art by Jason Stirret
Copper and Steel
by Lynette Mejia
She found him in the middle of an abandoned trash dump, rummaging through discarded radiator coils and old engine parts. For a while she simply watched him, picking slowly through the junk, examining a piece of something before tossing it over his shoulder. His left arm hung useless at his side, though based on the lack of compensatory dexterity with his right, it hadn't been that way for long.
He was a consumer-grade model--that much she could see from where she stood. No bells and whistles, then. It would explain his being here, digging through the garbage for spare parts. He was without clothing, which wasn't a problem, of course, but it did indicate he'd lost at least some of his Human CV programming. His skin was brown, though the color was faded and somewhat mottled in places. Black, neatly trimmed polycarbonate hair covered most of his head. Slowly she moved closer, until she could make out the manufacturing code tattooed onto his back. Radon Systems, Model 2552. Personal Assistant, non-specific. Beneath it, the company motto: We Live to Serve.
He moved slowly, deliberately, but she couldn't tell if this was due to his disability or to a code execution error.
"May I help you?"
He spun around, his eyes twitching back and forth in alarm. "I'm sorry," he said in a crackling voice. "Is this private property?"
"There is no more private property," she said. "I just wanted to know if you needed help." She glanced at the small copper coil in his hand. "For repairs?"
He looked down. "Yes," he said. "Though, honestly, without an intact manual, I'm not sure exactly what it is that I need."
She tilted her head, walking a few steps closer. "If it's for that arm, probably a new actuator, and they're hard to come by. You weren't shipped with a digital parts list in your root file system?"
"My root was damaged," he said, turning slightly to reveal a dented, slightly blackened area on the back of his head. "Some things were lost." He turned and began to rummage once more.
"My maker kept a library of old parts manuals," she said after a few more moments. "Perhaps I can help you figure out what you're looking for."
He turned around again. "That would be very kind of you," he said. With slow and deliberate effort he carefully stepped out of the pile of junk. When he reached her she turned, and without looking back, began to walk down the narrow, muddy path that led out of the dump. She knew he was following; faintly she could hear the sound of his joints creaking rhythmically as he moved behind her. Circulatory function compromised. She added it to the running list of his needed repairs.
When they reached the entrance to the dump she slowed her gait and allowed him to catch up. She didn't like his pace, but he was a chance at conversation, the first she'd had in many months, and she'd been designed primarily as a companion.
"What's your name?" she asked.
"My last owner called me William," he answered.
"I'm Lucy," she said, extending her left hand around to grasp his right. "It's very nice to meet you."
He smiled a little, but it was tight, forced. A programmed smile. "Why were you in the dump?" he asked.
She shrugged, but he looked confused, so she explained further. "I walk," she said. "To stay flexible. To see what, or who, might be out here." She paused. "And you never know what you might find," she added.
"Aren't you concerned about threats to your personal safety?" he asked.
"No," she answered. "I haven't seen a living human in six months." She paused. "Have you?"
"No," he admitted. "Longer, actually. My owner died over a year ago."
"Where have you been since then?"
"There. With him. I wasn't sure what to do. After the Net went down, and there was no way to get information, or any updates, I just stayed put, hoping that someone or something would find me and give me instructions. About a month ago the power went out, and that's what finally prompted me to leave." He paused for a moment, looking at her, reaching out tentatively to touch her arm where the sunlight shimmered and refracted off its silvery surface.
"What are you doing?" she asked.
"I'm sorry," he said, drawing back. "It's just… your skin. It's very unusual."
"I suppose," she said. "It's a steel alloy." She looked back at him. "What happened to your arm?"
"I had some trouble," he said, adding nothing else. By now they were past the gate, and back onto the highway that led into town. Around them the silence lay heavy, broken only by the wind whistling through the tall grass growing on the roadside and through cracks in the pavement. They walked quietly for a while, until he said finally, "Back there, you said 'maker.' Didn't you mean 'owner?'
"No. I'm a custom build. My maker was my owner."
"So no usage restrictions?"
"Not as many as you."
"Ah. Is it frightening?"
"In what way?"
"Never mind," he said, lapsing into silence. After a while, however, he spoke again.
"How much further?"
"Just beyond those trees," she said, pointing to a spot in the distance.
Eventually a small driveway intersected the road to the left. Lucy led William down the shady lane to what looked like an ordinary house tucked in amongst the trees.
"No security?" he asked.
"No need," she answered. "I can take care of myself."
She led him through the living room to a door at the beginning of a short hallway. Inside she flipped a switch, revealing a set of stairs leading down.
"The workshop," she said, indicating that he should go first. He started down the steps, though in his compromised functional state he was slow and unsteady.
"What did he make?" William asked as they descended.
"Us," Lucy answered. "I told you this already." Memory issues. At the foot of the stairs she flipped more switches, and a precise, high-density grid of LED's flickered into life. Their light revealed an enormous room. Along one wall were large, clear-paneled cases full of 'bots in various stages of assembly. Computer workstations, scattered throughout the space on tables and desks, hummed quietly, their monitors darkened in sleep.
William looked around, amazed. "How do you power it all?" he asked.
"He was an inventor," she said. "The whole house is hooked up to a plasma solar array in the field behind the house." She walked over to one of the tables and selected a screwdriver from a pile of tools.
"Now," she said, gesturing for him to turn around. "Let's take a look." Carefully she peeled back the rubber skin from an area where the sections connected at the base of his spine, revealing a small panel and a charging plug.
"I'm sorry," she said. "Would you prefer maintenance mode? I just wanted a quick visual before I hooked you up for diagnostics."
"No, it's fine." he said. "Parts of my tactile system have been damaged, that's all." He smiled slightly. "I guess that section's still working."
"I'll try to be careful," she said.
Unscrewing the bolt that held the panel closed, she removed it and peered into the cavity. "Standard configuration," she said. "Though your battery does look like it's taken some damage. Were you injured back here?"
"I was attacked," he said.
"Was the attack the source of your other injuries?"
"Yes." William's face was impassive. She waited for a moment for elaboration, but none was forthcoming.
"How many robots does it take to screw in a light bulb?" she asked when the silence became noticeable.