It was possible for even an object of great beauty to be an eyesore, if it failed to blend in with its surroundings sufficiently. The sleek white spacecraft, dropping down from the hazy orange sky to come to rest on a plateau, was just such an eyesore in this landscape, jarringly out of place amid a cluttered vista of rusted reds and browns. Anyone laying eyes on the ship would instantly recognize it as alien, something not of this world.
The Axiom's EVE Probe Transport touched down in a blaze of fire, turning the ground directly beneath it an incandescent orange. The entire craft hummed and droned, the medley of sounds steadily fading as one by one its many systems powered down, leaving only the most necessary running. From the sides of the transport, glittering solar sails unfurled like the wings of a butterfly, soaking in the sunlight in order to boost its journey onward. Normally the transport could gather what fuel it needed simply from passing close to a sun, not close enough to be dragged into its gravitational field but close enough to absorb the solar energy it radiated. But the craft's departure from Earth had not gone quite as smoothly as hoped -- a collision with a cluster of satellites upon leaving the atmosphere had damaged its guidance systems, and in response it had automatically touched down on the closest known stable world in order to self-repair and recharge.
Unbeknownst to the craft's simple AI system, a tiny form shivered on its side like a spacefaring barnacle, a stowaway that clung valiantly to a service ladder as if his life depended on it.
The battered, dirty Waste Allocation Load Lifter (Earth-Class) finally raised his binocular-like head out of his cube-shaped body enough to peer through the window of the transport. The EVE units were still safely nestled inside, their egg-shaped bodies still and silent... save one in particular, which gave off a steadily blinking green glow. This one WALL-E studied carefully, searching for any sign of activity or life, before looking away.
Tiny servos in WALL-E's neck joints whirred as he swiveled his head to take in the landscape. Strange... despite this being an alien world, it felt oddly like home. The entire surface of the planet was blanketed in trash, rising here and there in piles and hummocks. Jutting towers of rust-red metal towered overhead, and the sky overhead was the color of old iron. His visual scanners couldn't pick up the BnL logo that dominated most everything on Earth, but that was the only significant difference that registered in his CPU.
"Ooooh," WALL-E crooned as he took in his surroundings, for the first time in days feeling comfortably at home... and yet eager to take in the sight of another world. Centuries of isolation on Earth, separated from humans or even others of his kind, had led to the little robot's CPU developing new programming that his creators could never have dreamed of -- curiosity, fear, and even a personality all his own. Unlike others of his make -- indeed, unlike most other Earth-made machinery -- he knew the joy and wonder of a new sight, the delight in the discovery of a novel trinket, the peculiar longing on the rare nights when the smog cleared enough to give him a glimpse of the stars. Of all Earth's mechanisms, he alone could appreciate the thrill and wonder of laying visual scanners upon the surface of another world.
But like an animal's instincts welling to the surface despite all its training, WALL-E's original programming worked steadfastedly at him until he could ignore it no longer, and he worked his way down the ladder until his treads met the trash-layered ground. The sight of so much junk strewn across the planet's surface gave him the uncontrollable urge to begin the task of cleaning it up and clearing it away. He didn't know where he was going to put the resulting trash cubes, since he couldn't see a blank spot to begin a stack, but he decided he'd compute that problem when he came to it.
WALL-E gave the shuttle one last look, then turned to the nearest mound of junk. He opened his interior, scooped a few armloads of debris inside, and clenched his internals until the trash was a solid mass. Ejecting the cube, he lifted it in his arms and looked around for a place to stash it. There was a flat metallic surface nearby that would do until he had an area cleared down to the bare dirt, he supposed...
Soon he fell into his usual routine, gathering junk, squeezing it into cubes, and stacking it neatly. Once in awhile he would pause to go back to the shuttle, climb the ladder, and check on EVE, just in case she woke up from her peculiar sleep and wondered where he was. She showed no signs of movement, however, so each time he would simply sigh in disappointment and go back to his task.
He had just scooped up a pile of rusty screws and bolts when he came across something curious -- a metallic hand and arm, evidently sheared off at the elbow and half-buried in the garbage. This hand was nothing like his own pincer-like appendage; it had four long fingers and an opposable thumb, much like the hands of the humans he was familiar with from the advertising holos on Earth. Whistling curiously, he picked it up and began manipulating the individual digits of the hand, intrigued by the dexterity of the limb. Had this world once been home to mechanical life? If so, what had happened to it?
