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Chapter 9 (Part 1) - Strange Change...
Lunchtime for Alex had been absolutely delicious, he smacked his lips and let out a satisfied, "Ah", after guzzling down the last drops of his mom's homemade orange juice. Oh it was heavenly to be home with his mom all day long again. This was the best long weekend he'd ever had. Alex felt great if perhaps slightly lightheaded from all the work he had done that morning. He finally sat back on his chair in the kitchen, full and content.
"That was the best", he sighed. Hot, gooey grilled-cheese sandwiches - oh, heaven! Alex took another deep sniff of the delicious, pungent buttery smell which still lingered from the nearby oven. A crisp, fresh breeze blew in through the open kitchen window and slowly dispersed the heavy cheese aroma as Alex finally sat back up with a smile and a full stomach. Getting up from the table, he ambled the few steps to the back door and put on his boots as he prepared to go back out to his workshop. Opening the door, Alex found his mom sitting on one of the porch steps, sipping a cup of coffee and gazing out on the heavy concealment of their backyard thicket. Alex sat down beside her and belched happily. Then much to her surprise he quietly said, "Zur-Haw", or some such odd word.
"I beg your pardon", Elizabeth laughed, taken completely off guard.
"I said I feel great, mom", Alex replied with a puzzled laugh of his own.
"Oh...r-really", she said, even more bewildered, "I'd hate to hear what, (I'm pooped), sounds like." "Honestly, I don't know where you kids come up with these new words." Alex cast his mom a quizzical, side-long stare.
"Uh...ya, well...okay", he said in a slightly worried tone of voice. Mrs. Faraway gestured toward the old barn, "what are you doing in there?" she said, trying to sound calm and casual.
"I'm fixing up Big Ben - well as much as I can anyway", Alex said as he pulled a straw of wild hay from near the bottom step.
"Just be careful Alex", she said quietly and took a strong sip of her coffee.
"Sure", he said giving his mom another long, searching look.
They sat there for a short while, sharing the quiet together. Neither of them said a word, it was enough just to sit silently, watching the small birds and insects as they flitted from plant to flower to tree branch and back again. Everything was just so light and softly quiet and warm that they wished they could hold each small sight or moment much longer than what was allowed them. Once they caught a fleeting glimpse of a small toast-brown rabbit nibbling on a patch of tall grass before it vanished back under the protection of the blackberry thorns.
For whatever reason, the calmness of the thicket all around brought Alex's thoughts back again to his long-missing father. Almost in a whisper he asked, "do you think father will recognize me when he comes back, mom?" Mrs. Faraway caught her breath on hearing her son's shy and simple question. She put her free hand reassuringly around Alex's small shoulders and hugged him against her warm fleece jacket.
"Yes, definitely", she answered with an uplifting smile, "you have your father's eyes, you know son, nice deep blue eyes." "Your dad will know you from a mile up the road when he comes home, just you wait." Alex chuckled quietly at that, "How could he see so far?"
"Well, it's more the character of someone that you see at that distance, Alex and you have more than most people ever will." "Your father will know you alright." They shared the quietness of their beautiful backyard for just a little while longer, with the rays of the noonday sun warming their shoulders. At a certain point, Elizabeth thought to look down at her only child and found that he had drifted off to sleep as he snuggled against her soft, warm jacket. "Sweet dreams, little man", she whispered and she remained sitting patiently there, having not the heart to wake him yet.
Elizabeth looked on her son then and felt a pang of bitter-sweet sadness that he was growing taller and a little farther away from her with each year that passed her by. So, she held her boy and let him rest as she rocked him in her arms and stopped time for just a little while under the slowly turning sky. It was exactly as she had done so many times before and so easily too, when Alex was but a baby.
Oh, I wish, I wish things didn't have to change so much, she thought as she suddenly recalled much simpler times. A single tear blurred her eye for a moment or two and as Mrs. Faraway moved her hand to wipe it away, her only son shifted slightly and opened his eyes again. The moment had come and gone and those deep blue eyes which were so like her husband's gazed keenly toward the old barn, beyond the protection of the backyard.
"I should get back to work on Ben, I guess", Alex whispered. Elizabeth took a single deep breath and bravely tousled his thick brown head of hair.
"Yes I suppose you must, son." "I'll call you in for dinner in a little while, okay."
"Okay...thanks mom", Alex said and gave her a little kiss on the cheek before turning away.
