On the Ball
Hoss felt like the little prince, balanced on the curved face of his own little planet. Around him solar cells dotted the landscape, recently rubbed clean of desert sand. The rest of the terrain was largely barren metal, with only a few soft patches of tire rubber poking up in places to provide grip, as though his planet was a giant spherical tire. But just for added traction, he had also added some spikes made from whittled-down tree branches.
The wind made a whirring sound. Above him hung his friend, a flying robot hanging from a hot-air balloon. He called it a paldrone, a friendly helper, and it rarely steered him wrong. Low on fuel now, it was soaking in sunlight while hovering in aerostat mode, suspended below a hot air balloon with the words Scraphound stenciled across, but the sun had baked away the first letter so now it just said craphound.
The sunlight was baking his legs. Hoss stood up unsteadily. Cables snaked around him, running from a little notebook computer down into several outlet-shaped burrows in the planet’s surface, while also connecting him to the paldrone above, letting it communicate with the rest of the universe on a faint one-bar signal and then relaying the messages down to him. Something was coming through, a message from above that if he could get his little planet moving again the powers that be would make it worth his while.
Hoss unlocked the cables and spooled them back up into his backpack, sliding off the planet and crunching down onto solid ground, back to reality and the baked-hard desert floor. His planetoid was really just a self-propelled spherical robot called a baub that had rolled off course during a rare Arizona monsoon and become stranded here at the base of a desert ravine. The robot was carrying a valuable cargo and its company was offering a bounty to get it back on track. Safe to assume that whatever it was carrying within its rolling exterior was valuable, and only accessible once the robot reached its destination.
Hoss felt something jostling against his feet. He looked down and saw smaller versions of his planetoid, sent here to try and rescue their bigger cousin. Most of them were broken. He picked one, half-buried and missing two flywheels, and punted it out over the hills like a volleyball. The other planetoids paused to look at him, wobbling unhappily in his direction, then resumed their jostling.
Hoss moved some controls on his computer and the little planet shuddered again, slowly beginning to move. Hoss helped it along by kicking away rocks and debris from its path as it ponderously began rolling along back up the hill. The spikes he’d added dug down into the cracks in the ground and gave it just enough grip to handle the slope. He unwound a cardboard girdle tangled around its equator and threw it aside as the robot crested the dropoff and heaved itself back onto level ground. Hoss clapped, and the little cousins made joyful beeping noises as they tried to follow. They needed a little help, so Hoss rescued them by shoving the discarded cardboard underneath them to give them a ramp.
The bigger robot rolled aside, letting its followers swarm around him enthusiastically, spinning themselves like tops to shed whatever clinging debris remained from their ordeal. As Hoss removed the wooden stakes, the paldrone descended in front of him, reporting that the bounty had successfully been earned.
The big baub was able to navigate on its own now, rolling confidently over the gravelly shoulder toward a two-line freeway buzzing in the evening air with the electric hum of so many human-guided vehicles going wherever, and at way above the acceptable speed limit. The sun was going down behind the Arizona mountains now, and Hoss was having thoughts about home. Across the road he saw a big double-decker bus parked at a station, but with no traffic lights or crossing signals in sight, he would have to wait until the traffic thinned enough to let him through, and by the time that happened the bus would be gone. Seemed like he would be walking home.
The big rolling robot paused to regard this traffic barrier. It made a strange noise, and then Hoss felt a subsonic ache in his back teeth as it mapped the surrounding environment with sound waves. Having gotten its bearings, it then slowly began to roll forward onto the road. Hoss stared at it blankly, suddenly realizing that it was too big to fit without taking up an entire lane, and with too much mass to shove out of the way the cars could only honk and slam on their brakes as they approached in both directions. The baub paused in the middle, seemingly indifferent, making a tiny rotation at Hoss as though beckoning in his direction. Hoss hurried across the road while the human drivers gawked at him and gesticulated rudely with whatever hand wasn’t holding a coffee cup or cell phone. Jogging stiffly to the opposite shoulder, Hoss reached up to let his paldrone land atop a gloved wrist like a returning falcon. He turned to look back but the big robot and its followers were already gone, speeding down the road, but still staying well below the posted speed limit.