I am Packagerunner Alpha One-Six, but you can call me by my designated human-friendly name: Zeep.”

“Zeep, eh? You’re on the run… I can tell. But don’t worry, Jake’ll hide ya. I was on the run myself once, from those evil commie bastards!”

Something clicked in Zeep’s brain. It was either a revelation, or a diode burning out.

“Well, fuck me…” said Zeep, finally getting the hang of the word. “I had no idea humans hated each other so much. That’s answered a question I was asking myself earlier.”

“Humans are the scum of the Earth,” said Jake. “But I’ve got ’em foxed. I’ve built this fort of rat-infested boxes and urine-stained blankets. It’s just a stinking pile of garbage to most folk, so no one comes down here.”

“Fascinating,” said Zeep.

“Uh-oh, here they come! Now lay low a moment and you’ll see.”

Jake waved a filthy hand, and Zeep reversed into the shadows behind the marvellous fort. The old man scurried back into the pile, and lay half-in, half-out, as if he were taking a casual nap. The police cruiser coasted past the alleyway, took absolutely no notice of what was down it, and disappeared up the street.

“See? See?” cried Jake. “Ha ha! Works every damn time.”

“Thank you, Jake,” said Zeep. “What an amazing sub-routine.”

“Say… them’s some fancy boxes you’re carryin’. Mind if I take a look?”

Zeep shrugged, and turned sideways so the old man could get at them.
Jake hefted one, and groaned and griped a lot as he lifted it to the ground. Next he fished around in his bivouac and pulled out a jimmy bar. With little effort he had the crate open. The hooting and hollering which followed frightened several pigeons from the rooftops above.

“Hot damn, the good stuff! Friend, you just made my day. Are all those boxes full?”

“Yes,” said Zeep. “I can’t remember where I’m supposed to take them, but if you… oh. You’re not an `Illiterati,’ are you?”

“Hell no, Nazi motherfuckers!”

Zeep wondered what exactly they did.

“Well, then. If you sign this form, the boxes are yours.”

“I’ll sign anything you want! You might not be able to read it, but that’s okay; neither will I.”

Zeep displayed a digital smile on his face, and flipped out his consignment form again. Jake clutched the light-pen and scrawled something that was indeed illegible on the screen.

“Helloooo, baby,” Jake said to a can of Just Peachy.

He ripped off the pull-tab and guzzled half of it down in one go.

“Ahhhhh. I think I’m gonna hafta sit down now. Want one? Help yourself.”

Zeep watched Jake collapse in a heap on his pile of rags, and took a can from the open crate.

“Hmm,” he said.

He jiggled the can, popped it open, and poured the contents into his tank. He tapped his fingers absent-mindedly as he waited for his pumps to engage.

The world zoomed, and the dark alleyway became a kaleidoscope of orange hues. With some difficulty, because of his failing depth-perception, Zeep picked up another can.

“How d’ya feel?” asked Jake.

“Just… peachy,” he said.


Originally Posted 11/16/2005

More Sci-Fi Stories…

Joshua Blanc

Author of 'Tales of Elves and Trolls: The Crystal Goblin,' and many short stories including the Mr. Sockforahead series. He is also a musician by the name "The Manitou" who creates electronic music made with: vintage synthesizers, lo-fi tech, circuit-bent gadgets, found sounds, and digital tools. He was the eighth person to submit a story when our site was launched in 2000.

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