Image shows a pencil sketch of a robot standing.
Eduardo Suré; Sketch of a Robot, 2018; Graphite

In 2043, Hurricane Angela battered New Orleans. Even the dead suffered. The storm raised the water table so high that air tight coffins popped out of the ground. Concrete vaults weighing tons floated away from cemeteries like haunted ships. Dead bodies made their way into neighborhoods and were found spread out on lawns and entangled in trees when the flood waters receded.

To spare the living from the horror and for public health, robots were deployed to recover the dead. The robots were incredibly capable at recovering bodies and coffins. They were gentle enough to keep the remains intact, but powerful enough to recover vaults. They solved problems on their own, such as how to retrieve a body from a tree and how to carry a large awkwardly shaped coffin back to its place in the cemetery without damaging it or other tombs along the way.

As one of the robots carried a concrete vault, half of it broke. Part of the vault that was not held by the robot fell and hit the control pack mounted on the robot’s back. The strike caused a crack in the metal and allowed water to leak into the pack. The moisture damaged the robot’s hardware. Detecting the damage, the robot’s trouble shooting subsystem sent a message to the operations control center to notify them that it required repair.

The contractor sent two technicians to repair the unit. Because of the weight of the robots, two people were required to lift them. Therefore, the company always sent two technicians into the field.

“Let’s split up,” Ruth said as Larry put their company maintenance vehicle in park. “I’ll do a quick check of the tombs Unit 219 has serviced since the call. Then, I’ll go find you.”

“As long as it’s quick,” Larry said. “I don’t want to do all of the repairs just to have you show up at the end to sign the maintenance log.”

“I’m not you,” Ruth joked.

Larry walked alone through the above-ground tombs. Some were the size of garden sheds and stood alone surrounded by iron fences. Others were long sun-bleached walls of stone where people were filed away in their final resting place. The city of dead was quiet and the wueee-hueee-wueee-hueee-wueee from the robot’s movement was audible in the distance.

Having heard the robot, Larry walked in the direction of the sounds it made. The echoes off the stone caused him to take a few wrong turns, but he soon saw the back of the robot as it walked in a direction away from him as it worked.

Larry had to jog to close the distance between them, and he was out of breath when he caught up to the robot. He was not used to running and the added weight from his standard tool bag made it additionally difficult for him.

Larry saw the damage to the robot’s control box, pulled out his tablet, and tried to shut Unit 219 down; but the robot would not receive the signal. Therefore, he would need to shut down the robot manually. That required him to walk up to the robot, insert a metal key in its control box, and turn it to the off position. Robots could identify company maintainers, so Unit 219 would stop moving once it saw Larry.

Larry retrieved his key from his tool bag and walked to the robot. The robot continued to work. He placed the key inside the control box, turned it to the off position, but the robot did not begin to shut down. Instead, it turned toward Larry, grabbed him firmly, and stuffed him into a body bag. As the robot zipped the bag up, Larry shouted for it to stop; but it did not. The robot took Larry and placed him on a pile of other occupied human remains pouches. Its software ran a feature recognition and identification algorithm to determine in which tomb it should put Larry.

Larry struggled in the bag to move his arms and take his phone out of his pocket. He unlocked it with his thumbprint, opened the calling application, and selected Ruth from his favorites. There was no signal, so the call failed. He tried again, and failed again.

Larry could tell he was running out of air in the bag. He fumbled around in his pockets to find a small knife he always carried. After he found it, he contorted his arms to pull the knife out of his pocket and open it. Then, he quietly cut a slit in the body bag so he could breathe.

Larry tried to call Ruth again. The phone’s virtual assistant said, “Sorry, we are not connected to a network. I see you have tried to call several times. Please record a message, and I will send it when we have a network connection. Say ‘record’ to record, or ‘cancel’ to cancel the call.”

“Record,” Larry said.

“I’m sorry, I did not understand that,” the virtual assistant said.

“RE-cord!” Larry shouted.

