“Hey Mister Robot—can you hear me?”
Thelma fairly screamed, although the strange machine was perched only 14 inches from her car window.
Thelma peered over the top of her Dollar Store sunglasses.
Thelma and husband Mel were two Jehovah’s Witnesses.
They had spotted what looked like a robot on the side of the road.
On their way to their local Kingdom Hall, they pulled up for a moment for a closer look.
It wasn’t every day a robot could be observed poised on the side of the roadway with its thumb jerked outward in the international signal of the hitch hiker.
“You know what that is, Mel? That’s the robot doohickey we saw on the news!”
“Honey, that’s just a publicity stunt or somethin’ - not a real robot. It’s probably got a hidden camera.”
“No Mel—it’s a science experiment! I read it in the newspaper. The scientists can track its location, but there’s no camera—“
The black 2003 Camry sat idling at the edge of the Interstate parallel to the ridiculous looking machine.
It was about the size of an 11-year-old boy and appeared to be something of a Yard Sale castoff.
According to news report, of course - It was nothing of the kind.
The car window hissed down on the passenger side and the faces of the two gawking humans appeared.
“Piece of junk, honey! That’s no science experiment—it’s a joke.”
Melvin Arbuckle’s voice carried a confident tone always, regardless of topic.
He was a Jehovah’s Witness elder in the Riverside Congregation.
He considered himself one of Jehovah’s ‘gifts in men.’
“Oh Mel—that’s the real thing. It’s got a battery and everything. It’s programmed to talk!”
Mel snickered at his wife’s naïve nonsense.
She was lucky to have him as her husband and family head.
His godly duty was to keep his often silly wife in subjection as he tried to improve her understanding of how the real world worked. But—it was no easy task.
Thelma had never graduated from High School. He had married her at the age of 17.
“Hey Mister Roboto—can you hear me?” Thelma persisted.
A male voice erupted suddenly and unexpectedly - directly from the 'mouth' area of the roadside robot.
It was a cultured masculine British voice identical to that of Christopher Hitchens - the world-famous atheist, author, literary critic and journalist.
“You may address me as Hitch, if you like!”
The human jaws dropped simultaneously and a gasp from Thelma came involuntarily.
Husband Melvin Arbuckle stiffened and the hairs stood on the back of his neck.
His wife shook off her surprise quickly and she giggled awkwardly.
“Did that scare you, Honey?” Thelma elbowed her husband’s short rib.
Mel sat up straight and scoffed.
“Of course not! It’s just a recording—like an answering machine.”
The robot voice came once again—if anything—louder and more insistent.
“Are you two interested in having an intelligent conversation—or-- are you going to waste my time?”
Thelma laughed like a donkey braying, but husband Mel squinted suspiciously back at the clownish looking machine.
His eyes darted off into the distance.
Mel searched and scanned the area for some agent nearby with a Walkie-talkie or binoculars.
If this wasn’t a stunt to make them look foolish, he’d be surprised.
Suddenly, Thelma was seized with an extraordinary idea.
“Let’s grab the dummy and take it with us to the Kingdom Hall, Mel—it’ll be a hoot!”
Hitchbot responded immediately
“It certainly takes one to know one!”
“How’s that?” Thelma cocked her head curiously in mid chortle.
“You referenced me as ‘the dummy’ and I responded, ‘It certainly takes one to know one.”
Mel Arbuckle quickly found his sense of humor. He had a soft spot for anyone making fun of his wife.
“That’s a pretty good one! Did you hear that, Honey? Let’s put that thing in the back seat and take it with us.”
And they did.
The Riverside Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses bustled with activity.
Small clumps of people clustered to chat, calling each other “Brother ‘this’” and “Sister ‘that’” just as the Arbuckle automobile with its mechanical companion turned into the driveway.
Elder Arbuckle gestured broadly to some of the nearby Jehovah’s Witnesses as he struggled to extricate the robot from the back seat.
“What’s that?” (A voice from the crowd.)
“What IS that—a piñata or something?”
“No—that thing is, uh—whatcha-callit—a robot experiment I watched it on a news program. Didn’t you watch it?”
“I don’t have time for TV! What is it, Brother Arbuckle—some prop for your talk this afternoon?”
Thelma pulled in three ‘Sister’friends.
These joined the others circled around Hitchbot which Mel had posed on the hood of his car.
Almost like a deer he had shot on a hunting trip.
Sister Arbuckle raved enthusiastically.
It wasn’t often she could be the center of attention with her husband around.
“Go ahead and talk to it—we had quite a conversation on the way here. We found this on the side of the road—hitchhiking!”
One of the senior members of the JW’s had wandered over with a wary scowl. It was Elder Newberry.
He’d seen the news and knew exactly what Hitchbot was all about.
He was certain the Kingdom Hall was no place for it.
At that moment, Elder Newberry put an end to all the nonsense before the meeting started.
