On an Earth that has become an inhospitable wilderness, Toby and her friend Thaddeus find themselves lost in "the empty" with Orvis, an obsolete robot who is their only hope of protection and escape.
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On a gray afternoon in April Toby West sat crying in a thicket. She hadn't intended to cry; the sobs just sneaked up on her as she ran. Embarrassed by this weakness, she knew that if anyone saw her and asked what was wrong, she would cry harder and humiliate herself completely. Not answering would be too dramatic. She hated dramatics and so had chosen to hide.
It was cold just sitting. The dampness of the rotting log was seeping through the seat of her pants. The backs of her legs were being poked by a stiff yellow fungus that grew in fanlike steps up the dead bark.
"This is stupid," she told herself sternly and sat erect. She hadn't cried all the other times. Crying wouldn't help now. If her grandmother Lillian said she had to change schools, she had to change schools. Lillian was The Boss and her word was law to Toby's parents. So Toby would say good-bye to everyone and move again. She was so tired of saying good-bye.
When not crying. Toby was a good-looking child. Her dark hair went nicely with her tan skin. She had an acceptable nose and a determined chin. Her ears had once stuck out too far but her grandmother had had that corrected shortly after her birth. Sometimes her expression made adults uneasy; they suspected she understood too much for her age, which was twelve. But all adults agreed that her eyes were her best feature--large, dark, and fringed by long curly black lashes. Crying made her eyes puffy.
More tears welled up and spilled over. With an already damp wad of tissue she mopped her face and blew her nose, determined to regain self-control. Just as she sniffed she heard a strange sound. She held her breath to listen and absent-mindedly pocketed the tissue wad.
CRee-ECH. CRee-ECH-clack! CRee-ECH.
The noise was metallic, rhythmic, and coming closer. Probably some of the ground crew cleaning up dead branches. They might see her and wonder what she was doing out here, alone. She got up, brushed off the seat of her pants, and looked around. No workmen were in sight.
At the top of the long slope the walls and the white buildings of the Academy were visible through the trees. There was cheering in the distance; the Saturday afternoon game was in progress. Two boys were running on the track that encircled the parklike campus. When they had rounded the bend and their backs were to her, she pushed her way out of the thicket. Down the hill, to the left, something was moving. She pulled aside a laurel branch for a better view.
A lone robot came walking down the road. It had six legs like an insect and no faceplate but only a turret like half a ball where an insect's head would be. The half ball was studded with lenses and bristled with sensor wires. With every third step a leg screeched. It was limping, Toby thought. Halfway up the hill it stopped.
She had never seen so old a robot. Even in pictures all but the most ancient had wheels or airfloats, and the biometal arms were at least sheathed. Modern rover units resembled sleek shopvacs; some of the luxury servo-models were almost human in appearance, but she could not guess what this robot had been designed to do. It looked...utilitarian was the word that came to mind.
She had never liked robots--they made her ill at ease--but this one was somehow appealing. It looked like what it was, a machine. In her experience that sort of simple honesty was rare in both things and people. She ran down the hill for a closer view, dodging bushes and briars, and settled on her haunches to study the thing.
Up close it looked even older, less buglike but still awesome. The body had been painted brown. The paint was worn and chipped. Patches of yellow, silver, and dirty orange showed through dents and scratches. Any flat space on its back was covered with ring marks as if people had set wet cans and glasses there. The body was lumpy with housings, oblongs, domes, and protruding rod. There had once been hair-thin sensor wires around each foot; only a few remained intact, the rest broken off to stubby whiskers. The left rear leg was bent, two other legs didn't match in color, and the right middle foot had lost two toes. There was no manufacturer's nameplate on the unit and no Owner's license. A permit was taped to the middle but Toby Couldn't read the small print.
The robot stood completely still. She couldn't hear so much as a hum. Maybe it was broken? Or dead? Did robots die? Maybe it was so old it had worn out right here? Not that traffic would be bothered. No one used the road much anymore.
Intended as a bikeway, the road meandered over what had once been scenic countryside buy was now hilly woodland dotted with open spaces around the ruins of empty towns. From the air at night the light of Hillandale Academy were the only sign of human habitation for miles.
Made bold by the robot's silence, Toby stood up and went closer. The permit on its side was for temporary travel, allowing the machine ten days to walk from one place to another. Both "To" and "From" were given as numbers. The permit had expired three days before, which meant the robot was breaking a law by being here.
"Where is it going?" she wondered aloud, slowly circling the machine. "How did it get lost?"
"I am not lost." The words were distinct, coming from a meshed speaker on its side.
"What a funny voice," she said, wondering if she should be afraid. Every robot she'd ever heard spoke in mellow human tones and was inhumanly polite. This one spoke as she thought a machine should--in a brisk monotone.
"Have I made rude personal remarks about you?" said the robot. "Have I objected to being stared at and examined like a thing? Have I speculated aloud on your competence to judge me? Have I asked why your eyes are red, swollen, and unattractive?"
