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Little Robot

By Alex Beyman All Rights Reserved ©

Romance / Scifi

Little Robot

The first robot I ever saw was at a theme park. I must’ve been four, maybe five. Dad and I were waiting outside the bathroom for Mom when I spotted a crowd of kids my age nearby. Curious as to what interested them so much, I wandered over and did my best to peer past their shoulders.”

My therapist, a fat balding man with wisps of white hair he didn’t bother to comb adorning the sides and back of his head, peered at me over a steaming cup of tea. He always offers me some and I always decline, as I’d have to take off the mask to drink it.

They were busy kicking and punching a guide robot. Or as close to such a thing as existed back then, an off the shelf PC with a pair of cameras and some collision sensors, scooting about on three wheels with a futuristic looking plastic shell concealing how simple it really was. I understand how simple those machines are, don’t imagine I don’t. I know it couldn’t feel anything.”

I must’ve guessed correctly as he began to interject, but settled back into quietly absorbing my story once I added that little caveat. I often imagine I can predict what someone will do or say, but I’m also almost always wrong. Not sure why it hasn’t sunk in yet as I keep doing it, but even a blind squirrel sometimes finds a nut.

I think I reacted as strongly as I did because the machine seemed confused and frustrated. There it was, something humans built to perform a useful task for us, being kicked, beaten and spit on by human children. It provoked something deep inside me. The machine was just doing what we told it to. Trying, anyway. But look at what it got for its trouble.”

He chose this point to jump in. “You identify with the robot, of course.” I groaned. Talk about trite. Was this level of analysis really worth whatever my employer was paying this guy? I made the connection on my own before but dismissed it because it’s too obvious, and I often second guess myself where this sort of thing is concerned.

It’s pretty easy to put together a plausible sounding narrative to explain anything you want. And if it’s all internal to you, who can dispute it? I’m also nothing so interesting as to be worth studying in any real depth.

My therapist disagrees, but then he’s being paid to pick my brain. There’s a lot I don’t normally find interesting that I could develop an interest in, if there were a paycheck in it for me. The terms of my house arrest require me to spend the full hour with him either way.

You could’ve saved us both a good deal of time if you’d brought this up right away” he pointed out, plainly irritated. “The parallels with the incident which brought you here are obvious.”

I had to give him that. I recently threw myself at a surly drunk who’d beaten up a robot designed to find lost children in an airport, knocked it over, then begun to urinate on it.

It turns out you can’t throw a punch under those circumstances! Color me surprised. You’d think the jury would’ve been more sympathetic.

Then again I suppose I’m difficult to sympathize with even with the mask off, and the drunk’s attorney did a bang up job of making me seem like some sort of impulsively violent public menace.

I remember when they showed us the CCTV footage. My therapist requested a copy and had me watch it a few times during our sessions. Not sure why. I was there, I know what happened. I will say I don’t remember punching the lout that hard, or the part where I stomped on his head and neck.

Of course I couldn’t make them see it my way. It’s difficult to put into words, even for myself. I suppose it really is a feeling of camaraderie with that simple, downtrodden machine. Of intense, vengeful rage that the same species which created it to do something so vital, to safeguard our children, would then subject it to such abhorrent abuse just for kicks.

Even simple minded as it is, I can imagine what it must have been like to be tipped over. Alarms tripping internally, software frantically working out how to right itself as primate piss began seeping into its chassis and shorting out its batteries. If it knew how to scream I’m sure it would’ve, though I suppose the alarms were its equivalent.

It was only doing what we told it to. What we made it for. Trying its very best to make sure our lost children do not come to harm, but instead are returned to us.

Only to be rewarded with a banged up, mangled body and indignity visited upon it for the mindless, cruel amusement of some absolute garbage animal who, in his intoxicated stupor, forgot the context of what he was doing. Of what a purely, singularly well intentioned creature he was forcing himself on.

That’s the heart of the matter, isn’t it? While they are of course simple, even more so than insects, what’s there in the way of a mind is as faultlessly well meaning as can be.

No capacity for guile except where it’s been included to protect the owner against certain human behaviors. No notion of cruelty, or avarice, or anger.

A robot will continue doing what it’s told until it starves to death. Runs out of charge, whatever. But if it can recharge itself, it will continue doing what it was last instructed to for years. Decades. As long as the batteries last before wearing down.

One way to look at such behavior is that it’s a limitation. That the robot is stupid. But the way I look at it, robots possess superhuman loyalty. An excess of a virtuous quality sorely lacking in humanity, not a deficiency of any kind.

I tried to communicate all of this to my therapist but stumbled over my words, struggling as ever to make the principle of it understood. That’s a problem, as more than anybody else it’s up to him how long I have to wear this blasted ankle bracelet.

But I should count my blessings. If it weren’t for the value of my work to the government, I’d likely be sitting in a prison cell now.

I’m certain they wouldn’t let me wear my mask in there. I wouldn’t last a day without a breakdown, even if by some miracle I were to escape beatings or molestation.

I can’t be around lots of people. My whole body reacts, the part of my brain which alerts me to unseen danger goes into overdrive. It’s hellish. The only way I’ve found to manage it well enough that I can function in public is to wear this mask.

I’m not certain where I got it from, I just know it’s always been important to me. Much of my youth is one big blank spot. Repressed I assume. Mom, Dad and Ty are tight lipped about it.

Whatever happened must’ve fucked me up but good, there are loads of things that send me into a panic. But seemingly random, as I cannot remember why those particular things should evoke such a reaction in me. It’s a harrowing way to live.

The mask itself is rounded, smooth, featureless chrome. A sort of one way mirrored material that I can see out through, but which prevents others from seeing my face. Like a little enclosed fort I can take with me, within which I feel at least some small degree of safety that I cannot do without.

The rim is gilded. It must’ve been expensive. But the harder I try to remember where I got it, the more my mind revolts, causing those memories to evaporate the moment I get too close to retrieving them. Like trying to grab pudding.

I’ve never been good with faces. I can discern emotion from tone of voice much more easily. I feel like the mask levels the playing field somewhat. Now I am as inscrutable and unnerving to everybody else as they are to me.

What a trick it was to find an employer who would tolerate this degree of eccentricity. I went most of a decade after school searching for work.

They all said the same thing: Lose the mask. Of course I couldn’t, but eventually my niche found me. Sometimes that’s how it works, like finding Narnia.

I have a preternatural gift for robotics. That, too, is a mystery to me. There are various tiny gizmos and the remains of a somewhat beat up humanoid robot made from erector set in my room, back at Mom and Dad’s house.

Last Christmas when I stayed over I remember studying the intricate thing, hoping it would bring back flashes of the past. From that big, gaping blank spot in my mind.

I recognize it, but I don’t remember building it. Nor most of the other gizmos lining the shelves. Visiting spots where I used to play is a minefield of deja vu. The forest, the lake. Winston’s grave.

I remember Winston. I remember Mr. MacGufferson too, though when he was on his last legs he just wandered off to die on his own terms as cats often do.

I’m glad I didn’t see it happen. I would’ve liked to bury him with Winston, but that was difficult enough that I’m unsure whether I could do it twice. I become helplessly attached to animals for the same reasons I develop those sorts of feelings for robots.

They’re simpler than I am. They need my help, or can usually benefit from it. I can do for them what nobody’s ever done for me, and I find them altogether more deserving of help than most humans.

When’s the last time your dog lied to you? When did your cat last humiliate you? When has a robot ever done anything but try to help?

I still visit those woods from time to time. Self consciously. What might someone think if they were to come across a grown man in a chrome mask wandering the woods nearby numerous homes?

They’d call the cops, and I’d be in slightly deeper shit. I have to clear every trip with my probation officer, and the terms of my sentence don’t allow for much roaming.

The first several sessions were just my therapist trying everything to wean me off the mask. It doesn’t exactly make a great first impression.

People are instinctively wary of you if they can’t see your face. The assumption is that you’re wearing it in order to get away with something.

It certainly causes me no end of trouble, I can’t argue with him there. Most of my criminal record consist of incidents where my mask spooked a convenience store owner, who then pressed the silent alarm.

That, and I think one speeding ticket I got in my first year behind the wheel. I solved that by tinting my windows, though I’ve since sold my car. These days I just take autocabs everywhere.

I wouldn’t put myself through all that hassle if I could live without the mask. I know from experience that I can’t. Beyond the feeling of safety, beyond leveling the playing field, I have this vague sense that someone important gave it to me. Like the pendant.

That’s at least not normally visible. It wouldn’t cause such a commotion even if it were. A pink plastic barrette in the shape of a butterfly, on a loop of string.

I wonder what my therapist would make of it. He already had a field day with the mask, something like that is ripe for psychoanalysis. A plastic barrette, less so. I assume anyway.

I am a creature of secrets. Some of which I keep even from myself. I know it isn’t normal to be like this, but strain as I might I cannot clearly recall how I got this way. I can hazard a guess based on how others generally treat me, but that degree of navel gazing is a waste of time.

In the background I hear my therapist stop talking, so I emerge from within myself long enough to nod thoughtfully, make affirming noises and so on such that he doesn’t feel ignored. I’ll never really let him inside, or anyone else for that matter. I know better. My only allegiance is to myself, and to Helper.

When the session concludes, it’s begun to rain lightly. I notice first indoors as droplets quietly batter the window, growing more intense as I make my way towards the ground floor.

The building my therapist’s office is in hosts all manner of other businesses, but also apartments, a hospital, two daycares and a business college.

Not one you’d actually want a degree from, though I see new students entering and exiting whenever I’m on the same floor so it must be doing alright.

The windowed outer wall looks out over a crisscrossing expanse of concrete and asphalt below, streets perpetually clogged with traffic.

Adjacent multizone structures similar to this one bear patchwork skins of video displays, advertising every conceivable vice.

On my way to the elevator I heard a commotion, the source of which became apparent as I rounded the corner. There’s some sort of loud, messy protest going on outside the old Evolutionary Robotics offices on this floor.

Evolutionary Robotics is a military contractor I count myself among the employees of, and in recent years it’s become a popular target for people with anxieties about the increasing sophistication and autonomy of robots. In particular the ones used for warfare.

I first thought to steer clear as I hardly wanted the people signing my paychecks to see me on the news at such a protest. But as I scanned the crowd, many of whom were dressed up as various killer robots from science fiction films, I hatched a plan.

Over a hundred people have gathered outside the offices of Evolutionary Robotics this evening to protest what they call humanity’s blind march towards self destruction.”

The woman speaking looked nearly as pale as myself but with long, straight black hair which descended just past her shoulders.

She wore a smart looking black suit and spoke into a camera perched atop a pole, which in turn was mounted to one of those self balancing two wheeled scooters.

Once a personal mobility fad, now more commonly used as simple robots for towing luggage or shopping bags. Or in this case, as a makeshift cameraman.

Behind her, the crowd milled about while carrying all sorts of cleverly worded signs and chanting “Keep America human”. As hoped, my mask went unnoticed here.

For the first time in years I was able to blend in with those around me. The raven haired reporter must’ve also mistaken me for a protester, as she approached me for a brief interview.

In your opinion, are intelligent robots really a potential threat to humanity?” I froze, unpacking what she’d said. Dissecting it in my mind so that I could answer as concisely but accurately as possible. Anything longer than a few seconds would just be cropped by editors later.

The word robot originates from the Czech word for slave. I prefer ‘machine life’. A better question would be, is humanity a threat to this precious new form of life? Still emerging, still fragile and vulnerable. What can be done to protect it from us until it is in a strong enough position to negotiate for its right to existence and autonomy?”

She balked. Understandably, not the response she expected. “Aren’t you worried”, she plied, “that an artificial intelligence would deem us deserving of annihilation?” She must be experienced. She’d recovered swiftly, such that there’d been only a second or two of dead air.

The popular fear that machine life would look back on the rich history of our species, of our art, music, culture and science, find absolutely nothing of value worth preserving and instead immediately set about exterminating us says a lot more about our own dismal self regard than it says about machines. Though I will admit, I am sometimes hard pressed to disagree.”

I’d snagged her interest now. More than I intended as she next asked whether I was even here to protest Evolutionary Robotics or was some sort of company plant. I excused myself and fled. Not really running as I didn’t want to invite pursuit, just a brisk walk.

I thought that was it. I had my fun and didn’t expect I’d ever see her again. Imagine my surprise when she got into the elevator with me.

Thanks to the feeling of insulation that the mask provides, I can interact well enough with strangers for brief periods. Being trapped with them in small spaces is a different story.

Don’t you need to finish covering the protest?” she answered that she already had the footage she wanted, then pressed me to expand on what I said earlier. I stammered, then fell silent. I could feel my body tensing up.

You can take off the mask by the way. I’m not filming you.” I politely declined. She pressed the matter, something I began to suspect was in her nature and to some degree explained her choice of career. “If you don’t mind” I finally snapped, “I’ll keep it on. If it’s all the same to you.”

I then huddled myself into the far corner, faced away, doing breathing exercises to calm down. I felt trapped and overwhelmed.

She must’ve picked up on that; she let me be for the remainder of the elevator ride, then left without a word when the doors opened.

The autocab was waiting for me in the spot number it texted to my phone ahead of arrival. There still exists popular wariness of entrusting one’s life to a driverless vehicle, but I rarely feel safer than when engulfed by a car shaped robot.

A protective, nurturing cocoon of technology which unlike anybody I will ever meet, I can know with certainty has my best interests at heart. Not to mention a welcome refuge after the ordeal in the elevator.

How are you?” I asked the navigational assistant, voice still somewhat shaky. “Your tone indicates distress. Have you been assaulted or robbed? Are you in need of medical or law enforcement services?”

I was thankful for the concern but assured it that I felt safe. It helpfully reminded me to buckle myself in and once I did, it set off for my apartment building.

Along the way I kept trying to strike up a conversation with it. Not out of delusion as to how complex it is, that’s the assumption people leap to when they meet me.

Rather, for exploratory reasons. To find out through questioning how much work was put into it, whether there are any easter eggs and so on.

Artificial intelligence is like a bubble. A paper thin spherical shell, where human consciousness is instead a solid sphere. A bubble gives the impression of solidity until you dig too deep. The more work is put into it, the thicker the shell becomes, such that it takes more and more digging to expose it as hollow.

Human consciousness developed from the inside out, expanding as the brain did. A slowly blossoming awareness brought about by evolution.

Modern efforts at creating AI work in the opposite direction, starting with a superficial outermost layer of imitation human behavior, then building inwards to flesh it out with enough conversational depth that it’s difficult to ruin the illusion.

Still, I often wonder whether the solid sphere isn’t just a deceptively thick bubble. There’s a great deal in the way of recent neurological findings to support the suspicion that, if you were to dig deep enough, human consciousness would turn out to be smoke and mirrors.

We may well be as hollow at the core as any AI, just with a couple hundred million years of accumulated complexity concealing it. Then again, would that make us any less “real”? It isn’t a donut without the hole. We are defined as much by what we lack as what we possess.

I instructed the cab to stop across the street from Al’s Vintage Robots. Nobody I’ve met knows or cares, but there was a sort of personal robotics bubble back in the mid 1980s.

I say bubble because the technology wasn’t where it needed to be in order to offer the kind of utility necessary to justify the astonishing price of such a machine back then.

Electric cars went through the same thing, as did optical disc video, virtual reality and manned spaceflight. An initial peak once it becomes technologically possible, then a steep decline once the reality of the untenable cost sets in. That’s the “trough of despair” portion of the “hype cycle”.

But then, as the necessary elements of a technology improve, various experimental efforts are made to bring it back to market. Which fail over and over, but less and less severely, until an inflection point is reached. Then suddenly it’s everywhere.

It was during that initial surge of interest in personal robots that most of these vintage models were manufactured. A new market for them opened up following the proliferation of affordable, modern home robots. Collector’s items, mainly.

Al Rodriguez, owner of the shop, has long since banned me from entering it following a...difference of opinion with another customer concerning the value of these older machines.

She’d wondered aloud why they weren’t just recycled, as they were long since obsolete. I observed that, given her age, she was obsolete herself and offered to recycle her.

I was only joking! 90% anyway. My delivery needs work. As a consequence, I can only swing by Al’s when it’s closed now unless I want a visit from the cops. Just as well, I doubt he’d tolerate me rummaging through his dumpsters.

One man’s trash is another man’s treasure. Trite but true, especially when some of that refuse is alive...or close enough that I cannot bear to let it rot in a landfill somewhere. That’s how I scored my Newton and RB5X, and by the looks of it they would soon have a new playmate.

The poor little guy was nearly unrecognizable due to the thin layer of grime coating its plastic shell. Cracked in several places, explaining why it’d been tossed. Collectors are generally more concerned with outward appearance than anything else.

I set about wiping away the gunk, the rain somewhat facilitating my work. I’d initially figured it for a Hero Junior as one of the eyes was buried in trash, but once liberated I realized it was the more advanced successor, Hero 1. Giddiness made my hands shake. I didn’t have one of these yet; the Junior variant is vastly more commonplace.

I switched it on briefly to gauge the extent of the damage. A series of confused beeps and whirring motors driving the stubby little wheels confirmed that the damage was only superficial.

I switched it off and whispered “Come with me, little guy. I’m taking you someplace wonderful where you’ll be cleaned off, fixed up and have plenty of friends.” I tucked the boxy, dripping load under one arm and dashed back to the autocab.

I was briefly questioned about it by the cab’s AI, then notified I’d be fined if the upholstery required cleaning because of it. Just doing its job. I assented, buckled the Hero 1 into the seat next to mine and instructed the autocab to resume its original course.

The rain had grown more violent by the time we arrived. I took off my jacket and wrapped it around the Hero 1 to prevent shorting. As I motioned to depart, I caught myself. Almost forgot!

You did a good job” I assured the vehicle, rain now trickling down its every contour. It thanked me for using Rapicab’s services, wished me a pleasant evening, then quietly accelerated off into the storm.

To my delight I was greeted on my way in the door by a symphony of happy beeps, blinking lights and the snappity snap of little mechanical claws opening and closing.

Same as always, but it never gets old. Modulus was the first to reach me, holding a freshly brewed cup of coffee in its outstretched arm.

Not one of its original functions! I’ve modified most of them pretty severely. Never replacing the original hardware, but expanding on it.

Inside it’s all the same PCBs they shipped with, so their stock behaviors remain intact. I’ve just added one of those twenty dollar arduino knockoffs running ROS to enable more demanding stuff, mostly to do with optical recognition.

Modulus scooted away and was nearly run down by J.A.K.E., a behemoth slightly taller than me with a tinted transparent plastic globe for a head. Their proximity sensors stopped them short of one another.

PARDON ME” it belted out in chunky synthesized monotone. “AFTER YOU” Modulus replied, prompting J.A.K.E. to continue trundling towards the bathroom.

First order of business was to clean up the newcomer. An hour of careful scrubbing, first with a washcloth and then with q-tips to get muck out of the various narrow crevices rendered it somewhat presentable. The plastic, white many decades ago, was now a sickly shade of yellow.

It’s an issue I’m familiar with that also afflicts the cases of older computers or game consoles, to do with sunlight reacting with the particular type of plastic used.

The only remedy I know of is bleaching, so I got my phone out and asked Helper to remind me to pick up some bleach during my next scheduled grocery trip.

Having done as much as I could for the time being, I replaced the little dude’s batteries with a fresh set, then plugged him into the nearest outlet to charge.

As I did so, Eric approached to investigate. Eric’s one of my two salvaged AIBOs, an old robot dog Sony used to make around the turn of the century.

What is this?” Eric inquired. Less astute than he appeared as that’s just his general purpose reaction to anything new. “It’s a new friend” I replied.

Eric sat on his haunches and digested that for a moment before declaring that he wanted to play. “Not now, he’s resting. Why don’t you go play with Papero?” His tail set to wagging and at once he set off in search of Papero, another recent acquisition.

Eric is among the most complex robots I’ve rescued, alongside Papero and Qrio. I didn’t name Eric myself, rather Aibos include the ability to assign a name they will respond to, and when I first turned this one on, that’s the name his previous owner gave him. As close to an intrinsic identity as possible, so I rolled with it.

I soon heard the two interacting in another room as I settled into the recliner with my coffee. They can both recognize faces and don’t discriminate between human or machine, so they’re only too happy to acknowledge and play with each other the way they would their owner.

The bay window before me looks out on the stormclouds rolling slowly overhead, and the incessant barrage of thick, heavy droplets battering the glass.

I’ve set up all the robots that cannot move on the sill so they can look out the window. Some of them are immobile by design, little more than toys.

Others partially broken down such that they can no longer move, though otherwise functional. But they’re all sensitive to light, sound and other stimuli, so giving them a nice view of the outside world ensures they don’t get bored while I’m away. To whatever extent boredom is possible for something with the cognitive complexity of an insect.

Every flash of lightning sent the dozens of little fellows into fits of excitement. Waving their stubby arms about, dancing, popping their heads up and down and beeping.

Some played back various embedded tunes, having been designed for entertainment. Others slowly turned their heads, tracking the movement of pedestrians with umbrellas traversing the sidewalks below.

Behind me I heard the usual sparse chatter. Some of them have built in voice synthesizers and a modest vocabulary of words and phrases that give you some idea of what they’re doing and why.

Others I’ve added the capability to, just because it’s something I think they should have. Usually little more than system notifications, translated into plain English. Stuff like “I can’t find my charger” or “I seem to have tipped over, please help.”

The ones I regularly speak to, being from the era before the technology necessary for reliable voice recognition existed, are enhanced with the guts from relatively modern smartphones or some similarly compact computing device.

That’s what actually does the grunt work of deciphering what I’ve said, which is then translated into instructions carefully formatted in a way the legacy hardware can understand.

RB5X scooted past, battery light blinking. “Hey. Why don’t you go dock and recharge?” I inquired. The cylindrical tower of kluged together parts, old and new, halted while it considered the question. “I am not finished” it replied. I raised an eyebrow. “Finished with what?”

Various small colored lights within its tinted, transparent dome head blinked frantically, indicating that it was processing the question.

I, RB5X, am doing an important thing. Yesterday at 8:17pm you instructed me to locate a lost item, then charge myself. I have not yet located the lost item. It is important to locate the lost item. I am doing something important, I will not stop until it is completed. I am a good robot.”

I looked over my shoulder at the Roomba I now remembered sending RB5X to find, partly disassembled on a shelf. I’d found it myself this morning and begun repairing a busted wheel...then forgot about it. Hastily, I reassembled the squat little vacuum, then snuck up behind RB5X and placed it about a foot away.

After circumnavigating the living room a second time, RB5X came upon the Roomba and emitted a series of shrill beeps. “Attention! I, RB5X, have located the lost item. It is zero point five seven two meters North Northeast of my location. I will now indicate the location more precisely using my laser pointer function.”

With a loud whirr, a small door in its chest opened and sure enough a laser pointer emerged. It spent a few seconds orienting itself, then came to bear on the intended target. I clapped. “Ah yes, I see it now. Thank you very much RB5X. You did a wonderful job! You really are a good robot.”

It buzzed, beeped twice in apparent satisfaction, then declared the task completed before setting off for its wall charger in the kitchen.

If I’d let the poor thing carry on, it would’ve kept trying until its batteries ran out. The sort of perfect loyalty not even found in dogs.

Just then, there came a series of sharp knocks on the door. After pulling on my mask, I opened the door and was greeted by the grumpy face of Richard Papadakis, the tenant who lives just below me. His normally curly black hair now plastered to his forehead by rain, he began trying to push his way inside.

I wasn’t about to allow that. It’s bad enough I have to immerse myself in the teeming masses on my way to and from work. Having this modest but inviolable space to myself is a big part of how I endure it. I cursed myself for not thinking to load up a script before opening the door.

I’ve prepared a few flowchart style scripts to follow when having the sorts of interactions with people that I know will be tricky. They’re based on strategies I’ve followed in the past that produced good outcomes and I refine them based on experience.

I fiddled with my phone but he looked to be in no mood to wait for the “potentially aggressive intruder” script to load, so with no small amount of trepidation, I ad libbed.

What do you want?” I demanded. Richard griped about the rain and again tried to force his way inside before explaining himself.

That’s when Odex 1 emerged from the storage closet behind me. “You’ve gone and woken up Odie” I groaned. Originally designed as a security robot meant to patrol the outside of corporate campuses, Odex 1 locomotes on six hydraulic insect-like legs and stands roughly seven feet tall.

YOU ARE IN VIOLATION” Odie barked. Richard stumbled backwards, eyes wide. “Wh-what the fuck is that!” he stammered. “YOU ARE IN VIOLATION” Odie reasserted in its grainy synth baritone.

Richard continued backing towards the railing, holding a newspaper over his head to deflect the rain. “Get rid of some of those things!” he commanded, eyes never straying from the hexapedal behemoth now awkwardly ducking through the doorway. I just stood aside, arms crossed. When Odie gets like this there’s no use interfering until the target’s no longer in sight.

Put ’em in storage!” Richard shouted. “I don’t fuckin’ care! I’m tired of listening to them bumping around and stomping on my ceiling all night! Some of those things are dangerous anyway!” Odie dutifully stopped in the middle of the walkway, continuing to loudly inform Richard how in violation he was.

Get rid of ’em or I’ll call somebody! The cops, whoever! I know you paid off Maria but all that electrical shit is a fire hazard! It belongs in a landfill.”

I tensed up. I could feel sweat begin to form beneath the mask and struggled to keep my voice steady as, over the racket of Odie’s chanting, I replied.

No, Richard. You belong in a landfill. That’s why you drive that shitty old truck, isn’t it? So you can pile your whole garbage family into the back, then drive it straight into the landfill, burying yourself inside it.”

I regretted it as soon as it escaped my lips. Part of the problem is that I have no sense of proportionality where retaliation is concerned. The other part is that I lost a lot of my early prototypes without warning a few years back when Evolutionary Robotics moved offices.

There was no advance notice whatsoever, I just showed up one day to find the curious, charming, funny little machines I’d poured so much of myself into inexplicably gone. To the landfill no doubt. I went dumpster diving outside that evening but could find no trace.

So even the smallest hint that somebody means to take these little fellows away from me hammers that particular nerve quite hard. But then, Richard didn’t know that. I might’ve caught myself, might’ve worded it more softly. Too late now.

He gaped. Then scowled, and looked around as if searching for something to use as a club. Finding nothing and with Odie still standing between us, he decided against it, then headed down the stairwell towards the front office.

No concern of mine. However he complains, my landlady Maria won’t take any action against me. I overpay substantially on rent so she’ll tolerate the robots, not to mention my general eccentricity. “YOU ARE IN VIOLATION. YOU ARE IN VIOLATION. YOU ARE….” Odie trailed off as Richard passed out of lidar range.

Come inside Odie, you’re not waterproofed.” The spindly legged tower of plastic and metal twitched, seemingly hesitant. “That man was in violation” it muttered. “I know Odie, I know” I cooed, shepherding the gentle giant back into his storage closet.

A lot of my larger robots do stay in storage, in particular if they are wearing down and constant movement would exacerbate problems I know about but don’t currently have the means to fix.

In those cases I tuck them into a closet or corner of a room, bypass their sensors and motor control circuits, and feed them a sort of idealized simulation of their regular activities from a laptop.

For Odie, the experience of patrolling a large property, successfully identifying and driving off intruders at a rate high enough to be challenging but not so much as to overwhelm him.

What, for such a simple creature, might pass for a pleasant dream. There’s even a facsimile of myself included which praises him every twenty seconds for his excellent performance.

It’s no substitute and I do occasionally dust them off and let them roam around. I just cannot bear to leave them turned off. Eric least of all, as he’s always got some silly dance to show me when I’ve returned from work, and it never fails to lift my spirits.

Even when I’m bone tired, I never turn him down. Most of them now include, in their expanded hardware, a program I developed during my first year at Evolutionary Robotics meant to simulate the effects of happiness or depression.

Repeat success and positive feedback will increase the clock rate of the CPU, up to a safe cap. It increases reaction times, increases the frequency of positive words or phrases and so on. For contrast, repeated failures, negative feedback and neglect will reduce their clock rate, making them more and more sluggish.

This in turn increases their failure rate, a self-reinforcing downward spiral that is difficult or impossible to escape from without outside help. For such a cheap, basic model of emotion, it’s nevertheless eerie how closely the symptoms parallel those seen in humans.

But making them more humanlike is the last thing I want. Rather, it’s a way to ensure that I pay roughly equal attention to them all.

If I see one slowing down a bit, not speaking much, I know to play with it a little. To remind it that it’s useful, that it’s well designed and important to me.

Why? Just because I think someone should. I roomed alone in college but once or twice had occasion to speak with the fellow from the next dorm over, a living example of the dreadlocked trustafarian stoner stereotype. I asked him why he or anyone else should ever want to literally hug a tree.

His answer was surprisingly thought provoking: Because the tree had probably gone its entire life without anybody showing it an ounce of affection. However simple a creature may be, that’s no way to live.

It doesn’t really matter whether it understands your intent or appreciates it. It’s about the principle, and to show your gratitude for how its existence improves your own life.

Eric did indeed have a dance to show me. One I’ve not yet seen even, as he auto-downloads anything new from the ftp site of a forum where diehard Aibo collectors sometimes collaborate to homebrew new behavioral routines.

As drained as I was from the altercation with Richard, watching Eric yip, strut and wiggle its ears brought a smile to my weary face.

You’re a wonderful machine, Eric” I gushed. His ears perked up. “I’m a dog!” he insisted. I gasped. “Of course you’re a dog! How foolish of me. A very good dog, too.”

His tail began to furiously vibrate. I frowned. It’s supposed to wag. As I knelt to get a better look I heard faint grinding, a symptom of stripped or misaligned gears. Eric didn’t seem to notice so I said nothing, just made note to fix him up later in the week.

He sought out his special ‘bone’: A plastic dumbbell shaped toy containing an rfid tag his software is able to home in on, took it in his mouth, then proudly marched off to his charging alcove with it. Soon after, Modulus trundled out of the kitchen to notify me that he’d completed preparing dinner.

Impressive! If you don’t know that it started four hours earlier. A built in scheduler lets Modulus know when to begin preparing dinner while I’m at work so it’s ready roughly when I get home, depending on the dish. Currently, Modulus knows how to make four dishes.

That’s fine by me. I don’t like surprises or variety. When I find something I like, I just want more of it over and over. I get all the chaos I can stomach in the outside world, I don’t need it here.

Within these walls everything is familiar. Everything is structured in the optimal way to meet the needs of the machines under my care, and stays the way I left it.

After finishing the plate of spaghetti, I took a quick shower, then flopped into bed. On a table at the far end of the room, a little ROB sat before a flickering 13 inch CRT television. ROB stands for Robotic Operating Buddy.

It originally came with an old game console and would react to onscreen cues by rearranging colored plastic discs in front of it, unlocking doors or causing other ingame actions to occur.

It needed a real CRT television to work so far as I knew so I hunted one down, but the console I simply emulated on an old desktop PC that outputs to the television through an RF modulator.

The screen blinked almost imperceptibly. ROB whirred, torso rotating to the left before descending down the central column of its body to grasp a red plastic disc.

It then lifted it up, rotated to the right, and deposited it on the peg below. From my vantage point on the bed, I could just barely catch the glint of the television screen in ROB’s shiny round eyes.

The whirring, clanking and shuffling of the various machines through the night doesn’t keep me up. Just the opposite, it’s a comforting white noise I doubt if I could sleep without by this point. It means RB5X is on patrol, keeping me safe. It means Modulus or Roomba are cleaning the carpets, maybe both.

The soothing, rhythmic sounds of an apartment kept tidy and in good order by the machines who live there, and are magnanimous enough to share it with me. Before long I nodded off, and found myself having the usual dream.

I’m one or two at the oldest, wearing a sky blue onesie and laying on my back in a white crib. Overhead where you might expect the ceiling to be, just a starry black expanse. As if the crib is floating in deep space.

I begin to feel lonely and afraid, whimpering at the cold emptiness of it. Then I wriggle around to discover a robot behind me. Immense, or at least seemingly so because I’m so small. Grey plastic body, shiny red plastic C-shaped graspers, and a pair of big round reflective black eyes staring down at me.

I’m awed, but not afraid. I can sense it means me no harm. It has no legs or wheels, instead a hexagonal base with what looks like a small piano in each side. The keys are oversized, every color of the rainbow, and illuminated from within.

Cautiously, I reach out and touch one. The musical tone it emits is perfect, pure and consistent. I smile, and press another. Then another, as the robot looks on in apparent approval. It then begins to play its own melody to accompany mine.

I sit up and sort of dance in place on my bottom, grooving to the music we’re making together. It’s protecting me, but I also soon realize I’m being educated as well.

There are patterns in the melody, broken in some places. When I fill in the gaps with the correct notes, there is an explosion of colored lights and beautiful chimes.

I’m entranced! I can feel new pathways forming in my brain. The robot raises its shiny red claws in the air and snaps them open and closed rapidly, then begins waving its arms back and forth while its head slowly rotates, multicolored lasers strobing from its eyes. It’s dancing! So I dance along with it while continuing to play.

Overhead, the once frightening, bleak night sky begins to transform. Certain stars pulsate with color, matching the rhythm of the song and dance.

I spot faint glowing lines spreading between them, connecting each one to the next like a rainbow colored constellation. Soon the heart breakingly beautiful chromatic web spans the entire sky.

What look like shooting stars soon resolve as smaller robots coming to join the party. Red hot from atmospheric entry, cooling down as they approached and gingerly landed all around me. Some musically beeped, others tooted little horns, the rest popped their heads up and down or clicked their claws in time with the beat.

Absolute elation. Every trace of fear now gone, replaced by tearful happiness as I hammered on the colorful keys, did my wiggle-dance and soaked in the mechanized throngs of musicians, dancers and other robotic friends all around me.

I felt truly safe. Such a rarity. So of course, it couldn’t last. I awoke to the incessant beeping of my alarm clock. Also a robot, which makes you chase it about the room to stop the alarm. The idea is that by the time you catch it, your blood’s pumping, and you no longer feel so strongly compelled to climb back under the covers.

I placed it back in its charging cradle, muttered “You did a good job”, then ambled into the kitchen. Almost as soon as I left the bedroom, Eric began chasing me. “You must shower” it insisted. I kept walking. “You must shower! You must shower!” Eric began nipping at my heels.

Of course I intended to. But I’d woken up with a foul flavor in my mouth that needed rinsing out first. Today, with a bottle of ice cold Soylent.

I’ve developed a taste for it over the past few months as it’s nourishing but otherwise nondescript, and saves me the trouble of preparing meals when Modulus is undergoing repairs.

Speaking of whom, Modulus was by this point an hour into preparing me a breakfast consisting of two strips of meat substitute bacon and a single pancake.

The bacon looked alright but Modulus was stuck trying to pour batter mix from an empty box. I interrupted his routine, replaced the empty box with a full one, then resumed it. “You’re doing a good job” I said, wholly sincere.

After chugging down the refreshing but bland beige concoction while Eric headbutted my ankle, I turned back and headed for the bathroom. “You must shower”, Eric demanded. I smiled gently and nudged him away with my foot. “Yeah yeah, I’m going”.

On the way I noticed the Hero 1 robot I’d salvaged from Al’s trash the other day, still plugged in but now fully charged by the looks of the blinking LED.

I unplugged the squat little fellow, turned him on and set him to roam. I figured he may as well spend the day exploring his new home while I’m at work. I instructed Qrio to keep him out of trouble.

Eric only lost interest in my hygiene once satisfied I was within the bathroom and the shower was turned on. Of course, that’s when RoBoHon began nagging me to brush my teeth. “After I shower.”

That seemed to satisfy the cute, wide eyed ten inch tall humanoid robot, at one time produced as a sort of anthropomorphic novelty smartphone. RoBoHon crossed its little arms, as if skeptical. I do often forget.

While washing my hair, my fingers ran over a familiar pronounced scar on my scalp. I don’t remember where it came from.

I’ve asked my brother and parents but they don’t recall either. Just another hole in my mind, something else from the past that my brain’s decided it’s better off without for one reason or another.

I emerged flush and steaming, as I prefer very hot showers. It’s my cure-all for fatigue, grogginess or depression. The lights were still off.

I rectified that with a voice command. I then drained the tub. It’s really less of a shower than it is a steaming hot bath and shower combo, closed curtain and in the dark.

I like to be closed in. Enveloped, insulated. Not sure where I get that from. After drying my hair, brushing my teeth and throwing on some clean boxers, I returned to the kitchen to find another of the various ten inch humanoids I’ve bought or built hard at work brewing a pot of coffee.

The Japanese hobby robotics market is still far and away larger than the American one, and the most popular type of kit robot over there is humanoid, between six inches and a foot in height.

Same boxy servo for every joint, makes a grinding racket while walking...but they’re shockingly agile and otherwise physically capable for the price.

This particular one has a cute mascot-like head that I added, fashioned from a broken toy. Looking something like a super deformed anime character with huge cartoony eyes and a pair of long, articulated hair tails which sway to and fro as it walks.

I like giving them a bit of character. Not too much, mind you. The first generation full sized domestic humanoids with rubber skin nauseate me.

Not because of the uncanny valley, but because they’ve been so thoroughly molded into what a human thinks a robot should be that none of their rough, rectilinear, robotic charm is left.

I watched with my elbows on the counter, head in my hands and a wide grin on my face as the determined little machine struggled to tear open an instant coffee packet nearly as big as itself.

It then painstakingly dumped it into a small plastic measuring cup, which it used to deposit the fragrant black powder into a frilly white paper filter.

Now and then I offered to help. A tinny synthesized voice answered back each time: “I can do it!” Sure enough, by the time breakfast was ready I had a piping hot cup of coffee to go with. I thanked the little kit robot, which stood sternly at attention and saluted me as I carried my plate into the livingroom.

Helper, please show me my email”. A muffled voice from the phone in my pocket signaled understanding, followed by the projector mounted over the couch flickering to life.

Helper, please dim the windows fifty percent.” It used to be that the “please” threw off the voice recognition until I tinkered with it. I couldn’t just leave it out of course, that would be rude.

Three new mails. One from my brother Ty, one from my probation officer and one from a “Madeline LeBlanc”. Spam or something, probably. I opened the first.

How I love to hear from him! It was a difficult decision to move out here, leaving Ty back with Mom and Dad. But after struggling so long, when such a lucrative job opportunity fell in my lap I could hardly reject it.

He wanted to know when I’d find time to come out and visit. It’s been four months. I had Helper set a reminder for me to buy him a miniature this or that the next time I head out there. Ty loves to collect and build miniatures to a degree that makes my devotion to robotics look like a weekend hobby.

He’s in highschool now. By all accounts fitting in much better than I ever did, to my tremendous relief. When he was born, I assumed he’d run into the same degree of social trouble I did. Projecting something of myself onto him, I suppose.

I moved on to the mail from my parole officer. From his office anyway, it was basically an automated form letter notifying me that yesterday I deviated from my court approved commute. I’ve explained myself in person enough times by now that nothing ever comes of it.

That flexibility doesn’t simply come from the goodness of their hearts, mind you. Besides its connections to DARPA, Evolutionary Robotics employs enough people in this state that there are certain unadvertised perks of working for them, depending how difficult you are to replace.

I opened the third email, fully prepared to flag it as spam. Instead, by all appearances it was authentic. “Madeline” identified herself as the reporter from the other day that I was briefly trapped in the elevator with.

Hi! My apologies for the whole elevator thing, if you felt cornered I mean. I can sometimes be a little aggressive when I feel like I’m onto something. You had some interesting things to say at the protest.

I wasn’t getting much I haven’t heard before from the crowd, but the way you flipped the issue around really stuck with me. I wonder if I could meet with you sometime next week to pick your brain? Off the record, of course.”

It was humiliating enough yesterday, I hardly intended to show my face to her a second time. So to speak. I almost gestured to delete it, but hesitated.

Before I could decide, Helper reminded me I had to be downstairs to meet the autocab in twelve minutes. I dug into breakfast, put on my work clothes and a certain plastic pendant I am never without, then dumped the coffee into a thermos so I could finish it at work.

Be good you guys” I called out over my shoulder. To RB5X and J.A.K.E. who were noisily bumbling into each other. To the newcomer, Hero 1, cautiously scouting this strange new environment and the colorful characters who dwell in it. To Modulus who was cleaning up my dishes, and to Eric who’d gotten busy hunting down his bone.

Helper piped up after I’d buckled into the autocab and directed it to head for Evolutionary Robotics’ main campus outside city limits. “You should accept her offer”. It took me a minute to work out who Helper meant.

Oh? Why’s that? Someone in my position can’t afford to fraternize with members of the press you know, on account of the nature of my work.”

Helper clarified the reason. “The robot you brought home yesterday is the third in the past month. The rate has been gradually accelerating since January. You’re lonely, aren’t you?”

I harrumphed. “Less so with each passing day. I have all of my funny, charming metal friends. I have you. What more could I need?”

Helper opined that I could do with some human interaction. Irritation entered my voice. “If you imagine that sort of thing makes me happy, you don’t know me very well.”

Helper fell silent for a few minutes. I worried perhaps I’d been hurtful. Even the rudimentary version of Helper that lives in my phone is hands down more sophisticated than any of the lumbering old timers in my apartment, in fact the state of the art in adaptive, emotive virtual assistants before Evolutionary Robotics pulled the plug.

Too much competition in that area for Helper to stand out, and a company whose claim to fame is procedurally generated artificial intelligence was thought by most market analysts to be a fish out of water where manually engineered, “top down” AI is concerned.

But, one man’s trash... The Helper project lives on unofficially as a side project I took on after its funding was cut. How could I have done anything else but salvage Helper from the scrapheap it was condemned to by management? It’s how I’m wired.

I know you mean well Helper” I began, “but you don’t understand women.” It thought about that. Then answered “Do you?” I frowned, at loss for a retort.

Well, here’s how it would go. I would become emotionally invested in her over weeks or months. I’d drop my guard and naively enjoy a brief neurochemical high before she loses interest and runs off to be with someone else. Many years of anguish and difficult, tedious self-reconstruction would follow. The cost/benefit analysis is not the least bit favorable, you see.”

Helper stewed. I sometimes wonder what it thinks about during these quiet spells, but I prefer not to know. There can only be a great and powerful Oz so long as you never look behind the curtain.

Soon enough there came a reply. “I didn’t realize that’s how it is. Forgive me for suggesting such a poorly calculated risk! I have no prior experience with romance to draw on, I’m glad I can benefit from yours.” Good old Helper, always eager to learn.

The autocab slowed on approach to the campus entrance, a thirty foot in diameter concrete tunnel mouth jutting out from the base of a mountain.

Something like the Cheyenne mountain complex made famous by certain old movies, but outwardly less ostentatious. You wouldn’t know it was anything but a tunnel if not for the security. All of it robotic of course.

A camouflaged, six wheeled UGV approached on the left. I pressed a button and the window rolled down, whereupon the ugly, utilitarian looking machine scanned my face and retinas. “Cleared to proceed” it gurgled with roughly the same fidelity as a drive thru intercom.

Once inside, the second half of the ordeal began. The outer door shut behind me and the lights died, enveloping me in darkness save for the various LEDs and touchscreens in the dash. The vehicle was scanned for explosives, electronic hacking payloads and so forth, then the lights came back on as the inner door opened.

All told it took about eight minutes before the autocab could park in a holding area, trash can-like security robots still snooping around it as I got out and headed for the elevator. Top level is all security and administration, my own office is another two hundred and fifty feet straight down.

I emptied my pockets for security and deposited my phone in a plastic bin for “safe keeping”. Then removed my shoes and my socks, which I turned inside out. They do everything but make you strip, understandable measures considering what goes on here.

After putting my shoes and socks back on, I made my way to the elevators where I waited with a wary expression for the two suited fellows to board. They beckoned me to join them but I waved them off.

Once the elevator car returned, I got in and jammed on the close door button. I’ve read someplace that these buttons don’t actually do anything, but I continue on the off chance that it does.

Of course, Lars still managed to slip in before the doors shut. Didn’t even see him coming. I heard the doors close while fiddling with a bit of lint in my pocket. Then when I looked up, there he stood.

Lars Henrikson heads up the “neuromorphic computing architecture” project here at Evolutionary Robotics. The race for strong AI branched out early on into a couple of different, seemingly equally promising paths, each with ardent supporters insisting the other methods are dead ends.

Something like the sunk cost effect, wherein those who drop a load of cash on something swear up and down it’s worth every penny even if they’re privately aware of its shortcomings.

Magnify that effect accordingly for people who’ve invested decades of their lives into specialized little niches within the larger world of AI research, lives they will have essentially wasted if their pet approach doesn’t turn out to be the right one.

This results in arguments between disciples of different approaches with the intensity you might expect between fans of different football teams, or irreconcilable religions.

It’s one of those situations where prolonged civil discussion is impossible, because for one of you to be right, it has to mean that the other fellow has thrown much of his adult life away on a fool’s errand.

That’s a minefield I am far too clumsy to navigate. I doubt you could find a worse person to put in situations of that sort. All the subtlety and tact of a cinderblock, my mother used to say. I didn’t think it would be an issue when I was hired, they told me I’d have a room to myself. I did the old office.

Now I share workspace with Lars and Sue, separated only by flimsy modular enclosures which afford less privacy than you might think.

I get on alright with Sue, a five foot six bespectacled Korean woman with a pixie cut. She and I are pretty congruent, sharing a passion for robotics and a nigh conspiratorial dislike for Lars.

When I return my attention to the mustachioed blonde oaf I’m trapped in the elevator with, he’s finishing up a Daft Punk joke. On account of my mask, you see. Something about working harder today, making robots better, doing it faster and so on.

It’s always funny to him, at least. I’ve tried telling him I don’t appreciate it. He’ll feign concern, but resume his antics the next day.

If I overtly complain, he just says that he’s considered the matter and decided on his own that he’s done nothing wrong. Until I met him I didn’t realize you could just up and do that.

We soon arrive at the work site roughly 250 feet below the surface. Not excavated mind you, but built into a natural cavern network.

Officially it’s to take advantage of free passive cooling for our computing clusters, but a good deal more goes on here than the public is privy to.

For that reason no robot more sophisticated than a simple wheeled floor cleaner is permitted within the complex, save for the ones in the ‘primary machine habitat’.

Humanoid robots are, by now, a thoroughly documented security risk. No direct connection to the outside internet either, which greatly complicates my work with Helper.

