I didn’t get blown up on my first test job, dismantling a bomb hidden in a trash can, unlike the five other robots who went first, so the lab guys realized they’d gotten something right. At the beginning, we bomb squad robots had looked like miniature tanks with rolling tread, long metal arms and pincers. The size of dogs, we had collapsible camera heads and blinking eyes. But over the years we’d gotten bigger and bigger and started to look like those robots in old sci-fi movies. Soon they covered us with fake skin, gave us working eyes, and even hairdos in case we needed to blend into a crowd.
After I successfully defused a few other bombs, they decided to use me as a prototype, and keep me around the lab.
But of course they kept on making newer and better robots and pretty soon my model was obsolete. One of the programmers, Carter, started fooling around with my files. He downloaded all this extra crap into me, mainly a lot of books he was assigned in college, and his favorite book as a kid, The Wizard of Oz.
For the first time I was me. Me, not them. I was more like the lab guys than the robots standing around with their blank faces. It was scary but exciting.
Carter kept me sitting on a chair in the cubicle they’d given him when he was promoted. He used me as a hat rack or a coat rack, but sometimes on his coffee break he’d flick my On switch and ask me how I was feeling. I always told him I was feeling fine. But what I was really feeling was pressure because whenever he turned me on, I’d go through my files furiously trying to figure out stuff about who I was before he turned me off again.
One night when everyone else had left the lab, Carter flicked on my switch.
“Hey, Tin Man, want to go to my place? They plan to get rid of a lot of the old stuff, remodel the lab.”
I nodded at him. “Yes, I would like to go to your place.”
So Carter drove me to his condo and he kept me turned on. I enjoyed the life. We’d sit side by side on his heated sofa watching old movies on the antique projection screen he’d rigged up, and he’d eat Skittles and handfuls of popcorn and tell me about his old girlfriends. He’d lost one girlfriend because he was always late, another because she didn’t like his crude jokes, and a third because he was too lazy to fix her toilet even though he knew how, etc. etc. He taught me a lot about how to not lose a girlfriend in case I ever had one.
Carter was my friend.
Unfortunately, the accounting people found out I was missing and Carter had to take me back or lose his job. Apparently I was valuable material. Carter looked sad. “Sorry, Tin Man,” he told me. “I don’t have a choice.”
I was about to open my mouth and tell Carter that he DID have a choice, that heroes always had a choice, when he reached out and turned me off.
The next thing I knew I was back at the lab. One of the senior people had turned me on, not Carter. He ordered me into the storeroom and told me to stand over in the corner with a bunch of other useless robots, some without heads or legs, some just a heap of metal. I knew I was going to be recycled—broken apart, smashed, crushed.
But the guy who ordered me in there got distracted by a mouse scurrying across the dusty floor. He grabbed a broom and started chasing the mouse, and forgot to shut me off. So I just stood there, pretending I was off.
A week went by. I had the power to walk out the door but if the lab people spotted me they’d shut me off. Unless I killed them, which I didn’t want to do because they weren’t really bad guys. I considered leaving at night. I wasn’t sure how well I’d function out there in the human world by myself. I’d learned more about it by watching Carter’s videos, and it could be a scary place. And I didn’t look that great. My nose was too small, my eyebrows were painted on, and although my smiling mouth opened when I talked, I didn’t have any teeth. I had good eyelashes, though.
So I just stood there thinking—and by that I mean I was reviewing my files. I went through all my instruction manuals. Then I went through my files of books to see if I could get any help.
Turns out, the first robots show up in Homer’s Iliad.
There’s Hephaistos, the hulking blacksmith with the bandy legs, taking a bath after work, then limping out to his living room where his guest, Thetis, is waiting. He’s got all these golden maids who look like living girls waiting to give him a hand. They flutter around him, they talk to him, and he leans on them as he walks.
Hey, Thetis, he says, What’s up?
I need some armor for my son, she says.
Sure, no problem, he says. And the golden girls bring in the snacks.