Since he didn't have his cooler handy for stashing odds and ends, WALL-E trundled over to the stack of cubes, figuring he would start a pile of interesting odds and ends and stash them in his chassis once he returned to the transport. Wherever this journey took him and EVE, he was certain there'd be a spot for him to stow away his treasures...
"Reach for the sky!"
WALL-E yelped in terror and dropped the arm, retracting his head and treads into his chassis but his arms shooting upward at the order.
"You have the right to remain silent!" the voice barked, and there was the sound of metallic trash sliding and clattering as something worked its way out of the ground. "Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law..."
WALL-E raised his visual scanners just enough to make out the speaker, and immediately regretted it. A tall bipedal figure was just fully straightening, a few last bits of rusty trash falling from its brown-and-orange frame. In some ways it vaguely resembled a human, but it was far bulkier, with glowing red eyes and what looked like wheels fixed to its lower legs. Two sets of horns branched off of its helmed head, and in one hand it clutched a pistol that was aimed straight at WALL-E's cowering form. The other arm ended at the elbow, and it didn't take a top-of-the-line processor to realize that this was the owner of the arm he'd just uncovered.
The creature frowned and stepped forward, and WALL-E reacted by scooting back as far as he could... which wasn't far, as he backed straight into another pair of legs.
"Book him!" the first robot barked.
"Roger, Houston!" the second replied.
WALL-E squawked in terror and bolted, his treads whirring at high speed as he bumped and jolted his way across the junk-covered plain. If he could make it back to the transport, maybe he could somehow get it to take off and get him far away from these creatures. Or, at the very least, he could try to find a way in and hide from them.
"Houston, we have a problem!" the second robot exclaimed.
"Suspect is on the move!" the first announced, scooping up his arm and deftly snapping it back on. "All units stand by!"
The ground heaved and burst all around WALL-E as more of the creatures emerged from the trash heaps, shaking away their coverings of rusty junk and converging around him. The little robot skidded to a halt and shivered hard enough to make every bolt in his frame threaten to rattle loose. They surrounded him completely now, cutting off any chance at escape.
In desperation he resorted to the only other tactic he knew -- he began to dig. Metallic debris flew in every direction as he burrowed into the layer of garbage, until he was completely covered. Maybe if they couldn't see him, they'd lose interest and go away. He could only hope.
Voices murmured all around his hiding spot, and there was a crunch of a metallic digit prodding the layer of rubbish covering his head. He hunkered lower, unable to control his shivering.
"Alice has gone down the rabbit hole," came the voice of the first robot, accompanied by more poking. "Curiouser and curiouser..."
A lurch and a crunch, and WALL-E felt himself, as well as a good amount of the trash surrounding him, being lifted into the air. He drew himself into a cube, continuing to shiver, wanting only for these creatures to leave him alone so he could return to the transport...
"Operation completed as ordered, sir!"
"Good work, men," came the reply, and another hand brushed away the junk covering the tiny robot. "Good evening, sir, and welcome to the show! I'm Wreck-Gar, your host tonight!"
The voice, though far too loud for his liking and sounding far too gleeful to suit his current mood, seemed friendly enough, and WALL-E finally chanced a glance, poking his visual scanners out of his chassis. One of the tall orange-and-rust robots looked back down at him, his optics narrow and slanted as if frozen in a scowl but his smile surprisingly benign. A bulky angular helmet crowned with a pair of straight horns framed an equally angular but still humanoid face, and strands of some sort of flexible metal sprouted from his chin and upper lip -- almost like the beards and mustaches WALL-E had seen on holographic humans, but far longer. The tall robot cupped WALL-E in one hand and gripped a wicked-looking, quadruple-bladed tool of some kind in the other. WALL-E, who had never even seen a weapon before meeting EVE, didn't think too much on the sight of the battle-axe and just supposed that this "Wreck-Gar" was a trinket-collector too.
"Let's get to know tonight's guest!" Wreck-Gar announced, raising the little robot to face level. "Where you from? What's your name?"
"Uh..." Centuries of solitude had left him without much skill at social interaction, and his one evening in EVE's company hadn't done much to improve on said skills. Still, EVE had reacted favorably enough upon learning his name. "WAAAAAA-LEEEEE."
"WALL-E!" repeated Wreck-Gar, grinning widely enough to show off his dental plates. "Let's give a warm welcome to WALL-E, folks! Say hello to our little friend!"
The other robots whooped and cheered, applauding their visitor. WALL-E lowered his visual scanners to his treads and poked his hands together shyly, unused to such a welcome. Had he been capable of biological responses, he would have blushed cutely at the attention.
