Featured Story • July 2017

design

 

Dispo and the Crow

 

Rich Larson

 
 

Sunshine seeped through Dispo’s circuits and he awoke to another beautiful day in the rubble. He ran 84% of his self-diagnostic routine, skipping the boring behavioral protocols in favor of an extended stretch. Six skeletal legs twisted and telescoped; Dispo enjoyed the smooth joint rotations even as his paint flaked away. Then he rose up over his domain, surveying the crumbled concrete, the tangled rebar, the glitter of smashed glass, and set to work.

He found his first corpse half a block away, wedged inside the splintered geometry of a wrecked car. Dispo no longer ran his self-diagnostic 100%, but he never rushed a job. Over the next hour he worked the jagged metal away from her swollen limbs, bending a rusty tunnel through which to extricate her, and gently pulled her out. Only small shreds of skin and clothing were left behind.

Dispo cradled the corpse up into his underbelly and sampled her DNA for the database. A file popped up, tagged with a photo of the corpse’s face, which looked very different with the skull intact. Her name was Sara Leider. Her blood type was O negative. She was free of any harmful genetic conditions, other than being dead.

Dispo ambled towards the park while his belly swathed Sara in a biodegradable cocoon. He flicked through his database for similar genetic profiles, because he liked to match them, lately, like a game. He found one at the very end of the 38th row. As he positioned himself over a patch of yellowed grass, the cocoon he had formed turned hard as rock. Dispo loaded it into his pneumatic bulb, squatted, and thumped it 1.8 meters deep, sending a spray of loose soil up into the air.

Dispo hovered over the fresh grave for a few pensive moments, smoothing over the mound of churned-up dirt. He added a text file to the database. Sara Leider was a universal donor who drove a blue car.

Then, back to work.

* * *

After Sara Leider, Dispo found a scab-caked elbow jutting from the rubble of a 7-11. He tasted it, then excavated Hector Juarez in pieces: first ankle and foot, then clenched fist, then finally his dark head. Dispo was clearing the last of the debris from Hector’s body when a shadow solidified and plunged past his outstretched limb, alighting on the corpse’s split stomach.

The shadow thing stared up at Dispo with head cocked to one side. Dispo stared back. He was certain he’d never seen this thing before, not in his empty city where nothing moved but shifting ruins and slow-stiffening corpses, but something about it twinged his deep memory, down past the firewalls he was not supposed to know about.

An ancient identification string for an organic life form came lazily through his circuits: crow. Dispo stared at the crow, then upwards, knowing in a flash that crows were not isolated events, but he saw only cerulean sky, blasted clear and featureless. Only one crow, as if it had been sent to him specifically.

The crow opened its beak and bleated out what sounded to Dispo like a mid-volume warning klaxon. He swiveled instinctively to look for the hazard, for a toppling lamppost or collapsing building, but everything that could fall had fallen already. The crow was mistaken. Relief and amusement tingled through Dispo’s processors, then boiled over into anger all at once when he turned back to find the crow busy picking through Hector Juarez’ bloated intestines.

Dispo blasted his own klaxon, full-volume; the crow jittered away in a flurry of oil-black wings. Quickly, Dispo scooped a puffy length of entrails back into Hector’s belly, keeping one camera on the crow, who was hopping from foot to foot, watching. The crow made its noise again, but Dispo suppressed the urge to scan his surroundings. He was wise to that crow trick now.

As he lifted the body of Hector Juarez into his underbelly, the crow fluttered after it, nipping at its trailing fingers. Dispo jerked away, nearly dropped his cargo.

The crow squawked.

Dispo blared.

They stared at each other in the stillness, beady black eyes meeting soot-ringed camera lenses, and Dispo felt his annoyance increasing.

The crow flinched first, rustling its feathers before hopping off, moving on, stumbling into the sky. Dispo’s sense of triumph dissipated quickly as he realized that the crow, now circling overhead, was not giving up. It was searching for more bodies. The city was full of bodies.

