"Universal Basic"


Young William sat on the lowest concrete step going up to his house. He had a corroded iron rod in his hands, and just then was scrawling shapes in the loose red clay at his feet. The far-Northern California sun beat mercilessly on his shaved head. At nine years old he already had the tough ruddy complexion earned by overexposure, reinforced by poor hygiene. The iron rod left brown rust on his callused hands. He'd grown up imagining car parts into toys. His rough digits felt more at ease handling shredded tires and their wire plumage than ergonomic video game controllers.

Recently, the folks from Golden State Robotics had come into town and scooped up all the junkyards' stock-in-trade. Including from the Pick & Pull down the gravel road from William's house. The truss rod in his hands was one of the last things he'd spirited away from that Pick & Pull. That and a secret treasure he kept hidden away. He called it a treasure because he didn't know really what it was, but he knew it was special.

No one knew exactly why GSR had started buying up all the junk. Rumor said they were building a fleet of intelligent, humanoid robots. But no one William knew had seen one or even heard of one actually walking around. He doubted the technology existed, yet.

William brought his head up as he heard the soft crunch of car tires rolling slowly along the road in front of his house. He looked up and saw an expensive black sedan with a man in the driver's seat. William stared, curious. Cars that drove themselves, now. He could see the man in the driver's seat looking down at a tablet in his hands, then peer out his window; then back down at the tablet, then out the window. Finally, the car stopped and the man tapped his tablet, agitated.

William stood slowly, a languid, energy-saving affair, and strolled over to the stopped car. He alternately dragged his iron stick and used it like a cane, to keep weight off his bad leg. He stopped a few feet from the car, just as his reflection became visible in its windows. He didn't like what he saw of himself. He kept his expression neutral, but couldn't keep from self-consciously tucking his withered right leg behind his good left one.

The man looked up, started, then smiled. William saw his lips move, and the window came down. "Well, hello there, young man," the driver said cheerfully.

"Hi."

The man hesitated for a breath. "Yes, hi. How are you, today?"

"Fine. You lost?"

"Well," the man laughed, half-way between sheepish and nervous. "Lost, yes, a little. Is this Strawberry Lane?"

"No. That's the next road over." William pointed south at a street parallel to his own, half a mile distant. "Go back out onto Old Oregon Trail, make the next right." William turned around to walk back to his stoop.

"Uh, thank you. Little boy."

William only shrugged, back still to the man, and kept walking.

"Say," the man called out, "do you know those folks, over there? You're neighbors, right?"

William got to his stairs and sat down. He peered at the man, eyes squinted against the harsh sun until only one was really open. "No. I mean, we're neighbors, I guess. Don't know 'em, though."

"Uh-huh." The man looked out over the dusty field to the street the boy had pointed at. A dozen houses painted bright colors, with manicured lawns. The front edge of a suburban tract home development.

Then the man looked up and down the gravel road he was on: four dilapidated homes on cinder-block risers; an empty lot that looked like a ransacked junk-yard. No, he thought, this boy probably doesn't truck with the 'neighbors' abutting on his rural poverty with their middle-class largess.

"Yeah," the man said lamely. "Okay. Well, thanks again, young man." To his car, he added a quiet, "Window up."

William saw the window go up, saw the man inside tap his tablet as the car moved off under its own power, then he went back to work drawing shapes in the red clay at his feet.

*

Several weeks later William wandered through the old Pick & Pull, looking for new stuff. A distributor cap here, a bit of timing belt there. He didn't know any of the pieces for what they'd used to be; he only knew they'd escaped the predations of the robotics company. He didn't quite deduce that all they'd left behind were the majority plastic parts, the rubber, and composites. But some part of William perceived that all that surrounded him lacked a certain strength.

He didn't exactly know they'd stripped the metal, but he sensed they'd taken all that lent even a little vitality to the stricken wasteland of automobiles that had once comprised his world.

He knew nothing he'd find would compare to his treasure back home. But he liked to look, nonetheless. After all, he knew how to play with a seat belt or plas