"Guests of our show will be staying on the luxurious Planet Junk," Wreck-Gar continued, lowering the little robot to the ground. "Comes complete with only the finest accommodations, including continental energy rations and complimentary cable TV in every room. All at one everyday low price!" Once WALL-E had rolled out of his hands, Wreck-Gar squatted to put himself closer to his level and cocked his head curiously at him. "What's a classy mech like you doing in a joint like this?"
"Uh..." WALL-E had no idea how to answer that. It hadn't exactly been his choice to come here, after all, and his programming, despite time and personality glitches pushing its parameters beyond what his creators had intended, supplied no answers as to what to do next. Then again, it was doubtful that his creators had ever imagined that one of their WALL-E units would ever run into giant television-talking robots from outer space...
"Whatsa matter, cat got your tongue?" Wreck-Gar asked.
WALL-E ducked his head as he scrambled through his memory banks for an answer. His recollections of his interaction with humans was very dim, seeing as said information was buried under seven hundred years' worth of accumulated data, but he did vaguely recall the humans being pleased when he performed his cleanup tasks well and without complaint. Perhaps these creatures might be pleased to find a helping hand, however small, on their world?
"Dir...dirrrrrrrective," he said finally, and scooped an armful of loose junk into his interior. He clenched his insides tightly to compact the trash into a neat cube, then ejected it at Wreck-Gar's feet. "Ta-da."
"Now that is wild!" a robot to Wreck-Gar's right exclaimed, his visored face brightening quite literally. "That is weird, wild stuff!"
But Wreck-Gar didn't look too impressed, and WALL-E felt a twinge of worry in his circuits as the robot leader picked up the cube and regarded it critically. The other robots murmured amongst themselves but didn't speak up too loudly, as if waiting for their leader to make a decision before voicing an opinion.
"Is that the best you can do?" he asked finally, tossing the cube into the air and catching it again. "Or does this model come without special features?"
"Uh..." WALL-E's CPU scrambled for something else to show Wreck-Gar, somehow feeling that if he wanted to make it off this planet in one piece he needed to show some measure of worth to the robot's leader. He patted down his own chassis as if trying to find something on his person that would impress the giant machine. Would Wreck-Gar consider his cutting laser a "special feature," or would he deem that too ordinary as well? He had no idea -- this situation was far beyond his programming parameters...
One hand accidentally struck the buttons on his shoulder, and a burst of music echoed from his frame.
"Put on your Sunday clothes, there's lots of world out there..."
"Ack!" WALL-E squeaked, and he hurriedly turned his recorder off, positive that he'd just blown his chance at a good impression.
But at the sound of the tune Wreck-Gar's optics widened in recognition, and a grin crossed his features. "Wait a moment, chaps!" he ordered. "I feel a song coming on!" He threw the garbage cube to the side and pointed dramatically at the little robot. "Play it again, Sam!"
"Uh..." Thoroughly confused by now but eager to make a good impression on his host, he pressed the button again. Once again the opening lines of the song that had seen him through many a lonely day on Earth played from his frame... only this time it was accompanied by Wreck-Gar's enthusiastic voice.
"Put on your Sunday clothes, there's lots of world out there!" he sang, tapping one foot in time to the beat. "Get out the Brillantine and dime cigars..."
Another robot took up the song from that point. "We're gonna find adventure in the evening air / Girls in white / in a perfumed night / where the lights are bright as stars!"
"Put on your Sunday clothes, we're gonna ride through town," chimed in the first robot that WALL-E had encountered, dropping his stern demeanor. "In one of those new horse-drawn open cars..."
Wreck-Gar joined in on the final few lines -- "We'll see the shows / at Delmonico's / And we'll close the town in a whirl! / And we won't come back until we've kissed a girl!" With a grin and a flourish he swept a hand before him to indicate the gathered robots around him. "Everybody!"
WALL-E stared in amazement as, at Wreck-Gar's command, every robot present joined in the song, some dropping whatever they were carrying to break into dance. For a moment his CPU puzzled over just how these creatures from another planet could not only know the lyrics to the song, but the dance steps from the video where he'd picked it up. But his confusion didn't last long -- the festive spirit the song had initiated was contagious, and WALL-E couldn't help but want to join in.
A circular scrap of metal nearby caught his attention, and he scooped it up and held it over his head like one of the straw hats from the original video. He spun in place, waving the prop about and doing the best he could to imitate the dance steps -- not an easy feat for a mechanism with treads instead of proper legs, but apparently it was the spirit that counted, for nobody criticized his dance steps. Instead, several robots took their cue from him and grabbed whatever round pieces of trash they could find to further mimic his dance steps.