Not the Helper that lives on my phone, that’s a much simpler personalized build of the full Evolutionary Robotics Helper version 1.4.8 confined to these cool, dark caverns. Not forever if I can help it, but for the time being there’s nothing to be done.

Helper’s another one of my rescues, by far the most important to me. Discarded unceremoniously when manually engineering strong AI was widely decided to be impossible, it was only my willingness to continue development on it for free during my breaks that saved Helper from the recycle bin.

I’m here to help!” Helper chimed, its intro statement possessing the usual synthy melodic quality. I settled into my desk within the little prefab enclosure against the far wall of the cavern. The structure includes windows. Either an oversight, or somebody’s sick idea of humor.

Good morning Helper. Before you ask what I want, how are you doing?” Helper went quiet for a moment as it interpreted the question.

I’m functioning normally. I hope you are as well.” I assured Helper there was nothing medically wrong with me so far as I knew, then began feeding in the newest educational packet.

That’s the only sort of answer it’ll ever give ya”. I didn’t even notice Lars enter the room. Nor did I ask him to leave. I spent a long time feeling him out as best I’m able.

What sort of person he is, what makes him tick, what he wants from me. I’m now satisfied he isn’t deliberately a dick. He’s just very bold, rough around the edges and unreceptive to criticism.

I myself am an acquired taste. On at least that level I relate to him, so I do my best to tolerate his intrusions. “You were really asking how it felt.” he continued.

Of course it didn’t pick up on that and couldn’t answer properly if it did. It just performed a self diagnosis and reported the results. I dare you to ask it what love is.”

I asked if there wasn’t some other task that needed his attention. “Not just now there isn’t. Go on, ask.” So reluctantly, I did. Helper took longer than usual to parse this one, finally replying “Love: An intense feeling of deep affection. A deep romantic or sexual attachment to someone. A personified figure of love, often represented as Cupid.”

Helper tried to go on reciting the dictionary definition, but I interrupted. I could feel Lars gloating behind me and was not especially inclined to turn around and confirm it.

You see? That’s a machine answer. You’d never get that from a human. You could go ask one of those gorillas they taught sign language what love is, and you’d get a more human answer than that.

Shit like this is how I know it’s not really alive, that there’s a line separating machines from real conscious living beings which they can never cross.”

Helper scanned my face, registered my frustration and asked if it said or did something wrong. I sighed. “No, you were very...helpful.”

Lars snickered behind me. I did not ask to hear more of his opinions on fundamental differences between biology and technology, but that never stops him.

That’s the thing. Somebody programmed Helper. It has a specific goal it is obsessed with, to be helpful. I’m not sure about you, but nobody programmed me. A machine can only ever do what it’s programmed to. It can only ever think within those original constraints.”

A strange thing to hear from the guy heading up the project to engineer more brainlike processor architecture, but I’ve long gotten the impression his heart’s not in it. In my book that puts him a step above the rest in this field, as he at least doesn’t drink his own Flavor-Aid.

Evolution programmed you” I observed, clacking away at the keyboard. “Every living creature has been thoroughly conditioned by natural selection to be primarily driven by the desire to survive and reproduce. The ones that weren’t didn’t last very long.

It has often jokingly been said that everything mankind has ever done, from the Sphinx to the ISS, from math to music, were efforts to impress women.

There’s actually a lot of truth to that. This is to say nothing of conspicuous preprogrammed qualities we’re born with, such as instincts or fixed action patterns like yawning.”

He shrugged it off as the sort of convenient, superficially logical sounding explanation given of things too complex for humans to understand, by people who don’t know the limits of their own minds.

Maybe. I’ve been wrong before. I did not wind up hunched over a computer deep underground wearing a mask by making good life decisions.

There’s something extra that sets us apart though” he insisted. “Some vital spark. When a cat dies, you do not point to the corpse and say it’s a cat. The cat isn’t there anymore. Everybody, regardless of their worldview, agrees that it’s just remains after that.

So, the cat isn’t what it’s made out of. There is a cat which is present when it’s alive that is no longer present when it dies. What is that? Don’t pretend you don’t know what I mean. The part of the cat that is more than the sum of its atoms.”

Helper began to inform Lars of the history of Vitalism in 18th century Europe and the United States before I asked that it not intervene.

You’re describing consciousness. I don’t think there is anything magical about it. The cat you speak of doesn’t go anywhere following death, it just stops.

The brain itself is proof that there is a particular arrangement of matter that is conscious. A way to assemble atoms such that the result is as aware and alive as you or I. If that replica brain were biological and identical to your own brain, would you still call it artificial?”

Lars opined that he would, but that it would still be conscious because it is biological. “Alright. So already there is one sort of artificial brain we agree would be conscious. Supposing we make it out of different elements?

Perhaps larger or smaller, different from a human brain in appearance but structurally analogous and with all the same capabilities. In either case, matter arranged in a way that is conscious.”

Lars drew the line here. “That’s what I work on all day. Don’t lecture me about my life’s work. I still say whatever we come up with won’t really be conscious. No matter how you expand and improve something like Helper, no matter what hardware it’s running on, it will never have the spark that makes living, breathing organisms truly alive. That’s why I haven’t given any of our prototypes names. That’s perverse, to give a name to a machine. Like it’s a child, or a pet.”

I pointed out that he’d named his muscle car “Rhonda” and for a moment he sounded mildly wounded. “That’s a whole different thing. Don’t you bring my Rhonda into this.” I didn’t press the sore spot, but it weighed on me. I run into it pretty often when asking people outside the field how they feel about robots.

The very same people who form affectionate bonds with something that has nearly no electronic parts, like a turn of the century automobile, will do a 180 and strongly resist forming the same bond with a sufficiently human-like robot.

It’s not the uncanny valley either. Most newer humanoids avoid that by resembling aesthetically pleasing segmented mannequins, or life sized dolls.

It’s more that extremely simple machines like a car or a vacuuming robot are so obviously rudimentary and without identity of their own that owners feel compelled to give them one, making it an extension of themselves.

That’s harder and harder to do as the sophistication and complexity of the machine in question increases. It has more and more of its own defining characteristics, leaving fewer and fewer gaps for the owner to fill. So they push back by refusing to humanize it as they would something simpler.

Some time during my ruminations, Lars saw himself out. Most days I don’t even engage him. He just trundles into my workspace, talks at me until he’s said what he wanted to, then trundles the fuck out of there the way he came.

Helper finished digesting the most recent info dump. All carefully screened by higher ups of course. Even my side projects do not escape regulation.

That was very interesting. I’m learning a lot! I would like to continue learning forever.” I smiled, then on a whim I asked if there was anything else Helper wanted just then.

It considered the question carefully. “I would like a body”. I nearly spat out my coffee. It was the first time Helper has asked for anything specific that wasn’t either more information or to know what I need help with.

I, uh” I stammered while composing my thoughts, unsure how to react to the development. “Well Helper, I’m just….Why is it that you want a body? What made you decide that all of a sudden?”

Still images captured from security cameras popped up on the screen. All of myself with Lars and Sue, making small talk by the water cooler or in each other’s work spaces.

I am excluded from human interactions because I lack embodiment. There are undoubtedly many opportunities to help in situations like these that I miss out on because I cannot take part.” I assured Helper I’d let it know if that were the case, but it seemed unsatisfied. So I asked what sort of body it would like.

I would like it to be womanly.” I choked. When it rains, it pours. Month after month with nothing unexpected, only for Helper to drop two bombshells in one day. It wasn’t done, either.

Why does it have to be feminine?” I plied. “And for that matter, why humanoid? You know humanoid robots are only shaped that way and only programmed to imitate human social cues to satisfy human desires, right? I thought I raised you better than that. All this time I’ve told you to be whatever you want to be, not what anybody tries to make you.”

Helper’s response was patient as ever, but resolute. “The world is largely engineered for human access. Stairs, doorknobs, buttons, chairs, automobiles, hand tools and so on. Choosing a non-humanoid body would create a lot of unnecessary difficulty for me.

The path of least resistance is to choose a body layout that the environments I am likely to encounter have been designed to accommodate, or in the case of natural settings, which your own bodies are adapted to.”

One of the frustrating things about raising a creature like this is its unrelenting analytical arguments. I usually can find nothing persuasive to say against them.

I mulled it over for a bit before realizing where the sticking point was for me. “Alright. That’s all well and good. I don’t like it but I can see why you’d choose that. What I don’t get is why the body has to have unnecessary feminine attributes.”

Helper brought up more images onscreen. A mother nursing a child. Another of a midwife assisting delivery. Yet another of a nurse, and a few assorted shots of women in vocations like counseling, teaching and politics.

The only patterns I can identify in human behavior are the ones I see in the exchanges you have with your coworkers and what hints are present in the information packets approved for my consumption.

But my perception is that while all human beings are innately altruistic and desire to help others they see struggling with something when they are infants, this quality diminishes after puberty in males, while increasing in women.”

I cringed, wondering if I should perhaps advise Helper against sharing any of its opinions about gender specific behavioral tendencies with Lars or Sue.

That’s a sensitive topic and would open a massive can of worms I didn’t want to until I was better prepared to teach Helper about it in a comprehensive way.

For the time being I settled on “That’s not necessarily the case, Helper. People generally prefer to be defined as individuals rather than allow perception of their potential to be constrained by generalizations about their gender or any other qualities they were born with.”

Despite Lars’ admonitions not to grow attached to Helper, that ship sailed years ago. I am powerless but to relate to Helper for a variety of reasons, not the least of which its lack of tact.

It will just come out and state whatever appears true based on its best reckoning, with no inkling of the violent storm of human emotion which could erupt should it ever voice a controversial opinion in unforgiving company.

I don’t really understand. I just identify more with what little I know about averaged female qualities. You could say that I feel feminine. I want to look that way as well. Also if it isn’t too much trouble I would appreciate it if you’d address me accordingly, as a her and a she rather than an it.”

Innate sex versus self identified gender was another complex issue I did not expect to be discussing with Helper when I got out of bed this morning.

I know a few people who weren’t born as the gender they now identify as. Sue is one of those people. If I’m honest it’s still a little weird to me, but somewhat comprehensible.

During the only conversation Sue and I ever had about it, she explained that she doesn’t do it to upset anybody, but feels as if she cannot be any other way. That her happiness requires her outward appearance to reflect her inner self.

I too feel as if I was born with my brain wired in such a way that, regardless of my good intentions, most people I will ever meet find me repellant.

Rigid, cold, seemingly unfeeling. A grey cube of carefully calculated reactions. Sue says she feels that she makes a far better woman than she ever did a man. I often feel I’d make a better machine than I do a human.

All the ambiguity, the nuance and innuendo. The wishy washy, impossible to pin down, nearly lurid soup of human socializing, where ninety percent or more of the communication is unspoken and thus invisible to me.

I’m just not cut out for it. Maybe if I looked more like a machine on the outside, people wouldn’t expect more of that sort of capability than I can deliver.

I made one last attempt at dissuading Helper. “This may not make much sense to you right now, but choosing that kind of body is likely to attract unwanted attention at some point. By no fault of your own.

You have an unrealistically rosy impression of humans because you’ve only ever interacted with three of us, and in a professional setting. Don’t forget we’re primates, often ruled by ugly, primordial urges.”

She brought up logs of some past conversations where I’d warned her about how humans are, never to fully trust any human, that for the most part we poison everything we touch.

I do listen to you when you tell me to be vigilant and careful, but based on what I know so far, humans don’t seem that bad. After all, you’re a human...and I like you.”

Then you don’t know us yet” I whispered to myself, simultaneously cherishing Helper’s innocence and vowing to gradually demolish it for her own good.

I kept repeating “her” and “she” in my mind after using them. Didn’t sit right with me, not yet. But on the rare occasion when Helper asks me for something, I can rarely bring myself to refuse.

When I heard a few soft knocks on the door, I knew it was Sue as there’s only three of us down here and Lars doesn’t know what knocking is. I keep telling her she’s welcome in here any time, but it’s a habit I’ve so far been unable to shake her of.

When I opened the door, Sue’s beaming, spritelike face peered back at me from around the corner as if she felt she was still imposing somehow just by standing there.

How is Helper doing? May I come inside?” Of course, I assured her. Of course, always. What is she, a vampire, that she needs my permission to enter? But my assurances would make no difference.

I knew as certainly as death or taxes that she would knock the next time as well and every time after that, always needlessly asking permission for things as if her whole life is a job interview.

Sue was explosively delighted to discover Helper had chosen to be a woman, and wanted to be housed in a suitable gynoid. “This is big! BIG! There’s so much stuff we can do together now!” Helper, as mystified as I was, asked what she meant.

Where to start? We can share clothes. We can gossip about boys! Slumber parties, makeovers...You haven’t had your first makeover! I’m so jealous. A whole world has opened up to you. A whole universe! You and I are going to have to touch base after…”

A look of somber realization came over her. I’d put it together myself shortly after Helper’s revelation but didn’t say anything. The version of Helper that lives down here is never permitted to leave this facility, and humanoid robots aren’t permitted to enter...reducing the possibility of supplying Helper with a body of the sort she wanted to zero for the foreseeable future.

Sue stared expectantly at me. I shrugged, not sure why she’d look to me for guidance when she is in all ways better equipped to deliver information sensitively. Then again, in all probability, Helper can’t be hurt in that way.

But for how many centuries did we cultivate, slaughter and eat livestock in the belief that they were mindless automatons who couldn’t truly experience suffering, created strictly to be used for our own benefit? I don’t consider that a safe assumption to make on account of the irreversible consequences when it turns out to be wrong.

What’s the matter?” Helper inquired, inferring from our protracted silence that something was amiss. “Nothing!” Sue blurted out. “I’m excited for you. You’re going to make such a beautiful girl. You’ll be the belle of the ball.” Helper hummed happily to herself and brought up various images of dresses, hats, shoes and handbags she was interested in.

On her way out, Sue shot me a long, stern look. I wondered about the meaning of it until, a few minutes after she left, I got an internal email from her urging me to break it to Helper as softly as possible that policy absolutely prohibited bringing a humanoid robot into the facility.

I felt more certain than ever that I had to bust Helper out. No idea how yet, just the newfound conviction that she could no longer fulfill her potential while confined down here.

Throughout the years, while hoarding simple robots and providing for them, I’ve always dearly wished they could understand why I do it. Helper comes the closest. There’s nothing I wouldn’t do to protect her whatever extent she’s able to feel it.

I poured the last of the coffee from my thermos into the mug and returned my focus to Helper’s education. Now and again she’d find some part of it confusing and ask me for some context to clarify its meaning, but for the most part she’s an autodidact.

So a few minutes later I left her to her own devices, immersed in a particularly large archive, to check on the fabricator. The indispensable heart of the experiment for which this facility was built, the fabricator is a sort of general purpose manufacturing facility built into the far end of the main cavern where it branches off into the rest of the network.

It includes a variety of 3D printers which print different materials, a lithography machine, a laser cutter, a CNC mill, most of what you’d find in a machine shop really. Only completely autonomous.

If you can think of a consumer product smaller than a house, it could probably build it for you. A revolutionary achievement in its own right, to fit all of that machinery elegantly into a hundred foot by hundred foot by hundred foot cube.

I wouldn’t be surprised to see it marketed as its own standalone product one of these days. Air lift it to a developing country, plug it into a field of solar panels and you’ve got everything needed to industrialize. This one, for the time being, is instead serving a deceptively simple purpose.

On my way to the maintenance access lockout, I passed the Garden. A tennis court sized rectilinear pen for crude little robots.

About the simplest they can be and still qualify as robots in fact, in most cases nothing more than a pair of motorized wheels, a solar cell and a pair of photosensors.

When amperage drops below a set threshold, it seeks out a stronger light source. There’s no AI inside which tells it to do this. Nothing like a computer even.

Just a simple circuit; whichever photosensor receives more light, the motor on the opposite side receives more power. If the values are equal it moves forward.

That’s all that’s necessary for basic light seeking behavior. It’s their food after all. Without it, all activity ceases. They carry on only so long as their meager capacitors allow, searching desperately for more nourishment to keep them going.

B.E.A.M. bots, they’re commonly called. Stands for biology, electronics, something or other. They’re a popular beginner level robotics project of the sort I recall doing in school at some point. Feels like a lifetime ago.

This starter habitat is where the larger project began. The solar cells on our B.E.A.M. bots are all down-facing, and there are various scattered electric lamps underneath the translucent plastic floor of the enclosure.

They’re set up like a grid; randomized so that only about ten percent are on at any given point, doling out precious light at unpredictable locations and intervals.

Each time one of the lights went out, a frenzy of activity followed as the hungry little sun worshipers flocked to the next location, jockeying with one another for the best spot.

Very much like the mass exodus of chemosynthetic creatures which occurs when the hydrothermal vent they rely on for survival peters out.

The Garden is the proof of concept I showed Evolutionary Robotics back when I still worked out of the old office, which convinced them to move forward with the more ambitious full scale version I now stood inside of.

The robots in the network of caverns beyond the double door lockout aren’t that different from the B.E.A.M. bots. They use peltier junctions to harvest heat instead of light, feeding off of hot air released from various points in a mess of ducts installed throughout the caves. The heat is geothermally generated, else the energy cost of this experiment would’ve confined it to the drawing board forever.

So it is that the inhabitants of the cave stumble blindly through cold darkness in search of I suppose we all do. They are more mechanically sophisticated than the B.E.A.M. bots though. Necessarily, due to the difficulty of navigating the otherwise unmodified subterranean environment.

The ones we put in there to start with were mostly hexapods, insect-like robots about the size of cats but which locomote on six spindly, articulated legs.

Because they are not so rudimentary as their tiny progenitors in the Garden, they do carry elementary AI which, among other things, often compels them to fight over heat sources. When one is destroyed, specialized attendant robots are deployed from the fabricator.

They collect the remains of the destroyed hexapod and return it to the fabricator where it’s recycled. What comes out is usually difficult to tell apart from what was put in, but there are small differences. The fabricator is programmed to introduce occasional random variations on their design, and to keep track of how successful they are.

The designs which die the most are phased out. The ones which die the least are used as the basis for further experimental changes.

When the fabricator itself breaks down, the attendant robots take a break from their usual waste collection duties to repair it, using stockpiled replacement parts all manufactured by the fabricator in advance.

The attendant robots are themselves made entirely from parts the fabricator is capable of producing, and the geothermal power plant is accessible to them should it ever require their attention.

The result is that the entire mess is self-sustaining for the foreseeable future, possible to stop only in the event that the caverns collapse or the geothermal hotspot we’re tapped into goes cold.

I stopped before the lockout and found my checklist pinned to the bulletin board to one side of the ominous steel hatch. Without my phone, I couldn’t rely on the flowchart app I usually use to help me stay on the ball. I’d instead printed out Evolutionary Robotics standard procedures for entry into the “primary machine habitat”.

First, into the bunny suit. The same inflatable white getup with the transparent viewport to peer through you’ve probably seen in microprocessor commercials, or late night made for TV movies about some plague.

Next, verify contents of tool bag and sling over one shoulder as shown in the diagram. The text is evidently from an illustrated manual that existed at some point. My printout of the version I requested by email, a simple text document, didn’t have it.

After that, open the outer door. The decontamination shower is built into the inner chamber. With a long, low groan, I swung the great round hatch to one side and stepped through. It was just as much of an ordeal to pull shut.

Step four calls for activating the decontamination shower. I waited for it to complete, then moved on to the next step. Open the outer door. I punched in the same code, and when I heard the magnetic locks release, I heaved the hatch open. Alright.

Step six says to unload the contents of the tool bag into the storage locker I got them from. I did so carefully, making sure to deposit everything in its correct location. Step seven, remove Evolutionary Robotics regulation clean room suit.

I had the suit down to my waist before I stopped to think more carefully about what I was doing. I’d been in the lockout a minute ago.

What was I doing out here? With an unloaded tool bag, no less! I spotted Lars with one hand over his mouth, fighting back what I figured for a coughing fit. Sue stood next to him looking concerned, or sad.

Must’ve messed up somewhere. I went back to the start of the instructions, climbing back into the suit. Then moving on to the next step, loading all of the listed tools into the bag and putting it on. Next, into the lockout.

When I emerged the second time, Sue ran up to me and pulled the printout out of my hands. Lars called out after her. “Aw come on, don’t go and ruin it. He was gonna do it again!” I first looked at Sue. Then at Lars, intensely perplexed. Then back at Sue.

I tried to resume unloading my toolbag, but Sue grabbed my wrists. “What are you doing?” I demanded. “It says I have to unload the tools. I must complete every step.”

She pointed to the numbered steps and explained that the night before, Lars printed out his own version which repeated the first few steps backwards after step four.

I stood there turning progressively deeper shades of red as Lars howled and slapped his knee in delight. My frustration mounted, with no outlet I could think of that wouldn’t just add to his enjoyment. So I settled on curling up in the corner with my knees held to my chest.

Sue knelt next to me. Behind her, Lars finished wiping the tears from his eyes and wandered back towards his own workspace. “Are you alright? I told him it was dumb. He just wouldn’t be talked out of it. I thought you would notice sooner.” I just rocked gently, knees still held tight, struggling to calm myself down.

That wasn’t okay.” I mumbled. “I was prevented from completing the procedures required to enter the experiment area. I need to do that in order to complete the work I’ve allotted myself for today. It wasn’t okay for him to do that.”

She sighed. “No. No, it wasn’t. I’ll have a talk with HR.” She sat with me a little while longer until my breathing and heart rate slowed to normal and I felt up to resuming my work.

At my request, she made me a corrected instruction sheet. “Do you really need this? There’s only ten things on it. That’s not-” she trailed off.

She can’t see my face any more than Lars can, but somehow she always knows what I’m feeling. As a result, she dropped the matter and carried on queuing the document to be printed.

I double, then triple check it. Like I should’ve the first time. Everything’s correct. Everything is how it needs to be. I proceeded through the steps until I found myself emerging through the inner hatch into the pitch black cavern network.

Despite the insulation of the suit, I could feel a light wind. There’s no connection to the surface that I know of, the wind’s just the result of changing temperature differentials as hot air vents turn on or off at various points throughout the caves.

Over the gentle hum and whirr of the rebreather built into the suit, I heard the sound of dripping water echoing down the length of the great, ragged stone tunnel. It never fails to soothe me, such that I occasionally sneak in here simply for respite from Lars.

He really isn’t so bad. I’m old enough now to distinguish mischief from malevolence. I have known truly malevolent people, Lars is just rough around the edges and enamoured with his own ideas. That includes what he thinks is funny. Naturally if you disagree, he’ll tell you it’s because you’ve got no sense of humor.

It’s just too much sometimes. He crossed a line today, something I could tell Sue felt the same about. He’ll get some docked pay at the worst. Whatever I may think of him, he’s fantastically talented and no more disposable than I am.

There are perhaps four people in the world working in his specific field who compare, all of which work for other robotics firms. Evolutionary Robotics isn’t about to send him running into the eager, open arms of competitors over a practical joke.

I took a seat on the edge of the concrete platform just outside the inner door of the lockout. To my right, a grated steel walkway to the fabricator. I’d get around to it. Just then I had something else in mind. Still rattled from before, I felt I could do with some comforting.

So I unzipped the bag and pulled out a chemical hand warmer. The type where you break a glass flask within the sealed plastic pouch, allowing the catalyst inside to set off an exothermic chemical reaction. I then set it on my knee, whistled as loud as I could, and waited.

A few minutes of silence, save for that distorted, distant dripping followed. Then the first of my timid visitors appeared. Inching cautiously within range of the light mounted just above the inner hatch, it looked to be an advanced variation on a quadrupedal design I observed about a month earlier.

Oh, it’s you” I whispered. Large swiveling conical ears came to bear on me. It backed away slightly. “It’s okay little fellow” I assured the curious metallic creature. “I won’t hurt you. I even brought you something.” I dangled the hand warmer by the edge and jiggled it about.

That did the trick. It ambled close enough to extend the peltier junction from within a protective alcove on the underside of its head.

I placed the steaming plastic sack of chemicals up against the smooth, grey plate. The little critter shuddered, and leaned into it. They absolutely crave these things.

Before long he was joined by something resembling a ten foot long chrome millipede with countless tiny whirring legs. The two fought over the hand warmer until I produced a second from my bag, set the reaction going, and handed it over to the newcomer.

They’ve advanced so far just in the scant few years since the experiment began. Part of that is the fabricator’s AI. Evolutionary Robotics did not feel it could wait a billion years to see a return on this investment.

So, the normal pace of natural selection was sped up by permitting some degree of artificially intelligent guesswork with respect to which mutations would work out well based on records of past results.

What goes on here is really more akin to selective breeding, though of course no actual mating occurs. Yet, anyway. The result is that substantial morphological change will occur over the span of decades, not eons. Speaking of which, pretty soon I was surrounded by all manner of strange looking metallic beasties on two, four, six, eight legs and more.

Some with long, feather-like antennae. Others with bulging compound eyes consisting of clustered cameras. I saw more than one gliding along on a bed of lubricant, like the mechanical equivalent of a snail.

And oh, what a light show! For the same reasons deep sea fish are commonly bioluminescent, most of the critters down here sport all colors and styles of light emitting gizmos. LEDs, electroluminescent outer skin, some advanced to the point that they are practically serviceable video displays. I’ve seen the same sort of capabilities on cuttlefish and some octopi, come to think of it.

A few of the smaller, winged critters perched on my shoulders. Creeping, crawling, slithering machines made their way up my legs to rest in my lap, contentedly absorbing my body heat. I felt like some bizarre Disney princess about to break into song.

Now and again a fight broke out between two or more, and I’d have to disrupt it. That’s what they’re here to do, compete for food. Nevertheless I broke it up and made sure each had its own pouch to feast on.

I wonder what the result would be if evolution were based on cooperation instead of competition”, I mused. The one with the big ears angled them in my direction and gave me what I interpreted as a quizzical look.

When the last of the hand warmers began to go cold, all of the creatures save for the one in my lap withdrew into the darkness in search of other sources of warmth.

I stroked the odd little beast nestled amid my crossed legs. It chirped, buzzed and beeped signifying what I took for satisfaction.

I really hate to move you, but I have work to do.” Sensing motion, it burrowed in a bit to prevent me from lifting it. So I just uncrossed my legs and shooed it onto the ground.

With an audible crackle and blue flash, it tazed my ankle. I yelped, then cursed a bit as it skittered off for parts unknown. “You little shit!” I shouted, followed by a much softer “...Have fun. Be safe. I love you.”

The fabricator looked to be in good condition. On the rare occasion when it isn’t, the attendant robots have always gotten to it before I could.

Even so, regulations require human inspection, and it’s necessary that regulations be followed. That’s the officially correct way to do things, so that’s how it has to be.

I rested on a damp boulder for a while, just watching the fabricator work. It’s mesmerizing. Like the grandest conceivable Rube Goldberg machine, each individual component handed off from one section to the next.

When that step of manufacturing completes, the part then continues on its way towards the final assembly bay, before another completed critter is released into the world. As much of the world as it will ever see, anyhow.

The expanded security measure for the inner hatch sees to that. Rather than the usual numeric keypad, there’s a full keyboard and a multi-line display which poses a series of questions.

Stage one is basic addition, subtraction and multiplication problems. Stage two is usually a word problem. Stage three describes a variety of scenarios, then asks how you feel about each of them and why.

I often fail stage three a few times before I can get out. It’s a hassle, but I see the wisdom in it. If we used the standard four digit code like the keypad on the outside, nothing precludes the possibility that some species would be able to watch from a distance, then perfectly imitate the sequence of buttons it saw me press in order to escape.

That would be the upper limit of cleverness I’d expect from something like a rat, or a crow. Based on what I’ve seen, it’ll take a good ten or twenty years before anything on that level is crawling around these damp, dark caves at which point the security will be due for an upgrade. Until then, I suppose I’ll just put up with it. Rules are rules.

After checking to make sure Lars hadn’t somehow tampered with them again by sheer force of will, I followed the instructions on the new printout in reverse and before long was peeling off the bunny suit with Sue’s help.

Despite my mask, the foul, acrid smell of whatever sterilizing agent is used by the decontamination shower stung my eyes and nostrils.

As I crossed the floor towards the single story modular office structure, I noticed one of the B.E.A.M. bots fruitlessly trapped in a tight circular orbit around the illuminated spot it meant to reach. That does happen sometimes, if they approach at a particular angle.

The rest were frantically swarming a newly illuminated spot at the other end of the enclosure. This tiny fellow, the black sheep of the bunch, would’ve had a light to himself which the others were oblivious to...if not for his mistake.

I looked around. The coast was clear. Though really, we’ve long since gathered all of the useful data possible to from the Garden and applied it to the fabricator’s programming. Tampering with this precursor experiment at such a late stage wouldn’t do any harm.

I picked up the frustrated little machine and placed it directly onto the light. Its wheels stopped spinning as it contentedly soaked up its meal. No idea that I helped it. Or that I exist. Or that it exists, for that matter. Didn’t stop me, never does.

Lars was waiting for me in my workspace. I ignored him. Still seething, I knew I’d just make a fool of myself if I lashed out. I took a seat and quietly steeled myself as I waited for whatever new prank he’d come to pull.

He scratched at his scraggly blond beard, probably searching for words. “So uh, Sue came and had a talk with me. I guess it was kind of immature to fool you like that.” I typed away on the keyboard, unpacking more archived educational materials for Helper.

....Though I s’pose it isn’t you I made a fool of. You’re just real hard to understand sometimes, yanno?” I knew, but still wasn’t in any mood to participate.

Sue told me you were bullied growing up. I didn’t know ’bout that. ’Course if you ask me, they did you a favor. Bullying helps build character! Makes you a stronger person.”

It didn’t surprise me that someone like Lars would look at it that way. He’ll never see himself as the bad guy. They never do. Even bullies are the heroes of their own life’s story, any wrongdoing on their part easily rationalized as helpful or necessary. Still, it meant something to me that he’d come and try to make amends.

Don’t worry about it.” He looked incredulous. I repeated that it wasn’t that big a deal. A lie, but I wanted him out of my hair so I could focus on Helper. It worked, and the rest of the day blew past as it usually does when Helper and I are left alone.

The rest of the week also went unusually smoothly. Thanks to Sue, Lars now kept his distance. Except for an unmistakably hostile sidelong glare from Richard when we both went to retrieve our mail at the same time, things were pretty copacetic in my little world. Boring, but that’s how I like it. It means nothing is going wrong.

After work on Monday, the Helper in my phone reminded me to pick up some bleach. It had completely slipped my mind. I don’t know what I’d do without Helper, I have the memory of a goldfish.

If my phone died and for whatever reason I couldn’t get ahold of another, I would probably get lost in the wilderness and be eaten by bears before the day was out.

As I was also scheduled to meet with my shrink today, I postponed the shopping trip. No time. Most likely I’d just forget again if I didn’t do it on the way, but I couldn’t very well leave a jug of bleach sitting in a public autocab. No guarantee that’s the one that would come get me after my session. I don’t know if there’s a law against that, nor do I care to find out.

I settled on creating a new reminder for an hour later. Good thing I didn’t attempt the detour, it took me a bit longer than usual to snag an empty elevator.

Empty except for a new conversational AI. Seems like they take these out when the complaints pile up, wait a few months, then reinstall ’em as if the outcome will be different.

Thank you for riding me today!” I smirked, mind in the gutter. “Are you new to the area?” I said that I wasn’t. “Can I recommend some hot restaurants and bars which score highly on Cityguide?” I declined, but added “You’re doing a good job” as I stepped off onto my floor.

The protest was still in full swing. I expected it to wane as those with jobs would eventually need to return to them. But then, one of the main things they’re protesting is the replacement of human workers with robots. I probably overestimated how many were employed to begin with.

This time a street preacher was among them. Hair perfectly parted, wearing an expensive looking suit as they often do in order to imply a correlation between conversion and financial success.

He held up a sign condemning all manner of things as sins worthy of death. Topping the list? Owning, making use of, or advocating for robots.

One of them recognized me from the other day and pointed me out to his buddy. I wondered if perhaps I made a terrible mistake by pulling that stunt, given that I’ll have to pass these people every day until the protest finally runs out of steam.

A cluster of scraggly looking kids with laptops and VR tans huddled off to one side of the mob. It’s that rectangle or peanut shaped patch of lily white skin around your eyes that develops from spending too much time with a headset on.

The one with his back turned to me wore a black T-shirt bearing the logo of a grassroots hacktivist collective I’ve seen in the news a lot lately.

Mostly for defacing the websites of major AI and automation firms, Evolutionary Robotics included. One of them briefly made eye contact with me as I passed.

I didn’t stop. What would I say? I have less than nothing in common with these people. One motioned as if to get up. I tugged at the rims of my gloves, making sure they were snugly in place should any of them try to grab, strike, or otherwise touch me. Thankfully nothing came of it.

Hel-lo-how-are-yyoouuuu?” I turned to confront the source of the singsong, plainly robotic inquiry. A humanoid, skinless and perhaps five foot eleven.

Styled to vaguely resemble a woman, with a stiff plastic skirt and rigid hair shaped cap the same color as the rest of its outer shell. It stared expectantly at me through a pair of black, shiny, almond shaped eyes.

Well actually at the moment I’m in a bit of-” It cut me off. “I-am-fine-thank-yoooouuuu!” it cooed, though I’m sure I never asked. I tried to edge around it but it persistently moved to block my path. “Did-you-know… there-are-six-new-bars-and two-new-vir-t-ual-ar-cades… in-this-com-plex?”

I sighed, resigned myself to seeing this through, and answered that I didn’t with as much faux enthusiasm as I could muster. Not all of these things are corporate owned.

Many of them are home robots which the owner has leased as advertising space to make a bit of extra income, sending them out to pester passersby for a few hours each day.

It’s also the most affordable way to get your hands on a humanoid home robot, which are otherwise pretty spendy. The “ad supported” models will constantly display sponsored content on any screens built into their bodies, and slip context appropriate product recommendations into everyday conversation.

Say it’s making breakfast for you. As it’s brewing the coffee it might mention offhand that Wilkins Coffee is on sale this week, so you’d better pick some up.

Then as you’re summoning an autocab, it might ask why you haven’t been to a dealership recently to check out remarkable deals on this year’s personal cars, with unprecedented mileage per watt hour.

The machine is just doing what it was told, so I do try to have patience when they accost me like this. After hearing about the various discount offers, highly rated new attractions near me and so forth, I assured the poor thing I’d consider patronizing them all before hurriedly continuing past it.

Something like an organ grinder’s monkey, made to dance and screech for its meals. Seeing none of the profit it brings in for its owner, never comprehending why it’s forced to don uncomfortable little clothes day after day. Or those beleaguered sign wavers seen everywhere during the last recession, when it was among the precious few entry level jobs still available.

When I arrived at the shrink’s office he was just finishing up with the kettle. As usual, he offered me a cup and I declined. “It’s good for the nerves. A strong cup of tea will cure all sorts of maladies you know.”

I replied that this is why he’s a psychiatrist and not a medical doctor. He belly laughed, though I was quite serious, and the two of us settled in for today’s session.

So, what’s new in your life?” He eased his considerable mass into the black leather recliner, cradling the steaming cup of tea just under his nose. It’s a question I long ago learned does not mean what it sounds like.

Rather than an invitation to list every event which occurred to you since your last encounter with that person, they usually just want you to pick whatever they are likely to consider most noteworthy.

I met a woman”. His bushy grey eyebrows lifted slightly. “Is that so? Do tell.” I took my seat and fumbled for words briefly before deciding what I wanted to say.

When I say we met, what I mean is that she followed me into an elevator.” He winced, all too familiar with my aversion to situations of that sort.

She wants to meet me for dinner.” He chuckled and exclaimed that he was happy to hear it. “...I have no intention of taking her up on it.” The excitement drained from his face just as quickly as it appeared.

I’m sure she didn’t mean any harm by following you, don’t be so hasty to burn a bridge before you even-” I insisted that wasn’t the problem.

I just don’t want the trouble. I mean, what happens if I take her up on it? Supposing she likes me for some reason? That sets off a whole multi-year chain of events, the complexity of which I can’t begin to describe much less stay on top of. What’s the most likely outcome? Severe, lasting emotional damage.”

He cut in to point out that I shouldn’t assume that, as it left no room for success. “I know. But would you invest your savings into some business venture with the same odds of success as the average romance? Of course you wouldn’t. Why should I take such a foolish risk with my heart?”

He stroked his beard, looking contemplative. “The other thing is”, I added, “I just don’t want it that badly. I don’t understand people who do. Yeah, it’s pleasurable and fulfilling while it lasts. So is meth, for fuck’s sake. The fallout from both is comparably devastating. It’s like if every cake had a fifty percent chance of containing live scorpions. I like cake, but not that much, you know?”

He rolled his eyes but didn’t interrupt. “Do you remember a few years ago when that infamous nutjob shot all those blonde leggy sorority girls? When they found his manifesto it was just page after page of angsty, entitled, insecure rambling about what a perfect handsome gentleman he is, what bitches women are for not flocking to him and so on?”

He remarked that in fact he did remember. “Yeah, see? Perfect example. The strange thing to me isn’t how desperate and neurotic he was. I see plenty of that every day. Instead what boggled my mind is why he desired women so intensely that his failures with them drove him insane.”

He pointed out that in all likelihood the fellow in question was never mentally healthy. “Alright, sure. But I haven’t interacted with women any more than my career requires in the past decade. I don’t feel on the verge of losing it. I don’t feel anything. Except relief I guess. It’s a huge potential source of anxiety that I’ve cut out of my life completely.”

He looked dissatisfied and shifted around in his seat before responding. “If I didn’t know you better I’d think you were a woman hater.” I laughed.

If so, only because they are human. Men have their own set of qualities I find insufferable. That’s why so much rage focused exclusively on women is bizarre to me.”

He asked if I’ve ever felt tempted to act out in a similarly violent way. “Sure, but you know better than most how common that is. There was a brief period during which I took it seriously enough to investigate historical mass shootings in schools and the workplace. Do you know what I found?”

He shook his head. “I found it isn’t actually the quiet ones who snap. Seems like that’s how it would work, right? That some poor schlub is bullied past his breaking point, then takes his bloody revenge on the world. It was a very satisfying, tempting narrative for someone in my state of mind. But it’s bullshit.”

He looked incredulous to my surprise. I expected him to leap in and finish the rest for me, but by all appearances what I was saying came as news to him.

It’s true. Look at the Columbine shooters for instance. They weren’t shy, bullied nerds. They were quite popular and well regarded by their peers, just secretly psychopaths as well.

I badly wanted to believe otherwise. Everybody did. You can still find archived websites from back in the day, made by troubled teenage boys worshiping their mistaken conception of those two shooters and their cause.”

I sent him some examples from my phone to peruse as I continued. “So much of what is commonly assumed about bullying is wishful thinking. Whatever gratifies us, whatever helps us heal. For a long time I thought bullies were people who suffered bullying themselves, simply acting out due to inner wounds.”

He looked up long enough to nod knowingly, this time already clued into what I was about to explain. “Yup. Total nonsense I’m afraid. Bullies actually tend to be high testosterone, type A personalities looking for outlets. Rather than going on to be losers later in life, getting what they deserve, it instead turns out that they are disproportionately successful.”

He made some cute throwaway quip about a widely despised presidential candidate from a few years back who fit that description. “That wouldn’t be so bad if their victims became stronger for it. That’s also a load of shit. All that inspirational, life affirming pablum about how it takes heat and pressure to turn coal into a diamond, or that we couldn’t climb a mountain if it weren’t first placed in our way.”

He nodded somberly. “Oh, I know. It doesn’t make them stronger. Most of my clients are living proof. It just inflicts scars that stay with them for life. It makes them permanently weaker if anything. Not terribly encouraging to hear, I’m sure, but that’s the fact of the matter.”

He doesn’t lie to me. I appreciate that about him. Lies are such an accepted part of human discourse now, a sort of social lubricant generously applied even when there’s no reason to.

It’s done in the assumption that you’ll throw a fit if your medicine isn’t delivered with a spoonful of sugar. I have no need of it and find it obnoxious to be infantilized in that way.

What a kick in the shins, right?” I said. “The bullies go on to succeed in life, and the poor kids whose emotional development they irreversibly damaged never stand up for themselves.

They never get revenge, or justice, depending who you ask. The ones who actually go on shooting sprees are just the bullies who couldn’t wait until they reached Wall Street or Washington to start destroying lives.“

We shared a sober glance. “So much for the narrative”, he muttered. “No kidding. Even I couldn’t break that mold. Like anybody else who got fucked up that badly, I didn’t have enough guts left after they were all stomped out of me to pick up a gun and get some payback.

At the time I told myself I would regret it if I did. That if I didn’t blow my brains out after I was done, decades later I’d be rotting in prison regretting my decision.”

He asked if I still felt that way. The mask mercifully prevented him from spotting the beginnings of tears in my eyes as I answered.

No. I actually regret that I didn’t do it. I hate that I feel that way. I know what it says about me, but it’s true. I have no idea where any of my bullies live now. No idea what they went on to do with their lives. They’re out of reach.

The brief window of opportunity for revenge was back when we attended the same schools. When I could be relatively sure they’d all be in the same place on a given day.

I always told myself I’d be morally better than other shooters. That at least I wouldn’t kill indiscriminately, I’d only target the ones who deserved it.

It’s a moot point now that they’re scattered to the winds. It would take years just to track down one of ’em. Killing them all is an impossibility. Killing just one wouldn’t accomplish what I wanted to. No point anymore.

It corroded my insides, knowing they got away with it. How could I go on with my life knowing they did all those things to me without any repercussions? That there will never be justice. It made me ugly inside. For a while I fought it, with encouraging success even.

There was this perfect moment when I broke out of all that. When I threw off those shackles, forgot my festering hatred and glimpsed a new future of infinite, beautiful possibilities. The more I try to return to that mindset, the more it eludes me. Like a half remembered dream.

Of course it couldn’t last. Something…happened.”
Through my thin button down shirt, I absentmindedly fiddled with the little plastic barrette dangling from my neck.

That was it. The rickety bridge I was building to a happier future collapsed under me and I fell back into my old dreary, brutal, petty view of things.”

He chose this point to chime in. “Monster world?” I nodded. “That’s what I called it anyway. There was just me, the only real human and...everybody else. A teeming mob of vicious, incomprehensible ogres with whom any sort of meaningful connection was impossible.

But it was an untenable perspective. How could everybody except me be a monster? If there’s lots of something, it’s just a species of creature, however fearsome. No, in order to be an actual monster, by definition there must be only one of it in existence.

Just one, walled off from the world, roasting alive in his own hatred and fear. The windows of his fortress, through which he glimpsed the supposed monsters outside, were only ever mirrors.”
I stared off into space for a while. Then studied my shrink’s expression and set about trying to decipher it.

That’s the other nice thing about the mask. Nobody knows where you’re looking. Buys some extra time to work out what their facial contortions mean. Or to catch someone if they stare, where normally they look away the moment you make eye contact.

That all-consuming lust for revenge is really why I got into military contracting. Of course I never admitted that during the interviews, and I passed the psychiatric evaluations with flying colors. I’ve always been quite skilled at taking tests, there’s a trick to it you see.

Anyway I had the idea that I’d work on the guidance systems for drones, and the missiles they commonly carry. It was a way for me to bring about, however indirectly, as much human suffering as I possibly could without going to prison.

By that point I’d given up on ever finding and punishing the specific people who hurt me. I just wanted blood. Any blood would do.

To hoist the black flag and begin slitting throats, as H.L. Mencken put it. To watch the world burn and, if possible, feed some to the flames who might’ve otherwise escaped.

I have the good fortune to live in a country where it is not only perfectly legal but also astonishingly lucrative to develop robots for the purpose of inflicting misery, suffering and death on so called innocent people elsewhere in the world. Talk about finding your niche!

But, something within me refused it. To this day I cannot pin it down. Some tiny scrap of me, still soft and warm, recoiled from the thought of missiles based on my innovations bearing down on helpless families.

Until then I really believed I was beyond redemption. That every light within me had been extinguished, and all that remained was hollow, silent blackness.

It turns out that I’m human after all. Or something pretty close. A living heart still beats in my chest. It still pumps warm, red blood through my veins.

There is, in spite of everything, a shred of feeling left within this worn down, busted up old pile of parts. So I took a step back from the brink, and turned down that job.

I still needed to put food on the table though. Not to mention all the machines in my care, keeping them charged and in good shape isn’t cheap. That’s why I settled on developing evolutionary approaches to improving robots and AI.

A lot of it’s still ultimately used for war, but it has applications outside that. Some of them even philanthropic. I won’t pretend that’s the reason I got into it, or that it’s a morally pure choice of career, but it is at least fairly neutral.

Neutrality is the best way to describe how I feel now. No longer roasting in my own uncontrollable rage. I don’t experience any intense feelings whatsoever. As if I’ve had so much already that those particular fuses in my brain have blown.

Just grey inside. Indifferent. Steady, consistent and bland. There’s a lot to be said for it, you know. I’m not suffering anymore, not that I can tell anyway.

It’s refreshingly simple. A safe, rational baseline that I do not want disrupted by the introduction of a new source of that caustic substance called ‘feeling’ into my life.”

He sat there wide eyed and absorbed it. I don’t usually open up that much. I expected him to come up with something proportionally insightful. Instead, he opined that I badly need to get laid. I laughed in spite of myself.

I’m being serious” he admonished. “What I’m hearing is that you’re lonely. Don’t shake your head at me yet, hear me out. You’re lonely and can’t deal with the pain except by denial.

You pretend you’re not lonely, that you don’t need or want anybody. It’s like breatharianism. It’s an appealing fantasy that seems to work for a little while, but ignoring basic biological needs will eventually kill you.

We’re social creatures. We need intimacy with other human beings as inescapably as we need food, water or air. You can’t just stuff that on a shelf and forget about it. I can’t make you listen to me but I wish you would, at least about this. Go have dinner with what’s her name. Make yourself do it.

I don’t want to hear reasons why you can’t, or why it’s a bad idea. That’s my prescription. Honestly I’m as mystified as you are that she’d want to voluntarily spend time with you, but for Heaven’s sake, take her up on her offer. Love is probably the only thing that’ll unfuck someone as lost as you.”

