Story by David Bruns
Illustration by John Waltrip
The phone rang on a Thursday, right after lunch. That afternoon’s rerun of Law and Order was a good one, where Detective Goren tricked the old lady into admitting she killed her son. I’d seen it before—twice, actually—but no way was I going to miss seeing it again.
I have one of those TV setups where the caller ID shows on the screen. WHITE HOUSE, it read. I muted the TV, staring. Had to be a spoofed number. No way. On the fourth ring, it went to voicemail. I watched the message light flash all through the commercial break.
Damn telemarketers. I unmuted the TV to watch Goren wring the confession out of the old lady.
The phone rang again. WHITE HOUSE, the caller ID said.
Law and Order could wait. I heaved myself out of my battered recliner and shambled across the room. My knees were killing me, every wincing step a jolt of pain. The doctor told me if I didn’t lose weight, I’d probably need a knee replacement within the next three years, but what did he know? He wasn’t exactly skinny himself.
“Hello,” I barked into the receiver.
The voice on the other end was female, professional, cultured. “Raymond Henderson?”
“Yeah. Who’s this?”
“Raymond Henderson, Junior, born on August 20, 1957?”
I leaned against the counter to shift some of the weight off my aching knees. “Yeah, who wants to know?”
“Please stand by for the President, sir.”
The line clicked twice and a new voice came on, one that I’d heard a million times on the news. Strong, smooth, confident. “Raymond, this is the President. How are you this fine afternoon?”
I stood up straight, the pain in my knees forgotten. If this was a scam, it was the best one I’d ever heard about. “Sir…?” I choked out.
The voice on the other end of the line pretended I wasn’t grunting like a wounded water buffalo. “I’m calling today about the Freedom of Information Act request you filed, the one about your father.”
My chest tightened. “I’m sorry, sir, you’re going to have to be a little more specific. I’ve filed a FOIA request about my father’s death every year for the past thirty years. They’ve all been denied. The record is sealed.”
“I hear your frustration, Raymond, and I sympathize. But I’m calling today because I’m instructing the Air Force to declassify the file on your father.”
“You’re…” When you’ve spent the best decades of your life fighting against faceless bureaucrats, it sinks in somewhere around year twenty that you’re never going to actually win. You still fight, of course, but it’s only because that’s who you are—the guy who fights against the government. Now, I’d won.
My legs turned to water. I sank to the floor. A small corner of my brain tried to form better words. “You’re declassifying my father’s file?”
The voice on the other end of the line really did seem to sympathize with my plight. “That’s right. I know this is a shock, but we do periodically review these cases and decide to declassify them when we can. My administration has made a real effort to repair the Cuban relationship and this is one aspect of that effort.”
“So his death did have to do with the Cuban Missile Crisis? I knew it!” I was back on my feet now, my strength rushing back, feeling the zest of the hunt for answers like I hadn’t felt in a decade.
The President plowed on, ignoring my question. “I’d like to invite you to the White House next month for a full briefing on this issue and to award your father the Air Force Cross. Your father died for his country, sir. He died a hero. My staff will send you the details, but I hope you can make it.”
“I—I… Yes, of course. I’ll be there.”
“Good. I look forward to meeting you in person. One last thing Raymond. We’ve been trying to locate your mother. I understand she’s still alive, but she’s not accepting any calls. Maybe you could invite her for me?”
“My mother can be a handful, sir. She remarried and—“
“We’d love to host her at the White House all the same, Raymond. Your wife, too.”
Ex-wife, I almost said. I hadn’t talked to Sally in two years. “I’ll see what I can do, sir.”
“Good, I’m counting on you, Raymond. Have a good afternoon.”
“Thank you, sir.”
The line went dead and I was standing alone in my kitchen, surrounded by dirty dishes, leaning on a broken dishwasher. I stared at the phone, then thumbed back to the caller ID screen. WHITE HOUSE, I hadn’t dreamed it.
The heavy bass beat of the next episode of Law and Order blared out of the TV. I found the remote and shut it off.
— ♦♦♦ —
The spare bedroom was cold—I’d shut off the heating vent in here a year after the divorce. A thick layer of dust covered everything. The burst of energy I’d felt in the kitchen seemed to drain away when I crossed the threshold.
