The Red Thing is one of the strangest stories I have ever written. Not in that its content is all that bizarre—per say—but in its very differentness from my typical style. Nevertheless, after trying four times with four completely different ideas, I am content, if not happy, with it. I hope you enjoy, and I hope that I get the opportunity to write about Avi and her world again.
This is the first story published from out current challenge, "The Secret Life of a Brave Girl Whose Best Friend is a Bird," and trust me when I say that, out of the stories submitted mine is by far the most disappointing. We have plenty of time to submit more, so if you have any ideas and you would like to send us something, do not hesitate! The next story should be up within the next couple days.
The Red Thing
There were two guns pointing at Avi from the front, and nine hundred and seventeen tiles pointing at her from below. Seven flies were ticking like second-hands against three plastic, flickering tube lights, but they weren’t pointed at much of anything.
Three small, robotic eyes stared at her from the sides of the helmets that faced her, and her own small robotic eye stared back. She could feel the hum of electricity in those wires, and buzzing in the back of her own head, and in the walls.
“Identification and function, now,” demanded one of the two men with the guns. The third man—she counted him separately—was blinking at her, behind the desk; the other small eye did not blink. It zoomed in, to read her badge.
Something clicked in her throat so that she could speak. “AVI Unit 197,” she said with a voice that sounded not unlike an old typewriter, in the way that it projected every word, hammered it out, as though beating the very letters.
The man behind the desk read the information the little eye gave him, through the glass window of his helmet. He grunted. “You belong in Radiation control. Ward Seventeen. What are you doing here?”
Her response was clear as possible. “Avionics reports indicate a radioactive anomaly. Function suggests investigation necessary.”
With a frown behind his glass, the man at the desk narrowed his eyes. “I didn’t see any report of radioactivity. Located where?”
“Sector 742,” she pounded.
He scowled, and looked at his suddenly blank screen. He scowled more. The lights flickered completely off. The two men with the guns nearly fired in the sudden darkness, and Avi sensed it. Their heart-rates were increasing steadily in her senses. Dim red lights clicked on, whirling and screeching, which did little to slow their breathing. In fifteen seconds, the lights would come back on. Avi knew that.
It was it was her job to know it. To count things. Only she never really counted them; she just knew them. In the same way that she knew the humidity of the air to be seventy-nine percent, the temperature to be eighty-three degrees Fahrenheit.
She was programmed to know this. Because that is what her eyes told her, and what the speeding words in her head confirmed. Even when she dedicated her attention to studying the men in front of her, her focus was split. Subroutines. Parts of her were counting the ceiling tiles, tracking how the flies had gotten in and the fastest way for them to get out, wondering at how erratically and purposelessly they moved in the dark.
“What happened?” Barked one of the men. He was moving towards her. “What did you do, you clanker?”
He came right up to her and jabbed her in the chest with his gun, in the black-and-yellow badge. The gun hurt; it always hurt, when the guards did that, and they always seemed to put the blow in the same place, as though somehow striking the ID badge would fix what they imagined to be a misbehaving subroutine. But this was a different kind of blow. The man seemed really, properly afraid. He was not just scolding her.
The other man with the gun was on the other side of her, with his gun against the side of her head, the muzzle digging into her buzzed scalp. “I bet you nearly got away with it, trying to escape out there,” he snapped. “Probably feeling mighty good about yourself, aren’t you?”
She looked up at him with something akin to confusion, straight down the barrel of his gun. “It is not my function to feel,” she stated. Sixteen seconds had gone by. The red lights went off, the white lights came back on. They were a second late.
“Just EMP testing in Ward Fourteen,” said the man behind the desk, with relative relief and agitation both. “Get your guns off her.”
“What do we do with her?” One man asked.
The man behind the desk shook his head, reading. “Report’s come through. She’s telling the truth.” He rose from his seat, walked to the panel on the far end of the wall and opened it. When he hesitated to press the numbers, Avi chimed out loud.
“The activation code for Door 3, Sector 9, is 37561205.”
He looked back at her with a strange smile, and nodded. “Yes it is. Thank you.”
“You are welcome,” she replied. The door at the end of the room finally opened. Bolts, bigger around than her arm, were pulled into the wall; mechanics frizzled and wires spat. The door opened, and she stepped out into a blinding world of green and white, and the heat of the sun through glass.
The tunnel was long, gently sloped, and should have been full of clean, indoor air. But ventilation systems were down. By the time she escaped the tunnel, sweat was in her eyes, as she had no eyebrows to catch it. She enjoyed the function of eyebrows; she liked to watch them on other people. The function of hair was harder to grasp.
Here, in the silent world of trees, she let her toes grope at the ground, and forbade the subroutines from counting leaves; there were too many, and this was not her Function.
Here, alone, she reached up in a very ill-practiced motion, and followed the cord that linked the camera—bracketed to the side of her head—to the metal socket in the back of her skull. There were dozens of similar sockets, but this was the only one used on that day. As she touched the plug, words shot across her eyes.
Warning. Do not remove. AVI Unit 197. Removing External Hard-Drive is against programming and can result in severe damage to Unit Visual Receptors.
This was not a lie; but it was not entirely true. She was advanced enough to know this. She pulled the plug, and the robotic eye blinked and did not reopen. She could blame the terminated transmission on radioactive interference later. No one would question her.
It took twelve seconds for the first glimmer of movement to catch her eye, and for that very strange thing to happen to her mouth. To describe that change, was rather like the affect made by two hooks, digging into the skin of her face, and pulling her mouth wider. It was a smile. But on a face as plastic and inflexible as Avi’s, it was no small change. And it certainly was not her mouth’s function.
The bird, that had caught her attention, dropped down onto the branch right above her, and met her pale eyes with its very dark, shiny ones. It was red, for the most part—so said the wavelengths she translated—and it was so very loud that it nearly hurt Avi’s ears. She liked it, even if she couldn’t understand it. Even if not a single computer in the entire Control Center had any knowledge of this red thing that could fly.
She pointed at it fiercely. “Identification and function, now,” she demanded.
It chirped, hopped to another branch, and stared at her. That strange thing happened to her mouth again, and she felt her skin wrinkle. She wondered if it might tear, but it didn’t. “Identification,” she said, “Red.” It whistled at her again. “Function,” she said, and pointed. It chirped and fluttered. “Function!” Avi barked. It chirped even louder, and something very strange happened to Avi, then.
The pull on her mouth crawled down into her, and a very strange noise came out that was not issued by any typewriter, and sounded so bizarre that she couldn’t decide whether it was her voice or not. It was a foreign sound; a burbling one. Like water in a broken pipe. Like the sound she sometimes heard from certain of the guards.
It was a sound that, to her knowledge, had no function. And therefore it was very unusual to hear it from her own mouth. It was, though much less graceful and ill-practiced, very much like the song from the Red thing.
“Function,” she hammered quietly. She looked up the tree at it. “You have no function.”
It was very odd, to be confronted with something of that sort. Something pointless. Inside the Control Center, nothing was pointless. Everything had a function. Maybe things were different, outside; maybe things didn’t have to have a point. It was a surprisingly wonderful and terrifying sensation.
The bird made her happy. What a peculiar and pointless function it seemed to be, to sing. Only to sing. But it was a function nonetheless. A function that made Avi’s mouth behave oddly. And in the forest, unplugged from the robotic eye she was free. “Come, Red thing.” She said to the bird, and pointed. “Function.”