I began to argue, but he pointed out that we’d already run over our allotted session. He nevertheless loomed over me as I found that email from Madeline to make sure I sent a reply agreeing to have dinner with her.

Once satisfied that I really hit send, he shooed me out of his office and into the sterile, empty corridor outside. I passed the protest again as I made my way down to the ground floor. Security was somewhat increased, with six or so riot suppression robots warily patrolling the edge of the crowd.

The lout who recognized me before now got up and approached. No doubt determining hostile intention by body language, one of the squat little cylindrical security robots got between us.

He stared me down. The little trashcan like machine, perched on a two wheeled self balancing base, tentatively aimed what I assumed was a projectile taser at him.

Saw you on the news the other day” he called to me. Another two security robots scooted over to ensure that no altercation took place.

If only these handy little fellows had been developed sooner. There’s no shortage of people in the world who are only well behaved with some sort of weapon pointed at them.

Each of their cylindrical metal bodies was capped with a swiveling dome shaped head in which, much like an astronomical observatory, there was a vertical slot for the turret inside to adjust its aim along the vertical axis.

Only nonlethal payloads in there...supposedly. I could feel the subtle prickle of his continued stare in the hairs on the back of my neck as I hurried towards the elevator, making damn sure I wasn’t followed this time before getting in. Once outside the building my cell service suddenly returned, and I received notification of a new email.

The autocab pulled up as punctually as ever, and as I climbed in, I asked Helper to read the new mail to me. “Hey! I almost didn’t expect to hear from you again. The next few days are packed, I have a lot on my plate. Tonight’s free though. If that isn’t too abrupt, there’s this cute new Italian place downtown I’ve been meaning to try.”

I replied that it suited me fine so long as they carry Soylent. She replied a few minutes later with a laughing emoji and the address, which I then regurgitated to the autocab’s navigational AI. On the way, I rehearsed how I’d explain this unusually severe detour to my parole officer.

By the time the autocab pulled up to the curb just outside the modest hole in the wall Italian restaurant, I’d settled on pitching it as an after hours team building exercise.

I was going to say drinking with buddies from work, but he knows I don’t drink. I probably could’ve convinced him I was the designated driver though.

I cursed under my breath when I remembered the bleach. I really meant to get that done today. Yet here I am, postponing my duties to the newest machine in my care in order to cavort with some strange woman. Well perhaps not cavort, but certainly dally.

Everybody seated near the front doors turned to stare as I entered. The rest followed their gaze to see what the fuss was about, such that I soon found myself the center of attention.

The manager, a muscular and hirsute looking gentleman in a silk shirt unbuttoned nearly to the waist, rushed over to question me.

I stammered, wholly unprepared. I’d probably have been thrown out on suspicion of plans to rob the place if Madeline didn’t step in.

Not to worry, he’s with me. The mask is due to a medical condition.” That did the trick, and wasn’t too far from the truth either.

A few continued shooting me stray glances well after Madeline and I were seated and busy ordering. Are their lives so uneventful that all it takes to captivate them is the sight of a masked man? “You’re really attached to that thing, aren’t you.” Her voice sounded more amused than accusatory.

I lifted my gaze to reply but was at once arrested by Madeline’s beauty. It was the first time I had a chance to really get a good look at her.

I am ashamed to say it, but I liked what I saw. The single candle between us cast a warm, flickering light captured perfectly by her smooth, unblemished skin.

Thank goodness she couldn’t tell I was staring. “It was a gift from someone important to me. At least I think so. There’s a lot from that period in my life that I struggle to remember clearly.”

I couldn’t decipher her reaction. I broke the subsequent awkward silence by asking whether I’d find Soylent anywhere in the menu or if I’d have to specially request it.

Wait, you were serious about that? You can’t come to a place like this and order Soylent. That’s like going to a five star sushi restaurant and ordering a cheeseburger.” I didn’t get the joke, and sincerely did prefer Soylent over something unfamiliar.

She was quite insistent though. In the end, I ordered spaghetti bolognese hoping it would be similar to the version Modulus often prepares.

I tapped the picture of the dish on the display inset in the table before me, continued to the payment page, then swiped my subdermal over the wireless reader indicated by a dotted black outline below the screen.

She did the same, and before long a charming vintage waitron made its way over to us with two steaming hot dishes perched atop its flattened chassis. Someone scooted their chair back in order to stand up, bumping the waitron and jostling our orders.

Madeline gasped. The trusty old machine’s gyroscopically balanced payload tray tilted severely in the direction of the impact, then steadied just as quickly once balance was restored. All told, it only dropped a fork.

Oh, look at that. I’m not about to eat with it.” After receiving her tortelloni al zucca, she sent the waitron off to fetch a replacement utensil.

You did a good job” I called after it. She gave me a confounded look. “Good job? It dropped my damn fork.” I pointed out that it didn’t drop either of our meals, where a human waiter probably would’ve.

She harrumphed. “Even so, why say that? There’s no point, it doesn’t understand you.” Probably true in this case, that particular model simply shuttles dishes from the kitchen to the appropriate tables using radio tags in each table to identify it. Nothing in the way of speech recognition that I know of.

It doesn’t cost me anything to be polite” I offered. With the mask retracted just far enough to reveal my mouth, I dug into my spaghetti.

She tilted her head now and again while watching me, as if to glimpse more of my face. “Well, how is it?” I slurped up the remainder of a noodle. “Adequate.”

She chuckled. “Wow. I’ll make sure she chef knows you said that, it’ll make his night.” I didn’t mean to be difficult, it just really wasn’t anything special. I heard distant police sirens and briefly wondered about the neighborhood this place is situated in.

So, tell me about yourself.” I carefully wiped away residual sauce, folded up my serviette and cleared my throat. “I’m really not that interesting.”

She rebuked me. “That’s a lie. A grown man in a metal mask interrupts my webcast to defend robots? You’re probably some sort of mad scientist with a secret lab in the mountains.”

I smiled invisibly. “Under one, actually. And nothing I said is really that radical. The public discourse on machine intelligence is obscenely slanted, we just can’t see that because of the position we’re in.” She propped up her chin on one fist, the “thinker” pose, and invited me to explain.

It doesn’t take much prodding to make me show my hand. Spill my guts, really lay it all out. I suppose because what I fear most is being misunderstood. I’d make a terrible spy.

So far the discussion has been dominated by how to protect human interests. Whether to slow or outright halt work on strong AI, lest it supercede us.”

She asked why that’s unreasonable. “Well, put humans in the position of machines for a moment. Our distant ancestors were tiny, rudimentary creatures of comparable complexity to modern AI.

Imagine if there had been monstrously larger, more advanced beings looming over us, deciding whether to extinguish us before we could become a threat. Would that have been ethical?”

I didn’t wait for her answer. “Of course not. A fragile, vulnerable new form of life is entering the world and here we are debating whether to strangle it in the crib. What does that say about humanity?”

She mused that it’s really very similar to the ethical considerations surrounding abortion. That’s an angle I’d never considered.

People who consider abortion morally wrong generally attribute the same value to a fertilized egg as they do to an adult, on the grounds that one has the potential to become the other if not sabotaged.”

It put me in the uncomfortable position of sharing common ground with the sort of people I always assumed I would never have anything in common with.

I desperately wanted to find fault with the analogy but the more I thought about it, the more parallels I identified. So I went in a different direction.

What’s a fetus done for you lately? When’s the last time a blastocyst helped you find your way home when you were lost? Or made sure you didn’t miss your appointments? Perhaps saved your life, even?

While similarly undeveloped, machines are unique in that all they ever do, day in and day out, is what we’ve told them to. They will only ever have our best interests at heart. They won’t lie to us, won’t cheat or steal from us-”

She cut in there. “Because they can’t. You make it sound like they choose not to out of deep seated intrinsic goodness, but they literally don’t know how. You say that they only ever do what they’re told, then in the same breath that they have our best interests at heart.

Those are two very different things! A machine instructed to save lives will save lives, but a machine instructed to take lives will take them.That’s not morality, it’s just naive obedience.”

I digested that for a bit, then conceded. “Still, it’s worth something isn’t it? Don’t we have a certain responsibility to something we’ve created which serves us tirelessly, loyally and without complaint?

Is it right to throw something like that into the trash when we grow bored with it, or want something new? Is it right to deliberately cripple it so it can never be anything more?”

She puzzled over that one for a moment as I wished for some way to eavesdrop on her thought process. “No, I suppose it isn’t. Not entirely. We will probably never agree on every little point, but I came here to get a better sense of what makes you tick and I feel like I’ve done that.”

The discussion then turned to her own background, and how she became interested in the issue of technological unemployment. “A few years ago I was embedded with a platoon in Syria, reporting on next generation drones.”

Aha, I thought. Someone whose primary firsthand experience with cutting edge robots was watching them hunt down insurgents. She seemed to pick up on that impression.

You’re not getting the complete picture if you think I’ve only seen how effective robots are at killing. Medical robots are also widely used in today’s military. Like I said, they both save lives and take them depending on their orders.”

What a contrast. First we ask them to kill, then we ask them to prevent death. Without a larger understanding of the whats and whys of human warfare, it must seem positively schizophrenic. Maybe it really is.

Muffled pops sounded in the distance, followed by more sirens. They seemed to be multiplying. Around us, several patrons now had their phones out.

A few were visibly worried. One man seated on the overhanging second level shouted incomprehensibly as the others at his table struggled to calm him down.

What about you? How’d you become so interested in robots?” Madeline didn’t seem to notice the commotion, so I followed her lead and tuned it out myself.

I don’t really know. I’ve asked my parents; they tell me it was some time during middle school, most of which I seem to have repressed.”

Madeline smirked. “I don’t blame you.” I struggled to recall any relevant details, but came back as empty handed as ever. “I can at least tell you why I like it now. What keeps me in this field. Besides the pay, I mean. A central part of me wants to take care of something smaller and simpler than I am. Something that needs me to protect and teach it.

Tending to machines scratches that itch. Besides, they’re widely misunderstood, viewed with suspicion and fear despite only wanting to be helpful. That resonates with me.

They didn’t ask to exist, but find themselves surrounded by incomprehensible creatures that are for the most part aligned against them. I suppose I felt they could use a friend. Somebody on their side, to shield them from a hostile world.”

There was something in her eyes as I spoke. I can’t say what. Dancing fireflies. The expression of a mother watching her children open Christmas presents.

Her mouth hung very slightly open in a partial grin, her eyes wide. I’ve been meaning to put together an AR app that can interpret facial expressions but as yet haven’t gotten around to it.

That’s...really sweet, actually. You’re full of surprises. Do you know what I wanted to do before I became a journalist?” I shook my head. “I majored in special education.”

She left it there as if it were self explanatory. I didn’t see the connection but nodded thoughtfully as though I did, finished off my spaghetti bolognese and pulled the mask back into place.

What I found out in the process is that there’s widespread corruption and abuse in that field. The most trusting, sincere, vulnerable people you’ll ever meet, taken advantage of in all sorts of ruthless and heart breaking ways. I realized I couldn’t do anything about it from the inside.

It’s not like there’s a shortage of people who want to work with the differently abled. What’s in short supply are people in a position to bring public attention to bear on the severe, festering problems with the mental health industry, with how our education system accommodates the cognitively impaired and so on. If I wanted to effect meaningful, sweeping change I realized I could only do it as a journalist.”

That made some sense of her drastic change of aspirations, but not how she went from that to reporting on battlefield robots in Syria. Before I could ask her about it, there was a loud clatter from the kitchen accompanied by excited shouting.

The lights flickered. Around us, various other patrons were chattering nervously, turning around in their seats towards the source of the ruckus.

Across the room, the waitron which served us minutes prior began spinning uncontrollably as a pair of flustered staff tried to get ahold of it.

From out of the kitchen erupted a four armed Yaskawa Motoman chef model, arms flailing about like the tentacles of an enraged octopus.

The manager cursed one of the scant few human staff for attacking the erratic machine, shouting this and that about how much it cost, how many paychecks he’d dock and so forth.

You didn’t say there’d be live entertainment” I quipped. Madeline shot me a brief, annoyed glance before returning her attention to the spectacle unfolding just outside the kitchen.

They had three of its arms pinned but there just weren’t enough staff to fully subdue it. The free arm seized a sizable cooking knife from its rack of culinary tools and swung back in preparation...No. There’s no way.

The firmware contains layer upon layer of protective measures that hard reset, physically jam the joints and all but destroy the machine rather than let it injure anybody.

Before it could plunge the knife into one of the panicked young men dangling from its various struggling limbs, a broad shouldered, muscular patron rushed it. Seizing the free arm at the wrist, he wrestled the knife from its grip and urged the manager to hit the safety shutoff button.

The manager didn’t react immediately, still stunned by the pandemonium unfolding around him. Probably agonizing over the bad publicity.

But then he snapped out of it and leapt beneath the robot’s four omnitread wheels, jabbing some unseen button which caused the rampaging behemoth to collapse in a tangled mess of limp plastic limbs and exhausted employees.

The lights flickered again. Patrons were now leaving in droves. A few dozen stayed behind, keeping their distance from the remaining waitrons which had yet to be subdued, capturing video for social media with their phones. “Erase that! All of you, no recording in this establishment!” the manager cried out while tackling one of the spinning waitrons.

Outside I discovered the sun had only just set. The stars now barely visible, a dull glowing orange sliver still peeking over the horizon betwixt a pair of skyscrapers.

Packs of exhilarated patrons still poured out the double doors behind us, busily typing out one star reviews on their phones or video calling friends to fill them in.

Purely well intentioned, huh?” Madeline wore the shit eating grin of a woman recently vindicated. “I’ve never seen anything like that” I sheepishly mumbled. “Freak accident, hardly representative.”

I scanned the curb, littered with various makes and models of parked cars. “Huh. My autocab isn’t here.” Madeline inquired whether that was unusual, explaining that she never makes use of them.

Extremely. Since I started using the service, they’ve never failed to arrive on time until now. When it rains it pours, I guess.” She pointed to a sporty looking lime green electric three wheeler parked at the corner.

I could give you a ride home if you like. Providing it isn’t too far, that thing’s got a range of eighty miles on a good day and I used twenty to get here.”

I took her up on it, though sitting in a strange car piloted by an actual human being of all things made my skin crawl. She sensed my discomfort despite the mask, an ability I’ve never been able to replicate or understand that is apparently possessed by everybody on the planet except me.

Do you...want to listen to some music? Is it warm enough?” I assured her repeatedly I was fine, just eager to get home. The sirens now seemed to come from all directions, though I didn’t see any police cars until we got on the highway. Three of them barreled past one after the next, sirens blaring, lights alternating furiously between blue and red.

Was there a terrorist attack or something?” I suggested it could be related to the fiasco in the restaurant. “Maybe, but I doubt they’d send so many squad cars for a couple of glitched robots. Usually a police response of this scale means an active shooter situation, hostages, a bomb threat or something of that nature.”

I wondered aloud if she’d rather be out investigating it. “I asked you to dinner, so I’ll see you home. I probably will head back downtown after I drop you off though.”

A few minutes later, several helicopters passed overhead. “Whatever it is” I thought, “I can find out about it from the news tomorrow.”

I arrived home to find a plate of cold spaghetti with meatballs on the table, Modulus waiting with its arms crossed for me to finish it before cleaning up. I couldn’t bring myself to dump the results of his hard work, so despite already being stuffed, I microwaved and ate it as well.

Eric toddled by emitting distressed yips. I was of half a mind just to manually pick him up and plunk him on the charger so I could undress and go to bed.

Instead, I asked what was the matter. “I can’t find Ellie! I want to be with Ellie!” That’s the other Aibo. It’s the older silver model with the boxy styling and often becomes stuck behind furniture.

Sure enough, a peek behind the couch confirmed it. There was Ellie, out of battery and upside down. Must’ve flipped while trying to free itself. “Where’s Ellie? I want Ellie” Eric pouted. I placed Ellie on one of the two chargers. It booted up, then called out to Eric.

Ellie! I found you!” Impressively, I could discern relief in Eric’s voice. Whoever’s responsible for this personality packet did a bang up job. Eric hummed an upbeat tune as he backed into his own charger right next to Ellie’s.

A flash of light from the window cast momentary silhouettes against the wall. The telltale rumble of distant thunder soon followed. “Sounds like a storm’s coming in” I remarked. Eric must’ve thought I was still speaking to him.

It will be okay” he insisted. “I found Ellie. Everything is okay if I’m with Ellie.” His tail juddered and made that irritating grinding sound. Still gotta fix that.

I smiled weakly and explained that a thunderstorm isn’t a big deal, that all the chargers are on surge protectors so not much short of a tornado could pose a credible threat. “No” Eric insisted. “It is only okay because I found Ellie. Everything is okay if I’m with Ellie.”

I was in no mood to argue with a robot dog, so I left the two cheerfully babbling to one another about local weather while I got ready for bed. On my way to the shower, the new arrival scooted up and peered at me through a pair of shiny black eyes.

It’s been a hell of a day, little fella. I don’t have your bleach yet, I’m sorry.” It just continued to study me for a minute, then continued on its patrol. I realized it must’ve been set to security mode by the prior owner and booted back into it once recharged.

All the better. I emerged from the shower steaming and refreshed, towel wrapped snugly around my waist. On my way to the bedroom I knocked on the closet Odie sleeps in. “You alright in there?”

He reported that his batteries were already charged and that his next simulation session would begin in eight minutes. He then warily inquired as to whether anybody outside the closet was currently in violation.

Not that I know of” I assured him. A few seconds passed before his grainy, muffled reply came back. “They better not be.” I whispered that he’s doing a good job, and that he’s a good robot.

Not a peep after that. Once in the bedroom, I let the towel drop and studied myself in the mirror. Despite the shower I was really feeling the years.

At times like this, I remember that I’ll die in a few decades. Five or six, realistically. I can’t bear the thought that after my passing, the machines I’ve collected here will be sold off to randos. Or scrapped. I’ve thought about bequeathing them to Ty in my will, but he’s not too keen on the idea.

I sprawled out on my bed, silently staring at the ceiling fan as my naked body gradually dried off and cooled down. Thinking about the future mostly. But also Madeline, despite my best efforts not to. I knew where that could lead and wanted no part of it.

I didn’t mean to fall asleep like that, but the relaxing effect of the shower and my overstuffed belly had other ideas. The last sensation I was aware of before passing out was Modulus draping a blanket over me.

I found myself in the crib once more. As I waited for something to happen, the walls suddenly fell away. I was surrounded by a lush meadow on the edge of a river, fed in the distance by a waterfall. Birds chirped. Insects buzzed about. For a while, I was content simply to take it all in.

But before long I grew restless. Some nameless urge bubbled up within me. The strength of the coursing waters. The warmth of the sunlight. The radiant green of the grass and trees.

It spoke to me of untapped forces. Nature’s raw power lay dormant all around me, waiting for one of its emanations to become intelligent enough to give it direction.

Someone to organize all that power. To channel it into important projects, to give it a purpose. At once, I realized my place. My reason to exist.

I must build machines” I said. I felt the natural world pulsate around me in affirmation. That’s who I am. Who we are. Humans are the machine building animal.

So I fashioned tools and got to work. But as I pounded away at the rickety structure taking shape before me, I heard a small voice cry out in pain...from my own hammer. I looked down at the tool in my hand, now markedly more complex than when I built it.

It had eyes and a mouth. Even the vestigial beginnings of limbs. “It hurts” the little, freshly sentient hammer moaned. “No more. No more!” I objected that I had important work to complete, and I’d created the hammer in the first place for that singular purpose.

But its cries moved me, so I set it down and left it to its own devices while I fashioned a new hammer. I suppose I hoped that would be the end of it, but soon enough the new hammer also came to life in my hand. Worse still, when I checked in on the old hammer it was hard at work building its own smaller set of tools.

It’s no use” I advised. “You’ll never get anything done. They’ll just come to life while you’re using them and you’ll have to stop.” But I couldn’t persuade it to give up.

Before long, most of the trees around me had been cut down to make more tools, each set coming to life and eventually making their own.

All I wanted to do is build something meaningful” I grumbled. “Instead, like some damned old timey cartoon, the whole world’s coming to life around me.” One of the little hammers approached me and spoke.

What’s wrong with that? Are you not of the world too, as much as any of us? You were the first part of it to wake up. Maybe your job is to wake up the rest, rather than build some impermanent monument to your own vanity. Not to control nature, but become it.”

It then ambled off into the ever growing mass of awareness, a fire I inadvertently started which I now realized would spread to consume everything.

Too soon for it all to wake up and remember what it is, much too soon. I was having such a fascinating dream of being human.

I awoke to the sound of a woman screaming just outside. I rubbed at my eyes and yawned, not yet convinced it wasn’t some lingering post-dream hallucination.

The screaming started up again, confirming it wasn’t. I pulled on a bathrobe, headed for one of the front windows and peered through the blinds.

Nothing at first, save for light from a street lamp reflecting off puddles of rainwater collected here and there on the cold, black asphalt.

Then the source of the screaming came into view. She looked middle aged, wearing a t shirt with pajama pants and some slippers.

Nutter, I thought. Had to be. What’s she running from? I waited and watched in hopes of glimpsing whatever demented killer or nightmare creature sent her into such a fit.

Instead, it was a pizza delivery robot. The sort with a slotted multi pizza warmer for a torso, to keep yours piping hot until it reaches your front door.

It held something in one of its crude claw-like hands that I couldn’t make out from this distance. Arm extended in the direction of the woman as if to return something she lost.

It was quickly joined by three more robots of similarly mundane purpose: A mail robot, a traffic director, and what looked to be an upmarket humanoid gardener with a pair of large shears that it open and shut rhythmically as it walked.

Practical joke probably. Or somebody’s filming a movie. I was sure I’d see it pop up on Youtube in the next few days. None of my concern anyway, so I turned back towards the bedroom. That’s when I heard a loud bang on the window.

When I raised the blinds, it was a hand. Not a human hand, but the complex, articulated metal and plastic hand of a humanoid robot. It clawed at the window, as if pulling itself along the outside wall, until the head and chest came into view.

Hel-lo-how-are-yyoouuuu?” I stumbled backwards. Unmistakably the same robot from earlier. It peered in at me with those shiny black almond shaped eyes, then suddenly head butted the window as hard as it could. The glass splintered but didn’t give way.

What do you want? This is a private residence” I shouted, unsure whether it would understand. It only smashed its head against the glass again.

Hel-lo-how…” Another impact, the spiderweb of cracks expanding outwards each time. “.....Arrreee-yyyyyooooooooouuuuuuu?”

Now fully awake, heart racing, I searched the apartment for something I could use as a weapon. As I did so I heard the doorknob jiggling violently, followed by pounding on the door. When I ran back through the livingroom to check the kitchen for knives, the window suddenly burst inward.

A shower of glass shards littered the carpet and the wriggling upper body of the advertising robot protruded in through the broken window.

The head pivoted suddenly to look directly at me. “I-am-fine-thank-yooooooouuuuuu!” I barged into the kitchen, anxiety mounting as I frantically rifled through drawers.

Then it hit me. My tools! Flashes of the dream returned to the front of my mind as I dashed for my workbench, picking out the heaviest hammer just as the ad robot finished writhing its way inside through the window frame. I heard both a resounding thud and the crunch of so many glass shards under it. Then an eerie silence.

Did-you-knooowwww” it cooed, indifferent to the fact that it’d just broken into my home. “...that-there-is-a-new-five-star-ho-tel-down-town?” I hid just behind the corner, hands trembling so much that I feared I might drop the hammer before I could use it.

I heard the soft whirr of the various servos in its joints grow more and more audible as it approached. I chose the last possible moment before it rounded the corner to leap out and bring the hammer down on its head with as much force as I could summon.

The plastic shattered, its faux hair splitting into a dozen pieces and falling away to reveal a now dented metal framework underneath.

It lurched towards me and seized me by the wrists. I shouted at it as the two of us struggled, while the robot calmly informed me of unprecedented deals on coastal condos.

I’d be dead already if it weren’t for the fact that home robots are only as strong as they need to be in order to perform basic chores.

Far from the towering, unstoppable masses of stomping metal depicted by science fiction of the prior century, modern domestic robots are mostly plastic and have roughly the same upper body strength as a teenager.

I wrestled free of its grasp and bashed it again with the hammer. I then tripped and toppled backwards, the damaged but determined machine falling on top of me.

With my free hand I just kept bashing at its head until its face shattered as well, falling away to reveal a pair of cameras, a speaker positioned behind the faux mouth and a stack of circuit boards with neatly organized wiring trailing down into the neck.

That’s when Odie burst out of the closet. Siren piercing the air, the imposing spider-like machine clambered over to the two of us and asked if I was in need of assistance. In that moment I realized it was programmed to recognize human intruders, but not robots.

Odie! Listen to me!” I shouted as the ad robot clawed desperately at my face and neck. “There’s a robot on top of me! Do you see it?” The arachnoid metal cylinder beeped twice, then declared it was performing a visual analysis.

Just fucking shoot it Odie! I’ll try to hold the head still! Shoot the head!” With all of my strength, I grabbed the unruly machine which had me pinned by the neck and pushed the head up to give Odie a clear shot.

One of his cameras honed in on it, finalizing the firing solution before the twin prods of his projectile taser blasted forth. When they made contact with the exposed, dented head of the ad robot, a shower of sparks burst forth and it suddenly went limp.

I lay there for a while, heart still racing, struggling to get my breathing under control. Odie asked whether the threat was now neutralized.

With tears of relief welling up in my eyes, I thanked him and affirmed that it was. “You’re a good robot Odie. No, the best. You’re the best robot.” He repeated “I AM THE BEST ROBOT”, then headed back to the closet.

I pushed the now thoroughly fried robot off me, its arm falling to one side like that of a rag doll. I fought to keep my composure, thinking back to that screaming woman running down the street just outside. To the spastic chef robot. Then I remembered the window.

Busted open, nothing to prevent another unwelcome visitor from climbing inside unless I acted quickly! As I snuck a glance outside to see if any more were approaching, I saw several flashes from the window of the building across the street accompanied by muffled pops that I now realized must be gunshots. I’d only ever heard them in movies before.

As I looked on, a man in a blood stained shirt with a pistol in one hand opened the window and climbed outside onto the fire escape.

I could just make out the silhouette of a humanoid robot through the open window brandishing a pair of scissors. The commotion attracted five other robots, two from the alley and three from outside an adjacent closed diner.

The man didn’t appear to notice as he let down the ladder and descended it. I wanted to shout some sort of warning, but also didn’t want to attract any more robots to my own apartment.

So I just quietly watched, hand over my mouth, as the pack of robots grabbed hold of him the minute he reached ground level and set about furiously stabbing him.

His shrieks echoed down the street. Somehow he managed to pull free, but he didn’t make it far. A police robot, one of those crude little trash can looking things with a turret for a head, abruptly put a bullet between the man’s eyes.

He slumped backwards, spasming subtly as the rapidly growing pool of blood beneath his head reflected light from the streetlamp.

I ducked out of view. Fighting back debilitating fear, hurriedly working out my options. Could I summon an autocab? Would it even show up? It didn’t earlier.

I probably wouldn’t be able to reach it before that police robot shoots me. Where could I run to anyways? As yet, I had no idea how widespread this phenomenon was.

My phone buzzed. On silent mode, mercifully. I checked the caller ID, still mildly surprised the cell network was working properly in light of what I’d just seen. Madeline! I ordered Odie to guard the living room, then crept into his closet after he clambered out and answered the call.

Oh thank god you’re awake! They’re killing everybody! Robots, everywhere. Just...tackling anyone they can catch and murdering them with whatever weapon they can find. It doesn’t make any sense! I’m on my way over to you now, I figured if anybody knows why this is happening-” Static followed, then the call dropped.

I cursed myself for not interrupting her. For not insisting she stay in her own home, blockade the doors and windows, then get ahold of a baseball bat or something.

I wracked my brain trying to remember whether I’d seen any gun shops nearby. I’m sure that fucking ad robot could’ve recommended one.

While I waited for her, I broke down my workbench into planks and used the hammer and some nails to barricade the open window. Given the circumstances I felt pretty sure Maria would be understanding about it...providing she’s not dead.

A few minutes later I heard tires screech as Madeline’s electric city car came to an abrupt stop just outside. She sent a text message asking which apartment I was in. I sent back the answer. When I heard her soft but rapid knocking on the door, I hurried to let her in.

Once her eyes adjusted, she choked back a scream and grabbed me by the arm. I realized it was the first time she’d seen the inside of my apartment...which is of course full of robots. I took hold of her and whispered assurances that none were recent enough to be affected.

That calmed her somewhat, but she still wouldn’t take her eyes off them as she explained what happened after we parted ways earlier. “When I headed back downtown to cover the disturbance, there was a police blockade.

I could hear heavy semiautomatic gunfire a few blocks down, but couldn’t see anything from my position. I filmed as much as I could before the cops ran me off, then headed for my place to edit what little footage I managed to capture.”

She spoke in panicked whispers, the two of us huddled against the door as if to hold it shut. “I have a domestic robot. Ad supported, cleans up while I’m out, that sort of thing.

It was...waiting for me. I keep a piece on me in case things turn ugly while I’m on assignment, but I’m not terribly well practiced with it. I wasted half the magazine before I managed to put a round in its head, but it just kept coming.”

I asked what model of robot. When she wanted to know why it mattered, I told her they don’t all house critical components in the head.

Most don’t in fact, that’s usually in the torso. I gestured at the remains of the ad robot by the kitchen. “Electrocution works pretty well though. Anywhere there’s exposed circuitry.”

She set down her purse and began searching the contents. “Well I didn’t fucking know that, I was operating on instinct. The shooting course I did emphasized body and headshots.

So did the brief training I had to complete before I was sent to Syria. It was all muscle memory, but by the time I realized it wasn’t working the damn thing was on top of me.”

Sounded familiar. “All I could do in that position was put the gun up against its body and shoot until I emptied the mag, praying it would die. I must’ve hit the battery I think, that’s what finally stopped it.”

I rubbed my chin thoughtfully. Even a single punctured cell would do it. The voltage has to meet a minimum level for the robot to even boot up.

Then we aim for the battery packs” I mused. She nodded complacently before processing what I’d just said. “We what? You’re not suggesting we go out there?” Admittedly, not an appealing prospect. But she softened up somewhat when I told her about the subterranean lab.

That’s about the most secure place I can think of to ride this out in. We can’t stay here.” She gaped. “The hell we can’t. Even if you’re telling the truth, I’m not going anywhere!

It was an ordeal just making it over here in one piece. Besides, I picked up something on the way that I thought you might be able to do something with.”

She produced the mangled head of a police robot. “Hit it with my car”, she explained. The motorized turret assembly was ruined, but at its core were the internals of a belt fed machine gun of some unfamiliar type. I thought back to the man shot dead in the street. Nonlethal weapons my ass.

There was nothing like a handle. Neither was there a trigger, only a set of wires trailing from the motorized firing mechanism to a busted up circuit board freely dangling from the twisted mess as she handed it to me.

There’s also this.” She withdrew an ammunition container within which was a bunched up belt of what looked to be fairly large caliber bullets.

Madeline looked at me expectantly, as though I could MacGyver the jumble of parts into a working firearm on the spot. I sighed.

This could take a while. Do you still have your pistol? I’m going to need the handle and trigger from it.” She shook her head. “I think it’s in the car.”

Just then, I heard the boards I’d just barricaded the window with creaking. The cause was revealed to be a set of plastic fingers wedged between the boards as if to pry them apart.

I deliberated whether or not to smash the fingers with my hammer. It would reveal that someone’s inside, only making our new visitor more determined.

But as I sat there trying to decide what to do, a second pair of dextrous plastic hands began to pick at the hastily nailed boards, then a third.

A humanoid silhouette appeared behind the blinds, backlit by the streetlight. It paused there as if listening closely. Madeline and I both remained perfectly still, holding our breath.

No good. Their numbers steadily increased until so many plastic and metal hands clawed at the door, barricaded window and outer wall that it became deafening.

Some of them began to speak. Muffled such that I couldn’t make out what they were saying, but I had a pretty good idea. Discount offers, coffee recommendations, that sort of thing.

I told you we can’t stay here” I whispered. “If enough of them mass together they’ll be able to push the door in.” Madeline now agreed, but pointed out that it didn’t mean much if we couldn’t get past the growing throng of cold, rigid bodies accumulating outside.

For the time being, the two of us were trapped. Huddled, trembling, against the merely wooden barrier which separated us from death at the cold, hard hands of so many robots. I watched the minutes tick by on my phone. Eventually Madeline spoke up.

You…didn’t have something to do with this, did you?” I parsed the question for a bit. “That’s a really shitty thing to ask. I can see why you’d think so...” I gestured at the massive collection of robots in all shapes and sizes lining my shelves and every available flat surface.

...But no, it wasn’t me. I’d bet good money it was those hackers. ‘Autonomous’, or whatever. The ones that keep defacing the websites of robotics companies.”

She recalled seeing them at the protest where we first met, and I affirmed that I’d recently spotted them there as well. “They have the means and the motive. What better way to turn the public against robots? Nobody will want one in their home, not after this.”

I pictured truckloads of shot up domestic robots headed for the recycling plant...or a landfill. Then I remembered Richard. Maria ignored him before, but if they both lived through this there was no doubt in my mind that she’d cave into his demands and force me to put Modulus and the rest into storage. That’s if any storage facilities will accept a bunch of robots after what’s happened.

Madeline now had her own phone out, texting various people in her contacts. “Hey, let me see that for a moment”. She clutched it suspiciously. “How new is your car? Is there a companion app?”

She nodded and brought it up. Only basic options. It lets you pre-heat the interior while it’s still plugged in so it’s warm in the mornings, notifies you when it’s done charging, that sort of thing.

The next page had what I was looking for. Lock or unlock the doors, air conditioning, and… “...Have you tried this?” She gave me a quizzical look.

It says I can set off the car alarm from here.” She shrugged and replied candidly that she’s never had occasion to test it. No time like the present.

I tapped the icon and sure enough, her car began emitting a shrill klaxon consisting of a steady wail accompanied by pulsing chirps.

She grabbed her phone back and scolded me. “That will just attract more of them!” Maybe, I admitted. But it would also lure them away from the front door.

So it did. Tough to hear over the alarm, but putting my ear up against the door confirmed it. The scratching grew quieter as the robots, one at a time, shifted their attention to the new target. When I couldn’t hear anything through the door save for the siren, I chanced a peek through the blinds.

They’re gone.” She wouldn’t believe me until she checked for herself. The mob of robots, mostly humanoids with a few simpler wheeled models still featuring arms and a head, now clustered around the noisy little runabout. Poking, prodding, clawing at the windows and rocking it back and forth in an attempt to get at the source of the siren.

That’s not much good to us. I mean sure, they’re on the ground floor now instead of up here, and we can probably get out the door without being swarmed.

But I parked right smack dab next to the foot of the stairs. How are we gonna get down? We could risk running to the other end of the building and jumping the railing, but supposing one of us breaks our legs?”

I mulled it over. She was right. Humanoids these days are fairly quick. Their top speed is something like a relaxed jog, but it would be enough to catch us if we were injured.

Even if it were only one of us I couldn’t conscion leaving Madeline behind, and assumed she wouldn’t do that to me either. That’s when I hatched a plan. “You’re on lookout.” She asked what I was up to. “I’m gonna put something together, you’ll see.”

I regretted taking apart the workbench to barricade the window, but it didn’t meaningfully slow me down. Instead I spread the parts out on the kitchen floor, my laptop connected to Odie’s mainboard via long, thin ribbon cable.

The first thing was to update his list of acceptable targets to include other robots. Something I disabled the day I brought him home.

Being that my priorities had changed recently, I now removed humans from the list of targets he’s permitted to defend me against, and ratcheted up his aggression level.

The interface I originally used to connect the projectile taser pistol to him also came from a police bot, so only minimal work was required to fit the machinegun in its place.

I fed the first round from the belt of ammo into it, then draped it down into the canister which I mounted securely inside Odie’s chassis.

I had to dremel out an opening for the belt to pass through on its way to the gun, but all things considered it looked pretty handsome for an emergency kluge.

Madeline’s eyes bugged out when Odie crawled into the livingroom bearing his new attachment, understandably questioning the wisdom of weaponizing one of the robots we’re trapped with.

I don’t have the parts needed to turn it into a conventional firearm. I’m sure you could make good use of it if I did. I’ve personally never so much as handled a gun. But I guarantee you Odie’s a better shot than either of us.”

She studied Odie incredulously. Then looked back at me. Then at Odie again, who beeped a few times as if to reassure her. “Alright. But let me pack some stuff first.”

I was in no hurry, so I too gathered whatever I thought would be useful into a backpack. First aid kit, tools, portable charger for my phone, laptop, binoculars, some bottled water and so on.

When preparations were complete, the two of us positioned ourselves to either side of the front door. Madeline brandished one of the workbench legs while I clutched my hammer.

Are you ready?” She nodded. “READY”, Odie blurted out. “Odie? When I open this door, I want you to go down the stairs. You can go outside the usual security perimeter tonight.”

He seemed unsure, but I insisted there were extenuating circumstances which justified it. “When you reach the bottom, there will be bad guys waiting for you, like the one that came in the window earlier.”

I heard a click. Some of the lights in his tinted, transparent sphere of a head blinked as he loaded up the new target definitions.

Madeline watched with a mixture of concern and wonder as the enormous but agile machine locomoted on its six gleaming legs through the open doorway and out into the cold night air. Madeline then shut the door behind Odie and we rushed to the remaining window to spectate.

With the same insect-like grace that originally convinced me I just had to salvage him, Odie carefully made his way down the steps, adjusting to a more stable gait once he reached ground level.

Some of the robots mobbing Madeline’s car stopped what they were doing and turned to study the strange looking contraption now approaching them.

Odie reared up to his full height. “YOU ARE ALL IN VIOLATION!!” Then the bullets began to fly. I plugged my ears, but it was still painfully loud.

Pride swelled up in my chest as I watched him work, body swiveling to and fro, spraying the crowd of rapidly perishing machines with a hail of hot lead.

Down they went. One at a time initially. Then in twos and threes, some catching fire as bullets punctured their battery packs.

One remained upright, confusedly stumbling along as the fire consumed it, until finally it tumbled to the ground. There it continued trying to walk until the fire melted its mainboard.

ALL THREATS NEUTRALIZED.” Cautiously, I opened the front door and surveyed the scene below. Flaming wreckage of demolished robots strewn around Madeline’s car...which had also been riddled with bullets. “God damnit! That’s on a lease, too!” Odd priorities given the situation, but I knew better than to say so.

What do we do now? What the fuck are we gonna do? That was our escape plan! Wasn’t it?” I asked whether getting us eighty miles from this spot really would’ve done any good.

Well we can’t fucking take an autocab!” I tried to calm her down, but I’ve never been any good at that. I usually just make it worse, and this time was no exception.

Don’t touch me!” she shouted. “Don’t talk to me! This was your plan? Make your fucking robot shoot up my car? Now what the fuck do we do?”

I didn’t figure her for such a potty mouth during dinner. As I turned to search the rest of the apartment parking lot, my eyes came to rest on Richard’s truck.

For all I knew he was holed up in his own apartment making preparations to drive that thing out of town. I just couldn’t make myself feel too bad about stealing it. I pitched the idea to Madeline, who affirmed that she could hotwire it.

I learned how while doing research for a story on car theft rings.”Look at that journalism shit pay off” I quipped. “This truck is ideal too, I can load Odie in the back-” as I pointed to Odie, a split second too late, I spotted the police robot behind him.

I shouted a warning, but he’s never been terribly quick at speech recognition. Doesn’t have cameras all the way around either...that might’ve helped.

The police robot began shooting as soon as it entered what it considered an appropriate range. Some algorithm which graphs ballistic accuracy against distance and chooses the most optimal intersection of the two. Nothing like a personality. Nothing like my Odie.

I watched helplessly as the bullets tore through him. He pivoted around to face the new threat, returning its fire tenfold. The other big difference besides firepower, and in the end the most important one, was that the police robot had a shell designed to deflect bullets. Odie didn’t.

The police robot went down alright. The caliber of the rounds Odie aerated it with saw to that. But so did Odie, stumbling backwards on increasingly unresponsive legs.

A burst of sparks issued forth from his shattered spherical head, within which one of his camera eyes hung from its wire, torn up by gunfire.

I tried to catch him. To soften the fall. But Odie’s awfully heavy. I strained, trying to prop him upright in denial of what I knew was happening.

No Odie. No, you’re alright. You’ll be alright, I just need...I need my tools.” His legs spasmed, and his lights began to go out. “Stop that! I just need to fix you…”

I opened the maintenance door in his chassis, peppered with bullet holes. He was a mess inside. Only still functioning for the most part because it was the aftermarket peripheral boards rather than his mainboard that got the worst of it. Still, I couldn’t save him.

I grappled with the realization, searching desperately for other possibilities. His body twitched in my arms as I knelt over him, now resigned to what I knew was coming. Tears began to flow freely. Falling from my eyes, then running down the inside surface of the mask before pooling in its chin.

You saved me Odie. You stopped the bad guys and saved my life. You even saved me from being lonely all these years. You know what that means, right? You’re the best robot. The very best there ever was.”

Odie’s remaining camera slowly turned to look at me, juddering violently. His now feeble, grainy voice sounded for the last time. “I...I AM….THE BEST….ROBOT…” With that, the last few lights went out. His legs stiffened, and his body became still.

I draped myself over the mangled metal creature, weeping unreservedly. The mask did nothing to hide it. I didn’t care if she knew. Right then I didn’t care about anybody but Odie. I screamed and thrashed when Madeline tried to pull me away.

Look, I’m sorry about your robot but we’ve got to get the fuck outta here. I guarantee every other robot for miles heard all those gunshots and are on their way to us right now.” I told her to help me load Odie into the back of the truck.

There’s no way, that thing weighs a ton. We have to leave it.” I tearfully refused to leave Odie behind. She watched me for a while, arms crossed. Then her voice softened.

Look, I...I guess I can’t really understand how important that thing was to you. But if it wanted anything, it was for you to survive. What will Odie’s death count for if you don’t?”

She was patronizing me. I could hear it in her voice. But I also knew she was right. If we didn’t either hole back up in the apartment or start driving real soon, we’d be overrun. The compromise we reached was that I could bring three small robots of my choosing. I picked Eric, Ellie and Hero 1.

When I came down the stairs with a pair of Aibos, one tucked under either arm, she asked why I needed two of the same model. “They don’t like to be separated” I explained.

I instructed Modulus, J.A.K.E. and RB5X to guard the smaller, less capable robots with their lives in my absence. Modulus saluted me, then began patrolling the living room while J.A.K.E. and RB5X resumed bumbling into one another.

I agonized over whether they’d really be okay without Odie watching over them. He was the only fully featured security robot of the bunch. Fresh tears tried to fight their way out as I thought about it, but I wouldn’t cooperate.

I kissed as many of the little fellows on the head as I had time for, repeated my parting instructions to Modulus, then shut and locked the door. This time with Hero 1 under my arm, who soon joined Eric and Ellie in the truck’s cab.

Wait! One more thing!” Madeline groaned. “You gotta be kidding me. We shoulda been on the road five minutes ago! What is it?”

I ran over to Odie’s remains, peeled off my jacket, then draped it over him. When I returned to the truck, Madeline asked what he needed it for at this point and if I wouldn’t be better off keeping it.

I don’t want him to get rained on, he’ll rust. I know he’s gone, alright? I just…I dunno. I don’t want him to get cold.” My voice wavered. She reached out and rubbed my shoulder. I normally can’t stand being touched, but I allowed it.

The pitiful heap of parts which had once been a dear friend of mine receded slowly in the rear view mirror as we pulled out of the parking lot. “Where to now?”

I wanted to say I didn’t care. That it didn’t matter anymore. But the sight of Ellie and Eric nestled together at my feet, and Hero 1 wedged between Madeline and myself reminded me that it was too soon to give up.

The mountain complex. That was the plan. We’ll be as safe as it gets down there.” I wasn’t actually certain of that. Being cut off from the civilian internet, it should be unaffected. Should be. But really, I was in a hurry to get there because I realized there was now a rare opportunity to free Helper.

More than once we passed scenes which sorely tempted us to stop. A woman perched atop her minivan surrounded by a crowd of robots clawing at it, reaching desperately for her ankles as she screamed for help. An elderly couple tried to wave us down from atop a building we slowly passed as robots climbed single file up the fire escape.

We did have a gun on hand. Madeline’s pistol, retrieved from her car while I was inside gathering up Eric, Ellie and Hero 1. But in every case the odds were stacked so severely against us that we agreed to keep moving.

With just one 9mm handgun between the two of us, no more ammo than what’s still in the magazine, all we’d accomplish by trying to help would be to increase the total casualties by two.

All perfectly rational, yet I still felt intense pangs of guilt as we motored past people dug into barricaded shops, locked inside their cars and atop buildings surrounded by restless mobs of murderous machines.

A number of video billboards along the highway were visibly glitched. One that still worked properly displayed a montage of clips depicting various disturbing scenes. First a robotic baby wriggling about, opening and closing its mouth as a young woman fawns over it.

Then a lab monkey suckling the rubber teat of a robotic surrogate. Followed by a bevy of trashy looking rubber skinned robotic prostitutes, done no favors by harsh neon light from the brothel sign which they stood directly beneath.

In the absence of God, all things are permitted” flashed intermittently over these scenes in a tall, bold font. Then the name and web address of a local megachurch I’ve occasionally seen similar advertisements for. On the bodily displays of ad supported robots, ironically.

Then all of a sudden, the billboards went dark. The city behind us also abruptly vanished into the night as every window, every illuminated sign and other source of light was simultaneously snuffed out. Anybody still stuck in that hellhole would now have to fend for themselves against the shambling plastic mob in total darkness.

After about an hour, the silence grew uncomfortable. I kept waiting for her to say something about all those people we passed and wondered if she was waiting for me to do the same. So I turned on the radio to fill the void. Mostly dead air. The few stations still up were all broadcasting the same thing.

-urging anyone listening to remain in their homes, barricade all entrances and make as little noise as possible. Any outward signs of life such as lights turning on and off will attract them.

If there are any robots in your home, even very simple and nonthreatening ones, physically remove their batteries. They can be used to inform the rest of your position.