The afternoon moved slowly by for Mrs. Faraway as she went back to her daily chores, but it seemed to fly by for Alex. There were many shelves lining each wall of his workshop with a collection of hundreds of odds and ends and spare parts that he had found in the scrapyard. Big Ben's arms were actually easier to repair than his engine had been - which was a pleasant surprise. The high-pressure hoses and fittings had sustained the most damage and so were the main components needing replacement. All that remained afterward was to tighten the hoses to prevent any leaks then top-up the hydraulic fluid.
After finishing the arms though, Alex decided that to even consider the kind of repairs old Ben's software brain required would be pointless for the time being. So it was that the evening hours after dinner found a tired but contented Alex working away on a very different machine. The machine - or rather the vehicle - was the same one that he'd been working on a few days ago, before re-discovering the big old robot, and was what Alex had decided to call a, “Gyro-Jet”.
With its twin counter-rotating propellers sitting above the pilot's seat and a single jet engine underneath, Alex hoped it would fly very fast when the time came to test it. He idly tinkered and adjusted the components of the invention that evening as the sky gradually dimmed and dusk settled upon the land. He was growing rather tired now and somewhat light-headed again for some reason; that was not surprising since the work was hard, but he’d had a very rewarding day. He and his mom were having a wonderful time together, which he still couldn't quite believe.
Alex, like most boys his age had assumed that moms, like all the other grownups around them were okay to have around, to provide them with the necessary food and clothing in order for them to be able to have as much fun as possible. He, in turn, provided his mother with as many exciting scares and "heart attacks" as he was able to each day in order to, "enrich" her life, so she wouldn't get bored. Throwing in the odd hug and, "thank you", every so often was a good idea too, and seemed to keep her happy and out of his way for the most part. But these past two days with her had been very different indeed...and…well…kind of nice.
Alex smiled to himself as he clanked and fiddled with a screwdriver in a hard to reach area, making careful adjustments to a fuel line valve. The two propellers were finally in place at the top of the sleek yet odd looking craft but other adjustments were still necessary. He didn't want the fuel-air mixture to be too rich in this machine, otherwise the fuel injectors would become clogged up and the jet engine wouldn't run hot enough. These small details were always a headache before a test-flight. That and the few other modifications to the machine's superstructure had kept Alex awake many sleepless nights as he turned mental images carefully around in his overactive mind.
Lift-Drag Ratios, proper balance points, tough, light-weight metals, etcetera...they were all there in his head. All Alex did was make mental adjustments or changes to each component to make all of them fit down into the overall machine so that it would operate as near to perfection as possible. The machine worked well in his mind, anyway. What would happen in reality, of course, was anybody's guess.
"Oh well", Alex mused to himself as a happy weariness came over him. Mom would always be there to pick up the pieces and carry him to the hospital if the test-flight didn't turn out quite as planned. He chuckled and smiled a boyish smile full of mischief. Life was pretty good, actually; and as for mom, she was alright.
In fact, Alex would need her help to finish one particular invention: his spaceship. He just wasn't big and strong enough to do the heavier work yet, and Big Ben (he looked sadly over at the burned and battered robot) he wasn't certain that the big old construction-bot would ever work again.
Perhaps, thought Alex, another boy, Terry Mackintosh, who was a few years older, and who also worked at the garage in town, could help out a little. Terry used to drop by, now and then to help Alex when he was younger, but he hadn't seen him for quite some time. No, unless Alex somehow repaired the big old robot's central brain system, finishing his spaceship - or anything else - would be very difficult.
The last time Alex had seen Ben in action, he was battling a whole army of vicious, cat-sized Flies single-handed so that Alex and Dart would have time to escape. How the big old robot ever survived the final explosion with his whole body intact, Alex would never know. But it was the delicate software within Ben's large bullet head that was the most important part of him. And that looked like the one area that had taken much of the battering when the huge Biosphere Ship erupted up out of the scrapyard. The loyal old robot must have been lucky enough that he rolled down much of the hillside before the devastating eruption occurred. Only his back end sustained the most severe damage.
"Chirp-chirp", said a familiar, happy-go-lucky voice from the threshold of the workshop's doorway. Alex looked over at the front entrance just as Legs came chugging inside to take shelter for the night and recharge his battery. His back cargo bucket rattled and clanged noisily as the tall, stick-legged robot jiggled his way into the barn.
"Hello, Legs", Alex said absently as he prepared to resume working on his flying machine.
