The sidewalks were clean. No touch of dirt, no hint of dust, no blemish of discarded, disregarded gum.
“So clean, you could eat off ’em,” said Earl. “Yeahhh, but they’re for walkin’. And that’s just fine, just fine…”
Earl closed the blinds to his living room window. He turned and walked over to a circular table which sat in the middle of the room. Opposite the table was a small television, hanging flat against the wall, which was playing the local news.
“What are they sayin’ today?” mumbled Earl, his eyes staying focused on the object on the table.
He scanned the object for imperfections. The object was like a vest made of flexible burnished platinum, its dimensions designed to conform perfectly with Earl’s body. On the back of the vest were fused a variety of slots, cavities, and brackets filled with tools that could be locked and unlocked at the press of a button. Every day, before Earl set out on his rounds, he made a thorough examination of the kit and tools, his life-blood and trust.
“Let’s check in with Lincoln―are there any updates regarding the impending retirements?” The voice came from a peppy female news anchor.
The camera flashed over to Lincoln, a correspondent in the field. Lincoln bore an uncanny resemblance to the 16th president. “Well, Marlene, we are pleased to announce that all but one human Sweeper have handed in their resignation. They were more than compliant, acting as a most gracious example of obedience that other citizens can model and admire.”
At this remark, Earl gritted his teeth and grunted. “Compliant? The real Lincoln never told a lie,” he muttered. “Billy ain’t the same man since you stole what was his.” Earl thought about his friend as he continued the examination.
“Excellent, Lincoln!” chirped the news anchor. “I am sure everyone is looking forward to the safer, 24-hour service that the replacements will provide.”
“Absolutely, Marlene. The old tools have been swept off of the market! No more accidents from faulty incinerators―or faulty humans, for that matter.”
Earl scowled and shook his head. “Acting like we don’t clean it up. You knock down one little monument, and everyone’s in an uproar. Nobody got hurt―just a bunch of bricks, no different than you fools.” He looked up from the kit at Lincoln, who was smiling with fake teeth.
The shot flipped back to the news anchor. She seemed overly excited at talking to the imposter. “And what about the last one?” she said. “There’s always a straggler, isn’t there?”
“There always is,” said Lincoln. “There always is. But soon he, too, will realize his place in our beautiful city. The dangerous tools and trinkets of his age must be recycled. He has done a fine job, but it has reached its completion.”
The screen became black. Earl clenched the remote in his hand and glared at the blank T.V. “You’re a disgrace,” he said. “And I ain’t goin’ nowhere.”
After a few tweaks here, and some screws tightened there, Earl slipped his arms through the vest-like kit. In a few seconds the front edges of the vest slid together and locked into place across his chest. He then strapped on the last bit of equipment to his wrist: the Litter Locator 5000.
“Begin it,” he commanded.
The watch-like accessory glowed orange in sync with the kit and let out a low hum. “Scan commencing,” said the locator.
Earl walked out the front door and began his day.
It was early morning in the city of Washington, DC, circa 2060. The capital had become known as the cleanest city in the nation. It had accomplished this by investing nearly all of its technological research and budget into janitorial advancements. Signs were posted on every other street corner with the city’s motto: “A clean city is a safe city.” Other cities may have had self-driving cars, drone delivery services, or 3-D printed houses, but Washington, DC had the Municipal Sweeper Force.
Earl’s locator rang out on-cue. “Sector H, Road E, Walk S: newspaper.” The city was split into numerous sectors, grouped into various districts of goverance for the Sweepers.
Earl tapped the device and mulled over the options of transportation.
“Not urgent enough for jet-boots,” he said. “The Silver Scooter, though―that’ll do the trick.”
He pressed a button on the Litter Locator, and the Silver Scooter was released from one of the brackets on his back, gears and locks and hinges snapping into place as it touched the ground, transforming into the ideal land vehicle.
Earl grabbed the handlebars and hopped on.
At his command, the scooter jolted forward and down the street.
Cars were no issue, as the scooter had its own dedicated lane: the “Sweeper Strip”. Almost everyone respected Earl’s territory and often waved when he went by.
Down one block.
Around a corner and flashing forward.
“Target newspaper approaching,” said the locator.
Fluttering along the ground, the discarded paper was unaware of its fate.
Earl drifted the scooter to a sliding stop, spitting up wisps of rubber smoke with impeccable style.
He tapped another button on the locator which triggered a hissing click on his back. In a swift motion, he reached over his shoulder and grabbed the now-unlocked Zygforce Xzorber, or as Earl like to call it, “Zyggy.”
A headline looked up at him from the paper: “Obsolete Human Sweeper to be Forced to Retirement.”
Earl scowled and reached for the trigger. “Retire this.”
The bowels of Zyggy opened wide as a jet-vacuum growled and inhaled the tawdry paper, ripping it to bits as it fell victim to the janitorial device.