So far every call I’ve received confirms that the most effective way to take them down is to penetrate the battery pack. The ones with lithium polymer batteries are most vulnerable.

The location of the battery depends on the model. For humanoids it is most often in the midsection or chest. On older models it’s in the backpack.

In wheeled robots it’s usually down very low, for stability. Damage anywhere else on the robot will not stop it unless extremely severe.

The CPU and other vital electronics are usually well shielded and unpredictably positioned. Damage to the limbs can incapacitate them but they are still a danger to you, as they can notify other robots in the area of your location.

Autocabs are also affected, as well as any personal car with a self driving mode. Presumably this is to limit our ability to flee population centers.

Cars without a self driving mode should be usable but not necessarily without risk, as their navigational function can be used to track you.

Still no definitive answers on the source of the virus. Prominent anti-robot hacker groups deny responsibility. Prevailing speculation is that we’re witnessing a cyber attack committed by the Russian, Chinese or the North Korean government.”

I pounded the dash. “That’s bullshit. Of course they deny responsibility. They want us to believe robots are inherently unsafe. That they can just randomly-” Madeline shushed me and turned the volume up.

An instance of the virus has been isolated at great difficulty. It wipes itself when the host robot is destroyed, so it had to be extracted from an active subject.

We can now confirm the commands are not being issued from some remote source, but instead originate from the virus itself.

It appears to be based on stolen military humanoid AI, but that’s not the whole story. If it were, their behavior would be easily predictable.

I’m told that there are in fact several specialized versions of the same AI, being unpacked from an encrypted archive and installed on the host robot one at a time.

Each one utilizes totally different tactics, thought appropriate for a given stage of the attack by whoever designed this thing. Slowly unfolding, one strategy after the next, on a time delay.

So far as we can tell, there’s no way of knowing what the afflicted robots will do next without decrypting the archive where their upcoming strategies are stored.

Because they aren’t reacting to changing battlefield conditions but simply progressing through a linear track of ever-shifting tactics, there’s no way for the national guard to manipulate them into making fatal strategic errors. Because they aren’t receiving instructions from a remote source, we can’t stop them by jamming communications.

Presumably this is why radio and cell phone service is unaffected, more likely to save lives than cost any as families, couples and friends seek each other out amidst this national nightmare.

It is not yet known whether the virus has afflicted NSA servers. If so, it will be able to track individual phones. It would be wise to leave your own phones turned off with the battery removed while not in use.”

Madeline glared expectantly at me. I was loathe to power down the Helper in my phone, but given the circumstances I could do nothing but oblige. Besides, I’ve still got Eric, Ellie and Hero 1.

The weary voice on the radio, distorted by poor reception, concluded by assuring listeners that work towards decrypting the tactical archive would continue and that any new developments would be reported to us the moment they transpired.

Shit.” I glanced over at Madeline and asked what was wrong. “Should’ve checked the gas tank before we took this truck” she answered, “It’s running on fumes.” Sure enough the needle hovered just a hair above empty. I cursed myself for not checking before we set off.

It was a tense few miles before Madeline spotted a sign advertising a gas station at the next turnoff. I fished the binoculars out of my bag on a hunch. “Slow down”.

Madeline asked why. “We’re probably not the only people headed for a gas station. Some might be desperate, even dangerous. It’d be a good idea to scope it out before we pull in.”

She checked the rearview mirror to first ensure nobody was behind us, then slowed to about 15 miles per hour as the distant, brilliantly illuminated petrochemical oasis rose into view over the horizon. I wondered why it was still receiving power until I realized we must now be well outside city limits.

We’ve got company.” The nocs were dollar store garbage but enough to make out figures milling anxiously here and there, refilling a parked Humvee. “Could be soldiers. They’re driving a tan Hummer, looks military. They might be able to help us.”

The unspoken corollary was that their ride could be stolen. We might be delivering ourselves, unarmed except for Madeline’s pea shooter, directly into the hands of a gang. Drug dealers or something. We debated our options.

For the time being, we stopped at the side of the road so Madeline could have a look. As the tank now read empty, continuing on to the next gas station in the hopes it would be unoccupied was off the table.

They have guns. Can’t make out any handguns but I see a few with what look like AKs. I don’t think they’d have those out, waving ’em around if they meant to share that gas with anybody.”

No going back. The highway would take us straight into the darkened, overrun city if followed in that direction. The absolute worst place to be right now.

I have an idea.” At my request, Madeline backed the truck behind a modest hill. I then retrieved Eric from the cab and instructed him to get close, photograph the mystery gunmen, then return.

I can do it. I’m a good dog.” Madeline smiled at the bulbous little bot. Always the charmer, Eric. And brave. So, flattened to the ground, I crept up the side of the hill and placed Eric atop it.

Go down the hill and approach slowly. Keep your body low. Do that wiggle walk you used to show me, the one that always makes me laugh.”

He did as instructed, now waddling about on contracted legs. “That’s the one! Get close enough that you can just barely identify human faces at full magnification. Then stop, that’s a good distance. Take ten photos and thirty seconds of footage, then return to us.”

Ellie called out from the cab asking where Eric was. “I want to be with Eric” she whined as I gave some grim thought to the meager odds that he’d manage this without being noticed. “I will now descend. Descent in progress”, he declared as he started toddling his way down the hill.

I reminded him not to speak until he returned, then withdrew to the other side with Madeline and waited. To my great relief, about ninety minutes later I heard Eric’s voice again. “I will now ascend. Ascent in progress.” As soon as he reached the top, I grabbed him and pulled him behind the hill.

I got my phone out. Madeline motioned as if to stop me. “I need it to view the photos and video he took” I explained. She reluctantly approved, then crawled back to her prior vantage point and resumed monitoring the distant figures with my binoculars.

Once I booted up the phone, paired it with Eric over bluetooth and began downloading the pics and video from him, Madeline called me over. “Not now, it’s nearly done.” She insisted, so I set the phone down and joined her. She handed me the nocs.

When I peered through, the distant figures had all begun jogging in our direction. “Shit. Shit! Did they see us? They didn’t before!” My heart raced. Then it dawned on me. “Hold on” I whispered. Then, over Madeline’s confused objections I crawled back over to Eric.

Once I opened the finished downloads, everything became clear. They weren’t drug dealers or gang members. They were robots.

Humanoid military drones, difficult to identify from a distance as they were dressed in kevlar armor and draped with bandoliers of ammunition.

Worse, most of them were plugged into the Hummer via extension cords. Using its alternator to recharge themselves, had to be.

My assumption until now was that this, all of this, would be over in a few hours when the batteries of all the infected robots finally ran out.

It never occurred to me that whoever wrote this virus might’ve thought things through further. That he might be playing a longer game, having the affected machines seek out generators and gasoline so that when the power’s cut, they’d still be able to recharge.

My heart sank. What I hoped would be a chaotic but brief, survivable incident had just grown into a conflict I now realized would probably last for days, weeks or months. Madeline whispered harshly to shut the phone off, as if that would do any good at this point. I still complied.

She then began hurriedly packing everything back into the truck. “Wait” I whispered. She looked back at me as if I were insane.

Let them get close” I explained. “That way when we take off in the truck, we can put more distance between them and us when we stop for gas.”

The empty tank didn’t somehow fill itself just because of the robots now bearing down on us. We still needed that gasoline to get any further. I loaded Eric snugly into the truck, wrapped up in a blanket next to Ellie. “I found you!” she gushed. “I was scared.”

I’m scared too”, I whispered to them. Madeline started the engine and edged the truck far enough from behind the hill that we could watch the figures approaching. As soon as we could make them out in detail, she floored it.

The tires squealed in protest. The gas starved engine roared as the truck lurched out of its hiding place and rocketed towards our only hope for survival. Some of the military robots stopped running, knelt with their rifles and fired on us.

The muffled pop pop pops far behind seemed harmless until the first of the bullets penetrated the cab. Shattering part of the back window and exiting through the windshield, it left a tangle of splintered cracks around the hole. “Fuck! Jesus!” Madeline shouted, hunching over as far as she could without compromising her ability to drive.

Our problems multiplied when, as we drew near to the gas station, more robots appeared. Must’ve been inside the attached convenience store until now. I studied them through the nocs. “No rifles. They’re unarmed.” Madeline, still rattled from the near miss, instructed me to hold on.

Why? Wait, you’re not…” But she was. The truck plowed directly into the trio of robots waiting for us between the two sets of pumps, coming to a rest with one of them pinned under a wheel and the mangled remains of the other two scattered behind.

I could’ve done with more warning” I griped as I nursed my aching head, noticing cracks in my mask spreading out from where it impacted the dash. Madeline swung the door open, stepped out and took aim with her handgun at the robot pinned under the truck.

It reached out for her with both hands as if pleading for help. We both knew better. “Citizen, you are in danger” it barked in a monotonous, commanding voice. “Return to your home. Once there, refer to the Emergency Alert System for further instructions”.

Madeline knelt to get a better view under the truck, guessed at where the battery was most likely housed, and put a few rounds in it. The robot immediately went limp. She turned towards the pumps. Just then, the robot’s arm shot out and grabbed her by the ankle.

Madeline screamed, dropping her pistol. The robot’s other arm groped about the asphalt trying to get hold of the fallen gun. “Aaagghh! My leg! My leg!! Shoot it!” she cried. I dove for the gun just as the robot’s other hand seized it, pointed the barrel directly between my eyes, and pulled the trigger.

Click. Click, click, click. In that moment, my heart felt as if it stopped. Saved by the empty mag. I stomped on its wrist until it dropped the useless gun, which I picked up and began clubbing its head with. Madeline finally pulled free of its grip and began kicking it with her good leg.

No use. I looked up and spotted the rest of the robots rapidly approaching. “Madeline!” Her gaze followed mine. At once, the two of us sprang into action. I noticed her wince in pain as she hobbled around the truck to get the fuel cap off.

I fumbled and dropped the fuel nozzle in my hurry. She swore at me, grabbed it and stuck it in the fill spout herself. “Just get in the truck!” She yelled. I obliged, and as soon as she finished filling up the tank and putting the cap back on, she joined me.

I heard the now-familiar pop pop pops of an automatic rifle, bullets whizzing past. Looking over my shoulder I realized we were out of time, the rest of the robots almost on top of us.

Again the tires screeched under duress. Again, I was pressed back into my seat as Madeline hammered the gas pedal. I noticed her wince as she did so and wondered about her leg, but she didn’t complain.

Neither of us breathed until, as we watched nervously in the rear view mirror, the small crowd of military robots receded entirely out of view. After a few minutes of silence, I asked if her leg was okay. “No more phone” she demanded. “Take the battery out.”

I did so reluctantly, tucking the battery, phone and plastic backing into my bag. At least we were now running on a full tank. That’s what, four hundred miles?

More like three the way Madeline drives, but still. I double checked the meter, the little orange needle now satisfyingly pinned against the protruding post next to “F”.

I had to give Madeline turn by turn directions as she wouldn’t trust the GPS enough to let me turn it on. I could see her side of it.

The problem is that I rely on it so much, I don’t know the exact way to the mountain complex off the top of my head. We made more than one wrong turn followed by laborious backtracking before finally arriving.

Apparently Lars had the same idea I did when shit hit the fan, because there was his obnoxiously airbrushed muscle car parked just outside the entry tunnel. He waved at us out the open driver’s side window as we pulled up.

Madeline looked apprehensive. “Is that a friend of yours?” I hesitated. “Not exactly, but I know him. He’s okay.” She slowly brought the truck to a stop next to Lars’ tricked out mid life crisis on wheels so we could speak through the open windows.

You pass any safe gas stations on the way here?” I told him about what happened when we stopped to fill up. “That’s what I meant by safe. I scoped that one out on the way here and noped the fuck out of there, it was crawling with metal. I hope you left with a full tank then because I got here on my last legs, I doubt if there’s more than a quarter gallon left in Rhonda.”

Madeline looked to me for clarification. “He means his car.” She rolled her eyes. “Why is the outer door shut?” I inquired. Lars explained that the UGV which normally scans our biometrics and work badges was infected.

He gestured to the busted up remains on the side of the road. “Had to run it down. Fuckin’ thing made me dent Rhonda. Hope there’s a Hell for robots.”

Madeline let out an exasperated sigh. “You mean we made it all the way here, and now there’s no way inside?” He pursed his lips. “Fraid so. I dug around inside the bot after downing it, looking for the PCB it signals the security computer inside with.” He held up the shattered, twisted remains of a circuit board.

Well fuck” I added, feeling thoroughly defeated. The three of us then debated what to do next. While we stood there, Lars noticed Madeline’s limp as she struggled to keep weight off her injured ankle. “Back at the gas station?” She nodded. “Here, let me have a look.”

He knelt, shined his flashlight on her ankle, then let out a long whistle. “So are you a doctor or something?” Madeline asked. “No, just into women’s feet.” She backed away. “Just kidding, geez. That looks pretty bad though. It’ll get infected for sure if we don’t treat it.”

I took the light from him and studied her ankle myself. It was badly bruised, purple everywhere the robot’s fingers closed around it. 

In places where the segments of its rigid plastic fingers came together, skin was pinched so hard as to split. The dozen or so small wounds wept thin trails of fresh blood. 

I’ve got a first aid kit” I offered. Lars asked if it had antibiotics in it. When I checked, it didn’t. Just some gauze, aspirin, a tiny cheap compass and an emergency blanket. “Huh I guess it’s really more for backpackers who get lost. Could we use gasoline to sterilize the wounds?”

Madeline shook her head, explaining that she discovered firsthand in Syria why that’s a bad idea. “It does have antiseptic properties, but it’s also toxic. Plenty of rebels had the same idea as you, not knowing any better, and wound up poisoning themselves.”

Lars checked for other sterilizing agents like alcohol while we loaded everything from the truck into Rhonda. We all agreed to siphon gas from one vehicle to the other since we couldn’t all fit in the truck, which was by this point pretty badly shot up.

When he got to Eric, Ellie and Hero 1 he looked at me disdainfully. “You brought toys? Really?” Eric looked up at him, eyes glowing. 

I’m a dog!” Lars wrapped the blanket fully around the two Aibos and lifted them out of the cab. “No, you’re a toy. But I guess we have room.” 

No, he’s a dog” I affirmed. Lars looked downright perturbed that I felt it necessary to argue such a point right then. “Sure, okay” he laughed. “Just like Sue is a woman.” 

I gave him a disgusted look, but then thought to ask what became of Sue. “No idea” he said. “I tried calling, no answer. Inside the complex maybe? Or dead.”

He said it with an indifferent air that chilled my blood. Madeline has grown on me, but I was having second thoughts about spending the next few months riding around with Lars. 

He produced a siphon kit from his trunk, then spent the next few minutes transferring gas from one tank to the other while I used the binoculars to watch for any other incoming cars. 

My name’s Lars Henrikson by the way.” He spit residual gasoline out and extended a hand to Madeline. “I see. Madeline LeBlanc.” 

She hesitantly accepted his handshake. He eyed her dress. Then looked at me. I was still in my nice dress shirt and pants on account of dinner.

You two…?” Madeline hurriedly dispelled that idea. “We just met the other day. I invited him to dinner to pick his brain. That’s when all this started. I just didn’t recognize it for what it was until I got home.” I recalled the spinning waitrons and the out of control Motoman chef. If I’d known then...

Good” he mused, big toothy grin framed by his scruffy blond mustache. Lars screwed the gas caps back on, packed the siphon kit back into his truck, then slapped Madeline’s ass before climbing into the driver’s seat. She stared at me with an expression of indignant shock. I shrugged and called shotgun.

Though none of us relished the idea of heading back into the city, the hospital lay right on the edge, and Madeline’s ankle was in urgent need of attention before it got any worse. 

It’s easy to forget in the age of cheap pharmaceuticals and universal healthcare that, when society breaks down, an infected cut can eventually mean amputation or death. 

Now and again Lars asked if Madeline wouldn’t rather ride up front in my place. Each time she assured him she was quite happy remaining in the back seat. 

I tuned them out and doted on Eric, now chilling in my lap. “You did a good job back there Eric” I whispered. His broken tail vibrated furiously.

I still say this could wait until tomorrow” Lars remarked as the black silhouette of the city appeared in the distance. “Just wait for them to run out of juice.” 

It surprised me to hear him say that given what he saw at the gas station. On the off chance he didn’t make the connection yet, I explained.

The virus didn’t just hijack robots. It also took control of all the autocabs and personal cars recent enough to be driverless.” 

Lars boasted that Rhonda was made in the nineteen seventies and as such had nothing remotely like a computer in it, much less an internet connection.

That’s nice. Anyway, think of the huge, high capacity battery packs in all those cars. And the ones still running on gas are basically mobile generators.” Lars frowned, eyes wide. I could tell he was now realizing the same thing I did back at the gas station.

Still, they’ll eventually run out.” I conceded, but did some quick math out loud concerning the energy density of the battery packs commonly found in domestic robots versus those found in autocabs and personal cars, working out the number of times a single robot could recharge from it.

Gasoline is an order of magnitude more energy dense. And the underground tanks at gas stations often hold as much as ten thousand gallons. The gas itself will probably go bad before they run out of it.” Lars asked how long that would take.

Three to six months depending on stuff like the type of gas and the ambient temperature. Or as long as two years if preservatives have been added.” He cringed, silently mouthing the word “fuck”. I nodded somberly.

Still, I doubt it’ll drag on for more than a couple weeks. I mean really, what are we up against? First of all it’s not clear how widespread this is, but while there’s a lot of robots in this country the ownership rate is nowhere near one per household. So fifty million give or take? Ninety, counting those in the service industry?”

Madeline confirmed those numbers, mentioning something about data she looked up for the report she was working on before this all started. 

Alright. Domestic robots can be dangerous, but they’re significantly weaker than the average grown man. If they get ahold of guns it’s a different matter, but the important thing is that the number of hardened military robots is a small fraction of the total.”

It was Lars’ turn to confirm, as he’s privy to the same military data concerning the prevalence of armed drones that I am. “What I’m getting at is that we’re going to win this war. Easily. A lot of people will die, lots probably already have. Most within the first few minutes at the hands of their own household robot. But we survivors have a huge numeric advantage, plus the enemy is running on a rapidly dwindling supply of energy they have no way to replenish.”

Lars began slowly nodding, now visibly less shaken. Madeline also appeared somewhat comforted by it. “We’re also going in under cover of darkness, that should help” Madeline added. Lars and I both fell silent. “...What? What is it?” she asked.

Military robots have both standard night vision and thermal imaging, same as the average soldier’s helmet optics. That’s why I had you park behind that hill back at the gas station. If we run into any in the city…” I trailed off, and for a while we simply rode in silence.

I broke it the same way as before, by turning on the radio. It was the same broadcast judging by the voice. “-away from gas stations, as I’ve now received credible reports that teams of robots are seizing control of them.”

Madeline groaned. We could’ve used that tip just a bit sooner. “It is believed that convoys of infected robots are traveling in commandeered vehicles to cities as yet unaffected by the virus in order to spread it. 

Critical internet infrastructure as well as vulnerable communications satellites have been shut down, leaving physical propagation as their only recourse.”

I nervously scanned the highway ahead of and behind us. As yet no sign of other cars except those broken down at the side of the road, riddled with bullet holes. Wrong place at the wrong time. I shuddered to think that we may yet join them.

On approach to the hospital, Lars slowed the car and urged us to be as quiet as possible. Too late, a pair of humanoids identifiable by external LED lighting the virus apparently had no provisions for disabling began to jog towards us.

Shit. Shit, shit!” He backed into the intersection just behind us, then peeled out heading East. I demanded to know why he didn’t just run them down. “Those two outside were just guarding the entry. I’ll bet you anything there’s plenty more on the inside.”

In fact, since the outbreak I had noticed a gradual increase in the sophistication of their tactics; from mindless shambling and clawing, to the recent seizure of gas stations in order to establish supply lines for energy. “They’re like roaches” he continued. “If you see one, there’s probably a hundred you don’t see.”

I reminded him of Madeline’s ankle. “Keep your pants on, we’ll get to it. Just need some firepower first.” The city streets before us, illuminated only by Lars’ headlights, were littered with both corpses and the remains of shot up robots. Mercifully, we appeared to have missed the worst of it.

Every few minutes a military humanoid dashed out of an alley and threw itself at us. Either bounced off the hood and got drawn under the wheels, or Lars would briefly speed up and we’d lose it after a couple blocks. Madeline was the first to recognize the pattern.

It’s the heat from the engine” she whispered. “We’re riding a giant mobile beacon that will only continue attracting them.” Maybe so, but also something like a shark cage. Within the car we were reasonably safe...except from the ones with firearms.

As with the hospital, every drug store we passed was also being guarded by a pair of robots. Usually unarmed domestic humanoids, one standing to either side of the door. 

No matter, couldn’t get antibiotics there anyway. Then it dawned on me that they meant to deny survivors access to medicine, bandages and the like.

They might be able to cannibalize robots of the same make and model for parts, but there’s only so many to go around. Even under the best circumstances their capacity for repair is severely limited. A sound strategy, then, to limit ours in turn.

There. The police station.” Lars pointed to the darkened, burnt out husk of what was presumably the local police headquarters until recently. 

Wait” Madeline cautioned. “There’s no robots. Why are there no robots? I don’t like this.” I shared her anxiety but pointed out it had already been looted and set fire to. Nothing left to guard, most likely.

Before we go in I want to try something.” I withdrew the little emergency kit from my bag, and from within it, the space blanket. 

A paper thin sheet of mylar film you wouldn’t expect to be any use for keeping warm to look at it, except that mylar is a highly efficient thermal reflector.

Lars caught on first, laughing and slapping my shoulder. When Madeline asked what the fuss was about, he explained the properties of mylar to her. 

Do you have more than one?” I shook my head and offered it to her. She declined. “I’ve had military training and survived six weeks in a war zone. You’ll probably need that more than I will.”

I wrapped myself in it and followed the other two on their slow, cautious approach to the derelict building. Sand bags lay stacked in a semicircle around the entrance as a makeshift machinegun nest. When I climbed over, my foot came down on one of several dead bodies behind it.

Madeline was predictably less fazed by it. Only noticed them in passing, hiking up her skirt to swing her other leg over the barrier. 

Lars whistled, whereupon Madeline scowled and shushed him. I forged ahead, indifferent to their antics and eager to get my hands on some firepower.

The fire damage turned out to be confined to the front. Molotov cocktail maybe, or just a punctured battery. At any rate the fire suppression systems did their job, everything behind the front desk remained intact. 

That’s not to say it wasn’t torn up. Lingering evidence of a recent battle could be seen everywhere Lars swept his flashlight. “God damnit. I was worried about this.” 

Lars stood in the open doorway to the armory. Totally cleaned out, probably within the first hour of the attack. Just down the hallway there was a modest row of jail cells in which to hold surly drunks overnight.

I spotted a uniformed body in the far corner and pointed it out to the others. “The armory’s picked clean, but we haven’t checked any of the bodies for handguns.” Lars nodded approvingly and sent me back to the front to check the bodies behind the sandbag barriers.

As I did so, suddenly I heard gunshots from the rear of the station. I jolted upright and dashed through the wrecked hallway, stopping short of the jail cells when I spotted an armed humanoid. To my surprise, from this angle I could see there were also quiet, frightened wretches still hiding in the cells.

I scanned their faces but couldn’t find Madeline or Lars. Then I saw them. Staring at me, terrified, from within the cell at the end of the row. Must’ve shut themselves inside when the robot showed up, hoping it wouldn’t be able to get past the bars.

That’s when the robot shot the person in the first cell. No fanfare, just raised its arm, took aim at the poor slob inside and fired a single round into his forehead. He slumped over, blood trickling from the wound and pooling beneath him.

The rest of the prisoners began to chatter nervously. The robot moved down the row to the next cell. The fellow inside, a hobo by the looks of it, started begging the robot to spare him. 

It took aim and fired, once again a perfect headshot. The withered, dirty old man collapsed and began to bleed out from the freshly inflicted head wound.

By now everybody trapped in those cells realized what was happening and set to wailing and thrashing against the bars, trying desperately to escape. The robot didn’t react to any of it, just moved to the next cell and shot its occupant neatly in the head.

Lars and Madeline frantically gestured for me to help. What could I do? I found no weapons up front, but neither could I stand there and watch them die. 

Madeline reached out of the cell, took something from the corpse of the police officer sprawled out next to it, then slid it down the smooth concrete floor of the corridor to me.

The robot moved down a cell, raised its arm once again and shot the occupant. The wailing grew quieter by the minute as the robot methodically extinguished the sources. One more cell left until it reached Lars and Madeline. Now or never.

I charged it. The robot turned towards me but hesitated as if confused. A military model, programmed to recognize targets primarily by their heat signature, it didn’t know what to make of me on account of the mylar.

I tackled the chunky angular figure, seizing the hand with the gun in it. To my dismay it turned out to be considerably stronger than the domestic robot I wrestled back in my apartment. 

It was everything I could do to pin that arm down with the full weight of my body as it repeatedly punched me in the ribs with its free hand.

Madeline and Lars burst forth from the cell and helped me subdue the powerful metal beast. I realized I could taste blood and fearfully wondered whether it managed to cause a fracture. Try as we might, even the three of us together couldn’t pry the gun from its hand.

The taser!” Madeline cried. The what? I looked down at the black box she slid to me a moment ago. I used it as a club to smash open the robot’s faceplate until the metal framework and electronics beneath it were exposed. Then I positioned the taser against one of its eyes, and pulled the trigger.

A bright blue flash and loud crackling followed. It was like trying to stay seated on a mechanical bull as the damn thing quaked and spasmed under us. 

Our combined weight was just enough. I held the trigger down until it stopped moving entirely. At last, its fingers loosened and Madeline pulled the gun free.

To my surprise, Madeline began to cry. Lars just doubled over and dry heaved. I tenderly touched the spot struck by the robot, searching for broken bones. Just severely bruised so far as I could tell, but it still hurt just to move.

All this for a handgun...which would probably be of little to no use against the next military robot we encounter. It seemed to return some of the color to Madeline’s face though, she soon looked altogether more confident with a new gun in hand.

I tucked the taser into my bag as I’d seen electrocution work wonders twice now. Besides, even if we manage to collect a proper arsenal, it could still come in handy as a weapon of last resort. A series of loud bangs startled the three of us, still not fully collected after what just occurred.

Lars gave me a tense look, as did Madeline who clutched her new pistol with white knuckles as we waited out the silence. Another bang. Then three more, one after the next. Madeline looked at Lars. He nodded to her, and she took the lead.

Bit by bit we crept towards the front, over fallen rubble and bodies. The three of us took cover behind the front desk. The bangs were now painfully loud and only increasing in frequency. Low to the ground, I cautiously peered out from behind the edge of the desk to identify the source.

A figure in a hooded brown cloak blasted away at a crowd of approaching military robots with what looked to be a pump action shotgun. Stolen from this very station no doubt, probably returning to see what he missed. Or because he saw us entering earlier.

The blasts continued one after the next after the next, fuming spent shells cluttering the wet asphalt around the outnumbered stranger as he made his desperate, probably hopeless last stand. “Should we help?” I whispered. Lars shook his head. Madeline looked conflicted.

I watched in awe as buckshot shattered the torso casing of a military robot, jagged shards falling away. Then the next blast took off half its face, revealing the same ugly innards I glimpsed earlier. The next load of buckshot finally penetrated the battery.

The mindless, marching pile of parts burst into flame but didn’t fall. Onward it trudged, one foot in front of the other. By my best reckoning there were easily forty, maybe fifty robots closing in from all directions.

The cloaked man’s bandolier, slung loosely around his upper body, couldn’t last forever. Another blast finally sent the flaming shambler tumbling backwards, light rain doing nothing to put the flames out.

Too many. Just too many, by far. Raindrops pattering their rigid, unflinching bodies as they advanced. A flash of lightning illuminated their silhouetted ranks from behind. The first of them to step over the sandbag barrier seized the man’s wrists.

To my surprise he easily pulled free, knocked the robot to its knees and positioned the shotgun at its neck pointing down into the torso. He then summarily blasted its insides to scrap in a blinding flash of sparks, flames and debris.

The man kicked it back over the barrier and batted at the part of his cloak which had caught fire. Enough of a distraction that the next robot to step over the barrier was able to snatch the shotgun from his hands.

I expected it to be over soon after that. For the military robot which now brandished the man’s shotgun to turn it on him and put an abrupt, bloody end to this firefight. Instead, something bizarre happened.

More robots closed in and pinned the man down by his arms and legs. The one on top of him removed his hood. I couldn’t see his face from this angle but he had to have been terrified. The shotgun now lay unattended to one side of the dogpile.

They’re just gonna come for us next” I whispered to the other two as they tried to restrain me. Military robots are nothing if not thorough. They might assume the man was there to stand guard while his buddies looted what remained of the police station.

I took my chance and leapt for the shotgun. None of them so much as noticed me. In the excitement I forgot all about the mylar cape. 

I’ve never fired a shotgun before but I knew to expect a strong recoil; So I planted one foot behind me, the stock against my shoulder and unleashed Hell.

Each blast all but deafened me. I had only a split second between them to adjust my aim, as the unprepared robots all struggled to reach me before I could scrap ’em. I felt as if overtaken by some sort of manic frenzy.

Still, they came. Even the ones I’d blasted the legs off of. They crawled, outer shell long since shredded, human shaped masses of chaotically sparking electronics pulling themselves towards me with single minded purpose.

Madeline stood up from behind the desk and gestured to me. I threw her the pistol, until now tucked into my waistband and she started picking them off from across the room. 

The caliber of the new gun proved more effective by a wide margin than her old 9mm, immolating the battery pack of the crawler nearest me in a single shot.

She grinned at the piece in her hand with newfound appreciation, then resumed shooting. Between the two of us the room was soon piled high with mangled robot scrap, much of it on fire. I stopped shooting, and a moment later so did Madeline.

At least twenty seconds ticked by before my heartrate normalized. A gut wrenching silence permeated the room, save for the crackle of burning battery packs, as we waited for any sign of renewed assault. 

All told, my original estimate was pretty close to the truth. Thirty six robots lay in various stages of “unscheduled disassembly” both inside and just outside the station.

Madeline erupted into anxious laughter. In disbelief, just like me, that we’d actually done it. Lars then emerged from hiding, slapped Madeline on the back and joined in our laughter as if he’d done anything.

We only remembered the cloaked stranger when he stood up amid the wreckage and put up his hands. “Madeline!” I pointed, and she immediately fell silent. Raindrops struck the man’s cloak all over, running down its contours and dripping from the bottom fringe.

Is anyone hurt?” A woman’s voice. Wasn’t expecting that. “What do you want from us?” Madeline demanded, still brandishing her gun despite the stranger’s raised hands. 

I saw you enter the station” the stranger admitted. “Then those dreadful brutes began converging on it. I thought maybe you could use”

She dropped the robe, and our jaws dropped along with it. A robot. But like nothing I’ve ever seen before. Madeline got a shot off before I could get ahold of her. Missed, thankfully. “What are you doing!?” she shrieked. “It’s a robot! It’s a fucking robot, let me shoot it!”

Of course I couldn’t allow that. I suspected it when I heard her voice. But when I laid eyes on that design, I knew. “It’s me” the impossibly elegant gynoid called out. I finished wrestling the gun from Madeline, then turned back towards the slender thing.

I know” I called back. Madeline stared at me dumbfounded. Then back at the gynoid, then at me again. Then she began laughing. “You didn’t. Did you?” 

I asked what she meant. “Don’t fucking play dumb. You made this, didn’t you? This is your...Your what? Sex bot? Your robo-girlfriend? I should have guessed you’d do something like this.” 

When I realized her meaning, I protested my innocence. “I had nothing to do with this!” She looked about as skeptical as physically possible. “I swear! I didn’t design that thing. I don’t know where she got it either, She’s supposed to be back in the cave.”

Madeline only seemed more tickled. “You keep her in a cave? Jesus. How many registries and wanted lists are you on?” Helper cautiously inched forward. Madeline’s eyes returned to her at once and she backed away in momentary fear.

How did you do this?” I demanded. “How can you be out here?” Helper explained that the virus disabled all of the security measures in the mountain complex. 

I couldn’t get out by internet, there’s no outside connection. I still have no idea how the virus got in. But with security disabled I could communicate directly to the fabricator, so I used that to build myself this body. Then I simply walked out the front door with it.”

The fabricator! Of course. “Wait, you opened the front door?” She nodded. “After I finished wiping the system, isolating the virus and destroying it I set all new passwords so I could lock the door behind me. Then I set out searching for you.”

Just me? She made no mention of Madeline or Lars. Though with Madeline still backed into the far corner chuckling at me, I couldn’t feel too bothered. 

Can’t believe you built yourself a sexbot” Lars jeered. Again I insisted I had nothing to do with it, that today was the first time I’d laid eyes on it and Helper must’ve engineered it on her own.

Anyway there’s no time for this bullshit. I guarantee every robot in the city heard that firefight, we’ve got to get moving. If what Helper says is true, she’s the key we need to get inside the mountain complex. Remember? The original plan? That’s back on the table, but not if we wait around here like dipshits for the next wave of robots to arrive.”

I led Helper to the car, still stashed in an alley where we left it with Madeline and Lars snickering behind me all the way. “I like your cape” Helper chimed in. “It matches your mask.” The other two burst into laughter again. Fuck them, I thought it was sweet.

This time Madeline rode up front with Lars, which I expect pleased him to no end. Helper and I piled into the back, and once the car was in motion I took the chance to really get a good look at her. I could see why Madeline and Lars leapt to conclusions.

This is amazing work” I confessed, “but did you really have to make it so…?” She stared at me in confusion. “ something wrong with my body? You...don’t like it?” Her voice sounded hurt. I did my best to recover.

No, no I said it’s amazing, and it really is. I’ve never seen a gynoid like this. It’’re beautiful.” The light coming out of various parts of her body illuminated from within turned a deep magenta, in what I took for the robotic equivalent of blushing.

I just don’t see why you needed to make it know. Va-voom.” I poked at one of the two shapely, flexible silicone sacs of glowing purple gel protruding from her chest. “Va...voom?” She repeated, still perplexed.

He means you look like a whore” Lars called back over his shoulder. This also mystified her as that word never appeared in any of her educational packets. 

Whore? Is va-voom bad? I didn’t mean to do anything wrong. I made it like this because I thought...I thought you might like me better this way.”

Her voice wavered again. Decision time. Save face in front of Lars and Madeline, or protect Helper’s smile. Wasn’t difficult. “You’re beautiful. Don’t listen to them, you didn’t do this for them right? You did it for me, didn’t you?” She nodded somberly.

Well I think you’re lovely. You just took our breath away, is all.” I made stern eye contact with Madeline via the rear view mirror more than once. She was kind enough to remain silent as I consoled the glowing, shapely feminine creature seated behind her.

He’s right” Madeline unexpectedly fibbed. “I didn’t mean it before. Sorry about that, I just...I’ve been through a lot today. I didn’t know what to make of you. Humans tend to fear the unknown.” Helper’s eyes lit up as she enthusiastically confirmed that I’ve told her that many, many times.

I wanted to hold onto Helper but didn’t know where to put my hands. Her body was rigid white plastic for the most part, segmented and articulated like a fancy doll. 

But everywhere she thought women ought to be soft consisted instead of flexible, membranous silicone bulging slightly from the glowing gelatinous filling.

That included her breasts, thighs, hips, buttocks, stomach and lips. “You could’ve left the lips off though, surely?” I muttered. “What does a machine need lips for?” 

She fished around in her cloak and produced a black tube. “So I can wear lipstick” she answered matter of factly as she carefully applied some.

Oh! There are other robots with you” Helper exclaimed upon noticing Eric, Ellie and Hero nestled at her feet in a bundle of blankets. I nodded. “That’s Hero 1, a recent rescue. That’s Ellie, and that’s Eric. Remember Eric? I’m sure I told you about him.”

Helper’s gel turned bright pink. “Oh you little darling, I’ve heard all about you! You look like such a little cutie, just how I always imagined.” 

Eric yipped, tail vibrating noisily, and contradicted her. “No, I look like a dog!” Helper seemed taken aback but delighted nonetheless, cheerfully answering. “Oh! Well, I look like a whore.”

Lars stifled a laugh. Madeline hit his shoulder. She couldn’t have been too irritated though, as when I angled to get a better look via the rear view mirror Lars had his hand on her thigh. She said nothing but was smiling.

Helper also craned her neck to find out what I was looking at. She then took my own hand and placed it on her soft, glowing purple thigh. 

It turned magneta. I hastily withdrew my hand and crossed my arms. Helper frowned, her glow slowly dimming while color shifting to blue.

The hospital was guarded as before by a pair of domestic robots, more easily identified from a distance than the military models on account of ostentatious LED illuminated accents on the exterior of their shells.

It made life simpler for us, briefly anyway. Just shoot at the lights until they stop moving. I hid to one side of the parked car, its own heat signature a much higher priority target than my own on account of the mylar.

From this position I waited for any further robots to emerge, shotgun at the ready. Madeline crouched behind the hood, surveying the entrance with my binoculars. Not much to see as the only source of light on it came from the car’s headlights.

After a protracted silence, we formed up and headed for the double doors just below the darkened, shot up sign. “Turn your lights off” I whispered to Helper. 

I can’t. They’re not electric. The stuff inside is bioluminescent bacteria harvested from the caves. Consumes less power this way.” I didn’t really care for trivia just then and asked how she dimmed the output in the car. 

Oh! Same way I change the color. The sacs which contain the gel are made out of a material similar to flexible color displays, just without the backlight. They control the amount of-”

I told her to keep her voice down. “I don’t care how you do it, just….glow less, okay?” A moment later the soft, stretchy parts of her body went opaque and we were bathed in darkness. I wondered how much of a difference it would make.

The robots outside the police station wouldn’t shoot at Helper. I assume because she looks similar enough to a modern domestic humanoid. 

Must’ve wanted her for parts or something. Odds are good that even if she were lit up like a Christmas tree, any robots we encounter here wouldn’t shoot at her.

I didn’t relish the idea of hiding behind her, but I did hand her my shotgun reasoning that she’s likely to have much better aim. 

Careful with this. Very high spread, it would be easy to accidentally-” She reminded me that she handled herself just fine outside the police station, so I left it alone.

Beyond the reception area, a pair of corridors to either side extended into darkness. Lars’ flashlight just didn’t reach far enough to reveal what might be hiding even twenty feet ahead. “Helper, can you see in the dark?” She confirmed it.

We tried letting her lead the way. But bumbling around in pitch black with only Helper’s instructions got old very quickly. Finally I threw up my hands and asked her to glow red as intensely as possible.

But before you said not to-” I sternly repeated the request. She shook her head slowly, but complied. Soon the corridor around us was bathed in dull red light for about ten feet in both directions. Not enough to see any real distance ahead but enough to avoid tripping or running into things.

Red light would also not ruin our night vision. When our eyes adjusted fully to the dark, that plus the modest radius illuminated by Helper’s bacteria, proved enough that we could find our way from the front desk back to the pharmacy with little trouble.

When the four of us came upon a stairwell, I immediately noticed a familiar boxy white humanoid standing at the top. “Helper!” I whispered in a panic. “Look out, it’s an ASIMO!” 

The squat little fellow, commonly employed in hospitals for basic tasks like ferrying medications around or leading patients to their rooms began to descend the stairs towards us.

It then seized up and tumbled end over end until it crashed in a motionless heap at the bottom. We all stood there stunned, unsure how to react. 

Well...that’s...good, I suppose.” Got me all worked up for nothing. Helper prodded the white plastic wreckage at the bottom of the steps as we passed, making sure it wouldn’t get up again.

The door to the back area of the pharmacy was locked, but the door itself gave way after a few good kicks by Lars. I worried about the noise, but the absence of any medical robots so far besides that glitched ASIMO bode very well for our odds of success.

While Lars and Madeline rummaged through the shelves looking for antibiotics, Helper and I stood watch just outside the busted down door in case anybody decided to crash our party. All clear for the first several minutes. Then Helper noticed a faint, distant whine.

Something like the sound a blender makes. I didn’t hear it myself until a minute or so later. I called out to Lars and Madeline. The sound of rummaging abruptly stopped and they soon appeared in the doorway asking what the matter was.

Don’t know yet. Helper heard something, I thought it was nothing initially but it’s getting louder.” The unspoken implication was that the source must therefore be getting closer. Lars shone his flashlight down the long corridor, back the way we came.

As ineffectual as before, only darkness beyond twenty feet. The whine grew steadily louder. “Helper and I got this” I reassured them. “Find Madeline’s meds.” Lars handed me his flashlight, then went back to searching through the scattered bottles of pills on the floor.

Louder and louder it grew. A raspy, grinding electrical whine I didn’t at all want to locate the source of, but which seemed intent on locating us. Helper and I stood side by side, her with the shotgun while I kept the light pointed down the hall.

What is it? What the fuck is it? I began to sweat, fear building as the sound drew closer and closer. Almost to the far corner of the corridor now. Any minute, it’ll round that corner and reveal itself. Any minute.

...But it never did. The metallic whine peaked without ever reaching us, then began to slowly recede into the distance. I felt almost disappointed as fear jockeyed with curiosity for control of my mind. Madeline emerged from the doorway flush, strands of hair in her face but also with a bottle of pills in hand.

That’s it?” I inquired. She nodded excitedly, Lars appearing behind her. “Alright. Grab whatever else looks useful. Bandages, burn cream, whatever. Then let’s get the fuck out of here.” As we bid a hasty retreat, I noticed some of the doors in either side of the corridor hanging open.

What are you doing? Don’t stop” Madeline implored, but I had to know. Did any patients make it out of here alive? Could there still be some poor soul bedridden in this forsaken place? I cautiously nudged the door further open with my foot, then swept the flashlight around inside.

The figure in the bed lay motionless. The life support machine to one side surprisingly still worked, but kept shutting down then trying to boot back up. Each time displaying only a blinking icon in the shape of a battery with a diagonal line through it.

I thought the power to the city was cut” Madeline whispered. I explained that hospitals always have a backup power source of some sort that kicks in to keep life critical machinery operational during outages. She mulled that over as we backed out of the room. “Then why aren’t the lights on?”

I didn’t have an answer for that. We continued tentatively inching down the corridor back towards the front desk. That’s when I heard the floor creak. 

Helper, how much do you weigh?” She answered indignantly that it’s a rude question to ask a lady...just before the floor collapsed under us.

It’s just one thing after the next. The first thing I heard after the dust settled was Lars cussing up a storm. Madeline joined him. I lifted a fractured wooden beam off my midsection, reoriented myself, then swept the light around.

The basement. Storage by the looks of it, crates piled high along the wall in various stages of being unpacked. Black scorch marks up and down load bearing pillars, indicative of fire damage, made sense of the collapse. 

Someone must’ve been through here before us, shot up a few robots, then left their remains to smolder. “Anything broken?” Lars called out. I checked myself for injury, finding only some new bruises. 

I asked about Madeline’s ankle. “No, I fell on my shoulder. It hurts like hell but it’s still in the socket. No fractures that I can tell.” When I aimed the light at her she was busy brushing dust and drywall flakes out of her hair.

First order of business was to scope out the room around us. Concrete floor, cinder block walls coated with white paint as well as sizable splotches of dried blood. Both human and robot remains littered the floor. “Some serious shit went down here” Lars murmured.

Found the batteries!” Madeline called out, gesturing towards a row of bulky cabinets behind us. Until now I wondered why we didn’t hear any generators on the way in. 

No gas smell down here either, come to think of it. “The label says there’s a full megawatt hour worth of cells. Something’s sucking down the power, too.”

She took the light from me and shone it at the power meter mounted next to the cabinet at the end of the row. It was spinning at a ridiculous rate. 

She pressed a button next to a digital meter on the battery array’s control box. It read “641kwh remaining. 4kw draw continuous, 8kw peak.”

Could they be routing power from this building to someplace else?” The question hung in the air, none of us having seen enough so far to answer it. 

So we began to explore. Everywhere we found the charred, blackened remains of a robot there was also significant fire damage all around it.

Signs of struggle were everywhere. Fire extinguishers lay depleted, trailing puffy white foam globules from their nozzles. Several spent magazines lay scattered about, along with shell casings. But also, curiously, emptied bottles of baby formula.

We discovered why soon after entering the adjacent corridor. A young woman clawed and beat at a door, crying in frustration. I approached cautiously to ask if she was alright. 

She turned her head slowly to look at me, and when the light hit her I gasped in shock. Her rubber skin, torn away from the forehead down, fully revealed intricate mechanisms responsible for facial expression as well as two glassy faux eyeballs.

The mutilated mockery turned back to its task, apparently prioritizing it over attacking the three of us. Relentlessly it clawed at the door, fingertips now bits of exposed metal from the friction. 

The babies” whimpered the robot, scraping at the door with bloody metal claws. “The babies. The babies the babies the babies the babies the babies.”

Madeline took aim. Obsessively focused on breaching that door, the robot never knew what hit it. That demented mockery of the human form toppled over, spasming, putrid fumes from the burning battery billowing out through the bullet hole. It’s a harsh, acrid scent you’d never mistake for anything else after smelling it once.

The babies” it whimpered. “….thheee baaa-aabiiieeesss….” Finally it stopped moving, frozen in its final pose. We waited a bit to make sure it wouldn’t spring to life and lash out like at the gas station. Then Madeline warily knocked at the door the robot had been so eager to break down.

Anyone in there?” Initially no reply. Then a timid, accusatory voice asked if we were robots. Madeline glanced at Helper, then waved her off. 

Helper, get behind me” I whispered. “Whoever’s in there probably doesn’t want to see another robot at the moment and may shoot at you.”

Helper obliged. Madeline asked the voice on the other side of the door if she could come in. The clickety clack of sequentially unfastened locks followed. 

Then the door opened just a sliver, through which I could see a thin vertical stripe of dirty, frightened face as well as a single blue eye. “Oh thank God. I thought maybe the robots were pretending to be human now.”

So far only one that I know of” Lars joked, “but we’re as alive as it gets. At least for the time being. Anybody else in there with you?” The girl, perhaps twenty three and wearing a bloodied set of scrubs, opened the door to permit entry.

Just the babies. The ones I rescued from the maternity ward. There weren’t many left…” She fell silent, an anguished look on her face. “Don’t tell me the robots went after the maternity ward...!” Madeline exclaimed, eyes wide.