"Put on your Sunday clothes when you feel down and out! sang a robot with a slender, curvy frame and a sweeter voice, twirling a long iron rod with a crook at the end as if it were a cane. Strut down the street and have your picture took..."
"Dressed like a dream, your spirits seem to turn about!" chimed in a taller, stockier robot, taking her arm and joining her in dance. "That Sunday shine is a certain sign that you feel as fine as you look!"
WALL-E had been engrossed in his own dancing, humming along to the familiar tune and thoroughly enjoying himself for the first time in days, but at the sight of the couple he halted in his tracks and watched them dance. Despite these creatures being far taller and of a completely different make from any mechanism he had ever seen, seeing those two together reminded him of another being entirely... and he wondered if she would have liked to be here, to join in the festivities and song and meet these strange creatures as well...
"Cheerio, captain!" announced Wreck-Gar suddenly, and without warning he crouched and scooped WALL-E up once again, cupping him in his hands. The little robot flailed briefly, wondering if he'd just done something wrong.
"We accept you!" Wreck-Gar declared, holding him aloft as if he were a trophy. "One of us! We accept you! One of us! Gooble gobble!"
The other mechanisms took up the chant. "Gooble gobble! Gooble gobble! One of us!"
"Uh..." WALL-E glanced about in a panic, his circuits churning with embarrassment, bewilderment, and confusion. He had no idea what had just happened, but he had a feeling that something of great importance had just occurred, and a decision had been made.
"Wonderful," Wreck-Gar said at last, and lowered his hands so that he was optic to optic with WALL-E. "You are now part of the tribe."
Part of the tribe... he wasn't sure exactly what a "tribe" was, but he did understand the meaning behind what Wreck-Gar had just said. These strange giants had accepted him. And they were inviting him to be one of them.
He lowered his visual sensors to his treads again, this time in thought rather than shyness or fear. No one had ever invited him to be part of a group before. Even back in the early days of his functioning time, when he had worked alongside hundreds of other WALL-E units on Earth, he had never been part of a team. The units had toiled alone and apart, each focused on his own job and ignoring the others. By the time WALL-E had developed enough of a personality to long for companionship, all his comrades had fallen into disrepair and had shut themselves down. He had the friendship of his pet cockroach, and had hoped to develop such a friendship -- and perhaps something more -- with EVE... but never before had someone stepped forward and invited him into a friendship. No, not just a friendship, but a family, a group of comrades and friends who worked together for a common cause.
It was a new and exciting feeling... and it frightened him to some degree. He gazed back up at Wreck-Gar, wondering just how to convey to the leader his feelings.
But Wreck-Gar seemed to sense his apprehension, and with a slight nod he set the little robot down. "No worries, mate," he assured him. "We'll be back for an answer right after these messages."
WALL-E watched as Wreck-Gar strode off, still merrily humming the tune, his followers gradually dispersing as their leader departed. Then the little robot swiveled around to gaze at the shuttle, a gleaming sentinel over the decrepit landscape of this world. For several minutes he could only look back and forth between the ship and the direction where Wreck-Gar had vanished, his CPU still awhirl with all that had happened in such a short time.
With a deep, reactor-felt sigh he set his treads into motion, heading back to the ship. He had an awful lot of information to process... and a choice to make.
It was the first clear night sky that WALL-E had ever lain visual scanners on -- despite being blanketed in trash like Earth, Junk lacked the ever-present ceiling of smog and clouds that forever obscured the skies of his homeworld. He had caught snatches of it before when the clouds had parted enough to expose the sky, but those brief glimpses couldn't compare to the sparkling expanse that lay before him now. The sight, eerily beautiful and astoundingly vast, left him feeling awed and rather insignificant in comparison.
He tore his gaze away from the sky to peer through the window of the shuttle. EVE remained inert and unmoving, only the steady blinking of the green light on her torso giving any indication that she was still functional. He sighed a little, partly in relief and partly in disappointment. On the one hand, he was glad that she hadn't shut down completely... but on the other hand, her mysterious condition remained unchanged. And he had hoped that if she reactivated here on Junk, his decision could be made for him.
He had no idea where to go from this point. This entire situation was far beyond his programming parameters -- he'd never been intended to leave Earth, let alone venture to another world entirely. He had been created for one repetitive task only... and he certainly hadn't been programmed to compute a choice that would have lasting, irreversible consequences for himself, and possibly for another being.
