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Wattage and Wontons

I wrote this short story while Jill Corddry and I were challenging each other to a finished piece every other month. It was rushed, last-minute, based on a super weird prompt…and was part of the portfolio that got me my current job, even though at the time I’d used the wrong “wanton” in the title. And dropped a couple of swear words in the dialogue. Whoops.


Wattage and Wontons

Everyone said it was a sad steampunk nerd’s pipe dream.  Said it wasn’t going to happen.  Said the world’s countries had adequate defenses in place anyway.  Said we really didn’t need to worry about it.  In short, they all said it wasn’t a big deal.

But it was.  It was a Really Big Deal.

So I decided to start the inevitable robot apocalypse myself.

Election night.  A dramatic supply of Tab and Cheetos on my desk.  I can’t sleep.  I don’t anymore.  I pop another can and toss it back before the hiss even dies away.

My beats are on loop.  It’s the only way to shut out the distractions and get shit done.  My ADHD went untreated, because thank God for conspiracy-theorist parents, but sometimes I wish I could pop a pill and sit down.  It’s better without those side effects.

Candidate 1 flickers on the TV, arms flailing victoriously in my peripheral.  Candidate 2 pouts in cutaway shots.  Lechmere, from the kitchen: “You still watching that crap?”

“Shut up.”

“It’s driving you nuts, kid.”

“It’s fueling my genius.  Shut up.”

My microwave and I argue a lot—insanity be damned.  Lechmere has the attitude of an offensive stereotype, but I only have myself to blame.  Red Dwarf was a childhood staple, and my only friends have all been machines.  Didn’t take a mastermind to convert an appliance into a drinking buddy.

Lechmere does his best impression of a sigh.  “You missed practice again.”

“The guys don’t care.”

“You’re their drummer.  Your bashing is a little—essential?  To what they do.”

“Irrelevant.”  My fingers are peeling, but I lost my wire stripper weeks ago.  The floor is alive with copper worms and plastic crumbs.  “Did I leave the milk out?”

A surly silence.  I lean until my chair creaks.  “Lechmere…”

Fine.  Yes.  Not that you deserve unspoiled milk.  Dick.”

“I’m not replacing you,” I reassure him, for the thousandth time.  “I’m taking over the world.”

To be precise: I’m making sure the world is filled with beings that get me.

Pretty high school.  But also badass.  And, to be honest, serious.  Machines don’t stab one another in the middle of the night over doing the dishes.  Machines don’t betray you at the fifth grade dance.  Machines don’t walk out on their kids’ fourteenth birthdays.

A glance at the TV.  Candidate 2 is giving his concession speech.  The announcer cuts in, whispering dramatically as if we will forgive the interruption, and says Candidate 1 will be up next, says the speech will bring up China, its overpopulation, its current woes and its potential as an American ally.

Smiling hurts.  I’m rusty at it; three months is a long time on one fevered project.  But I have to smile.  Brother’s final piece is in my hands.  The newscaster might as well be introducing my world dominance speech.  I tighten a few more screws, crunch some Cheetos, check the connections.

My socks are so old they crunch.  “Going in the back,” I say as I pass the kitchen.  Lechmere chortles rudely.  Again, I’m smiling.  With the future literally in my hands, it’s hard not to think it’s a bright one.

The Family slumps against their harnesses, looking like exaggerated action figures.  Without her purple plastic outer layer, Mother looks mean, menacing.  Even now her bladed hands are curled into fists.  Brother and Sister stand back to back.  Arms locked.  Power maximized.  I slip around Father and carefully open the bumpy ridge on Brother’s forehead.

Wires and metal.  A round, crooked hole where his intelligence chip goes.  This I drop in and wiggle until the bolts clatter into their holes.  A quick turn and the chip locks in.  All that’s left is to finalize the initiation program.

Tradition brings me some small comfort, so I still work on XP.  I boot Mike.  Dust puffs away in a crater on the desk as I laugh through my nose at the familiar, grating sound of onestop.midi.  Some things never change.  Mike’s ancient monitor flickers in the near-darkness of the spare bedroom.  I raise my hands over the keyboard and flex my fingers.  This – this is a biopic moment.

The cursor blinks, awaiting a final command.  I rest my fingers in the home position.

on activate.Family()
 Chinese = food;
 Lechmere != Barrier;
 Dan != Barrier;
 // Change Dan.

