The Electric Owl (1982)
Do Bots Dream Of Bi-Horned Unicorns?
a Ragle B. Gumm novel
All owls are electric.
To a certain extent.
But what if they weren’t owls?
This was the subject of Aardvark Magnussen’s ground-breaking scientific research. Anything could be genuinely electric, in theory. This, however, had yet to be proven.
Aardvark had made an electric owl and this meant that, not only was his experiment successful and he therefore possessed tangible scientific proof but now it was time for the next step.
“Damn this headache.”, he complained.
Perhaps he was overworked, perhaps it was the stress. After all, his horoscope had not been particularly encouraging for this month.
“You will find the key. You will not like what the key will unlock.”, it said.
Petal Pladd was a telepath, her head was literally bigger than most people’s. Her predictions were, unfortunately, never wrong.
A few Martian poppy seed pills should do the trick, he concluded. They’d put him right to sleep and he wouldn’t remember Pladd’s cryptic nonsense in the morning.
After popping five pills, Aardvark sat down, dimmed the lights in his laboratory and fell asleep quickly and quietly.
Dick Richards felt nauseous.
He’d just awoken from a particularly unpleasant dream: he was pregnant with a bi-horned unicorn, he was bleeding inside and out. The blood was white, like milk, and smelt like trees.
He heard a faint sound, was it raining outside?
Looking up, he saw, in the distance, the faint blurred curves of a naked woman surrounded by steam.
His wife Nat was showering.
Ex-wife, he corrected himself.
“Where’s that goddamned Happy Sink?”, he thought. Lighting a death stick blindly, standing up with a wobble. He twisted the tap, set it to “perky” and closed his eyes.
“If you’re confused, hun: it’s the poppies. You took a handful last night. “, Nat said all the way from the shower pod. “We made love again. You should set that thing to “perky” next time. You were drunk.”, she added.
Too early for poppies.
Never mind. She was a quick dresser. She’ll be out in a minute.
Coffee sounded good.
He smiled a little, just thinking about it.
Dick was a bot-hunter: he hunted bots, bots that got out of hand somehow. It didn’t help that they looked like anyone else, like flesh and blood human beings. They paid the rent, though, and the imitation-coffee. Three-hundred floor apartments don’t come cheap and neither do those rare artificial beans.
The client was Aardvark Magnussen, some crackpot Swede with way too much money and way too much power, Dick thought smugly. In a way, Dick owed his whole livelihood to Aardvark. After all, the latter did build the first bot and all bots since.
I’ve been cleaning his mess for years. I hate him. But let’s face it: without Magnussen, I’m nothing.
This depressing realisation left Dick beaten.
Why did I choose “perky”? Perky never lasts.
Dick had never been this high-up.
He didn’t even know that a fly-bike could reach the clouds.
So peaceful up there.
The inside of Magnussen’s office was vast and nearly empty save for a single desk and a winged creature perching on top of it, silhouetted by the Sun.
I had never seen an owl, Dick realised.
He could hear the sound of footsteps heading in his direction but somehow, he just couldn’t look away from the animal.
“Mr Richards.”, said the female voice coming from somewhere on the other side of the room.
“Yeah.”, was Dick’s vague reply.
“We weren’t expecting you here so soon.”
“That a real owl?”
“On what you mean by ‘real'”.
Dick gives her a puzzled look.
“And ‘owl'”, she adds.
This was a good-looking gal. The classy, sophisticated type. And she was looking at Dick with a mix of disdain and curiosity. Sad thing was: it was probably a bot.
“You’ll have to wait, Mr Magnussen is still… away.”, she instructed Dick bluntly.
“You got a name?”
“Emily. Anything else?”
There was that disdain again.
“No. I’ll just wait.”
Emily leaves the room as Dick sits facing Aardvark’s desk. The owl flies to the other side and lands on the absent inventor’s chair.
Date with an owl, there was a first, Dick thought as he lit up another death stick.
“You can’t smoke in here, Dick.”
Dick takes a quick look around the room: he is alone.
Did I hear something?, he wonders.
“It’s a bad habit and it bothers me.”
That voice again.
Either Dick was losing it or someone was playing an elaborate prank on him. Neither pleased him much.
“Whoever this is: mind your own business.”, Dick said to the room.
“Oh but it is my business.”
Dick now started losing patience.
“What in the…”
“Death sticks aren’t good for you. Believe me.”
Just then, Dick’s attention turned to the only moving being near him: the owl, who ruffled its feathers and turned its head towards him just as the voice spoke. Quietly, Dick extinguishes his cigarette on the desk, watching the owl as he does it.
“Thank you.”, the voice said.
The owl blinked.
It couldn’t be…
“Mr… Magnussen?”, Dick asked.
“What have you done?”
“We mustn’t speak now.”
“You’re…”, a stunned Dick interjects.
“My experiment is not complete, we will speak later.”
“W-word is you’ve made a bot. I’m looking for it.”, Dick persists.
This time, there is no answer.
Dick sits back, looking at the owl in disbelief just as Emily walks into the room. The owl promptly flies over to her and sits casually on her shoulder. Dick stands up, still stupefied and points at the owl.
“I suppose you’ve figured it out.”
“I knew Magnussen was eccentric but I would have never expected he’d do something like that.”
“It’s all in good fun, Mr Richards.”
Dick takes a second to stare at her in puzzlement.
“In good fun?!”, he asks incredulously.
“The possibilities of bot technology are endless, that’s our motto.”
Dick shakes his head absently, he doesn’t reply.
“Maybe I could take a message?”, Emily suggests politely.
The owl defecates on her, she doesn’t react.
Dick Richards is standing outside a noodle stand in the rain, chewing on a chow fun enchilada looking morose. He opens the newspaper to find several advertisements relating to space travel, promoting inter-planetary migration.
“The very idea…”, Dick thought, “Fleeing like cowards when we’ve got a perfectly good planet right here.”
Dick always believed in fixing one’s own world before contemplating another. He chews down some of that soy sauce and cheese and dumps the newspaper on the counter. He feels a slight tap on his shoulder.
“Vous have a rendez-vous, old bugger.”
Dick recognises the voice: it was Jacques Smith, another bot hunter. Dick could never stand the guy, or understand him with his confusing French Cockney accent.
Still, the man technically outranked him.
“I’m eating.”, Dick threw in a deadpan tone, before turning back towards the counter.
Jacques this time places his hand on Dick’s shoulder.
“Drole, sonny Jim. Le Commissaire wants you, innit?”
Jacques slyly grabs Dick’s chopsticks and proceeds to eat one of his jalapenos.
Dick makes a face.
Look out for Chapter II soon.
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