Towards the end of our marriage, Sally used to call this place the room where dreams go to die. She wasn’t completely wrong; there was a time when I was truly obsessed, but early on in our relationship she claimed that’s why she fell in love with me. My drive for the truth, my need to understand what happened to my father even though the rest of the world just wanted it to go away. At the end, that’s also the reason she gave for leaving.
How long does it take admiration to turn to jealousy? About ten years, give or take.
Ignore the negative nellies, I told myself. I lumbered back down the steps and rummaged through the laundry room until I found a ratty feather duster. Soon, my office was a cloud of displaced dust. For good measure, I hauled the vacuum out of the closet and cleaned the carpets in the whole upstairs.
Then I sat down at my desk and opened the first banker’s box. The picture on top of the stack was an old black and white photo of me at five years old, Dad in his Air Force uniform, and Robbie. The details were sharp. Dad and I were smiling broadly, our arms around the robot between us.
Robbie wasn’t the kind of robot you see in movies these days. He was squat like a trashcan, moved on treads, and had a single articulated arm. Under his glass dome, a pair of lighted sensor eyes poked out of a nest of wires and gears. A mesh bump in the middle of his chest served as a speaker for his tinny voice.
“Greetings, Raymond,” he would say every day when my father brought him home. The Air Force had given Dad a van with a lift on the back so he could bring Robbie back and forth from the missile silo where he worked.
Dad didn’t talk about work much, but I knew he and Robbie were partners. All the other missile men had human partners, but he was special because he had a robot partner. Mom wouldn’t let us get a dog, but that didn’t bother me—I had Robbie. Dad encouraged me to interact with Robbie; he said it “socialized” the robot. So I played fetch with Robbie and even taught him tricks, like spin around and play dead. We also watched TV together. My favorite was The Jetsons, a cartoon about a futuristic family with a flying car and a robot. Dad even moved Robbie’s charging station into the family room, right next to the TV, so I could talk to him while I watched cartoons.
Dad called Robbie a “purpose-built machine.” The robot’s articulated arm could hold and turn a key, and he had a slot right under his dome where Dad said he could insert a special card for work. But the coolest part of Robbie was right under the meshed speaker. Two holes that Dad said were guns. When I asked if they were ray guns, he laughed. “Just regular old guns, like all the missile men carry.”
Sometimes Dad would let me polish Robbie’s dome with him. We’d spray Windex on the glass then take turns buffing it to a shine. Dad would get out a small can of Brasso and polish the brass plate right under the dome. Pax in Virtute, it said.
“What does that say, Dad?” I was still learning to read.
“It’s Latin, son. Peace through strength. It means that in order to be safe we have to be strong so no one will mess with us. Right, Robbie?”
“Our mission is to counter the impending Soviet threat,” he replied. “We act to prevent nuclear annihilation through mutually assured destruction.”
“That’s enough, Robbie,” Dad said.
“Who are the Soviets, Dad?”
“Where is Cuba?”
He stopped rubbing the brass plate on Robbie’s shell. “Where did you hear about Cuba, Ray?”
“On the news. It’s on every night—”
“Cuba is a nuclear flashpoint,” Robbie interrupted.
“That’s enough, Robbie.” Dad’s voice was sharp. “It’s time for bed, Ray.”
That was the last time I saw my father—or Robbie. He was gone by the time I woke up the next morning. Sometime after lunch, two men in uniform showed up at the door and I was sent to stay with the Andersons next door.
I pinned the 8×10 picture of the three of us to the cork board above my desk.
— ♦♦♦ —
The next few days passed in a blur. I was up with the sun, walking three miles each morning before I started work. It was tough going at first, but the exercise made me feel like I was accomplishing something and my knees seemed to hurt less each day.
After the divorce, I’d thrown the contents of my office into boxes, as if by getting the decades of obsessive clutter out of sight I could hide the damage I’d done to my own life. Excavating and organizing the materials in the score of containers was its own kind of therapy. I handled each file, each newspaper clipping, and each picture as if they were precious artifacts. Slowly, the floor-to-ceiling cork board filled with a snapshot of October 1962.
The last item was a Mass card from my father’s funeral service. This card and the picture with Robbie were the only photographs I had of my father.