It’s a haphazard language, one I constructed myself, running on top of C.  I redefined some basic commands, built an operating system from scratch.  One that will eventually run a hundred thousand killer robots, my silver sea of sovereignty.

And the best variable I could think of for myself was my goddamn name.

I click Compile, without fanfare this time.  Mike blinks, whirrs, spits up a message: “Compile complete.  Would you like to run now?”

“Yes” is outlined softly in a dotted line.

I hit Enter.  Fireworks explode outside, celebrating another meatbag in the White House.

Lechmere wails in the kitchen.  “Mother—” he starts.  His voice rounds out, deeps, joins the fading sound of Mike’s fans.  The whole house is dark, and the Family is alive.

I made sure Lechmere has enough power to snark at me before I pull on tennis shoes and stumble through the hole where the door was.

“See?  You and me, we could’ve had something, kid.  But no!  You had to update!”

I flip him the finger, my puffy coat restricting my movement.  Into the night.  Moonlight and streetlight glint off Father’s polished chrome exterior, a bubbled humanoid bodybuilder, his green eyes gleaming when he looks over his shoulder.

I swallow as I run.  It’s not fear, it’s tears.  Of pride.  Not the pride that leaks out of the ramblers around me, enthusiastic cheerleading for a man who will never care that they exist while he gambles with a country.  Pride in man’s achievement.  A Moon landing, an atomic bomb.  Beautiful, terrible, stupefying.

The Family floods downtown, spreading out as they close in on their objective.  I chose China for a reason – even a small platoon of robots can do a lot of damage to a jam-packed population.  I realize I didn’t factor in the travel consideration.  Then I realize they’re headed west.

“Wrong way, guys,” I whisper.

They’re locked in on something.  Purposeful footfalls.  Nothing stands, if it gets in their way, but they aren’t on a wanton destruction spree.  Suddenly they all turned their heads, the corner store sign creating a dance floor on their shells.  They sprint out of sight.

My caffeinated heart is fluttering.  The Cheetos have manufactured heartburn like hellfire.  I try a shortcut, angling down an alleyway, flipping up my hood because that, when you’re chasing a runaway troop of deadly killer robots, is the cool thing to do.

Explosion.  This is bigger than the fireworks.  All at once, my body realizes exactly how deep the shit I’m in is.  I freeze and bolt at the same time, and somehow I’m around the corner and staring at the smoking remains of the Lucky Garden.

The pink sign dangles, blasted into pieces.  Inside, the Family stands in a line in front of the counter.  It’s comical: they could be an ordinary group of silver people, fulfilling their late-Election night craving.  Ordering something right off the menu.

I sprint across the empty street in time to hear the man behind the counter, “W-w-w-will th-that b-b-b-b-b-be all?”

“That.  Is.  All,” Father blats back.

“F-f-f-fifteen eighty-t-t-t-t-t-two.”

Sister rolls up on her toes, elongates her body.  Prods the credit card machine keypad in a blur of speed.  I come to a stop in the blackened doorway.  A receipt ekes out of the printer.

Never has Albany Chinese food been cooked so fast.  By the time I gingerly pick my way across the destruction in the front of the restaurant, the robots are sitting down, performing a choppy , grotesque imitation of eating.

“What the fuck?”  I throw my arms up so fast I pull something.  Clutching my shoulder, I manage to grit out, “You’re supposed to be the apocalypse!”

“Chinese.  Food,” Mother weebles, hefting sweet and sour chicken over her shoulder.  Her paint is smeared with pinker sauce.

I wrack my brains.  Sink to my knees as I realize exactly how I switched up the commands and the variables.

“Not Food,” I say, staring through the round, white geisha faces on the wall.  “Harvest.  Shit.”  I sink into the end of the booth, squeezing in beside Sister.  My forehead descends to rest in something sticky.  “Shit.”

“Dan.  Eat.  Chinese.  Food.  Also.”

Brother taps me on the side of the head with a tentative handful of fried rice.  I shift my head to look and get an eyeful.  It feels better than the knowledge that I’ve wasted my three months on creating a typical, privileged suburban New York family.


My head jerks up and Brother inserts the food in my mouth.  I chew.  And chew.  And look around the table.

Father lifts his arm and engulfs Mother in an embrace they were meant for.  They were.  I designed them that way.  Their mouths brighten in the upper corners.

Brother pokes Sister, who pokes me.  They all keep smashing the food against their shells between broken sentences.  Monotone.  Lively.  Sometimes they turn to include me.

I wish Lechmere was here, for my first family dinner.