“Time: 59 seconds,” rang the locator.
“Nice,” grinned Earl. “Back you go, Zyggy.” He cocked and locked his weapon of choice back onto his back, then tapped a button on the locator. The scooter unfolded in on itself until it was as inconspicuous as a silver cane―Earl then used it as such and moseyed down the now spotless sidewalk. “Beautiful day,” he noted.
The morning sun grew brighter in the hazy blue sky. Rays filtered down upon the city, life beginning to rustle forth and soak in the warmth.
By noon, 63 items had been eliminated in Earl’s district: cups, papers, wrappers, and the rare cigarette butt. All 63 went the way of Zyggy’s swift justice. It was a good run, a gracious run. But it had to come to an end.
“Sector P, Road U, Walk G: plastic bottle.”
A grimace stole Earl’s face from its recent jolly smile. “Right on the border of the general’s district. Great.” He was just showcasing the scooter’s propulsion stabilizers to a group of youngsters, and of course, it had to break his gregarious mood.
“Step back,” he ordered the crowd. “This one’s special.”
The scooter was back in place on his back.
Two boots separated from Earl’s back, swiveled in the air, broke in half, trembled with energetic magnetism, and clamped onto Earl’s feet in pairs. No time like the present.
The boots obliged and exploded Earl upward and over the nearest building.
“Must―beat―it―there,” Earl grunted into the pounding wind as he sped over roof after roof. Tears streamed from his eyes, drool from his flapping lips, a smatter of snot from his prominent nose. Occasionally he caught a glance from an upper window of a person gawking in shock or wonder.
“Target plastic bottle approaching.”
Cresting over the tip of a chapel, Earl angled earth-bound, flipped forward while triggering the reverse thrusters, and slammed into the ground with dramatic force.
As the dust of the impact settled (it could be sucked up later), a somersaulting figure bounded over the library opposite the chapel. It slammed into the ground in front of Earl, the lone plastic water bottle jittering giddily between them.
“Hello, Grant,” said Earl.
“Good afternoon, Earl,” said Grant.
“It ain’t even 12:05 yet. You should get your circuits examined.”
“Correct, the time is 12:04: precisely four minutes after noon. Perhaps you should get your head examined.”
A pervading silence hung in the air after Grant’s remark.
The city block where they landed was part of a sector of older rowhomes, made of a mix of red and gray bricks, fading mortar, and cracked concrete. Despite its aging decline, the cleanliness of the area gave it a vintage shine.
People crept out of their doors and confirmed the sight of the two Sweepers. Cars slowed, stopped, drivers and passengers alike turning their attention to the sidewalk encounter; pedestrians formed a pair of quivering crowds on either side of the duo, leaving a wide cushion of space as protection.
“I think they got the memo,” said Grant.
“They always warp the truth,” said Earl.
“Your way of life is over, loyal citizen. Like the confederacy, it must succumb to the will of the nation.” Grant extended both arms forward. His hands swiveled and withdrew into his jacket, a sword and musket replacing them; like Lincoln, he bore a remarkable resemblance to the his ancient counterpart. “Don’t be frightened, dear citizens! These are weapons of eradication, not death! I shall raze this man clean of that which corrupts him.”
Earl took a defensive stance and squinted his eyes. “You know, my dear presidential imposter…you could just leave this sector alone and we’d all be happy. They may have extended your domain for this purpose―but I don’t think they knew that their little toy would become another piece of litter.” He smiled, impressed at his own bout of smack-talk. “Bring it, Ulysses.”
The android dashed forward, its sword raised in anticipation.
Earl whipped out his most archaic tool with his left hand: the Riff-Raff Rapier.
Ducking his head, Grant thrust to Earl’s right and slashed at Earl’s back.
Expecting a frontal encounter, Earl spun around and barely managed to deflect the blow with the rapier.
Grant stuck out his musket and aimed it toward the vibrating weapon. The gun created a sucking vortex and snatched the rapier from Earl’s grip. A blast of heat and noise burst from the instant incineration.
Earl shielded his face and used his jet-boots to take two big steps back.
“Isn’t it nice to be free of clutter?” said Grant, hazy entrails leaking from his musket.
“Quite.” Earl unlocked and grasped Zyggy with both hands, pointing it at the ground. “Overdrive! Collect it!”
Zyggy’s mouth yawned, obeying its master. Infused with an injection of over-stimulated metallurgic energy, it began to collect.
The bottle flipped and spun and disappeared into the vortex.
“Time: 2 minutes, 12 seconds,” rang the locator.
The sound of the locator was muffled by the rumbling of concrete breaking apart and being ripped out of the ground. Bits, pieces, and then huge chunks cracked from their foundation and flew into Zyggy’s stomach, a black hole that never became full, a feat of technological storage that was stunning to behold.
