Public Relations

by Robert A. Jung (rjung@netcom.com)

Notes

All characters depicted or mentioned in this story are the trademarks and/or
copyrights of their respective holders, except for those that aren't.  Any
resemblance to actual people, alive or deceased, is coincidental, etc., etc.
Geez, it's just a story, guys.  Don't get too uptight over it...

                                    * * *

As he joined the other students heading for the athletic field, Jason wondered
how it felt to die.

The other third-graders were chatting and laughing as usual.  Behind him, Mrs.
Weller was yelling at Mike and Tommy to stop throwing paper balls at each
other.  Jason shook his head in bewilderment.

The line of kids filed out of the building, snaked past the cafeteria, and
wound up onto the bleachers.  Jason checked for splinters, then sat on the
weathered bench next to Susie Derkins, who was giggling with Gloria Perez
about something.  Jason could understand their flippancy -- what do girls
know, anyway? -- but it upset him that the guys were no better.

Principal Clarisson was pacing in front of the bleachers, occasionally
stumbling over the extension cord of the microphone in his hand.  It took
another ten minutes for the entire school to be seated, during which Jason
hoped that his death would be quick and painless.

Everyone cringed as a piercing screech cut through the air.  Someone adjusted
the controls, and the portable P.A. system fell to a low hiss.

"Hello, students," Mr. Clarisson's voice echoed.  "I'm sure you all know why
we're here today."

<Of course we do,> Jason rebutted silently.

The speakers popped twice, then continued.  "We just finished the final count,
and because of your hard work, you have all read a total of one hundred sixty-
eight thousand, three hundred and seventy-six pages!"

Jason applauded along with everyone else.  They only needed one hundred and
fifty thousand pages, but there were undoubtedly some nerds who helped push
the total over the top.  Not that he was thrilled with the achievement -- he
deliberately didn't participate in the book drive -- but because he didn't
want the other kids to stare at him.

Mr. Clarisson was clearly getting excited now.  "All of us -- your teachers,
your parents, and myself most of all -- are very proud of what you've done.
So, as I promised, boys and girls, let's give a really big William Buroughs
Elementary School hello to ... the Autobots!"

Everyone looked to the right as three vehicles drove through the open gates of
the chain-linked fence.  First was a small yellow Volkswagen, followed by a
green jeep and a large 18-wheeler truck.  A teenage boy was sitting behind the
wheel of the Volkswagen; aside from him, there were no other drivers visible.
From somewhere, a loud rock fanfare played.

The words "Congratulations William Buroughs Students" suddenly appeared in
ten-foot-high letters in the air.  The students cheered and applauded as the
caravan drove around the faded oval of the running track.

As the music ended, the three vehicles pulled to a stop in front of the
bleachers.  The teen climbed out of the car, carrying a ghetto blaster behind
him, and the cars unfolded into three giant robots.  A moment later, the
ghetto blaster leaped out of the boy's hand and transformed into a fourth, red
robot.

The kids screamed in uncontrolled excitement as the robots waved to them.  All
except for Jason, who watched with stony silence.

Finally, the crowd quieted down, and the Autobots introduced themselves.  The
small yellow one was Bumblebee, the green jeep was Hound, and the large red
truck was their leader, Optimus Prime.  Then there was the radio, who was
called Blaster, and Spike, the teenage boy.  It was Blaster who amplified what
they said, with a fidelity and volume that easily surpassed the school's aged
equipment.

Optimus Prime gave a short speech to the kids.  He told them about the
importance of learning, of listening to adults, and avoiding dangerous things
like drugs and smoking.  Jason and his friends had heard other adults tell
them similar things before, but he knew that some of the kids would be
inspired at hearing them from the giant robots.

Then it was question-and-answer time.  Almost every hand in the audience shot
up, waving for attention.  Principal Clarisson wandered along the bleachers,
trailing the microphone behind him.  He ignored the "trouble" students with a
condescending grin, a form of negative reinforcement for them to stay out of
trouble in the future.

