Assorted Miscellany, Cool Stuff!
It was a good sign, Pete was surprised it hadn't been stolen. Another indication that this desolate suburb hadn't been turned over as much as neighbouring towns. The house above had fallen to rubble long ago, but the basement story, at the bottom of a small descending staircase, still seemed intact. All very promising. Pete hefted his crowbar, and prayed for 15 kilos of decent copper plumbing.
"Jackpot" - Pete thought as diesel fumes hit his nose. The room seemed to be full, floor to ceiling, with archived equipment and junk. Along a bench to Pete's left there was a rack of electronic devices, with knobs, dials and input equipment - even a cathode ray tube. There was a thick layer of dust on everything, but it looked like the place was relatively free of vermin. The tell-tale signs were there but not strong. All the windows were boarded up from the inside, which was probably why it was all so well preserved.
Following his nose and waving his torch Pete dug around and found the source of the oil smell - a generator. He knew he shouldn't, but it might be a week till he got back here. 5 minutes of fiddling passed, during which he cut his palm and soaked his trousers in fuel, but he managed to get it going. The room lit up.
"Welkome to Assortd Misc... I am Currrator.. Booting"
Pete turned to find a near-spherical anthropomorphic lump rising up on a pair of extensible legs. The whole unit was a meter high, and seemed to hark back to the ideal of a robot from movies of the 1950's. LEDs flickered on its misshapen upper limb (head?), and it reached out its left arm unit towards him - a cute two digit clamp on an articulated pole. It was about to touch him when a volley of sparks span out from where the chest met the arm, and the machine stalled. All but a few of its LED's flickered, and went black.
Taking a closer look Pete realised that this was less a robot, and more of a children's toy. The legs just sat on a pair of castors, and the anthropomorphism was mostly fake. Looking at the arms its body appeared to be covered in some sort of furry padded layer, but only in ragged patches. It all suggested that Assorted Miscellany was for pre-schoolers.
Pete prodded the unit with his shoe.
"User wants cuddle?"
Well, it clearly wasn't completely dead. On the other hand, it probably wasn't safe either... Pete decided the time had come to get his toolbox. He'd board this place up and stake a claim at The Office Of Reclamation. This was more than a one man find, and he didn't think he'd forgive himself if he did a hack and slash job on it. Turning the generator back off, the room returned to darkness. He walked past The Curator.
"User Wants Cuddle?" it said as it began to follow him to the door... Its castors whined like grating metal on metal.
"Bollocks" - thought Pete... Definitely not dead. He thought of his training: the first rule was document before you fiddle. He couldn't leave it like this, that blob was going to attract looters. He put on a pair of leather gloves from his toolbox, picked the device up and laid it on its side. It was suprisingly light, possibly just aluminium and plastic.
"User Wants Cuddle!" one of its extendable limbs waved pathetically, like a tortoise trying to right itself.
Pete collected himself, left and began to put the planks in place. He tried not to hear the sound of castors spinning against air. He had some difficulty recapturing the initial joy he'd felt as he first saw all that electrical equipment. That room could still be the best find of his life, so it was almost annoying how uneasy it left him.
"User wants cuddle?"
Pete ignored it, soon enough the batteries would run back down.
It was Saturday when the burglar alarm started raging at him, sometime past midnight. Pete never awoke easily, and it had been going for five minutes before he registered the source of the noise. Groggy, he realised he'd gone to sleep in the spare room - after a few celebratory beers he hadn't wanted to wake Beth. The main bedroom was out back, apparently the alarm was going off right on the other side of the wall, next to his head.
"But, we don't have a burglar alarm?" he thought... He'd been sure the white box above the door was a fake when they moved in. Reaching over he flicked the switch on the bedside lamp, and realised something had gone radically wrong with the house's electrics. Another brownout, the New Regime had been declaring for a year that those times were in the past. This was probably the cause of the racket, no real problem.
