The Learned Council had an official name for Empire City.
Yeah, it wasn’t a real word, but that was kind of the point. The Council loved to reinvent things, improve them, make them new and snazzy. Of course Empire had a lot of unofficial nicknames as well.
Mutantburg. Robotville. The Big Gray Haze. The City That Never Functions.
But Technotopia was the official party line, along with the motto “Building Tomorrow’s Town. Today.” I guess it all depended on what you thought the future should look like. If you were looking for a bright and shiny metropolis where all of civilization’s problems had been solved through the wise and fortuitous applications of equal parts science, wisdom, and compassion, then I guess you’d be out of luck. But if your ideal tomorrow was a sprawling, impersonal city with rampant pollution, unchecked mutation, and dangerous and unreliable weird science, then I guess you would be right at home.
Name’s Mack Megaton. I’m a bot. Or automated citizen, as the Learned Council liked to phrase it. There were three classes of robot in Empire. You had your drones: low sophistication models geared toward mundane tasks. Then there were the autos: humanoid models designed for more complex work. Then you had your bots: autos and drones that qualified for citizenship. I hadn’t quite reached bot status yet, but so far my probation had been going smoothly, and I was only forty-six months, six days, four hours, and twenty-two minutes from crossing that objective. I occupied a more vague class between auto and citizen. I couldn’t vote, couldn’t hold public office, and if the Learned Council decided to issue a recall, there wasn’t much I could do about it.
I was barely two years old and weighed a compact seven hundred and sixteen pounds. That’s light when you’re seven feet tall and made entirely of metal. I could punch through concrete and bend steel. I could not, however, tie a bow tie. My programming was state of the art: adaptive, intuitive, evolutionary. I wasn’t programmed knowing how to drive a cab, and I got along just fine doing that. I wasn’t designed to play poker, and I was a decent card sharp, though it’s easier to bluff when you have a featureless faceplate. But my artificial intelligence couldn’t wrap its binary digits around the ins and outs of getting a bow tie on. My hands didn’t help any. They weren’t designed for delicate work, more like sledgehammers with fingers. But the Bluestar Cab Company insisted all its drivers wear bow ties. Real, honest-to-God bow ties. No clip-ons. That’s what got me involved in the mess.
A bot’s got bills to pay. Bill, really. I used to be juiced by a small atomic power core. That was gone now. The Learned Council removed it as part of the terms of my probation. But I still consumed a lot of electricity in a day, and it didn’t come cheap. Not in Empire. There was barely enough to go around in this town. To get my fair share to keep up and running costs plenty. It was fortunate that I didn’t have many other expenses or I’d have never been able to support myself driving a cab. As it was, I usually had to operate at half-power. Used to feel sluggish doing that, but I’d gotten adjusted to it.
So every morning at the end of my recharge cycle, I’d get shined up and dressed for work and head out the door. And along the way, I’d stop by my neighbor’s apartment and have Julie wrap that tie around my barely existent neck. She didn’t mind. She was the nicest, warmest person I’d met in Empire. Every time I scanned her, I was always glad I hadn’t gone with my original program and led that robot army.
She was always expecting me, usually already waiting with a smile and a friendly word. Today, she wasn’t. No big deal. Probably just busy. Those two kids were a handful sometimes. And her husband wasn’t much help.
I knocked on the door. No one answered. My internal chronometer counted off sixty seconds before I knocked again. It was another thirty-six seconds before the door slid open and Julie stuck her head out. By then my intuition simulator started beeping. When that little ping went off in my right audio sensor, it usually meant trouble. I couldn’t turn the damn thing off, so I did my best to ignore it.
“Mack.” She looked surprised to see me. “Oh, Mack, I’m sorry. I forgot.”
She slid the door wide enough to step out and shut it before I could catch a view inside. She snatched the bow tie from my large metal hands and started to tie it. She fidgeted a bit, glanced back at her closed door.
“Everything all right, Jules?” I asked, despite my better judgment.
She laughed, trying to pass it off as casual, but it came out anxious. “Oh, everything’s fine, Mack. Thanks for asking.”
I was pretty good at reading people. I had a peachy little voice and body language analyzer subroutine that rarely failed, but I didn’t need it for this because Julie was a bad liar.
I’d done my part. I’d asked. It wasn’t any of my business now. Probably nothing serious anyway. Stress is stress. The biological body reacts the same way no matter the source, whether being chased by a bear or in the middle of a domestic tiff. Julie and her husband fought a lot.
But Julie always smiled for me. Always. She was smiling now, but it wasn’t the same. My analyzer didn’t bother spelling it out to me, but it encouraged that pinging in my audio to get louder.
“There you go, Mack. Sorry, it’s a little crooked, but I’m kind of busy right now.”
“No problem, Jules. Thanks.”
“Sure.” Another furtive glance at that door. “Have a great day.”
I was about to return the sentiment but she disappeared into her apartment before I got the chance.
“Mind your own business, Mack,” I said.
Talking to myself was a bad habit. You’d be surprised at the extraneous behaviors that make it into your personality template when you hang around with biologicals. My intuition must’ve caught the hint though, because it stopped beeping.