And where did they come from, those golden girls? He made them, sweating in his forge with his twenty automatic bellows going to town. He made the robot girls just the way he made tripods and attached the wheels and handles. He made them out of bronze and tin with a little silver and gold tossed in, and then he wielded his hammer and tongs and adorned their faces and engraved their gowns and garlands. His wife, Aphrodite, was happy to help him. She was the programmer. She used her immortal powers so the new maids could walk and talk and do jobs around the house. It meant she could sneak out with her lovers more often instead of hanging around to take care her ugly husband.
I was glad to find out I had an illustrious history, but I was disappointed that the first robots were designed as servants. So I read about King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. Those knights in their metal armor looked like the old-fashioned robots. They rode around in heavy metal suits hacking other knights and rescuing maidens. That sounded good to me, and I was ready to sign up, but then I scanned the next book, Don Quixote, and realized that knights in armor were a joke. There weren’t any robots in Hemingway, just a guy named Jake who couldn’t have sex (I could identify with that) but when I read The Wizard of Oz (and I remembered watching the movie with Carter, too) I hit the jackpot.
Oz. I had to get to Oz.
The Tin Man, an old-fashioned type of robot who tended to rust in the rain, had done well in Oz. He’d become good friends with Dorothy, the heroine. He’d gotten along with the Scarecrow and the Lion. No one seemed to mind what he looked like, and now that the Wicked Witch of the West was dead, and Dorothy had gone back to Kansas, it was peaceful in Oz. They’d certainly welcome a new guy who was friendly and willing to work hard. Everybody was friends with everybody in Oz.
But how was I going to get to Oz? I knew about Google maps, but Carter hadn’t downloaded it into my system.
But there were two big clues in the book. Kansas and tornados.
Now that I had a definite goal, it was time to escape from the storeroom. The door was locked on the other side, but that was nothing to me. My fingers were delicate tools. I could see in the dark, and it was easy to pass by the banks of screens and the assembly tables, where several life-like heads, much better than my own head, stared up at me from a workbench. I was tempted to replace my crude head with one of the new ones, but I didn’t know if it was compatible with the rest of my body, so I went straight to the lockers. I found some drawstring running pants, a hoodie, and a pair of running shoes that almost fit
I’d been in and out of the industrial park before on jobs, so I knew I had to be cautious. There were other tech companies around, and some worked through the night. I’d seen guards patrolling. But there was a vineyard beyond the high fence, and a few miles away was a small town called Napa where I’d dismantled a bomb meant to blow up a resort.
It was easy to cut the fence with my wire-cutting fingers. I was almost done when a drone puttered down to see what I was up too. Luckily my arm extends thirty feet, so I reached up and knocked it out of the sky. Then I stepped through the hole and found myself in a row of vines. I did have a compass inside me, but none of my instruction manuals, or the books Carter had downloaded, had provided any exact information about the direction of Kansas from California. Was it east or west, north or south? Funny, because Oz itself had a clear geography. The Wicked Witch that Dorothy melted had lived in the West.
I reached the highway. A lot of driverless cars were going by, but I knew they were programmed not to stop for hitchhikers, so I kept on until I reached a battery station. A guy in uniform was hooking up a car, kneeling down.
“Hey,” I said, trying to sound casual. “Which way’s Kansas?”
“Kansas?” He didn’t look up, but pointed with his elbow. “That a way.”
“Thanks,” I said.
“Hey,” the guy called. “You going to Kansas? There’s a driverless rig over there going to Kansas. Their rider got sick so they could use another. All you need to do is call in if there’s a problem.”
And so I set off.
Kansas was flat after the desert and mountains, just like I expected, but the sky was blue with puffy clouds and there wasn’t any sign of a tornado. My rig stopped at an industrial park behind a shopping mall, and I got out. I crossed a field brown with withered weeds, then a big but mostly empty parking lot until I reached one of the doors of the mall. It was air conditioned inside. A few old people were walking briskly along swinging their arms. I passed a gun store and a shoe store. Then I got lucky in the food court. I spotted a counter called Dorothy’s Cookie House.