“Please begin to speak after the tone,” the virtual assistant said.

After a tone; Larry said, “Ruth, Unit 219 forced me into a body bag. I don’t think it can tell the difference between a living person and a corpse. I couldn’t connect to it from my tablet to shut it down. It grabbed me when I tried to shut it down manually. Leave the site, call headquarters, and ask them to disable it.” He hit send.

Ruth had inspected the tombs and had found that Unit 219 had been performing his tasks as programmed. She walked through the city of tombs and looked for Larry. Abruptly, she stopped walking as if to listen. There was a faint sound in the distance: wueee-hueee-wueee-hueee-wueee. She began walking again in the direction of the source of the sound and it became louder.

When Ruth turned the corner, she saw Unit 219 placing a human remains pouch in a tomb. A puzzled look appeared on her face. The robot was dirty, and units are usually cleaned as a part of service and maintenance.

“Larry!” Ruth called out. “Larry?” Unit 219 sealed the tomb and turned toward her after she yelled. Ruth observed the robot as it looked at her. “That’s an extra-long scan, Unit 219. Aren’t you going to say, ‘hello’?” Her phone began to ring. She reached into her pocket, but then the robot began walking toward her. “Stop immediately, Unit 219!” The robot did not stop.

Ruth’s eyes opened wide as she guessed what the robot was going to do to her. She could not outrun it, so she thrust her hand into her tool bag and pulled out a short cylinder. It was the size of a hockey puck and had three buttons which she pressed at the same time. While holding down the buttons with her fingers, she gripped the device firmly as Unit 219 closed the distance between them.

Unit 219 stopped within reach. It extended its arms to grab Ruth. She dodged the robots gripping hand and struck it in the chest with the device. It stuck. When she unclutched the device, it released a powerful electromagnetic pulse and shut the robot down.

Larry ripped the body bag open and crawled out. While dusting himself off he said, “I thought he almost had you.”

“Yeah, Larry. Thanks for the warning,” Ruth said as she recovered her tool bag from the ground.

“I did call you,” Larry said.

“You just hush, and help me disconnect the power before the unit reboots,” Ruth said.


Running Storm

This image is a pencil drawing of a fallen tree.
Eduardo Suré; Sketch of Fallen Tree, 2018; Graphite

Mr. Robinson is content as he hears his three grandchildren’s shoes crunch behind him on the gravely trail. The four hikers are quiet as they pass peach-colored mountains and waterfalls under the cool shade of cottonwood trees. Mr. Robinson leads the group. Jonathan, who is ten, follows at his heels. Anna, the youngest, is next. Shirley, who is sixteen and the oldest, is at the rear. The group is very tired after hiking nine miles into the backcountry. No one had complained during the long hike, so Mr. Robinson is very proud of his grandchildren. They know it is almost time to set up camp and they look about for a comfortable spot as they walk. On their left, they see a clearing of high flat ground surrounded by trees. A stream has cut into the land over the years forming a beautiful valley next to it.

“Let’s camp there, Grandpa,” Jonathan says with excitement.

“I’m sorry, Jon,” Mr. Robinson is apologetic. “We can’t camp there.”

“Why not?” Jonathan asks. “The ground looks level and soft. It’s high ground and we wouldn’t be under any trees.”

“Sorry, Jon,” Mr. Robinson replies calmly. “It’s just not a good spot.”

Jonathan is upset that his grandfather did not agree with his suggestion. Being the middle child, he feels like his opinions are always inferior to Shirley’s or secondary to whatever Anna’s needs are at the time. He had given good reasons for camping at that site, but his grandfather had not provided reasons against it. He had only said it was not a good spot. Jonathan had been taught by his parents to only insist once, but then follow an adult’s instructions. However, he feels badly because his grandfather ordinarily agrees with him more than his parents.

Mr. Robinson notices the weight of the silence as they walk. He suspects that Jonathan is upset that he shot down his suggestion without an adequate explanation. He is eager to make the group cheerful again.