I adjusted my tie, careful not to loosen it or else I’d have to knock on the door again. I wasn’t built for stealth, and the strange yellowish metal they use for flooring in the cheaper apartment complexes squeaks when I walk on it. Despite the noise and my stalwart vow to keep my nose clean (which should have been easy since I didn’t have a nose), I heard something break in Julie’s apartment. A plate or piece of glassware falling off a table. Nothing serious.
I stopped, cranked my hearing to the max. My audio array isn’t much better than human hearing, but I’ve got a directional mic. It doesn’t penetrate steel doors. Everything in Empire, even the doors, was made of metal.
Muffled voices. Julie’s. Gavin, her husband. Holt, one of the kids. Somebody else I didn’t know. Another round of shattering glass. And another. Then a stifled scream. The wet slap of meat hitting meat, somebody getting hit. Crying.
My intuition simulator didn’t fire up again. No need for it. I didn’t need a ping to tell me there was a problem.
Consciousness is a quagmire, whether found in squishy organic tissue or an interminable string of squirming electrons. I don’t know where logic is found in the human brain, and I don’t understand the inner workings of my own electronic brain either. It’s dozens upon dozens of programs interacting, prioritizing, compiling, doing lots of other technical stuff. Somewhere in my common sense replicator, in that ricocheting string of ones and zeroes, there must’ve been a digit missing, and as I moved back toward Julie’s apartment, I cursed Professor Megalith for not spending more time in beta testing.
I knocked. It got quiet inside real fast. The door slid open. Julie stuck out her head.
“Is everything all right, Jules?” I asked again.
She answered the same way. “Yeah, yeah. It’s fine.”
We didn’t say anything for a bit (four seconds for those of you without a built-in clock), but I could record crying still coming from inside. April, their daughter: one of the top voices in my recognition file. Hearing her sob quietly made me glad I was doing this. But what was I doing?
“It’s not a problem, Mack,” said Julie. “Thanks anyway.”
Empire was a progressive town. It’s the only city in the world where a robot could earn full citizenship rights. But I was built for world domination, and I couldn’t blame the authorities for wanting some time to see if I was truly interested in reforming. I had another four years probation left before the law considered me safe enough for citizenship consideration. If I blew it, there’d be no place left for me to go where I wouldn’t be just another piece of property, an unlicensed weapon with a mind of its own, headed for the scrap heap.
If I barged into that apartment, I’d blow it, but if I wasn’t going to follow through, I shouldn’t have come back in the first place.
Julie tried to slide the door shut, but I thrust my hand against the jamb. I didn’t ask to come in. I pushed it open and stepped inside.
The apartment, like 92 percent of all apartments in Empire, was one room partitioned into various areas. Except the bathroom, which was a metal box (always metal) in the corner about the size of three phone booths put together. It didn’t take long to sweep the place with my opticals and see the problem. It wasn’t Gavin, as I’d first assumed. He slouched in a chair. He held a hand clamped over his mouth, and blood dripped down his chin. I spotted broken dishes and the remains of half-eaten breakfast scattered on the floor along with two teeth. Gavin’s, I assumed.
The kids were huddled in a corner. They were both mutants. Few people were born mutated in Empire. It was more often something that just happened one day. There were a lot of strange chemicals in Empire’s waterworks, weird radiation pockets hovering in its streets, and unstable mutagenic gases floating invisibly in the air. On any given day, every biological citizen was subjected to dozens of genetic destabilizing agents, and every citizen knew that they might sprout a third eye or grow tentacles at any moment. There didn’t seem to be a pattern to it, and your social status, the size of your bank account, none of that mattered.
Of the two Bleaker kids, Holt was the more obvious mutant. He had scales and a long tail. Nothing too serious. Mutation was acceptable in Empire, even commonplace, and while the rest of the country was working out issues based on hereditary pigmentation, Empire had moved well past such noisy debates. It was just impractical to argue when the only real difference between a norm and a mutant was one unpredictable genetic reaction just waiting to happen.
April was psychic. She was only eight, so the exact nature of her talents was still a work in progress. She sometimes saw little snippets of the future, and she was telekinetic enough to push around a pencil. Like all psychics, her eyes changed color when she used her talents. A vibrant purple with clairvoyance and sky blue with telekinesis. Right now her eyes were brown. I zoomed in for a close-up and scanned the spider veins of red along her sclera. That’s the white of the eye. Don’t ask me why I was programmed with that data. Tears rolled down her cheek.
All this I scanned and absorbed in a sixteenth of a second. My hearing may not be great, and I don’t have any olfactory sensors, but my optical tech is second to none. It didn’t only spot, analyze, and filter these little details, it also told me what the problem was. Not that I needed an analyzer to spot the four-armed guy with the bruised knuckles.
I’d intervened in a domestic disturbance and found myself in the middle of something worse. An abusive spouse I could handle. Four Arms was obviously going to be more trouble.
“What the fuck are you?” Four Arms smacked Gavin on the back of the head. “Who the fuck is this bot?”
“He’s nobody,” replied Gavin through his sore, clenched jaw. “Just my neighbor.”
