Greetings, my inklings. It’s been too long! My health has been poor but my love for writing (and for you lot hasn’t waned in the least). My short story “MadWorm”, the winner of The Writing Piazza’s first ever writing contest, needed a new home so I’ve brought it here to our Octopus’s garden to share once more. I hope to have some new material for you soon, until then enjoy Runt and Heavy’s tech savvy adventure below and let me know what you think in the comments.
by Robert JV Christensen
Levi was on the driveway unboxing his senior project before letting it come inside.
“Kelly is going to go nuts when she sees you, Mobo,” he whispered to the heaps of plastic and carbon fiber plating scattered around him, “Where’s your head? Ah! There you go, buddy.”
“Honey, your brother is home, aren’t you going to come see him?” their mother called up to Kelly’s window from down in the yard. An unrepentantly cheerful voice sounded from an open window on the second floor in response.
“I have my routine, Mom! Heavy can wait.”
Mom set down the magazine she had been reading and rolled her eyes before shouting back, “Don’t call him that, Kelly-”
“It’s okay, Mom. It’s a term of endearment thing,” Levi said, his hands spilling over with copper wiring, “I think.”
Up in her room, Kelly was arranging her latest merch haul. With a final tweak here, an adjustment there, everything was perfect. She stood back and cast an admiring gaze upon her pristine collection of free new pre-releases from PineNut, her favorite tech company.
“I love being a tech blogger,” she grinned lifting her PineNut phone into place to snap another swag pic for her site. She zipped into the bathroom without taking her eyes off of the phone, perfecting the post with the most apropos emoji to capture the glorious life she lead.
Updating her profile was seamless as she dragged her PineNut comb across her punk-short neon pink hair, tipped in black. She was hip to death and the internet knew all about it.
She popped in her PineNut contact lenses to track her pupil dilation and blood O2 levels throughout the day, scrubbed her pearlies with her PineNut toothbrush, and managed a quick weigh-in on her PineNut scale. With a wink and a cheesy selfie, her hygiene for the morning was logged, and blogged.
“Kelly!” Heavy shouted from the yard, “I’ve got someone I want you to meet!”
“I’m coming,” she shouted before adding, “In another minute…or two!”
She stood before her neatly organized PineNut swag and agonized over what to try out today. Five minutes later Kelly burst open the front door and came running to her brother.
“Heavy! I’m so glad to see you!” she exclaimed.
They embraced and Heavy lifted her off the ground with a jump and a spin before setting her back down.
“You could’ve fooled me, Runt! I thought you weren’t even going to come outside.”
Their mother let out a sigh and weakly prodded, “Levi, your father and I gave you both real names, would it kill you to use them?” Heavy shrugged and pointed at Runt.
“That’s TechRunt98,” Kelly said striking a spy pose, using her finger as a gun, “PineNut guru and all around internet star!”
“Shut up, your readers are all self promoting back-following dorks. Nobody reads your blog,” Heavy said with a devious grin.
“You’re just trying to make me mad cause you have a camera and you think my mad face is funny…instead of terrifying…which it is. But you won’t get to see my mad face, because your wrong! I’m syndicated now! I got picked up by WildWired publishing and now I get free PineNut stuff almost every month!” Runt beamed before a dark look of unmerciful joy gleamed in her eyes, “You jealous?”
“Wow, I guess I would be if you weren’t getting free garbage. Nobody uses PineNut, sis,” Heavy’s hand lowered into his pocket.
Her brand impugned, Runt struggled to contain herself, “The camera phone,” she thought, “It’s coming. Suppress. Mad face.” Runt gave her mother a pleading look and threw her hands out to her sides. Mom held back a smile and motioned back to Heavy with her eyes.
“That’s why I got you this,” Heavy said producing a pair of white framed glasses with a pinecone imprint delicately inscribed on the left temple, “Nobody at the lab could use them since they’re PineNut. They were gonna throw them out so I mentioned you and got to keep them. My TA thinks you’re cute and wanted you to have them.”
“Okay that’s incredibly creepy but GET OUT! Those are the new PineNut Netscopes, nobody can get those outside the company!” Runt practically tackled Heavy and excitedly took the glasses and put them on.
Mom piped in, “Well, I’m not entirely certain because you’re tech talking but it sounds like you’re getting along well enough that I can go to the bookstore.”
