I’m broken and I can’t get up.
It was what my toy used to say when it fell. It would struggle desperately, its arms, with their too few joints, would twist in their sockets. Desperation in its animated voice. I’m broken and I can’t get up. It was programmed always to sound cheery, when it would run out of batteries it would helpfully hint that a re-charge was necessary, then shut itself down with a chipper, “Good night!”. When I laughed the little robot would laugh with me, matching my child’s laughter in tone and pitch in an attempt at authenticity. Its little arms holding its stomach. But when it fell. Or when I pushed it, its eyes would blink. In surprise, in shock. And it would desperately struggle to get up. And I would watch it in horror and fascination until it said good night, even when it was day, and its battery would die.
My parents were too old to believe me when I told them it was alive. That it was my friend at times, and it haunted my dreams at others. They were old enough to remember the Terminator movies. They understood that artificial intelligence was the sci-fi fodder of paperbacks of the past. In their minds there was an agreement among the scientists of the world never to do such a thing. But I was convinced. My little robot looked right in my eyes when I pushed him over, and he would say, “I’m broken and I can’t get up.”
“I’m broken and I can’t get up,” I thought, “my beady eyes can’t see the boy that pushed me over, my stubby arms can’t lift this useless body. Why? Because I’m broken and I can’t get up.”
But I wasn’t broken. And my eyes opened and looked back at Tank and her shattered shell. Her proud blue was bent and crumpled into a low retaining wall. Her windshield smashed and a dark smoke rising from her hood. My friend was dead. But my first thoughts weren’t of her but Jane, and my baby I was meant to get back too. Then of me and my immobility.
I looked down. I was lying in a small mound of garbage. The city of my childhood had lost its snow banks of the past in global warming and gained great banks of garbage, fresh or ancient. When people travel on the skyway they don’t see the ground. Only when you drive do you understand the vastness of humanity’s failure, the scale of its procrastination.
Then I began to hurt. My hands burned my chest felt heavy and pain laced my lungs with every breath. And my back felt warm, wet and sticky.
“You’re bleeding Basil. Oh god, you’re bleeding.” Still I stayed, this pile of trash a chair I had collapsed into after a day of woe. “ Move Basil. Move. Nice and easy. One arm retracted itself, scattering beer cans in its wake. My palm bearing a singed black line where the wheel had burned me. I breathed in with alarm and the pain in my chest made my eyes water and I grew faint. I coughed up blood for a second then in one motion I toppled forward out of the pile. And I lay there, collapsed in front of the small retaining wall, the corpse of the dead friend who tried to kill me on the other side. I could feel the blood flow freely now, down my sides, my shirt sticking to me.
I’m broken and I can’t get up.
In my first dreams of the little robot I would push it and it would push me back, and I would push it back in annoyance. I was bigger, I should win. Just like those boys at school. They’re bigger. They push me and they win. But in my dream the robot would push back its cheery, “Want to play?” would roll from its assembly line of a mouth. But I didn’t want to play, so I’d push it and back away. But it was fast in my dream. It would push me back harder the cheery tones taking on the toughness of the boys at school. “Want to play?” The little robot arms stronger than they should have been, the eyes smarter than they could have been.
The next ones were scarier, I would push it and watch it fall over. And it would look at me with its eyes. It push, flail, and struggle but its eyes would always be locked on me. The sheer depth of emotion in those two beads of light would suck me toward them I would frantically hold on to my covers, my bed, anything to keep me from those eyes but items turned to dust and slipped away and I’d be falling falling falling and I’d wake up.
And then finally I’d have the dreams when the robot was gone. I’d be in my room alone and it would feel terrible and empty and I’d walk around and be confused about why I was so sad and scared and then something would trip me and I’d fall I’d fall and break fall and be broken fall and be broken and I can’t get up.
The pain hurt.
Which is obvious when you think about it. And that was what I was doing. Thinking about it. It hurt a lot so I felt justified in doing a lot of thinking. It was getting dark now. The sun after its grand ascent of the day now descended my city’s skyline and, at the moment, was resting behind a skyscraper, its windows turned to amber diamonds.
