by Keith O’Neill
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3, 4
That fall, I had finished the house enough to take on a boarder, a droid named Candy-3, who was considering renting to own. She was a veteran of the Pacific Wars and had a small business growing body parts for the Army. She set up a small lab in the basement with a large loom for growing skin grafts. When she wasn’t around, I’d go down there and touch the leathery screen, thinking about the only other human skin I’d felt before.
When the factory was repurposed, I was assigned to recycling detail, a thankless job no humans lobbied for anymore. Candy-3 and I forgot about the rental agreement and began to cohabitate together, helping each other with the renovation and body farm.
“It is nice out here on the edge of town,” Candy-3 said, sitting down next to me on the couch while I watched S3E13 of The Brady Bunch. “Fewer humans snooping around, seeing what we are up to.”
“Yup,” I said, stroking her plastic back and pretending it was more like the skin growing in the basement. She had been commissioned as a pleasure droid and began to initiate an intercourse cycle. It meant nothing to her, and she didn’t ask what it meant to me. I didn’t know the answer to that, myself.
* * *
Fifteen years passed. The humans had mostly vacated the region, following the jobs to wherever management and the union agreed to move them. The chance of selling my house was slim at this point, but it was now a tasteful human-style home with a sunken living room and carpeting not unlike the Brady residence. We were comfortable.
I received an electronic message from Herman — an old-fashioned written one, not a vid message or hologram — saying that he’d be on shore leave and wondering if I wanted to get a beer. The old bar where we’d get happy hour had been closed for a long time, but I didn’t mention that and told him to feel free to stop by.
It was cold on the day he was supposed to arrive. I was sitting on the front porch I’d added, on an antique rocking chair found in one of the hundreds of empty shells throughout the deserted neighborhood back behind the highway. There was a light, sooty snow falling, the flakes marrying specks of pollution and pulling them back to earth.
When I came to check on the temperature of the beer, Candy-3 asked why I was risking rust out there, but I just said I was fine. She’d procured some human food — a sad, gray chicken and some tortillas — and was using our stove for the first time. She was wearing an apron and nothing else, and I suggested that she might want to put on some more clothing. I had found my old factory clothes — my crusty old pair of jeans and flannel shirt — and was thinking about those late nights in front of the tube.
It was late when I saw the lights of Herman’s truck brightening the sky. The sector had stopped turning on streetlights after the workers had left. Machines had little use for artificial lighting, and the whole sector was pitch-black at night.
A Ford pickup pulled up, a little older than the one I’d owned — I’d sold it couple of years before — but I could hear that it was well cared for. Herman got out and stood there, staring at me with his big bushy beard. It had gotten longer. He also had an artificial leg now, made of plastic and wood, which he made no effort to conceal.
I stepped down and held out my hand for a shake and he grabbed me and pulled me close in a hug. I felt the old problem in my processors again: an inefficiency or hole in my code.
Candy-3, now in a vintage dress and apron and holding up a wooden spoon, was standing on the porch and staring at us.
“Herman, this is Candy-3, my” — there wasn’t a precise human word for the kind of relationship I had with her — “assistant.”
His life vitals were showing signs of excitement. His pupils were dilated, and his blood pressure was slightly elevated. When he saw Candy, his heart rate increased, and I felt the need to tell him that he had no reason to feel threatened by her presence. “Please return to the interior, Candy,” I said.
“She puts the ass in assistant, eh, Eight-Six?” Herman said as she pivoted and went inside. His terrible attempt at humor confused me, as it wasn’t consistent with the fight-or-flight reaction he was having physically. Then I realized he was acting, covering up his involuntary physical reaction. It had been so long since I’d been near a live human that I’d forgotten how misleading they could be.
“I visited a pleasure droid myself once while I was on furlough. I gotta say, it didn’t do much for me.”
I noted with some displeasure a disruption in my system, a sort of spike in power, when Herman mentioned being with another robot.
