A Hero for a Friend

By David Castlewitz






                Blood balls were bad, but zombies on the attack were worse, so Hansen paid scant attention to the red spheres hurled from the city wall. He watched instead for zombies emerging from a bashed-down door, a sally port they’d pried open, or a window with its bars forced apart. His tight fitting blue jumpsuit, his helmet’s visor over his face, and his hands in sturdy finger gloves sheltered him from blood ball infection. Overhead, a hovering drone relayed intel to Command HQ. To Hansen’s left, a tracked auto-gun ambled across rocks and debris, its air-cooled gun swiveling back and forth on its turret. Hansen didn’t feel safe, but he did feel protected.

     He stopped at the edge of the ramp leading down to the gun emplacement he’d been sent to repair. His diagnostic robot, H – O – R 139, skidded to a halt on its two balloon wheels, extended its forward arm and slammed a spike into the gritty earth, anchoring itself. It rocked fore and aft for a moment before it steadied, its body vibrating slightly. An oil-slimy cable exuded from its base. Hansen stepped down into the gun pit, took hold of the cable, flipped open the test socket at the weapon’s foundation, and plugged in.

     HOR whistled. Hansen scrambled topside and studied the robot’s screen. Practice had taught him how to interpret the wiggly lines, the crests and dips of the five signals coursing across the green phosphorous. He barked a command and a series of digits flashed in a corner, and then flowed like end-credits in a movie.

     “Damn,” he said, breathing the word between chapped lips. He looked around at his guards. The drone had flown higher. The auto-gun patrolled far to the south.

     “It’s bull. Just bull,” Hansen had complained that morning when the crew chief, Sergeant Gillian, told him to take HOR 139 out on “an excursion.” That’s the euphemism they used in the barracks for any forays beyond the protective gates, towers and guns that kept the zombies at bay.

     “Take a whore,” Gilliam said, smirking.

     Everyone in the barracks who overheard the slur gasped. Hazardous Operations Robots were referred to by their initials: H-O-R. No technician dared pronounce the letters. That was bad luck.

     Ain’t this what the H-O-Rs are for?” Hansen asked, careful to pronounce each letter. “To fix those guns out there?”

     Gillian shrugged his wide shoulders and put his dark face close to Hansen’s pink cheeks. “Whatever it is, the whores can’t fix it. Which is why we keep grunts like you around. So go do it.”

     Hansen had never ventured beyond the gates in the six months he’d been assigned to forward base Delta-H. He usually spent his time building laser sights, or repairing control boards, testing wireless network circuits, or working with an assembly crew building a new gun. Other guys took the weapons out into the field; HORs replaced circuit boards and scopes.

     But every now and then someone got tapped for an excursion. Usually, they came back with tales of zombies surging up and over the high walls enclosing their town. Sometimes they witnessed drones attacking meandering, bellowing hordes of the undead. Every once in a while, a technician failed to return, though whatever HOR he took with him usually rumbled back to base sooner or later.

     HOR-139 rolled back alone on seven occasions, three times more than any other robot.

     Hansen dropped back down into the gun pit. He checked the controls that kept the gun swinging, the ammo zipping, the sight calibrating to changes in light. The entire mechanism was linked to a handler somewhere thousands of miles away. Unlike the flying drones that fired missiles at the zombies and the auto-guns that ground through the grit and muck and shot at anything that didn’t wear a recognition badge, the gun emplacements relied on human control.

     Hansen plugged in a serial patch to get access to voice data. “Anybody on this line?”

     “Yeah, dumb-ass. Me. And I got no video. You charging me for this? Because I ain’t paying -- ”

     Hansen shut off the audio feed and slid open the panel covering the control circuits. Using a penlight, he found the board with the yellow stripe down one edge and yanked it free. He breathed a prayer of relief that this unit didn’t have integrated video. Yanking out a single board took less time than detaching a tray and unscrewing one of those all-in-one motherboards.

     HOR 139 extended a receptor on an articulating arm. Hansen gave it the board for analysis. The robot pulled the circuit into its hopper.

     Hansen complained. “Hey. That’s for – “ He stopped. Where was the drone that had been overhead? The auto-gun had disappeared as well. HOR 139 whistled, wheeled backwards, turned, and started back to base. Hansen scrambled out of the gun pit, reaching for the robot – a futile gesture made more ridiculous when he stumbled and sprawled on the ground.

