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Metal and Flesh

Marie Vibbert is a web developer and occassional armor-wearer in Cleveland, Ohio. She has ridden 17% of the roller coasters in the United States and her short fiction has appeared multiple times in Analog, Escape Pod, and other markets.
Organic unit twelve was having trouble using stairs. I took it to the service techs, but there wasn't anything they could do. "Flesh isn't like steel, Roj," They said, "There's only so much we can reconstruct." They picked up some messy bits of a human they'd just worked on. "The parts aren't interchangeable. Sizes are all different. Some of them, even the same size, aren't compatible. You replace an organ and it swells up and falls off. If the knee is still working at all, I say leave it."
I liked unit twelve, and I hated watching its discomfort. "Well, couldn't you just replace the organic knees with steel ones?
The tech dropped the mess of parts and shook the blood off its hand. "Don't be sick, Roj."
"But--"
"No. Put metal parts on an organic? They'd start thinking they were like us. Where would it end?"
I could tell the service techs were not going to even consider it, so I thanked them and led unit twelve to the door. Twelve was slow to move, transfixed by the table of removed parts. I hoped it wasn't a sign of the stair-climbing problem worsening.
Another organic unit, five, had a metal carapace. Five hadn't had it when I first acquired it, but it had it now, and it was undoubtedly metal. As soon as I returned to the work floor, I found five on the furnace crew.
"Where did you get that carapace?"
"None of your damn business." It deftly avoided my grip and tried to rejoin the work crew. I stopped it by stepping in its way.
"It's important, five. I need replacement parts for number twelve. Now, where did you get that?"
"Jack doesn't need 'replacement parts.' He needs to retire."
"I don't want to retire twelve. Once organic units are retired, they don't come back."
Five grew quiet and avoided looking at me. "That's not what I meant by 'retire.'"
My unit director often said that there was no point trying to talk to humans. It wasn't alone in those opinions and I could see why, really, but I didn't have budget to get more organic units, and twelve was my best fine tool unit. "Explain what you meant," I said.
"When we get old," Five said, "We need rest. Time not working."
"But I don't want to retire unit twelve."
"Forget it. You'll never understand. You assholes won't even learn our genders. Can I go back to slaving, now?"
I gripped the metal carapace where it came out from the flesh of five's body in front of and below the shoulder joint. "Who made this?"
"I made it," Five said. "This is a metal shop. You should know that, since you run it."
"My metal and tools were used to fashion this?"
"Take it out of my non-paycheck."
"I am not angry. Can you make knees for unit twelve?"
"No," it said, and looked apologetic, at least. "We had people, once, who could make metal knees. We called them doctors, and they worked in buildings called hospitals, and it was all pretty damn impressive. You'd know that if you'd stopped and looked before destroying everything."
"I don't want to retire unit twelve," I repeated.
Unit five ducked its head. "I can make a brace," it said. "Braces for his knees. But you'll need to get me some fabric, and rubber."
"I will do this," I said, and let go of five's carapace.
"Asshole," it said, and went back to the furnace crew.
After I collected the materials, unit five also requested a clean place to work, so I set it up in my office. It took off its metal carapace, setting it by the door, and started sorting through the materials. "This can work," it said. "I made some splints." it produced four narrow strips of metal from a pocket on its clothing.
"Why did you make the carapace?" I asked.
It laid the strips of metal against the fabric, and turned the fabric on my desk. "It protects me in the cutting room and when feeding the furnace," it said. "The other guys thought I was nuts, but now they're all jealous. I'm the only one in the crew with two intact nipples." Unit five measured the fabric with its flattened hand. "Before all this, I had a thing for medieval armor. I was what you call a reenactor. I made cuirasses like that for other people to fight in and gave lectures on evidence that women could be blacksmiths."
"I do not understand."
"No, you wouldn't." Five stitched the cloth with a single thread in the human way. I had always wondered why the organics didn't just wear the covers we manufactured for them. Our machines used thread more efficiently by weaving it to shape. But of course, organics were not properly uniform in size, so a customization process was necessary.
I was pleased with my deduction and considered writing a report.
It was disquieting and yet calming, watching five's motions, so close to even but not.
"Thank you," I said, "for extending the usefulness of unit twelve."
"Call him Jack," it said. "If you're grateful at all, give me that."
My superiors had warned against giving the organics names--it made them seem too much like people, but I supposed, in private, there was no harm. "All right, I will. How long will the brace enable 'Jack' to use the stairs?"
"Don't know. We'll have to see. It would help if you put a railing up."
"A railing?"
"A bar along the stairs for us to put our hands on. Helps with balance."
"Ah. Could you draw specifications for this device?"
Unit five tucked the needle into the fabric and gestured at the ceiling. "It's a bar. You just--" It sighed and spoke as though I had raised an objection, "yeah, yeah I'll draw it." It resumed its work. "My name's Chantay, by the way, since you asked."
"I didn't ask."
"I know. I'm trying to be funny. Also trying to make friends. Maybe that'll save the human race."
"You need saving? From what?"
Chantay concentrated on its work. After a while, it said, "bring Jack in, this is ready to try on."
I gratefully did, and observed the tender way the humans interacted with each other. I wondered if they were bonded through one of their many biological functions.
"That feels good," said Jack. It flexed its knees. "Real good."
"Playing the sports I did, I learned my way around a knee brace," Chantay said. "Try it on some stairs."
Jack walked up and down the stairs to the lab. It moved like it hadn't in years, though it was still slower coming back down than going up.
"Thank you. Return to work. I will take these prototypes to the central office," I said, "and have many more created."
The organic units looked sullen. "How about I make a second pair," Chantay said. "Or you could let me look for some out in the world. Gotta be the ruins of a sporting goods store out near the highway."
"I can't let organic units out of the workshop," I said. "But if there are sufficient materials here, you may construct a duplicate pair of braces. If it doesn't extend much further into your work period."
"Half kind is twice cruel," Chantay said. I took that to mean my organic units were not as fond of me as I was of them.
"I will count your efforts on the braces as work time," I said, "and I will craft the stair railing. Chantay."
Chantay put her hand on my metal chest. It left an oily print. I put my hand on her soft chest. Something in her expression changed, and she nodded.
I really was growing fond of my organic units. I didn't want to retire any of them. But of course, I would have to choose some of the less productive ones to retire soon, or I would have nothing to feed the rest.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, September 1st, 2017

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