“I can probably buy books on these,” Runt said, motioning to her new Netscopes with a hopeful grin.
“I want a book, honey. You know, with pages? No batteries, tactile feedback, you know…books. Don’t break your brother’s senior project and be good to each other, okay?”
“You act like you have to tell us, Mom,” Heavy said with mock innocence.
“I do have to tell you,” Mom said with a smirk.
They waved goodbye to her as she told the car where she was headed and leaned back to rest along the way.
“So didn’t you say you had someone you wanted me to meet?” Runt asked, waggling her finger between her eyes and the Netscopes’ lenses, “Good thing there’s no correction on these or I’d be in funhouse mirror mode… my eyes are like super protected now under layers of swag.”
“Yeah, Runt, let me power him on,”
There was a click and a whirr of a fan starting up and the grind of servo motors.
The pile of scrap plastic on the driveway stood up and turned to face Runt and Heavy before it took an awkward bow.
“I’ve been working on him for four years so before you say anything know that I’m sensitive,” Heavy said.
“He’s, uh, big,” Runt said. The robot was about seven feet tall, gray and blue with six cameras serving as eyes in two triangle arrangements on his head. “Is he supposed to be horrifying? Is this why you didn’t show Mom? Oh! Is this a prank?”
“Oh come on, Runt! I told you I’m sensitive! Mom already saw him before I packed him down at school and she thinks he’s a miracle of engineering. Besides, he’s not horrifying, he’s Mobo! The Mobility-Bot. He’s big so he can help people get around. He can lift over seven hundred pounds gently, Runt. That’s finesse. He cooks, he cleans, gets the mail-”
“Kills the mailman with a deathray?”
“No. No deathray.”
“You spent four years building this at university and you didn’t put in a deathray?”
“No I did not. Seriously though, what do you think of him?”
“I don’t really know, I mean he’s got these spider-demon eyes and he’s almost two feet taller than me. As a tech reviewer I gotta say presentation is lacking, bro.”
Heavy sighed in disappointment, “Well looks come last in robotics, so maybe you’d like him better if I showed you what he can do. Have you had breakfast?”
“No, not yet. I was thinking about going downtown to this ultra posh pancake place.”
“A posh pancake place?”
“You need to get out more, Heavy.”
“Let’s stay here, come on, Mobo can make pancakes or corn cakes or cupcakes or whatever, even stuff that’s not a cake.”
Runt’s day, which had been stretched out in front of her like a map of awesomeness was being crumpled up into a nerd ball by her brother. Heavy eagerly awaited her reply.
“You know, I could take you with me and you could sort of see what I’ve been up to…” Runt unconfidently offered.
Heavy’s eyebrows lowered and he screwed up his mouth. The sad face. Not the sad face.
“Okay,” Runt relented, “I will eat food prepared by your robot.”
“Yes!” Heavy performed an exaggerated fist pump and guided Runt and Mobo inside. Mobo, who’s enormous frame collapsed down to neatly fit through the door, quickly scanned the kitchen.
He opened all the cabinets and drawers and the fridge to identify what he had to work with before announcing, “There is sufficient material here to perform several culinary tasks. Would you like a list or shall I… surprise you.” The word surprise came out with a bizarrely sinister intonation.
“I don’t think I want to be surprised by someone who says it like that,” Runt said with a raised eyebrow.
“Too much?” Heavy said, “I’ll tone it down in his coding. He’s supposed to be fun to be around. I guess I watched too many Vincent Price films while putting him together.”
“Wasn’t he Egghead on the old Batman TV show?” Runt asked.
“How do you know about that show?”
“Internet. That’s kinda duh, bro.”
“Eggs it is,” Mobo said, “Would you like eggs Benedict, scrambled eggs, eggs over easy, sunny side up, poached, deviled, soufflé, casserole, egg noodles, parent-and-child donburi, takoyaki, takoyaki, takoyaki-”
“Woah, hold on Mobo, stop!” Heavy came over to his robot who was trapped repeating “takoyaki” over and over again.
Holding her ears as the incessant food suggestions only grew louder, Runt shouted, “Takoyaki is octopus balls, there aren’t even any eggs in it!”
