Palbot: A Boy’s Best Friend

By Dan Pitts. Posted in Fiction and Issue Three. Bookmark the permalink.
City of Steel

"City of Steel" by Peter Scacco

The seams of a baseball blended into a pink spiral en route for side of Brian’s head, until Palbot’s three metallic fingers reached up and swatted it away. The ball landed in the grass and lay idle until AJ ventured into the front lawn to reclaim it.

“Good catch pee-wee,” AJ said as he swung his mitt down to scoop up the ball along with a large tuft of grass. His cap tilted high up to let a thick bunch of blond hair rest on his forehead. It did nothing to protect him from the sun, but you’d never see him without it.

“Yeah,” Brian quietly replied. He wanted to believe it was an accident, but the neighbor kids always acted like this when they saw him sitting in the yard. Especially AJ. He was that kid in neighborhood – the oldest, the biggest, the dumbest. He was a necessary function of adolescent social behavior, and through Brian saw him for just that, there was still the physical harassment that no reasoning could excuse.

In the future, please exercise proper caution.

Palbot spoke to the older boy’s back as he started to walk away.

“…right. Sure thing.”

The boy jogged back to his friends in the street. They all looked at Brian and Palbot with wide, giggling smirks. Brian felt helpless – having a robotic best friend, how he was incapable of anything more than sitting in the front lawn with him.

“Thanks Palbot.”

He tucked his knees into his chest and watched the figures resume jumping, running, and laughing on the radiant pavement.

My pleasure.

Always the same response. Palbot wasn’t especially good at receiving gratitude.

It was a sunny autumn day, and those were rare. His mom insisted that he go soak up the sun, so that’s where he found himself. If he had been given any choice in the matter, he’d have been inside the house by now. But, Palbot wasn’t beyond tattling – His mom would see it on the day’s activity log.

Brian – should not be sitting idle. Brian – should be interacting and building relationships with other children in the ten to twelve year bracket.

“Yeah?” Brian pulled a handful of grass and gradually sifted it through his fingers until all the blades had fallen back down.

Building relationships and learning cooperative skills are important functions for an adolescent boy. Brian – has received medication as prescribed for today. Biometric levels are at optimal points for peer interactions. Recommended course of action is for Palbot to accompany and assist – Brian – in joining children in physical activity.

“Maybe tomorrow.”

He picked up another tuft of grass.

While his mom could force him outside, neither she, nor Palbot, nor even the Xanax could coerce him join in the other kids. He hated sports, and even if he did know how to throw a baseball, it wasn’t like they’d let him. He was weird because his best friend was Palbot. While everyone else had dads, friends, little brothers, little sisters, and dumb dogs to follow them around, Brian had a robot that gave him medication, taught him education modules his mother selected, and forced him to waste whole days stewing under the sun.

He understood why the other kids made fun of him. But he wished they’d stop.

Throwing his tuft of grass across his body, Brian grumbled, “I hope they get hit by a car. Hope they die. All’ve ‘em.”

Palbot processed. Given motor vehicle incidents in the local area, speed averages on this street, and time of day, likelihood is not favorable that the children in the street will be struck by a moving vehicle. The canine however, exhibits behaviors that indicate the probability of it becoming a fatality, are far greater.

Brian giggled for the first time all day. It was funny, even if the humor wasn’t intended. Palbot had it out for AJ’s black lab. Trix was big, rambunctious, and took a particular interest in Brian’s companion. Palbot for his part, wasn’t amused by the dog’s antics, and often sent it whimpering with a tonal repellant. Robots weren’t supposed to have emotions, but when it came to that animal, there was something undeniably human about the degree of distaste for Trix.

The time is Four O’Clock. It is time for your medication.

Brian only groaned.

Put out your hand – Please.

Palbot’s treads skidded in the moist grass as he moved close, but the boy refused to offer his hand. He hated these pills. Half of them he didn’t need, and the other half he didn’t know. Palbot stood still, processing the best course of action, then with uncommon agility reached down and seized Brian’s elbow. Caught by surprise, the boy yelped as he jumped along with the upward tug.

“Hey!”

The robot’s hand dispensed a collection of four pills into Brian’s tensed palm. Once Palbot’s grip released, Brian recoiled his arm and staggered back a few steps.

