We often played Escapees and Robohunters on our breaks. It was always harder to be an Escapee, because you had to remember to angle out your elbows, or keep your knees bent, or in some other way copy the imperfection of gyro-walk even the best balanced robots suffered back in those days. The Robohunters had fast cars, electropulsing guns and (at least in our schoolyard) always spoke in icy voices, while they adjusted their imposing dark glasses. They were simply a lot cooler.
But on the upside, if you were an Escapee, you could do almost anything, no matter how weird, while the Robohunters had to stick to the ground. Climbing trees, or even drain pipes, was common, but for some, that was only the beginning.
Stina, who was in the music class where all the kids were a bit weird anyway, was one of the best to be in an Escapee team with. Once, she got me and Johan down beneath the temporary gym building. (It turned out not to be so temporary after all, and stood on our school yard for I think fifteen years, but everyone still called it the temporary gym.) At first, the empty space beneath the house was hidden by masonite boards, but when we came back after summer vacation that year, someone had kicked up big holes in several boards. Although of course school yard rumor said it was a gigantic rabid badger that had bitten through the boards. Anyway, Stina decided that our trio of Escapees were of a digging type and we had to move solely on our knees and elbows. Which wasn't very fun at all, since most of our yard was covered in asphalt. Johan was about to revolt until she continued with her firm orders to hide beneath the temporary gym building.
Beneath the temporary gym building? Beneath the temporary gym building!
The Robohunters wouldn't be able to follow us in their flashy cars, according to Stina, and without the cars, how would they be able to bring all their equipment? (That was the handicap the Robohunters had, to make it fairer: Backpacks full of old books and other junk from the forgotten items box.) By the time they had received permission to mount Sinter Discs on the building and lift the heap, effective digging robots like us would be all the way to India.
Not India, I said, carefully because you had to be careful when you gainsaid Stina. Wouldn't it be better to dig down to the reactor core, and free some other two-leggers who were working down in the radiation areas? With them on our side, nobody would even dare get close.
Perfect! Stina was all over my idea; if we managed to not only get away during the entire break, but maybe keep the hiding place secure, we'd be able to change the rules for the entire game of Escapees and Robohunters for the rest of term. Even Johan sharpened up when he imagined the mystery that would surround us, and the status that might gain him. We crawled like never before, leaving behind shreds of jeans, corduroy and elbow-skin as we hurried towards the dark safety of the temporary gym hall.
Maybe that was where the seed was sown in me? I definitely think Stina had considered it earlier; she thought of things like that, and her parents were pretty left even for that time. But for me it had previously been incomprehensible to change the rules for Escapees and Robohunters. Whether on the schoolyard or in the real world, Escapees escaped – Robohunters hunted - and then, as naturally as rain on Midsummer just when Mom had put out the cake, the Escapees were caught again.
I know kids played this game all over the country, but for us… That's the thing about growing up in a place like Mälardalen, you know? We had Slingan there, of course, the big particle accelerator beneath the valley. You could see those gigantic cooling towers from everywhere, except when the big magnetrin ships came with fresh loads of cooling base. Everyone had parents or relatives who worked at Slingan, and when other kids looked at a steam train museum on a school trip, we were taken on a working magnetrin ship and took a ride around Lake Mälaren while the engineers pointed out the man-made islands to us. But that was everyday stuff for us, nothing I thought about as a kid.
The IPPR had other projects than Slingan, though, smaller but far more secret ones. And stranger, if you can believe it… Like the self-aware robots. None of the grown-ups ever talked about it and I've met loads of people later, even people who really should know better, who just completely blank the idea of there ever having been self-aware robot research performed on Swedish ground.
But I played in those woods, around the Keep Out signs and electric fences. My cousin was almost run over by a Robohunter car once.
And of course, one night when I was thirteen years old and was trying to convince Ludde, our old dog, to come out for his little nightly tinkle, I met a genuine Escapee.
It wasn't that I hadn't seen traces of any before. Or that I didn't know that the IPPR did a lot of shady things. When Olof and I found that glove, for instance, which could control this really big walker, and the cops came… Like, wow, what a ruckus that caused!
