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Wednesday, 08 June 2022 08:29

Bodhi Baker and the Battlebots by Christopher Scott

I can feel Colonel Baker’s unforgiving gaze over my shoulder. I have worked for the man for six months now, and lived with him longer, but his intensity still jacks my heart rate. I need to pee.

Some kind of bug stopped his precious battlebots dead in their tracks this morning, and he expects me to fix it.

“Are they going to work, Kit?” the Colonel demands. “Bodhi tells me you are the best robot guy around. Won the state contest or some shit like that. A ‘badass’ was his exact description, I think.”

Bodhi is the colonel’s son and a senior at Branson Academy like me. He had the foulest mouth of anyone I knew. Until I met his dad that is. Ironic, since nothing lathers up the colonel faster than Bodhi letting an f-bomb slip at the dinner table.

“I think so, Colonel,” I say.

“You best know so, son” he says. “Showtime is in four hours, and without the battlebots, there ain’t no show.” The colonel turns and stalks off.

That’s “foster” son, Colonel.

From another room, I hear “Rockin’ Robin” for the millionth time.

“Tweedle-lee-dee-dee-dee, tweedle-lee-dee-dee…”

The colonel, as he reminds Bodhi, and everyone else, whenever possible, paid more than a million dollars to gen-edit his son en-vitro to meet his exacting standards, a laser focus being most important. Bodhi has been practicing his performance of the hundred-year-old song for weeks. I know the song and dance so well, I sometimes catch myself singing and dancing.

Then, I see it. A bad set of self-modifying routines in a rarely used portion of the battlebots learning algorithms is what bricked them. Makes sense. We are hardly using them for their intended purpose. There are bound to be other unforeseen edge cases in the battlebot software. Hopefully, none will trigger during the show. We’d need another six months to test the code completely.

I fix the glitch, recompile that portion of the code, and push it to the bots. Then I head to the prop room to reboot them.

“Tweet, tweet!”

Bodhi finishes his song and meets me there. Both of us stand for a moment in silence as we examine the hulking killing machines in front of us. There’s nothing new to see, they’re the same battlebots I’ve been tinkering with for months, but it’s hard not to freeze in their presence. Maybe Colonel Baker gets his intensity from the bots. They jack my heart rate the same way. I almost pee.

Each bot is three meters tall, weighs two hundred kilos, and packs enough weaponry to level a shopping mall. These are older, previously deployed, units, so they’ve lost their shiny newness to the scars and stains of combat.

“These things are scary,” I say.

The battlebots are a compromise. Fully autonomous robot soldiers can’t yet handle the complexity of decision-making requirements of combat and remote-controlled robot soldiers drive their operators to mental breakdowns. The solution is to send three semi-autonomous battlebots into combat synced to the movements and commands of a single human leader.

“Are they scarier than the Colonel?” asks Bodhi.

I can smell his gen-edited designer sweat next to me, the result of his non-stop “Rockin’ Robin” practice. Smells like cologne.

When social services first dropped me off with the Bakers, I was determined to hate Bodhi on principal. I had no doubt that a spoiled gen-edit would be an asshole, but Bodhi proved me wrong. Sure, he had the surface mods gen-edits were famous for. Natural six-pack abs and the metabolism to keep them forever. Skin that changes tone to best match his clothes. But gen-edits get deeper mods too. Bodhi has a quiet confidence and a deep compassion for those around him.

The first of the inert robots springs to life and starts its boot diagnostics. I jump, and do pee a little this time. The motors of the bot’s joints whir for the first few seconds but then go eerily silent. A noisy soldier is a dead soldier, even if it’s a giant ceramic and metal killing machine.

“Way scarier than the colonel” I say.

The other two battlebots, when they finish booting, join the first and start preparing themselves for active duty.

“You better go change your pants before the colonel gets back,” Bodhi says.

 I look down and see the stain on the front of my jeans. My ears burn, but when I look back at Bodhi, there is no judgment. Considering he was potty-trained at eighteen months and nighttime accidents had been gen-edited out of him all together, his gentle understanding of my situation is all the more remarkable.

On my way to the restroom, I grab my backpack where I always keep fresh underwear and a pair of sweats. While I’m standing at the urinal and emptying my nervous bladder the rest of the way, I hear Bodhi singing familiar words…again.

“He rocks in the tree tops all day long…Hoppin' and a-boppin' and a-singing his song…”

“Looking good, son,” the colonel says. I guess he’s back. His growl is as close as it gets to encouraging. “I see Kit got the battlebots running again.”

“The wise old owl, the big black crow…Flappin' their wings singing…”

The singing cuts abruptly and a loud crash follows. “Goddam…son of a…mother f—”

“Bodhi Baker, watch your damn mouth!” the colonel roars.

“Dad, it fu— it really hurts!”

Dad? I’ve been with the Bakers for close to two years. Bodhi only ever calls him Colonel. It must be bad. I hurry to change into my sweats and then run back to the prop room. There, Bodhi is writhing on the floor, and the colonel is kneeling and examining his ankle.

Bodhi looks up and sees me in the doorway. Behind the two of them, the battlebots are going through a series of movements to complete their diagnostics. “The mother fu— I mean ‘the bot’ tripped me!” Bodhi says through gritted teeth.

“I don’t see anything wrong, Bodhi,” the Colonel says.

“There is!”