When you’re five years old, it’s tough to understand marriage. As a kid, I knew my mother wasn’t happy, but I always thought she loved my father. I was wrong. My mother hated the Air Force, hated South Dakota, and by extension, hated my father. When Dad disappeared, she couldn’t get out of South Dakota fast enough. We were on a bus headed east the day after the funeral.
I didn’t understand death, but I’d been told many times Dad was in heaven and was not coming home. Somehow, my five-year-old brain twisted that information to mean Robbie was coming home.
All I really remember about the funeral was the fact that my robot wasn’t there. I cried. Hard, but not for my dad—for Robbie. My father was in a better place, but where was Robbie? When I asked the other men in uniform, they got a strained look on their faces and patted me on the head.
I pinned the Mass card to the corkboard next to the picture of Robbie.
I’d taken my time reabsorbing the information I had collected over the years. My father’s death was linked with the Cuban Missile Crisis, of that I was sure, but official channels wouldn’t even confirm that detail. After all this time, I was about to be proven right, to get the answers I so richly deserved.
But first I had to deal with Mother.
— ♦♦♦ —
The Shady Pines Rest Home was not shady and there wasn’t a pine tree in sight. It was a two-story brick building in a Philadelphia suburb, surrounded by strip malls, box stores, and acres of parking lot. My mother had traded in the wide open plains of South Dakota for the wide open parking lots of suburbia.
The interior smelled of bleach and potpourri, with soft fluorescent lights and long, carpeted halls. My mother married again within a few months of my father’s passing. Steven, my new stepfather, and I never really bonded. It was clear from the beginning I was an unwanted third wheel in the relationship.
So I lost myself in comic books and superheroes, burying the indignities of childhood and plotting for the day when I would live my own life. I enlisted in the Air Force the day I graduated from high school.
Room 142 smelled of Chanel and mothballs—two staples of my mother’s life. I knocked gently on the door jamb. “Mom?”
She had her wheelchair parked in front of the TV, hunched into an oversized green cardigan that I recognized as belonging to my late stepfather. “What? Oh, it’s you, Raymond.” Her eyes were lost behind the glare from the TV on her glasses. She scanned me toe to crown. “You’ve lost weight.”
I blushed and sucked in my belly a touch. “A few pounds, maybe. I’ve been doing some cardio.”
She grunted, her eyes already back on the talk show.
“Mom, I got a call the other day. From the White House. The President.”
“They said he called here, but I wouldn’t talk to him.”
“Mom, they want to give Dad a medal. They want you there. I want you there.”
She shook her head, her soft white curls as stiff as cotton balls. “I don’t want it. He’s dead. It’s behind us—”
“Mom, the President said your husband was a hero—”
“He’s not my husband!” She slewed her wheelchair to face me, rolling so close she bumped into my shins. “Steven was my husband. Your father was…was.”
“A mistake,” I said. “Just like me.”
“That’s not what I said, Raymond.”
“It’s what you meant.”
I stepped back and touched the cool frame of the door. Normally after standing this long, my knees would be on fire, but I felt fine. Strong, even.
“No, it’s not, Mom.”
— ♦♦♦ —
When I got home, I walked around the block three times. Still dewy with sweat, I checked the mail to find the invitation from the White House in my mailbox.
The President and First Lady request the honor of your presence…
I stared at it for a long time, then marched inside the house and picked up the phone. My ex-wife answered on the second ring. “Hello?” A happy lilt in her voice as if she was singing the words.
“Sally, it’s me—”
“Oh.” The lilt was gone.
“I know we said we wouldn’t talk, but this is important.”
I plunged ahead. “I got a call from the White House—the President himself. My dad is being awarded a medal. His file is being unsealed and they’re going to tell me what really happened to him.”
As I rambled on, my vocal hodge-podge of non-sequiturs and half-finished phrases barely made sense in my own head, much less spoken out loud. It was like listening to a four-year-old explain his favorite movie. “Will you go with me?” I finished.
I could hear her breathing on the other end of the line. “Are you still there?” I said.
“I’m still here.” There was a thickness to her voice and I heard her sniffle.
“Please,” I said.
“I don’t think it’s a good idea, Ray. I’m glad you’re resolving your issues with your father, but—”
“I don’t have issues with my father,” I shouted.
My ex-wife hung up.
— ♦♦♦ —
Major Okumbe was a tall woman with skin the color of mahogany and close-cropped dark hair. She opened the limousine door for me at the White House portico.