“Candy and I are in business together,” I said. “We grow organic materials for the military and other subcontractors.”
“You mean you make babies?” Herman said.
“No infant parts,” Candy said automatically. “That is prohibited by the International Body Farm agreement of 2089, ratified by the World Health Organization and United Nations—”
“Jeez, she’s got even less of a sense of humor than you do, Eight. I was just kidding about the kids. I seen your kind of set-up before. Lemme guess. You got a bunch of legs and arms growing down there, plus a tub of organs: hearts, kidneys, livers. Say,” Herman turned back to me now, “speaking of livers, what’s a man gotta do to get a drink around here?”
I explained that the bars had all closed when the humans left the sector, but that I had ordered some rum and had it delivered by drone.
“You know I can’t stand the stuff,” Herman said, “but any port in a storm, eh?” He went up the porch steps and through the front door. He walked past Candy without looking at her.
“8619b, Series 2,” she said, “my sensors warn me that this human is a Luddite.”
“Candy-3” — I did not acknowledge her comment — “please access and run the daiquiri procedure I sent you three days ago.”
I followed Herman into the living room, where he settled into his usual seat on the couch, his salt-worn boots up on my coffee table. He said the place looked good and turned on the television. Candy brought the daiquiris out on a tray and then went down to her workshop.
Within two episodes of The Brady Bunch, Herman’s pants were off, and he was behind me, shaking the sofa so much that it bumped against the wall behind it. The snow fell all night, muffling the sound of all the machinery running for miles and miles around us.
* * *
No amount of planning and renovation can recreate precisely the mess that a real human creates in a space. Though the house was a precise simulacrum of a home, the way Herman left his clothes, his tissue, his DNA traces scattered randomly couldn’t be recreated, even with fractal algorithms. His inefficiency in even the smallest ways was fascinating. “I don’t know what the hell this is, Eight. I’ve been thinking about you non-stop since I left. What’s so different about you from other machines?”
“There is nothing special about my programming or hardware,” I said.
Herman appeared to be crying. “Then I must just be crazy. I feel closer to you than anybody out on the shore.”
He had thrown his heavy-weather parka on the floor beside the couch.
“It’s bad out there, Eight. Fighting a losing battle against the waves, getting knocked about, only to be knocked around the other way by the government and the machines. I thought the work would be better, more stable at least, but they got us moving up and down the shore without any sense. Most of the men and women I met were so beat down that they were more like machines than you or even that sexbot are.”
I said I didn’t understand the connection between being beat down and machines, since machines that don’t work can be repaired fairly easily. An automated plow went past on the highway, tossing the snow like curdled milk.
“Okay, maybe not like machines, then. Just broken... things. Broken-down bodies and something more. A lack of imagination. Or dreams. What were we even protecting? The people left have mostly moved inland to higher elevations, anyway. I took a couple of hard hits myself; cracked my skull good one time.”
His head was resting in my lap, and I scanned it for scars and irregularities. I had already noticed an arrhythmia in his heartbeat, and I wondered quietly if that was one of the broken parts he was talking about.
“I know you hear it,” he said, and I checked my log to make sure that I hadn’t spoken out loud. “My ticker’s shot. Not immediately life-threatening, but they decommissioned me. A small disability, and they put me on a list for a replacement, but an old sea tar ain’t exactly high on the list, what with all the vets in line. Since you got a meat farm in the basement I don’t gotta tell you about it. Not that I’m here for that. I’d rather avoid having my guts opened.
“I don’t really see why they send men and women off to war, when you guys” — he nodded his head toward the door of the basement — “could do the fighting so much better than we ever could, with none of the casualties. But I know, the U.N. banned robots in war, et cetera, et cetera. Plus, the country’s unlivable, environmentally speaking, or most of it, anyway. Still, you got to wonder what all those kids are fighting for, shedding blood for. So you and the other mechanicals can have a roof over your head and a white picket fence when we’re gone?”