It was now Grant who took a defensive stance and clamped his feet into the ground, swiveling his head towards the nearest crowd. “As you can see, it’s going to get a bit messy. There is no shame for the unarmed to retreat.” He swiveled his head back to face his foe. “Though the commanding officer shall do no such thing.”
A huge pothole formed between the duo. The rowhomes and cars trembled like an earthquake due to Zyggy’s ravenous hunger. Bolts and nuts from popped from their places to join the rest of the swirling debris.
At this point the crowds took Grant’s advice and backed away a good deal further. Some people ducked into alleyways, some into their homes, and some behind parked cars. All felt Zyggy’s pull, gradually becoming unsure if the old man had finally lost his mind.
“You shan’t move me!” said the android. “It is only a matter of minutes until your friend is full, a bloated reminder of times gone past.”
Earl was struggling to keep a grip on said bloated friend. He grimaced and squeezed with the whitest of knuckles, Zyggy shaking madly like a bomb ready to explode. “Steady―boy―just a little more food―”
The outline of Earl and machine was blurred in the quaking. An ear-splitting shriek accompanied each piece of matter that found its place deep in the stomach of Zyggy.
“I fear, Earl,” called Grant through the noise, “For your safety! It is not normal protocol, but if I must, I shall clean up your remains as well as that of your faulty tool which has ravaged this area. If you had followed your own protocol, then it may not have come to this―”
A burst of black smoke was all that was left as Earl disappeared.
Grant shielded his face expecting a wave of shrapnel, but none came. He peered at the black smoke that hid a small crater in the ground. “Well,” he said. “I thought it would have been louder.” He relaxed and un-clamped his feet from their tight grip. “The battle is won, but we have lost a fellow patriot today. Perhaps a memorial service is in order, the people seem to like tha―”
Grant looked up and saw a torpedo of trash flash through the sky. He barely managed to raise his musket in time, its angry vortex creating a shield that crackled and shook under the torpedo’s force. Pieces of the musket chipped away under the stress, Grant’s legs squeaking and cracking a bit as well. He squinted his eyes and turned up the heat, finally managing to turn the hunk of trash into ash.
About to let down his guard and recuperate, he saw another torpedo fly out of the sky, this time opting to jet backward and avoid the collision. The torpedo exploded when it hit the ground, the ensuing shockwave knocking Grant onto his back.
He scrambled to his feet and blasted upward, dodging left and right as smaller torpedos glanced off of his frame and exploded below into more debris.
The barrage stopped when he reached the height of his opponent, a good half-mile in the sky.
“Well,” said Grant, who would have been breathing heavily if he had been able, “Quite a show from your Xzorber―too bad it must be destroyed!” Attempting to catch Earl off guard, Grant sprinted forward with his sword raised.
Earl unleashed Zyggy again and flew backwards from the trash repulsion, his jet-boots keeping him afloat.
Grant imbued his sword with thermal energy and slashed through the torpedo, accelerating through it. He was greeted by another torpedo and slashed through that one as well, each successive swing flaring up compounding tension in his shoulder.
“You―shall―be―razed!” cried Grant, preparing to unleash his own final strike with a last propulsion from his feet.
His acceleration was greater than Earl’s repulsion, and soon Zyggy could feel the heat of the sword.
Earl grimaced for the worst as Zyggy vomited forth a final trash torpedo.
Grant’s sword was halfway through the trash before it bent backwards, unable to complete the strike. Together with the arm and shoulder it was attached to, the sword snapped off of Grant’s torso, the rest of the torpedo plowing a makeshift hole straight through him.
For a moment, Grant’s body floated in the air, sparks and flames crackling in the space where his chest used to be.
His eyes faded, words barely audible as his body fell from the sky. “Clean…shot…” His body quivered and dropped down and down, crashing into the large crater that Zyggy had created earlier, his musket hitting the ground first. A mini inferno flared up and encompassed the metal carcass as it hissed and melted into an indiscriminate mass.
“Whew,” breathed Earl. He drifted down to the edge of the crater and lay Zyggy at his side. “That was somethin’,” he said. He stood there for a little while, then cocked and locked Zyggy onto his back and pressed a button on the locator. “End it.” A blue glow appeared on his back, the device beginning to restore its systems to normalcy.
People emerged from their places of hiding. The damage was done, but it could be swept up. And Earl was the best.
“Just be a minute, everyone,” he said, waving his hand with a weary smile. “Good ‘ol Zyggy needs a rest, but in due time this’ll all be sorted out―”
The Litter Locator rang out with a notification. “Sector P, Road A, Walk J: gum wrapper.”
Earl sighed and rubbed his eyes. “Maybe I am gettin’ too old for this…” He took another deep breath and readied his Jet-Boots. “Well, Jackson…you’re next.”
He blasted off of the ground and back over the chapel, the last human Sweeper.