No Respect for Swab-bots


Barque Elissa. The tall ship Aganippe in Carbon Run is much like this vessel. Photo courtesy Galveston Historical Foundation.

Here’s the opening scene from chapter 10 of Carbon Run, my novel-in-progress about life after global warming has taken hold of the earth. Bill Penn and his dog Maxie have joined the crew of a tall ship at a west coast port. The ships are needed in the 22nd century as cargo carriers, now that all carbon fuels are outlawed.

After changing Maxie’s bandage and leaving her to rest in the Aganippe’s forecastle, Bill, Micah and the other two dozen crew, their way lit by dimmed lamps, loaded the last boxes of food and supplies in the lockers, lashed down crates of ionic nanotube batteries in the engine room, and stowed the mooring gear. In the wee hours, at the tide’s maximum flood, workers on the pier loosed the ship’s bow and stern lines, letting the Aganippe float free.

The nav AI nursed the ship’s twin props and bow thruster, edging the ship away from the pier and out into the Oyehut River. But the ship crawled like a slug, and Bill got the sense that if the skipper could whip the marine electrics like pack animals to spur them, he would.

“God give me a bootlegged diesel that could get me somewhere before I die of boredom,” McMadden swore. Eerie amber light from the instrument panel illuminated his face from below, making him look like a wild man.

“What’s your rush? Not that I’m interested in hanging around.” Bill watched the lights of the pier flicker on the river’s chop.

McMadden’s sneer made him look demonic. “This place stinks of green.”

The captain spat a torrent of new orders at the AI, darting in and out of the wheelhouse as if he were a rat trying to find its way out of a maze. A tug stood by upstream, and when the Aganippe’s bowsprit cleared the pier head, the boat touched the barque’s hull just behind the foremast, like a gentleman touching the elbow of an old woman having trouble stepping down a curb. After nudging the Aganippe’s head toward Oyehut Bay, the tug backed away, and McMadden ordered all ahead full. The nav AI gave the marine electrics more juice, but Aganippe did not exactly leap at the command.

Mother Nature lent a hand. The tide began to ebb, and with the river’s easy flow, the ship gathered speed. McMadden temporarily turned the helm over to the bar pilot AI, which he had rented via netlink from the harbormaster’s website. As he was coiling a line, Bill saw McMadden slap the instrument panel in frustration.

“They ought to call ‘em ‘artificial intransigence’.” McMadden spat over the side. “They’re buggy, overpriced, and insubordinate.”

Bill noticed a man carrying a tablet so dirty he thought it had sat on the bottom of the river for several days. “You there!” the man called. “I’m Stubbs, the mate. You’re the new crewman. I need you to sign this.”

Stubbs had a five-day beard, a deep tan, and a receding hairline. His face, with one eye in a permanent squint, belonged to someone who had heard a thousand life stories, most of them bullshit. He wore a faded red flannel shirt, canvas pants stained with paint, and rubber boots. The heels were so worn, it looked like wedges had been cut. The tablet displayed the ship’s articles, Bill’s employment contract, which made him a topman, like most of the line crew. Lowest paid, hardest working. He would work aloft and perform general duties. He used the same alias for the hotel.

“You’re on ‘A’ watch, along with Panang over there.” Stubbs nodded to Micah, who gave Bill a thumbs up.

“What about my dog?” Bill said.

Stubbs shrugged. “What about it? It works, it gets paid and fed. It doesn’t work, you feed it and keep it out of the way. Clear?”

“Okay. I need some clothes. All I got is what I have on and my knife.” Bill glanced as his belt. He’d left everything else back at the Henderson Hotel, belongings he’d never see again. He didn’t mention the com.

“Slop chest opens up with the captain says it’s open. Now turn to and fast. Panang, come over here and lend the new man a hand with these lashings.”

The work tying down the lifeboat gave Bill a chance to visit to learn more about the voyage. “So what are we carrying, Micah? Where are we going? Judging by the amount of supplies, we’re going to be at sea for a while.”

Micah eyed Bill, as if judging his trustworthiness, or his intelligence. “Let me tell you something.”


“Remember I said the captain doesn’t ask too many questions? You shouldn’t ask a whole lot of questions yourself.”

“If you mean I should be grateful for the job, I am, but…“

“If you can’t control your curiosity, call up the paperwork on the net. The basics are there, if you can believe them.” Micah’s grimaced skeptically.

“Why don’t you just tell me?”

“If you haven’t figured it out by now, it’s too late.”

Something nudged at Bill’s ankle. At his feet was a low slung robot about the size and depth of a sauce pan. Its once-white casing was stained and chipped and a section was missing over one of its brushes. It sprayed soapy water in a corner and extended a brush in dire need of new bristles.

“That swab-bot has seen better days.” Bill moved out of its way.

“Pain in the ass, always underfoot.” Micah nudged it with her foot. “At least we don’t have to scrub the deck.”

The bot moved on.

Stubbs returned. The rain had stopped, and the eastern horizon was showing the first hints of dawn. “You two, aloft to your stations. We need to shake her out. We’ll make sail as soon as we’re over the bar.”

The sailors nodded and the mate looked down at his boots. The swab-bot had sprayed his ankle, like a dog marking a tree. “Damn!” He kicked it, and the machine landed upside down under the rail. It righted itself, like a turtle, and it continued its never-ending cleaning routine.

Feedback welcome!

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