Dispo understood. The crow had been sent to him as a test. A rival. A nemesis.

He would have to work faster.

* * *

In those next few days, Dispo buried more bodies than he normally did in a week. He would track the black dot of the crow overhead and race over the rubble to intercept it, chasing it away from one corpse and then another. The crow’s voice and its oil-black wings became more ragged. Sometimes it beat its beak against Dispo’s shell in what he assumed was frustration.

Dispo did not have time for elegies anymore, but the crow brought him to bodies far more reliably than his old bioscanners. He started carrying two corpses at a time and burying them in tandem. The neat rows in the park skewed. Burial mounds appeared in other parts of the city, anywhere with 1.8 meters of soil.

But Dispo had to sleep when the sun set. So did the crow, or at least he assumed as much from its roost in the carcass of an old carwash. When he powered down for the night, Dispo had residual images of the flying crow flashing through his processors, and sometimes flashes of other things, too; of sunshine striking softer surfaces than concrete or wrought iron, of soil that was damp and dark instead of irradiated gray.

He knew it was time for a full self-diagnostic, but when he woke up the next morning, he ran just 75%, noting that his peeling paint was stealing letters from Post-Mortem Retrieval / Disposal Unit, before heading off in search of the enemy. He found only empty skies. Dispo marched back and forth across the ruined city, daring the crow to emerge, until he finally had to conclude that his nemesis had given up. He felt less triumph and more dim disappointment.

Dispo returned to one of the bodies he had already passed and marked for retrieval, this one charred and bubbled black in places, and gently turned it over.

Something was wrong.

The unburnt soft tissue had been stripped from the corpse’s cheeks, mouth, eye sockets. Dispo had seen many disfigurations, but he knew in an instant that this was fresh work. This was a desecration. He didn’t so much as pause to read the DNA before he bundled the body into his belly and ran towards the car wash.

Dispo’s motors whined as he hurtled across the wasteland, and when he arrived he braced himself on all six limbs and blared his loudest klaxon, a long hard drone that shook the ground. The crow rocketed into the sky trailing feathers for exhaust. It banked a quick circle, gaining its bearings, then seemed to pinpoint the source of the disturbance. Dispo clawed at the sky, blaring again and again, but his enemy was far out of reach, and worse, as the crow circled overhead, it began to echo his call back to him, mocking his frustration.

Finally the crow perched five meters away on a twist of rebar, head cocked smugly to one side. Dispo stepped closer, and with one limb slowly raked through the rubble, collecting jags of concrete and broken glass in his spade. The crow watched intently, turning its head this way and that. Dispo slowly raised the spade, making its contents rattle and scrape. Still the crow watched.

Dispo flung. Preternaturally fast, the crow darted into the air, dodging the shower of debris almost entirely. Almost; but one wicked wedge of bent mental caught at the lip of the spade and flew out at a different angle, striking the crow’s left wing.

Dispo’s nemesis cried as the metal pierced through. It limped on a little further through the air, then sputtered, fell. Another cry, this one quieter. Dispo felt unease leak through his triumph. Hopping on the ground, amidst the rubble, the crow was tiny. Dispo advanced, dragging a slab of concrete behind him.

The crow writhed, nuzzling its beak to the injured wing. Dispo raised the slab high. In its shadow, the crow looked up, fixing him with one beady black eye. The iris was soft and gleaming. Dispo raised the slab higher, until his servos trembled. He thought of the many corpses awaiting him, and he realized, in a hard flash, that corpses did not need eyes. They did not use eyes. They did not see anything, not even him.

Dispo dropped the slab to the side. The crow flinched. Dispo reached instead for the uninjured wing, managing to snare it before the crow could twist away. Then, with his most delicate pincer, he tugged the metal bolt out of its muscle, into the sunshine, where its tip gleamed red.

The crow struggled free as soon as it could, but only made a short hop away, staring up at Dispo with its head cocked.

Dispo returned to work.