One boy asked how they transformed; that was dismissed by Optimus Prime, who
would only say that it was "very complicated science."  He then encouraged the
boy to study harder so that he could learn it someday.

A girl asked about the glowing letters.  Hound explained that it was done by
him, with his hologram-projecting gun.  He demonstrated by beaming a giant
picture of her face over the crowd, mirroring her movements as an illusionary
flock of birds circled around her head.

Someone asked the little yellow robot what he could do.  Bumblebee said that
he didn't really have any special tricks, but that didn't mean he wasn't
important.  "Even if you're not the fastest or the strongest or the smartest,
it's still important to be there.  Just being yourself is enough."

Someone else asked them about hobbies, and Blaster ended up showing off some
robot-sized dancing while accompanied by a little Bruce Springsteen.  He ended
with a spectacular backward somersault, which drew some very enthusiastic
cheers.

Gathering his courage, Jason raised his hand.  After another girl asked about
the Autobots' home planet -- a world called Cybertron -- Mr. Clarisson picked
him, and put the microphone in his hand.

Jason stood up.  "Um," he said, surprised at first by how funny his voice
sounded.  "...My name is Jason Fandel, and I want to know, is when are you
going to kill us?"

There was a gasp from the other students.  Mr. Clarisson started to reach for
the microphone, but Optimus Prime interceded.  "No, let him speak."  When the
principal backed away, Prime asked, "What do you mean?"

"Well, um, you're robots.  And, um, everybody knows that robots kill human
beings.  So I just thought, if we all knew when you were going to do it, we
could at least get ready.  Like saying good-bye and things like that."

The students murmured again; without turning to look, Jason could feel Mr.
Clarisson and Mrs. Weller staring at him.

Optimus Prime hesitated for a moment.  "I think you have us confused with our
enemies, the Decepticons.  We have no intention of hurting anyone."

"You don't have to lie," Jason continued.  "We know how it really is."  He
handed the microphone back to Mr. Clarisson and sat down, averting his eyes
from everyone else's.

"It is not a lie, Jason.  We do not wish to harm you."

"He's telling the truth," the boy called Spike added.  "I've known the
Autobots ever since they came here, and they're our friends."

Mr. Clarisson quickly found another questioner.  He was visibly relieved when
the boy covered up the embarrassing incident with a query about Autobot food
(energy recharging, sometimes in the form of something called "energon").

The rest of the assembly proceeded without trouble; before long, the Autobots
bid their farewells and left.  The students filed back to their classrooms.
Some of the other kids teased Jason about his paranoia, but he simply ignored
them.  He knew that he was right.  <Maybe they didn't plan to kill us today,
but they will.  And then they'll all be sorry.>

                                    * * *

The trip back to the Ark was uneventful.  It felt good to help the school, and
even the most modest of Autobots could use a little adulation from time to
time.  Hound was a little disturbed by Jason's question, but Spike and Blaster
dismissed it as a misunderstanding on his part.  "Don't take it personally,"
Blaster said.

But Optimus Prime couldn't banish the incident so easily.  Back at the Ark, he
had Teletran-1 do a search on related references in Earth culture.  Then,
while Prime went about his normal duties, the Ark's computer followed its
assignment.  By tapping into the various communications systems on Earth, it
had access to almost every major network, archive, and database possible.
Culling them for cultural references to robots and computers was a simple,
albet tedious, matter.

Prime retreated to his private quarters later that evening and brought up the
report.  The earliest mention of robots was in a Russian story called R.U.R.
It featured a rebellion by man-made robots against the humans, and Teletran-1
noted the story FRANKENSTEIN as a similar precedent.  Prime slowly sifted
through the summaries, occasionally calling up details when something piqued
his interest.

Several themes appeared with disturbing frequency.  The most prominent was the
idea that robots and computers would eliminate humans for being "illogical" or
"inefficient."  Movies (THE TERMINATOR, 2001, CYBORG), publications
(BERSERKER, PARANOIA), television shows (STAR TREK, DR. WHO), even video games
(XYBOTS, ROBOTRON) all bore a common idea: that the machines would either work
to eliminate humans with unemotional precision, or control them entirely.

