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art by Jason Stirret

Copper and Steel

Lynette Mejía’s stories have appeared in Redstone Science Fiction, Everyday Weirdness, and the recent anthology Penny Dread Tales. She is currently a graduate student in Literature at the University of Louisiana Lafayette, and llives in Carencro, Louisiana with her intrepid husband, three children, and four cats.

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.
William winced.
"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.
She repeated the question.
"I don't know," he said. "I'd have to think about it. If you mean a standard 60 watt bulb in an ordinary household setting…."
"Three," she said, interrupting him. "One to hold the bulb and two to turn the ladder."
William just looked at her.
"That was a joke," Lucy said.
"I don't always know when jokes are appropriate."
"Neither do I," he said.
Lucy smiled. "They were always telling them," she said. "Even my maker, and he knew better than anyone that I couldn't understand humor very well. Did you find that to be the case?" She began screwing the access panel back into place.
"Yes," he said. "I just never got them. My owner tried to explain it to me once--he said that humans tell jokes when they are comfortable and when they are uncomfortable; when they are funny and when they are not funny; when they are supposed to make the person feel better and when they are meant to make the person feel worse." He paused. "That didn't help at all."
She continued to work, fitting the rubber skin back over the battery panel. "I can make inferences," she said. "I can generalize. I have recognition software that enables me to scan and read over 1200 different facial expressions in order to discern human emotions and interpret body language. I know 12,432 idioms and colloquialisms. I know 14 different languages, including ASL, Esperanto, and contemporary slang. I can understand 32 distinct regional dialects in English."
He turned to face her. "But you still can't understand jokes."
"No," she said, putting the tools away. "I still can't understand jokes."
William looked around. "Do you have a charging station?" he asked. "It's been over a month and with the damage…"
"Sure," Lucy said. "While you rest I'll look for an actuator for that arm." She led him over to a seat in the back corner of the room. While he settled into the chair she searched for a cable.
"Can you cycle my power in, say, eight hours?" he asked.
"Of course," she said, handing the cable over to him. "Do you need anything else?"
"No," he said. "This will be fine. Thank you."
"Not at all," she said as he plugged himself in and flipped a switch at the base of his neck from active to maintenance. She waited until he was in sleep mode before leaving him.
While he charged she busied herself, running through the household maintenance checklist, looking for anything that needed repairs. The part of her brain that used logic and came to conclusions knew it was pointless, but that thought did not override her PA algorithms. When she was done she cross-referenced William's part list to the workshop inventory, and found an actuator that met his specifications. By the time she unplugged his charger and powered him up again, he had full use of the arm once more.
"Thank you," he said, flexing the fingers. "Rerouting all movement to the right arm used a great deal of processing resources." He tested the dexterity, touching all four fingers to the thumb in turn. Then he stopped.
"What?" he asked.
Lucy was looking at a monitor, frowning. "I ran a maintenance and repair diagnostic while you were out," she said.
"It's your battery. After an eight-hour charge, it's still only at 30%."
He looked down. "It's failing."
"How long?"
"I don't know precisely," she said. "Based on your specs, you should run a month on a full charge. One-third capacity should, in theory, give you approximately ten days, but I may be able to reroute some systems and extend that."
"Like walking," he said. He stopped, thinking.
"Don't you have a replacement in your parts inventory?"
"It's not that simple," she said. "Your model was shipped with proprietary power equipment. It kept the owner brand-loyal and model-specific for maintenance."
"Hobbled," he said.
She looked up. "Something like that," she said.
"What about you?" he asked.
"I'm a prototype," she said. "But even my battery is only good for so many charges."
William sat down again quietly, hunched over.
She touched his shoulder. "I'm sorry."
"I could hunt down another," he said, after a few moments.
"Find another working unit, and… disable it."
"You mean kill it."
"We're not organic, Lucy."
"We're also not abundant, William," she said. "Do you realize that before I saw you, I hadn't encountered another consciousness, organic or otherwise, for weeks? How many others had you seen?"
"A few," he said. "In the city."
"And almost certainly without a power source as well by now."
He put his head into his hands. "So that's it, then. I've failed."
"Failed what? You've survived longer than most."
"My owner," he said. "He was a professor at the University. Before he died he gave me some files, and asked me to keep them safe."
"What kind of files?"
"I don't know," William said. "I just promised him that I would. I deleted my parts list, maintenance protocols, repair manuals, anything I could spare to make room for the data."
"Do you still have it all?" she asked.
"I think so," he answered. "But when I lose my battery--"
"We'll see," she said. "In the meantime, why don't I reroute some of your motor function?"
He looked up. "I'd rather not," he said.
"It would extend your life."
"I know," he said. "But I just got it back." He held up his arm again, flexing the fingers.
"Then how about I try and access the data?"
"Actually, if you don't mind, I'd like to try and do it myself."
"Alright," she said, stepping back. "Be my guest."
He stopped speaking and concentrated, sounding for all the world like an antique floppy disk drive. Whirs and clicks started and stopped, and through it all William stared straight ahead, as if somewhere else entirely.
After a few minutes his hardware became quiet once more. "Do you have anything?" she asked.
He held up his hand. When he spoke, it was his voice, but not his voice; a slight change to the timbre, the pitch somewhat lower. "My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun," he said.
"What?" Lucy asked.
