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art by Shane M. Gavin

Metal and Flesh

Steve grew up listening to his dad's ghost stories and never recovered. He attended Uncle Orson's Literary Boot Camp in 2009 and currently lives in Oklahoma in a small house full of girls. His stories have appeared in Intergalactic Medicine Show, Daily Science Fiction, Brain Harvest, and others. His nonfiction blog posts have been featured by Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America.

Sato lay on the cement floor of the workshop in a pool of his own blood and tried desperately to get Kuro-4's legs working again. The robot, in turn, tried to deal with the gaping wounds in Sato's smashed leg and pelvis.
Go stones were all over the floor, scattered like black and white drops of rock. Go had been one of the few games Sato and Kuro-4 could play together to pass the time. AIs had trouble with Go, and Sato could hold his own against Kuro-4. Sometimes he even won. The Go stones had rested in two worn wooden bowls on the table by the main hatch; now they were mixed together on the floor, blood and hydraulic oil oozing around them like a slow river.
Sato twisted his torso, torqued the wrench, and finally popped the release that allowed the panel on Kuro-4's lower back to slide open. The effort made Sato's head spin. Outside, the cold Martian winds buffeted the workshop walls, causing the metal to groan. The asteroid strike had heated the alloy, but now the temperature was falling back to normal. The lights overhead dimmed, but stayed on.
The wry eyes on Kuro-4's facescreen studied Sato's worried face.
"If the impact left even a third of the solar panels intact," Kuro-4 said, "that should be enough to keep life support going."
Sato grunted. Sweat poured down his face. "If I don't get your legs working, it won't matter."
All the suits were in the decom chamber, and the asteroid had torn that room in half. Rescue would take 44 days to arrive, and if Kuro-4 couldn't walk to bring back supplies, Sato wouldn't last half that long.
"Well, work faster," Kuro-4 said. "You're letting me win. I've already managed to repair three of your major blood vessels."
"Out of how many?"
Kuro-4 was silent.
"You've got it easy," Sato said. "No pain."
"On the other hand, the mechanisms you're working on are simple compared to the human body."
"It repairs itself; what could be simpler?"
Kuro-4 smiled.
They lay on the floor side by side for almost an hour, a yin and yang of metal and flesh. They talked back and forth, each contending their job was harder, that they were winning the competition to see who could fix the other first. Neither admitted how scared they were.
Eventually, Sato's hands went numb. Reassembling Kuro-4's servo had been difficult enough when he could feel the pieces. Foggy and frustrated, Sato lay back on the floor and struggled to catch his breath. The cement felt soft, like a down pillow.
When Sato looked up, Kuro-4 was studying him again.
"What's that face?" Sato asked. "What are you thinking about?"
"Back home. AIs aren't recognized as living beings."
Sato struggled to sit up. "Why are you thinking about that now?"
"The network says the other buildings are breached, which probably means you're the only living human in the complex. If you die, they won't spend the money on an evac mission to save me." The dark eyes on Kuro-4's facescreen were weary and afraid. "I'm in here, Sato. I know I can't prove it, but I'm in here."
Sato put a hand on Kuro-4's shoulder. "I know you are."
They worked in silence. Once, Sato almost fell asleep. A few times, he forgot where he was.
Finally, Sato said, "Fire up your voice recorder."
Sato blinked to stay awake. "I'm dying, Kuro. Fire it up."
A blinking red dot and jagged green line took the place of Kuro-4's face.
"I lost," Kuro-4 said blankly. "I couldn't save you."
"Hush," Sato said. "I'm recording."
Sato cleared his throat, summoned the last of his strength, and willed his voice to clear. Then he spoke:
"Command, visual is on the fritz, so I'm in audio-only."
"This is Sato. Still scraping by. I'm really anxious to see you all."
"Quick status report..."
Sato continued until he had said everything he thought Kuro-4 would need. Kuro-4 listened in silence, the green line on his facescreen spiking along with Sato's voice. When the recording was over and Kuro-4's facescreen returned to normal, there were tears streaming down his artificial cheeks.
"Recut that any way you need to, to make them think I'm still alive," Sato said. "Then they'll have to come."
Kuro-4 smiled through his tears. "I don't know what to say. I'm never going to be able to top this."
Sato took Kuro-4's cold metal hand, smiled, and faded away.
The End
This story was first published on Wednesday, June 6th, 2012

Author Comments

At this moment in history, science doesn't understand consciousness very well. We constantly slam into the wall of qualia--that is, subjective experience. You can't explain the color yellow or the taste of Coca-Cola to me any better than I can explain it to you. We are trapped inside our heads, unable to share that most fundamental of all experiences: how it feels to be alive.

If and when AI technology takes off and synthetic intelligences begin relating to us in the same ways we relate to each other, it's my hope that we'll treat them with the respect we would want for ourselves. They may never be able to prove they are "awake," but that's irrelevant. Once they can say, "I'm scared," or "it hurts," or I love you, we will have a responsibility to honor that. I hope we're up to the challenge.

"Metal and Flesh" is the story of a man who uses his last moments to make sure his friend gets home. It doesn't matter that Kuro-4 is an AI; he is Sato's friend, and Sato doesn't give a damn about politics or protocol or anything else. He knows.

I like Sato. Smart guy. I'd like to say it would be fun to play him in Go, but he would probably beat me.

(I owe this story in part to my brilliant brother Tim Stewart and his illustration "Repairs.")

- Steven R. Stewart
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