I remembered the way he’d sound mean and resentful when he was drunk. “Alcohol is not recommended with congenital heart disease,” I said. “It would be an... inefficiency for you to expire prior to the average life span for your body type.” I paused while processing what I was trying to say. “I’d miss you, Herman. I have missed you.” I executed a gentle stroke down his face. “You are not in optimal condition. I will need to procure more sustenance for you, but perhaps you’d like to stay here indefinitely? There’s certainly room.”
“Hell, I can’t have you taking care of me. I’m just a bit burned out from the waves.” He took a swig directly from the jug of rum. “Maybe if I can crash here for a few days while I figure out what to do next.”
“That would make me extremely happy,” I said.
“When the hell did you start using words like ‘happy’?”
“When I realized how unhappy I was after they took us off the line together.”
“Same here. I haven’t stopped thinking about it all these years.”
Candy came up from the basement and walked through the living room without looking at us. She seemed unaware of what we were saying to each other or how we were saying it. She just walked over to the back wall and shut down her functions as she did every night.
“You and her have something?”
“Robots and droids are prohibited from marriage or families.”
“I know that, you dumb tin-man. I mean, do you have feelings for each other?”
It was not the kind of question I’d ever asked myself about Candy-3. She was company, another system running parallel to mine. We did not conflict. Was that the same thing as feelings?
“Well, it certainly sounds like some marriages I’ve known, specially my second,” he said with a laugh. “She gonna stand back there and watch us fuck all night? I mean, she’s welcome to join in if she’s feeling lonely or left out.”
His laugh indicated that this was a joke, but I didn’t like what he said. I got up and walked over to Candy-3 and looked at her. There was no reason to assume that she was receiving audio or visual stimuli while she was in sleep mode, but I moved my hand in front of her face plate to see if there was a reaction. Nothing.
Then I turned to Herman and said, “You can be very cold for a non-machine. What we have is between us, or at least that’s what I thought. I have put myself in some jeopardy in my relations with you, you know. After you went back to the shoreline, Fitzie asked what you and I were up to out here every night.”
I didn’t add that our former foreman rubbed his mechanical arm on my back until I took it and nearly damaged it as I pushed him away. “Even now there have been questions from the sustenance facilities about why I’m buying human food and having it delivered to an area officially declared non-inhabitable. As organ growers, we are subject to all applicative in-utero laws.”
“I’m a bitter, broken person,” Herman said, looking down. “I got to admit I’m a little jealous of her, and that’s my way of showing it. I’m done with the sea. I mean it, this time. I thought about getting as far away from the waves as I could: Dubai or something, but then I realized we got our own deserts here in the good old USA. Plus there was you, of course, in the back of my mind. I been thinking. What do you think of me staying on here for the foreseeable? I can help out, if you need a human hand for anything.”
I told him that it would be more than acceptable for him to stay, but I warned him that the conditions were not ideal in this sector for a human anymore. It was remarkable how quickly machines stopped accommodating for human life once it evacuated. Sustenance would be an issue, as well the air quality, obviously.
But there was something more. We would have to be careful and quiet. “There are stories,” I told him, “about robots chasing the last humans out. The ones that refused to leave their homes even after the mandatory evacuation. Once it was clear the state didn’t care, there were ‘meat sweeps,’ as they were called, and the humans were beaten bloody and thrown in a ditch not far from the site of our old factory.”
“Did you see any of this yourself?”
“No, but Candy did. In fact, she harvested some organs from the site, from what little was left.” I look over at her sleeping against the wall. “She agreed with the sweeps. Said that it was cleaner without humans and their waste. When I pointed out that the high levels of toxins in the environment really spiked after the humans moved out, she only replied, ‘Toxins for humans.’ I have air conditioners and filters installed from when I thought I would resell this house, but the air quality will not be healthy for you over a long term.”
“To be honest, I don’t know how much time I got left,” Herman said. “I’ll take my chances.”
* * *
Copyright © 2019 by Keith O’Neill