“There are too eggs in takoyaki!” Heavy yelled as he pulled off the backplate from Mobo’s shell and started typing on a hidden keyboard. Mobo calmed down.
“I put all those recipes in there,” Heavy said, “There’s definitely egg in takoyaki.”
“I wouldn’t call it an egg dish though,” Runt added skeptically.
“Yeah, there’s something wrong with him. He’s been acting weird ever since the security at the airport took him apart and scanned his components. I hope they didn’t mess something up.”
Mobo hung his head, “I’m sorry, inhibition was like, 404, know what I’m saying?” Runt laughed and Heavy cocked his head at the massive robot.
“That’s hilarious! At least his error messages are awesome,” Runt said.
“One of the guys at the lab probably put that in,” Heavy said with a groan, “It’s gonna take forever to find that in the code and make sure they didn’t ruin anything.”
“So what does he run on? Did you come up with your own OS?”
“Oh no, we couldn’t get funding if we did that. I guess we’re just like everybody else. Optium pays big money for research based on its systems and it’s compatible with everything so that’s a plus.”
“It’s not compatible with PineNut,” Runt said smugly.
“And that’s a plus for PineNut? I’m glad you’re pleased with yourself being a digital islander but in the robotics industry we need seamless integration not hipster products that don’t cooperate with anything else.” Heavy’s tone caused Runt to flinch.
“Yikes, sorry I said anything,” she said diverting her eyes and twiddling with her phone. Heavy pounded a few keystrokes grouchily before he stopped and sighed.
“I’m sorry, Runt, I was just frustrated. PineNut’s okay. I didn’t mean to grouse at you.”
Runt quickly lifted her phone and snapped a photo of him before Heavy could change his expression, “Sorry face! Added to the gallery of expressions. I’m totally turning you into a meme.”
This was Runt’s way of accepting an apology. Last time it was “guilty face” and Heavy ended up becoming known as “Let Down Guy”, an image macro series about admitting stupid things you’ve done that ended badly for others. Three of his friends from the robotics lab went as Let Down Guy for Halloween that year.
The lights flickered and Mobo did a quick spin in place, inadvertently elbowing Heavy in the shoulder blade.
“OUCH!” Heavy cried out, “What did you do that for, Mobo? You’re supposed to watch out for people.”
Mobo’s head tilted up and he became fixated on the light fixture.
Heavy tried to see what Mobo was looking at but gave up and asked aloud, “I wonder what caused that power blink? Are they starting brownouts this week already?”
“Let me check the net,” Runt said, setting her phone aside and pressing a finger to the pinecone symbol on her new Netscopes. From Runt’s perspective a holographic keyboard appeared hovering before her and a screen array popped open. All Heavy could see was the thrill on her face that only the shiniest most exclusive new tech could bring her. She squinted, confused, and pulled out her phone.
“What’s wrong, are they having trouble hooking into the network?” Heavy asked, reaching out as if to fix them for her.
“Come on, it’s not like I don’t know how to work this stuff, I’m so tech elite I’m like nobility,” Runt replied as she set the glasses on the table for Heavy to inspect, “Yeah, it’s happening with my phone too. It’s the weirdest thing, I can get to most sites but they’re like…scrambled.”
“Scrambled it is!” Mobo shouted gleefully as he began setting eggs neatly in a row on the counter top, “I shall fetch the frying pan!”
“Should we stop him? He’s not gonna burn the house down is he?” Runt’s concern was only partially feigned.
“He’s fine, that’s one of his better recipes. Mobo, garlic powder is in the upper lazy susan.”
Mobo stopped working and turned to Heavy. He leaned down to eye level with his creator and said in a very serious voice, “Susan is not lazy. Susan is working very hard so you have food to eat.” Mobo turned back to his work and began delicately cracking the eggs into a bowl.
“Do you know any Susans, Heavy?” Runt asked with a laugh.
“Not a one. I should probably shut him off but it’s a lot quicker to troubleshoot with him booted up,” Heavy said.
“If you’re sure. But I’m serious about the net, it’s like it’s all screwy. Can you check it out on your computer?”
Heavy opened his laptop on the kitchen counter as Mobo went to turn up the heat on the stovetop.
“Woah, you’re right. Nothing’s coming up. I’ll go through the university satellite uplink and see if it’s just our connection.”