Rising from the bed, Pete decided he couldn't take the risk. What if this was a burglar who'd cut a wire while breaking in? It was his duty to Beth to check the house out now, act like a man. He looked around him for a viable weapon. The spare bedroom never had anything useful in it, the only possibilities were the broom and the shaft from the vacuum cleaner. As he picked them up, he knew how far from ideal they were. Brandishing them in the dark he walked in his boxer-shorts to the top of the stairs. He decided to wake Beth. Someone might have to ring the police.
The lights came back on just as he was entering the bedroom.
"Hey, I'm going downstairs... The burglar alarm is going off, I need to go check it out."
She was still mostly asleep, but he felt too stupid to stop talking:
"Can you please just find your phone and wait for me?"
Beth was lying half under the covers, with her pajamas riding up her belly... She often got too hot in the night and fidgeted. She pushed her hair out of her face and turned to Pete.
"Peter, that's the tube from the vacuum cleaner, isn't it? Take off your socks, you look odd."
The debrief lasted a while, but eventually they went downstairs together... She was going to hunt for the house documents, he was going ahead to check outside...
"User Wants Cuddle?"
It was in the middle of his front garden, surrounded by damaged flowers. The left arm had come off, the body plate was covered in mud, and there was a large dent in the side of the uppermost limb (he refused to think of it as a head). The rack of LED's looked less retro-1950s cute and more sinister when they were covered in some sort of organic slime. Pete stood and stared at it, angry and baffled.
How, what... How? Pete stepped forwards.
"User wants cuddle?"
Caring less for professionalism than he had in the basement, he picked it up and started hunting for an off-switch. It must be possible to deactivate it, somehow. As he turned it over in his hands all he saw was filth and plastic. Maybe it was activated by remote control, or some sort of reed switch. When he put his hand between the lower limbs an electric shock lanced through him. His arms spasmed, and he threw the box at the gatepost. With a thud it fell on the floor in a shower of sparks.
"Uzzzer want cuddle?"
It was the thought of having to explain this to Beth that caused Pete to lose his temper... He knew he'd need to understand this machine, he knew it would be key to interpreting his site, but holding the broom handle in his palm, he just wanted the horrible thing gone. Raising it in the air he brought it down in an arc on the upper limb, smashing the speakers. With increasing malice he started stabbing the staff into the castors until they were just a mangled mass. Finishing the job he stabbed at the LEDs a few times, leaving the child's toy an inert lifeless blob. It wasn't going to bother him anymore.
Pete went back to the house - past Beth who was holding a manual in her hands and staring at the alarm controls - and grabbed his toolbox, and a plastic sheet. Wrapping the blob roughly in green plastic he sealed it up with some string, and took the blob to the cupboard beneath the stairs. He inauspiciously dumped it there, surrounded by the mop and bucket, toilet rolls and assorted domestic debris. Pete slammed the door.
He was pretending to be asleep when Beth got upstairs, and she didn't interfere as she lay beside him in the bed. She heard his breathing turn rhythmic before she managed it herself.
As he stepped out of the shower, Pete could hear Beth pottering around in the kitchen. He towelled himself off, put on his flannel gown and tried to smile as he walked into the room. It was a real smile after he entered the rich fug of the espresso pot, it was just beginning to sputter. Coffee nowadays was pretty close to dirt, but at least they could drink it with style.
Beth's eyes caught him with both an offer, and a question, and he put an arm around her waist.
"Breakfast, then explanation... I don't quite believe last night happened." He put his head in her hair, and enjoyed her presence.
Pete reached over and turned on some music. His 1930s jazz drifted out, and the world began to feel a bit more normal. Horns soared, drums rolled from left to right, a tiny whisp of a woman was singing through her nose. Beth and Pete began their morning rhythm; he got the milk and the cereal, she grabbed the bowls. It almost felt good until he remembered that there was still a blob under the stairs.
"I'll just turn on the radio. Check the trains are running."
Beth flicked the switch on the front of the stereo. The resulting sounds weren't the comforting, authoritative and imperial tones of the BBC.
"Uzer Want Cuddle?"
Beth looked into Pete's eyes, and saw fear and loss... Without thinking she responded:
"Yes, user wants a cuddle, please."
There was a clunk, a bang, and a smell of scorched wiring drifted past the closed door.
With credit to Artman2003's I hate this god damn robot for inspiration