“The heck was that?”

Apologies. Paternal Simulation Update – New protocol 1112493. Medication consumption no longer voluntary.

“Yeah well this new update sucks.” And it was the truth – Paternal Simulation? Brian didn’t need a robo-dad. His real Dad hadn’t worked out; who’d sold his mom on thinking this new module could do better?

Apologies. The protocols are for your safety. Palbot is committed your safety… If Palbot acted in error, please troubleshoot with a representative at 1-800-PAL-BOT2…Daily goal of vitamin A is behind schedule. Brian – will be required to consume one fruit item within the next hour to reach satisfactory levels.

“I know, I know. How bout some O2?” He regarded the pills as if they were maggots squirming in his hand. “Don’t wanna have to choke these down.”

Yes, one moment please.

The hiss of water being pumped from within the robot’s small reserve lasted for a moment as promised, before a small paper cup emerged on a tray from the robot’s left shoulder panel. Brian downed the pills with his routine haste, then crumpled up the cup and threw it to the grass. Palbot would pick it up.

Back on the pavement, the other boys’ energy had begun to wane along with the daylight. Group momentum was beginning to trickle up the street towards AJ’s house, where his mother had just announced from the doormat that pizza was ready. Across the distance, she spotted Brian. She didn’t say anything, only tilted her head and strained to smile. Despite her mongrel of a son, she seemed like a nice lady. She probably would’ve invited him too, if not for Palbot’s necessary company. Like many of the adults, she was noticeably uneasy around the robot companion.

Mother – will be released from work in one hour. Expected arrival within two hours. Palbot mentioned out of the blue.

It was programmed to track heart rate, blood pressure, hormone levels, adrenaline, and a whole slew of other bodily statistics that Brian didn’t understand. Its sensors must have detected a drop in Brian’s mood, and protocol dictated that it say something to cheer the boy up.

“Yeah, can we go inside yet?”

Allotted time for sun exposure is not yet – Caution! Palbot’s gears whirred as it threw a mechanical arm up, but it wasn’t quick enough – this time nothing could stop the baseball from thudding Brian square between the shoulder blades.

“Ow!”

The boy dropped to all fours. Grasping at the point of impact, he felt his eyes grow irritated as he tried not to cry. He didn’t dare look back at the ball or the boys in case his effort to dam up the tears failed. He couldn’t let them see that.

“My bad!” AJ came trotting over again, doing a poor job of restraining his grin. A few of his friends snickered from behind bushes a few yards over, and tried to hide their amusement when they saw Brian finally glance over his shoulder.

“Hey” AJ huffed as he scooped the ball up once more, towering over Brian who remained in the grass. “Thought you were gonna catch that. What, nobody taught ya how to catch?”

“No…” Brian gripped his neck tighter, feeling tears push up into his eyes. “What the hell? That hurt…”

“Well, my bad,” The boy said again. “Don’t cry about it pee-wee.”

He spun the ball in his hand as he turned away in triumph, but abruptly dropped it to the ground as a mechanical hand seized the boy’s wrist.

“What the – “ AJ yanked to get free. Palbot was diminutive in comparison, but the force of the metal grip brought the monster of a boy to his knees.

“Stop it! Ow ow ow – That hurts! Stop it!” He grimaced, throwing his baseball mitt off and bringing his free hand to try and release the hold.

Proper caution not utilized. Intentional harm to – Brian. Continued threat posed –

Brian’s eyes dried in an instant, replaced with alarm as he leapt to his feet, “Override! Override! Stop!”

Palbot processed the command amid the childish, submissive whimpers.

Cease operation override authorized.

Palbot released the bully, who abandoned his glove and baseball in full retreat across the lawn toward where his friends waited – visibly shocked. As AJ ran past them and inside, they one by one scurried in pursuit.

“What was that?” Brian kicked Palbot’s treads.

Palbot whipped around. For an instant, Brian was afraid that he would be retaliated against.

Paternal Simulation Update – Base Protocol 0000392: Protect – Brian – from all threats to personal health and safety.

“I was fine!”

Palbot played back the recording of Brian’s own voice, “What the hell? That hurt…” before switching back to his own voice, Base Protocol 0000392: Protect – Brian – from all threats to personal health and safety. If Palbot acted in error, please troubleshoot with a representative at 1-800-PAL-BOT2.