Though fewer in number, there existed depictions of robots that were not
entirely negative.  Isaac Asimov's stories had robots with the caring,
complexity, and depth of human counterparts.  Movies like ROBOCOP and SHORT
CIRCUIT showed computers and robots which helped humans selflessly and acted
in a respectable manner.

Even then, the sense of human discomfort with robots never truly vanished.
Asimov's robots were constrained by the "Laws of Robotics," which reduced them
to the level of subservient slaves.  STAR WARS featured its R2-D2 and C3PO
robots as buffoons, fit only for comic relief.  Data from STAR TREK: THE NEXT
GENERATION was an emotionless being who strived for "humanity."  In the end,
the majority of the humans' views showed robots as either unflattering
caricatures, nightmarish dangers, or appliances.  Not as equals.

Prime realized that there was little he could do about this situation.  The
humans' culture was of their own craft, after all.  <The best we can hope for
is to set a good example.  Perhaps, if the Autobots can earn their trust, the
humans can view us in a better light.>  But the thought saddened him.


<And yet,> he realized, <the majority of humans do not see us as a danger.>
Once, there was a protest by a small group of humans who declared the Ark and
the Autobots to be a danger.  But that incident died down quickly; Optimus
reasoned that, if most humans felt that way, such efforts would have repeated
itself by now.  <The lack of any effort against us should be some form of
proof that we are not universally feared.>

But Jason's casual insistence still haunted him.  With new inspiration, he
tapped a few keys on the console and began to look further.

                                    * * *

Jason walked home by himself, his backpack full of books slung over the left
shoulder.  Mrs. Weller had called late last night, upset over his question to
Optimus Prime.  Dad had reassured her that all would be taken care of.  But
aside from asking Jason to confirm what had happened (which Jason did),
nothing happened.

He turned as the sound of a car came from behind.  It was Spike, the teen from
yesterday, behind the wheel of the yellow Volkswagen.  Jason stood still as
Bumblebee pulled to a stop next to him.

"Hi there!" Spike said with a wave.

"Hi," Jason replied emotionlessly.

"Jason, do you remember us?"

"Um, sure.  That's Bumblebee, and you're ... Spike?"

"He remembers," Bumblebee said cheerily.

Jason fidgeted slightly.  "You're not gonna ... are you gonna hurt me?"

"Hurt you?" Spike asked.  "Why would we want to do that?"

"Well, um ... I thought, after yesterday--"

"That's why we're here," Bumblebee said.  "Optimus Prime was very upset.  He
wanted to see you again, Jason, and talk about things a little more."  The
passenger side door swung open.

"Hop in," Spike added.

Jason took a hesitant step backwards.  "Is he mad at me?"

"Of course not," Bumblebee said.  "He just wants to talk, that's all."

Spike leaned across the seat and gestured for Jason.  "It won't be for too
long.  C'mon, it'll be okay."

"Well..."  Jason hesitated, an ambiguous fear contending with curiosity.  It
occurred to him that if Optimus Prime had wanted to hurt him, he could have
done something already.  "Promise?"

"Promise," Spike said with a chuckle and a small smile.

Jason entered the car.  After being reminded by Spike and Bumblebee to put on
his seat belt, the three drove off.

At first, Jason tried to watch the road, in case he needed to find his way
home.  Then he noticed that Spike wasn't driving and commented on how funny it
looked.  Spike followed with a story about how he and Bumblebee once got
pulled over by the police for speeding, and the confusion that resulted when
the officer realized that, not only did Spike not have his driver's license,
but that he was too young to drive.

"So what finally happened?"

"Well, they decided that I was the driver," Bumblebee said.  "So I got the
ticket, and had to go to Traffic school!"

"You?  In traffic school?"  Jason laughed at the imagery.