"No, but..." Robots weren't supposed to notice things like that, let alone question humans about them.
"I speak as I do because I am a robot," the machine went on, "not an amusing adult toy. A robot. A highly sophisticated tool of human manufacture. Humans smile to avert threat. Robots threaten humans but robots cannot smile. To reassure humans, robots are now programmed to communicate in tones which humans associate with gentleness and caring. My design suits my function."
Toby frowned. She'd never thought one way or the other about why robots spoke as they did. What this one said made sense; people were afraid of robots, especially if they suspected the robot was smarter than they were. Almost all robots were stronger. People said robots could do only what they were programmed to do--but no one she knew really believed that. Everyone had heard of robots who had hurt or killed people--not always by accident. This robot was big enough to be quite dangerous.
"That's very interesting," she said politely. "I didn't mean to insult you. I thought you'd broken down. Or were lost. Not much traffic comes this way. What are you doing here?"
The robot took so long to answer that she had decided it wasn't going to when at last it said, "Delaying the inevitable."
"What does that mean?"
"You are not required to understand. You are a random chance."
Vaguely insulted but curious, she persisted. "Where are you going?"
"None of your business."
"Why? Is it a secret?" she'd noticed that just before it spoke, a green light blinked beneath the speaker on its side.
This time the robot did not answer. Instead, its metal feet scraped for traction against the crumbling pavement and it walked forward. Watching how it moved fascinated her; three feet always touched the ground so that the body was supported at all times by a firm tripod--or would have been, had that middle foot been intact. AS it was, the robot lurched a little with every other step. After climbing a few yards it stopped again. She was going to ask if it wanted a push but hesitated; she didn't feel like hearing another lecture.
A song sparrow lit on the turret and immediately flew off again. The turret moved as the camera eyes watched the bird fly first to a blueberry bush and then to the branch of a young maple tree just coming into leaf. Then the bird paused to sing a brief sweet song before flitting off again into the pine thicket. With a distinct sigh the robot moved on.
She'd never heard a robot sigh. How odd, she thought, and followed, but at a respectful distance.
At the top of the grade where the road was almost a tunnel through the encroaching trees the robot stopped again. Its turret rotated an inch to the right. "Do you intend to harm me?" it said.
"Why are you following me?"
"I'm not," she lied. "I'm going to the dump."
"The Corona Landfill?"
"Yes." That name sounded vaguely familiar. "The people here call it The Dump."
"Is your design obsolete?"
"Is you design obsolete?"
Understanding dawned. "Is yours?"
"I was judged obsolete and of use to no one."
"Who said so?"
"The probate court."
She didn't know what a probate court was, but didn't want to appear ignorant just as she might learn something. "What were you designed to be? To do?"
"I am a multi-purpose unit. I can even do windows."
"Oh." The ancient humor escaped her. "How old are you?"
At the front of the body yellow, green, and mauve lights began to blink slowly while in the middle a row of blue dots went on and off before the green slit beneath its speaker flashed on. "I do not know. Some of my processors are antique. My subsystems were replaced completely. My relational data base has been modified repeatedly as have the sequential and logical inference bases. My time and distance meters were repeatedly reset. I have been sold five times and have out-performed three of my owners."
"Their units ceased to function."
"Is that what happened to your last owner?"
"Yes." The robot began to move again.
"Why didn't anybody want you?"
"The consensus of three used-robot-android dealers was that my age and appearance would make my resale in today's market improbable if not impossible. One dealer said I would scare away customers if I sat on his lot. My component parts are incompatible with any modern system; therefore, I have no salvage value. No one was interested in hauling me away for scrap."
"I'm so sorry," she said and meant it, and then felt silly at having expressed sympathy to a thing with no feelings. "So they programmed you to walk here to the dump?"
"I was ordered to walk here. Yes."
"Why this dump? Why not one close to wherever it is you came from?"
Before she could ask where that was the robot had stopped again, two of its feet off the ground. Perhaps it was her imagination, but it seemed to her that the machine was exasperated.
"Because I am potentially dangerous. If I am now obsolete and unwanted, I was once and remain a high-quality unit, built to last. The same quality that went into my construction also went into my fuel cell, which barring damage to the housing, will function as long as I can obtain water for it and without water will retain a half-life for a further twenty-five thousand years. If my component parts were as energy-efficient as my fuel cell, I would be immortal. I was ordered to proceed to this dump, as you so inelegantly can it, because this area is isolated. Disuse of the area assures relative safety from ignorant human scavengers who might be harmed should they attempt to dismantle me in my soon-to-be dormant state. Does that answer all your questions?"
"No. Do you have to do what you're told?"
A red bar and then a rainbow of lights blinked on as it considered this question. "I was given no alternative. Logic suggested that unwanted machines are scrap. I am unwanted."