     “Where’re you going?” Hansen shouted, and rose to his knees, then to his feet. A rumbling chorus of moans made him look back over his shoulder. Zombies shambled towards him. Arms swinging, gashed faces bleeding, eyes bulging and knotted hair slashing the air like crazy snakes.

How did they get over there, on his right? They’d already overrun the gun pits ringing the town, and blood poured from the skies, splattering the ground like balloons filled with rotten tomatoes.

     He caught his cuff on a strip of metal. A shard of glass or aluminum stung him, drawing a red line across his sleeve. Get hit now with a smattering of that blood and …

     He ducked back down into the trench. He gazed across the rim, eyes tearing, and grabbed the gun’s handles.  He stared at the view screen. Nothing.  Not even cross-hairs in a circle. He peered down the black plastic barrel, hunched halfway up out of the pit. He pressed the trigger.

Nothing happened. Manual switch? He checked. Okay. Manual on. Still no response. Hansen fumbled for the earphones he’d left on the floor.    “You on the line, buddy?” he asked.

     “Am I online? I got no video. Buddy.”

     “Check your firing response.”

     “How? I got no – “

     “Just do it. Fire! Now. Okay?”

     The gun sputtered. Bullets kicked up dirt, tossing pebbles and sand into the air. Hansen elevated the gun and two zombies stopped, jerked their limbs as though shaking off the effects of the bullets’ impact; but then resumed their shambling march. Without a sight it was hard to hit them in the head. And a head shot was the only thing that stopped them.

     “Hold on. I’ll aim. Fire when I say so.”

     “I better get them kill points.”

     Hansen ignored the complaint.  Arcades around the country offered prizes to their patrons, including free trips to the zombie-war-zone, for weekly high scores, team achievements, and other accomplishments. All were inducements to get people – especially kids – to spend money renting time operating one of these forward position guns. They augmented the army of flying drones and roaming weapons that kept the zombies at bay. Revenue from the arcades helped the World Wide Watchers hire men and women like Hansen, train them to be technicians, and maintain crews of experts at fire bases everywhere where the zombie scourge threatened. 

     “Fire!” Hansen screamed. He positioned the gun by staring down the length of the barrel and elevating it so it pointed directly at the advancing zombies. “Do it now, kid. Now.”

     A burst of bullets belched from the barrel. Zombie heads exploded. Bone and hair and teeth sprayed the ground. The kid in the arcade cheered. Hansen assumed the kill calculator worked even if the video feed didn’t

     “Stop for a minute,” Hansen advised. When the gun kept firing, he repeated his demand. “Stop firing, you dumb shit. The barrel’s overheating.”

     Zombies shuffled slowly towards Hansen’s position, but they were far enough off that he could wait a bit, let the gun cool down. While he waited he checked the air-cooling mechanism, unclipping the retainer pins that kept its protective plate in place. A two-finger sweep cleared the grit that had collected around the controller board. He attached a lead to the board’s ground pin and another to a test point. But without HOR 139 to run a diagnostic there was nothing else he could do.

     “Start firing,” Hansen ordered.

     “Screw you, buddy. You wanted me to stop, so I stopped.”

     “Fire! Now.” Hansen gawked at the encroaching horde staggering closer, dragging their dead limbs across the bare landscape. Where did they come from? As often as the town was attacked from the air, and as often as these breakouts were kept in check by arcade-controlled guns, robot tanks and overhead drones, there still was no end to the zombie threat. How could there be so many undead?

     Hansen peeked out from the gun pit. Could he run back to base? If he stumbled, hurt a foot or a leg, he’d be overwhelmed by zombies. If he stayed put they’d drop into his hiding place and devour him. If he managed to escape their clutches and got hit by a blood ball flung from behind the town wall, the rip in his jumpsuit might let in the infection and doom him to an afterlife as an undead minion.

     Join their horde. Destined to wander and moan. Undead forever.

     There’s a thousand zombies out there,” Hansen said, his words catching in his throat. He struggled to keep talking, to keep from screaming his demands, to keep from running in fear.

     But he lost the battle, scrambled up out of the pit and stumbled away. Towards fingers that threatened to grab him, his path taking him into gnashing teeth, flailing arms. Hungry mouths.

     Bad idea. Wrong choice!