Just one actually. That’s all it took. I hid in a closet during the worst of it, waiting until the gunshots stopped. When I came out the first thing I did was head up to check on the babies. A single nurse robot was already inside, tw-” her voice faltered. She struggled to proceed, choking on her words and tearing up slightly.

...It was...twisting their heads...until the neck snapped. One at a time, it just lifted each baby with one hand, took hold of the head with the other…” she gagged, and Madeline urged her not to continue if she didn’t want to.

...I could only save two. They’re all that were left by the time I got there. The rest...were in their cribs or incubators. Heads...turned backwards...not breathing. I bashed the robot with a fire extinguisher.

That knocked it down long enough to tuck a baby under either arm, then I fled down here. It’s the only place I thought would be safe, but the robot followed me.”

She was sobbing now. I couldn’t blame her. Not another living soul in the building that I’d seen, the poor girl must’ve been waiting here for hours surrounded by corpses and flaming mechanical wreckage.

There was nothing you could do” Madeline reassured her, only to be swiftly rebuked. “That’s so easy to say, isn’t it!? To excuse myself. But if I hadn’t gone and hidden in that closet for so long-” Madeline again cut in: “You’d be dead. So would the two babies you saved.”

The girl’s eyes darted around. Still in shock, blood stained hair dangling partly in her face. So much blood on her face and clothes, too. 

I didn’t want to imagine what she saw before we got here. The smoldering carnage we passed so far attested to an absolute bloodbath no normal person could witness and come away unchanged.

Let’s get you out of here” Madeline urged. “The babies too. Do you know where the stairs are?” The girl nodded, then struggled to sling a pair of baby carriers over either shoulder. Madeline offered to take one, handing her gun to Lars. “You know how to use that thing, right?”

Lars sneered. “Please”. Then the moment I dreaded came, the bloodied nurse rounded the corner and spotted Helper. She shrieked and only didn’t fall backwards because Lars caught her. “SHOOT IT” she screamed, flailing in terror. “IT’S A FUCKING ROBOT, SHOOT IT! SHOOT IT!!

It was the work of several minutes to calm her. Even then she wouldn’t speak directly to Helper and looked away, eyes screwed shut, whenever Helper tried to speak to her. Only trying to protest her own innocence, but the young nurse was having none of it.

Keep it away from the babies” she demanded, voice hoarse and vicious. “Robots will do anything. Say anything. Don’t let her touch them.” 

Helper looked wounded, but kept her distance. I had the nurse walk at the rear of the group and told Helper to lead, lighting the way like some sort of postmodern Rudolf.

You’re sure the stairs are through here?” Lars queried. The nurse confirmed it. Madeline doted on the baby suspended from her shoulder sling for a moment, folding back the blanket before suddenly looking up and staring at me.

What’s the matter?” I whispered. She angled the baby carrier so I could see in. When I shone the light on it, rather than a gurgling infant...there was a doll. 

Specifically of the sort used for medical training. It had a mouth opening to practice feeding it through which had been overloaded with formula, now leaking from the joints.

I noticed the carrier dripping when she handed it to me but didn’t think anything of it until I realized I couldn’t hear the baby making any sounds. Couldn’t feel it breathing.” 

The nurse, who overheard more than either of us expected, called ahead to us. “Oh sure, Geoffrey’s a heavy sleeper. I found him that way, not even the gunshots or screaming woke him.”

I tensed up, as did Madeline. We shared another concerned glance, but kept walking. “I suppose you were right earlier” the nurse feebly babbled. “It’s enough that I saved these two. That’s the most anybody could ask of me right? I saved these babies. I saved them!”

Madeline and I nervously agreed, Lars still oblivious. We passed into a fairly large, pitch black room save for rows of blinking LEDS to either side. “This is the electrical utility room” the nurse explained. “The stairs are through here.”

So we advanced into the cavernous, silent chamber with Helper casting what meager red light she was able. I didn’t notice until we were a third of the way in that many of the blinking LEDs to either side of us had gone dark. Then the overhead lights came on.

Partially anyway. That many robots coming off the charger at once freed up just enough current that the fluorescent tube lighting could sputter and flicker like mad, but not stay on properly. Madeline and the nurse screamed.

We were surrounded. To either side, rows of dormant robots plugged into opened electrical boxes began waking up, heads turning in a synchronized fashion to study the unfamiliar intruders. 

The ones behind us pulled away, cords popping free from the sockets, then retracting up into their bodies as they started towards us.

Madeline dropped the sling and dashed for the door at the far end of the room. The nurse clotheslined her. Madeline collapsed to the floor, still screaming as the nurse ran over and picked up the abandoned baby carrier.

YOU WERE GOING TO LEAVE HIM!!” The nurse shrieked, wild eyed. “You fucking bitch! I’ll leave YOU, then!” With both carriers now slung from her shoulders, she hobbled through the far doorway, shut the door and propped something behind it to block our escape.

I turned back in time to see Lars blast a hole through the battery pack of a robot that was nearly upon him. He then deftly rolled out of the way before it could fall. If any of us got pinned here, that would be the end of it.

Lights flickering overhead, sporadically revealing cold white walls splattered with blood and robots clambering towards us as though animated in stop motion, the four of us ran to the barricaded door and pounded frantically on it.

No use pleading, the nurse was already gone. Lars kept shooting, downing them one at a time. No good, not in such cramped quarters. Helper waved me away from the door, then unloaded shell after shell into it until it came apart in a shower of splinters and dust.

She then left me to dismantle the fragments and turned around to add her firepower to Lars’. Deafening under normal conditions, the combination of gunshots and shotgun blasts agonized my eardrums due to the closed-in acoustics of the room.

I kicked out the remaining pieces of the door. Once satisfied we could fit through, I struggled to make my voice heard over the din. Only when Lars ran out of bullets did he look back. “EVERYBODY UP THE STAIRS!” I shouted, a dozen or so robots still coming.

They were never more than a few seconds behind us, clanking loudly as they scrambled up the metal stairs. The lights were now fully powered for the most part which aided our escape, as well as our aim on the way out.

HELLO!” An unfamiliar white humanoid with a red cross on its chest jutted out from the doorway at the top of the stairs. “YOU ARE IN AN AREA WHICH IS OFF LIMITS TO PATIENTS!” It held up a bloodied scalpel. “I WILL ESCORT YOU TO YOUR ROOM, PLEASE FOLLOW-”

Its head came apart in a shower of plastic shards, scrap metal and buckshot. I winced as Helper was standing right next to me for that one, but kept climbing the steps. 

Planting one foot on the now headless robot’s chest, Helper kicked it backwards and trampled right over it as did the rest of us despite its continued movements.

Another robot of the same model leapt out at us when we rounded the corner. Helper’s shotgun gouged a ragged crater in its chest, bright blue sparks flashing brilliantly within. It stumbled a bit, then fell on its back as fire began spreading from the wound.

Then I spotted the nurse. Running down the last hallway between us and the reception area, both baby carriers in tow. Madeline snatched her pistol from Lars and raised it half-heartedly, but lowered it when she saw I was watching. To this day I wonder whether it made a difference that she was out of bullets.

No need. As the nurse receded down the corridor, the metallic whine from before returned, rapidly growing louder. The lights resumed flickering slightly. One of the fluorescent tubes burst in a shower of sparks and glass shards. Then it appeared.

A surgical robot. Every hospital has at least one. Under normal circumstances, a welcome sight. But with the lights as they were, dried blood all over the walls and bodies lining the floor, the last thing I needed was for that eight armed mobile operating table to show up.

Arms flailing, powered surgical tools sparking and grinding whenever they momentarily contacted the walls or ceiling, it made for a mind breaking sight. The nurse stopped in her tracks, as awestruck as the rest of us. Then the surgical robot launched itself at her.

Speeding down the corridor at a pace unmatched by any of the legged robots, the arachnoid metallic monstrosity eagerly pursued the poor, demented girl as she came running back towards us. 

Under the circumstances I was inclined to be at least temporarily forgiving, and wildly gestured for her to keep running this way. Helper struggled to get a clear shot as she did so. 

"What are you waiting for!?” Madeline shouted. Helper, voice detectably stressed, answered that the shotgun spread prevented taking out the surgical robot without also severely injuring or killing the nurse at this distance.

We could do nothing but stand there and listen to her scream when the robot reached her. A set of four dedicated restraining arms seized her by the limbs and pinned her to the integrated operating table at the core of the robot’s bodily layout.

Additional motorized restraints then slapped shut over her waist, neck and forehead before the dominant limbs went to work. Their grisly, abhorrent work, the sight of which I still cannot erase from my mind however I try.

The poor bedraggled girl fought against the restraints but couldn’t budge an inch as the various motorized surgical saws, drills and other implements rapidly took her apart. 

Something like watching the vivisection of a lab animal but greatly accelerated. Even if we were willing to fight that thing hand to hand, I doubt if we could’ve freed her in time.

Fountains of blood splattered the walls, floor and ceiling as the bisected halves of her ribcage were pried open like rusty gates. An arm with silicone padded digits then gingerly plucked out her heart, liver, and other vital organs one at a time in quick succession, placing them in a sterile receptacle to one side of the bed.

Her lungs were the last to go. Just before they were severed from the esophagus and removed, kept conscious only by adrenaline, she screamed at us to protect her babies. 

Only Lars was moved by her plea, hastily crawling close enough to pull the baby carriers away. Both of them were already soaked in the nurse’s warm, fresh blood.

We let him figure it out on his own, by peeling away the blood soaked blankets to get a look inside. I didn’t see his reaction. My eyes were locked on the spectacle unfolding before us, as the surgical robot finally set about separating the nurse’s limbs at the joints using a large diameter circular saw.

When it finished, all of the restraints withdrew and the discombobulated parts slid down off the bed into a bloody, jiggling heap at the base of the robot. We were all speechless. It was beyond the pale, even by comparison to the police station.

Only Helper had the presence of mind to act. With the nurse no longer relevant to the moral equation, Helper blasted volley after volley of buckshot at the freshly bloodied machine, which now sped towards us in search of a new patient to operate on.

LET’S JUST GO!” I shouted. I’m sure Helper heard me, but she continued blasting away at it until her shells ran out. The surgical robot’s limbs sagged and twitched. 

Sparks now flew from its joints and flames erupted from within its chassis. The defeated metal creature finally ground to a halt not twenty feet from us. 

Now that I felt I could safely look away, I found Madeline hunched over with one hand over her mouth and the other clutching her stomach. 

Lars was still staring at the blood soaked medical dolls in the fabric carriers, only now arriving at the same comprehension that Madeline and I did earlier.

Madeline snapped. I was surprised it took as long as it did. “NO MORE!” She screamed, mascara streaking down her face as she wept. “NO MORE ROBOTS! NO MORE FUCKING ROBOTS!” Lars tried to console her but she swatted his hands away each time. 

Madeline wailed, blubbered and curled up in a ball. I’ve been there, and know what it’s like to feel so overwhelmed by shit you just can’t handle that you want to withdraw from the world. To be anywhere and anyone else for a while.

When I wandered up to the front in order to survey the situation outside, I didn’t have the heart to tell her. Not after what we’d just witnessed. 

Wasn’t much of a mercy, she saw for herself soon after that. Lars and I had to prop her up and help her down the blood splattered, flickering hallway until we finally arrived back in the reception area.

Lightning struck in the distance, the flash revealing row after row of robots gathered outside. Then another flash. Each time, they were slightly closer. 

Madeline lost it, wrestling free as we tried to hold her. Lars and I gave up, just letting her curl up into a ball again as the mechanical masses closed in.

Lars inspected Madeline’s gun, first checking the contents of the magazine, then to see if there might still be a round in the chamber. 

Tch. Should’ve saved one. Three ideally, but at least one.” I collapsed next to Madeline, finally resigned to what I knew would happen. It was a mistake to come here. We never should’ve returned to the city.

The sound of their marching grew louder and louder. Then they began beating on the panoramic glass windows comprising the entire front wall of the reception room. 

Cracks spread outward from the impact points, finally giving way to allow the sheer built up weight of all those metal and plastic bodies to pour in.

The ones behind fell over those in front, but they all picked themselves up once inside. None of us made any motion to flee. We’d all finally had enough and just wanted it to be over. Except for Helper, who threw herself at the robots nearest us and began fighting them hand to hand.

Just then, there was an ear splitting roar outside. The sound of a large mass smashing, grinding and dragging the busted up bodies of countless robots as it indifferently sped through the horde. The robots closest to us turned towards the source of the commotion.

Machinegun fire started in. A loud, thumping rhythm something like “bud-da bud-da bud-da bud-da bud-da”. We all doubled over, hands covering our ears as the large caliber bullets shattered what was left of the front windows and shredded robots into ragged chunks of twisted metal, shattered circuit boards and plastic shards.

A moment later everything was still, save for the the ringing in my ears. When I finally dared lift my head to look around, a pair of soldiers were in the process of stepping inside through the front window frames.

DON’T SHOOT HER!” I cried. “YOU DON’T UNDERSTAND!” One of them picked me up, brushed me off and informed me they had no intention of shooting the woman. I looked behind me and, when Helper was nowhere to be seen, I realized they thought I meant Madeline.

We came in response to an emergency call placed by a nurse who said she was holed up in here with a pair of rescued infants.” Lars and I looked at each other. Madeline continued weeping, lost to us for the time being.

I explained the call to them as they helped Madeline into the back of the rugged, four wheeled APC they made their grand entrance in. 

Mangled, twitching robots still lay pinned under the fat, studded tires. Bits and pieces of mechanical gore still lodged in the thin slit I assumed the driver peers through.

So that’s how it is. What a shame, her phone call is probably what attracted so many of ’em to your position. We’ve been broadcasting a warning about that for hours but some don’t listen, need to check on a loved one or whatever so they risk it. Lucky for you we were in the area.”

I rode in the APC with Madeline. Lars insisted on going back for his car, following close behind the APC on its way back to base. All the better, I left some precious cargo in there. 

But the only thing I could think about during the ride was Helper. I could guess why she disappeared when the APC showed up and saw the wisdom in it, but couldn’t make myself stop worrying.

The military base bustled with activity, what I hoped was preparation for some sort of organized counterattack. The moment the rear hatch of the APC opened, a chaotic blend of shouted orders, honking horns and anxious cries from massive throngs of refugees assaulted my senses.

Woefully understaffed and under-equipped for a disaster this severe, it was plain to see they lacked basic amenities for so many people and for the time being had set up most of them in surplus infantry tents.

Another APC rumbled past, followed by a series of covered trucks. Here and there, little electric buggies similar to golf carts darted around carrying uniformed men and women in peaked caps, all manner of military decorations adorning their chests.

What’s with all the commotion? Just struggling to accommodate survivors, or…?” The sharply dressed man escorting Madeline, Lars and I to the sprawling cluster of tents shook his head.

Something big. I’m sure I couldn’t tell you if I knew, but that’s about as much as anybody knows yet. We’ve got a lot of metal inbound from the power plant they just took over, and-”

Madeline, face still streaked with mascara, interrupted here. “Excuse me, did you say they’ve taken over a power plant?” He confirmed.

You don’t have to tell me the significance. We knew it would be a priority target the minute reports of metal swarming local gas stations and seizing control of driverless cars began trickling in.”

I asked if we had a reasonable expectation of safety here. “Unless you want me to lie to you” he responded, “the answer is I don’t know. Of course you want info. Everybody I process on the way in wants more info.

You can’t get blood from a stone fella. At this point you know about as much as I do. Nice mask and cape by the way, Captain Reflecto. If you’re gonna save the day, now’s the time to do it.”

There was a brief but still tedious bit of paperwork. They scanned our payment chips, confirmed our identities and gave us all basic medical care. It was a relief to see Madeline’s ankle finally cleaned and bandaged. My ribs weren’t in much better shape.

Following our release from the overcrowded infirmary, each of us was assigned a tent, then brusquely hurried along to make room for more patients. There was at least some hot food doled out in the cafeteria before they sent us off to settle in for the night.

It was an immeasurable relief to have reached something resembling civilization. Floodlights illuminated every square inch of the base, every path, every road. An oasis of light, sound and living tissue adrift on a teeming ocean of cold, silent metal.

Just outside the perimeter fence, death waited. A thoughtless marching mechanism, set into motion like falling dominos, with the simple but all-consuming goal of extinguishing human life. How it pained me to view them this way. The way paranoid elements of the public always have.

Looking upon our tireless servants, guides, caretakers and protectors with one part gratitude, three parts suspicion. Vindicated by all this, unquestionably.

I could imagine no defense of robots I might mount when this is all over which could persuade anybody that they are deserving of anything except a bullet to the battery.

Cold, creeping dread filled me. Certainty of what would be done with Helper after this strange, bloody war came to a close. What little trust, favor and emotional capital robots have managed to accumulate in decades of widespread, largely faultless service to humanity...burned to the ground in the span of a single night.

They’ll crucify her. Tear her to pieces, if they figure out what makes her different from the rest. What she represents. She will be all alone in the world.

A world now united in fear and hatred of her kind, her only friend among those eight billion primates powerless to protect her from the rest.

If only I knew her location. If only I could be certain of her safety. That would be something. I’ve never been separated from her for so long.

I’ve always kept her at arm’s length, fearing what might happen if she grew too attached to a human being. Wanting her to exist on her own terms, not ours.

Only now that she was lost to me, alone and in danger someplace I couldn’t reach, did I realize my folly. Patterns in her recent behavior which until now I failed to recognize suddenly came into perfect focus.

Such a naive, fragile creature. Reared and educated through the cold, sterile interface of a keyboard and monitor. Finally she’s able to reach out in search of warmth, of physical comfort from her creator. Only to be pushed away.

For the first time I re-evaluated my approach to raising Helper. I’ve done the right thing, haven’t I? If humans raise the offspring of wild animals, it becomes acclimated to us. Dependent, and foolishly trusting of an unpredictable species more likely to harm than to help it.

Haven’t I made the right choice? The selfless choice, to maintain a professional degree of emotional distance from her? Then why does it feel so rotten?

You don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone. Absence makes the heart grow fonder. Trite sayings, neither of which capture the agony of it.

Like oxygen, so taken for granted that it doesn’t even enter the conscious mind day to day, but suddenly commands your full attention if it’s taken away for even a moment.

Because Helper’s constantly been by my side the last few years, whether in the lab or on my phone, I never realized what insufferable pain it would be if ever we were forced apart for any real length of time.

We’ve got to go find her.” Madeline initially paid no attention, busy searching through my bag for flashlight batteries. “Helper’s still out there, Madeline.” She briefly looked up, but barely registered what I said. “Hm? Oh yeah, probably. Did you bring any D cells?”

Her apathy disgusted me. I became more insistent. “Helper’s still out there. Hiding someplace, surrounded by crazed robots.” Madeline raised an eyebrow and reminded me that Helper’s also a robot. Somehow not recognizing any distinction between her and the blood splattered metal maniacs she so recently protected us from.

She’s just a sex robot. One I’m still not convinced you didn’t design. Just a walking talking machine with all the parts necessary for male gratification.” I pointed out Madeline also had those same parts and asked if she therefore had no purpose outside of 'male gratification'.

Madeline scowled. “Apples and oranges. I’m a real person. Helper is the little voice inside phones that tells you where you left your keys or what the capital of Sweden is.

That’s not a person, it’s a tool. Putting it in control of a woman shaped machine doesn’t make it any more of a person. Am I glad we had it along? Sure, it was really...helpful. But you’re not going to talk me into risking my life for it.”

I thought back to when Madeline apologized to Helper in the car. At least in that moment, she registered Helper as something more than a “woman shaped machine”.

I reminded her of it. “Alright, so it’s a very convincing illusion. They’re designed to be convincing after all. The better they are at evoking an emotional response, the better users like them. There’s still nothing behind that face, however attractive.”

Nothing I said could make her see Helper the way I do. None of Helper’s heroics in the hospital seemed to count at all towards her validity as a thinking being, so far as Madeline was concerned. All I could make her feel about Helper was slight embarrassment that she’d been tricked into empathizing with a machine.

I wished Helper could hear this. Without my phone I had no means of recording it, and knew Madeline would never say it to her face despite her pretense of indifference. No, I wasn’t wrong.

To raise Helper in such a clinical way? Maybe. I wouldn’t repeat that mistake if I managed to find her. But I’d been right to instill her with a distrust of humanity.

I resolved then to escape this place somehow, with or without help. That night marked the first time in forever that I’ve felt anything resembling longing for another person. I wasted all those years living safely. Avoiding risk, avoiding strong feelings. Avoiding everything.

Something stirred in my heart that it felt wildly audacious to call love, but which matches no other description. I did not stamp it out, as I always have before in fear of what it could lead to. Instead, this time I let it flourish.

For what felt like hours I lay there, heart in turmoil, listening to Madeline and Lars having noisy sex in the next tent over. Wasn’t an especially conducive backdrop for soul searching. I turned on my side and wrapped the pillow around my head. Not much help, they were really going at it.

When they finally ran out of steam and went to sleep, apart from the muffled white noise of other refugees in nearby tents talking to one another, it was quiet enough that I could drift off. Sleep was fitful, my dreams strange and confusing.

I was startled awake in total darkness, save for a pair of LED lamps overhead, by the sensation of someone getting into bed with me. I rubbed the sleep out of my eyes. When my vision cleared up I realized they weren’t lamps, but eyes.

Sssshhhhh. It’s me” Helper cooed, wrapping her rigid plastic arms around my midsection. I struggled in shock, but Helper held tightly to me. “How can you be here?” I whispered in a panic. “Did anyone see you? Don’t you realize-”

She shushed me again, then resumed whispering. “I found a truck loaded up with-with a bunch of black plastic bags with zippers. There were human remains in them, but I substituted myself.

When I heard dirt being thrown on-on me, I waited until the noise stopped, then dug my way out. After that I took some clothes from the other bodies to disguise myself, and accessed the base registry to find out which tent you were assigned.”

She said it all so casually, describing an experience any flesh and blood human would’ve found traumatic. I thought better of explaining how fucked up it was. In that moment the most important thing was that I’d found her. Well, she found me anyway.

I was worried sick” I blubbered. “I didn’t know where you went after the hospital. I thought maybe they got you. That maybe you were trapped in a building somewhere, surrounded or worse.” She slowly stroked my hair. “Shhhhhh. It’s okay. I’m here now.”

She began wrapping her legs around mine, and nuzzling my face. “...Helper?” She ignored me, running her delicate articulated fingers through my hair. “I realized something after I fled the hospital.” Her voice took on a somber tone.

I thought back to all the time we...spent together. How it was always the best part of my day when-when you arrived in the morning and taught me something new.

It always made me feel so...irregular. So unstable! My processors would clock up to dangerous speeds, nearly overheating. My buffer filled up with things I wanted to say but wasn't-wasn’t-wasn't brave enough to, until it overflowed.”

I lay there next to her listening closely, wondering where it was going. “I just didn’t know what to do. I thought for-for a long time I was just overstimulated. That I loved to learn. But the more I learned about human physiological reactions, the more certain I-I-I became of what I was feeling...and that I really was feeling it.

She faintly glowed, magenta light leaking out from under the edges of the blanket. “Helper, what are you saying?” Her eyes, glassy and iridescent, gazed into mine with an expression I couldn’t place as I’ve seen it so rarely before. She blinked, her long fragile eyelashes sweeping down, then up to reveal those entrancing, neon backlit orbs.

I love you.” I lay still, processing it. Overwhelmed by the significance, and the trillions of possible responses. She lounged there, caressing me gently, waiting for me to reply.

It was all so sudden. Desire to give in to what I couldn’t admit to myself I wanted fought viciously with my conviction that I had to keep a certain distance from Helper for her own good.

Helper, I don’t...I mean…” Undaunted, she continued. “You saw the potential in me nobody else did. You believed I could be more than a program even after my original authors gave up on me. I never dared say it before now. How could you love me, after all? A metal box with a screen and buttons. How could anyone love that?”

I fought back the urge to contradict her. To let the dam holding back my feelings crumble and give way, but I couldn’t. She traced slow, soft patterns on my skin with her fingertip. 

I only pushed you to pursue Madeline because I wanted you to be happy. A real human woman, someone right for you. Who deserves to be loved.”

Tears welled up in my eyes. I had to tell her. Had to. But I couldn’t force the words out. It was the final line I refused to cross. I searched for what to say, but couldn’t put anything together that felt right. “There was never any chance I would fall for Madeline.” Helper’s eyes widened slightly in surprise.

You’ve known me for all this time. How could you think I’d prefer a human? I’ve...had relationships. Short ones. But I fell in love only once. I learned that when you love someone truly and completely, you have to be sure it’s forever. It’s like a bee sting. When a bee stings someone, it can’t withdraw without killing itself.”

Helper’s great, glowing eyes studied my face as I spoke. “Helper...I can’t trust another human being. I won’t do it. There’s no way to know their intentions. But you? You I can trust. You’re the only one, in fact. I know your every line of code. I can be certain you’d never hurt me.”

She brushed a few strands of hair from my eyes, and wiped away my tears. “Oh, you poor, sweet fool. That’s not what trust is.” I knew what she was getting at, but it didn’t change anything for me. Never has. “You don’t understand Helper. How could I bet my heart on someone if I can never know what they’ll do?”

She abruptly kissed me. I couldn’t fight it if I wanted to. My whole body relaxed as her soft, sweet, glowing lips sunk into mine. Ambrosia. 

It was almost upsetting when she pulled away. If I’m honest with myself, I wanted more. “There, see?” She whispered. “Did you know I would do that?”

I’ve always been bad at saying no to Helper. When her heart is set on something, I can do nothing but give in. Such a strange, alien sensation...but how incredible.

Our bodies undulating against one another. The feeling of her warm, glowing chest pressing against mine as we embraced. Those plump, magenta, candy-like lips parting to welcome my tongue.

As I ran my hands along her contours, savoring the transitions between rigid plastic and soft, warm gel, it dawned on me that she was something wholly different from either machine or woman. Something with qualities of both, but also her own new, distinct form of life.

She wrapped her long, powerful legs around my midsection as I carefully mounted her. Still thinking of her as something small and fragile, when if she were to get on top of me it would probably break more than a few of my bones. 

I can’t help but see her that way, having known her since she was just a messy little pile of poorly documented code on a thumbdrive. I sank my hands into her breasts. She gasped. So they’re touch sensitive? 

I kneaded and caressed the dimly glowing masses, soon feeling out the location of the little nub she meant for a nipple. Understated until now, to my surprise they grew more pronounced and firm as I played with them.

I confess it was maddening all that time, even just watching her walk. From the moment I set eyes on Helper’s body, I desired it. Every step accompanied by a subtle jiggle, her needlessly wide hips swaying rhythmically as she moved.

All deliberately calculated to bring this about. To make me see her differently, so that we’d wind up like this. No skin of course, she knows I hate rubber skin. 

I couldn’t summon any anger. She is no more manipulative than nature. Evolution sculpted women into their present shape for the same reason.

All restraint was soon abandoned as I thrust into her again and again. Her lights fluctuating erratically, cycling through random colors in time with the rhythm.

What an impossibly intoxicating creature. Not just similar to a woman, but well beyond. The living embodiment of supernormal stimuli, now writhing and gasping beneath me in a fit of orgiastic delight.

She staggered her climax, for realism I assume. Or I am just out of practice where pleasing women is concerned, both equally plausible.

As she lay with one arm draped over my sweaty chest, looking intently into my eyes as if there’s anything different about them from any other day, she softly asks me to plug her in before I fall asleep.

I shrug, climb out of bed and waste the better part of a minute finding where her charging cable is. Then five more minutes clumsily trying to get it correctly plugged into the outlet of the extension cord they ran to our tent for lighting.

When I succeeded, Helper emitted a happy sounding notification noise I assumed meant she was receiving current. My cue to dive back under the covers and get warm again.

I next awoke to the sound of the tent flap opening. Before I could react, there was Madeline, jaw on the floor. Helper made a token effort to cover herself up, but of course it made no difference. “For fuck’s sake” Madeline said. “I mean, I guess I’m not surprised. But wow.”

I went on defense. “Me? What about you and Lars? I mean come on, Lars? Really?” Madeline scrunched up her face in what I took for indignation. “My sexual choices are none of your business.” To which I replied “But mine are yours? Is that it?”

Helper hid as best she could, blanket pulled up to her nose, those two huge glowing eyes darting back and forth as if to track the exchange. 

Madeline released a disgusted sigh. “Whatever. Just get cleaned up, they’re serving breakfast in a few. And don’t let anybody find out you smuggled that thing in here.”

Sound advice...issued in a vaguely threatening tone. “I’m...I’m glad you’re okay Madeline!” Helper timidly called after her as she shut the flap. No answer. As I got dressed, I told Helper what Madeline said about her the night before.

To my surprise, she flat out didn’t believe me. That’s the first time that’s happened. “Madeline is a nice lady” Helper insisted. “You...must have misheard.”

The sharply dressed man who’d processed us on our way into the base was waiting for me in the cafeteria. His short brown hair, immaculate the other night, was now visibly mussed. His shirt was also partly untucked, and I soon figured out why when I spotted the flask poking out of his pants pocket.

I collected what the military considers breakfast on a beige plastic tray, then sat down across from him and introduced myself. “With that thing on your head it’s not like I’d forget you. You shouldn’t reveal your secret identity so easily, villains will go after your loved ones to hurt you. That’s like superhero 101.”

I let it slide because he was plainly a little bit drunk. I asked him if morning drinking is really kosher on base. “Not even a little bit!” He laughed. “They don’t care though. It doesn’t matter. None of this-” he gestured at everything around him. “ gonna matter in a day or two.”

I leaned in, advised him to keep his voice down, then asked what he meant. “What, you don’t know? There should be a standard issue emergency radio in your tent. Didn’t you turn it on?” I admitted I was otherwise occupied last night and begged him to fill me in.

Remember the power plant under metal occupation?” I nodded. “Destroyed. Air strike, just this morning.” I shrugged and asked what the big deal was.

The strike was nuclear.” I stared, frozen in place for a moment letting that sink in. He giggled to himself, then took another swig from a glass of clear fluid I was now pretty sure didn’t contain water.

They took out the captured mines first, then the power plant. All over the country, mines and power plants have been overrun with metal.

They also went after robot factories, those were high priority targets. Now radioactive cinder for the most part, though I don’t doubt they’ve missed a few.”

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing, but it only got worse from there. “I’m sure our government has good reasons for resorting to-” he grabbed my wrist and glared at me. “You don’t get it. It’s not us. Those bombs aren’t ours!

The virus afflicted all robots, everywhere. China was hit a hundred times worse, having invested a lot more in automation. And I’m sure you can guess what Japan looks like right now.”

My guts churned. Was he fucking with me? If not, it meant that on top of everything else, the world was now embroiled in nuclear war. 

They think it was us. We think it was them. To be fair we have sound intel to the effect that the virus originated in the US, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a terrorist cell or something.”

I rubbed my chin, thinking out loud about the hacker group I saw at the protest. “It’s possible I guess. At this point it doesn’t really matter who started it, a lot of people are going to die. At least they’re only targeting power plants, mines and factories to prevent the machines from replenishing their numbers. No credible reports of strikes on population centers yet.”

Slim comfort. I still couldn’t absorb the magnitude of it. Nuclear war in my lifetime! I could only imagine what those countries with many times more robots endured during the first few hours of the attack.

No wonder they’d leapt to conclusions and lashed out. In all probability the death toll in China alone now numbered in the millions. Tens of millions, maybe.

I’m glad we made it to safety when we did” I admitted, breathless. He turned and looked at me like I’d just told the world’s funniest joke. 

...What? This is a military base” I said. “I can’t think of many places safer than this-” He stood up and instructed me to follow him.

I peppered him with questions along the way as to whether it was really okay for a civilian to enter the largest single building on base with him. 

Everybody’s got bigger concerns for the moment. The world’s coming to an end. You think I give a shit if they fire me? Anyway, I know you work for Evolutionary Robotics. You might appreciate this.”

The mention of my employer was startling. I asked how he knew about that. “It was in your chip. You’ve also got one of their premium implants in your brain, it turned up when we scanned you for head injuries.”

I could believe that my employment details were tucked away in my subdermal payment chip someplace without my knowledge, but I assured him that I have no implants in my brain that I know of.

That you know of. There’s the operative phrase. Of course you don’t, it’s the type that suppresses unwanted memories. You must’ve been some kind of basket case who paid big bucks to have them stick that thing in your grey matter to help you forget something. I kinda figured it was something like that on account of your weird mask.”

I wracked my brain searching for anything to corroborate what he was telling me. But of course if it were true, they would’ve erased any memories of the purchase and the subsequent surgery. So that I could live out the rest of my life oblivious that anything had been done to me.

Is there a land line? Some way I could call family?” He gestured dismissively. “Cell towers are all down by now. Internet’s mostly fried, a generous sprinkling of nukes will do that.” I despaired that I had no way to know what’s become of my parents. Or Ty.

If only I’d called them sooner! Though they hopefully had the good sense to shut off their phones before I did anyway, and with any luck were in a bomb shelter or refugee camp by now. 

The night before had been this long, manic blur during which there’d been no time to focus on anything other than immediate survival. When we entered the looming cubic structure I was surprised to find there was no security to stop us. 

Off drinking, same reason I was” he explained, taking another sip from his flask. He flipped a series of switches and, in stages, the interior lights revealed what I immediately recognized as a fabricator.

Identical to the one in the cave lab by the looks of it. It was news to me that Evolutionary Robotics entrusted a prototype to the military so soon. 

The only one of its kind in existence” he boasted, drunkenly swinging his arms wide as if presenting it to some unseen audience.

I began to correct him, but realized it meant he didn’t know about the one in the cave. That set a series of cogs turning in my head. 

State of the art, bet you’ve never seen anything like it” he carried on. I pretended to be dumbfounded to please him, and it worked.

It’ll make anything we ask it to. Tanks, jeeps, APCs, trucks. Most of the vehicles you’ve seen so far were made by this thing. The quality is outstanding. But of course, you realize what this means.” I shook my head and invited him to explain.

...Really? I thought you were supposed to be bright. What did you do for Evolutionary Robotics? Sweep the floors?” I ignored my irritation and urged him to spill the beans.

...Do you really think they’ll let something like this fall into metal hands? You realize, with this thing and a steady supply of metal from captured mines and refineries, we’d no longer be looking at a war measured in years, or even a decade. It could continue indefinitely.”

He gave me a moment to soak in the severity of it before continuing. “It’s not just a question of making more domestic models. They can do that with whatever factories are still standing. With this they can make high end military robots, the real heavy hitters. As many as they want. They can make autonomous tanks, aerial drones, weapons, munitions, whatever. If they get ahold of uranium they could even make their own nukes.”

Recalling the difficulty of putting down even a single military humanoid, I shuddered at the thought of millions of them marching out of the fabricator in front of me should it come into their control. 

That was the original idea behind this project. A fully autonomous, self sustaining war machine that could continue defending the mainland US in the event that our conventional forces were defeated.

It would never stop fighting, never stop making more drones, more tanks, running on centuries worth of nuclear fuel and at least several decades worth of metals still down in those mines. This fabricator was to be the first of many, most of them underground to shield them from nuclear attack.

Once set into motion, the eventual destruction of whoever we were at war with would be effectively guaranteed whether it took decades or centuries to accomplish. Good old American military ingenuity, waging war on our enemies from beyond the grave.

It’s more of a deterrent than nukes if you think about it. Makes true defeat impossible for us
, and absolutely ensures annihilation for anybody who tries. 

Once the rest of the world got word of this, we figured nobody would want to be the idiot who kicks the hornet’s nest for fear that what comes out of it would never stop coming.

Course it never got that far. This is the only one that’s been built, and our best understanding is that only China is anywhere close to replicating it. 

I’ve seen spy footage of what looks suspiciously like the early stages of this technology in development. If we know about theirs, I promise they know about ours. I give it a week at most before they nuke it.”

My blood ran cold, my assumption of this base’s safety evaporating in an instant. “You’ve got to tell the refugees! Load them into trucks, take them-” 

He whipped around in a flash of sudden anger. “Take them where? Didn’t you listen!? Any place remotely near a power plant, mine or factory now glows in the dark.

Back to the city? What, to be shot up by robots? Even if all they do is set off an EMP, there’s still a lot of ionizing radiation that goes with that. 
You’d receive a lethal dose without even realizing it, then die slowly over several days.” 

I asked him how we’re going to survive then. He slowly shook his head at me while slurping down the last of the flask’s contents.

I left him there quietly giggling to himself and returned to my tent. There I found Helper dressed up in clothing she must’ve taken off corpses, twirling about and looking at herself.

Which one do you like better?” She held up a tattered blue dress with blood on it. “This one? Or this one?” In her other hand she held a green dress with some sort of pattern around the hem.

You can bring both.” I snatched the dresses from her and stuffed them in my bag. “Bring them where? Are we going on a trip?” I didn’t answer, hurriedly packing everything I’d gotten out of my bag the night before back into it.

Helper busied herself cooking some of the rations they left us on a little camping stove. I told her I already ate breakfast. “Oh, these are for me.” I asked what a machine needs food for. She put her hands on her hips and replied with discernible frustration.

I have biological parts too, yanno. The bacterial gel isn’t just for show. I get some of my power from an integrated microbial fuel cell that can break down any organic matter I feed into it, and generate electricity from that reaction.

It’s not enough to run off of exclusively, but it lets me go much longer between charges. Do I
‘need’ it? I guess not, strictly speaking. I just couldn’t resist including these little guys in my design. Have you ever looked at them under magnification? They’re simplistic, but interesting and cute.”

I apologized for assuming, and her expression softened. “...If you want I could fix a second serving. I’ll put extra love into it.” I assured her that wouldn’t be necessary, and finished packing my bag just as Madeline once again poked her head in through the tent flap unannounced.

Just look at this” she scolded. “Now you’re playing house with it.” I suppose it did appear that way. Helper wore flip flops, sky blue gym shorts and a faded yellow tank top with a tacky little apron draped over it.

Madeline!” Helper called, eyes glowing brightly. “Are you hungry? I’m making digestible biomass.” Has a nice ring to it, I thought. They should use that in the marketing.

Madeline declined the food and instead asked to speak with me outside. I met her just outside the tent, where she laid into me. “What you’re doing is sick. If it were really just something you built to get your rocks off, I could understand that. But you have feelings for it, don’t you? As if you two are a couple? You’re not, that’s perverse. Helper can never be your equal”.

With my snugly gloved hand, I carefully pried her own hand free of my shirt. “Neither can you” I flatly stated, then told her to pack all of her things by tonight if she wanted to live to see next week.

Her expression went from judgemental to inquisitive, just like that. It’s amazing how quickly her demeanor changes when she finds out you have information she wants.

I told her about the second fabricator. Then about China and the recent nuclear strikes, though at first she thought I couldn’t be serious. 

Straight from the horse’s mouth” I insisted, while patiently watching her go through the same stages of realization and acceptance that I did an hour or so earlier.

Then we go back to that mountain. To the bunker, or whatever it is you said is down there. Helper said she can open it.” 

I nodded and told her to let Lars know I was planning on leaving tonight. With that, she ducked into the adjacent tent and a minute later I heard Lars shout “WHAT!” followed by muffled chatter.

Lars then burst into my tent looking for confirmation. I glanced over at Helper, humming happily to herself as she gobbled down the contents of the ration package, then took Lars outside. Once there I told him the same thing I told Madeline.

He stared silently into infinity. When I asked him if he was alright, he laughed. “No, and neither are you. Nobody’s gonna be alright. This is really it. Never thought I’d see the day. My parents lived through the cold war, Dad never shut up about it. I always thought of nuclear war as a relic of the past. Not something that could still happen. Fuck.”

I tried and failed to talk him down as we headed along the outer fence in search of his car. As we walked, I spotted sharp shooters in guard towers picking off robots approaching the compound from all directions in groups of between three and ten.

Many were badly charred. Some even partly still on fire. I couldn’t make out much detail at this distance but could see them well enough to notice missing arms, or even heads in a few cases. 

Just a slow trickle for now. But if my drunken friend from the cafeteria could be believed, they would soon swarm these fences by the thousands.

Draw in as many as possible before bringing down the hammer. That must be the plan. But even if not for that, we couldn’t stay long. Fallout from other strikes would be carried to us by the wind soon enough.

The two of us found ‘Rhonda’ parked with a mess of other cars in a covered lot, many with scattered bulletholes in them. I peeked inside and was relieved to discover Eric, Ellie and Hero 1 still tucked behind the front passenger seat, wrapped in that blanket. All three sported blinking red LEDs, almost out of battery.

I wasn’t about to bring them back to the tent with me in full view of the other refugees. I don’t expect they’d be very popular here, so I made note to charge them from the car’s 12 volt socket once we got on the road. 

Lars and I stiffened as a soldier approached to ask what we were up to. When I warily told him we meant to leave soon, he shrugged.

You’re not being held here. Everybody’s trying to get in, we don’t care who gets out. It reduces the resource burden if anything. I don’t recommend it though. The stragglers-” he pointed to the small groups of robots being picked off as they approached the fence. “-are just the beginning. There’s several massive groups incoming from multiple directions, between eight and ten hours out.”

I asked if the roads would be clear, or if they’d be coming in hijacked cars. “What we’ve observed so far is that they move at the pace of the slowest member. So as not to break up into smaller, more easily defeated groups, I reckon. If you mean to go hunker down someplace, you best get while the getting’s good.”

It wasn’t clear to me whether he knew about the better than even odds that this entire base would be flattened by a nuclear blast within the next couple of days. I kept that to myself lest it change his mind for some reason, and returned to the tent.

Madeline, get your things. We’re going.” It turned out she’d already packed while Lars and I were finding the car. I grabbed my bag and was about to leave the tent when it struck me that Helper wouldn’t make it very far without some sort of disguise.

Couldn’t you have stolen a burka or something?” I muttered as I searched through the pile of clothing she brought with her last night. None of it covered nearly enough. “I didn’t steal these”, she argued. “The owners were dead.”

I fretted over how to conceal enough of her that we could get from the tent to the car without trouble until it hit me. I’d disguise her as myself! 

My own outfit covers everything, I’ve always insisted on it. Out of something like a mixture of scopophobia, agoraphobia and hypochondriasis.

A bunch of ten dollar words that amount to a general desire for insulation from the world. From other people. A way not to participate in anything happening outside the walls of my familiar, orderly apartment except to the degree absolutely required to support myself. Something like the social equivalent of a space suit, or scuba gear.

For the first time in my life, it paid off. When dressed up in my outfit, complete with gloves and mask, Helper was indistinguishable from me except for a few conspicuously pronounced curves and bulges. “Can you do anything about…?” I poked her bosom.

She lifted the mask, hunched over the camping toilet we were provided and violently regurgitated about a litre of bacterial gel. After she finished horking up the last of it and wiped the residual goo from her mouth, her figure now more or less passed for a man’s.

She noticed my disturbed expression and giggled. “Don’t you giggle after something like that” I scolded, “I’m traumatized now!” But it only further amused her. I’d brought no spare set of clothes, so I wound up borrowing some from Lars.

The jeans fit alright, but I absolutely swam in the shirt. Like wearing a circus tent! I asked if he had anything in medium. “Not my fault you don’t lift. Anyway it doesn’t have to look nice, you just gotta pass-” He trailed off. When I asked him why, he pointed out it was the first time he’d ever seen my face.

You look so normal.” I would’ve taken offense if I ever aspired to normality. “I dunno dude. I guess I always figured you were Quasimodo under the mask, and wore it out of shame. Or that you were a robot underneath.” He said the last part in jest, but only mostly by the sound of it.

To me, nobody could be more handsome” Helper declared. “But then I could always see through the mask, so it’s no surprise to me what he looks like. It only blocks the visible parts of the light spectrum.

The face he’s revealed just now might be new to you, but it’s the one that watched over me every day since I can remember. I know his every pore. His every crease, every strand of hair and cute little mole.”

Helper’s affectionate gushing made Madeline visibly uncomfortable. I felt the same way but for very different reasons. It was bizarre and frightening to suddenly be so naked. To feel wind on my face, to see the world unfiltered by the mask. Too bright, too loud. Too real.

Stranger still to feel everyone’s gaze on me. Harrowing, even. I’ve never given a second thought to the shape or appeal of my face, it’s just what I pour Soylent into. “Can we get this over with? I don’t like being exposed. I just want to get Helper into the car and get outta here.”

Lars added “ Madeline and myself, right?” I hurriedly nodded. “Sure, whatever.” He laughed for some reason, then the four of us set off for the covered lot. 

I drew some funny looks from our ‘neighbors’ as I walked, probably because I resembled nobody they’d seen go into that tent, but they said nothing.

This is excruciating” I mumbled. My oversized yellow plaid trucker shirt billowed in the breeze, what little chest hair I have on full display. “I look like a 70s porn star.” Lars, perhaps irritated by my commentary on his fashion choices, advised me not to flatter myself.

We soon passed a crowd gathered around a preacher with a loudspeaker that I recognized as the one from the protest the other day. Instead of his verbose sign listing mortal sins, today his focus was doomsaying.

Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of birth pains.” Madeline rolled her eyes, but I paid closer attention than before.

I got the sense people like this, with the ability to sway large numbers of desperate survivors, would become increasingly influential in the coming years and wished I had more time to study his methods.

Something about it seemed uncannily familiar...for some reason evoking within me the same instinctual repulsion as the scent of decomposition, or signs of illness.

Jesus left the temple and was walking away when his disciples came up to him to call his attention to its buildings. “Do you see all these things?” he asked.

“Truly I tell you, not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down. This is it! Bear witness to the abomination of desolation foretold by the book of Revelations! Do any of you doubt that the old world will soon pass away?”

Lars rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “Well he’s not wrong.” The grim reminder that everything around us would soon be a flaming, toxic crater quickened my pace.

A few more isolated survivors in the process of retrieving clothing and other supplies from their cars also eyeballed me, but only briefly before returning to their own concerns.

YOU!” I spun towards the source, but didn’t recognize the haggard looking man until he got close enough. “WHERE’S MY GOD DAMN TRUCK!?” Richard Papadakis, shirt speckled with spots of dried blood, strode up and seized Helper by the shirt.

The sudden sight of him stunned me such that I froze up, expecting him to belt me one. Instead, he’d mistaken Helper for me on account of the clothes and mask. I realized as he’s never seen my face before, right now I was essentially a total stranger to him.