* * *

Powering down that night, Dispo, on impulse, pried at his firewalls. Before they pushed him away he saw something: A park. But not the park where he buried bodies. This one was far larger, with trees still green and still standing, broad trunks swathed with moss. Sunlight was trickling through their tangled branches, and as Dispo picked his way through the trees he felt he knew each of them, the way he knew the corpses.

In the morning, the crow was perched on top of his shell, nipping at stray cabling. It was distracting enough that Dispo only ran 66% of his diagnostic. When he finally started moving, the crow squawked happily.

So they roved the ruins together. The crow cawed occasionally and Dispo always blared back, not understanding the dialogue but starting to relish hearing noises not his own, and when they arrived at the first corpse, Dispo hesitated for only a moment before he squatted down to ease the crow’s dismount. The crow was an organic life form, and needed to eat to stay alive. More than the corpse needed its flesh intact.

When the crow was finished, Dispo picked up the corpse, feeling only slightly guilty, and slid it into his belly. The crow retook its perch on Dispo’s back for the trek back to the park, where the dead trees seemed small and skinny and the ground seemed harder than usual, caked with clay and rock. As he buried the corpse, Dispo pried at the firewall again, this time catching a jumbled sensation of soil fresh and loamy, and a burial mound that was more beginning than ending, and maybe even a rustle of wings overhead.

As the crow accompanied him from one body to the next, Dispo rewired his old external mic to record the crow’s guttural cries and warble them back. The crow seemed unamused.

Days later, when the crow took its first flight since the wound, stumbling up into the air, moving gingerly with the wind, Dispo thought it was more beautiful than even the most intact corpse. He even wondered what it would be like if he were a crow, and not Dispo.

At night, when Dispo hunkered down with the dregs of his solar battery chiding red, the crow was a comforting pressure on his back, clawed feet shuffling up and down his length until its black wings folded like a collapsible awning and it slept. More and more images were seeping across the firewall during shutdown, unbidden now, and Dispo couldn’t help but think the crow on his back was ushering them in. He saw tall, somber trees with sun-dappled bark. Green shoots. Living things. Beautiful things.

After three days of running only 14% of his self-diagnostic, radiation-yellow warnings started scrolling around the edges of his cams. Dispo ignored them. He didn’t want the glitching to stop. He didn’t want to lose his forays into the overgrown park. The day was still for corpses, but the night was Dispo’s now.

* * *

And then one day, the crow couldn’t fly. It struggled up into the air, limped a slow circle, and came back down cawing, frustrated. Dispo watched its second attempt, and its third, and saw its left wing was stiff as bone. The crow landed awkwardly in the rubble with another guttural cry. It recoiled when Dispo leaned in close, but before it could hop away he saw pus oozing between the feathers of its wing.

Dispo hunkered down, offering one limb as a ramp. The crow stared reproachfully. Dispo warbled his crow noise, then used his own klaxon in small soft bleats, and finally the crow hopped back aboard. Dispo tried to move smoothly through the debris, gently. He only buried three bodies that day. The crow was quiet.

Dispo wandered back to the carwash for the night, knowing it was his companion’s favorite locale, but the crow didn’t even try to roost. The sky grew dark overhead. Dispo knew cause and effect. He knew the stiff wing was the one he’d struck with a shard of rusted metal.

The next day, Dispo did not work, or run even a pretense of diagnostic. Corpses did not need eyes. Corpses did not need their cheeks, or their ears, or their rotting organs. Dispo had learned those things, and it was enough for a hypothesis: corpses did not need him.

The crow needed him. Dispo folded himself overtop of his companion, shielding it from the sun. He funneled condensation from his motors and drizzled it around the crow’s beak, along the length of its ragged body. Its left wing was swollen and pink under greasy feathers. Sometimes it cawed, but quietly. Dispo’s systems badgered him, reminding him of base protocols, but he shot down the wave of red flags one by one.