“Mr. Henderson, it’s a pleasure to meet you, sir.” Her long fingers were cool and her grip firm. “Call me Natalie.”
I bounced out of the car. I’d spent more money than I had at Men’s Warehouse on a new suit, gotten a fresh haircut, and lost a ton of weight over the last few weeks. I barely recognized my own reflection in the car window. She swept her hand toward a door guarded by a marine. Natalie returned the marine’s salute as she ushered me inside.
“I trust your accommodations were satisfactory?” she asked.
I nodded. It was by far the most expensive hotel I’d ever been in, much less been a guest at. In truth, they could have put me up at a Holiday Inn Express and I wouldn’t have cared. I never even got into bed. The sense of personal history, of discovering the hidden truth about my father’s death, hung on me like a shroud. My mind was in overdrive, trying to record every detail, every sensation. This is who I am, I thought.
The major guided me down a carpeted hallway into a room with no windows. A flat-screen TV occupied one end of a dark wooden table and a coffee service at the other. Two chairs faced each other across a stack of files.
“Can I get you a coffee, Mr. Henderson?”
“No, and call me Ray, please.”
Natalie nodded. Her hand floated down onto the folders. “Your Freedom of Information Act request, Ray. In full.”
I drew out a chair and sat down, pulling the stack toward me. I licked my lips.
“If you want, I can brief you on what’s in there, Ray.”
“I—I’d like that very much…thank you.”
Natalie settled herself opposite me and flipped open the top folder. “Your father was a volunteer in an Air Force project known as Operation Mechanic. In the early sixties, there was a lot of concern that missile men would not launch in the event of nuclear attack, that they’d be constrained by their conscience against launching a weapon of mass destruction. At the same time, there was also widespread public fear about centralizing and automating the launch process, worry that a politician might push the button, so to speak.” She paged through the file as she spoke.
“The men in the missile silos work in teams to prevent an unauthorized launch. The Air Force looked for a solution that might fit into the existing two-person scheme, but be more reliable than a human. Here it is.” She laid a photograph on the table. “Operation Mechanic replaced one of the missile men with a robot—”
“That’s Robbie!” I said.
Natalie’s eyebrows went up. “You remember it?”
I picked up the black and white picture. Robbie’s clear glass helmet gleamed and his single arm was extended, holding a key. “Of course, I do. He was my best friend.”
“I see… The Model FXT7 robot, codenamed The Mechanic, was state of the art in those days. It employed a regressive emotional interpretation program designed to analyze and react to its surroundings. If the human member of the team failed to follow an order, the robot was programmed to complete the mission.”
“My dad used to bring him home from work.”
“That was part of the learning program. The robot was supposed to observe its human partner in non-work settings to establish an emotional baseline. There were some unintended consequences to that part of the process.”
“It had a gun, I remember.” I smiled in spite of myself. “I used to pretend it was a ray gun, like in the movies.”
Her gaze slipped away from mine. “You have a good memory, Ray.”
“What happened, Natalie?”
Her hands fluttered over the stack of files. “Ray, we don’t have to go into details on this. You were just a boy and what happened to your father was an accident…the details really aren’t that important—”
Her fingers drew a DVD out of the pile. Her gaze flickered over my face then her brown eyes locked with mine. “On October 26th, 1962, the day of your father’s death, the United States military went to DEFCON 2—an elevated state that we had never been at before or since. Ever. The world was literally poised on the edge of nuclear annihilation.”
“The Cuban Missile Crisis,” I said.
She held up the DVD. “What happened in Silo 26, your father’s duty station, was never supposed to happen. It was an accident. You need to know that, Ray.”
“Show me.” I felt like the temperature in the room had dropped ten degrees.
She fed the disc into the player. The flat screen flickered to life. “These are from the security monitors inside the capsule. They’ve been cleaned up and digitized, but otherwise unedited.”
— ♦♦♦ —
My Dad was eating a sandwich, leaning back in his chair, so lifelike I could almost smell the Brylcreem he used to put in his hair. Robbie sat a few feet away, the lights in his dome blinking softly.
An alarm sounded, causing Dad to sit up.
“Incoming emergency action message!” Robbie said. My breath caught in my throat as his tinny voice triggered a rush of childhood memories.