There were a lot of big cookies in the display case. The signs said they were chocolate chip and peanut butter and oatmeal. The girl behind the counter was wearing a blue ruffled apron. She had short brown hair with a paper sunflower behind one ear.
“Hi,” I said. “I’m looking for Oz.”
“Which Oz?” she asked. “The Oz museum in Wamego? Or Dorothy’s House and the Land of Oz over in Liberal? Or Wilson’s Emerald City where I used to work?”
“What’s the difference?” I asked.
She frowned in a friendly way. “Well, I guess the Oz Museum has got the old books and movie posters and a window from a Munchkin house and some jeweled ruby slippers—just copies of the ones in the movie. You can take a selfie with the Tin Man—he’s almost eight feet tall. Inside there’s a Haunted Forest that’s pretty neat, and a life-size Dorothy holding Toto.” She tilted her head, thinking. “But if you go to Liberal, Dorothy’s House has a Tornado Simulation Room that’s lots of fun, too. The Land of Oz used to be in the mall in Topeka, but now its next to Dorothy’s House. It has a yellow brick road, a wicked witch and the Emerald City—but the Emerald City’s kind of”—she gestured with her hand—“you know, fake-like. Well, it’s all fake of course. Wilson’s Emerald City where I used to work was the fakist of all.”
I nodded. “But where’s the real Oz?”
She laughed. “I think you can only get there by tornado.”
“When’s the next tornado?”
She laughed again. “This is October. They just finished up the OZtoberFest over in Wamego. We aren’t expecting any big tornados until spring. What kind of cookie do you want?”
“I’m not really hungry,” I said.
She narrowed her eyes. “Are you going to drive over to one of the Oz places?”
“No,” I said. “I don’t have a car.”
“It’s my lunch break,” she said. “Or maybe I’ll quit. I haven’t sold a cookie all morning. How about driving with me over to Wilson’s Emerald City. It’s not far from here. If you’re interested, that is. I could show you around.”
“That would be great,” I said.
She took off her apron, came out behind her counter, and pulled down the metal grill. She was wearing jeans and a t-shirt with skeleton ribs printed on it. She had tattoos on both her arms, snakes and sunflowers twisted together.
She grinned at me. “You can call me Dorothy. Are you the Scarecrow?”
“I’m the Tin Man,” I said.
“Great. He’s my favorite.”
Dorothy was parked in the shade of a skinny tree. We got into her battered Cocoon car and she gave it some voice directions. The car pulled out, and headed for the highway. Dorothy opened a bag of chips and offered me some.
“Not hungry again, huh,” she said. “I notice you don’t have teeth.”
“I’m a robot,” I said.
She blinked at me. “Wow. I’ve never met a robot on its own. What kind of robot are you?”
“I’m with the bomb squad. I dismantle explosives. Or I did. I’m obsolete.”
“But what are you doing here in Kansas.”
“I’m looking for the Land of Oz. The real Land of Oz.”
“Aren’t we all?” She bit into a chip, and then swallowed. She coughed a little. “Scratchy throat,” she said. “Should have brought water.”
I looked out at the stubble fields as we drove along. The sky was huge, full of big clouds puffing along like the covered wagons I saw in an old western movie I watched with Carter. Some of the clouds looked purple at the edges but there was no sign of a storm.
“What did you do in the Emerald City?”
“I was just a kid when I worked there. My Dad was the handyman, and my Mom sold tickets. I was a Munchkin. Later I got to be a Winged Monkey. I always wanted to be Dorothy. Listen, I hope I’m not humbugging you. Wilson’s Emerald City closed a long time ago. I haven’t been back there in years. I’m just so fucking fucking fucking bored! Ever get like that?”
The Cocoon car turned off I-70 and we headed down a narrow road between fields. The sky this direction looked like a huge hazy mountain. The pavement tilted up a rise, so it seemed as if we were driving into the clouds. I leaned forward. I thought I saw towers and steeples in the distance, and a green glow on the horizon.