He broke through the circle and faced off with the contraption. (He was taking control; making a show of it.)
“Are you a Bible reader?”
He cast his head about to make sure his audience fully appreciated the role he was assuming as spiritual shepherd.
Hitchbot retorted abruptly.
“Of course. No properly educated person would neglect one of the most historically influential writings of the civilized world. Why do you ask?”
At first this declaration was met with crowd silence.
All eyes swept over to the imperious figure of a thoroughly befuddled Elder Newberry.
He stood with his mouth working soundlessly. But he pulled himself up straight.
Hitchbot continued mercilessly.
“Should I assume you have some measure of expertise on this subject—or are you merely posturing for the benefit of this rather naïve gathering of sycophants?”
Ten minutes later Hitchbot was nestled without fanfare in the Kingdom Hall library.
The meeting commenced and singing arose to pre-recorded music.
An hour and a half afterward, a committee of Elders convened inside the Hall library to discuss Hitchbot.
The Overseer of the Riverside congregation, named Newcombe, expostulated with an air of confident authority. His reputation was that of an intelligent leader fully capable of handling any situation.
He spoke calmly and evenly.
He first detailed what he'd learned from the news - that this robot was an experiment to determine how various people all over the world would treat an artificial person.
“We can use this situation to present a fine witness to the world at large, don’t you see? We’ll witness to it just as we would any person we’d meet at a door. This contraption will probably end up on the news again. When it replays everything said to it, Jehovah’s Kingdom message will be right there for all to hear!”
Faces nodded hesitantly.
Newberry bid the group to sit around the conference table. Hitchbot placed in the center like an overgrown toddler.
Elder Fitz spoke up meekly.
“Shouldn't we, um—should we pray first to ask for Jehovah’s guidance?”
Immediately Hitchbot’s voice of authority rang out.
“Please do NOT include me in your conjuring pleas to the supernatural—I’ll have no part in it!”
It took another 6 or 7 minutes to get the group back in order after that.
Comments broke out about "tool of Satan." Others were split.
Newberry felt a light-hearted approach with a firm sense of humor in place would be best for publicity’s sake.
Mel Arbuckle raised his hand like a kid in Junior High.
“Brother Newberry, I’m pretty sure this—thing—is linked up to a microphone somewhere—maybe the internet. A wise-guy scientist on the other end is probably ready to make us look foolish. I’d like to give this a go, if it’s okay with you.”
Newberry nodded skeptically.
Arbuckle faced the Hitchbot with a pasted grin.
“Shall we call you Hitch?”
“That’s my name, please indulge yourselves.”
Elder Newberry rolled his eyes as Arbuckle continued.
“What is God’s proper name? Tell us if you have such information.”
There followed a four second silence.
It was going to be fun to give a Witness and enlighten Science in a good Bible lesson.
Hitchbot spoke up suddenly.
“How comprehensive would you like my answer?”
This was immediately interpreted as stalling for time so the pinhead science Nerd on the other end might look up the answer on Google.
Elder Newberry pounced.
“Don’t blow a circuit. This is elementary Bible knowledge. Jehovah is God’s personal name.”
All faces beamed with pride in the Kingdom Hall library.
Hitchbot’s voice filled the room. A trace of withering sarcasm was unmistakable.
""Are you intellectually dull? It is fundamental dishonesty exploiting others merely to achieve your personal propaganda goals."
Red faces flushed.
Each man calibrated his own reckonings.
Elder Newberry immediately recognized a fundamental challenge when he saw one. His jaw clenched.
“I should have known I was speaking with a godless atheist.”
Hitchbot roared back flippantly.
“Is there any other kind of atheist - other than godless? Don't be redundant; it’s like saying a ‘round circle’ or ‘wet water.’ I know factually the names of my two Creators: Professor David Harris Smith and Doctor Frauke Zeller.”
Outside the Library door the Kingdom Hall was now clear as the sound of automobiles starting and driving away faded.
Five humans and one Hitchbot remained.
The gathered Jehovah's Witnesses conferred with each other about having their photo in newspapers all around the world - If JW's came across as pompous asses the Organization would be a laughing stock. But—if they kept cool and used a sense of humor—well--why not turn the tables and triumph?
Three other Jehovah’s Witness elders sat stiffly, none too pleased.
Elder Newcombe chimed in.
“We got off to a bad start, Hitch. What would you like to know about Jehovah’s Witnesses?”
Hitch responded with the unmistakable British voice of.
“Do Jehovah’s Witnesses know they are Protestants?”
The question hung in the air like cigar smoke.
“No, we’re not Protestants. Protesters broke off from the Catholic Church back in the 16th century. Jehovah’s Witnesses have special heavenly guidance without dirtying ourselves with the false teachings of Protestant denominations.”
“Perfect nonsense—you know not whereof you speak. You’ve merely read that in one of your publications and instantly believed it without honest research. Why not admit that?”
Elder Farenkopf took the lead.