Spike added, "Yeah, and Optimus Prime made all the Autobots learn the driving
rules, too!"

He laughed again.  "Auto-bots who don't know how to drive..."

"For a while, there was talk about making them apply for licenses, too!"

"Yeah, well..." Bumblebee said in embarrassment.  "At least I haven't gotten a
ticket since."

Jason wiped a few tears away.  "That's weird!  I thought you all got your own
rules or something."

"For some things, sure.  But Optimus doesn't think it's right for us to get
special privileges.  So most of the time, we follow the same laws you do.  And
here we are."

Bumblebee pulled to a stop.  Jason climbed out of the car and noticed that
they were in a grassy field, somewhere on the outskirts of town.  Next to him,
sitting on a rock, was Optimus Prime.  His levity vanished like mist in the
noonday sun.

"Hello, Jason."

"Hi, um.  Mr. Optimus, sir."

"Please.  Call me Prime."

"Okay."

Several quiet seconds stretched by.  Then Prime asked, "Jason, why did you
think we were going to hurt you yesterday?"

He shrugged.  "It's what everybody says.  Robots are always killing people in
the movies, you know?"

"I know.  But Jason, those are just stories."

"They're not real," Spike added.

"Ummm ... yeah.  But sometimes they are real, aren't they?  People get hurt
sometimes."

There was another pause.  Then Prime asked, "Like your mother?"

Jason nodded.

"I'm sure you miss her."

Another impassionate shrug.  "I was just a kid then."

Spike walked around Bumblebee and put his arm around Jason's shoulders.  "Hey,
I know how you feel.  My mother died when I was young, too."

Jason looked up in surprise.  "Really?"

"Yeah.  It was a long time ago, but I still miss her."

"Did the Autobots kill her?"

"What?  No!"  Spike frowned in discomfort.  "Jason, you can't blame the
Autobots for everything."

"Jason..."  Prime leaned forward slightly.  "I'm sorry about what happened to
your mother.  We tried to save as many people as possible, but we couldn't
save everyone.  That's why we fight the Decepticons, to stop them from hurting
even more people on Earth."

"But you're all robots."

"Yes.  But we are not all the same.  Just like you and Spike are different
humans, Megatron and I are different robots."

"If you say so."

Optimus Prime stood silent, looking steadily at Jason.  Both faces were
unreadable, unflinching masks devoid of all emotion.

Then, in a slow, steady voice, Prime spoke again.  "All I ask ... is that you
judge for yourself.  Do not believe all of the stories you hear, do not accept
all of the ideas you already know.  Instead, watch the news.  See what the
Autobots do, and what the Decepticons do, and what other people do.  See us
for who we are, and then decide.  Will you do that, Jason?"

                                    * * *

Jason turned off the bedside lamp and slipped into bed.  Dad had been late
getting home tonight, but the wait was worth it, since he had bought a new
bike for Jason.

Though he was understandably thrilled, he was also curious enough to ask his
father why.

"Why?  Because you stood up to those robots, son!  While all your friends were
gawking and cheering at those metal monsters, you stood right there and
confronted them!"

Jason decided not to mention his meeting with Optimus Prime, for fear of
ruining Dad's joyous mood.  All evening long, he was bubbling over with
energy.  "I'm so proud of you, Jas!  Those inhuman fiends may have everyone
else fooled, but not you!  You and I, we know them for what they really are!
And someday, you and I are going to warn everyone else, and then we'll save
the world from them!  I just KNOW your mother's looking down on us right now,
and that she's as happy as I am..."

Jason wondered about that.  He gazed at the darkness on his bedroom ceiling,
then silently mouthed, <All right, Optimus Prime.  I'll do as you ask.  I'll
see if you're as friendly as you say.  It's only fair.  But if you're wrong,
I'm going to spend my entire life to help Dad tell everybody about you.>

Jason rolled and wrapped himself in his blanket as he faded asleep.  <I love
you, Mom.  Please don't hate me.>

                                   THE END
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