“Sorry we didn’t set up camp where you suggested, Jon,” Mr. Robinson says. “Once we are out of sight of that ground, I can explain why. Is that OK?”

“OK, grandpa,” Jonathan says.

As they hike, Mr. Robinson treats the ground Jon pointed out as if it were a person on the street he’d caught intending to harm them. He frequently looks behind the group toward it and makes everyone nervous. As it begins to fade out of sight in the distance behind them, he checks one last time as if to ensure it is not following them.

“Shirley, let’s switch places for a little while,” Mr. Robinson says. “You lead, and I’ll walk behind you guys so you can hear me.”

“OK, grandpa,” Shirley says as she jogs past everyone to get to the front of the group.

Mr. Robinson waits for the children to walk by him. Once behind them he says, “Before there were horses in America, native people walked wherever they went. They carried everything they needed, just like we are doing.”

“Like homeless people, grandpa?” Anna asks.

“Shut up and listen, Anna,” Jonathan snaps.

Mr. Robinson continued, “Back then, there was a warrior named Running Storm. He was the best hunter in his tribe. He was known for running after game until it was too exhausted to go on. He was also fierce in battle and, being the fastest runner, was the first to engage the enemy.”

“What is game?” Anna asks.

“Wild animals people hunt for food,” Shirley answers.

“One day, Running Storm and the other men in the clan left to hunt,” Mr. Robinson continues. “The women and children stayed behind at camp. There was nothing extraordinary about the hunt that day. They were successful and began to make their way back to camp with their trophies. As they neared their camp, they saw from their distance that something was wrong. There were too many people moving around the camp. Their movement was erratic. The camp was being attacked. The men dropped the animals and ran to camp as fast as they could. Running Storm led the charge. The men soon arrived at the camp and defeated the attackers, but they were too late to save their families.”

“Oh no!” Anna shouts.

“As you might imagine, the men were devastated,” Mr. Robinson says. “Running Storm’s sorrow was exceptionally great. His grief was so abundant, the Spirits took notice of it. And when he cried out that he wished he had been as fast as the wind so that he would have saved his family, the Spirits granted his wish: they turned him into wind.”

“Jerk Spirits! That was so Monkey’s Paw!” Shirley comments.

Mr. Robinson continues, “Running Storm could not protect his family in life. So in death, he fiercely protects his family’s burial ground.”

“Is it where I wanted us to camp?” Jonathan asks.

“Yes,” Mr. Robinson replies.

“I’m not scared by ghost stories, Grandpa,” Jonathan declares.

“It’s not just about a ghost story,” Mr. Robinson says. “The Ranger asks park visitors not to camp there. Not too long ago, a man hiked into this backcountry alone. He saw the beautiful place we saw and, like you, thought it would be a great place to camp for the night. As he would try to set up his tent, the wind would blow it away. He gave up on it and set up to sleep under the stars. He tried to have dinner before going to bed, but he could not start a campfire because the wind would blow it out. He gave up a hot meal and, after having some trail mix, tucked himself into his sleeping bag. During that summer night, he got so cold that he thought he was going to freeze to death. He finally had the good sense to leave. He was too cold to pack, so he left anything he couldn’t use as a coat behind. When he was rescued, he told the Rangers what happened. The Rangers don’t tell everyone that story, they just mark it as a hazardous area on the maps.”

Jonathan is satisfied by his grandfather’s story. True or not, he had gone through the trouble of explaining why he had shot down his suggestion. He forgives his grandfather.

The family soon sets up camp at another location. It is not as beautiful as the one they had seen, but it is beautiful indeed. After setting up camp, Mr. Robinson and Jonathan retire to one tent; and Shirley and Anna sleep in another. Later that night, a big tree that had rotted to the core falls toward their tents. A powerful gust of wind blows suddenly and changes where the tree kands. The crash as the tree hits the ground wakes everyone. They exit their tents.

“That was lucky,” Jonathan says. “Just few yards to the left and the tree would have killed all of us.”