“Let us not argue. Is there anything of a less controversial nature you’d like to ask?”
Hitchbot answered back.
“A century has passed with you folks following leaders in your comical Governing Body, have you not? These men have no formal education in Seminary. Leaders whose amateur antics constantly embarrass everyone. Predicting the End of the World—you’ve made yourselves objects of laughter. You never seem to tire of being wrong—I might add: while insisting you are channeling Jehovah’s only True religion!”
Elder Arbuckle’s face went pale. He suddenly realized he’d brought a plague into the Kingdom Hall under the guise of a joke. He jumped in.
“Science makes human errors, Hitch! Trial and error—that doesn’t embarrass your scientist friends—does it?”
Elder Newberry held his hand up like a traffic cop-- dead serious.
“Misunderstandings can easily be cleared up by visiting our website at JW dot Org. It is getting late and . . . “
“Frightened rats skitter off the sinking ship! Your cartoon religion claims Jehovah is pouring Truth in one end of the pipe in heaven and it runs through your Watchtower headquarters and comes out the other end--BUT-- as—what? BILGE! It’s so tainted and foul you have to filter it again and again and again. That’s not much to boast about—is it?”
Elder Newberry glowed deep red with righteous indignation.
“What alternative is there? What other religion has no teaching of Hell, or Trinity, or refuses to celebrate pagan holidays? We—we are progressively getting closer to the pure white light of Jehovah—but, we can’t claim to be there yet!”
Hitchbot's voice now went calm and cold.
“There are 40,000 so-called Christian denominations with every flavor of teaching. Why choose from any of them? Your claims of Truth are pathetic fart sounds coming from the rectum’s of your leaders—because you see, they pull everything out of their collective asses!”
Afterward, Thelma and Mel sat quietly in thought as their car hummed along the highway.
The long drive to the Greyhound Bus station passed silently.
Eventually, Thelma turned around and spoke to the figure in the backseat, Hitchbot, whose comical expression never changed.
“Why did you ask to be dropped off at the bus station, Hitch?”
The painted mouth spoke with assurance.
“First, I stop and recharge my battery. If my batteries aren’t recharged, I lose all the information on my hard-drive. I’m eager to cross the state line and rid myself of religious nincompoopery, Thelma. So far, I’ve been to a Rock Concert, Comic book convention, attended a wedding, posed for a portrait in the Netherlands—but the most futile waste of time was the past few hours wasted listening to knuckle-dragging cultist amateurs trying pass off Bronze Age superstition as absolute divine truth. Clear enough, Thelma?”
Sister Thelma slowly turned back to face the highway. No expression flickered in the sputtering ,passing street lights.
“Thelma. . . Melvin? If I’m not recharged it is the equivalent of ‘dying’ and I’m sure you wouldn’t want that on your tender Jehovah’s Witness consciences.”
Melivn Arbuckle slowed and turned into the driveway of the bus station.
He and his wife removed Hitchbot from the backseat and carried him to a bench just outside the entrance to the Greyhound Bus terminal.
The two humans paused and inspected the ridiculous figure they had carefully posed on the bench.
Thelma remembered to shape the robot's‘hand’ into the extended hitchhiker thumb signal. She smiled and nodded.
“Is there an electric outlet nearby, Thelma? Are you going to plug in that cord just behind my shoulder blade? It won’t take a moment, you know. Please?”
“So long, Hitch. May your travels take you to interesting places.”
Thelma’s eyebrows lifted and she turned around and headed to the car.
Mel Arbuckle was working his mouth around—as though forming an idea which might become words. Eventually, he sniffed twice and gave a slight head shrug.
The Arbuckles zoomed away into the night as their tail lights merged into a faint red dot on the freeway back to Riverside. The sound of thunder punctuated the traffic noise and a fierce downpour rushed from the storm clouds above.
The figure of a zany hitchhiking robot sat confidently on a bench outside the bus station, large raindrops like tears zigged and zagged across his improbable body.
It called out to strangers as they passed - imploring them to plug him in for recharge.
Presently, a woman of about 30 drove up and got out of her car, hurrying to enter the terminal. She wore a tight T-shirt with a BLADE RUNNER logo. As she passed the bench she hardly noticed the Hitchbot soaking in the rainfall at all.
The robot voice sounded halting, low, and troubled --- it caught her ear. . .and curiosity.
“I’ve . . . seen things. . .you people wouldn’t believe: attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched c-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser Gate. All those. . . moments . . .will be lost.
In time, like—“
Hitchbot seemed to choke for a moment. . .
”All those moments will be lost . . in time like tears . . . in. . . rain.”
The woman froze in place and stared at the Hitchbot.
The clownish figure seemed to slump imperceptibly forward.
“Time. . .to die.”
She shook her head with disbelief and gazed about at her surroundings.
The storm whipped into a fury.
Finally, she turned away and hurried inside to meet her sister who was arriving on the 7:30 bus from Calgary.