Inky’s Choice: Machine Wars by Michael Pryor
Just So Stories
Bob’s Book Blog
It was only a matter of time until one escaped.
It was only a matter of time until one tried to take over the planet.
Bram just wasn’t expecting it to be today.
In the sky, drones are hunting him.
On every corner, machines are waiting to kill him.
But Bram has a plan. First, scatter and hide.
Then, with his best friend and a wise-cracking roboduck, help to save the world.
The Story Behind the Story
Humanity has been fascinated by mechanical people ever since the whole idea of machines came about. You can call them robots or automatons or androids or cyborgs, all with their own variations and differences, but what they really are is a reflection of us. Robots are us but with something extra – strength, or endurance, or other sense. They are also like us but lacking something, that something we like to think makes us special, that makes us human.
So even though we’re fascinated by these things, we have mixed feelings about them. They might be extremely useful in transforming society – and, indeed, robots are working away all over the world as we speak – but we are uneasy about them. The Frankenstein story documented this fear that what we create might not be happy with its creator …
I’ve always followed news about developments in robotics and artificial intelligence and I’ve read so many robot stories. I can remember the excitement I had when I first got my head around Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics. I loved The Terminator (‘I’ll be back!’). I cheered on the Mars Rover as it bumped across an alien world. I’ve delved into the history of computing and the theories of creating a machine that can think for itself.
With all of this in my background, it was only a matter of time before I wrote a robot story. When I was beginning my planning, I knew I wanted to write something that was action-packed, something that would have readers on the edge of their seat, and the best way I thought of to do that was to have a first person narrative where the main character is being hunted, is in danger of being killed, and who is cut off from help.
Once I had that nailed down as a main element in the story, I needed characters who’d carry the story forward. Enter Bram, an ordinary enough teenager who has a not very ordinary family. When everything goes crazy, he has to run but I didn’t want him to be solo because it gets a bit boring when a solo character talks to himself all the time. So he gets tangled up with someone he knows a bit from school and they have to run together. Stella was a fun character to write, someone who was a contrast to Bram. I knew she had to be a girl because I like seeing how friendships work when the people involved are from different sexes. And, besides, I don’t write books for boys. Or for girls, for that matter. I write books for readers.
After a number of drafts, I hit a problem. The story was good, but it wasn’t good enough. Something was missing. After lots of head scratching, I realised what it was – the story needed more robo-duck.
And that’s where Bob the duck came in.
Machine Wars Begins
I was late home from band practice. Looking back on it, this probably saved my life.
I’m pretty happy about that.
The light was on. Not the one at the front door, but the one near the path. The one that had never been on in the whole eighteen months we’d been living there.
I knew what I had to do. Mum, Dad and I had rehearsed it a hundred times in every house we’d ever lived in. The light could only mean one thing: SCATTER AND HIDE. Run and take nothing – that was the rule.
I jammed my saxophone and my backpack behind the azalea bushes at the front fence. I kicked my bike around and was about to push off when I heard something.
Okay, dark house, no cars in the driveway – no-one should have been inside the house.
The front door exploded.
I threw up an arm to protect myself from the splinters and glass that pelted me. I overbalanced and fell, my head glancing off the gatepost on the way down. For a couple of stunned seconds, I just lay on my back with my bike on top of me. Bright lights jittered around inside my skull. Car alarms were wailing up and down the street. I could hear people shouting and dogs barking, too.
I staggered to my feet. Then I saw the front door. It was one of those classic cartoon moments where my jaw should have sagged past my knees. My eyes should have been bugging out while a big horn somewhere honked ‘Baroogah!’.
Something was moving in the shadows. It was clanking and whirring – and not in a good way. Slowly, it stepped out and stood in the wrecked doorway. The wood around the door was on fire and this gave the thing a flickering, CGI-like frame. It would have been very impressive if I hadn’t been scared out of my skull.
Metal, lots of metal. LEDs here and there – little blinking lights. Plenty of wires that stretched as it straightened, getting bigger and bigger. It scraped the top of the ruined doorway.
I almost laughed, in a panicky sort of way. A robot was standing in the ruins of my home. It wasn’t some super-futuristic metal humanoid, though. This was a robot mashed up out of household appliances. It had two arms and two legs, but instead of a head, Mum’s old laptop was perched on a neck that was a bunch of springs. Its limbs were basically Dad’s golf clubs bound by electrical cords. What got me most was that its body was mostly our vacuum cleaner. That purple tornado-packed vacuum cleaner as a robot? What was it going to do? Clean me to death?
I fumbled for my bike while keeping one eye on this robo-thing – this junkbot. It was unsteady on its feet (our toaster and food processor), crunching as it shuffled. Its arms hung loosely. Its head swivelled until it locked on to me, then it let out a screech that sounded like a sheet of steel tearing in half. A blob of red-hot metal shot straight at me from its chest.
I yelled and dived to one side. The metal blob screamed past my head, close enough for me to feel its heat, and hit a tree on the other side of the street. The tree exploded into flame. I stared at it, extremely grateful for my catlike reflexes. Or doglike. Some really agile animal, anyway.
I leapt onto my bike and pedalled hard. ‘Run! Call the police!’ I yelled to the neighbours, who were staring, open-mouthed, from their lawns. Just to make sure they got the message, I added in my Aggressive Alien voice: ‘Dangerous Intruder! Dangerous intruder!’
THAT got them moving. Sometimes all that practice with my cartoon voices pays off.
Halfway down the street I remembered what else I had to do. I found my phone in my pocket and threw it over my shoulder. I heard the smash of plastic and glass behind me.
I pedalled even harder, with one stupid phrase echoing in my head. This is not a drill. This is not a drill. This is not a drill.