MegaCats by Jonathon Burgess

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Cover

MEGACATS

Jonathon Burgess

Martin hated standing in line.

At least a dozen others waited to use the bulky alien Maker-machine. They tapped their feet impatiently, wearing whatever had been handy when the news went out. Kids chattered in excitement, comparing their hand-drawn designs with all the excitement of Christmas arriving on a warm June morning. The adults were more watchful. They anxiously scanned the field of rippling wheat, shading their eyes against the morning sun and clutching precise template printouts of their own.

Martin swallowed his irritation and reviewed his own blueprint for any mistakes. It depicted Red MegaCat Roarer, twelve inches tall and fully articulated. He was the best of all the MegaCats, though his friend Enrique argued about that. So Martin had rendered his template using a CAD program, based off of toy advertisements from the internet and even improving on a few things. The Ooleni Makers didn’t need such perfect detail, but that was how you got the best results. His design ended up being twelve pages long.

“What is the goddamned holdup?” growled Uncle Logan in the line behind him. His uncle rocked back and forth in his ill-fitting tracksuit, the laces on his sneakers still untied they’d run out to the field so fast. In his hands he held a greasy solenoid valve, probably taken from the old truck he liked to tinker with. A printout or drawing would have been best, but the big, cube-shaped Ooleni machines could scan things too, or even work from a simple description.

Martin turned his attention back to the drawing, only to freeze as a hand fell on his shoulder. Anxiety filled him, but it was only Uncle Logan, overly touchy as usual, trying to get his attention. Martin resisted the urge to jerk away. Instead, he looked at Logan’s kind and bearded face.

“Now Martin,” he said, “I know you’re only eight, but I need you to be clear about something, okay?”

Martin wearily nodded. He should be double-checking the spring-powered WarPaw on page five. Uncle Logan was using his men-talking-about-men-stuff voice though, which meant he was about to impart what he thought was hard-won wisdom. Martin had learned long ago that the best way to get through it was just to nod and pretend to listen.

“Good. Remember, this has to be a kind of secret. I mean, it’s not like a real crime, everyone uses these alien whatsits. But, I only brought you out here because you aced your report card. Again. You know your mother doesn’t approve.”

Martin rolled his eyes.

“Now don’t give me that, young man. She’s just doin’ what she thinks is best for you. Doesn’t want you getting a criminal record or whatnot.” He shook his head. “They’ll be legal before long, one on every street corner, if the aliens have their way. Feds can’t move fast enough to shut them all down. No more sneakin’ out to wheat fields at six o’ clock on a summer morning just to replace a busted solenoid valve. Which I’d have done already, if you people will get a damned move on!”

The last he shouted up at the square, silver-blue bulk of the Ooleni Maker. Others grumbled as well, and the old man at the front of the line made a weak excuse that Martin couldn’t hear.

A piercing siren drowned out all the complaints.

Two black Sport Utility Vehicles thundered towards them from across the field. Their well-hidden lights flashed red and blue against the wheat, and a heavy flatbed truck with an in-built crane followed along behind.

Some waiting in line to use the Maker ran off. Others threw their hands up, or yelled at the old man at the head of the line to hurry up. Not that it would do any good now.

Martin felt only dismay. His uncle was right—no one would be arrested. But he had really wanted to show off his brand new, alien-made Red MegaCat Roarer to Enrique later today. Behind him, Uncle Logan swore with feeling, then threw the broken solenoid he cradled into the dirt at his feet.

The SUV’s rolled to a stop just in front of the line, doors opening to disgorge ten professional men and women wearing the dark sunglasses and blue jackets of the Department of Economic Security. They made a perimeter around the boxy bulk of the Maker, securing it until their flatbed could back up. With a speed and efficiency that only came from much practice, they began to remove the Ooleni device. Martin could hear the machine squawking at the agents, complaining about the inequalities that a scarcity-based society forced upon reasoning sapient beings. They ignored the machine.

Three agents moved to disperse the crowd. They seemed in a hurry and made no arrests. The threat was there though, along with the holstered firearms clearly visible beneath their open jackets.

“Oh c’mon!” said Uncle Logan, throwing his hands out. “I just need a damned solenoid valve!”

“Then go buy one!” an agent shouted back at him.

SciPhiSeperator

The next Maker appeared a few days later.

It dropped into an abandoned lot on the north side of town, close enough that Martin felt the tremor while solving his homework. Enrique found it in minutes, connected as he was, and text-messaged Martin the location.