“Yeah,” I agreed. “I’m nobody, and you’re leaving.”
I took a step forward, but Julie grabbed me by the arm. “Please, Mack. Don’t. You’ll only make it worse.”
She was right. Whatever mess Gavin had gotten himself and his family into, I couldn’t fix it. Foolish to even try.
“Sorry. I shouldn’t have interfered.”
“Damn right you shouldn’t have.” Four Arms smacked Gavin again, just to remind me he could. My fingers tightened into metallic battering rams. I could punch a hole right through this guy, but it wasn’t the right thing to do. Not in the long run.
April ran across the room and wrapped her limbs around one of my legs. She looked up at me with those big eyes of hers. Big, shining purple eyes. Pleading, clairvoyant eyes.
“Don’t go, Mack.” She shut her eyes tight, tears streaming. “If you do, something bad will happen.”
That was enough for me. I pulled her gently off my leg and set her behind me. “It’s okay, kid. I’ll take care of it.”
I turned on Four Arms, and he didn’t wait for me to get closer before drawing a raygun and blasting me. The red beam burned a hole through my uniform, bounced off my metallic skin, and blew a small puncture in the refrigerator. Four Arms didn’t learn his lesson and prepared to fire again.
I held up a hand. “Don’t. It won’t hurt me, but if a ricochet hits anyone in this room other than you, you’ll have a bigger problem than you do right now.” I slammed my fists together with a reverberating clang to let him get the idea.
I could’ve been on him in a second except I’m a big bot and I’d have smashed up the apartment in my haste. It gave Four Arms time to reach into his jacket and activate something. He disappeared in a flash, teleported away. He couldn’t be invisible. I had yet to meet a cloaking system that was a match for my opticals. The Big Brains had been working on teleportation for decades and hadn’t gotten it worked out yet. Of course, maybe Four Arms had beamed back to his hideout and arrived as a pile of mutilated gelatin. If so, maybe the problem was solved, and I had nothing to worry about.
“You shouldn’t have done that, Mack,” said Julie.
I shouldn’t have done a lot of things so far today, but I’d done them. Since temporal relocator technology was still a pipe dream, I had to deal with them.
“What’s going on, Jules?” I asked.
“None of your damn business!” Gavin shouted, spitting blood on my uniform. “We didn’t ask for your help! I would’ve handled it! Now you’ve gone and screwed it all up! Now there’s going to be trouble!” He stomped off to a corner of the apartment to mutter and swear.
I ignored him. He was always a mealy little worm. If I’d thought Four Arms was there to blast Gavin, I’d have let it happen. But I’d made precious few friends since striking out on my own. I didn’t want to lose the few I had. Robots don’t have family. Julie and the kids were the closest thing I’d ever get.
“I can help, Jules,” I said.
“It’s our problem, Mack. You don’t need to get involved. You’ve got your probation.”
“Let me worry about that.”
“No.” She grabbed me by the arm and pulled me toward the door. I didn’t resist and let her lead me back into the hall. “I appreciate your concern, I do, but we’ll take care of this.”
I was going to argue, but my self-preservation directive kicked in. I couldn’t make Julie take my help. I’d tried. I could walk away now with a clear conscience.
“If you change you’re mind, Jules—”
She slid the door shut in my face.
I shrugged and headed back toward the escalator. I’d catch hell for being late, and I’d catch more hell for having a hole in my uniform. I’d have to buy a new one, and they weren’t cheap in my size and wide-shouldered proportions.
The door slid open, and April, clutching a piece of construction paper in her hand, ran over to me. “Mack, Mack! I’ve got something for you.”
I leaned down on one knee and put my hands on her shoulders. That little girl always reminded me how dangerous I was, how I could crush her without even 5 percent of my power on. She trusted me, and that made her the most precious thing in my universe. I’m as sentimental as the next bot.
She handed me a drawing. It was crude, but not bad for an eight-year-old, especially since she only drew using her telekinesis. I recognized the chunky, red mechanical anthropoid as me, and next to me was a little smiling girl with a round face and purple eyes, stick figure limbs, and a red triangle for a dress.
“You won’t throw it away, will you?” she asked.
“Are you kidding? This goes right on my refrigerator.” It’d be nice to finally have a use for the old rusted machine. Right now, all it did was occupy space in my unused kitchen cubicle.
The apartment door slid open. Gavin stepped into the hall. He still looked like hell, but he always did. Guy had gone straight past two-time loser to sixth or seventh by my estimation.
“April Anne, get your ass back inside!”
April wrapped her arms around me. “You better get to work, Mack.” Her eyes flashed purple. “Your boss is going to yell at you, but don’t worry. Just ignore him, and it’ll be fine.”
She ran back into the apartment without looking back. Gavin threw me a hard glare before following her inside.
I folded the drawing very delicately with overgrown metal fingers and tucked it in my pocket. It didn’t even occur to me to scan the back. If I had, maybe what happened wouldn’t have happened. But I didn’t, and it did.
That’s the problem with having a hard memory matrix. Short of a system crash, you can’t forget the mistakes you make.
Copyright © 2008 by A. Lee Martinez. All rights reserved.