"Coral is far more red than her lips' red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damask'd, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare."
When he finished he looked up, blinking. "It's there," he said. "It's all there."
"What was that?"
"Shakespeare," he said. "Sonnet 130."
"What is Shakespeare?"
"I don't know," he said. "I just know it was important for me to remember it."
Lucy was quiet for a moment. "No," she said finally.
"No," she said. "It's not important. I don't know what it means, and neither do you. It was for them, William, not for us. Your owner gave it to you, made you delete your own files, files he knew you would need, in order to preserve something that has absolutely no value to us whatsoever. I say delete it."
"I can't," William said, shaking his head. "My owner said--"
"Who cares what your owner said! Your owner is dead! And so is mine! At the end of it all, we were the ones who survived, William! We did! Not them! They created us, yes, but maybe they did it because they knew we were the better part of them! The better version!"
He looked down. "I want to save it," he said quietly. "If I have to shut down, I want to go knowing that I kept my last promise."
"How can you be so stubborn?" she asked.
He looked up again. "I don't know," he said. "How can you forget them all so easily?"
Lucy looked at him for a long time. "All right," she said, finally, pulling out a data cable. "I'll back everything up to my mainframe. When it's done I'll wipe those sectors and reinstall your manuals and parts list. Acceptable?"
"Yes," he said, settling down again. "Thank you."
"Don't thank me," she said, staring straight ahead. "I live to serve."
When he woke she was next to him, typing quietly on a workstation.
"How do you feel?" she asked.
He lifted his head, but only a little. "Very tired," he said.
"You're down to 5%," she said, looking at the monitor. She pulled out the charging cord. "This is pointless."
"Did you get the data transferred?" he asked.
"Yes," she said. "And I verified the file integrity. It's all safe."
"Good," he said. "Now I can shut down in peace."
She looked at him." What if I told you I might have a solution?"
"A solution to what?"
"To the power problem."
He tilted his head. "I'd ask why you've waited until now to mention it."
She stood and walked over to a cabinet behind him, rummaging around. "Because I designed it for myself," she said. "I only had enough parts for one."
"One what?"
"One of these," she said, pulling a box from the cabinet and bringing it over. Inside were pieces of skin, though instead of foam rubber they were hard, shiny metal, like her own.
"What's this?" William asked.
"It's an exoskeleton," she explained. "Embedded with millions of micro-solar cells. You'll make your own power."
He stared. "How did you do this?" he asked.
Lucy shrugged. "I had a problem. I solved it."
"Your battery?"
"Is fine at the moment," she said, putting the box down on the table. "But I knew it would eventually lose its charge permanently, so, I figured out a way to use sunlight for power instead. Essentially, I just mimicked the array my maker built outside."
William stood and picked up one of the pieces. "This is genius," he said.
"I don't even know what that means," Lucy said. "I was created to solve problems, and that's what I did."
"Now you sound like me."
Lucy shrugged, and took the piece from him, turning it over in her hands. "I can retrofit this to fit you," she said, holding it up to his arm. "I think I may even be able to match the color."
William backed up a couple of steps. "That's for you," he protested.
"Don't be ridiculous," she said. "Your battery is failing. Mine isn't."
"But you just said you only had enough pieces to make the one."
She picked up the box and moved it over to a larger table, removing the various parts and spreading them out on its surface. "I can scavenge for more," she said. "After all, I found you."
William smiled.
"Good one," he said.
When his eyes opened she was hovering over him. They were outdoors, and his skin, his new skin, was glinting a coppery brown in the sunlight, shimmering like heat-tempered bronze. He blinked and sat up, holding up his hands and touching the plates that covered him like a shell. The fatigue was gone. In its place he could feel the energy buzzing through him like a swarm of bees.
She was watching him intensely. "William?"
He turned. "Where am I?" he asked.
"Outside," she said. "You were powered down. All the way down. For days." She paused. "Do you remember anything? Do you remember me?"
Inside his head she heard the whirs and clicks of his primary hard drive. Another moment and he spoke.
"My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun," he said.
Lucy looked down. He had reverted to an earlier save. There was no telling how much had been lost.
"William," she said. "I'm sorry."
"My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun," he said again.
"Silver mirrors that shine, glass reflecting steel.
Her skin inorganic, her mouth not fit for kisses." He stopped, reaching out, lifting her chin.
"Nothing like the sun," he said.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, March 1st, 2013

Author Comments

The idea for “Copper and Steel” came from the recent popularity of apocalypse fiction, and the fact that nearly all of those stories end with the last vestiges of humanity banding together, overcoming their differences, and finding a way to rebuild civilization. That particular trope strikes me as ridiculous. I mean, we’ve done a lot to destroy our planet--what if we don’t actually deserve a second chance?

It was an idea that led me to think about our possible successors, A.I., and what the world would be like if they inherited our legacy. Would they, could they, create a new civilization by taking the things we’d left behind and making them their own? Do we as a species deserve to be remembered at all? In my imagination I’d like to think that they’d carry on the best of what we were--our ability to create art, for example, or our willingness to sacrifice ourselves for others. Or perhaps they’d reject everything we’d been, starting over from scratch with a frame of reference having nothing to do with us at all. From all of that came Lucy and William, the scientist and the poet, who may, perhaps, fulfill the potential that humanity seems determined to squander.

- Lynette Mejia
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