Brian was at a loss, but he knew they couldn’t just stay outside, “…hurry inside, before he tells his mom.”

The robot seemed oblivious to the situation.

Adrenaline and anxiety levels higher than acceptable. Beginning relaxation program – Please lay down and practice controlled breathing. Palbot began to play the beach soundtrack, complete with crashing waves and seagull squawks.

“No! Override relaxation program. Override five pm outdoor timer. I’m getting inside.”

Multiple overrides authorized.

With Palbot trailing, Brian beat a hasty retreat into the air conditioned house. Once inside he paced from the entrance to the living room, to the kitchen, then back and forth, back and forth. Palbot followed him, begging a command with only the hum of his motor.

“How long till mom gets home?”

Mother’s estimated time of arrival is one hour and fifty-two minutes.

“Call her – before AJ’s mom does.”

Before Palbot could begin to process the command, the doorbell rang.

Brian’s legs almost collapsed as dread turned them cold. The other shoe had fallen quickly.

“Crapcrapcrapcrap. Too late. ” Brian fidgeted with his fingers as he scampered to the living room and carefully lifted one of the blinds to peek through.

His tension eased. It wasn’t the police. It wasn’t even AJ’s mom. It was the bully himself, looking wounded and nervous. He stood on the doormat, hands in his pockets, casting timid glances back in the direction of his house.

Brian took a breath, twisted the handle, and tried to keep calm.

He nudged his head around the door, trying to open it as little as possible. “Hey, AJ. Wh-hat’s up?”

AJ sighed and shook his head. He only made eye contact with the cracks in the walkway.

“Mom made me come over here and say sorry.”

“Oh. Its okay.”

“So, Sorry.”

“Yeah, it’s okay.”

AJ started to turn away, but for the first time during the interaction, he looked Brian in the eye.

“And your robot got lucky. I’ll crush it, ever comes near me again.”

“He’s…”

Within the pause, they could both hear Palbot’s gears operating right next to the door. AJ took one step back. He was afraid – this was the first time Brian had ever sensed timidity in the boy-monster.

“He’s right here.” Brian swung the door open. It was an unfamiliar thrill, possessing the upper hand. With the new update, Palbot was protective, like an older brother, or – a father. Brian needn’t be afraid.

“Turn it off. Keep it back.”

“Careful numb-nuts, he almost broke your arm earlier.”

“Fuck off! At least my Dad didn’t run away like a pussy!”

It was an empty insult – the familiar refrain of a kid who couldn’t muster anything more creative. But Brian failed to see it that way. Within him, there was a surge of emotion that lasted only an instant, but for that brief flash of red, he was oblivious to size, experience, or nastiness, the factors that’d restrained him before.

He leapt from the doorstep – wrapped his arms and latched around the bigger kid’s neck to bring him down like a cowboy roping a calf. But for all of his rage, Brian’s assault was met with a shrug. His fingers slid apart and he skidded from AJ’s shoulders, his elbow meeting the paved walkway before he knew what direction he was facing, followed by his shoulder, butt and feet.

“Ya little faggot!” AJ yelled as he lifted Brian to his feet, and with ease and pushed him through the doorway.

It could’ve been a number of things – perhaps the physical threat to Brian, the crossing of the bully across the house’s threshold, or the move AJ had made to pop off Palbot’s back panel, perhaps a combination of them all – but with one decisive motion, the robot grabbed AJ’s leg and yanked. Balance ripped away, he boy fell hard. His cap twisted off and rolled away as his head crashed against the tiled entryway. There wasn’t blood, but he was clearly dazed as he lay there, flopping his arms toward the ceiling.

“Woah!” Override!” Brian jumped back against the door, forcing it shut.

Palbot scooted forward and lifted AJ’s head with both of his grips, all six metal fingers wrapped around his jaw.

Override declined. Paternal Simulation Update – New Protocol 1111938: Neutralize external threat – Home Intrusion.

Palbot lifted the boy’s head, and slammed it into the tile again.

“PALBOT!” Brian was frozen. He felt the reverberation through his legs every time the robot bashed downward. Once, twice, three times, four times, five times until there was no longer a cracking sound, just a mushy plunk when the back of his skull met the tile. AJ’s eyes were still open, but without their inherent twinkle of malice, they showed only vacancy. Brian had never seen a dead person before. He was pretty sure this was it.