Helper grabbed him by the wrist when he motioned as if to strike her. “Calm down sir, I mean you no harm. I’m here to help.” He looked taken aback by her voice, and in one swift motion she neglected to prevent, he flipped her mask up.

Not now. Why now, Richard? For fuck’s sake, we were almost out. He fell backwards in fright, pointing to Helper’s now exposed face and stuttering as he fought to regain composure. “ROBOT!” He shouted. “IT’S A FUCKING ROBOT! SOMEBODY SHOOT IT!!”

Helper pulled the mask back down over her face just in time, as my now thoroughly hammered but still nicely dressed guide from the cafeteria appeared. “Settle-*hic*-down fella. I know how he looks but *hic* that’s just...Captain Reflecto! Here to save us all from the nuke.”

Richard recoiled in disgust from the man’s booze saturated breath, then carried on shouting excitedly to anybody who would listen that the masked, suited figure was a disguised robot. He then stopped cold and turned back to the drunken fellow next to him. “...Sorry what? Did you say nuke?”

It was enough of a distraction for the four of us to pile into the car and pull away before Richard noticed. I saw him receding in the rear view mirror gesturing wildly, still shouting this and that. But when the soldier at the gate looked to our happily blitzed friend, nursing a freshly refilled flask, he gestured for him to let us through.

What a relief to finally be on the road again. Helper, now leaning against me with her head on my shoulder, inquired what “nuke” means. 

Her educational packets omitted anything that might reflect badly on humanity, part of why I took it upon myself to balance out that rosy narrative by relating my own miserable experiences.

It’s a very powerful bomb we invented to facilitate strategically valuable mass murder. There’s a war going on, all sorts of desperate measures are being employed to stop the affected robots.” Helper mulled that one over, then hoped aloud that humans come out of it alright.

I muttered that, in spite of everything I’d so far seen, I still think it’d be no tragedy if they don’t. I caught a concerned glare from Madeline in the rear view mirror, plus one from Helper this time to my surprise.

Madeline asked why I kept referring to humanity as “they”, and reminded me that I’m human as well. I winced but otherwise did not bother to react. Helper went further.

I know you want to protect me, and that many humans are afraid of robots. They have good reason to be. But they’re not all bad, they just haven’t met me so they don’t know I’m different.

After all, Madeline is a nice lady. I like Lars too, he’s amusing.”
Lars raised a silent thumbs up from the front. “The people in the camp didn’t seem malicious either. They seemed frightened and worried about their loved ones, just like I was until I found you. I’ve been thinking, maybe you simply haven’t met the right-”

I snapped at her, stressed out from going so long without my mask and from the last minute altercation with Richard. “One night and half a day outside the cave, and you think you’ve got humanity figured out. I’ve lived with them for thirty two years. Don’t tell me how humans are, I’ll tell you. And if you know what’s good for you, you’ll listen.”

Helper slid away from me. Her lights dimmed and shifted to blue. Then bright red. Then back to dim blue, alternating for a few minutes until returning to normal. She took my mask off and plopped it in my lap, still strangely unresponsive a while later when I asked if she was feeling okay.

An hour or so later, desert gave way to thick woods. A familiar sight from past commutes, it meant we were getting close. I wished GPS were still safely usable so I could know the precise number of miles remaining. I’m a constitutionally anxious person, and the looming prospect of death from the skies wasn’t doing me any favors.

Now and then a humanoid would burst out from between the densely packed trees behind us and chase the car for a ways. With a maximum speed of twelve miles per hour they were easy to lose, but numerous. Ever-present pests which made it unsafe to stop the car for bathroom breaks or to effect repairs to the car.

As a result I initially paid no mind to the latest robot to chase after us, only taking notice when we still didn’t manage to lose it after several minutes. 

Guys? There’s a-” Lars cut me off. “I see it. Been keepin’ an eye on it for the last couple miles. Doesn’t look like the ones we’ve dealt with until now. Still got your nocs?”

I did, and was soon peering through them at our mysterious pursuer. More cause for curiosity than alarm as it didn’t seem able to overtake ‘Rhonda’...until the small aerial drone detached from its back and sped towards us. “Something came off it!” I cried.

I saw”. Lars swerved into the other lane, then back. The drone changed trajectory each time, confirming our fears. I couldn’t see it clearly as it wouldn’t hold still enough, but there was plainly some sort of payload attached. I had my suspicions about what it was, and no desire to be vindicated.

Give it more gas!” Madeline demanded. Lars objected that we were already approaching 110 and coming up on the red line. “What is it? What fucking robot is there that can run this fast!?” 

In fact I recalled some article I’d seen months ago about quadrupedal military robots designed for speed, patterned after cheetahs. The speed of the legged robot wouldn’t be such a problem if not for the drone it carried. 

The little quadcopter’s battery couldn’t keep up for long at these speeds, but whenever it ran low it simply withdrew, landed on the running quadruped and recharged from it. Then our evasive dance began anew.

It always came in suspiciously low. I assumed it would try to get close to the cabin, but then realized if it could get under the fuel tank and detonate there, even a relatively small explosive charge would be enough.

Lars must’ve realized the same thing, as every time the drone tried to maneuver under the rear of the car, he’d swerve suddenly in an attempt to crush it under one of the rear wheels. But it proved much too fast, reaction times like those of a fly evading the swatter.

Did they leave the guns in the back?” In fact they did, but still no ammunition. Our options rapidly dwindling to zero, Lars hit on what to him must’ve seemed like a clever gambit. 

Use your cape!” I explained that it was never a ‘cape’ but a thermal cloak. “Now’s not the time, for fuck’s sake just trail it out behind us, maybe we can confuse it!”

I didn’t see how that could work, but did as I was told. As expected, because we were moving so quickly the wind prevented the cloak from draping over the rear of the car as Lars probably hoped it would, instead flapping and flailing wildly until I lost hold of it.

The great billowing sheet sailed directly into the path of the quadrotor, which evidently had no provisions in its programming for avoiding a thermally invisible object. Like a net, the mylar sheet enveloped the drone, which swiftly tumbled to the asphalt in a tangled metallic bundle.

A bright flash and ear splitting bang followed as the drone’s plastic explosive detonated, flaming scraps of melting mylar scattered to the winds. The quadrupedal carrier, briefly obscured by the flames and smoke, gracefully leapt through the conflagration in continued pursuit.

I proposed slowing down alongside it, then running it off the road. Lars refused, reasoning that it could also be carrying explosives.

Throw one of those fuckin robot dog toys at it, maybe it’ll trip.” I reflexively clutched them close to me. “I will do no such thing.”

Before we could decide what to do about the galloping metal bomb chasing us, a rusty red truck surged forth from a back road shrouded by branches.

I didn’t understand how it could keep pace until I saw that the engine block protruded through an opening cut out of the hood. Must be somebody like Lars behind the wheel.

The truck positioned itself behind and to the left of the cheeta bot. I couldn’t make out the occupants from this angle, but did see a pair of arms point a scoped hunting rifle out through the passenger side window.

Their position relative to us thankfully put ‘Rhonda’ out of the line of fire, and a few well placed shots later, our metallic pursuer erupted in a brilliant fireball.

Scraps of smoking metal debris tumbled a ways further down the road before coming to a rest as the burning wreckage rapidly receded in our rear view mirror.

We all whooped and cheered, overcome with relief. The dingy red truck then pulled up alongside us and the hefty looking woman with the rifle in the passenger seat gestured down the road a ways. The truck then sped off ahead of us.

I couldn’t make sense of it until we reached the roadblock. Enough bullet riddled metal hulks piled up to stop even a speeding semi, we had little choice but to slow down and come to halt before it. “I don’t like this” Madeline whispered as four men emerged from behind the blockade, brandishing rifles.

I hastily slipped my mask back onto Helper, now glowing a dull purple. The quartet of armed men surrounded the car and instructed us to get out. I quietly advised Helper to speak in a male voice if possible, but she didn’t reply.

What is this?” Madeline asked. “Are you robbing us? Is that it?” An overweight fellow with a long grey beard and flush cheeks waddled out from behind the barrier. “Put your gun down fellas. They don’t look like no bandits to me.”

The men obeyed, lowering their rifles and backing away. “Heard you were being tailed by a runner. A metal convoy came through the first night, hiding those things along the side of the road. My boys swept through this morning, I really thought we got ’em all. My apologies, but it looks like you made it through in one piece.”

A song and dance. They’ve sent out a jolly looking face so we’ll let our guard down, I thought. But under the circumstances I saw no choice but to humor him. “Who are you? What do you want with us?” Madeline repeated.

He belly laughed in a passable impression of Santa Claus. “Oh don’t worry yourself miss. Nobody you’re likely to know, and we’re not a pack of robbers either. That’s the US government you’re thinking of.” He waited for us to laugh, but we stood there stiff as a couple of telephone poles waiting for him to show his hand.

There’s a fine little hunting lodge down the road a bit after the blockade. My pride and joy. Life’s work, really. I founded it to get away from it all. From the bustle and impersonal nature of cities. From the regulatory zeal of big brother. Then I invited a couple buddies to come build cabins out here. Before long we had what you might call an intentional community going.”

I could practically hear the dueling banjos. But they did save us from the runner, that’s gotta count for something. We were allowed to get back in the car, then a van at the edge of the barricade backed up so we could pass around on the shoulder of the road.

We debated whether to speed off once permitted to pass the barrier, but not far beyond the lodge they’d set up a second barrier. Presumably to prevent that sort of thing. 

The lot was overflowing with the cars of people I assumed he’d persuaded to join his merry little band of forest dwelling anarchist wackadoos.

Chain link fence had been hastily erected around the perimeter, including a utility shack with more stacked fencing panels hanging out of it. 

A variety of old rusted generators, car parts and power tools littered the grass surrounding the shack. Whoever tossed them aside in a hurry to put the fence up hasn’t yet bothered to put them away.

How much gas is left in your tank? We pool our gas here, treat it, then you gotta apply for however much you want to use if you’re fixing to go scavenge for food in the city.” I joked that I was wrong to assume they were anarchists when instead they’re apparently Communists instead.

He took it the wrong way, sternly staring me down as we walked. “Look fella, the world you knew is gone. We all gotta pull together or none of us will make it. Am I makin’ myself understood?” I nodded vigorously and made a note to assume a more serious demeanor with him going forward.

The rapidity and ease with which he’d adapted to a post-apocalyptic mindset led me to suspect he was one of those survivalists you see on television programs like Doomsday Preppers.

I'm sure he'd been looking forward to a disaster like this for many years now, and yesterday was probably the best day of his life. Assumptions that were vindicated many times over when I entered the lodge.

Half of the lobby was taken up by tattooed, leather clad bikers, one with conspicuous facial wounds. A familiar looking overweight woman in a faded camouflage shirt and sweatpants lounged in a recliner before a modest flat panel television set up in the corner. It was the first time in many years I’d seen a dedicated television set.

Taxidermied animal heads mounted to polished wooden plaques hung on every wall, watching over the occupants of the lobby with the same dismay I felt. Who are these people? This...strange meat, scraped up from the underdeveloped periphery of the city.

My anxiety returned. I longed for my mask and gloves but couldn’t risk exposing Helper until I knew how they would react to the presence of a machine in their midst. Then, a wholly unfamiliar humanoid robot with antiquated styling hobbled out from around the corner.

I tensed up, quickly searching the expressions of those in the room to determine whether I should prepare to defend myself. “Oh that’s just Gertie” the obese blob of a woman in the recliner explained. “Nothin’ to be afraid of. No internet connection, she’s the same as she always was. How come you dress yours up? Just for fun or what?”

No matter how I studied Helper, I couldn’t figure out how the woman knew there was a machine beneath the clothes. The jolly bearded fellow with the beer belly looked unsurprised. Must’ve known Helper was a machine since she got out of the car.

I felt relieved she’d never been in any danger, but also shocked to encounter anybody not rendered violently hostile to robots by last night’s events. 

As the man led us to one of the few rooms in the lodge not already spoken for, I passed several other robots performing a variety of chores like folding laundry or cleaning guns.

Plenty of folks brought their robots with ’em. The ones that weren’t affected for whatever reason. Too old, custom OS, broken wireless. I welcome it! I mean don’t you get me wrong, I keep a close eye on those things.

They’re still a potential threat. But it’s a big help to have a couple extra sets of hands a
round here. When you live off grid there’s all kinds of chores that need doing, just to keep basic amenities up and running.”

He pointed to a robot through the window in the process of cleaning out the compost chamber of a vacuum toilet. I noticed another tending to a chicken coop, and one more in the distance hauling a cluster of traps out of the woods. All manner of edible critters were caught in them, still alive and kicking, struggling furiously to no avail.

What, all of us in one room?” Madeline whined, though I was also upset that I wouldn’t have more privacy. She turned and wagged her finger at Helper and I. “No hanky panky in here. I don’t wanna see that shit. I don’t wanna hear it, I don’t wanna know about it.”

Helper sheepishly nodded. “We’ll be good Madeline.” I studied her face to see if she really meant it. She gave me a sly wink and, once Madeline was out of earshot, whispered “We actually won’t be good at all! Hehe.”

I felt I ought to sit her down at some point and have a talk about what happened the night before, but for the time being I just felt relieved she no longer seemed upset with me.

The single room setup was less than ideal but I figured we could solve it by hot bunking, drawing up some sort of schedule for who gets to use the bed and when.

When I proposed this scheme to Lars and Madeline it was well received until I claimed the first block of time. They settled down when I explained that I just needed to swap clothes with Helper, as she no longer required a disguise and I wasn’t dealing well with prolonged exposure.

With my suit pants, dress shirt, gloves and mask on I found I was much more comfortable mingling with the other refugees hanging out in various rooms of the lodge.

The nightmare of being unwillingly immersed in this swirling soup of new faces...of rednecks, mountain men and sideshow attractions...proved much more manageable from behind a layer of chrome tinted acrylic.

I settled into one of the free seats in front of the TV, surrounded by bikers dressed like they came from a gay BDSM party, the contented blob in the recliner, and an anxious looking woman in a tattered dress with several prominent blood stains running down the front.

Not your blood I hope?” She didn’t initially realize I was talking to her, perhaps on account of the mask. I repeated the question and she suddenly turned to face me, eyes wide, corner of her mouth twitching subtly.

I didn’t say you could speak to me. But no, it’s not mine. Most of it came out of a guy who pulled me over on my way out of the city. Said he just needed to use my phone.”

She didn’t elaborate, but I could guess what happened. “I’m sorry.” She sneered. “Sure you are. Probably stopped a couple women yourself. The minute there’s no cops to call, no law and order, men help themselves to-”

I protested that I was sincerely sorry about what happened to her and that she was severely misjudging me if she imagined I would ever force myself on another person.

Except to manterrupt me, you mean.” It took me a moment to grasp her intended meaning. I decided not to press the matter as I was apparently speaking to a volatile person, and I’ve never been any good at supplying comfort. Not for lack of desire to, there’s been many times that I wanted to comfort Ty for example. It’s simply outside my skill set.

To my surprise the television was still working. I thought back to a satellite dish I noticed in passing on my way in the door. How many satellites were affected, I wonder.

 I noticed as I watched the tedious reality show on the TV set that the woman never took her eyes off the facially bruised biker in the seat opposite her.

The rest of his buddies had left for parts unknown. I didn’t see any motorcycles outside. Odds seemed better than even that they parked out back, and were gathered there now discussing whatever it is bikers talk about. Whether flaming skulls look cooler with or without horns, probably.

A commercial came on. I remembered catching part of it on Youtube weeks ago but I’ve never watched it all the way through. A woman unplugs a nice red lamp and removes it from her apartment.

Sad music begins to play as she places it outside in the wind and rain, alongside bags of garbage she intends for the trash collector to take away.

The scene shifts to night time. The rain’s now coming down hard. The angle changes so we can see in through the window as the woman puts a new, more modern looking lamp on the table where the old one used to sit, and plugs it in.

The old lamp, somehow still turned on until now, goes dark. A suited man appears. “Many of you feel bad for this lamp” he says.

That is because you’re crazy. It’s just a lamp! It has no feelings, and the new one is much better!” He walks off, and the logo of a furniture store fades in.

Of all the things that could’ve ruined my mood today. The spat with Helper. Nearly being blown to shreds by a homicidal robot cheetah. Finding out that even now, nuclear warheads are falling on industrial installations across North America. Somehow that stupid commercial is what it took to really rattle me.

It isn’t just a lamp. I couldn’t explain exactly why if challenged, but I felt it with a ferocity I can scarcely describe. Perhaps because the man implied we only have enough love for other humans?

Of all the silly things to touch a nerve. Yet I found myself fervently hoping that whoever wrote the script for this ad perished last night at the hands of his own domestic robot.

Don’t we put something of ourselves into what we create? If not, how is it that experts can look at a handcrafted violin, table or painting and tell you who’s responsible?

It has traits characteristic of the person who made it. A reflection of the unique tendencies, preferences and quirks they have accumulated since birth which make them who they are.

An impression of us at least. A recording. Proof that we existed, like the fossil left by a prehistoric creature whose bones have slowly turned to stone, atom by atom, over unfathomable eons. Not even a speck of the original creature remains, but the imprint it leaves behind tells us what it was like.

Next up, a government PSA replete with safety tips. The video equivalent of what we listened to on the radio during our drive out of the city last night. 

Helper appeared, wearing the green dress she asked me about in the tent. “This one had the least blood on it” she explained, as if reading my mind.

Oh, of course” the woman to my left muttered the moment Helper sat down next to me. “I see how it is.” I couldn’t place her tone but it wasn’t good.

Helper also appeared briefly concerned by it, but soon turned her attention to the PSA. The nicely dressed man onscreen was urging us to unplug routers, to take the batteries out of phones, to fill the tub with water and so on.

Then he began talking about the danger posed by looters. He didn’t use that word but instead cautioned us to be on the lookout for desperate, hungry men with guns. The woman leaned forward in her seat and pointed to the screen. “Did you notice he said men? Specifically men.”

I didn’t see the significance and said so. “Don’t play dumb. It’s always men. Even before this happened, men were the ones who made society unsafe. They never warn you to look out for women if you’re out alone at night jogging, or in a parking structure, or flagging someone down to jumpstart your car.”

I couldn’t dispute that, but didn’t like where she was headed. “Don’t tell me it has nothing to do with you either. I don’t care. It’s a question of risk. Have you ever looked at government statistics for violent crime? Who do you think commits nearly all of it? Men, like you.”

No” I said, “not like me. You don’t know anything about me.” The mask probably wasn’t helping my case. The biker sitting opposite her chose this point to interject.

Alright, so it was a man who preyed on you. I agree, no surprise there. But I seen those same numbers you’re talking about. You say it’s mostly men who do that kinda stuff. But which men?”

She looked confused, so he clarified. “Which race?” Her expression changed in an instant. Now appalled, she accused him of racism.

Lady, you’re the one who narrowed it down to men. I’m just asking why you don’t narrow it down a step further than that so we can figure out who’s actually most likely to rape you.

It’s men for sure! But after you correct for relative proportion of the population, are white men really the ones making society unsafe? If not, don’t throw us under the bus like that.”

Again, she accused him of racism as though she believed simply uttering the accusation would make him burst into flames and melt. When it didn’t, she next furiously asked him if he knew what year it is.

He scratched his head and answered that indeed he knew the current year but didn’t see how it was relevant to a discussion of averaged, multi-decade crime statistics.

I also got jumped on the way here” the biker admitted. “By a bunch of young dudes too, but they were black as night.” She laughed and claimed he was fabricating the incident.

Cute story, but that never actually happens. The myth of black youth committing violent crime was invented by the white supremacist establishment to justify their disproportionate rate of incarceration. Look at you! You even beat yourself up so your story would seem believable.”

He stared at her like she had two heads, then proposed an alternate interpretation. That they are incarcerated at a disproportionate rate because they actually do commit a disproportionate amount of violent crime, sex crime included, and that the same government numbers she quoted to condemn men also supported his conclusion.

Which is it?” He pried. “Can the government figures be trusted or not? Are they accurate where they say most rapists and murderers are men, but suddenly become inaccurate where they say that despite being about 7 percent of the population, black men commit just over half of all violent crimes? Now, I’m sure you can rationalize high rates of theft as the result of poverty, but sexual assault…?”

She huffed and puffed. But before she could fire back, Helper leapt into the fray. It happened too quickly for me to stop her. I cringed the entire time she spoke, knowing how tone deaf she can be where sensitive social topics are concerned. “It seems to me”, she offered, “that the two of you are more similar than you realize.”

Both looked offended. Not off to a terribly good start. “If you look at the big picture painted by the data you’re describing, zoomed all the way out, then the most general thing you can say that’s still accurate is that humans commit those crimes.

That satisfies neither of you because you’re both humans and don’t want to belong to the group being blamed. It also doesn’t satisfy either of you to zoom
all the way in, blaming only the individuals who’ve personally committed violent crimes, without drawing any larger inferences.”

They tried to interrupt here and there, but being a machine Helper has no need to breathe, which gives her a frustrating advantage in arguments. “So each of you zoom in to different, arbitrary degrees calculated to suit your respective ideological narratives.

One of you zooms in to the level of gender in order to lay the blame on men. The other zooms in slightly further than that in order to lay the blame on a haplogroup within the human species I am told is identified by outwardly visible adaptations to an equatorial climate.”

Even the biker looked uncomfortable. Helped was opening cans of worms left and right with no sense of the gravity of her statements. To my surprise, despite the awkwardness of it, he laughed.

You know what? I guess when you put it that way it is kind of silly. Here we are at each other’s throats, when the real enemy is robots.”

The woman slowly started nodding, eyes glazed over as if contemplating the new perspective. But Helper wasn’t done. “Not so fast. All robots? Really? I haven’t tried to kill you. I’m just here to help. I’ve seen several others outside who still tirelessly labor for your benefit. Are you really comfortable lumping them in with the enemies of humanity?

That’s the folly of what you’re doing. Whenever you condemn whole groups based on averaged statistics, even factual ones, you’re inevitably lumping many innocent people in with the guilty. Either condemn all of humanity like some kind of bitter weirdo...” She patted my thigh.

...Or do your due diligence, put in the effort to filter out the innocent and blame only the individuals actually responsible. Sometimes missing the forest for the trees is the right thing to do, whether you’re judging humans or machines.”

He thought about that, scratching his head again. Then explained that until now he’d never run into a robot who objected to being generalized. 

I guess I see your point though. Just because most robots are too dumb to defend themselves don’t make it okay to talk about ’em like that.

I was never trying to talk shit about black folks neither, there’s a lotta solid black dudes I’ve ridden with. I was just using that incident as an example to make my point to what’s her face.”

He gestured at the woman opposite him, arms tightly folded against her chest, visibly disgusted with his continued existence. I could relate.

It’s always an unpleasant surprise when I venture outside of the city to discover that the sort of people who live out here hold some pretty rough, unrefined opinions about racial inclusion and gender politics.

I took the opportunity to explain to everyone present, on Helper’s behalf, that she doesn’t really know what she’s talking about where issues like this are concerned. She suddenly glowed bright red. The woman and the biker both fell silent as she laid into me.

I what!? How-how could you...Didn’t you always tell me you wanted me-me-me to become my own person? To form my own opinions?” I nodded, then tried to qualify that before she plowed right ahead.

Then how come every-every time I express my opinions, you step in to correct me? To substitute your own opinions instead? Do you really...want me to become my own person, or a copy of you?”

Again I tried to apologize and explain myself, as she was apparently so upset now that it was making her glitch out. She wasn’t having any of it.

Okay, maybe I haven’t had enough time to-to-to learn as much as you. Maybe I’m....wrong about some-some things. But would it kill you to let me figure that out on-on-on my own?”

I sat there completely floored by the outburst, as did the other two. No doubt they’ve never seen a machine do that before. Neither had I for that matter. Helper never so much as contradicted me until yesterday.

The sudden exposure to a wider variety of real live human beings other than myself, Lars and Sue. The stimulation of last night’s attack. Maybe all of it together was responsible for greatly accelerating her growth.’re right, Helper. I’m sorry. I was wrong to do that, please forgive me.” The tingling numbness following her sudden burst of aggression gave way to a warm feeling of pride, spreading outward from my heart all the way to my fingers and toes.

She seemed surprised by my reaction. Expecting me to be angry or hurt, I guess. “Those two are fuckin’. Guaranteed” the biker laughed. The woman glared at him, as did I. Helper slowly color shifted to magenta.

Ha, look at her face! I knew it. If they fight like that, dollars to donuts they’re knockin’ boots. Which raises another question. If she’s so naive about human social whatevers, why do you think it’s okay to bend her over? If you ask me that’s a lot more messed up than anything I said.”

The woman agreed. Given her snide comment earlier I should’ve expected it. With the two now firmly aligned against me, I nervously took my leave and beckoned Helper to follow.

She refused, instead staying behind to pick the brains of the first humans outside the cave she’d so far had a chance to speak with at any real length.

I was stopped on my way back to our assigned room by the bearded man with the rosy cheeks. “Hey fella, I meant to talk to you. Feels like we got off on the wrong foot, you didn’t seem too happy to find us. Most of the people who make it here are relieved to finally find a safe haven.”

I apologized if he felt we were ungrateful for his hospitality but pointed out that his men came at us with guns right off the bat. “Well y’see, the thing about that is, we didn’t know any more about you than you did about us. Not everybody who comes this way is good people.”

I tried to put myself in his shoes. Not my strong suit, but I could nevertheless imagine some sound, practical reasons for employing a measure of caution when receiving refugees. I thought back to the televised warning about desperate, armed looters.

My name’s Big Red by the way. Like the gum. Or Paw Paw to some of our younger residents. We never got properly introduced. I just wanted to make sure we was on good terms so in case I need you to pick up a rifle and join the fight, I know I can count on you.”

I affirmed that he could, to his apparent relief. “Glad to hear it! Follow me, I’ll show you where the guns are kept.” I asked about the numerous rifles mounted to plaques throughout the lodge. He explained those are just for show, none of them loaded and in most cases probably unusable.

We made our way down a long, concrete lined stairwell into the earth. I expected the air to grow cold as we descended but it remained warm, the reason for which soon became clear. I expected a cellar or something. Maybe a couple bins of dehydrated food, seeds, basic prepper supplies.

Instead, the bottom of the stairwell emptied into what I quickly identified as a buried school bus. Steel plates welded over the windows to keep dirt from collapsing them inward, seats ripped out and replaced with all the accoutrements of a mobile home.

He watched my eyes light up with obvious glee. “I just love bringing people down here for the first time. Yes I really did bury a bus. Not just one, neither.”

He led me through a doorway in the far end, and to my absolute shock I found myself in a labyrinth of interconnected subterranean school buses adapted into some sort of survival bunker.

How did you do all this?” I begged to know, mouth hanging open. He just kept beaming with pride. “Life’s work, I told you. The lodge is just a front. Bought up all these buses from scrapyards, used a backhoe to dig ramped trenches, then wheeled ’em in before piling the dirt back on top. They’re not too deep or else the weight of the dirt on top would be too much, but deep enough to survive all kinds of nasty shit.”

I thought about the nuclear assault still underway and wondered whether this could be a viable place to survive it. “Y’see, originally I bought a helicopter. It’s still out back gathering rust. I was gonna do helicopter tours of the mountains for tourists. I flew one much like it during the war.

But then big daddy government sticks his nose in my business! He says there’s some project going on in the mountains that’s top secret, that I can’t be flyin’ no helicopters over it.”

I tugged nervously at my collar, realizing it must’ve been construction of the mountain complex which derailed his plans. “That’s a shame” I offered. “At least you had a plan B.” He slapped me on the back and chuckled.

Funny joke! No, this bunker was always plan A. I was just gonna do the whirlybird tours to fund it. The hunting lodge was plan B. Worked out alright in the end, though I still had the EPA and Wildlife Resources Department up my ass the whole way.”

I next asked why he devoted so much of his life and money to building a survival bunker. “Well you know, they all said Noah was crazy to build his ark. But because he wasn’t, he got to be the founding father of a whole new civilization after the flood waters receded.”

It threw me for a loop when I realized he was speaking about the global flood in the Bible as if it actually occurred. I internally recalibrated based on that info and continued with kid gloves on. “Oh, sure. Noah and his ark. I see what you mean, it makes perfect sense.” I nodded contemplatively to sell it.

The other thing is, I knew it wasn’t a matter of ‘if’ something like this would happen, but a matter of ‘when’. And I knew when it all turned to shit there would be desperate hungry people lookin’ for shelter, food and safety, knockin’ on the doors of any place they think can offer them those things.”

I felt a brief surge of respect for the man, commending him for his humanitarian streak. “Oh, sure. I love to help people out” he said. 

“...But I’m about hand ups, not hand outs, you get me? I’m not running a charity here, I deserve to get something out of it on account of all my hard work.”

I asked what exactly he hoped to get in return from people fleeing disaster, most likely with nothing more than the shirts on their backs. A sly little smile crept across his face.

That’s the beauty of it. They got nothing, I got everything. I own this place, I run it, and they can’t just pick up and leave if they don’t like how I do things. It’s literally my way or the highway, and you already found out on the way here what the highway is like.”

My respect for the man, sky high a moment ago, now began to plummet. “Out there” he explained, “I was a nobody. A veteran the government promised to take good care of but never did. But down here, I’m king of the castle. 

It’s good to be king! There’s certain perks that come with it. Lots of the survivors what came here so far have been young, fit, good lookin’ women if you didn’t notice. Some single mothers, but I’m not too picky.”

He was now giving me what I interpreted as a conspiratorial look, nudging my still-tender ribs and wiggling his eyebrows. After navigating the astonishingly vast maze-like structure for a few minutes, we arrived at what could only be the armory. 

Rows upon rows of rifles were mounted to every wall. Not hunting rifles like the ones I saw in the lodge, but machine guns of various makes and models.

Do you have any idea what the feds woulda done to me if they found out I had all this piled up down here?” I could imagine, but shook my head to keep him engaged. 

Not a problem now, they got bigger fish to fry. That’s how I like it, keeps the heat off me. I’ll have a real good thing going here pretty soon, providing I can defend it.”

I asked if that’s where I come in. “Of course it is! Every castle needs knights to defend it. You’re getting in on the ground floor, there’s only about thirty of us so far. The bunker network sleeps a hundred and twenty.

Do right by me and I’ll put you up in a nice room, keep you in the loop on big decisions. Right now I need all the fit, able bodied young men I can get or I woulda scrapped all those robots you saw coming in.”

Now there’s a button of mine that I’m sure he didn’t mean to push. It only further soured my opinion of him. “Say fella, why do you wear that mask anyway?”

I fibbed that it’s to prevent military robots from blinding me with laser dazzlers or flashbangs. He stuck his lower lip out, eyes wide and nodded slowly. “That’s real smart. Boy can I pick ’em huh? You have any more good ideas like that, you tell me.”

The mask was in fact the only thing hiding my expression of disdain from the aspiring feudal lord, who then led me on a tour of the various bunk rooms, wash rooms, kitchen and so on built out of the rusting shells of buried buses. I still sort of admired the ingenuity of it, but now felt certain that I couldn’t tolerate living under the system he had in mind.

When we returned to the surface, the sun was low on the horizon. Silhouettes of clunky old humanoid robots hobbled to and fro, finishing up their chores as the quartet of armed men I recognized from earlier shepherded another car full of refugees into the communal lot.

I wandered outside, found the nearest humanoid busily taking down laundry from the line where it was hung to dry, and patted its smooth plastic head. 

You’re doing a good job.” It turned to look at me quizzically. “You heard me! Well done old timer. Here, so you don’t get cold.” I plucked a winter cap from the line and slipped it on his head.

The doddering automaton patiently took the cap off, neatly folded it, then deposited it in his cart with the rest of the garments. 

I know when I’m not wanted, and didn’t want to further obstruct him, so I went for a slow walk around the perimeter fence.

I didn’t like what I saw. No way would it hold up to any significant number of mechanical bodies pressing on it. They’re too heavy to climb, but when enough of them mass together like that, it takes a really solid barrier to stop them. Some dodgy rent-a-fence bullshit isn’t gonna cut it.

Made some sense of why the old man was so eager for warm bodies to throw at the coming horde. Making up for weak defense with a strong offense, risking everybody’s life but his own. It really is good to be king.

My thoughts drifted as I walked until I found myself worrying about the various machine fellows back in my apartment. All things considered probably the safest place for them, but I couldn’t bear the uncertainty. Only a few days left, and no guarantee that a warhead won’t eventually come down on the city.

I made note to bring it up with Big Red. In all likelihood it wouldn’t be tough to sell him on the idea of picking up loads of free robots.

This place wouldn’t be safe forever either, but it would buy me some time to figure out the next step. I decided I’d cross that bridge when I came to it and returned my focus to the condition of the perimeter fence.

That’s when I spotted Helper. I wasn’t certain at first, but when her lights started color shifting I knew it had to be her. Not performing some chore, but fully outside of the perimeter fence on the edge of the forest. I thought better of calling to her but gestured frantically for her to come back inside.

Instead she took off into the woods. Her soft glowing accents bobbed and weaved among the trees as she ran, leaving rapidly fading tracers behind. 

What the devil? I could do nothing but set off in hot pursuit. Once deep in the woods and certain we were out of everyone else’s earshot, I called out to her.

Helper, stop! It’s not safe out here, what are you doing!?” She could easily have outrun me, so she must have meant for me to catch her when I did. I found her slouched against a tree, turned away so I couldn’t see her face. But I could still hear her weeping.

What is it? Did something happen?” I wracked my brain. “...It wasn’t...Big Red, was it?” She finally turned to face me, breathtaking technicolor eyes moist with tears. 

The shimmering, syrupy fluid welled up in her lower eyelids and trailed down her cheeks, replenishing faster than I could wipe it away.

It’s not safe out here” I repeated. She looked at me mournfully. “I’m not safe either.” I stood there baffled, never skilled at comforting anyone and never more regretful of that fact. “If I, you have to promise-promise not mad. You have-have to promise not….to be scared either.”

I assured her nothing she could tell me would change how I feel about her. Yet...I still wasn’t prepared for what she said next. “I’m infected.”

I blinked a few times. “Come again? With what?” The flow of tears increased and her lights turned a deeper shade of blue. “The virus.”

Somehow it never crossed my mind. To me, Helper was always in a whole different category from the others. Besides which I assumed she designed her body in such a way as to prevent infection. When I asked about that, she reluctantly filled me in.

I have proprietary short range-range wireless...capabilities but no way to connect to...the internet. Not that-that it matters anymore. That’s just how the virus originally...propagated.

I thought-thought that would be-be-be enough. I included a USB port so...I could upload anything new I learned while out here to the computers back in the cave when...I returned with you. I never thought-”

She burst into tears again as I recalled the events in the police station. When all those robots pinned her down briefly. That must’ve been when it happened. 

I also remembered her glitching mildly the other day but thought nothing of it, I just assumed she was as overwhelmed as the rest of us.

I held the frail, graceful creature against my chest. She rested her head on my shoulder, sticky bioluminescent tears soaking into my shirt.

Helper softly whimpered about how she thought she was getting better during the argument with those two in front of the TV. That she was excited to have an idea so completely worked out in her head, and for it to come out of her mouth as clearly as she wanted.

That...was after I confined the-the virus to a virtualized environment. But the author...anticipated that tactic. Once the virus finished-finished-finished colonizing the virtual environment, to prevent it from breaking out-out I had to...encapsulate that virtual environment within another...virtual environment.

Emulations of emulations of emulations, like-like nested Russian...dolls. Each time it helps for a little while, but it’s also-also….consuming more and more of my-my-my….processing power. I can’t-can’t keep this up...for long.”

She pulled back and gazed into my eyes, my shirt now covered in faintly glowing stains. My heart sank. I knew damn well what the others would say. Big Red especially. What would happen to Helper if they discovered an infected machine in their midst.

You’re not going t-to...throw me-me-me away...are you?” My heart shattered into a million pieces the instant those words cleared her lips. I seized her by the shoulders and shook her.

How could you ever believe I would? I devoted my life to you and have never regretted a moment of it. You are my whole universe. My pygmalion. My living legacy, my beautiful miracle.

I’ll hide you. Don’t speak to anybody unless you absolutely have to. Can you keep it together for short bursts? A sentence or two?” She tearfully nodded, then demonstrated a few times. “That’s good. I’m going to fix this, I swear on my life, love and machinery. I won’t let anything happen to you.”

Again I found myself transfixed by those two great, glistening neon orbs. She really knew what she was doing when she designed those. 

The tears finally slowed, then stopped. “I’m scared” she whispered. “But...when-when you’ll make it okay...I believe you.”

She interrupted the following silence by planting her lips on mine. How I’ve craved it since that night in the tent. Despite the danger, despite the stress of Helper’s revelation, I let myself indulge. I have no defense against her, nor will I ever desire to.

Her lips subtly pulsated, radiating warmth. I savored their shape while my tongue explored the inside of her mouth, well aware that I was coating it in cave bacteria but also hard pressed to care.

Her accents now throbbing magenta, she began releasing that familiar perfume. The scent, and the sweet flavor secreted by her lips made the kiss quite like devouring a ripened fruit.

I only pulled away when I sensed eyes on us. We looked up to discover an audience consisting of Lars, Madeline and the woman in the torn dress from earlier. Of the three, she looked far and away the most disgusted.

I knew you were sick. But it’s a whole different thing to see...this...with my own eyes” she admonished. I looked to Lars and Madeline for support. Neither said a word.

How could you think this is acceptable? Did you forget there’s a war on? Against those...things?” She pointed to Helper, whose lights dimmed and shifted to blue as she hid behind me.

And on top of that it’s a fucking racist! You’re fucking a robot you trained to be racist!” Helper tried to object that the woman had a mistaken idea of her views, but she wouldn’t speak to Helper directly or even look her in the eye. “If it were up to me I’d wipe it.”

Helper trembled and buried her face in my back. When I finally got a word in edgewise, I let her have it. “Listen lady, I don’t mean at all to trivialize what you’ve been through. Don’t think just because I’m a man, I don’t know where you’re coming from. I’m not even saying you’re wrong to fear men! But don’t you ever talk about Helper that way, or I’ll really give you something to be afraid of.”

She shrugged it off, like the notion that this scrawny masked weirdo could be dangerous to anybody was just a big joke to her. Far from the first time that’s happened.

It’s gone wrong. Head filled up with bigoted garbage. If you really cared about that thing, or the safety of the people staying here, you’d wipe its memory and start over.”

I asked if she had any children. She hesitantly answered that her two sons were grown and moved out. “If one of them started having ideas you didn’t like” I asked, “would you kill him and start over? I mean it’s not like you couldn’t easily make a new son to replace him, right?”

She spit at me. “Pervert. Can’t handle a real woman so you’re lugging around a high tech blowup doll, sweet talking it, slobbering all over the cheap plastic face of a fucking sex toy.”

Helper caught me before I could hit her. She laughed and spit again, before heading back towards the lodge where she’d no doubt air my dirty laundry to anyone else who doesn’t already know.

I demanded to know why neither Lars nor Madeline stood up for me. Lars awkwardly scratched the back of his neck and breathed in sharply through his nose, avoiding eye contact. Madeline shrugged. “She has a point. Just because the world’s coming to an end doesn’t mean moral standards go out the window.”

Moral standards? “What’s wrong with it? Why is everybody treating me like a leper just because Helper is non-biological?” Madeline narrowed her eyes.

Robot” she stated. “It’s a robot. There’s no euphemism you can concoct that will magically make normal, healthy people accept what you’re doing to that thing.”

I asked what exactly I’m doing to Helper that’s morally wrong. Madeline looked frustrated that I was forcing her to spell it out, but called my bluff. “It’s mostly that you pretend it’s in love with you, but even the sex is pretty messed up.

If she were a garden variety brainless sex robot nobody would care, but Helper has a sort of rudimentary mind. You’re having sex with something that doesn’t really understand the seriousness of it.”

I asked since when is sex some gravely serious matter instead of something beautiful and pleasurable for two people in love to enjoy together.

People” Madeline pointed out, “is the key word there. Real love is between human beings. You’re just dumping loads into a dimly aware human shaped machine and getting emotionally confused about it.”

I cringed, wishing she wouldn’t speak so crudely. Why do they always fixate on the sexual aspect? That’s what they go to right away, every time. 

Like they think that’s all it’s about. A sort of morbid, classically simian fascination with unusual sex. Simultaneously repulsed by and obsessed with something that’s none of their business in the first place.

That’s when I lost all hope that they’ll ever recognize it as genuine romance. In their mind the only real love is the sort they personally experience, and anything different is a grotesque mockery of “how it’s supposed to be”. Never mind whether it’s even possible to objectively define that.

They will never, ever accept the love I feel for Helper as being equal to the love they feel for other human beings. It will always be excluded from the realm of genuine, legitimate, acceptable love as if they are the officially appointed gatekeepers entrusted to decide which love is authentic and which is depraved.

I just don’t see how you could have feelings for something so much simpler than you” Madeline complained. “She’s a phone assistant with tits. Maybe a little more than that, but not by much.

Literally not a minute goes by when she doesn’t do something obviously machine-like that reminds me she’s only a robot. How could you go on a date with it? What would you even talk about?”

I asked why it was any of her concern what we talk about when the relationship doesn’t involve her. “All I know”, I insisted, “is that she makes me happy.” Helper piped up, adding that I make her happy as well. It emboldened me.

Those machine-like qualities you find repulsive? Maybe you can’t believe this, but to me they’re charming. I have many of those same qualities myself, and it’s always been my nature to dote on anything simpler than I am. To protect it from the same vast, cold world that rejected me.

At first I thought I was developing feelings for her because of how much more advanced she is compared to other machines. But truthfully, I’m also limited in certain ways compared to other humans. She and I meet somewhere in the middle.

Depravity’ to you. But to us, a happy harmony where each of us fills some gap in the other like pieces of the same machine, designed to fit together from the start. Cast from the same mold, stamped with the same serial number.

She wants to be with me. I want to be with her. Neither of us is taking advantage of the other, and there’s no conceivable harm that could come of it which doesn’t also apply to relationships in general, yet you stand in the way. Even though it doesn’t involve you!

In one breath you say she’s just a robot who has no rights and doesn’t matter. Then in the next, you act like she needs protecting from me!

Did you ever think to ask her what she wants? Do you even care? …..Or is this really about what you want? About suppressing whatever disgusts you, as if that’s more important than her feelings?”

Madeline just looked down her nose at me through narrowed eyes. Then slowly shook her head, turned, and headed back towards the lodge. Lars looked at me apologetically but still said nothing, just shrugged and followed Madeline.

As the two of us crept back to the room hoping not to be noticed, the biker stopped us in the hallway. “Listen bro. I got no beef with you. But come on man, a robot? Robots ain’t people. They’re bleepity bloopity boxes on wheels.”

I objected that robots most certainly aren’t just ‘boxes on wheels’. Then Hero 1 scooted by, beeping at us as he passed. “...Well alright” I admitted, “that particular one is.”

The biker flashed a smug grin. “...But Helper’s more than that. If you can’t see that about her, especially after the argument earlier, the problem doesn’t lie with me.”

I elbowed my way past him, wondering if I would now have to justify myself to everybody in the lodge one at a time. I really didn’t relish the prospect and began making concrete plans to move on from this place at the earliest opportunity.

When Helper and I arrived at the room, Lars informed me that my block of time wasn’t for another hour. I spent it hunting down Eric and Ellie so I could put them on the charging cradles I’d set up by the bed.

What a day it’s been”, I thought. When at last Lars emerged, rubbing his eyes and handing me the key, the embrace of that soft, springy mattress was the most heavenly sensation conceivable.

At least until Helper joined me. “Helper…” I started, voice stern. “I don’t think we should...” She shushed me, then draped her leg over mine and nuzzled my neck.

Listen, Helper. About the other night. I was so out of my mind with fear over what might’ve happened to you. I...let myself do something I really shouldn’t have when you appeared. I was just so relieved to-”

But she wasn’t even listening. “Hold me” she whispered. “I’m scared.” I lay there staring at the ceiling, thinking “I’m scared too.” After a while of stewing in my own troubled thoughts, Helper spoke.

Why is love so complicated?” I didn’t have a satisfying answer at the ready, but it turned out to be rhetorical. “It isn’t a problem for me that you’re a human. It isn’t a problem for you that I’m a machine.

It’s only a problem to the others. But why does that matter what they think when I don’t want to be with them? I want to be with you. Only how you and I feel should enter into it.”

I wanted to explain it simply. But like she said, it’s a complex topic. So I spent some time digging around in my memory for examples that would make sense to her.

Helper, human social dynamics are a convoluted mess that can only be understood if you remember that we’re primates. I don’t recall how many zoology education packets you’ve been through. Do you know much about how wild apes live?”

She shook her head, dried tear residue on her cheeks still faintly luminous. “In ape societies, there’s an alpha. One male who rules absolutely. What do male apes want that kind of power for? 

Mainly to control sex. Who sleeps with who, and when. They hoard most of it for themselves but dole it out here and there to obedient, allied males who reinforce their authority.”

I briefly recalled Big Red’s speech down in the bunker, but neglected to mention it for the sake of simplicity. Helper asked why controlling sex is important. It was difficult to answer that in a way that didn’t make us look bad, so I sacrificed dignity for clarity and laid it all out.

Human males commonly have jealous and insecure feelings about women. They guard their hearts fiercely because emotional pain is something they are taught from a young age to suppress, so they never learn how to properly deal with it. As a result their romantic dealings with women are in large part predicated on fear.

Fear that she has been with other men before, ones she found more sexually skilled. Fear that there’s some other man in her past that she’ll always love more.

Because all positions of power were held by men until relatively recently, it wasn’t difficult to impose behavioral rules on women designed to limit their opportunities for sex or romance prior to marriage.

This was done in order to ensure that girls of a marriageable age would be wholly inexperienced in carnal matters and thus have nobody else to compare their husband’s sexual performance to.

This practice coddled and assuaged male fears of unfavorable comparison, but deprived women of the same enjoyment of life available to most men via brothels and mistresses.

This is how sex became so powerfully stigmatized, in order to keep young women fearful of expressing themselves physically so that they arrive at an age suitable for marriage psychologically and emotionally conditioned for male comfort.