"Chirp-chirp-doink", Legs replied. The gawky scavenger-bot stopped in his tracks and cocked his wide, flat, binocular-shaped head to one side. "Chirp-chirp-doink", he said again, rather awkwardly. Alex paused in his work and looked back at the strangely pinging robot with a puzzled expression.
"Are you okay, boy", he asked.
"Chirp-ping...chir-ping-doink", Legs said again; he was beginning to sound like a machine with the hiccups. The poor thing even swivelled his head all around to see if the noise was perhaps coming from somewhere else close-by, even outside in scrapyard. "Ping-doink-ding", he hiccupped again, nope that was him alright.
"Oh great, just great", Alex groaned as poor Legs chugged past pinging and doink-ing spasmodically all the way over to his little corner of the barn.
"Chi-ping-ping-ding-doink", the poor little robot said apologetically. His square head began to twitch with each hiccup as well as though Legs was getting a nervous twitch of some sort.
"Oh that's just great, that's just won-der-ful", the boy growled, "what else can go wrong?" Like an intoxicated, hiccupping human who couldn't put a key in a keyhole, Legs couldn't even plug himself into the power outlet beside his resting spot in the corner. (Twitch) ping (tap)...ding (tap) went the power cord awkwardly against the wooden wall. "Here let me do it", muttered Alex as he climbed down from working on the Gyro-Jet. Taking hold of one of Leg's long, wiry arms, Alex guided the cord into the wall socket. With a pneumatic sigh of relief, Legs gave one last, "ping"-(twitch), then wound himself down until all was quiet once again.
"That's all I need is another broken robot", Alex grumped as he gave the inoffensive scavenger-bot a thump with one of his boots. After a sigh of quiet frustration, Alex focused again on the troublesome jet fuel valve. Alex failed to consider though that there may have been another reason for the strange sounds Legs had been making.
After several more minutes of effective tinkering, he finally had the adjustments done. "Well, that's a relief", he sighed then, "hey - I think it's finished!" Alex cocked his head to one side as he mentally visualized how everything in the machine was supposed to fit and work together. Yes, yes and yes. "Well I'll be darned", he said with another chuckle and bright smile. Things were looking up again.
With a final tired yet happy sigh, Alex tossed the screwdriver down into the nearby toolbox and stepped back to gaze with tired satisfaction at the unusual looking vehicle. As he walked slowly around the entire craft, Alex ran his hand slowly along its single jet engine, twin-propellers and sturdy chassis, not so much to check for mistakes as just to admire the beauty and balance of it all. Slowly, a satisfied smile lit the boy's ruddy, grease-streaked face. A job well done!
"Finished", he whispered with a last sigh of satisfaction. His newest invention, the Gyro-Jet, was ready for a test-flight!
"Maybe tomorrow…", he said tiredly. Time to call it a day for now though. Without warning, the Gyro-Jet suddenly blurred before Alex's eyes and he rubbed them vigorously until it came back into focus. As Alex came full circle around the swift looking little invention, he again saw old, rusty Big Ben, resting silently at the back of the barn. His smaller companion, Legs occupied his usual place, between Ben and the right side wall where he was plugged in to the electrical outlet.
"I'm pooped, Ben", he said with a smile at the quiet husk of a robot staring dumbly off to one side like a giant soot-stained statue. "I think I'll clean you off though, boy, just to make you look good for the morning". He took an old rag off the workbench and walked over to where the huge robot stood. He stumbled slightly and steadied himself against one of Ben's large tires then as another wave of dizziness suddenly washed over him.
Big Ben sat leaning slightly backward and tilted crookedly to one side where his one rear tire had been blown away. White and black soot and scars from Shock-Bolt Gun hits told the silent tale of the awful punishment the tough old robot had taken while fighting the hundreds of swarming Martian Flies.
Alex leaned the ladder against the old construction-bot then carefully climbed the rungs until he came up level with Ben's curved, cone-shaped metal face. Since he was built to lead a simple and rugged life, Ben only possessed a narrow, rectangular visor slit which ran from side-to-side across the front of his round bullet-head.
The robot's sensitive eye was protected by a thick Plexiglas lens and consisted of several visual sensors for seeing the infra-red heat spectrum, the normal human visual wavelength, and even up into the shorter X-ray wavelengths. This sophisticated and broad visual array was very useful for Ben when he worked alongside the smaller humans at a construction site. Not only that, his much taller stance and wider angle of vision also enabled Ben to see farther and over a broader area than his human counter-parts could, for added safety. That, paired with his broad visual spectrum, allowed him to see through walls before he demolished them and even to see the body-heat figures of his co-workers in dimly lit environments.