He spun in another direction, fell to his knees, rolled away from a pool of blood. Zombies ringed him, their feet shuffling back and forth, some barefoot and others wearing floppy boots or torn sandals. One blonde-haired woman still sported a straw hat with white flowers decorating its crown. A tall man in a suit had half a tie and no shirt. There were even a few zombies in overalls with the company insignia on their collars.

They came at him in a wide arc.

     He was penned in. Except for a small opening that would let him drop back into the gun pit. Running hadn’t fixed anything. Left him breathing hard, sweating, shaking in fear.

     He put the earphones on again. “You there, buddy?”

     Whatcha think? Yeah, I’m – “

“You can rack up them points if you just fire the damn gun.” He took hold of the two handles again. Braced himself.

     “You sure?”

     “Do it!” Hansen sighted down the barrel, ready and waiting. Bullets burst the nearest zombie heads. The gun vibrated like a car on a rutted road and Hansen feared he’d lose control. He tightened his grip, elevating the tip of the barrel up at the zombies, swinging it left and then right.

He eyed the heat indicator lamp between the two handles. It flickered green, changed to yellow. So long as it didn’t go red. Cleaning out the debris near the cooler-controller must’ve helped. He grinned, proud of himself, and let loose a yell of victory.

     The knot of zombies disintegrated. Survivors drifted back towards town. Carcasses littered the ground. The immediate threat vanished, though a crowd of shambling ghouls still filled the open, desolate scene beyond the gun pit.

     “How many points did you get?” Hansen asked.

     “Four hundred and three. I thought you said there were thousands. I didn’t get a thousand points.”

     “But you saved the day. From here it looks like everybody else didn’t do so good.” Only a few zombie lay dead in front of the other gun pits.

     “You really out there?” the kid asked.

     “I’m out there,” Hansen said. He looked again to make sure the zombie horde hadn’t come any closer. A few lurched across the empty plain. They walked in a spiral formation back towards town.

And then a small metallic form emerged from the undead.

     HOR 139?

     The robot rolled forward, but then stopped. Its squat head swiveled. An overturned auto-gun blocked its four large wheels. Hansen saw that the HOR needed to back up; but it kept trying to inch forward. It rolled a bit. Stopped. Bounced backwards slightly, swayed, and then rolled forward once more.

     Hansen waved. He stood up, hoping HOR 139 would zero in on his recognition badge. With a HOR at his side, more auto-guns would come to protect them. Drones would soar above. The company valued its robots and, by extension, any technician lucky enough to travel with one.

     HOR 139 still failed to advance, its front wheels stuck on an auto-gun’s spinning treads. “Stupid shit,” Hansen said, breathing out the words. Then he corrected himself. “You’ve got to back up, H-O-R. Back up.” There was nothing to gain by berating the robot. Nothing to gain by advising it either. For some reason, HOR 139 wouldn’t back up. Fixated on forward momentum, it went nowhere.

Hansen raced out to the robot. He kicked the overturned auto-gun out of the way. “Let’s go. Back to base.” He waved at HOR 139, turned so his badge would propel the robot away from the chaos of the battle and back to safety. But the robot wheeled towards the gun-pit. It extracted a circuit board from the recessed bay in its base. Hansen instantly understood why the robot had abandoned him. The need for a new board to fix the arcade-linked gun took precedence over everything, including sticking with a technician in need.

     That’s the company for you, Hansen grumbled to himself. The robots were programmed for the company to win and everyone else to lose.

He stepped back down into the pit and slipped the new video board in place. The view screen with its familiar crosshairs-in-a-circle flashed to life.

     “I got video, buddy,” crackled from the earphones on the floor.

     Hansen snorted and yanked out the communications plug. Standing at the lip of the pit he smiled when he saw two huge drones glide overhead and fire rockets into a crowd of zombies milling near the town wall.

     HOR 139 whistled.

     “Thanks for coming back,” Hansen said, though he knew the words were meaningless to the robot. Just like its name: Hazardous Operations Robot. HERO would be better, he thought. Hazardous Environment Robot Operator.

My HERO. My friend.

     Hansen put an arm across the robot’s top. Whistles and vibrations greeted his gesture. Together, they headed back to base, the robot rolling on its massive wheels and Hansen stepping around body parts, pools of blood, and creeping feet and hands still animated but unattached to their undead owners.