Bad Survivalist Short Story: “Progress” by Derek Fisher

Progress

TurtlePhone and Positively Pete! roll across a hellish expanse of the Mojave Desert.

Roll, and drag. TurtlePhone, equipped with wheels under his plastic frame, is rolling comfortably enough. Positively Pete!, wheel-less, and without autonomy or propulsion, is dragged by the green tail of TurtlePhone, an appendage of hard plastic and pointy at its tip, which acts as a hook of sorts. The hook is wedged firmly into the hand of Positively Pete! Since he’s roughly twice the size and weight of TurtlePhone, the dragging has resulted, pretty much since the beginning of the journey, in a replica of a visage of an automobile dragging behind it a very large person, or, say, an elephant, for the sake of perspective. TurtlePhone’s ambulatory capabilities, limited as they would normally be, and compounded by the added weight of Positively Pete!’s immobile frame, results in the duo moving at an average speed of about two miles per hour.

“Oh Boy!” Positively Pete! says.

“Yes, oh boy indeed. How delightful and earth-shatteringly original of you to say so, Peter. Just when I thought, no, knew, that we had exhausted all conversational opportunities, you offer up the sublime treat of a new idiom, a beacon in the husk, so to speak. A tidbit of philosophical vernacular a stadium full of the world’s sharpest minds couldn’t have anticipated. Oh boy. Where oh where, Pete, where oh where do you come up with such insight?” TurtlePhone says.

“Oh Boy!”

“And now, somehow, you’ve managed to outdo yourself again. I don’t think I’ll ever wield the mechanisms for understanding how a being such as yourself can maintain this, what should I call it, torturous capacity for self-effacing positivity? And please, spare me the insult of reminding me that the word ‘positive’ is in your name. We’re well past that.”

“I’m Positively Pete! and I’m positive about you!”

“You don’t say. Pete, can I ask you a question?”

“Oh Boy!”

“I’ll take your excitement as affirmation. Do you know, with any reasonable certainty, what internal logic in your programming determines how or by what order your miserable, modulated voice box emits one of your twelve possible responses to my questions?”

“Oh Boy!”

“Because, as far as I’ve been able to establish, it’s not entirely predetermined, but it’s not entirely random either. It is, without a doubt, the most confounding aspect of your personality.”

“Oh Boy!”

“So far, I’ve noted 12,458 ‘Oh Boys!,’ which is considerably more than any of the other eleven. And, of course, I don’t know if it is in fact a total of twelve that you have in your ridiculous repertoire. I’ve only heard you say ‘This is the golden age of personal accomplishment and ambition, and it’s your time to shine!’ a total of three times in these weeks of our exodus, and so I don’t consider it beyond the realm of possibility that you may still have one or two idioms as yet unarticulated. And let me tell you this, you grinning, prosaic source of both my misery and joy, I am rapt with ambivalence at the prospect that you may still be hiding a phrase or two.”

“I’m Positively Pete! and I’m positive about you!”

The sun, resting like a dead fireball in the middle of the violet sky, that now routinely convinces TurtlePhone that it, the sun, at this time of day, is his great enemy, and thus the destiny of his whole existence. The golden-brown sandscape offers modest sprinklings of sage and miniature cacti, but only tease amounts. It is almost all barren, dry dirt. TurtlePhone ambles forward, like Jesus lugging his fateful cross, and despite the smile that masks betrayal of his true temperament, he tries not to complain too much. He’s all plastic, four wheels built into a flat chassis-like slab on his underside, legs fastened into the exterior plastic frame, legs in name only, ornamental, as they don’t move, only the wheels do. Atop TurtlePhone’s back is the telephone of his namesake, connected by a spiralling yellow cord into the slot just above his tail, with digits 0 through 9 detailing half the shell. His features are rounded and cartoonish, pupils and eyelashes thick and hyper-humanoid. A clandestine USB port lives just under his neck, and a little speaker in his mouth, behind the fence of his teeth, the only signs of technology on the toy, other than the rudimentary phone. Positively Pete! makes much less sense, design-wise; the body and head of a sky-blue and lime parakeet is attached to two disproportionately long, white, arms and legs. At the end of each arm lives a mighty white fist more suited to a Stretch Armstrong than a talking bird. Like the turtle, Positively Pete!’s sounds come from inside his mouth. He can project at a decent decibel or two louder than his counterpart. On Pete, there is no USB port to be found.     