But now, of course, the giant’s eye-slit was dark and dead to Alex as he leaned in closer to peer hopefully through the thick lens strip.
"Ben?" he whispered. Was there a flicker of some faint reply, a recognition that he saw in there; or was it merely the reflection of the red setting sun, glancing off the lens as it shone through a small window and on the giant's face?
There was no reply though and Alex shook his head sadly.
Grabbing hold of a curved iron bar that was riveted securely to the giant's chest-plating, Alex began wiping and scrubbing with his free hand to begin the long cleanup job. Big Ben remained staring blankly and un-moving like a metal colossus when compared to the thin and gangley boy who had to scale a tall ladder just to be eye-to-eye with him.
"I sure hope I can fix you, Ben, 'cause I'll really need your help if I'm ever going to finish my ship", said Alex as he worked and scrubbed away at the grimy coating of soot. Whether the old construction-bot had any spark left in him was quite immaterial to Alex, actually. What was more important to him was that his old, slow, reliable companion had survived in some small measure and was still there, physically, to touch and care for. Even if he never came to life again, Alex could never think of tossing the old robot aside as though it was just an obsolete and rusted relic. If only there was just a single, simple solution though; some hidden switch or one circuit-board that could be replaced... Alex pondered those matters as much as he could as he wiped clean Big Ben's smooth and simple curved face.
"There, that's a bit better anyway, boy", he whispered encouragingly to the silent old robot. Abruptly, Alex clutched the curved safety handrail tighter as a stronger dizzy spell hit him without warning. At the same moment, his Luss, tucked away in the back pocket of his coveralls began to feel warm and active. Alex steadied himself for a few more moments as the dizziness continued to wash over him. Instead of diminishing as it had before though, it grew worse; a static crackling sound filled his ears and his eye-sight was reduced to a grainy black and white electric image of Big Ben's face in front of him. Breathing became more difficult as well and Alex bowed his head and started choking frantically for air. It didn't seem to be thin enough, as though he was trying to breathe invisible gel into lungs that weren't allowing it in. His grip weakened and loosened on the handrail and Alex felt his legs giving way beneath him. I'm going to fall, he thought, panic-stricken, and he tried to start climbing down to the floor far below. It was already too late though but, at that very moment, from below his feet, Alex heard, as though from a distance, a familiar chugging and metallic tapping sound.
His heart pounding against his chest, Alex lost hold of the ladder and fell backward into mid-air. His bulging eyes stared up at the single dangling light bulb which lit the work area with its blinding white light. In that instant, Alex's Luss sang out with a single, clear, haunting note and then everything in his world slowed down; his vision narrowed to no more than a pinhole.
Just before blacking out, Alex felt something hard and cold hit him in the back, knocking out what little air was left in him. His head snapped back and the boy felt his limp body being lowered slowly, gently. I'm dying, was his last wistful thought as chilling numbness completely enveloped him. Black stillness came to Alex and was then his only world.
Down, down the silent well of deep sleep the boy fell, knowing nothing else. Remarkably, he did not fall, nor did he die, even though he lay just as still when he was lowered to the floor. The minutes passed slowly by where not a single breath was taken and the cold hand of death crawled close to the boy's chest. His lips were blue and a dark pallor crept over his face. Death raised a single finger to touch his heart but, at that final moment, his chest slowly rose and took breath again. Color slowly returned to his face and Alex lay on the cold cement of the barn, sleeping quietly and very deeply.
The night was so silent then that the distant, faint sound of hard shoes scuffing against loose road gravel could be plainly heard.
Down the dark gravel road leading toward the lone, quiet house, as though in answer to this new emergency, came a doctor. Anyone observing from afar would, of course assume him to be as such because of his long, white hospital coat, even though it was now very soiled and grubby looking.
Doctor Kirstt remained such a very happy looking man though, even in the dead of night. Carrying his very heavy, dripping briefcase...
Next: Chapter 9 (Part 2) - ...and a Weird Doctor
Even as the ghoulish doctor Kirstt shambles towards his home that night, Alex slumbers in a dreamworld and is, indeed, very faraway; but he is not alone. A door is about to open, just a little, and across it, a new threshold awaits.
As of 2017-12-06, Chapter 9 (Part 1) is at: Deepskystories.com