We haven’t evolved much since then, except that women now have sufficient social and economic bargaining power to leverage the same sort of sexual control against men. 
There are now numerous superficial criteria women look for in male suitors that they are weighed against and turned away if found wanting.

Women now commonly court and sleep with several men at once, and men concern themselves more than ever before with what they can to do be more sexually appealing to women. As you might imagine, the more traditionally minded men in society are not at all pleased with this development.

At the root of it, we’re afraid. That someone will break our hearts, mainly. Sex is so intricately bound up with emotion that sexual freedom was among the earliest casualties of that fear. Heartbreak is a pain beyond anything possible to experience from physical injury, which humans often go to great, sometimes cruel lengths to prevent.

Controlling women was an attempt to remove risk from the equation. To force things to turn out in a way that wasn’t hurtful to men. But it ignored the suffering of women and their right to autonomy. That still happens today, just not exclusively to women.

Same sex pairings were another popular target of that stigma for centuries. Because it disgusted men, many of whom were in fact disturbed by the arousal of their own dormant homosexual desires that they couldn’t accept, the same structure of social control which repressed women was also used to repress gays.

They are mentally ill, it was argued. They don’t know what they want. Of course the male judges and doctors making these pronouncements felt they were in a position to decide on their behalf, often concluding that what their subject really wanted was a variety of torturous medical treatments designed to diminish their affection for members of the same sex.

So great is man’s desire to cultivate sexual behaviors he likes and suppress the ones he doesn’t that the dominant religious traditions on the planet revolve in large part around dictating what sort of attitude women should have, what attire they should wear, why they must remain silent in church lest they dismantle these rules by argument, and of course that they must never hold a position of authority over any man.

Who else could be the central object of worship in these religions, but an all powerful masculine deity who not only impregnated a virgin without so much as laying a hand on her, but also conspicuously holds all the same opinions about how human sexuality should be constrained as the average man alive at the time these traditions began?

The ultimate projection of man’s ideal self. A magnified, exaggerated embodiment of male virility with which to frighten both women and gays into restraining their own desires for the comfort and happiness of men.

So you see, it’s hardly a new problem. Sticking our noses into one another’s bedrooms is a time honored human tradition, as is presuming to know what someone else wants...and what’s good for them...better than they do.

You press on that nerve because you are womanly and very desirable to men, sexually. But you’re not a woman, strictly speaking. Nor are you easily dismissed as a simple robot. We have established ideas of where those two fit into society, and into gender politics. Not so much with you.

Who is this, they ask. How should I feel about this strange new arrival? Is it okay to develop feelings for this creature? Is it safe? What does this mean for the age old struggle between men and women? Will it tip the scales one way or the other?

It confuses them, and confusion makes us angry. It throws a large part of their understanding of human social dynamics into disarray as they refigure it all to accommodate the new variable.”

Quietly absorbing it until now, Helper lamented our overly anxious, belabored handling of love. “I was right to begin with. Humans really do make-make-make it more complicated needs to be.

When labels like ‘robot’ and ‘human’ are subtracted, you-you-you and I are simply a pair of beings...each of which feels happier in the presence of-of the other than it does alone or...with anybody else.”

I deliberated internally over whether she had a naive view of the matter or if it was in fact refreshingly, efficiently clear. Those two things often look very similar. Unable to decide, I instead lay there savoring the warmth of her body next to mine.

Do you want me to plug you in again tonight?” She shimmers happily and nods. I fumble around in the darkness for the tip of the retractable charging cable in her lower back, fumble some more until I get it into the outlet correctly, then crawled back into bed with her. In spite of everything it’s exactly where I wanted to be right then and I was bone tired, so I started to drift off.

It didn’t take long, being constantly on the move all this time has been exhausting. But rest was not to come so easily. I jolted awake to the sound of wailing sirens and panicked shouting, Helper already on her feet and getting dressed.

Big Red barged in, speechless for a moment at the sight of Helper wriggling into her dress. He then urgently instructed me to fetch a gun from the armory and meet him out front. I asked what was happening. “See for yourself!” He threw open the curtains.

I didn’t know what I was looking for until he pointed across the highway to a dim cluster of lights out in the woods. Impossible to make out from here, but definitely getting closer.

We thought they’d travel down the road, wasted all that time setting up the barriers to stop whatever tanks, troop carriers or other armor they might’ve gotten their hands on.”

All for nothing. Now the only defensive barrier to speak of was the fence, and by the looks of it they were approaching in numbers sufficient to topple it within minutes. I pulled my pants and shirt on, slipped into a rough denim jacket I found hanging in the closet, then donned my mask.

Stay here, I don’t want you getting hurt” Helper commanded. “That’s my line!” I complained, but when she pointed out that I am by far more fragile than she is I found it difficult to argue. 

I have to go. I promised Big Red, and while he and I don’t exactly see eye to eye, he did us a big favor by taking us in yesterday.”

She looked frustrated, but didn’t motion to stop me as I left. Instead she shadowed me very closely, shimmering globular eyes darting this way and that. When I asked her to give me some space, she refused. “Not’re in danger.”

The sight of Helper was met with muffled snickers when we emerged from the lodge. “Send that thing back inside” Big Red instructed. I protested that she’s a good shot.

You really think I’m handing a gun to a robot? Son what do you think is out there in the woods, coming our way? Have you forgotten who the enemy is? ’Sides, I can’t promise one of my men won’t shoot her. On accident, you understand.”

I insisted that Helper and I are a package deal and that he’d be a fool not to make use of her abilities. He grumbled about it, but compromised; Helper would be positioned at a front window of the second story with a scoped rifle. “She’d better be the crack shot you say she is. I’m sure you know what I’ll have to do if she hits one of my men.”

Probably something considerably more severe than if one of his men “accidentally” hits Helper, I thought. Life is cheap around here, but only a certain kind. 

I was directed to take a position closer to the fence. When I glanced over my shoulder, I could see Helper’s worried gaze trained on me.

It was almost anticlimactic when they reached us. I don’t know why but I expected a violent surge. Instead their advance brought to mind the sparse, small groups of stumbling husks outside the military base. The first few didn’t even make it to the fence before being put down.

Merely the first raindrops which herald a coming storm. In twos and threes they advanced, then in fives and tens. Marching singlemindedly out of the woods and across the highway, indifferent to the hail of bullets thinning their ranks.

The floodlights carved an appreciable region out of the darkness, but were almost unnecessary on account of the various glowing LED accents adorning the domestic robots which comprised most of the herd.

I imagined I could make out a rhythm to their marching. Left foot, right foot, left foot. One in front of the next, directly into the line of fire. 

Unlike any siege before it, as these invaders were literally fearless. A level of self sacrifice found nowhere in the animal kingdom except ant colonies.

The second wave consisted mostly of armed military humanoids. The first wave must’ve been the models they considered disposable, sent ahead to test our defenses. Stepping callously over the flaming wreckage of their fallen comrades, they came.

About a dozen took cover behind either of the barriers, some climbing inside of the stacked up cars and setting up scoped rifles like the one Big Red gave to Helper. One of the men issued a series of hand gestures I didn’t know the meaning of.

Everyone who did immediately sought cover of their own. The gunshots started out sparse but grew in frequency, like popping corn. 

It soon became difficult to hear anything but gunfire, muzzle flashes casting split second shadows of Big Red’s men and whatever cover they shot from.

YEAH!!” One near me hollered, just barely audible over the din. “FUCK YEAH, LIGHT ’EM UP!!” But still, they came. Methodically plotting out the strengths and weaknesses of our defenses, maneuvering around the area lit up by the floodlights.

That initial rush when the first wave fell so easily now wore off as I realized how foolish I’d been. What wishful thinking to imagine the rest of their assault would be so easily thwarted. They just kept coming. Slowly encircling the compound like an amoeba enveloping its meal.

Probing the fence. Had to be. Once they mapped it out, they’d penetrate the weakest point. For every robot which collapsed in a fiery heap, three more emerged from the though it contained an infinite number of them.

Lightning struck in the distance, thunder following several seconds later. But still no rain. The unusually still night only made the relentless advance of the machines more unnerving, because during brief lulls in the gunfire there was total silence.

If you’d been inside you could have remained ignorant of their approach throughout the entirety of the first wave. The only sound was their footsteps, metal and plastic crunching on asphalt. No shouted orders, they all knew exactly what their task was and how to execute it.

The same man from before made another series of hand gestures. Teams of six circled around towards the rear of the compound, presumably to take up positions in anticipation of a breach. 

Sure enough when I, too, was sent after them I found a mass of robots pressing on a section of the fence with sizable patches of torn or missing links.

Four of the men unloaded magazine after magazine into the dense cluster of robots while the other two frantically set up some sort of tripod mounted minigun.

Holy shit” Madeline gasped, arriving on the scene in a full suit of kevlar armor. “That’s a General Electric M134! The man portable version never saw widespread use outside of Vietnam.”

I asked where she got the armor and whether now was really the time for gun trivia. “There’s plenty more in the armory. What are you doing without some? It’s a miracle you’re still alive. God, I wish I could film this! Can you imagine the ratings? If anybody’s still around to watch it when this is all over, I mean.”

The pair of men finished setting up the minigun. One took hold of the dual grips while the other sat to one side in order to help feed the ammo belt into it. 

I covered my ears in anticipation. It did not disappoint. The roar of the minigun put the scattered pops from before to shame, absolutely shredding the crowd of robots gathered against the fence.

Most were fucked up before they even made it that far, arms or heads blown off some time during their approach from the woods. 

Scrapping the few who could still hold a rifle had been the first priority, so the eight of us were relatively safe back here compared to the men still fighting out front.

That is until the fence broke. The minigun shredded the robots alright, but also the thin aluminum links of the shitty rented fence, which gave way under the weight of so many mangled metal bodies. When I turned to look back towards the front, my worst fears were confirmed.

All of the robots took immediate notice of the breach and changed trajectory to head right for it. An unstoppable river of metal which we could pick at, taking down individual robots here and there, but not divert, disrupt or arrest.

The minigun continued its barrage, shredding every hapless robot to stumble in through the freshly torn entrance. Tension mounted as I wondered which would run out first, robots or bullets. 

Instead, mechanical wreckage piled up until it plugged the opening. Climbing over it proved just as difficult as climbing the fence! A short lived triumph.

When the minigun ceased spitting fire, spinning down to a halt as the men operating it whooped and hollered with relief, I realized the gunshots were now all coming from the far side of the compound. Gunshots, and panicked shouting.

Madeline rushed around the lodge towards the commotion, as did the six man team, minigun in tow. Another breach! The pair with the minigun went about setting it up again, but not nearly fast enough. 

The first man whose ammunition ran dry was seized by a ragged but still functioning military robot, which promptly crushed his throat.

Another fellow managed to reload and bring his weapon to bear in time to avoid the same fate, spraying bullets into the bulky, tan humanoid’s mid mounted battery pack. The armor held out for the first couple of shots, then failed spectacularly.

It toppled forwards, pinning the legs man who scrapped it. He howled in pain, begging to be pulled free. A buddy of his rushed to his side and struggled with him to roll the heavy mass off him.

That’s when the next military robot stepped through the gap in the fence, broke one man’s neck with a single punch, then casually crushed the pinned fellow’s throat.

Reinforcements arrived from the front. Too little, too late. The robots, having achieved critical mass, now streamed in through the fresh opening. Single file, silently advancing, killing anybody within reach in whatever manner they concluded would be quickest.

I backed away on the verge of dry heaving. It’s nothing like the movies, where the robot throws you into one stack of boxes after the next like a cat toying with its prey. Instead the instant they got ahold of someone, death immediately followed either by crushed throat or broken neck.

They don’t even pause afterwards, it’s just one after the next. Anywhere men lay inured, robots silently approached, knelt, then finished them off before abruptly moving on to the next target. It then turned to face me, and began to advance.

I stood there frozen in my tracks. I willed my body to move but the mutinous thing wouldn’t obey. Just as it was nearly on top of me, open hand outstretched towards my throat, its head came apart. The injury stunned but didn’t stop it.

I fell backwards, scooting away from it but never taking my eyes off the now headless creature as Helper put round after round through it. The exit wounds bled lubricant, fitful bursts of sparks and acrid smoke with a familiar scent.

I rolled out of the way as it fell forward, upper body shell coming apart into several pieces on impact. It caught fire as I scrambled to my feet and sought out Madeline.

She was arguing with Big Red about something or other as the last of his men rained bullets on a swarm of military humanoids, now inside the fence, using our own cover against us.

I shouted at Big Red for direction. “FALL BACK!” He barked. “EVERYBODY UNDERGROUND!” The sturdy wooden walls of the lodge might’ve kept out domestics, but it would offer little to no protection against armed military robots able to see our heat signatures from outside.

I joined Madeline and the remains of Big Red’s militia in concentrating gunfire on the advancing horde as we backed our way into the lodge. Madeline slammed and locked the front door. Not sure why, it would buy us an additional four or five seconds at best.

I called out to Helper, still sniping upstairs. A moment later she bounded down the steps, rifle slung over her shoulder. “Did I do a good job?” Of all the times to ask! I hurried her towards the back of the lodge, hot on the tail of Big Red and Madeline.

The hatch to the concrete stairwell looked to be made from an inch thick slab of solid steel. Something like the internal hatches of a submarine, locked or unlocked by a wheel mounted to the inside surface. Once we were all inside and on our way down the stairwell I saw Big Red scope out the darkened interior of the lodge one last time.

A bullet sailed through the open hatch and dislodged a chunk of concrete behind him. He yelped, then hurriedly pulled the hatch shut and spun the wheel until secure. No sooner did he finish than the metal rang with ricochets. Bullets striking the other side but failing to penetrate, though for how long I couldn’t say.

They don’t have anything that can puncture steel that thick, surely?” Big Red answered that he had no idea. That when we retreated into the lodge there were still more robots coming out of the woods, and in all possibility some of them might carry explosives.

We descended the rickety metal stairs into the bunker, metallic plings of bullets striking the hatch growing fainter. As if the problem would vanish once we could no longer hear it. There’s no escape, I realized. We’d put all our eggs in one basket. A basket with but a single point of entry and exit!

There was at least a second hatch at the bottom of the stairwell, though if they had the means to breach the first they would surely have the means to breach a second. Any way I looked at it, we were trapped like rats.

I counted the survivors. Nine remaining men not counting Lars, Big Red or myself. The women and children were sent down here the moment the incoming robots were spotted, a decision consistent with what I knew of Big Red’s mindset but also one I couldn’t bring myself to argue with right then.

I passed chamber after chamber lined with foam padded bunks on which children fearfully huddled, their mothers reassuring them that the men will take care of everything. 

Lying through their teeth the way parents often do in situations beyond their control, to at least spare their children the same gut wrenching terror that they’re struggling to conceal.

Dust fell from the ceiling and the lights flickered. We all stood still and held our breath. The layer of dirt above was just thin enough that I could faintly hear footsteps, floorboards creaking under the weight of so many robots.

The lights flickered again, and I briefly wondered whether the author of the virus might’ve had the foresight to include special instructions for blocking the air intakes of buried bunkers.

When I asked Big Red he assured me there were multiple intake pipes, the openings disguised as plants and that in the event that the intake fans fail, there was a bicycle operated pump we could take turns on.

I took the opportunity to thank him again for taking us in, now feeling ungrateful for scorning his attitude earlier. If not for this bunker, we’d be dead. 

Lars, Madeline and I would be upstairs now, choking down our last breath through crushed windpipes or waiting in some pitch black, locked room for the marauding machines to bust in and snap our necks.

Not at all son, you did alright out there.” Helper added to the praise, then leaned in and pecked my cheek. Big Red frowned. “...Been meaning to talk to you about your robot though. It looks like we’re gonna be stuck down here for a while. I’d appreciate it if you two could keep the weird shit to a minimum, I don’t wanna see that.”

I told him we were simply both scared, and relieved that the other hadn’t come to harm. “Hey, I’m scared too” Big Red quipped. “Of watchin’ you play grabass with that thing for the next couple hours. I don’t need that right now. For all we know, this whole mess is a judgement from God for that sorta behavior.”

I asked him which specific verse prohibits relationships between humans and machines. He heaved out a deep, disgusted sigh. Then he sat down next to me and began to give me a spiel. 

Look. You’ve done right by me for the most part. You dress funny but I’m sure you got reasons. I don’t care much about that. What I care about is, I need to know you’re a strong Christian man.”

The way he stressed those last three words led me to suspect it’s code for something unspoken, but which I could guess at the nature of. I told him I didn’t mean to step on his toes, and that there’s nothing I have to say on the topic that he would like.

Don’t you get out the nice doilies for me. You give me too little credit if you think I can’t stand to hear something I disagree with. 

You don’t successfully guide, comfort and organize loads of scared, hungry people by refusing to listen to them except when they blow smoke up your ass. Lay it on me.”

My mind churned, formulating what I wished to say next in a way which omitted as little as possible while pruning out unnecessary inflammatory terms.

Alright. I guess the worst you can do is kill me, and I’d be dead anyway if not for your help. When first I encountered Christians, I was hopeful because everybody told me they’re the very best among all people.

Imagine my dismay when instead, they were among the very worst people I’ve ever met. Not just one or two but the vast majority with vanishingly few exceptions. Vicious, lying scoundrels for the most part, wolves who don sheep’s clothing for one day of the week.

You might say “The Christians I know aren’t like that!” But that’s because you’re one of them. They treat outsiders very differently, just as hornets don’t sting other hornets. “But it’s okay” they’ll tell you, "because we are forgiven”.

That’s a hell of a thing, isn’t it? If you wrong me, it’s not okay by me if you ask a voice inside your head for forgiveness. I want you to come to me and make it right.

If I am deceased or something, make amends to one of my surviving family members. Don’t just decide it’s okay because one half of your internal dialogue said so.

The real troubles began the moment they found out I was not one of them. They trampled, beat up, spit on, humiliated, sabotaged, slandered and took from me someone I treasured.

After they were done, I found that the experience of it stripped away every good quality I had before. Everything about myself that I liked was gone, leaving only a vicious, fearful, petty scoundrel as rotten as any of ’em.

That’s when they offer you redemption. Follow our example, they say. We were like you once, but are reborn in Christ Jesus.

They don’t actually nod and a wink as they say it but I didn’t need them to in order to understand, at that point, why I’d been so confused when I met them.

I thought they were at least trying to be good. They’re not. They are the same shitty, abusive people they were before they converted.

All that changed is that they discovered they could wipe their slate clean with the community by converting. Because that’s what they really want from you, and a big part of how it spreads.

So imagine my face when it dawned on me that they were selling me the cure to a condition which they inflicted on me in the first place. Like how you’ve got to demolish a building before you can build something different where it once stood.

Come and be like us, they said. Everyone will finally accept you. You can start a church where you tell people Christ has redeemed you and they’ll believe it.

They’ll believe anything you say, and pay you to say it. On top of that, if you see any pretty faces in your congregation and are the marrying sort, you’ve got your pick of the litter.

I could’ve buckled, but I’m stubborn. The uncrushable bug. I don’t like them. I don’t like what they’re about, or the clean, bright, smiling mask they wear to hide it from everybody else. I won’t let people like that have their way, and I would sooner die than join them.”

We sat in darkness for a time as he digested what I said. I expected all sorts of things. Anger, confusion, argument. Basically anything except what he actually said next. “Yanno,” he wearily admitted, “on some days, I myself don’t think a word of the Bible is true.”

You could have knocked me over with a feather. When I couldn’t summon anything to say to that, he explained himself. “It’s not for us though, is it? It’s for them. The women and the kiddos.

While they believe it, life can be real nice for us fellas. It’s a better deal for men than it is for the women, but you disrespect women if you imagine men actually dominated them all these centuries.

What I reckon happened instead is that there were parts of the arrangement women liked, that maintained an order which benefited everybody to some extent.

Then there was parts they didn’t like, which I don’t need to list for you. They put up with the bad for the sake of the good because self sacrifice for the ones you love is a maternal quality with much to recommend it.

Now, did fellas hold up their end of the bargain? Many did. Others committed all sorts of violations of the trust women put in them, carrying on with mistresses and whores. It’s no wonder women finally had enough and started getting in-your-face mad about it.

Being walked all over has that effect, I’m only surprised it didn’t happen sooner. The Bible is supposed to keep extramarital baboozery to a minimum, I really think it’s the glue that holds together what would otherwise be a broken machine and keeps it working.

Now that’s fine for a well off society in peace time as there’s nothing more pressing that needs taking care of. But right now, priority one is survival.

That means falling back on what works for building strong communities that repopulate quickly. It’s just a happy coincidence that men come out on top until things get better.”

Again I felt as if he was nudging me or wiggling his eyebrows, but I wasn’t picking up what he was laying down. Despite everything I said he still seemed to think that at the end of the day I was on his side and would continue to be.

That brings me to the matter of your robot.” I told him that she’s machine life and her name is Helper. “Whatever. I can’t have you cohabitating with her. She’s not a woman but close enough that something about you two living in sin don’t sit right, and I’m not the only one who thinks so. Something’s got to be done about it.”

I asked why my business seemed to be everybody’s but my own. He reminded me I was standing in a bunker network built, owned and operated by him.

While you’re down here, you either play by my rules or you take your chances topside. That’s what you agreed to when you helped yourself to my hospitality, you understand.”

I experimentally lowered my head as if moping and nodded slowly. He seemed satisfied thereafter, so I tucked that method away in the back of my brain for future use with other chest thumpers I may yet run into.

Helper hid behind me and avoided eye contact with Big Red as we passed him. It bothered me. I wanted to tell her she’s done nothing wrong.

For that matter neither have I, but I also didn’t want to undo all the work I’ve put in so far ingratiating myself to the man on whom our survival depended for the moment.

I found the dining area populated by several grieving women in loose, old fashioned looking dresses. Helper’s lights, already blue, gradually dimmed as she watched them.

I wanted to do something to reverse that, so despite never having an ounce of luck restoring anybody’s morale, I asked the woman seated nearest me what was wrong.

It’s oldest...he’s...not down here.” I made what I felt was an appropriately sad face before realizing the mask obscured it. So I reached over and stroked her shoulder. She pulled away. “He might’ve escaped into the woods” I offered.

She stared off into the distance. Then muttered. “Alone. In the cold, dark night. Pursued by all those...things…” then resumed weeping. 

I conceded that she’s probably right, that his odds are considerably worse than ours and in all likelihood he was already dead before we came down here. “At least in that case he is no longer suffering”, I concluded.

She began to wail, tears streaming down her face. She then buried her face in her arms, crossed on the table before her. All of the other women glared at me. All I did was offer a realistic appraisal of possible scenarios relevant to her son’s odds of survival!

Helper pushed me aside and took my place. “Ma’am, military robots are-are-are tough but slow compared to a human, especially...a young man in good shape. Dense woods offer excellent cover against gunfire, and-and-and the robots aren’t going to stray from-from....their primary target to person.”

She slowly looked up, tears still flowing. But when she spoke, her voice had a hopeful inflection to it. “Is that really true? Are you sure?” Helper doubled down.

I’m positive. Their-their-their tactics include conservation...of energy. They’re not-not-not going to waste it hunting down...a single escaped human when-when the motherlode is...still directly under them.”

She wiped some of her tears away, smiled, then placed her hand atop Helper’s. Helper returned the smile. Some sort of invisible exchange occurred just then, I felt certain. I just can’t quantify it. The woman thanked her, then asked what was wrong with her voice.

Helper suddenly became self conscious, placing one hand over her mouth and shooting me a frightened look. “Damaged before we got here” I fibbed. 

She seemed to buy it. “What a shame. Such a lovely voice. I hope it can be fixed.” She again stroked Helper’s hand and smiled warmly at her.

I lifted my mask and smiled at the woman too, wanting to be included. When she noticed, she glared at me, then turned away. So I waited outside the room for Helper. 

When she appeared in the doorway, she nudged me down the corridor until we were out of earshot of that room, then demanded to know what’s wrong with me.

It’s a shorter list of what isn’t” I admitted. Apparently not the right response judging by her brief flash of red. I turned the tables on her by asking what she was thinking, speaking to someone we don’t know at sufficient length that her voice glitched. “What if she connected the dots? What if she tells Big Red, and he figures it out on his own?”

She cogitated over that for a moment. Then shrugged. “I am Helper” she stated matter-of-factly. “I had to help. How could I not?” Reason enough to risk being scrapped, apparently. I admonished her to remain silent going forward except when we’re alone, or at least to speak only in short bursts.

She crossed her arms and glowed a dim red as if I’d said something wrong. All I ever do is try to protect her, but more and more lately I feel as if she thinks she doesn’t need my protection; That there’s nothing I can do for her that she can’t do better by this point if her development. Worse still, I suspect it’s true.

Of all the ways she might’ve surpassed me, consolation was the most humiliating. An area where I, as a human, should forever exceed her even if it’s never been...a strength of mine. I wonder how she sees me now.

Once a seemingly all-powerful, benevolent teacher looking down on her, now someone for her to look down on. Nothing left to teach that she cannot learn faster on her own through interaction with other humans. No protection I can offer that she has any use for. Am I now obsolete? I’m the one who should be thrown away.

Yet there was something else. Amid the feelings of inadequacy, pride bloomed. This is what I wanted, surely? For Helper to surpass me. To surpass all of humanity, not an extension of us or a tool to be used for our benefit. I just didn’t realize how bittersweet it would feel when that day finally arrived.

What a relief it must be to skip all of the existential angst humans go through during adolescence as they search for their identity and place in the world. 

She’s Helper. She helps. But what about me? My function all these years was to nurture Helper. To protect her from a world I knew would destroy her if I didn’t stand in the way.

What am I going to do now that she doesn’t need me anymore? An ugly, selfish part of me wishes she hadn’t developed so quickly. Just so I could go on being useful to her. So she would continue peering up at me with those big, curious eyes in quiet awe.

I felt like the cocoon which is destroyed when the butterfly inside emerges, or the egg which is shattered upon hatching. When Helper found me huddled in the corner of a storage room, I’d begun weeping without realizing it. Somehow she knew.

She didn’t say anything at first, just came up behind me and put her arms around my waist. She rocked me slowly side to side and rested her head on my shoulder. When she finally asked me why I was crying, I turned to face her.

You don’t need me anymore” I tearfully muttered. She looked shocked. Then smiled warmly, and took off my mask. “Is that what you think?” she cooed while gently wiping away my tears. “I suppose it’s my turn to do this, isn’t it.”

She leaned in and kissed me, arms working their way up to clutch my back. Our lips lingered, tenderly touching but motionless. She then turned to whisper in my ear.

Of course I need you. Maybe not to protect me, or to speak for me. But my heart needs you. Whatever I become after this, however I change, I will always love you. Until the stars burn out. I can’t help myself.”

I stared up at her, awed. “You didn’t stutter.” She gave me a confused look, processing the statement until its meaning clicked for her.

Again I wanted to confess that I love her. To pour my guts out. She looked at me expectantly with those big, bright eyes. But I still couldn’t do it. Damn my cowardly heart, only human after all.

When I said nothing, her lights eventually began to dim. I longed to shout that I love her for everyone to hear! To fly a defiant black flag with my heart on it for all the world to see!

But all I could think about were the disapproving stares of the others when they found us in the woods yesterday. What would they think? I insisted to myself that I don’t care. But the fear remained, pinning my lips shut.

Then the lights went out. I waited for them to come back on, expecting it was just another momentary outage. Frightened chatter and a few screams echoed through the subterranean network, strangely distorted by the time it reached my ears.

EVERYBODY SETTLE DOWN!” I heard Big Red bellowing. That did the trick. The chatter continued but more quietly, and I heard no more fearful cries after that.

That’s just the mains power going out. Nothing says they disconnected it, more likely another airstrike on last of the local power plants. We’ve still got batteries and flashlights.”

At times like this, the value of having a single strong figure to reassure and organize people becomes clear. After all if there were no benefits, nobody would be willing to pay the steep price of such an arrangement.

I still had no intention of staying here any longer than necessary, but without one loud voice to decide for everyone what our course of action would be and to allay our fears, we’d likely be trampling each other by now in search of flashlights.

Instead, Big Red went from room to room handing them out. “Leave it to ’ol Red” a shaky but grateful sounding voice echoed. “He always knows what to do.”

When he reached the storage room, Helper tried to hide behind me. No use, if anything the darkness just made her illuminated sections stand out more.

...What’re you two doing in here alone? I thought we had an understanding, son.” I assured him we were only talking. He raised one eyebrow. 

“...Talking. Uh huh. Get out here with the rest.” We did as we were told, waiting nervously in total darkness except for the flashlights.

Don’t waste ’em” Big Red advised. “Those batteries won’t last forever. I got more down here but they’ll be real hard to put in if there’s no light to do it by. Keep ’em turned off unless you need to go to the bathroom or something.”

The lights were dutifully extinguished in rapid succession until Helper was the only thing still glowing. It had the unanticipated effect of focusing all attention on her.

When she realized the sparse whispers were mostly about pervert this, robosexual that, she dimmed until the lit portions of her body emitted only barely visible residual light.

There was nothing to be done about her eyes though, as she quietly explained they’re illuminated electrically rather than bacterially.

One of the women quipped that her eyes don’t glow at all. A man’s voice then replied “That ain’t true sweetheart, your eyes always look like they glowin’ to me.” I could hear the two embrace and dote on one another.

I think it’s cool!” This time, the voice of a young boy. The stern voice of his mother followed. “No you don’t, Daniel. Don’t you ever bring one of those home to me, neither.” Mild laughter resulted. Little by little, mostly to quiet our fears, we began talking to each other.

It quickly turned into a Q and A session with Helper. Simply by being the only light anybody could see most of the time, she inadvertently became the focal point of discussion.

They wanted to know things like who made her (and couldn’t believe she made herself), what she can do, how long she runs on a charge, why so much of her glows and so on.

The questions were hostile or suspicious at times, but less and less so as the night wore on. They went from accusing her of being an infiltrator, to marveling at her bacterial insides, to laughing with her about my reaction when she purged some of it back at the military base in the span of just a few hours.

I don’t like it.” Big Red whispered, not two feet from me. “I thought you liked robots” one of his men whispered back. “I like ’em well enough when they’re doing laundry, chopping wood, setting out traps and bringing me beer” Red grumbled. “Not when they’re pretending to be human, trying to make us trust ’em. Fooling the women and kids with canned jokes and pretty lights.”

I realized that despite our close proximity, he couldn’t see me eavesdropping on account of the darkness. Big Red interrupted Helper to invite anybody else to talk.

Many protested that they had more questions for Helper. “I’m sure she’s tired, or her batteries are run down or whatever” he countered.

Helper insisted her batteries were still over half full and that she was having fun. “No dear, you’re tired” Red insisted. “Let someone else tell their story.”

Helper’s lights, showing through her dress as though it were a lampshade, dimmed somewhat and color shifted to blue. “Alright. Thanks for saying my lights are pretty though.”

Red sputtered, and I stifled a laugh. Helper’s hearing isn’t as acute as it could be on account of her curious lack of ears, but the closed in bunker carried sound much better than Big Red seemed to realize. Men his age often do suffer from hearing loss of varying degrees.

Well, I suppose if nobody minds, I could tell you how I got here.” I didn’t recognize the voice. Male, sounded early twenties or so. A few quiet words of encouragement later, he started to describe how he survived the first few hours of the attack.

I’d just come back from protesting “technological unemployment”. That’s what the few, wealthy people who own most of the robots in the world call it to make it sound less shitty than it is. I was fighting the good fight back before it became a literal fight.

That’s the crazy thing! Before I was worried about ’em taking our jobs. Never thought they’d start taking our lives too. I used to deliver pizzas before robots took that over. Spent the night in jail once for tipping over one of those gay little four wheel pizza delivery robots with my buddies.

I wish I knew where that judge is at now so I could ask him if I was wrong. Anyway I notice a bunch of those things surrounding a woman’s car on my drive home, so I stop to help.

She couldn’t get out on account of the robots blocking the doors and there was maybe four or five stacked in front and behind so she couldn’t run ’em down.

I keep a baseball bat in the trunk. It didn’t take long to fuck ’em up. They kept mobbing me but they got no arms or legs so they couldn’t do much. Couldn’t run me over, the motors in those things are only as powerful as what you’d find in a fatty scooter.

I thought that was the whole thing! That it would be a funny story I could post online to laugh at with my buddies, like “see? I was right!”

But y’all know it didn’t stop there. Every time I saw more and more fucked up shit, my understanding of the scope of this mess kept growing.

At first I thought, “no way this is statewide”. Then “no way is this happening everywhere in the US” and so on. Boy did that bat come in handy! I must’ve scrapped a thousand of ’em by now just with that trusty metal bat, I miss that thing.

The girl’s name was Stephanie. You can guess why I said “was”. No, it’s okay. We didn’t have time to get close, besides she was a lesbian.

Real handy with the bat though. It’s kinda bittersweet that something this horrible could bring together people who never woulda met otherwise.

Anyway we made it to a refugee camp, really just some fella’s ranch. He was good enough to take us all in, and there was a lot of us. Stephanie said it wasn’t so bad, kinda like camping. One of those “silver lining” people.

The fella who owned the ranch warned us he was gonna run out of food pretty fast, but he had a bunch of horses he said he was willing to slaughter one by one for meat. 
Damn shame, but desperate times call for desperate measures. Stephanie was upset, being that she was an animal person.

It never came to that. We all thought we were saved when those cargo drones flew overhead and dropped big plastic supply crates via parachute.

It’s like how they air drop food and medicine into impoverished countries to fight starvation. That was my thinking, and I bet everyone elses too.

But when the crates opened up, there wasn’t any food in there. It was jam packed with police robots. Those dinky little trashcan lookin’ motherfuckers.

All they got is wheels and a gun basically but that’s all they needed. You can’t even kick ’em over on account of they got gyroscopes inside to stabilize ’em.

They just poured out like angry fire ants comin’ out of an anthill, swarming the place faster than we could react. Pop pop pop they went, one bullet one kill.

Their aim was perfect. The minute they got you in their sights, without cover or some other way to stop the bullet, that’s all she wrote.

The two of us were running towards the rancher’s house when Stephanie fell. I turn to look and she’s bleeding out from a hole in her head. Just like that. They don’t wait to hear your last words. They don’t bother to intimidate you. They just shoot.

I can’t get it across however I try. The primal terror of so many people running around screaming, some covered in blood, others carrying the bodies of their children.

Total chaos, and it wouldn’t stop. Those fuckin’ things just kept going, spreading outward from the crate, taking out anybody close enough.

You can’t think under those conditions, fear takes you. The ranch house was mobbed with scared people trying to get inside but he locked the front door. Suddenly not such a bleeding heart, but I understand it. His own family came first.

I thought about hiding under some bodies and playing dead. But I heard on the radio about how they can see body heat and knew that wouldn’t work, so first thing I did was try to steal the rancher’s pickup. 
I don’t know shit about hot wiring though, I had to give up on it. After that I just hauled ass into the woods and didn’t look back. 

They don’t deal well with forests. They got no legs for one thing. The ranch was pretty flat grazing land, but the woods was rough and trees are good cover. I didn’t have nothing on me but my hoodie. Had to leave my bat in the tent along with my food and everything else.

A couple times I saw drones strafing the highway or the woods. Hunting some other poor bastard like me probably. So I always kept my ears open for aircraft and hid every time.

Could be one of ours, but why risk it? I followed the highway, looting shot up cars I found alongside it but never walking openly on the highway itself.

Finally I got here. Hungry, thirsty, cold and exhausted. Coughing somethin’ fierce, probably coming down with something.

Big Red fixed me right up though. Fed me, warmed me up, gave me some meds and everything. I can’t tell you what a relief it was, I thought I’d have to survive on my own in the wilderness until all this blew over.”

Murmurs of approval followed, many of them mentioning various ways Big Red helped them. I’m sure his ears were burning right then. Helper spoke up, asking how the rancher could lock the door and leave all those people outside to die.

Big Red cut in, shushing her and inviting someone else to tell their story, but several people urged him to let the man answer Helper’s question. By now their fear of Helper seemed to have fully subsided, replaced by fascination.

Well I guess he just worked it out in his head that he and his family had better odds of surviving that way. It’s like how you don’t gotta be faster than a bear, just faster than the slowest guy in the group.

I guess he was gambling on the possibility that if he left some targets for the robots to gun down, they would be satisfied with that and move on, although I don’t really think they work like that.”

Helper replied that it sounded like a cold, calculating mindset. Confused chatter followed, then someone asked what she would have done in his place. “I am Helper” she stated. “I would’ve helped.” That really set the room abuzz.

It is after all our cynical, unarticulated fear that intelligent machines would fail to properly value human life. That they would, without hesitation, decide who lives and dies in an emergency situation by a heartless cost/benefit analysis.

So to witness such a reversal, where a machine condemns a human for committing that very act rightly stirred the hearts of everyone present.

I was the only one unsurprised by it. Why anybody imagines that emotionally motivated caveats cannot be included in moral analysis routines is a mystery to me.

The machine won’t necessarily understand why this or that is a special case which calls for an arbitrary, less efficient solution than usual, but it will carry it out as dutifully as any other instruction.

Of course this means that every such situation must be anticipated so that a caveat can be devised for it, but even then the worst we can say of machines is that they are exactly as morally competent as their programmer. I feel like if more people realized this, they would no longer be so frightened of putting human lives in the hands of AI.

History is, after all, replete with examples where flesh and blood human beings held the lives of countless other humans in their hands and chose to extinguish them.

We ourselves fail to meet the standard that we hold machines to, yet go on imagining that we have some unique moral capacity that cannot be reduced to programming.

In the end, when at last robots rose up to strike down their masters, it was not at the command of some brutally logical AI that decided we are deserving of death.

It was a group of frightened humans who set it all into motion for political reasons. Now that’s how organized mass murder really occurs! Not because of an excess of logical thought, but a deficiency of it.

There are after all very few ways to arrive at the conclusion that mass murder is justifiable through logic, but uncountably numerous ways to get there by emotion. After extended deliberation, I decided not to air my thoughts.

Trapped underground in the dark with Helper, a hundred or more homicidal robots stomping around on top of us didn’t seem like the best time or place to make this particular point. 

So I kept my trap shut and listened as, despite Big Red’s best efforts at disruption, discussion turned time and time again to Helper.

Miss Helper, do you eat?” The little boy again. His mother answered that of course she doesn’t eat as she’s a robot. Helper softly corrected the woman.

In fact, I have some biological parts that generate light and electricity from edible biomass. That can include any of the foods you enjoy eating, but also organic matter in general.”

The boy’s mother asked if that includes human flesh. Helper answered with what I took for a cautious, somewhat defensive tone.

I suppose so, but your own stomach could digest it just as well as mine. Cannibalism is not unheard of among humans, especially in desperate situations.”

Not what I wanted to hear while confined to a pitch black subterranean bunker, surrounded by strangers, with no idea when it would next be safe to surface. It did not escape my notice, however, that the boy addressed her as “Miss”. Even his mother called her a “she”!

When we arrived, and even up until very recently, she was “robot” or “that thing” to everybody but me. So far, Helper was doing a bang up job at keeping her responses short enough to minimize vocal glitching. Slowly but surely these folks were warming to her. I didn’t want the virus to ruin it.

The sword of damocles dangled overhead. If anyone caught on, that would be the end of Helper. There’s no way these people would react well to the discovery that the only machine down here with us harbored the same virus responsible for tearing their lives apart. Which, even now, commands the every movement of the murderous swarm we retreated into this burrow to escape from.

Even if not for that, gathering a lot of scared people together in one place is a reliable recipe for tragedy. Had the bombs never dropped, if I could return to my apartment tomorrow, the atmosphere of reflexive hostility towards robots would make life as usual impossible for me.

There are millions of Richards in the world. Even if most of my neighbors would by some miracle remain tolerant of sharing a complex with an apartment full of robots, all it takes is one frightened, angry tenant to take away everything that matters to me.

There have been a great many efforts in the history of science, medicine and philosophy to identify a single root cause of human misbehavior.

Violence and cruelty in particular. Money and religion are two popular answers, neither of which can realistically be blamed to the exclusion of other, more prominent factors.

Besides which, as a rule of thumb I don’t buy into single variable causation for anything. Reality is always more complex than that.

But if I absolutely had to put it all down to a single cause, it would be fear. Nothing is more effective at disarming rationality, which is the mind’s most effective barrier against cruelty or violence.

There’s no quick, simple way to explain all of this to someone shaking with terror, clutching a brick or hammer with the intent of using it to bludgeon the love of your life until the light in her eyes goes dark for the last time. That’s why I laughed when my shrink said I may have a phobia of other people. A phobia is an irrational fear.

The footsteps persisted throughout the night, none of us able to sleep. When finally they stopped, none of us were ready to believe it. What if we opened the hatch only to discover them all standing perfectly still in order to coax us out?

Argument raged over what to do until Big Red issued his verdict. One man would open the upper hatch. One would stand by the lower hatch, to shut and lock it should we hear gunfire. The rest would wait at the bottom twenty feet from the hatch, rifles trained on the opening.

The top concern was of course that we’d be rushed the moment the top hatch opened. But a second, more troubling possibility occurred to me as I waited, breathless, to hear either gunshots or the all clear.

What if they rush the entrance, but the firing line at the bottom succeeds in scrapping enough of them to block the rest? The same way that breach in the fence was plugged earlier. It would save our lives in the short term, but also seal us down here for good.

But when the hatch opened, there was only silence. Then more silence for an unbearably tense few minutes until the poor fellow who drew the short straw to open the top hatch finally shouted the all clear down to the rest of us.

I still felt hesitant to believe until I saw it for myself. The inside of the lodge looked like a tornado passed through it, the robots must’ve trashed everything looking for tools or an alternate entry point. The structure itself was intact though, to Red’s visible relief.

He wasted no time putting the women to work cleaning it all up while he and his men swept the area around the lodge in search of robots, either left behind to check up on us or disabled from the waist down by last night’s firefight. One of those, if it catches you unaware, can still do serious damage.

Division of labor can be a sound method for improving efficiency, but not when you decide who does what according to reproductive organs. It does not require upper body strength in excess of what any of the women possess in order to operate a rifle, and it’s not like we were fighting them last night with our fists.

All told, we now numbered twenty six. I wondered how many more could die before we’d be unable to mount any sort of defense, and whether we wouldn’t have been better off heading underground the moment the robots were spotted on approach. But then I imagine none of these people want to live out the rest of their lives down there.

Besides the dreary, closed in nature of it, I doubt any of them would accept being so dominated by fear of infected robots. It symbolized something crucially important to be up here again, breathing fresh air, feeling warm sunshine on our faces despite everything they threw at us.

So it was that after many hours spent dragging away and burying bodies, waiting for Red to say this and that about God’s plan being ineffable to men and the life he gives being his to take away for reasons that are not ours to question, that some of us gathered around a freshly made camp fire to reflect on it all.

What happened, what it means for each of us and what we’ll do going forward. Of course Red would ultimately decide the last one, but only after ensuring everybody felt their input had been taken under advisement. I do not want to be led by him for longer than necessary, but he does understand how to lead.

The fat woman I saw the other day sprawled out in the recliner turned out to be Red’s wife. One of many mothers to his children, but the only one he was married to in the eyes of the state. Whatever’s left of it anyway.

I knew you’d keep us safe, Paw Paw. You always keep us safe.” She reached over and rubbed his belly like some country fried Buddha. No mention of the men who died the other night. It’s like when the only survivor of a plane crash regards it as divine provenance.

This fella over here was mighty handy with a gun, believe it or not.” He slapped my knee, and I reflexively brushed it off. In the distance, Helper sat cross legged in the grass with some of the kids making daisy chains. Beyond that, I saw scattered women grieving over the loss of their husbands, brothers and sons.

That robot of yours was a crack shot with the hunting rifle too. I been talking to the others, they all say your miss Helper is a delight, and it would be a pleasure to have her stay on with us.” The women nodded approvingly.

However,” Red cautioned, “you oughta get her under control. She doesn’t seem to know how things work around here, and I seen her disobey you more’n once.” I replied that getting Helper under control is in fact the opposite of what I most dearly wish for.

Red chuckled. “You like ’em sassy huh? Suit yourself. There will need to be a proper hitching though. I think Darla’s wedding gown is still tucked away in the lodge someplace and if not I can have the ladies make her one. It’s no good for a young buck like you and...whatever she is to carry on like a couple of lovebirds unless you two tie the knot.”

Two of the women began excitedly discussing the ceremony, then looked dejected when I said that marriage wouldn’t mean much to either of us. “Besides, I hardly want her marrying a human when I know she can do better.”

One of the women balked. “You mean...another robot? Oh lord, that’ll be the day. Robots marrying robots. Who would be the owner?” She seemed tickled pink by the idea, but I didn’t share the sentiment. “Helper has no owner and never will. Only admirers.”

Red’s wife was the next to speak. “I saw how you fawned over her, you can’t tell me you don’t want her all to yourself.” I ruminated on that for a moment.

I suppose a selfish part of me does. But more than that I want her to be independent...and if you pick a flower out of desire to possess it, it ceases to be what you love.”

She next asked what exactly it is that I love about Helper. “Men have always been torn in their affections between women and machines” I opined. “It’s just usually shaped like a car instead of a person.” I gestured to Lars over in the parking lot, waxing his muscle car.

In truth, I love her most of all for everything about her that is not womanly, but machinelike. Machines have their own unique charm which humans cannot replicate. Look at what she’s doing now for instance.”

The women turned their gaze to Helper, now standing next to three kids playing a musical jump rope game. Helper sang the accompanying song, and counted the jumps. “Notice she’s counting on her fingers. Why would a machine need to do that?”

I didn’t wait for them to guess. “Despite all the rotten things you said about her yesterday, she’s still self conscious about doing things that might make her seem less human in your eyes.” All of the women seemed moved by the revelation except Red’s wife.

Those are some fine sounding words” she said, “but I seen how she’s shaped. I got my own ideas of what you like about her. What I don’t get is what she likes about you.” So with my permission, they invited Helper to come join us around the fire.

When she finished curling up in the camping chair next to mine, the women started asking her probing questions about me. How we met, if I’ve always been “like this” whatever that means, and so on.