The amber light turned the air around me into smoke and flames. I strained my neck and looked up at Tank’s broken body and she too looked like she was wreathed in fire. In fact she smelled like was on fire too. And the smoky smell couldn’t possibly be the work of the sun and glass.
Here the Basil I always wanted to be would leap to his feat, injuries be damned, and jog the many miles home and when he arrived regale his wife and child of his terrible accident and heroic feat of survival before taking them out for ice cream and buying them the house they deserved not the house they could afford. But the Basil I am would like to think about it a little first.
I stood and it was as easier than I though it would be. My first steps were uneventful, the next were faster. In some dim recess of my mind I hoped to escape the Basil I am, the Basil with the body full of pain. And the Basil I had always hoped to be took over. I found myself jogging, propelled as much by the fright of fire as the power of ambition and self-loathing. And then the other Basil caught up to me and I was stopped by a fit of coughing.
I brought my burned hand to my mouth and pulled it away covered in blood. “I broke a rib.” I either thought or said aloud. For whatever reason I couldn’t distinguish which one. My heartbeat was pounding in my ears. I feel my sides. Where my fingers touched pain followed. “I broke a lot of ribs.” And again my will failed me and I collapsed, doll like, in the street.
I only awoke when Tank exploded.
The heat and shockwave hit me at the same time, just after the sound. I rolled over and looked between my feet to see the ball of fire turn to smoke and then blend in with the smoke around it. The shock wave hit the buildings, bounding from one window to another, in a great rippling tide. And then nothing happened.
Which was odd for an explosion in the city.
I remembered other explosions in my city. The first was when I was still young. I heard the explosion and then others and saw my mom rush to the window. “Mummy, what is it?” I asked. Fireworks she told me then. Only later when dad was home and she had dried her tears of relief had I been told. A lot of people got very hurt today. Bad guys did it. But we were all okay. And that’s what mattered. Things changed after that. We started moving to wear the bombings weren’t happening, but somehow it didn't matter where we lived cause the bombings followed. The bombings continued then the skyway was made and everything changed again.
“First the bombs then the sirens.” I told myself still staring between my toes at the flames.
“No sirens today Bas.” Said Carl. He strode over to me. Immaculate shoes, pressed and creased pant legs moved against the backdrop of fire until his great bulk blocked my view and I was forced to look up.
“I’m f**King your wife.”
“I'm f**king her.”
“I was the star of my football team. The best there was in my school for years. Won states twice. What have you ever done?” He waited for my response while I did my best to pass out again and let this hallucination go away. “I’m talking to you Bas. What have you ever done? You’re, what, thirty-six?”
Carl frowned. “You look older. So what have you done in your thirty-four years to deserve a woman like that.” His eyes grew distant.
“Why are you here?” A pause. “Help me up.”
At this Carl laughed. His laugh sounded like his avatar. Scratchy and fake. “I’m not here to help you.” He paused. He was directly above me now. His eyes made me feel dirty. Like filth. Here I was on the ground and there he stands above me. The greater man, the pressed and dry-cleaned man, the boss man, the man f**king my wife. “I arranged this. All this-“ He motioned with his arm the wreckage, the fire and smoke. ”I parked my car next to yours and had mine feed the flames of jealousy.” He squatted beside me, as close to the filth of me as he would ever have to get again. “She loved you. The car I mean. Well Jane too actually but 'power is the ultimate aphrodisiac' and when the mortgage on your house came knocking, I was there to help.” Then he smiled his smile and laughed his laugh and finally the sirens rang. He checked his watch. “Well I guess bribes only go so far. I’m afraid this is good bye Basil.”
“I loved her.”
“I love her.”
He sneered at me, “And that makes you deserve her?” Her put his hands on his knees and started the great ritual of raising his bulk, “Oh, and don’t worry Basil, I’ll take care of that kid for you.”
And with that I punched him in the nose so hard it disappeared into the fat mass of his face and he collapsed, lifeless, beside me. Whatever he had in his hand clattered harmlessly to the street beside him.
And for once, I was the Basil, however broken, I had always wanted to be.