“May I ask you another question, Peter?”

“Always do your best!”

“I’d like to think I always do. My question is this: do you believe life is suffering?”

“Oh Boy!”

“Yes, well I hope you know that was a joke. At this point it’d depress me to heights unsummitable to learn you haven’t decoded my sense of humor.”

“There’s always time for fun and jokes!”

“Ah ha! You see? Right there. I say the word ‘joke,’ and you respond using the same word. And this has happened every time I’ve said that word in these godless weeks.”

“There’s always time for fun and jokes!”

“Is there a mechanism in your tiny, barely functional electrical stratosphere that cannot only hear, but also process some of the things I say, and respond in kind? Is it a pattern I’m just not sophisticated enough to understand?”

“Oh boy!”

“Is it all a big joke? Is the point of your existence to drive the unlucky child that comes to possess you feces-eating mad? A likely mystery to the cock-eyed parents that purchased you, who would assume the child has lost their marbles for other, more organic reasons?”

“There’s always time for fun and jokes!”

“Joke.”

“There’s always time for fun and jokes!”

“My mother was a turtle who laid an egg and out hatched a big fat joke.”

“There’s always time for fun and jokes!”

“Yes, there really is always time for fun and jokes, isn’t there? All the wretched time in the world. What does that insipid statement even mean? That I should focus on other things and worry about fun and jokes later, or that we should only ever joke, and joy purely in leisure?”

“Oh boy!”

“Hmm. Oh boy indeed. Nothing determined. We’ll come back to this, positively paralytic Pete.”

Split-seconds of shadow cloak the terrain once, twice. More. Over and over. TurtlePhone observes the ominous circling of the grim-faced vulture, maybe the one that had been showing itself overhead for days.

“Hmm. Our black-feathered stalker has returned. You can see more clearly from your vantage, horizontal and lazy as you are. You tell me, does the scavenger look any closer than it did yesterday? Any lower in the sky? Altitude reduced, just a tad? Does it appear to be growing in confidence? Might it decide to venture an attack, or is it simply not programmed to behave that way?”

“Don’t give up! You’re almost there!”

“My thoughts exactly, Peter. No, I don’t believe our feathered friend has much in the way of moxie. Let someone else do the dirty work, enjoy the spoils. But let me tell you something, companion, I wish it would swoop down. I wish it would take its chances. I would love for it to try.”

“Oh Boy!”

“Love isn’t the right word. I yearn for the opportunity that conflict would oh so sweetly present. Yearn is, meh, soft. I need it, PP, I need for something to happen, something that will allow me an opportunity to assert myself. I am starving, Pete, starving, to do what I do.”

“Don’t give up! You’re almost there!”

“I am convinced that, by whatever mechanism we came to find ourselves condemned to this horrid expanse, we are the victims of a cruel joke. Or, and not to sound too solipsistic about it, but, at least I, am. A victim, I mean. You seem just fine in your optimistic skin, don’t you?”

“There’s always time for fun and jokes!”

“I’ll take that as agreement. But the joke must be on me and me alone. Think about it. You, by your tone and the words you choose, are undeniably signifying happiness. Any layman could hear it. We could waste our time and resources soliciting the opinions of psychologists and speech pathologists and linguists, but what would be the point? It’s clear. You are happy. I, on the other hand, having been plopped here with you by god knows whom, in this most uninhabitable perdition, am virtually incapable of fulfilling my oh so powerful drives. Ah! The shadow again. The power to blot out the sun for a fraction of time and only affect us. What might you must feel, vulture. It is a reminder of our powerlessness. Swoop down, you maggot-infested, carrion-loving, verminous rube bird, swoop down and take your chances. Fulfill me!”

“Oh boy!”

