Friday, August 26, 2022

The Odin Chronicles • Episode 22: “Friends Like Binary Stars” • by Travis Burnham


As the large, battered robot at the deli whirred to life, a lonely eleven-year-old girl named Vivi watched the repairs with rapt attention. The robot repair team was composed of Ingrid who was fixing the hardware, and Sloane-51, a recently emancipated AI, who worked on the software. Ingrid ran the local bar, but she was a fair hand with a wrench and was substituting for the usual repairperson.

The damaged robot in question had caused an… incident. It had crushed some groceries and threatened some customers before burning out and sputtering to a stop. Everything still smelled like mustard and pickle juice. A replacement robot would be an expensive challenge—the Galactic Mining-owned planet of Odin III was far off the beaten path.

“It looks like there’s been quite a bit of damage to the neural network,” Sloane-51 said. What she didn’t say was it was the same damage she’d sustained before gaining sentience. She couldn’t help but wonder if it was part of a larger pattern. “I can’t just enter code to fix the robot. We should let the neural network repair itself organically.”

The little girl who’d until this point remained silent, piped up. “My teacher Mr. Finn told us neural means brain. And he said school is exercise for your brain.” Vivi looked at the battered robot and said, “I think Keegan Red needs school.”

“Keegan Red?” Ingrid said.

Vivi pointed at a small plate riveted to the robot’s left foot that read Keegan Grocery Bots LLC. “Keegan. And everyone should have a last name, and Grocery is hardly a proper last name. But he’s red. So Keegan Red.”

Ingrid shared a glance with Sloane-51 and the android shrugged before replying. “The robot isn’t a danger, it just had a damaged actuator. I put in an override. And a school’s nuance rich environment would help it rebuild its AI pathways, even in just a day or two.”

“School,” Keegan said.

* * *

Some mornings later, Keegan Red entered the classroom, his head knocking a chunk from the door’s lintel. “Sorry,” he intoned, somehow managing a sheepish expression. Looking for a familiar face, he scanned the room.

The teacher, Mr. Finn, was still in the hallway talking with Ingrid and Sloane-51.

Keegan then saw Vivi, crammed into a corner surrounded by three larger students. Vivi had always been small and clever, making her a favored target of bullies. In this case, Teresa.

Large and rugged, Teresa has a shock of coal black hair and a penchant for intimidation. She was not a fan of small, and even less a fan of clever.

From a bookshelf above them all, the classroom cat—a Norwegian Forest feline named Freya—looked down upon the proceedings with disdain. She was not a fan of bullying. Also, being relatively small and clever herself, she felt offended on principle.

Forcing Vivi down to the floor, Teresa shoved a crayon at her. “Eat this, or I’ll shove it in your ear and poke your brain.”

“At least I have a brain to poke,” Vivi said.

“Brain damage it is.” Teresa leaned down, wielding the crayon.

Just before Freya leapt down to rain feline havoc upon unsuspecting bullies, Keegan approached Teresa and said, “Let Vivi… go.” His words were halting, not menacing, but his size provided the exclamation point. He was already better at speaking than he had been in the deli.

Teresa and her two wing bullies exercised the better part of valor.

During math class, Keegan tutored Vivi. He calculated like lightning. But when it came to art, he struggled, a small pile of broken crayons lay on the table beneath his large fingers.

“Hold on a second, Keegan,” Vivi said. Picking up the tape dispenser, she spared no tape in order to wrap the heliotrope purple crayon to Keegan’s large pointer finger. And with that, he was able to draw a passable flower.

Mr. Finn even tacked Keegan’s drawing to the filing cabinet behind his desk.

Then it was recess.

Vivi and Keegan decided to find some real flowers to further Keegan’s artistic pursuits. As they leaned over to investigate, a large rock clanged loudly against Keegan’s head, leaving a ding and some chipped paint.

Teresa, who’d just thrown the rock, stooped to pick up another. “I read online that robots are programmed so they can’t hurt people.”

“Maybe… true,” Keegan said. He picked up a branch as thick as a weightlifter’s arm and broke it into splinters. “Or maybe.” Keegan picked up the grapefruit-sized rock that Teresa had bounced off his head, and with a flex of his hands, crumbled it to pieces. “Not hurting humans is a myth.”

Teresa looked hesitant, and when she turned to check for backup, she found that both of her friends were already gone, running as if someone had set fire to their shoes. Teresa wasn’t far behind.

“Could you really hurt her?” Vivi asked.

“No,” Keegan replied. “But she didn’t know.”

“Thanks, Keegan.”

“You spoke for me in the deli, when I was broken and had no words,” Keegan replied. “I should thank you.”

“We can thank each other! Because just now you were strong for me.” Vivi replied.

“You have a strength that is far more important.”

Vivi curled an arm and flexed her bicep, but even flexed the muscle didn’t amount to much. She laughed and said, “Just kidding.” She pounded a fist against her heart. “I’m strong here.” Then she went up on tippy toes to thump a hand against Keegan’s chest and the reverberations rolled like thunder. “And you are, too.”

Robot and girl looked back towards the classroom where Freya beckoned from inside with a disaffected air.

“Do you want to go inside and draw a picture of a kitty instead of a flower?” Vivi asked.

“I can’t think of a better subject.”


Travis Burnham’s
work has found homes in Far Fetched Fables, Hypnos Magazine, Bad Dreams Entertainment, South85 Journal, SQ Quarterly, and others. He is a member of the online writers’ group, Codex, and has an MFA in Creative Writing from Converse College. He also recently won the Wyrm’s Gauntlet online writing contest. Burnham has been a DJ on three continents, and teaches middle school science and college level composition. He lives in Lisbon, Portugal with his wife, but grew up in Massachusetts, is from Maine at heart, and has lived in Japan, Colombia, and the Northern Mariana Islands.

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