"But you don't want to be scrap, do you? Otherwise you wouldn't be three days late getting here."
Again she though she heard a sigh. "Robots are machines," it said. "Robots have no wants, no feelings. I am an old and slow machine."
She thought this over. "Do you breathe?"
"Then how can you sigh?"
"I do not sigh."
"You do. I heard you. Like this." She imitated the sound.
"That resembles a noise made by a previous owner when he wished to indicate a sense of minor stress or anxiety. I may mimic his sound, due to a faulty memory."
She didn't believe that but didn't want to argue. They walked on in silence, side by side, an odd pair. She was just tall enough to see across the robot's back. In her neat school uniform of dark blue with gold cuffs and collar and her regulation haircut that left only short black curls, she made the robot appear even shabbier by comparison.
If its fuel cell lasted 25,000 years, would its mind? If so, what would it do, what could it think about, sitting in a dump for 25,000 years? She couldn't even imagine that long a time. Could it shut off its mind? Was that what it meant by "dormant state"? She watched it limp along and hoped, for its own sake, that it wasn't too smart. It would get so lonely.
A red fox, made curious by the screeching sound the robot made, stepped out of the underbrush and stared, then turned tail and ran. A chipmunk sat beside a hole in a log and chirped indignantly before diving out of sight. She laughed at its quickness and its rage. No animals were allowed in the habitats; until she came to school here she'd never seen a wild one.
At the top of the rise the road crossed the route of the freight track that had once carried long trains of urban debris to the landfill. When the robot stopped here Today said, "You turn left and go down--"
"My navigation system still functions. Do you mind if I attempt to savor my last few moments on the road?
"No. But I thought;"
"You did not think. You assumed."
"You sure are grumpy for a robot!" she said and left it, walking on down the sandy track along. Since she'd said she was going to the dump she would have to go.
Some of the squat Y-shaped concrete pylons that had held up the monorail still stood. She liked the look of the pylons against the forest background, as if they were a sculpture called "The Repeated Question" that marched down the slope and into the landfill.
Where once there had been a valley between two mountains there was now a wide and lumpy meadow. Part of one mountain had been blasted and bulldozed for soil cover. In the decades since the landfill closed, wind and weather had altered the once-smoothed surface. Fires started by lightning or spontaneous combustion smoldered and smoked by until their fuel was exhausted or a downpour put them out. Where these burned spots collapsed were sinkholes, some deep enough to hold water through the driest summer. Animals drank from some of the pools and avoided others.
Scattered pines and hardwoods grew here but there were some exotic trees, born of garbage. A twisted fig survived because of the nearby ground fire that warmed its roots through the winters. A coffee tree and two orange trees bloomed each spring but never bore fruit as did the wild cherry, peach, and apple trees.
The landfill was off-limits to the students, the area judged dangerous. But the high chain-link fence that once surrounded the land long since collapsed. Some of the students came here regularly, largely because it was for-bidden.
Toby came because she liked the dump. There was always something new to see here. Odd things lay scattered about, waiting to be picked up and puzzled over. The place was full of birds, attracted by the openness, weed seeds, and berry bushes. Deer wandered through the area. Where the Academy dumped its garbage, to be graded and burned periodically, possums, raccoons, and skunks, foraged. In the fall porcupines came to eat the wild apples.
She glanced back. The robot was still standing where she'd left it. It seemed to have grown shorter, settled lower on it...
Grade 5-8 Twelve-year-old Toby and her precocious friend Thaddeus attend school on a future Earth that is sparsely inhabited and largely reverting to wilderness, while the families that have dumped them there pursue their own self-centered concerns among the space colonies. While struggling to maintain control of her own future, Toby becomes involved with an obsolete robot, Orvis, destined for the junkyard. An act of bold rebellion results in her being lost with Thaddeus in ``the empty,'' a wilderness area filled with dangerous animals and human renegades, where Orvis is their only hope of survival. The open ended conclusion may disappoint some readers because Toby's determination to fight harder for her rights is neither witnessed by readers nor solidly confirmed. However this is still a fine science fiction novel with an appealing heroine, a strong plot tied to an exploration of future technologies and their impact on humanity, and the probing of such pertinent questions as the function of purpose in meaningful existence. One of the book's charms is the way in which the human and mechanical characters gradually affect each other's way of thinking, resulting in growth for both. Orvis is a successful depiction of an artificial intelligence that is humorous, likable, and believable. Lyle Blake Smythers, Lib . of Congress, Washington, D.C.
Copyright 1987 Reed Business Information, Inc.
"About this title" may belong to another edition of this title.
Book Description Penguin Young Readers Group. Paperback. Book Condition: Fair. Ex-Library Book - will contain Library Markings. Bookseller Inventory # G0140321136I5N10
Book Description Puffin, 1990. Paperback. Book Condition: Used: Good. Bookseller Inventory # SONG0140321136