Robbie read off the authentication digits. Dad replied, “I have a valid launch message.”
“I concur,” said Robbie.
I’d interviewed so many former missile men; I knew this sequence by heart. Dad opened a safe and removed two keys. He placed one in the receptacle on Robbie’s arm and looped the other around his neck. He opened a thick manual and the pair went through a checklist to arm and target the missile. All this was normal. Every missile team did this drill every day as part of their readiness.
“Missile is ready for launch,” Dad said.
“I concur.” Robbie’s mechanical tones reverberated in the speaker.
The phone rang again. Dad answered; he was sweating. He hung up the phone. “We have the order to stand down.”
He returned to his seat, flipping the checklist to a new page. Dad’s gaze turned to Robbie and he froze. Robbie’s key was inserted into the launch module.
“Robbie, remove your launch key. We have a stand down order. Acknowledge.”
The lights under the robot’s glass dome were a whirl of color. “Nuclear threat analysis determines a launch is the most logical option.”
“Robot, I order you to stand down. Acknowledge.”
“Negative. The Soviet threat is imminent. This is the greater good.”
Dad’s weapon was out now. I could see the safety was off. His tone had a pleading quality to it. “Robbie, stand down—”
A shot, dampened by the speakers, rang out. A curl of smoke wafted from the center of Robbie’s body. Dad did a stutter-step. His gaze fell to his chest where a dark stain was already spreading across his uniform. He sank to his knees, the gun loose in his grip.
Robbie stood there, his key in the launch module.
The video froze on that final image. Natalie spoke in a soft voice.
“That’s how they found them both. Your father was hit in the heart; he died instantly. The robot still had his key inserted.”
I realized I’d been holding my breath. “What happened?” My voice sounded very far away like I was listening to myself from another room.
Natalie’s eyes were moist. “The diagnostic tools in those days were rudimentary, but the best theory is that the robot assessed the Soviet Union as a threat so grave it needed to launch a first strike. We think his access to TV and radio news reports caused him to come to this conclusion.”
I thought about the charging station in the living room, right next to the TV where my parents watched the news every night. “So it taught itself?”
She nodded. “We think so. All the robots in the program were decommissioned and destroyed immediately.”
“I still don’t understand,” I said. “Isn’t there a law that says robots can’t harm a human?”
Natalie’s eyes slipped away from me again. “It’s a greater good argument. Would you sacrifice one life to save millions? Apparently, the robot thought that was its choice. I’m so sorry, Ray. I can’t imagine what you must be going through.”
I didn’t say anything. I just stared at the image of my father frozen on the TV screen, next to his robot killer, my best friend.
Natalie fussed with the stack of files and cleared her throat. “We should think about heading over to the Rose Room for the medal ceremony…” The stack of files slipped. A shiny yellow plate spilled onto the table top. “I’m so sorry, Ray. I’ll give you a minute to—”
I turned the brass tag over. Pax in Virtute, it said. Peace through strength. It still had a slight curve in the metal from where it had been attached to the shell of the robot.
I rubbed my thumb across the polished brass.
“Are you okay?” Natalie asked.
The metal grounded me in the moment, but my thoughts tumbled. I had an urge to laugh out loud at the absurdity of her question. Was I okay? What emotion should I have at this moment? Anger at how the government had left me fatherless then covered it up for fifty years? Full of self-pity that the only parent who really loved me was killed by a hunk of metal that I still considered my best friend? Jubilant that I’d beat the system and gotten the answers that had driven me for so long?
I should have been all those things, but inside I was… empty. The past drained away and I felt brand new. Reborn.
I stood. “Can I keep this?” I held up the brass tag.
She shrugged. “Of course, I’ll have someone mail you the rest of these files.”
“That won’t be necessary.” I slipped the tag into my pocket. “I have everything I need right here.”
— ♦♦♦ —
Massacre. By David Busboom, Art by Carol Wellart
Woody Rooster woke up early that fateful morning. He knew what the job ahead of him entailed and what he would most likely face. He couldn’t help it if it was Valentine’s Day. Unfortunately his current doll, Frances, didn’t quite see it that way. When he explains that he would have to work late, she loses it. This sets the tone for the whole day. How bad can things really get for Woody? Find out only by reading this top-notch gangland story next week!