Mom was still cooking, so he grabbed his blueprint stack and ran out the door, his departure covered by the noise of a TV newscaster reporting an emergency international economic summit. Outside, the early summer evening was cool and clear. The neighbors were just emerging onto the streets, suddenly remembering an errand that needed running, or finding reasons to go for a walk. Every last one of them held a drawing or printout or old broken thing that needed replacement.

Martin beat them to the Maker. He found the lot behind a battered BurgerHeart fast-food restaurant and a defunct gas station. The Ooleni always picked a relatively harmless spot to drop a Maker, and even though Martin knew the math was improbable, somehow the machines caused no damage to their surroundings after falling down from orbit.

Anticipation made Martin’s palms itch. The only ones in front of him and Enrique were the night-shift crew of the BurgerHeart; two pimply teenagers and an overweight manager.

“You’re crazy,” said Enrique. “Blue MegaCat Yowl is the best. He’s always out in front, fightin’ the ZomBots.’” His friend raised his hands up, fingers hooked like the claws of a feline warrior. “Roarer’s always last, hangs back and whatnot.” Enrique took an excited swipe at an imaginary ZomBot.

That was why Roarer was the best. He thought things out, used his mind before joining in the fray with the rest of the MegaCats. Martin ignored Enrique though. He stared intently instead at the Ooleni Maker, only a dozen feet away, closer than he’d ever been to one before.

The machine was a bulky cube, silver-blue and nine feet long on each side. It stood in the middle of the old lot, perfectly poised on the warped asphalt, with a smooth surface like that of plastic or brushed aluminum. Fully half the face of the Maker was an open recession, revealing only a glowing blue surface orbited by three spindly mechanical arms. For whatever reason, the Ooleni had left it completely bare of ornamentation.

Martin let Enrique shadow-box, watching as the pimply teenagers ran off with freshly made treasure of their own. The line shrank as the BurgerHeart manager stepped up, his own makeshift blueprint in hand. It was a napkin scrawled on with permanent marker, which he thrust eagerly into the machine. Blue light flashed up from the pad, then the Maker spoke. Its voice was musical, righteous. It asked the fat manager questions about the design and his intent, which he answered eagerly. Then the Maker gave an affirming chirp.

A low hum reverberated about the parking lot. Even Enrique quieted at the sound. Then the napkin disintegrated in a flash. The spindly arms revolved once and went to work, moving like a spider learning how to dance.

An outline appeared, wide but flat. A television, Martin realized, as the screen spun out and glowed briefly to life. The fat manager had asked for a flatscreen plasma display, latest style on the market. The Ooleni Maker complied, arms busily creating. Martin watched as it worked, rapt.

“One television entertainment system,” chirped the Maker. “As requested.”

The fat manager muttered a thanks before eagerly carting away his treasure. Now only empty asphalt stood between Martin and the alien machine. He started, realizing that it was his turn now. Enrique was next in line, technically. But his friend would let him go first, and Martin would let him copy next week’s algebra test answers, which Martin had already predicted based on the school’s past exam habits. Besides, it wasn’t as if they wanted the same MegaCat.

Martin stepped past Enrique, freezing in mid-step as a siren wail echoed about the abandoned lot. A black Sport Utility Vehicle appeared, flashing red and blue lights across the Maker and the rather long line that had appeared by now to use it. On the passenger side door was stenciled the white crest of the Department of Economic Security.

Martin shared a look with Enrique, whose eyes were just as wide and worried. Then he scrambled for the Maker, moving at exactly the same time as his friend. They slammed up against the machine, rebounded, fought to keep each other from inserting their templates while doing so with their own.

“Greetings, young sapients!” chirped the machine. “On behalf of the Ooleni Federation, I would be pleased to create anything you require. Requests physically larger than the fabrication chamber will be constructed in multiple pieces, requiring several trips through the line in order to maximize fair—”

The thump of closing SUV doors echoed across the lot, joined by complaints and the sounds of fleeing townsfolk. Enrique had him in a headlock, but Martin kicked him in the back of the knee, shifting his weight enough that he could reach inside the maker. He slapped his blueprints onto the pad, before both of them went toppling over.

“Well!” said the Maker. “This is a simple enough request. And so elegantly detailed! One Red MegaCat Roarer, coming right up.”

“Hey!” said Enrique, as the machine flashed and the arms moved like a spider learning how to dance. His friend released Martin and sat back. “You owe me for this.”

The scuff of shoes on asphalt prevented reply. Rough hands grabbed them both, pulled them up to their feet. It was a federal agent wearing a frown and mirrored sunglasses. “Damn it kids,” he said. “You know this crap is illegal.”

Another agent pushed past to stand in front of the Maker. “All right,” she said. “Cease operation, you alien box of bolts.”