He thought to run. He was about to make a dash for his room, lock himself inside and wait until his mom got home. Then he’d explain everything. Or he could run back outside, call for help. Nobody would blame him for what just happened. Palbots weren’t made for murder. Something had gone very wrong. The police would come. They’d shoot the robot – or disable it somehow. They’d break it into pieces and take it away.

But without Palbot…

His hesitation was too long. As he watched the robot release AJ and turn to within arm’s reach, he knew it was too late. The robot was going to kill him too.

Threat neutralized. Would you like me to place a call to the authorities?

Brian’s breath caught in his chest. “Uh, no. Don’t do that.”

The robot turned to look at the body.

Disposal – is recommended course of action. Proceeding with – Disposal process.

Palbot seized the dead boy’s ankle and pushed it’s motor forward, struggling at first to gain traction on the slick tile before eventually meeting the hardwood and proceeding further into the house. The robot left a smear of red in its wake as it turned into the hallway, gruesomely snapping shut AJ’s limp jaw against the corner wall before they both disappeared to the echoing hum of treads growing distant.

“Disposal.” Brian whispered the word to himself as if he’d heard it wrong. Before he was cognizant of his actions, he found himself in the hallway, following the trail of blood with his right hand running along the wall for support. He felt a sway in his balance. As he grew lightheaded a fear of fainting grew. He could feel the medication fighting his anxiety, like a nuclear meltdown stifled under a soft blanket – he could feel the menacing heat underneath, but no matter how strong it grew, there was some soothing barrier that kept it contained.

“Disposal” he kept repeating through the length of the stretching hall. The meaning of the word became lost on him. How…would Palbot dispose?

Then a glint of curiosity struck, easing the overwhelming terror that had pulled him this far into compliance with murder. Like seeing a naked girl in a movie, this was not something he was supposed to be witnessing – but that made it more mesmerizing.

The back door opened. Through his mother’s bedroom there was a short walkway to the garden where the reign of weeds had been unchallenged for a number of years. That’s where Brian found his robot, clawing at the dry soil with mechanical digits that did little but rake the surface. Still though, it tore with determination through the ground, even as its hand joints began to grind, slowed by the introduction of dirt.

Palbot turned to Brian and dropped his twitching hands to the sides. It struck a posture that mimicked Brian’s own helplessness. Its optical sensors fashioned into something like eyes moved from side to side. The robot looked to be searching for something, then when it found the target, took off toward the shed where it immediately began to examine the lock. Brian could faintly remember the last time he’d been in that shed – with Dad at some point. His mom had kept it locked ever since. Palbot brandished a small tool from his wrist compartment and inserted it into the padlock. It sprung it open with surprising quickness. The robots wheels kicked dirt as it backed up and swung the door open.

Brian watched from a safe distance as Palbot disappeared inside the dank wooden cubby, to emerge seconds later with shovel held clumsily in hand. The robot had no concept of the object’s center of gravity, thus the shovel’s metal head scraped in the dirt on the way back to the boy.

Brian – Assistance required. Unable to complete function – disposal – without assistance. Please call 1-800-PAL-BOT2 to troubleshoot if unable to assist.

Brian wondered if the hotline an option for murderous robots. Too late now – he grabbed the shovel, and watched his friend motor around and return to the body. The sight of AJ’s limp, dusty figure yanked his stomach upward. Just dig a hole – he thought.

“He’ll do the rest” Brian whispered, “Just dig a hole.”

The shovel was not much more familiar to the boy than it was to his companion, and he didn’t have the muscle strength to wield it much better. As he dug, he tried to emulate examples on TV, how they did it – left hand in front, left foot forward. But they were all adults, and much stronger than he was.

There was a moist grinding sound from behind. Brian naturally turned to look, and nearly lost his already fragile stomach at the sight of Palbot’s disassembly project. He casually carved through AJ’s upper leg with a seldom used pocketknife-like attachment, the way he’d watched his dad carve through turkey when he was young. He skirted around the bone and attacked soft joints with something well short of an artistic flare, but rather an honest disinterest in the plight of what was once a living thing, or what was to become of it. Just a machine performing a function.