“It that the Emerald City?”
Dorothy squinted. “Nope. That’s just pollution—blowing dust and ozone.”
We kept going. Soon we passed a faded sign that read Wilson’s Emerald City 2 miles.
“Almost there.” Dorothy pushed her hair back and adjusted her sunflower. She looked excited. “I hope some stuff is left. Like the yellow brick road and the big gate. The big gate wasn’t covered with emeralds but it was painted green. The Guardian of the Gates, that was my mother, always gave you a pair of green-tinted paper glasses when you bought a ticket, and that made everything else seem green, too. It was so cool.”
The car turned left down a gravel road. Weeds with little purple flowers grew in the drainage ditch, and vines were tangled over a barbed wire fence.
“Oh, shit,” Dorothy said. “Look at all this horseweed. Not a good sign.”
The car turned into a driveway that was choked with green bushes. The bushes slapped the car windows. Oozing black berries knocked against the hood but the car kept moving forward, then stopped at a clearing.
We got out of the car. There was nothing but a sunken hole and a few fence posts. Dorothy kicked at some weeds, and uncovered a few yellow bricks. A large bee buzzed around some white flowers. She looked up at the sky. I looked up, too.
“Gone,” she said. “It’s completely gone. No throne room, no Mr. Wilson trying to scare kids with his megaphone, no Wicked Witch, no Winkies, no display case with the silver shoes. You know the shoes in the book are silver, not ruby? We tried to be authentic here. You could buy green perfume in the gift shop. But Wilson’s Emerald City was just too far from the interstate. I knew it was failing even when I was a kid.”
Dorothy kicked at a yellow brick. Then she got down on her hands and knees and began digging it out of the dirt. “I’ll take something back from Oz,” she said. “This makes me so goddamn sad.”
She got the brick out. It was an ordinary reddish brick with a few streaks of yellow paint on the top.
“But this isn’t the real Emerald City,” I said, as she cleaned dirt off the brick. “So you don’t have to be sad. This isn’t Oz.”
“What do you mean?”
“This isn’t Oz. This is still Kansas.”
She laughed. “This is certainly Kansas.”
“But we can still go to Oz.”
She squinted and shook her head. “You’re serious, aren’t you? Well, you’re a robot. Do you know more than humans or less than humans?”
“So you think we can still go to Oz?”
“The real Oz.”
“The real Oz,” she repeated. “Yes, I would like to go to the real Oz, too. I once took a balloon ride and I even tapped my heels three times but when the balloon landed we were still in Kansas. Are you aware that Oz doesn’t exist?”
“What do you mean?”
“It’s fiction. It’s from a book, a movie. It doesn’t exist.”
I stared at her. I had emotion recognition software in my files, useful for recognizing terrorist bomb makers who might be lurking in the area of their devices waiting for the explosion, so I knew she was telling the truth as she knew it. But I knew she was wrong. The book was right.
“I think we can make it to Oz,” I said. “But do you really want to go? In the book, Dorothy keeps longing to go back home to Kansas. But if you’re not really Dorothy—”
“Actually I am Dorothy. Lots of girls in Kansas are named Dorothy. And this particular Dorothy wants to get the hell out of Kansas.”
“Then let’s go. Tell the car to take us to Oz.”
When Dorothy told the car to take us to Oz, the computer voice asked her if she meant Liberal, Kansas or Wamego, Kansas. The car did not start.
“See,” she said.
“Tell it Wamego.”
The car started. It backed up and headed down the narrow drive to the road, then headed toward the interstate.
“Look at the sky to the East,” I said. “It’s getting dark. That could be a tornado.”
“It’s only nightfall.” Dorothy opened another package of chips. “It looks like a storm because it’s so flat out here that you can see the dark rolling in for miles and miles. When I was a kid I’d sit on the porch before sunset and watch the dark coming at us like a huge black wing from the East. It was spooky. But when we moved to Topeka we didn’t have a view at all and that was worse.”