But a metallic shape that walked a bit too furtively to be on an official mission, two-leggers of unknown models visible against the horizon, or this soft electric chirping dogging your steps when you were out orienteering on some Field Day; every kid had stories like that to tell. But interacting with a real, self-aware and thinking robot, not just one of the industrial giants strewn over the landscape? Oh no, meeting one of them was rare.
So there I was. Thirteen. I had played Escapee with Stina several times that term, despite the fact that our team got our hides verbally tanned and my back turned into one giant red field of itchy hell from the fiberglass isolation I'd rubbed against beneath that damn gym building. But now, the snow covered the ground and not even Stina would've been mad enough to suggest we go spelunking beneath any buildings, old or new – not that we could've, they put up much thicker planks after our little escapade.
Our Ludde was a big lump of a dog, gray curls all over the place and a real mop of hair hanging down and hiding his eyes most of the time. You'd think a mutt like that would be able to handle a bit of cold, but not Ludde, no. As soon as the thermometer turned towards minus, I had to stand in the woods and call him with treats for almost a minute, more if it was snowing, to get his dogness to appear.
To try and pull him out with force was pointless, because everything on Ludde that wasn't hair was either appetite or stubbornness. He'd once uprooted a fence when Andersson's bitch was in heat and passed by too closely… and we're talking an official IPPR-fence, with steel posts and all. So for a kid of my size, bribery and begging was the only recourse.
I was standing there in the woods, sniffling and hoping I wouldn't get another cold, calling for my dog and feeling annoyed because the hockey news would probably be over by the time Ludde was done. When I suddenly heard a chirping behind me.
I turned around.
It was a state of the art balanced robot. A two-legger, a bit taller than my father, with lightly pulsing blue lights near the top, which I immediately associated with eyes, some kind of flat wheel construction on one side and several loose cables. It wavered back and forth, chirping and clucking as if in distress, while the cables rattled against the frozen bushes.
I don't know how long I stood staring, before I managed a 'hi'.
It jumped back on kangooro-hinged legs – that told me clearly that this was a fancy model with some sweet gyros – from my greeting. But then that wheel on the side of it turned, a few more lights flickered, and it gurgled something far more complex than I had ever heard from a robot before.
I don't quite recall what I said, but I think I mentioned my dog. Or he smelled the strange visitor, but either way, he reacted and started to bark. Loudly.
No doubt about it; this robot could understand what was going on. It bent at the knees, wavering back and forth, while turning its 'head' as if it was worried someone would come investigate all the noise. The wheel clicked and spun, clicked and spun, and its gurgling took on a more complex melody.
The thoroughfare is that way. I pointed towards route 128. But the Robohunters – I'm fairly sure the robot released a high-pitched whistle of displeasure here, but I might embellish the memory – often use that road. If you go through the woods here and act quickly enough, you might get to the Lindbergs's fields before anyone with a flashlight arrives. If you cross it, and use the ditches so they don't see your tracks until tomorrow, you can get pretty far down. And if you reach the big gray house with the chicken coops… That's Stina's family's house, you know.
The robot tilted its head sideways, the eyelamps flickering as if silently questioning.
Oh, you wouldn't know, of course. But the police have talked to them at least twice and I know some people in school who said they help Escapees. (They especially said this when Stina beat them at football). I don't know if it's true, but worth a try, eh?
Then Dad called my name and I stuck my hands in my pockets. I didn't have any snuff, nor could I suck my teeth to deliver that devil-may-care smack that usually accompanied their discussions, but my message was clear. I'd done my due. It was up to the Escapee now.
Dad called again. He worked at the Slingan plant, of course, and we had a company sticker on our car. I think even the dumbest robot could figure out what that meant. This fellow seemed pretty sharp. Its wheel spun quickly once more, then it whistle-growled a complex series of noises before it jiggled its cables and skipped into the woods.
So I helped an Escapee. It was against the rules of Slingan. Not against any laws, I think, because the IPPR didn't want to admit the existence of Escapees, but it was like with the big orange walker, Olof and the control-glove again: An amazing ruckus, if anyone found out. But they didn't.
I went in and got Ludde, Dad asked what I had been doing and accepted my mumble as teenage grumpiness
So that's how it started. With Stina and the jumping Escapee in the woods.