Mobo lifted the bowl of eggs up on top of the refrigerator and began placing the cracked shells along the floor at even intervals. Runt stared curiously putting her Netscopes back on, for style, before Heavy shouted in dismay.
“Woah, what!? Nothing’s working. I almost got through to the Government Network Alerts System before that one went down too. It said something about an international security breach before the text turned upside down and started deleting itself.”
“You’re joking, that’s not how computers work even when they’re messed up,” Runt replied with the deadpan look that had shot down a million other leg pulls that Heavy had tried on her in the past.
Heavy turned his computer screen to face her and she watched with alarm as the GNAS website randomly rearranged itself into the words, “Hello, World! I’m MadWorm”. As they watched, a dozen download bars popped up on screen and in seconds the computer blinked off.
“What!? What just happened?” Heavy started pounding at his keyboard, trying to restore power to his laptop as the oven door swung open blasting with heat.
“Mobo, what are you baking?” Heavy asked, annoyed, but Mobo was nowhere to be seen. The seven foot robot had wandered off.
All at once the house shook, the bowl of eggs on the fridge flew to the floor and the cupboards rattled. There was a terrible sound of shattering glass and crunching metal coming from just outside the kitchen.
“What was that?” Runt said as they both started for the front door. They were stopped in their tracks as they reached the living room where they saw an overturned automated car that had plowed into their front stoop and straight into the foyer. There was no sign of a passenger.
“Was there anybody in it?” Runt asked, panicked. The house lights flicked on and off again and a strange digitized voice came up from behind them, “Over easy, over easy, this will be…”
“Mobo you’d better power down,” Heavy said as they turned to face the Mobility Bot. Mobo was stretched up to his full height with a frying pan in one claw and a large knife in the other.
“This will be over easy,” Mobo said as he spun in place, knocking pictures from the mantle and slashing a deep gash into the wall.
“Okay, that’s not funny,” Runt said as she backed away.
“He’s terrible at stairs,” Heavy said hastily, his eyes wide.
“What’s that supposed to mean? Just shut him off!” Runt shouted.
“I can’t shut him off! Just run!” Heavy said goading Runt toward the steps as Mobo advanced on them.
Nearly falling over themselves, they tore their way up the steps. Heavy was hanging back to make sure Runt could get away as Mobo shouted up at them, “But what about your eggs!?”
“Okay, now I’m really glad you didn’t give him a death ray,” Runt gasped as they slammed the door to her room. She handed her phone to her brother and reactivated the network on her new glasses. Heavy looked at her skeptically.
“What am I supposed to do with this, the entire network is down,” Heavy lamented.
“Not the entire network. Nothing works with PineNut. You have to go through all my social networks, every site, every app that’s exclusive to PineNut products and see if anyone is talking about this. Search for that MadWorm thing.”
“I see…Okay, islander, maybe you’re onto something,” Heavy said as he began searching in earnest. He flinched as another crash came from downstairs in the kitchen. It sounded like Mobo was still trying to cook.
“Here,” Runt exclaimed excitedly, “MadWorm is some kind of virus. You’re not gonna like this.”
“Oh phooey, I thought it was the kind of virus I liked,” Heavy said.
“Ignoring that,” Runt continued, “It got into the airport security system. Everything scanned over the last forty eight hours was infected. Everything that ran on Optium, that is.”
“Great, so why are the lights, the oven and people’s cars going nuts?” Heavy asked.
“Everything powered by Optium that comes in contact with MadWorm infected devices is getting cross infected. Oh no…OH NO!” Runt gasped and balled her fist against her hip, “This is bad. This is extremely bad…Mom!”
“Oh man, you’re right. She’s out there in an automated car! We’ve got to do something. My computer is fried. Can we call her?”
“No, calls aren’t going through,” Runt’s eyes darted across pages of posts, “the cell service that coordinates calls seems to have waited to go down until a few days after the virus first became diffuse. It’s hitting everything at once so it’ll be harder to contain. At least I’m still getting into PineForest, Mom’s got an account on there too but she’s not responding to my texts. I’m asking if anyone has a fix yet. At this rate, even basic data access could go down at any time now,” Runt’s fingers flew as she sent out a dozen posts asking for solutions. Heavy dropped Runt’s phone onto the bed and groaned.