Once when he was younger, before Palbot was around to keep tabs, Brian had observed his Dad from a hiding spot in the shed – in fact, his last memory of the man. Mom had left for the weekend, and Dad was too busy to keep track of the boy. He must’ve thought Brian was playing with AJ and the other kids. He wasn’t though; instead he sat under the dusty workbench for hours, just watching through a hole in the shed, the vague outline of a man in his memory’s eye as he worked frantic hours in a single spot amidst the garden dirt. The same shovel – it must have been.

Brian turned back toward the garden grave and dug the shovel’s head in. He placed the instep of his left shoe on the metal and pushed further, then straightened his arms and pressed down on the handle until a few pounds of dirt were separated from the ground. Turning at the hip he dumped the heavy load and repeated, over and over again, until he lost sense of time and phased out the sickly sawing of Palbot’s bloody project just feet behind him. Not until the robot started flinging muddy, red parts into the grave, did Brian bother to look up and see the sun had set.

“What time is it?” he asked.

Palbot dropped AJ’s dangling arm to finish the pile.

6:00 p.m. Your mother’s GPS indicates she is an estimated six minutes away. Recommend expedited completion of project to avoid further complications.

Further complications. He shuddered, that was all the warning he needed. Digging his shovel into the mountain of sand, he began scooping it back. Palbot’s portion of the work done, it motored back in through the bedroom door, leaving the boy to ensure the evidence of their crime – of AJ’s existence – disappear under a thick layer of dirt.

As the last bits of daylight disappeared, headlights pulled into the driveway and cast slivers of light through the wooden fence. Brian stood still until the engine had settled and his mom’s heels had clicked across the pavement and onto the front door. The boy scampered to the shed and set the shovel against its side, abandoning hope of sealing it shut in time. Entering the house, he wiped his face as best he could.

“Honey, what on Earth were you doing out there?” Mom stood in the hall, looking aghast.

“Just, I,”

Brian – was engaging in outdoor activities. Palbot drove down the hall behind Brian’s mom. The floor was clean. The wall was clean. A strong odor of solution remained, but somehow, it looked like nothing had happened.

Brian – expressed the desire to build – sand castles – in the back yard. Palbot assisted in the execution of this physical activity. Activity Log is available for review if you wish to receive a summary of the day.

The boy studied his mom’s face as she looked over him, through her bedroom doors and into the garden where the dirt lay flat and unassuming. She hesitated, and then brought a finger to tap on her lip. After a few tense breaths passed, she shrugged and shook her head.

“No, no that’s fine. Glad you’re getting outside, even if you’re a mess.”

Then she turned away and walked into the kitchen, “Clean up before dinner will you?”

“Sure mom”

He stared into the empty kitchen doorway.

“Hey mom…”

“Yeah hun?”

“When is Dad coming back?”

A protracted silence separated them more than the walls between, during which time Brian stood perfectly still aside Palbot who continued to click and hum – almost nervously, as if thinking aloud.

“I don’t know hun. Might be a while.”

Her voice weakened before trailing off altogether under water running in the sink. It was the same answer as always. She would leave it at that, and say no more on the topic for fear of tears. Dissatisfied, he turned to walk past Palbot, and whispered in confidence to his friend.

“I wish he were here.”

Unexpectedly, Palbot turned and whispered back in a low voice Brian didn’t remember the robot ever using before – a voice that he could’ve sworn was no longer automated.

“In a way, he is.”

● ● ●

Dan Pitts is a 23-year-old aspiring author, who will admit to having no real notoriety or accomplishment. He writes because it's what he loves to do, and because one day he wants skill enough to put all the workings of his mind into words. Until then, he's just happy you're reading his story.

Peter Scacco is a woodcut artist and poet whose art has appeared in numerous magazines and journals, including Albatross, Bateau, Bird’s Eye reView, Blood Lotus Journal, Epiphany, and The Meadowland Review. Mr. Scacco is the illustrator of A Few Good Greek Myths by Michael T. O'Brien (2008), and he is the author of the illustrated poetry chapbook Chiaroscuro (2010). He has lived and worked in Paris, Tokyo, Brussels, and cities throughout the USA. Since 1995 Mr. Scacco has resided in Austin, Texas. A selection of his art can be seen at scaccowoodcuts.com.

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