“Please wait in line for your turn,” chirped the Maker loftily. “Post-scarcity fabrication means equality and fairness—”

“Whatever,” replied the woman. She turned to the front of the lot and cupped her hands around her mouth. “Hey James! Bring in the truck!”

The Maker chimed like a microwave finished cooking. “One Red MegaCat Roarer, complete.”

Martin leapt forward with both hands outstretched, trying to dodge past the woman in front of the Maker. His shirt tugged up against his throat though, and the agent holding him pulled him back.

“Jesus kid,” said the woman. “Doesn’t anyone wait for Christmas, anymore?”

She yanked the bright red action figure from the Maker’s opening, then pushed past and out of view. Martin struggled, along with Enrique, but the agent holding them had a grip like a vise. He pulled them back out of the way as the rumble of a diesel truck filled the abandoned lot. Martin could only watch in dismay as the Maker, and his Red MegaCat Roarer, were hauled away.

“Aw, goddamn it,” swore Enrique, with enough feeling for them both.

SciPhiSeperator

Uncle Logan argued in the kitchen with Martin’s mother.

He tried to ignore them. Martin sat at the computer desk in the living room, working furiously. Past the monitor and through the window, the world went nowhere on a lazy Saturday. Behind him, some television talking head blared on about another the most recent failed diplomatic talk with the Ooleni.

“It ain’t a big deal, Sarah.”

“Not a big deal? Federal agents were at my doorstep, Logan!”

“But it’s not like he got arrested or anything.”

That was true, thankfully. He and Enrique had not been arrested, unlike the fat BurgerHeart manager. But being marched straight home to his mother was almost worse. And watching that agent cart away his Red MegaCat Roarer had been downright distressing. Martin had been grounded, of course, trapping him at home.

So he worked on something else. Everyone thought the Ooleni Makers were too small, but he was convinced that they were too big. Especially for a race that had mastered faster-than-light travel and nano-scale matter replication. Martin researched. He ran mathematical calculations on varying energy-to-matter ratios and read online papers by cranky physicists, who had tried and failed to solve the riddle of the Makers.

“It’s not just the feds! Those aliens are up to something devious. The stock markets are falling like crazy!”

“It’ll be fine, Sarah. The Ooleni say they’ve got it all figured out, that we don’t have to live in squalor, can be as rich as we want—”

“That’s a lie. The government wouldn’t have outlawed the Makers otherwise.”

“They’ll give up soon enough. The Department of Economic Security is ten times bigger’n any other agency, and they’re still swamped. Why do you think there’s so few arrests? The Ooleni just drop off another Maker as soon as the feds pick one up! And it’s not just here, but every city in the country. On the planet!”

Every time Martin closed his eyes, he saw Red MegaCat Roarer being hauled away by that woman. All that work on his template, all that effort being outside with people, wasted. It just wasn’t fair.

The physicists weren’t much help. They nattered on about sliding scale efficiencies and exotic matter, but their arguments were hollow. There had to be a logic to it, though. Martin knew there was a way of getting what he wanted. He just had to figure out the riddle.

“…I mean, Burundi. Burundi, fer chrissakes! I didn’t even know where it was until it hit the news. Used to be the poorest spot on the planet. This isn’t just happening here, Sarah.”

“I don’t know…”

“Mark my words. This ain’t going away anytime soon. The government’s gonna have to fold eventually. The wave of the future is literally falling out of the sky. Martin’s the brightest damned kid in the whole state, and beyond, probably. A little…uh…introverted. And he never says much. But do you want to keep him from learning this stuff?”

“I don’t know. What I do know is that he’s grounded for a month. And you’re not going to sneak him out to find another damned Maker!”

Martin looked at all the pictures he’d found online of different Makers. They were always the same, no matter where they fell. Idly, he sketched one out. A silver-blue cube, nine feet on a side, with a glowing pad and three little arms…

It came to him, then. Martin stared in wake of the epiphany, then frantically scribbled notations down, solved them, did so again. He double and triple-checked the math. Then he hunted frantically online for any corroboration.

So what if mom had grounded him? So what if Uncle Logan wouldn’t take him out, or if the Department of Economic Security kept pulling up the Makers? Martin had it now, the solution. Red MegaCat Roarer would soon be his.

Martin opened a new template file in his CAD program. He went to work, the stylus in his hand moving like a spider learning how to dance.

SciPhiSeperator

“You sure you want this?”

Enrique flipped through both blueprint templates, thirty pages in all. They didn’t describe a red MegaCat, or even a blue one. Martin knew his friend wouldn’t make any sense out of it. For that matter, Martin didn’t entirely understand it himself.