“Has anyone found anything to counteract it? Shouldn’t the authorities be doing something about this?” Heavy stood and pulled at his hair. He looked outside to see that more automated cars were careening through people’s yards.
“Yeah, of course they’re trying but they move at the speed of government. We’ve got to move at the speed of technology,” Runt said as her hands swept across an invisible keyboard only she could see.
“What can we do, Kelly? Mom’s in danger and my stupid senior project is gonna burn the house down if he doesn’t stab us to death first making eggs!”
“It’s TechRunt98, Heavy,” Runt said, doing her spy pose once more, “I’ve got this. And if I don’t I probably know someone who does. I’ve got some followers who aren’t exactly, um…ethical.”
“Yes because ethics is what’s really holding us back from defeating Mobo the killer chef,” Heavy threw himself back on the bed with a groan. Runt let out an excited squeak and slapped Heavy on the leg.
“I got a message here on PineForest from a hacker called BlasTrix, she’s got a PineNut based code worked out already to take on the virus, she’s calling it EarlyBird. She’s sending it to me now.”
“What? That’s nuts, there’s no way she’s already figured out a way to interface PineNut with Optium to deliver a counter program to stop a virus that the world just discovered.”
“BlasTrix hates Optium, she already had her own virus worked up to interface with and shutdown anything running it. As for figuring out MadWorm, she says the virus’s code is extremely simple. It just keeps repeating and integrating itself into other lines of code until all the intentional signals get corrupted. Her program basically butts in front of the virus and tells the whole system to shut down.”
“Wow, she was just sitting on a virus that could crash city hall? Remind me not to upset your fan base,” Heavy said as another crash came from downstairs, “I just hope we don’t die!”
“But she doesn’t have anything here about how we’re supposed to get it from the PineNut device into an infected unit. She said it was originally meant to be delivered by a corrupted Optium flash drive, but anything coded in Optium would just crash before it could transfer the data.” Runt looked around her room frantically, “We’d need to use something wireless cause there’s no way I’m touching your robot right now. Agh…dang it dang it dang it…”
There was another crash downstairs and Mobo’s voice could be heard as his volume modulation was completely out of control, “I can perform many culinary functions! Many- many- many- many- many-”
Runt was still standing there, not moving, looking over her PineNut tech. Heavy sat on her bed watching her nervously.
“What is it?” he prodded. Her hands were outstretched, hovering over her collection but she just stood stock still and stared down at the neatly organized collection of electronics.
“I- uh…I don’t know what to do, I don’t know if any of this stuff can communicate with, well…anything else! I only know PineNut stuff, I don’t know Optium tech,” Runt cried in exasperation. Her hands were shaking. Heavy moved in and began turning the devices over one by one looking for battery doors and fine print.
“Optium uses third wave wireless tech, that’s about when it stopped getting better and there’s tons available. Does any of this use 3rd wave hardware from Kyler?” Heavy said as he sorted through her swag rapidly. Heavy placed a hand on Runt’s shoulder and she steadied.
“No, I think it’s all fifth wave stuff by YouVue. And by the way, there were improvements to security in there, so third wave is just standard cause it’s cheap, okay? Wait, but there was one thing I’ve got that I reviewed a little more harshly because of the security issues…my toothbrush! It’s got third wave wifi!”
“Good. Give it to me,” Heavy said.
“It’s in the bathroom. Are you one hundred percent certain he’s bad at stairs and no death ray.” Runt eyed Heavy with caution as she glanced toward the floor to indicate who she meant.
“I’m sure. He definitely won’t find a way up here,” Heavy said, a little embarrassed, “Stairs are his kryptonite.”
Runt snuck down the hallway with Heavy on lookout. Mobo’s crashing had gone quiet but he could be heard rambling in the living room, “Go on. Go ahead. Eat. You like. You’ll like this. Eat it.”
“I think he’s trying to feed the houseplants,” Heavy whispered, “I actually was having some problems with the facial recognition. Something about leaf shapes gets him confused.”
Runt shot him a grim look and chided, “And you still thought he should cook breakfast?”
“He’s not finished yet,” Heavy hissed.
Runt quickly nabbed her toothbrush from the bathroom counter and they rushed back to the bedroom.
Heavy pried open the back of the toothbrush and took a look at the components.