During shutdown, he slipped through the firewall, into the wild trees. He found himself moving through the underbrush with rustling strides, carrying something in his belly, too light for something dead, searching for deep soil. Crows flitted overhead, these ones small, brightly colored, cawing high and sweet and rhythmic.

But in the morning, things were worse. The crow had slipped off his back during the night and lay prone underneath him; Dispo nearly speared it through with his foot before he recognized the limp black shape. As he bent to pick it up, shunting aside the self-diagnostic prompt flashing across his cams, he suddenly found himself frozen in place.

A software failure alert yammered at him in searing red, citing undiagnosed bugs, AI decay, calling for nothing less than a full reboot. Dispo tried to shove it aside, but it wouldn’t move. Neither would his limbs.

Dispo watched the crow’s ribs swell and contract, slower and slower. He tried to run his neglected self-diagnostic, to appease the core protocol, but now it was locked out of reach. The only prompt he could touch was the reboot, where a wave of code seethed in wait, ready to flood through his processors, wipe him away.

The crow was silent, but Dispo could trace its breaths from the slow ripple of crooked feathers. Dwindling. Dispo strained. Nothing. He wanted to shade the crow, or give it water, or just touch it with his smallest pincer. He wanted to turn away, or turn off his cams. He watched for hours, immobile, until the crow was still and he was alone again.

Dispo realized he had two choices: stay frozen in place as the crow rotted away, first to bone and skin, then only bone, then dust, or trigger the reboot and return to work. He wanted neither option. Reboot meant forgetting. No reboot meant watching. Dispo crashed against the prompt over and over as the sun rose and sank. It was impassible, but by the time dusk was dropping he’d found a single sliver, a crack into his deep memory.

And that was where Dispo shoved the crow in flight, the crow startling him with its first caw, the crow pattering along his back. Then, with one last look at the crumpled black body, he accepted the reboot, and hoped that–

* * *

Sunshine seeped through Dryad’s circuits and he woke up in a stone wasteland. He stretched to his full height, uneased by the empty space, seeking trees. There was nothing familiar. No scrub underfoot, no twisting roots, nothing green, nothing growing. A blank blue sky uninterrupted by foliage. He felt rust when he moved, so he craned his cams to look at himself. Foreign yellow paint and a faded stencil were chipping away from his dull green shell.

Dryad caught sight of a black bird on the ground. It was a crow. The sight triggered something, some small audio / visual package that was hiding in an otherwise pristine memory space. He watched it, confused, until the recording terminated with a text fragment.

Crow had black wings and was not a test. Bury crow.

Dryad cross-referenced and realized what the final words demanded. He felt inside his pod and found it oddly distended, but empty and ready for use. The request was strange, but he felt compelled to follow it if only for curiosity’s sake. Dryad gently lifted the dead crow and set off to search for deep soil. GPS uplink showed that he was far, far, far from his work area in the northern forests.

Once he’d planted the crow, he would start the long walk home.

 
 

design

Rich Larson was born in Galmi, Niger, has studied in Rhode Island and worked in Spain, and now writes from Ottawa, Canada. His short work has been featured on io9, translated into Chinese, Vietnamese, Polish, French, and Italian, and appears in numerous Year’s Best anthologies along with most pro-paying SF markets. He was the most prolific author of short science fiction in 2015 and 2016. Find him at richwlarson.tumblr.com and support his writing via patreon.com/richlarson.

About this story, he shared this tidbit: “I wrote ‘Dispo and the Crow’ during Clarion West in the summer of 2014. The story was originally inspired by concept art of a Tonka-yellow tree-planting robot. Then I started thinking of alternative uses for such a robot, especially after some sort of natural disaster. The result has been described as ‘WALL-E with corpses,’ which is pretty accurate.”

 

design


If you’ve enjoyed what you’ve read, please consider pitching in to keep us going. Your donation goes toward future content.

 
Or subscribe to the e-book edition to read the full issue in one go and support Mythic Delirium.

Subscriptions
Choose your format
Email address for subscription


design

Return to Table of Contents