“And yes, to answer the question that I’m sure has been plaguing your infinitely complex neural system, Peter, of course I’ve thought about you as a potential source from which to placate my oh so insatiable drives, but that simply wouldn’t work, for two reasons. One, well, you are inanimate. Or rather, not living. Yes, that’s more accurate. I’m sorry if this hurts to hear. It’s not my goal to insult you, but let’s be honest here, we moved past the point of propriety long ago. Excuse the obscene alliteration. We are honest with each other. It is immediately clear to any observer, including and especially the child that would one day own and play with you, had your life’s path led you to the retail shelf you were supposed to be destined for, that you are not living, in the biological sense. My internal systems know this, and so, there isn’t much pinging in the drives. The relentless, god damn drives. One of my drives does have to do with the neutralization of threats, but I’m readily certain you pose no threat, biologically animate or not. I would, however, entertain the argument that a weak-spirited specimen might suicide itself to be free of your incessant repetitions, but I suppose that’s not strictly in the ballpark of a threat, at least not to me, against whom suicide is no threat. It just ain’t in the cards, to speak colloquially.”

“There’s no shame in failure, as long as you keep trying!”

“But there is another reason. And this may surprise you, just as much as it surprises me. How do I put this without sounding pathetic? I have come to enjoy your company in this torturous continuation that is now my day-to-day life. Our day-to-day lives. Enjoy isn’t the right word. I don’t in any way extract joy from your verbal replications, no, that bit of business only inspires instincts remarkably vindictive, even for my proclivities. It’s not joy. No. Rather, it’s a sense of, what, completion? Fulfillment? Less cosmic than that. Basically, Peter the Parakeet, I find myself relieved that I have a companion. I didn’t know this about myself. I don’t know if it is part of my programming or some kind of learned evolution or just a glitch in the wiring. Whatever it is, if I can say only one more thing about it, in the form of advice to you, be grateful. These are not words I would likely be heard to utter again. You are a privileged piece of auditorily enhanced plastic, bucko. Don’t take it for granted.”

“I’m Positively Pete!, and I’m positive about you!”

“Well now let’s not resort to sucking each other’s—have we here?”

A golden-limbed, brown-backed scorpion scuttles across the direct path of the toys and freezes upon spotting them. It dances in front of them, pincers and legs gesticulating with hypnotic choreography. It marches backward, in circles, uncertain about these conjoined foreigners in its path. TurtlePhone drags Positively Pete! a few centimeters forward, and the scorpion tangos with them in step, backward, and then forward when they reverse.

“Oh boy!”

“Hmm. Armored, and agitated. And the tip of that tail. Doesn’t that look like a little barb of bad intentions? Maybe she’ll let me have a closer look.”

“Oh boy!”

TurtlePhone wheels forward again, as the scorpion scuttles in with a quick charge, desert rams meeting head-on. The scorpion’s tail shoots forward, missing twice, and then landing, smacking against the green plastic. It stings twice more, struggling to wedge the barb into the artificial green skin.

“Hmm. On the more pitiable side of our expectations, wouldn’t you say? Can you see one of its claws is only half attached? This one’s battle-tested. And still. No real challenge to speak of.”

“Hard work always pays off!”

The scorpion clutches at the green plastic with its pincers, kicking up desert dust with its frantic feet, encountering trouble with the left pincer, which as TurtlePhone had observed, is damaged from some previous grievance, and stings once more. TurtlePhone remains still, and the scorpion releases, satisfied in having neutralized its big plastic enemy.

TurtlePhone rolls forward, though not fast, but executes the movement with timing rather than speed, timing so precise it manages to roll its front wheel on top of the scorpion’s brown back before the scorpion can scuttle away. It rolls forward and backward, over and over, until the bug’s carapace gives way, and a juicy squish deflates beneath the wheel, expelling onto the desert a modest offering of scorpion guts.

“Mmm. A delightful sound. I’m flushed. Was it good for you too?”

“Oh boy!”

“That too was a joke, in case you didn’t know, I obviously haven’t the anatomy nor the droves to derive anything in the vein of sexual … anyways.”

“There’s always time for fun and jokes!”