They sat on the front porch of his house, a laptop and a pile of schoolwork between them. Martin could go no further, grounded as he was. Besides, this was a trade that had to happen outside, away from his mother—it wouldn’t do to make her suspicious.

Out past the porch, the afternoon was winding down. “Two blueprints,” said Enrique. “It’s gonna cost you.” He tapped the stack of papers against his chin. “Next three tests.”

Martin gave a shrug as he checked the file upload progress on his laptop. He’d already determined the answers to his next two tests. A third was child’s play.

The ground shook with a faint thump. Another Maker had just fallen, off northeast near the mall.

“Well,” said Enrique. “I need to go, then. Adios.”

His friend stood and ran off, across the yard and down the street. Martin watched him leave, then started another file upload on his laptop.

The front door creaked behind him, slowly opening. His uncle moved quickly outside, trying and failing to be discreet. Uncle Logan had another part in hand from his old truck, a torn head gasket this time. Upon seeing Martin, he froze.

“Ah, hey sport.” Uncle Logan looked away sheepishly, as if embarrassed. “Just, ah, just running down to the parts store to get this replaced.”

Martin stared at his uncle flatly.

Uncle Logan sighed. “Look, I know. But I made a promise to your mother that I wouldn’t take you out anymore. At least…not for a bit. I’ll make it up to you, somehow.”

Martin picked another stack of blueprint templates and thrust them at his uncle. Logan took them with a frown. “What, you want something made? These don’t look like that toy, though…” His uncle shrugged. “Sure thing bud. I’ll get them after I get this gasket made, all right?”

Martin stared at him flatly, again.

Uncle Logan tried to meet his gaze for a moment, then his shoulders slumped. “All right, fine.” He pointed the stack of paper down at Martin. “But don’t think you can guilt me anymore after this one.”

A thump sounded from somewhere to the southwest. Logan glanced up sharply at it. “Hey, I have to go, all right?”

Martin watched his uncle run awkwardly off across the lawn, boots still unlaced. Then he picked his laptop up and checked on the file uploads. They were almost finished, now.

The arms were the secret. It had taken him a bit to figure out, but he’d gotten there, in the end. Three spindly arms in a silver-blue box, nine feet on each side. Three tiny arms. It was what everyone had missed. The big box, the Artificial Intelligence, the glowing pad; none of it was necessary. The arms did all the work. The rest were just added features for ease of use.

A black SUV rolled past on the street. The siren was quiet, but cleverly-hidden lights flashed as it led a heavy flatbed truck off to the northeast. Suddenly, it pulled off to the side of the road and screeched to a halt, the flatbed driving on past. The windows of the SUV were opaque, but Martin imagined arguing inside, and furious gestures. After a moment, the Department of Economic Security vehicle turned around and sped off southwest, toward the second Maker.

It would take a bit more work, still. Martin knew he need something to hold the arms, and a way to send them commands, as well as feed them resources. The Makers weren’t magic, after all. But he was confident that the Ooleni had thought this all out. It should be perfectly possible to use one Maker to create another. Or at least, the important parts.

Martin nodded in satisfaction as his laptop chimed. The last file upload was now complete. Enrique and Uncle Logan would come through with his new Maker arms. But even if they didn’t? His design templates were out there now, online, for everyone else to find. The Department of Economic Security couldn’t thwart him now. There would always be a Maker somewhere at hand.

Soon Martin wouldn’t have just Red MegaCat Roarer. He’d own the whole set.

Food For Thought

Humanity is very fond of owning things. It’s a universal trait, regardless of any creed, race, or nation. Usually, it means that we tend to argue over who owns a particular thing, or the process by which it’s made. But our technology is moving at an astonishing rate. Even in the last few decades digital goods have come to the fore, blurring the lines of ownership and production. Now, physical manufacturing is showing very strong signs of doing the same. When that happens, when it’s possible for all of us to have as many widgets as we want, will we comfortably adapt? Or just have another argument?

About the Author

A renegade wordsmith and unrelenting raconteur, Jonathon Burgess uses fiction to hold a mirror to the world. When not penning tales about questionably progressive nanotech and sky pirates he can be found haunting the Pacific Northwest, complaining about his beer.

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7 Comments

  1. I suspect that when we finally get there (and we’re coming close) we’re going to see the first starvation free depression ever. Of course, before we do that- we’re going to need a 3D printer capable of converting grass clippings into steak. But it is coming.

  2. You may well be right. Or at least grass clippings into something edible.
    Cows already work for making grass clippings into steak 🙂

  3. I like the way so many characters just want something (a TV, a truck part, an action figure) but Martin is the first to figure out that he wants something more important.

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