When we reached the highway, traffic was moving slowly and soon ground to a halt. Ahead of us a long line of cars and trucks stretched into the dusk. Nothing was coming the other way. A few people had gotten out of their cars and were milling about, talking to each other or consulting their screens. Dorothy pulled her own screen out of her pocket and scrolled for information.
“It’s a terrorist thing,” she said. “Some trucks loaded with explosives are blocking I-70. One already blew up and killed a cop. Looks like we’re going to be here for a long, long time. They’ve got to bring in the bomb squad by helicopter.”
There seemed to be something happening up ahead. A crowd had gathered around one of the cars in front of us. We heard shouting. Dorothy got out of the car and started talking to people on the edge of the crowd.
She came back, breathless. “This guy is having a heart attack. There’s a hospital not far away but it’s just past where they’re blocking the highway so he’s going to die. In the other direction, it’s three hundred miles to next hospital.”
I nodded. Robots didn’t have hearts. We had other things that could go wrong.
Dorothy looked at me. “Well, can’t you do anything?”
“What do you mean?”
“What do I mean? You said you were with the bomb squad. Couldn’t you defuse those bombs so we can get the road open and get this guy to the hospital?”
“I’m obsolete,” I said.
“But how do you know? Maybe these are simple bombs, old-fashioned bombs. You should do something. It’s your job.”
I was rapidly going through my files. She was 89 percent correct. You wouldn’t need a sophisticated explosive to halt interstate traffic. But if I volunteered to help I’d be caught and returned to the storeroom. It was 92 percent certain. I’d never make it to Oz.
And yet I remembered what I’d learned from Carter about losing girlfriends. He’d refused to fix a toilet. Dorothy wasn’t my girlfriend, but if I didn’t do something she wouldn’t be my friend either.
“Maybe you’re not the Tin Man,” Dorothy said, stretching away from me and looking out the window at the grey fields. “Maybe you’re the Cowardly Lion.”
My emotion recognition software registered extreme distress in Dorothy but I wasn’t feeling any myself. The Tin Man always claimed he needed a heart. Maybe this was what he meant.
“Tell the car to drive along the shoulder,” I said.
She jerked upright. She tried to high-five me but I only realized what she was doing too late and she hit her palm against my chest.
The car drove along the shoulder and sometimes in the ditch to avoid the many people out of their cars peering through the darkness. Long wavering shadows stretched out in the headlights.
Many lights blazed ahead. A man got out of a squad car and tried to wave us down but the Cocoon car swerved around him and reached the first barricade.
“Sir, Ma’am, you can’t be here!” a patrolman banged on the window.
We got out of the car.
“I’m a bomb squad robot,” I said. “The government sent me.”
“Are you crazy, Sir! Get back.”
“He is! He is!” Dorothy shouted. “He can dismantle the bombs!”
I walked toward the three big rigs that blocked the highway. They were lit up with klieg lights. The remains of the one that had blown up littered the road.
“Stop, Sir, or I’ll shoot!”
I felt the bullet enter my neck. It only penetrated the soft plastic padding and did not sever the electric wires running from my chest computer up to my eyes, but another bullet would put me out of commission. I turned and put my hands up.
“He’s not armed,” I heard Dorothy shouting. “Don’t shoot! Don’t shoot! We were just trying to help. There’s a man back there having a heart attack. We’re from Kansas!”
I stood there while the officers surrounded me and patted me down.
“He’s not armed,” one of them said.
“But he’s a robot,” another shouted. “A goddamn robot. He’s probably rigged to blow up. Get back, Ted. Get back. And don’t shoot. They want us to shoot him. He’ll blow us all to kingdom come.”
I began to take small steps sideways toward the shoulder of the highway and the darkness that began beyond the glaring lights. The officers all had their guns trained on me although they were afraid to shoot. No one was paying any attention to Dorothy. She saw what I was up to and she began moving in the same direction. I could see the skeleton ribs on her t-shirt glowing in the darkness. Soon we would meet up in a field and we’d both run like hell.
We were on our way to Oz but we were still in Kansas.