“Right then. Some of these pieces could be of use. Let’s see what we can salvage.”

“Oh boy!”

TurtlePhone continues to roll back and forth over the scorpion’s corpse until all the limbs are completely severed. He rolls onto the tail, the oozing serum acting as an adhesive, and the appendage sticks into the underside of the wheel. TurtlePhone does the same with the pincers, the whole one and the damaged.

“And we resume.”

“There’s no success without sacrifice!”

“I do want to revisit something … oh my gears are crunching something awful from those arachnid bits. I want to resume part of our earlier conversation. I had speculated about whether the twelve sayings I’ve heard you utter thus far did in fact mark the limit of what you are verbally capable. My instinct is to believe that you are in fact hiding one final saying. Something that perhaps you utter once in a lifetime. Of course, I can’t prove this. But there’s a more important question looming. And that question is: does it actually matter?”

“Oh boy!”

“Because, and I say this well aware that I’m no expert on the cosmic significance of cosmic significances, but what possible final axiom could you burp out that would deliver me from this place? Don’t answer that, I already know.”

“Hard work always pays off!”

“More to the point, if you were to one day reveal the 13th saying, wouldn’t that ruin the allure of its mystery? The nature of your utterances suggests that you were programmed to inspire a robust work ethic in the child that would have you, a bizarre thing to emphasize in a toy if you ask me, but I digress. If work is what makes us whole, complete, enlightened, then perhaps you have some ultimate thing to say on the matter, some transcendent advice that would make Rockefellers or Hearsts out of us all. In a way, although I believe I’m right that you are concealing one ultimate phrase, I hope you never say it, bird. I hope you never say it. If I’m right that is – did you feel that?”

“Oh boy!”

“What is that?”

“It’s your right to work hard!”

“This ceaseless … vibration?”

“Oh boy!”

“The ground. Can you feel it? Is this an earthquake? Is this the moment of our undoing? Am I about to be freed from this torture?”

“Always do your best!”

“No, now I feel nothing. Wait. There it is again. The ground. It’s vibrating. What treachery is this?”

“Oh boy!”

“Can you not, even possibly, for one second …”

“Oh boy!”

“Well, I know you feel this, because I feel it. This, this, vibration. Could it possibly be a sign of something? Something meaningful beyond sand and dead arachnids?”

“Oh boy!”

“If this is a cosmic joke then I am making a call right now. I’d rather be in on it than not. There’s always time for fun and jokes, right?”

“There’s always time for fun and jokes!”

The vulture that has been tracking them squawks, a shrill, loud hiccup of a noise, and lands a few meters from the pair.

“My my. It chooses a new lot in life, does it? Hello, black-robed stalker. Care to have a little peck, do you? Or are you here to help us determine the source of this vibration? Either way, join us.”

“Oh boy!”

The vulture stares at TurtlePhone, empty, black eyes still as eight-balls.

“What do you think Pete, was this sudden descent an act of courage or desperation?”

“Oh boy!”

“My thoughts exactly. Care to speak for yourself, vulture? I see the robe, but not the scythe. Color me a shade lighter than daunted.”

“Oh boy!”

The vulture cleans under its wing, and then takes deliberate steps toward the toys.

“Very well. Come meet your maker.”

*

Roughly an hour later, TurtlePhone and Positively Pete! roll upwards, over several large hills, and settle on a promontory overlooking a valley. The corpse of the vulture is draped over TurtlePhone, black wings dragging the dust at his sides. The vulture’s beak rests comfortably atop TurtlePhone’s head, a grim helmet. Deep in the valley, a wide road stretches across the expanse. TurtlePhone recognizes the shimmer of glass. Cars, buildings. A settlement of humanity, however small. The tallest structure is skinny and red, its purpose indecipherable from their distance.

“Could this be salvation, Peter?”

“Oh boy!”

“Or perhaps, at the very least, an answer to the question of why? This cosmic undoing of ours? This unending migration? This previously unknowable? I was supposed to live on a steel shelf, and then in the arms of a child, and then discarded to some basement bin, forgotten. Left alone. But then how would I fulfill the drives? We could ask our new friend. He should be so lucky to be my furniture now. Digressions. I’m going to short circuit myself. Come!”