Should he stay here, on Junk, among Wreck-Gar and his cronies? They had generously offered him a place among them, and accepted him as one of their own. For a mechanism who had been starved of companionship for hundreds of years, that was no small matter. Plus, Junk was comfortingly similar to his homeworld, and part of him wanted nothing more than to return to his routine... to stay where things were familiar and safe, among robots who would accept him.
Or should he stay with EVE, leaving with her and going wherever this ship took her? That option was far more frightening to the little robot. He had no idea where the shuttle was taking her, or for what reason, and the prospect of never seeing Earth or Junk or anything the least bit familiar again filled him with dread. But every time he thought of letting EVE leave him, something deep in his chassis ached.
"Hey buddy, why the long face?"
"Huh?" WALL-E flailed briefly -- not a good idea, as he had been gripping the ladder on the side of the shuttle to check on EVE, and now plummeted to the ground with a wail. Thankfully he didn't have far to fall -- the speaker extended a swift hand to pluck the little robot out of the air.
"Look out below, chap," Wreck-Gar advised. "It's not the fall that kills you." He studied the transport with a critical optic. "You flew here in that thing? You're braver than I thought."
"Ev-ah," WALL-E replied, pointing at the transport's window.
"Ev-ah?" repeated Wreck-Gar, and he crouched low enough to peer into the ship.
"Ev-ah," WALL-E repeated, pointing at EVE's still, blinking form. Then he reached up to his shoulder and tapped the button on his recorder, playing not the jaunty tune from earlier that day, but a slower, more soothing melody:
"And that is all that love's about / and we'll recall when time runs out / that it only took one moment..."
Wreck-Gar's optics flickered as he made the connection. "Aaah... our leading man has a romantic interest!"
WALL-E gave a nod and laced his pincers together, making the "holding hands" motion he had seen so often in his movie back on Earth.
"Love is a many-splendored thing," Wreck-Gar noted, his grin widening. "Love lifts us up where we belong. All you need is love!" He gave WALL-E an enthusiastic toss and caught him again, making the little robot squeal in surprise. "Love is more than a candle -- love can ignite the stars!"
Love... THAT was this feeling that so muddled WALL-E's processors, that filled him with such excitement and confusion and happiness all at once. That was what the humans had spoken of in his movie, the emotion that linked them together... and now linked him to EVE, even if she didn't return that link yet. He still wasn't sure of all the implications behind this concept, but he knew it felt good, and he had no desire to let it slip out of his grasp now that he had it in his life.
He gazed up at Wreck-Gar, wondering just how to explain this to him. The leader of the giant robots had just unwittingly helped him make his decision. He just hoped he wouldn't be angry with him for deciding to abandon his hospitality.
"E-vah," WALL-E told him, and made a grab for the ladder on the side of the transport.
"So you're leaving on a jet plane?" asked Wreck-Gar. "Don't know when you'll be back again?"
Wreck-Gar gave a sad little smile, and he held WALL-E close enough to the shuttle that he could grab onto the ladder. "You must do what you feel is right, of course." Once he was sure the little robot's grip was secure, he took a step back. "We hope to have you back on the show again soon! Tune in next time for more great adventures!"
WALL-E made to reply, but the shuttle quivered to life at that moment, systems thrumming and clicking to life. The solar sails folded into its sides and vanished into their compartments, and fiery rocket exhaust glowed around its base. WALL-E clung tightly to the ladder as the ship began to roar, its engines gathering power and preparing to launch it skyward.
"See you real soon!" Wreck-Gar shouted over the blast of the rockets. "Why? Because we like you!"
"Bye!" chirped WALL-E, releasing the ladder with one hand to wave back at Wreck-Gar. That proved to nearly be a costly mistake, as the rocket lurched upward at that moment, and he had to scramble quickly to keep from being thrown off.
Wreck-Gar stepped back a few more paces and watched the transport blast into the starry night like a reverse meteor, a satisfied smile on his face.
"Up in the sky," a Junkion femme noted, stepping up to Wreck-Gar's side at that moment. "It's a bird, it's a plane... it's WALL-E." She frowned and cocked her head. "He boldly goes where no man has gone before..."
"He has to choose his own path, Nancy," Wreck-Gar replied quietly, draping an arm around her shoulders. "No one can choose it for him." He smiled and rubbed his olfactory sensor against hers. "That's the power of love, baby."
"Oh, you," she chided with a giggle, and looped her own arm around his shoulders. Together they watched the transport dwindle into the night, carrying their lovestruck friend and his beloved into the heavens and to their eventual destiny.