The Colonel stands back up and thunders, “Stand up, young man, you’re performing in a few hours.”

“I can’t,” Bodhi whimpers and remains sitting.

“Do you know what it took to secure your backup dancers for this show?”

“I’m sorry, Dad, I can’t.”

The Colonel assaults his son with his verbal flamethrower, the likes of which I’ve never heard before, and that’s saying something. Bodhi flinches under the onslaught but does not give the Colonel the satisfaction of even a single tear. As he cowers, I think of all he’s done for me. How one day, when I needed a change of pants at school and didn’t have one, he gave me his, changed into his baseball uniform, and claimed he did it to show school spirit. Soon the rest of the team did it too, and no one even noticed I went home in different clothes than I arrived in.

“I can do it!” I hear myself say. The colonel stops mid-tirade. Bodhi blinks, and then a mischievous smile spreads across his face.

“Yeah, Colonel, Kit can do it,” his says.

“Kit?” the Colonel says like he’s confused. “He’s so…timid,” he mutters to himself. “Are you sure, Bodhi? The senior talent show is your dream.”

His dream or yours?

“Oh, I think I’m OK with it,” Bodhi says and seems sincere.

“Can you do it?” the Colonel asks, turning to me. His eyes bore into mine. Just then, the last battlebot finishes its diagnostic and the three of them sync to each other and snap to attention. When their massive feet slam the floor in unison, the entire theater shakes around us.

“Yes, Colonel, I can,” I say.

Maybe?

Despite the Colonel, the battlebots’ buggy code, and the prospect of performing last minute in front of hundreds of people, I don’t need to pee at all.

#

I’m dressed head-to-toe in the signature gray feathers and orange fluff of a robin, and I’m standing just off stage. My earlier courage proved short-lived, and I need to pee again.

“And now, for the final act of tonight’s show, it’s time for Bodhi Baker and the Battlebots,” the emcee announces. I see Bodhi shuffle toward the microphone on the too small crutches we scrounged from the prop room. After some brief whispering, the emcee uncovers the mike and announces, “Filling in for Bodhi will be his foster brother, Kit.”

Before I know it, everything starts. Tweedle-lee-dee-dee-dees fill the room. On cue, I dance onto the stage in my ridiculous costume and sing my heart out while shaking my “tail feathers”

“He rocks in the tree tops all day long…Hoppin' and a-boppin' and a-singing his song…”

The audience titters, and I feel like a fool, but that’s part of the act. I keep singing and dancing like an idiot. I finish the first verse that way.

“‘Cause we're really gonna rock tonight.”

When the next flurry of tweets and tweedle-lee-dees starts, it comes not from the theater speakers, but rather from the three battlebots strutting majestically onto the stage like a miniature chorus line. The spectators’ laughter turns to gasps as they succumb to the shock and awe.

When I next hit the refrain, the battlebots spin and then hoist me over their heads.

“He rocks in the tree tops all day long…”

And then they start tossing me between them while I sing. We could only make the last-minute switch from Bodhi to me because they were battlebots. Easily adjustable algorithms to account for the possibility of a fallen “squad leader.” A necessary feature in combat.

“They started going steady and bless my soul…He out-bopped the Buzzard and the Oriole”

Throughout the final chorus and barrage of tweet-tweets, the battlebots begin leaping and shaking their hips until the final line when they arrange their massive hands into stairsteps that I dance and twirl on for the remainder of my performance.

“‘Cause we're really gonna rock tonight.”

When the battlebots let out the final, “tweet, tweet,” the crowd explodes to their feet in applause, and only then do I finally notice, in the front row, the colonel. I barely recognize him. He’s smiling.

#

The crowd swarms me when I step out the side door of the auditorium and hoist my first-place trophy high. Bodhi and his baseball friends encircle me and take turns patting my back and giving me high-fives. The Colonel stands off to the side amongst his own crowd of congratulatory parents.

“That’s my boy,” I hear him say.

Not the condescending ‘son,’ but the proud, ‘my boy.’”

“Come on,” Bodhi urges. “Let’s get out of here and celebrate.”

“OK,” I say.

“Colonel,” Bodhi yells, “I’m going to take Kit for ice cream.”

The colonel absently waves us away, much more interested in the adulation of his peers than what the two of us might be doing.

“Oh, I forgot my backpack,” I say.

We head back through the nearly empty backstage area to the prop room where I left it. When we get there, Bodhi takes his crutches and tosses them back where we found them, turns, and walks effortlessly on his “injured” foot.

“What?” I say, and my mouth hangs open.

“You’d never have done it on your own.”

“You mean you planned this from the start?

Bodhi just starts to sing.

“…bless my soul…I outfoxed my brother and the ol’ Colonel…”

I join him, and then I end it with my own twist.

“…I really, really rocked tonight.”

Then at the very end we yell at the top of our lungs, “Tweet, Tweet!

Additional Info

AUTHOR BIO: Christopher Scott is currently a data visualization specialist living in Arizona. He grew up in the hills north of Los Angeles, carries a small piece of Southern California in his heart wherever life takes him, and plans to return one day. Christopher’s calling to imagine other worlds, alternate realities, and the characters that live there has expressed itself in many forms. Daydreaming, RPG & board games, and writing.

Of course, not everything is imaginary. Christopher shares his life with his wife, his three kids, and an ever-shifting menagerie of pets.

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