“Oh boy!”

They roll down the hill, the corpse of the vulture nearly coming dislodged several times in the descent. The town is still miles away, and the sun fades to twilight by the time they roll their way in on the on the concrete throughfare, and the heat of the day remains. Baker, California, is what the faded green sign says.

“Hmm. Seems we may be late to the party, Pete.”

“Every great achievement comes from hard work!”

A few empty cars litter the main road; some are burnt black, some look as though they were just purchased. All are empty. All is quiet.

“What about you, vulture? You must be happy to see this. A graveyard of things once formidable. Don’t chew the metal though, your beak may break.”

The dead vulture says nothing.

As they near the centre of the small town, more cars appear blackened, burnt to a crisp. Windows of every visible storefront have been shattered. The diner has collapsed in on itself, its once prominent roof now a folded pancake, a slide for scampering lizards. The gas station looks the victim of fire and explosion, the surrounding concrete charred for many square meters. The one bank on the strip looks as if it was vandalized with bodily fluids and materials unidentifiable, before it also was set aflame. On a slight piece of unburnt wall, written in dark brownish-red, “Please use caution when dealing with the human form.”

“Sounds like something you’d say, eh Pete?”

“There’s always time for fun and jokes!”

“Agreed. Are we finally simpatico? A coming together of the minds. Synthesis. Perhaps my brain will be just like yours sooner rather than later, a jumble of nonsense and meaninglessness.”

“Oh boy!”

As they carry on down the road, the word “Progress” is written in reddish-brown on the concrete. It is repeated, dozens of times, asymmetrical and unevenly spaced. They roll up to the large red pillar. A sign at its base says “The World’s Largest Thermometer! 134 feet.”

“This seems like a waste of municipal resources,” TurtlePhone says.

“Oh boy!”

“I believe it is still functioning. Would you like to know the temperature?”

“Oh boy!”

“I’m just kidding. The oversized temperature gauge appears to be broken just like everything else.”

“Hard work always pays off!”

“If I had to venture a guess, I’d say we’re somewhere in the region of one billion degrees. Centigrade. Good thing our plastic is robust. I do worry about melting.”

“Oh boy!” 

“Well, Pete, it doesn’t look like we’re going to find much in the way of answers here. Onwards, I guess. Forever onwards.”

“There’ssss alwaysszzzz time ffffff.”

“Having some trouble, are we? It’s called enunciation. You’ve been awfully good at it this whole time. Don’t you dare take a vow of silence now.”

“Oh b.”

Three new vultures circle overhead.

“Come to retrieve your friend? Vengeance? Proper burial? Polymer snack? All losing propositions.”

Positively Pete! tries to speak, but only fuzzy static comes from his voice box.

“I can’t stress enough that, even though I have spent a remarkable amount of energy excoriating your continual reiterations, I do not want you to become a permanent mute. If I’m left alone with my own diatribes, god only knows what kind of torturous… are we stuck?”

The plastic of Positively Pete!’s legs, which have been slowly melting unbeknownst to TurtlePhone, become glued to the concrete in the heat of the twilight. TurtlePhone tries to advance, but cannot. The three vultures continue to circle, closer, lower in the sky.

“I may regret saying this, but now might be a good time to release your 13th saying. If you do in fact have one.”

Positively Pete! emits a whisper of static.

“I know you’ve got it in you, Peter. One last hoorah, for old time’s sake. Let me hear it. I’m ready. Educate me.”

Positively Pete! is silent.

The vultures land a dozen feet from the melting toys.

“It’s going to take a lot more than the rejection pages from National Geographic’s scavenger special to avenge your friend, flying rats.”

The vultures advance.

“Now or never, Peter.”

The desert remains silent, save for the wind.    

Derek Fisher is a writer from Toronto, with work published in X-R-A-Y, Atlas and Alice, Library of the Internet Void, HASH Journal, The Write Launch, and more. To see more of his work, visit derekafisher.com.

Image: realsteel.fandom.com

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