“Seriously, a smart toothbrush? Why?” Heavy said as he tinkered with the miniature wifi antennae.
“For your information, hygiene is important to physical and mental health and sharing brushing habits has been proven to encourage others to maintain their hygiene as well. That’s what I wrote in the review.”
“Wow, sounds like you were really scathing,” Heavy laughed as he tinkered with the toothbrush, “Okay, now the major problem with these third wave antennae is that they basically leak data when you break off this little part here,” there was a small snap and Runt winced. Heavy dropped a small black piece of plastic on the counter top which she swept into the trash can.
Heavy continued, “You gave me an idea when you mentioned that third wave wifi isn’t very secure. You were right… and now your toothbrush is less secure than ever. Any program you put on this is going to be broadcast to every electronic device around it. But the signal will be pretty weak. We’ll have to get it close to Mobo’s router which is just under his left shoulder plate.”
“Thanks so much, Levi!” Runt said, throwing her arms around her brother’s neck. She quickly linked up her Netscopes with the toothbrush and began uploading the EarlyBird program onto them.
“So what’s your plan with that?” Heavy asked.
“I’m gonna throw it at your robot,” Runt said.
“Is that it? No catchphrase or pose?”
“If it works we can work on a superhero transformation sequence for next time.”
Heavy followed Runt down the hallway where they stood against the wall, just around the corner from the stairwell. Sirens and the squeal of tires could still be heard outside where things were only getting worse. Runt clutched her toothbrush tightly in her hands. Heavy swiftly moved around the corner as Runt looked at him with surprise.
“It’s my robot, I should be the one to do it,” Heavy said, holding out his hand for the toothbrush, “Let me risk it. I mean, what if you miss?”
“I won’t miss,” Runt said, reaching out for Heavy’s wrist, “so don’t worry about it. We just gotta find him and this will do the trick to turn him off.”
Heavy looked at her with a somewhat pained smile,
“So this is what it’s like watching your sister grow up, you’re making me feel old and useless, Runt.”
“That’s only cause you’re old and useless, Heavy. You’ll make some nice lady a great pet one day,” she said grinning at him.
There was a great crack and the floor bent strangely underneath them. Heavy wobbled where he stood and disappeared as the floorboards broke apart. In the sudden dust and noise Runt watched in panic as her brother clawed wildly at the air before crashing down in a heap. In the room below Mobo had begun smashing the ceiling apart with the fender of the crashed car. The robot turned his head down to stare at Heavy who lay groaning on the floor among the debris. Mobo raised the fender above his head, ready to slam it down onto Heavy’s body.
“No!” Runt shouted and before she could think she leapt down through the hole onto the massive robot. She thrashed and stabbed, jamming the toothbrush between the neck and shoulder plate of the robot as it began to spin around the room, smashing into the walls. Runt was flung to the ground behind the couch and Mobo toppled over with a crash and stopped moving.
Runt’s phone began to ring, the sound was like change in a pocket and a cheerful voice sang, “Jing-jing-a-ling if you got yourself a quarter, honey, give me a ring.”
“Runt…” Heavy’s voice came weakly from where he lay on the floor, “Runt are you okay?”
There was silence and then a pained groan.
“Yeah, I’m alive anyway.”
“Then answer that stupid phone…that song is just…terrible,” Heavy whined.
“Wait…” Runt started to struggle to her knees, “That…That’s Mom’s ring! It’s a text from her on PineForest!” She fumbled with her phone, tears streaming down her face as she read, “It says, ‘Made it to the bookstore fine…computers screwy, gonna lay low here for now. Whole city in lock down. Chaos. Be safe. Love you kids, be good to each other.’ ”
Heavy pulled himself slowly to his feet and rubbed his neck. “Thank God she’s okay,” he croaked. Runt crawled up from the floor and brushed a cloud of dust from his shirt making little difference to his disheveled new look. Heavy stared at the overturned car jutting into the living room.
“So this really is going down everywhere then?” he asked.
“Oh yeah, it’s…all over the country…maybe the world,” Runt said in a haze.
“Then I think I know what we’ve gotta do, sis.”
“What’s that, Heavy?”
“I’ll get Mobo up and running using PineNut, we’re gonna need his help… then grab your toothbrush and let’s go save the world.”