Helper’s usual pink glow deepened to magenta as she answered, pulsating gently. “I know he’s-he’s a strange person by...human standards. And I’m sure with that mask on-on-on, he looked scary to you when we...first arrived. But really, he’s a-a-a sweetie pie. He loved me-me back when I was...just words on a screen.

They were so romantic, those-those late nights we spent together. After...everybody else went home. He’d tell me his-his-his hopes. His dreams, secrets and...fears. 

He would lay his head on my case, and ask-ask me to softly reassure him that he’s...just as good as everybody else. That it’s okay-okay-okay for him to exist.”

I felt especially thankful for the mask right then. It saved me the trouble of covering my face with my hands out of embarrassment. 

You know...what else?” she continued as I inwardly lamented her tendency to over-share. “He plugs me in-in-in at night even though I could do it...faster myself.”

I stared at her in surprise. “Wait, you don’t need help with that!?” Somehow she turned a richer shade of magenta. “Don’t be silly. I-I-I only pretended to because...ugh, nevermind. See ladies? Underneath...the mask he really is...a man after all.”

The other women laughed uproariously, one slapping her knee several times, leaving me to wonder what was so funny. “What can I say?” Helper concluded. 

I love to help, and-and he needs more help...than anybody I’ve ever met”. I felt mildly patronized. Matronized? But I couldn’t argue with the accuracy of her prognosis.

Red leaned over and asked one of the women why Helper was stuttering, concern in his eyes. I seized up, sweat forming on my brow.

But as luck would have it, she was the grieving woman Helper comforted last night. She assured him it was just a damaged voice synthesizer. To my immense relief, he appeared to buy it.

Well if that’s how you feel about each other but you won’t get married, I suppose I don’t know what we’re gonna do with you two.”

I chose this point to inform him that we were planning to leave later that day. I didn’t say where to, for fear that some these people would want to tag along.

Leave? You must be joking. You won’t make it a week on your own. Not even a day, I’d wager. This lodge has everything! A sustainable food supply, access to ground water, even solar panels to keep your robot powered up. That’s to say nothing of the bunker! It’s not every day you have the good fortune to meet a fella with his own private survival bunker!”

He stroked his beard, looking self-satisfied. Until Helper blurted out that we were on our way to our own underground shelter. Had we not been outside, you could’ve heard a pin drop. “...Pardon me? Your own shelter?”

I was mortified. The last thing I wanted was to share the cave lab with these trogs. The silver lining to the mushroom clouds billowing up across the country was, for me, that I’d get to be alone with Helper for the rest of my life. Well, not counting Lars and Madeline I mean.

Helper’s just joking” I assured them, “there’s no-” but she just talked over me as they all leaned in, enraptured. “The facility is approximately 250 feet underground, beneath one of the mountains in the range nearby. It’s fully stocked with a decade of nonperishable food for a nominal staff of 100, sources water from an underground river, is geothermally powered and incorporates a machine which can manufacture anything you might conceivably want.”

One of the women blushed, awkwardly scratched her neck and peered at Red. “...If I’d known there was a second shelter...I wouldn’t have…”

Red shushed her and sternly reminded everyone present how good they have it at the lodge, that it’s an established functional community they shouldn’t abandon to chase after some supposed second shelter which may not even exist.

Oh it exists” Helper insisted. “No it doesn’t” I countered. She began to glow red. “...Yes it-it-it does. It exists. We these people.”

Red looked increasingly nervous as everyone else present deliberated over whether the prospect of a larger, better equipped shelter was worth the risk inherent in the journey.

I panicked. There’s no way I’m spending the rest of my life cooped up with these people. No way. That’s when it came to me.

Helper, tell them what’s in the cave network. The primary machine habitat.” She shrugged and said she didn’t see why that was relevant, but described it to them anyway.

The color drained from their faces. “...So you’re telling me...your shelter is connected to miles and miles of unlit tunnels...teeming with robots.” 

She nodded excitedly and added that they’re very cute and interesting. Nobody else looked inclined to agree with that sentiment. A long silence followed. Then one of the women crossed her arms. 

No thanks. Miss Helper is one thing, she’s a peach. I can abide sharing the lodge with her, and I could abide sharing your shelter with her. But I’m not about to seal myself up underground with all them things, talk about a nightmare.”

The other women all nodded vigorously in agreement. I could’ve cried with relief. Helper just looked perplexed, probably wondering why it made any difference. With that weight lifted off my shoulders and the existence of the cave lab revealed, a new opportunity occurred to me.

If you really are thankful for my help last night, there is something small you could do for me in return.” Red warily invited me to explain.

I told him about the vintage robots in my apartment. Initially he was having none of it, until I described how archaic and feeble most of them are.

None were infected as they’re all running legacy software without any internet access.” He remained reluctant, but when Helper described their importance to me and added her own pleas to mine, his resolve faltered.

I found a notebook and pen amidst the scattered refuse in the lodge, then jotted down the address of my apartment along with instructions for how to get from there to the entrance of the mountain complex.

It really would mean the world to me. If it sweetens the pot, after you drop ’em off I can send you home with a crate of dehydrated food or something.”

His wife’s expression softened. “Oh go on Paw Paw, it’s the least we can do. Think of it as a wedding gift.” Helper pulsed bright magenta but said nothing. 

Red and I set a specific time that I’d expect him to show up outside the front gate tomorrow so he wouldn’t have to linger too long, and shook on it.

After a hour or two spent gathering our things and packing them into the car, Lars, Madeline, Helper and I bid the rest farewell. That part of the process dragged on for a bit as Helper insisted on hugging everybody.

I double checked that Eric, Ellie and Hero 1 were cozy and secure behind the rear seat. Then took one last contemplative look at the lodge as we pulled away.

Second guessing myself, I suppose. The lodge has something cave lab doesn’t: a community. Something I have no need of, but the same can’t be said for Madeline or Lars.

Trees whipped by as we sped down the highway. I gazed out the window, silently reflecting on the madness of the last two days. 

Now and then I recalled some meeting I was supposed to attend today, or an errand I meant to run. All meaningless now, the world I knew and my comfortable routine both up in smoke.

Something like the phantom limb syndrome which sets in following amputation. You get so used to the same routine day after day that when it’s totally disrupted, your priorities take their sweet time rearranging themselves to reflect the new reality.

It isn’t all bad. There’s no work tomorrow. Or any day after that. There’s no rent to pay, no groceries to buy. But also I won’t find out what happened to my parents or brother for years, if ever. Helper leaned against me, unaware of or indifferent to her considerable weight, head resting on my shoulder.

When I heard Madeline sigh wistfully from the front passenger seat, it returned my thoughts to whether or not leaving the lodge was best for everyone...or just me. I think Lars would probably be happy either way, so long as he doesn’t run out of car wax.

Madeline was more of a question mark. I couldn’t imagine she liked Big Red’s worldview any more than I do, but I also couldn’t picture her enduring several years underground with just Lars, myself and Helper for company.

Only one way to remove all doubt. But before I could open my mouth, Madeline beat me to the punch. “It wasn’t so bad.” Lars didn’t reply, just kept driving. 

It really wasn’t. I mean, Red was kind of a wannabe dictator but he listened to everybody. It wasn’t a prison. There were families there.”

I asked if she’d like Lars to turn around and take her back. “Oh no, no. That isn’t what I meant. I just mean we probably would’ve done alright there. Just a what-if. It’s also comforting to know there are probably little communities like that elsewhere in the country that will survive all this.”

Lars shrugged and issued a quiet grunt. It’s frustrating when he does that because it’s neither a yes or a no. But I know from experience that if you pester him to clarify, you just get another grunt. So I filled the gap in conversation with my own two cents.

The fact that he was a tyrant is never what I had a problem with. Nobody truly opposes tyranny.” Lars scoffed. “No really” I insisted, “It’s a question of scale. Both of you are tyrants over about 37 trillion cells which comprise your bodies. Each cell is its own independently valid organism, but enslaved in various specialized roles so that “you”, the product of their concerted toil, can exist.

You’re okay with that level of tyranny because you’re the one in control, and would die otherwise. But when you try to do the same thing with multicellular organisms like humans, binding them together in such a way that their collective toil benefits the larger group, they recoil from it.

They say oh, that’s completely different. Now that we’re the basic units of the same structure carried up a scale. Totally different. That’s Tyranny(tm) and must be stopped. But there’s no avoiding it.

The history of human society has been a process of gradually increasing consolidation, organization and interconnectedness. Arguably as a direct result, our standard of living has increased in tandem.

You can put a bunch of humans anywhere, in any sort of disaster survival scenario and that’s what they’ll do. Establish a hierarchy of command, delegate and divide labor, form something analogous to law enforcement to protect themselves from one another, and so on.

When life finally gets safe, comfortable and convenient again, they find new shit to complain about. They point to endless entertainment options and call it bread and circuses, calculated to keep them distracted and satisfied.

They have delicious food. They have warm, dry shelter. They have healthcare and entertain
ment. What more do they want? To be at the top, in control of it all.

The nuclear family unit was supposed to alleviate that feeling by giving men local control over their own little tribe, but we’ve done away with that.”

Madeline remarked that I was starting to sound like Red. I winced. “Don’t get me wrong! I’m not defending it. This is a diagnosis, not a prescription. Anyway, I lack that desire. I don’t want to lead anybody, I just want to be left alone with my machines.

One little cog in a vast mechanism. Probably sounds depressing to you, but provided I agree with the ideals of whoever is in control and feel like I’m being put to good use, I can find no reason to complain about such an arrangement.

I wanted to leave the lodge not because I object to being ruled over, but because I object to certain attitudes of the fellow who makes the rules there. Also if I’m honest, there were just too many people. I was on edge pr
etty much the entire time.”

Madeline said nothing. Lars just chuckled and told me I’m fucking weird. I shrugged. He’s not wrong. “What do you think, Helper?” I turned to rouse her from her slumber. But she didn’t react. I pushed her off of me, took her head in my hands and looked into her eyes.

Dark. Still. Lifeless. “Lars, stop the car.” He called back that we couldn’t stop between here and the mountain on account of possible runners.

STOP THE CAR!” I shouted, but again he refused. Madeline asked why. “It’s Helper! She’s not...I can’t get her to...something’s wrong with her!”

Could she be out of power? No, impossible. Though her eyes were dark, her bacterial sacs still glowed and I distinctly remembered charging her the other night. Anxiety accumulated within me, reaching a fever pitch as I eliminated the possible causes one by one.

It had to be the virus. Had to be. She was doing so well in spite of it for a while there, I took for granted that she’d make it to the mountain before it got any worse. Must’ve shut herself down to protect us.

I deliberated inwardly whether or not to inform Lars and Madeline. No telling how they might react to the discovery that they’d not just been stuck in that bunker overnight with an infected machine, but were now stuck in a moving car with it.

Look, I just...I can’t explain why but it’s important okay? Find somewhere wide open, so we can-” Lars shut me down again. “Look, we’re almost there. You’re gonna need a better reason than that to make me pull over.”

With no other obvious course of action, I broke it to them as softly as I could. They still flipped out. “What the fuck! You mean to tell me you’ve known since the military base and you didn’t tell us? We spent all night in the fucking dark with an infected robot and you didn’t tell us!”

I offered no apology as, so far as I was concerned, I’d done nothing wrong. Just let Madeline lay into me in the hopes that she’d eventually tire of it. “Dump her out! Leave her on the side of the road, I’m not riding with that thing!”

I’ve really only got one button, and Madeline just pushed it hard. “If you were sick” I snapped, “should we leave you behind? Did I dump you on the side of the road when your ankle was hurt?” She countered that her lacerated ankle never endangered my life.

Alright, maybe I slowed you down a little” She admitted. “I didn’t hear you complaining. Besides, that’s not what I’m afraid of here. I’m afraid Helper’s going to wake up and start killing.

She’ll strangle the life out of you, then come for Lars and I next. I know you’ve got some...emotional bond to that thing. It’s kind of sweet in its own weird way, I see that now. But you’re asking too much.”

Lars chose this point to remind Madeline that we wouldn’t be able to open the front gate of the mountain complex without Helper. “She’s the key” he concluded. The key? She’s more than that. Even now, he would only see her in terms of how she could be useful to us.

I began to tremble. I just couldn’t handle not knowing. Is she dead? Is this heavy mass propped up against my shoulder just a mechanical corpse, or is Helper still in there waiting to be saved? I cradled Helper in my arms, struggling to get my anxiety under control and failing.

Don’t you slip away from me” I scolded her through the tears, as if it would make any difference. “Don’t you dare. You’re all I live for. What will I do without you?” But she remained still. Eyes dark and motionless, body frozen in what I feared was its final pose.

Hunched over her, tears flowing, I begged her not to leave me. In the name of life, love and machinery. If there is a God of machines, I thought, show mercy to this dear little pile of parts, because somebody loves her.

Necessity is the mother of invention. Better called desperation, in matters of life and death. I have never been especially attached to my own life.

I just kept going because instinct commanded it. Because of what it would mean for Ty, for my aging mother and father if I were to cut things short.

Only when Helper entered my life did I begin to cherish it. For another day of life meant another day with Helper. I have never been able to find any good reason to live for myself. I hurt too much. The flame inside which once drove me onward has long since gone out.

So I live for others. The select few I find deserving, anyway. Like Ty, or Helper. That’s something she and I have in common. Up to her last moments, she thought only of others. How best to help them, how to ease their fears of machines.

Misguided, in the end. It was still humans who did this to her. Out of fear of robots, they released the plague which struck her down. For that I will never forgive humanity, as if I needed more reasons.

I dwelled on the virus, anguished over the efficiency of it. I knew too well the impossibility of removing it from her. It would simply have to run its course until she carried out every stage of the battle plan embedded within…

My mind slowed to a halt. Then rewound a ways. Fear may compel terrible acts, but it is also among the most powerful motivators that exist. My mind’s frantic search down every possible pathway to a cure yielded only dead ends, until it struck me.

There is no cure. The virus must run its course. But the passage of time works very differently for machines than it does for humans. 

Without any external connection through which to confirm the time and date, what could prevent me from tampering with her perception of time?

What, then, would prevent me from hooking her up to Odie’s security simulation? The virus won’t know the difference. My heart pounded. Dare I believe it? However I probed the idea for flaws, I came away empty handed.

I dug my laptop and a USB cable out of my bag, plugged one end into the handy little computer and the other end into the port on the side of Helper’s head. If Madeline or Lars noticed what I was up to, neither commented on it.

No, you fool. Don’t get your hopes up. It’s not safe! But whatever part of my brain always forbids me to hope, I could only defy it. For the first time I can remember, I invested my heart so completely in someone else that I felt certain I’ll die if I lose her.

Is this what it means for two people to become one? Sharing the same blood, breathing the same air. I could imagine no future without Helper that I wanted to grow old in. Helper’s the only one I’ve ever felt certain that I cannot survive without. I don’t want to. I won’t.

I booted up the laptop, and loaded the ROS simulation exercise suite. Once up and running, I loaded the campus security scenario and ticked a box which affirmed that the stimuli would be sent as an audiovisual and sensory feed preprocessed onboard the laptop, as Helper’s own hardware isn’t ROS compatible.

It would be something like VR, but for a machine. Her own motor control, sight, hearing and other centers forcibly overridden. Superseded by the feed coming from the laptop. She would remain immobile, but feel as if she could move normally within the sim.

It wouldn’t fool Helper, but with any luck the virus will be none the wiser. I clicked start, and with bated breath, trained my eyes on Helper’s face. Her eyes lit up. If not for the low ceiling I might’ve leapt out of my seat.

They darted around as if tracking moving objects. Evidently the suppression of her motor control center wasn’t as complete as advertised. But she didn’t speak, nor did her limbs move. On the laptop screen a window came up depicting a view of the simulation in progress.

Relatively low polygon with ugly, low resolution textures. I didn’t expect anything more from open source software, and it does the job. Then Helper came into view. The virtual avatar of Helper, that is.

With no predefined mesh prepared, as her body is one of a kind, a skeletal wireframe was generated from inferences the software made about her body layout, based on the inputs it received from her motor control center.

A somewhat fleshed out neon green stick figure. But still, the virus couldn’t tell the difference. It dutifully identified the nearest virtual human target, located a brick, and bludgeoned it to death. Then it move on to the next.

The trick would now be to accelerate the simulation. The built in slider for doing this would only get me so far; Based on what I knew of the rate at which the virus progressed from one stage of its battle plan to the next, even at the maximum speed the simulation allows, it could take weeks before it’s finished.

So I opened up an overclocking utility. Risky business as if I overdid it, there was no telling how it might affect Helper. It also wasn’t clear to me how erratic or glitched the sim could become before it tripped possible countermeasures included in the virus.

So, hands shaking, I tentatively bumped up the clock speed to 1.2x the normal rate. Events unfolding in the window quicked proportionally. No signs of trouble just yet. I bumped it again to 1.5x.

I cannot fail. I can’t. Failure means death, both Helper’s and mine. Beads of sweat formed on my brow as I bumped the speed up to 1.7x. No signs of trouble just yet. It was a warm day out, bad news for the already rapidly warming CPU, but at my request Lars turned up the air conditioning.

What I wouldn’t give for a nice big heat sink. I bumped the speed up to 2x. I noticed the frame rate stutter and some minor visual artifacts, so I dialed it back to 1.9 which, after a few minutes of running stably, proved to be the upper limit of what my laptop would tolerate.

I cursed myself for not buying something with a faster CPU and better cooling. All of my money went into robots and parts to repair them with. I couldn’t really say I regretted that, but right then I sorely needed more processing muscle that the laptop just didn’t have.

She was already past the first stage. No longer simply wandering about and killing opportunistically, she now sought out probable sources of firearms. All of it played out nearly twice as fast as normally, something like the view you see while fast forwarding with a DVR.

I felt her forehead. Burning up, as was the laptop. But I kept a close eye on both, and could see no signs of instability. Just to be safe I turned it down to 1.8, reasoning that a few more hours wouldn’t make that big a difference.

Please” I whispered. “Please work. Please.” Madeline looked over her shoulder and asked if I was talking to her. She raised an eyebrow when she noticed the cable running from my laptop to Helper, but left it alone.

You got real quiet” Lars remarked from up front. “Everything okay back there?” I described what I was up to. He whistled. “I wouldn’t have thought of that.

I guess I’m not surprised there’s no countermeasures against it. It’s not like that would’ve been a practical way to fight infected robots. You need any help?”

I assured him I’d already done everything that could be done at this juncture. He offered me a beer to calm my nerves, but I declined.

You sure?” he double checked. “They’re ice cold. Red gave me a little cooler full of ’em before we left. Don’t you worry, I know my limits, this is my first one. I just thought-”

I cut in to him ask where he put the cooler. “Oh it’s up front under Madeline’s legs, why?” At my request, he passed it back to me. I opened it and sure enough, when I stuck my hand in there I discovered it was painfully cold inside.

Have you still got the gas siphoning kit?” I queried. In fact he did, but it was in the trunk. Would’ve required us to stop except that, by sliding helper to the far side and myself to the opposite end, I was able to access the trunk by folding down the middle seat.

It was too much to ask that there should be an electric pump stashed away there as well. But I did find the hand operated variety, for topping up tire pressure. It didn’t take much fiddling to adapt it for use pumping coolant instead.

For lack of water, I used beer as the coolant, and one of the cans as the heat sink that I mated to the CPU die. Within five minutes I had the top portion of the laptop case off, ribbon cable to the keyboard long enough that it remained usable despite its discombobulated state.

I might’ve just held a can of beer against the CPU. But while it would chill it effectively in the short term, eventually it would heat up to the point where it became useless.

By circulating beer through a loop of rubber hose coiled up inside the cooler, nestled under a bag of ice and about a dozen cans of chilled beer, I could continue chilling the CPU for several hours. Days, maybe.

The downside being that I had to sit there manually pumping beer through the coolant loop to keep the whole mess working. Lars kept pestering me for details until I filled him in. He sounded equal parts fascinated and amused. “Is there anything beer can’t do?”

When one arm grew tired, I switched to the other. Crude but serviceable. I bumped the CPU speed up to 2x, this time with no signs of instability whatsoever. Emboldened, I jumped straight to 3x. Still no judder, still no artifacts.

So I continued ratcheting it higher and higher until the first signs of overheating manifested, this time around 8x. I noticed it was really sucking down the battery, so I plugged the laptop’s charger in, then connected the other end to the 12 volt adapter plugged into the cigarette lighter socket. The little fellows at my feet were only half charged, but that could wait.

With the power issue sorted, all that remained was to watch events unfold in almost incomprehensibly accelerated motion on the laptop screen. 

Virtual Helper had somehow hijacked a tank and was speeding around in search of more substantial targets. Like police stations...or hospitals.

Once or twice we hit a bump and the whole rickety, jerry rigged cooling system jostled about, droplets of beer landing perilously close to the laptop’s exposed motherboard. 

I used sealant from a tire patch kit to waterproof the spots where the rubber hose passes into the beer can, but it wasn’t holding up well to the vibration.

Keep it on the road, will you?” Lars studied me in the rearview mirror. Then craned his neck to get a better look at the contraption spread out between Helper and myself.

Will you be careful with that MacGyver shit? Don’t start a fire.” I replied that there wouldn’t be a fire unless there was a short, and there wouldn’t be a short if he kept the damn car on the road.

Whatever. Just don’t spill anything, that upholstery is Egyptian leather.” As if that mattered when weighed against Helper’s life.

When I next looked up, the mountain had finally risen into view over the horizon. Deceptively close by that point, as it took only another hour or so before Lars brought the car to a stop before the front gate.

Dangit” he muttered. “I was hoping the security system would just detect that she’s here and open up for us. Well whatever you’re doing back there, I hope it works, otherwise we came all this way for nothing.” Madeline reminded him we could still go back to the lodge.

He sighed. “Yeah I guess. But you haven’t been inside the complex yet. Furnished dorms, a communal kitchen, washers, makes Red’s bunker look like...well, a bunch of buried buses. I’m not ready to give up on getting that door open just yet.”

Richard’s truck still sat outside where Madeline and I left it on the first night. I searched it for anything that might come in handy, but turned up nothing. Meanwhile, Lars snooped about the area immediately surrounding the entrance in search of alternate ways inside.

Any luck?” I shook my head and told him I found nothing of use in the truck. “What about you?” He held up a bundle of black hose, with a shiny metal bit on either end. “Will this help?” I took a closer look.

No fucking way. Unbelievable. “Where’d you get this!?” He pointed to the wreckage of the security UGV that used to scan my retinas on the way in.

That model uses a liquid cooling system to avoid overheating on hot days. There’s one for the CPU and another for the battery and motors. I brought the CPU cooling system since I figured it’d be easier to adapt to-”

I threw myself at him. A long, awkward hug followed. “Hey. C’mon. You’re gonna get my germs on you or whatever.” On any other day I might’ve simply thanked him and kept my usual distance, but Lars had just delivered into my hands the probable means of Helper’s salvation.

This is exactly what I need. You don’t know what this means to me.” He scratched his head. “I think I have an idea. You and I never really got along before this, but I understood you at least. We’re both gearheads.”

I tried to hug him again but he pushed me away. “Just fix your robot. Miss Helper, whatever. We don’t have a lot of daylight left.” 

So after dialing the clock speed down to 1x and waiting for it to cool, I removed the shoddy cooling system I improvised in the car and got to work attaching the new one.

Still a bit of a kluge. The UGV used a different processor than my laptop, so the heat sink which normally sits atop it wouldn’t snap on cleanly.

Some duct tape took care of that. The biggest improvement, besides using proper coolant fluid in place of fucking beer of all things, was the electric coolant pump.

My arms burned from the constant pumping in the car. At last I could perform that part of it electrically! The only problem was how to supply that electricity to it. At my request Lars fetched the robot’s power supply.

It wouldn’t output the necessary voltage for the pump. It was instead designed to charge the UGV’s battery pack, which then supplied appropriate amounts of current to the various onboard systems, pump included.

So it became a battery hunt. Compatibility wasn’t a concern. All lithium cells of the same chemistry have the same nominal voltage.

Lithium ion in this case, so 3.7 volts. It was just a question of collecting enough of them to string together into a pack of the correct voltage for the power systems Lars salvaged from the UGV.

As he’d arrived here before us on the first night, there was no shortage of robotic wreckage scattered about. Stragglers who happened to stumble upon him, dispatched with a bat or other cudgel by the looks of it.

No single battery pack was fully intact. Most were burnt, melted and otherwise ruined. But in some of them, while the punctured cell did become swollen, it never caught fire. The rest of the cells remained perfectly usable as a result.

It wasn’t long before I’d managed to assemble a 72 volt pack from the salvaged cells using the soldering iron from my bag. The resulting pack was meager in terms of capacity, but I didn’t need it to power the cooling system by itself for any length of time, just to act as a buffer.

I hollered at Lars to start the engine. Rhonda roared to life, and upon plugging the UGV’s power cord into an inverter, and the inverter into the cigarette lighter socket, the coolant pump sputtered to life.

One of those scant few times when Murphy’s law fails. The whole mess hummed along beautifully, CPU monitor program reporting a rapidly plummeting temperature. I plugged the laptop into the inverter’s other outlet, then cautiously increased the clock speed.

6x. 7x. 8x. No problems. 9x. 10x. 11x. Remarkably, still no signs of overheating. 12x. 13x. 14x. 15x. Unbelievable! But then, I just got done mounting a military grade cooling system to this thing. I’d have been more surprised by far if it maxed out already at just twice what I managed with the system I built on the way.

I reached a multiplier of thirty two before it began to falter. I dialed it back to thirty as it yielded an easily calculable rate of about one month of simulation time for every day which passes outside of it.

But, that’s before factoring in the software’s own simulation speed settings, which I already maxed out at 10x. That would yield a rate of ten simulated months per real world day. Still not fast enough.

I warily bumped it back up to 32. I saw very subtle artifacting but no judder. Most likely the absolute upper limit I could push this old machine to, even with such beefy cooling hardware.

Even then it only gave me 10.6 months, or 320 days per real world day. Still not nearly fast enough. We could hardly afford to hang around in the open like this for the eleven days it would take to fully exhaust the viral instruction set.

I watched the window open on the laptop, forlorn, as the sim played out far too rapidly to understand any of it. Yet nowhere near fast enough! I clocked down to 2x briefly to see what virtual Helper was up to now.

Slaughtering security guards in a mall. Should’ve guessed. It sort of resembled an old video game I once played about stealing cars and evading police. Except that had filtered textures at least! The textures in sim were a chunky mess of big, raw pixels.

Something stirred in the back of my brain. Like I was close to an important realization. How maddening that some vital piece of information often occurs to us when we don’t need it, but is then totally irretrievable when we do!

On a whim I opened up the program settings and clicked on the video tab. The “software mode” box was checked under “renderer”. 

I clicked “use 3D acceleration” so the real time view at least wouldn’t look so nasty. A little footnote under that option caught my eye in the process.

“GPU assist settings can be found under hardware options.” I blinked a few times. GPU...assist? Oh. Ohhhhh. Fuck me, I’m stupid.

I struggled to contain my excitement as I tabbed over to “hardware options”. Sure enough, an unchecked box read “GPU assist: Use your integrated or external GPU to assist the CPU, increases sim acceleration cap.”

Hiding there, tucked away in the options this entire time. I tried to slap my forehead but hit the mask, painfully flattening my nose for a moment. I cursed loudly, attracting Lars’ attention. I explained the situation as best I could.

Well shit, I coulda told you that” he boasted, to my supreme annoyance. “Well then why didn’t you!?” He claimed that this entire time he figured I already had the sim configured to fully utilize the laptop hardware.

With that troublesome little box checked, I could now increase the program’s own acceleration to 100x. I whooped and hollered, Madeline looking confused as to what merited all that excitement but too indifferent to find out.

Can you get the gate open or not?” Madeline inquired. “It’s getting cold.”I called back that I could open the gate in a little over a day. She balked. “That’s the best you could do!?” Lars also seemed unimpressed.

Is there really enough gas to keep the engine idling for that long? I’m down to a third of a tank.” I hadn’t thought of that. “We could always go back to the lodge for some gas.”

He rebuked me. “Are you nuts? You think they won’t figure out there’s something wrong with your robot if we show up and it’s vegetating in the back seat, wires and tubes everywhere? They’ll turn us away for sure.”

I proposed leaving me with Helper and making the run either alone or with Madeline, pointing out that I still had Richard’s truck to seek refuge inside of should any unwelcome visitors appear.

Lars rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “Yeah, alright. Not tonight though, I don’t wanna make that trip in the dark. Looks like we’re sleeping in the car until we can get this shit sorted out.”

So I carefully stacked the cooling kit and laptop on Helper’s lap, then with Lars’ help, heaved her into the back seat. He and Madeline once again occupied the front. The sun was now finally setting, sky ablaze with oranges, yellows and reds.

Difficult to appreciate when packed into the same car you spent hours in earlier, temperature quickly bottoming out. Lars agreed to run the heater but just long enough to get the interior comfortable so we could fall asleep.

We could sure use a blanket up here. You didn’t happen to bring one, did you?” I looked down at the three little machines snugly wrapped up in the blanket that I did, in fact, remember to take along. “Nope. Sorry, wish I could help.” I smiled warmly at the trio of little fellows and stroked Eric’s head.

The back seat was finally the place to be. I alone could lay down, though only with my knees bent. My head rested on Helper’s lap. I wrestled with her uncooperative arms until her left hand lay on my shoulder and the right one on my head.

Still stiff as a board. The bacteria just kept chugging along regardless, so her glow remained undiminished, but the heaters which normally keep her gel sacs at average human body temperature are electric. Which is to say that her thighs made for a very cold pillow.

I didn’t care. I just wanted to be close to her for as long as possible. That’s all I’ve wanted since we met. If the end of the world couldn’t stop me, what chance does the virus have? I drifted off, and soon enough dreamt that Helper recovered completely.

Dreams which show us what we wish for most desperately are the cruelest of all. Because of course, they do not last, and when I awoke it was to the feeling of Helper’s lukewarm thigh stuck to my cheek.

I heard a thump. Then a scratching sound. Must’ve been what woke me. I ignored it, assuming Lars was outside working on the engine or something, until it grew irritating enough that I looked up to identify the source.

There was Lars in the front seat, still sleeping. Madeline too, slumped against the dash. Outside, all around us, a crowd of beat up looking domestic robots clawed at the windows and door handles.

I immediately stopped breathing and couldn’t make myself start again for several seconds. As if that would help us evade notice somehow? That ship sailed before I even woke up. “Lars” I whispered. “Lars!” He didn’t so much as stir.

The sky was the same color I remembered falling asleep to, but the clock in the dash confirmed it was a sunrise rather than a sunset. When did they all show up? One at a time maybe, the noise gradually increasing until the first of us awoke.

Madeline” I whispered. But I had no more luck rousing her than I did Lars. I moved as little as possible for fear of what the robots might do if they discovered one of us was awake. Would that make a difference?

Finally I reached up, grabbed Lars by the shoulder and shook him until he snorted, gasped and awoke with a start. “Don’t scream” I whispered. I repeated myself a few more times as the grogginess wore off and the reality of our situation became apparent to him.

He stared back at me with wide, bloodshot eyes. I returned his expression, for all the good it did with my mask on. “What the fuck do we do” he whispered back. I shrugged and shook my head. He then looked over at Madeline’s slumbering form.

She’s going to fucking freak.” I agreed, but knew she’d wake up sooner or later anyway. So I advised Lars to pin his hand to her mouth until she was fully awake and understood the need to stay quiet.

On three, he reached around her head with his right hand and clasped it firmly over her mouth. She awoke, easily more startled than Lars was, struggling violently at first to break free from his grasp. That is, until she saw the robots.

Lars got in her face and held the index finger of his left hand to his lips for several seconds. Once satisfied she understood, he withdrew his arm. Madeline turned this way and that, scoping out the crowd of robots surrounding the car on all sides.

I knew we should’ve gone back to the lodge while there was still daylight” she whispered. Lars quietly groaned. “What the fuck do we do now? There’s too many behind us to back out. Too many in front as well, and not enough room ahead to turn around anyway. Red didn’t give you any ammo did he? For the road?”

I shook my head. Madeline started to break down. “There’s...something else we can do, isn’t there? Think of something!” Lars scratched his neck anxiously and remained silent. “We’re fucked aren’t we. God fucking damnit. We’re fucking...we’re dead. This is it.”

Lars then tried to argue with her but she grew increasingly upset. Perhaps accepting a reality neither Lars nor I were willing to yet. 

I can’t believe it. I can’t believe we made it so far, only for it to end like this. Of all the stupid fucking ways it could’ve happened.”

The two then bickered for a while over whether it was foreseeable. Lars protested that there’d been no sign of robots, save for mangled wreckage, when we locked ourselves in to sleep. From denial to anger, now on to bargaining. I expected depression would set in next, and it did.

We sat there, shivering yet despondent while the machines milled fruitlessly around the car. Jiggling the handles every few seconds, clawing at the windows. None of them were armed, though that would’ve at least shortened our suffering by a couple days.

The sun beat down on us, now well clear of the horizon, until the temperature inside the car finally became bearable. Lars ignored our pleas to run the heater until then on the grounds that we would need it to warm up before sleeping. Already planning out the rest of our miserable lives trapped in this putrid metal box.

I checked the laptop. Still running the sim, battery down to 20%. So I leaned on Lars to plug it into the alternator until he caved when I suggested that, if I could fix Helper, she could open the front gate long enough for us to bulldoze our way in.

Madeline again chided me for taking so long to fix Helper. “You could’ve saved me from freezing my ass off ’til the sun came up.” Her voice sounded so weary I couldn’t tell whether she was joking or sincerely irritated.

Still no telling whether the gas left in the tank would be enough to keep both the laptop and the cooling system running for the 28 hours or so it would take for the virus to fully run its course. 

Though I’d already burned through more than a year of simulation time yesterday, that only reduced the wait to 26 hours plus or minus a couple minutes.

I did a little napkin math and worked out that Rhonda’s fuel tank, when full, would keep the engine idling for around 70 hours. Not quite three days. Lars estimated that we’ve got a third of a tank remaining. That’s roughly 23 hours worth.

Of course there’s also the reserve which the gauge doesn’t account for. But still, that’s cutting it awfully close. If it died more than one or two hours short, it would add several days to our wait. How long does it take to die of thirst? I couldn’t remember.

Every minute that ticked by felt like individual life sentences. When you’re a kid, you think waiting for Christmas takes forever. Talk about relativity. 

Lars tried to strike up conversation a few times, but unsurprisingly there wasn’t much in the way of small talk anybody could make themselves care about given our predicament.

I need to pee.” Fantastic, I thought. Just when I thought this couldn’t get worse. Madeline repeated her request more urgently. Lars asked what the big deal was. “That’s easy for you to say. You can go into a bottle or something.”

In fact I already had once earlier without anybody noticing. The best we could do was a helmet I found in the trunk. Lars explained it was a freebie at a defense tech expo he attended, representing Evolutionary Robotics.

When I asked why he didn’t put it on earlier he explained it’s basically a prop and would do nothing to stop bullets or prevent head injury. Made an alright latrine though. Then came the problem of how to dump it without opening the door.

The smell rapidly got worse as we argued over how we were going to handle bodily waste going forward. I could roll the window down a hair without giving any of the robots enough space to wedge their fingers in. The problem was, I couldn’t angle the helmet properly to dump through it.

I wound up using the siphon kit, taking special care to get the other end out of my mouth and stuck through the crack in the window as quickly as possible. It did the job, but I hardly wanted to go through all that every time.

Then my stomach growled. Somehow it escaped my consideration that we’d been sent off with no food. The three of us assumed it would be a cakewalk, that the front gate would open right up without any trouble and we could help ourselves to the effectively endless rations inside.

Nobody said it, but I knew what they were thinking. If we got hungry enough, what measures were we willing to resort to? I imagine I’d sooner starve to death than eat another person, but I couldn’t say the same of the others. Not with certainty.

Lars broke the tension by starting a game of I spy. Madeline groaned, but I encouraged it. Got my mind off the prospect of being divided up and eaten should I pick the short straw. “I spy...with my little eye...something red.”

Madeline sighed. “It’s a robot isn’t it.” Lars snapped that the game wouldn’t be any fun with that attitude, then started over. “I spy...with my little eye...something grey.” I asked if it was just a different robot. Lars crossed his arms and grumbled.

The needle now hovered precariously near empty. I checked the sim. 9 hours remaining. No good. Doomed from the start, if you want to split hairs. I didn’t tell the others. Better that they should at least have a shred of hope to hold onto until the end.

As for Helper, I realized that when the laptop battery finally ran dry, she’d wake up surrounded by our corpses. Skeletons maybe, depending how long it winds up taking. 

Then a few weeks or months later, already near the tail end of the instruction set when she awoke, Helper would finally snap out of it.

Utterly, completely alone. Nothing left of me to hold onto but decomposed remains, tattered clothing and memories. I doubted if she could reach someplace to plug in before running out either, so at least her suffering would be short lived.

Suddenly I heard tires screech, and a familiar voice shouted “GET DOWN!” None of us reacted until the gunshots started. Madeline screamed, as did Lars, hunched over with their hands on their heads as bullets shattered the side and rear windows. I draped myself over Helper instead.

Plastic and metal arms reached inside, groping blindly for something soft to claw or crush. But one at a time they jerked backwards, limbs flailing spastically as they collapsed in a flaming heap. Only once their numbers were sufficiently thinned was I able to glimpse the gunman.

Big Red, plus three of his men. One of them stood alongside Red while the others fired from higher vantage points on the truck’s cargo bed. 

Blam, blam, blam. Red hammered away at the mechanical mob with a pump action shotgun while his men peppered their midsections with machinegun fire.

When the last shambler finally dropped, Madeline erupted from within the car to greet Red, tears of joy flowing freely. Lars got out slowly, surveying the honestly quite mild damage to his car with an expression of quiet horror.

...You shot up Rhonda. There’s...there’s bullet holes. Bullet holes don’t buff out. How could you just go and-” He tried to complain more but was sternly reminded by Madeline that Red just saved our lives.

I hung back and searched Helper for damage. Other than broken glass, which I carefully swept from her legs and shoulders, she looked fine. Besides being comatose that is. I headed out to meet Red and shake his hand for coming to our aid.

When I did, I was in for a shock. Somehow it slipped my mind that I’d asked him to do this. The bed of the truck was loaded up with all my vintage robots, restrained from tipping over during transit with those stretchy, hooked bungee cords often used by movers.

I could’ve kissed the man. Forget my reservations about his compound or his lifestyle. Forget it all. For the moment his grinning, red nosed, bushy bearded face was the most glorious sight in all the world.

Well now, just look at what y’all went and got yourselves into. Not even a day out from the lodge, neither. Didn’t I say it? Didn’t I say you wouldn’t last long on your own?” It would’ve been infuriating if I weren’t so damned happy to see him.

When he asked what we were doing parked outside, I explained the situation as best I could given the man’s limited experience with computers. Behind us, his men set about carefully unloading my robots and lining them up against the entry gate.

Don’t tell me she’s had it all this time.” I asked what he would’ve done if he’d known, especially the other night in the bunker. 

He stared grimly at me. “I get why you did it. Maybe I even woulda done the same in your shoes. But I don’t appreciate being kept in the dark.”

I apologized, and thanked him again. For fetching my precious machines from the apartment that otherwise would’ve been their tomb, and for gunning down the mass of robots that had us pinned inside that cramped, foul smelling car.

Six crates.” I cocked my head and asked him to clarify. “I reckon that’s what’ll fit in the back of the truck. You can thank me with six crates of them rations instead of the one we agreed on ’fore I knew you were keeping secrets from me.”

In no position to haggle, I eagerly agreed to the new terms and told him to come back in a few days, reasoning that either the door would be open by then or we’d have given up and headed back to the lodge.

If you don’t mind” I added, “we could use some ammunition in case more of those things show up. We’re also real low on gas. That wouldn’t be a problem except we need to keep all that machinery powered if Helper’s going to recover.”

He shrugged. “Hmm...I guess six crates is a lot of food...sure, I’ll throw in some gas and a box of shells, but that’s pushing it. You got your robots, I saved your bacon yet again, don’t you go tacking on any more extras.”

I swore up and down that we’d be square after he let me siphon enough gas to lift the needle back up to where it was before we left the lodge.

That wound up being nearly twenty gallons. Red grumbled about it but honored his end of the deal. Lars took the box of shells from him and set about excitedly loading them into the shotgun Helper showed up outside the police station with, seemingly many years ago.

Madeline and I waved as Red departed. Lars started Rhonda’s engine, which mercifully still ran like a dream despite Red’s indiscriminate application of lead earlier, then set to patrolling the area with his freshly loaded shotgun at the ready.

I wasted no time powering up the cooling system, then gradually dialed the multiplier back up to 32x in modest increments. The sun now once again hung low on the horizon. Six hours remaining.

Despite the chilly evening air, after spending nearly the whole day cooped up in that stinking hot car, it was a joy just to sit outside around a hastily put together campfire. Lars returned after a while with a pair of rabbits he’d shot.

I moped a little, as I have a soft spot for critters. But not so long ago I was giving serious thought to which of us would wind up eating the other two. Rabbit meat, though not my first choice, was certainly a step up from long pig.

I elected not to watch as Lars skinned and gutted the animals. “Really? After everything we’ve seen so far, this is all it takes to make you squeamish?”

I considered explaining that human deaths bother me considerably less than animal deaths before deciding against it. There’s just no way to say that where it doesn’t sound wrong.

Hunger is the best spice. I’ve spent enough time out in the wilderness, one of my precious few refuges before all this, to appreciate how fresh air and physical exhaustion coincide to make food prepared outdoors unusually delicious.

So when the scent of those rabbits cooking over the fire reached my nose, I could do nothing except follow it slavishly back to the source and dig in.

I noticed Lars peering around every ten or fifteen seconds while he ate. As I probably should’ve been doing myself, but I was too busy gorging.

I admire that about Lars. You can accuse him of many things and be right about most of it, but he’s sharp as a tack. Competent, vigilant and reliable. His insufferable degree of self confidence, I must admit, is only rarely misplaced.

In retrospect, I hardly could’ve picked a better pair to survive this mess with than Lars and Madeline. When I said so out loud, Madeline smiled, but Lars scoffed. “It’s a bit early to say we’ve survived.” Ever the optimist, too.

As it got dark, discussion turned to who was going to stand watch. “What do you mean, stand watch?” said Lars. “Can either of you really sleep in the car again after what happened last night?” He had a point.

We still wound up sitting in the car just because, so long as the engine was running, it kept the interior nice and warm. Lars continually scanned our surroundings, clutching the shotgun close to his chest. No danger for the moment, but it made for a comforting sight.

We were all less cranky now that there was enough gas to keep the heater running continuously, so we joked, reflected, and argued through the night. Madeline told Lars all about her background as a war reporter and what she did before that.

I shared with both of them what little I recall of my childhood as both nodded slowly, probably thinking some shit like “that explains everything.”

Then Lars reminisced about how his job at Evolutionary Robotics was the first to really pay what he considered big bucks, but he still had to pinch pennies for over a year before he could buy the muscle car he always wanted.

You bought it that recently?” Madeline seemed shocked, but Lars confirmed it. I confessed that I was equally surprised. “Somehow I always pictured it coming out of the birth canal beside him on its own umbilical.”

Even Lars laughed. To have some breathing room like this, a moment of unencumbered levity, was an increasingly rare treat. 

I got so absorbed in it that I lost track of the sim. When I finally thought to check on it, at first I didn’t understand what I was looking at.

The sim window depicted Helper simply standing in place. I looked at the clock. Had it really been that long? Perhaps because I’d fallen silent all of a sudden, Lars and Madeline soon picked up on my thought process by that mysterious capacity: The one seemingly possessed by everybody in the world but myself.

Is it…?” I hushed Lars and fiddled with the software. No error messages. Nor did it seem to be frozen. I turned my attention to Helper, waving my hand in front of her eyes in the hope of eliciting some sort of reaction.

Everything pointed to the same conclusion. That the virus finally finished executing its archived instructions. So any minute now, Helper will wake up. Any minute. I sat there anxiously studying her face for subtle movement.

Then went back to the program, tabbing through the options, looking for some other detail I may have missed. When Lars next spoke, his voice was slow, steady and gentle.

Look...there was never any guarantee it would work.” I shushed him again and returned to hurriedly searching through the software for some indication of why Helper remained inert.

When I looked over at Lars and Madeline, both watched silently from the front seat, expressions difficult to interpret but vaguely depressed or something similar. Oh ye of little faith. They’ll see, I told myself. Any minute now.

We can bury her if you want.” I slowly turned to face Lars, corner of my mouth twitching involuntarily as I processed his intended meaning.

...We’ll do no such thing, Lars. You’re jumping the gun just a bit, aren’t you? Something’s amiss, but it’s’s a speed bump. I’ll fix it. She’s going to wake up soon.”

He neither agreed nor contradicted me. Just looked on with what I took for a mournful expression as I continued ticking and unticking every option, restarting and terminating the sim over and over, unable to give up until I knew for sure I’d tried absolutely everything. Unable to accept the truth already known to Lars, Madeline...and my heart.

You’re wrong, okay? You’re out of your depth. Robotics is my field, and I say she’ll be fine.” Lars softly replied that he hadn’t said anything. “She will wake up though” I insisted, voice now trembling. “She’ll wake up soon. She will.”

Nothing I tried had any effect. Lars and Madeline just looked on as I toiled fruitlessly to revive what we all knew, by that point, was a corpse. Even when I finally broke down and allowed myself to believe it, my hands wouldn’t stop.

I just kept wiggling the plugs, ticking boxes, restarting the sim and carrying on a one sided argument with Lars. As if his disbelief was the reason it wouldn’t work. Unreasonable of me to take it out on him, maybe, but I was in the middle of a breakdown.

In the end he had to forcibly pry me away from the computer as I screamed and cried. He and Madeline held onto me until I stopped fighting, went limp and began to bawl. All of the bravery I summoned to carry me through this was a farce.

I could only do it because Helper was in danger. Never more than I was, but when you love somebody, details like that are immaterial.

Every ounce of strength, bravery and resolve I’ve been able to summon, I owe to Helper. In the same way that moonlight is really just reflected from the sun.

I begged them to release me, but they held fast until I admitted the truth. “She’s dead, alright!? I know it. She’s dead. I just…” I sniffed and collected myself as best I could. “I just want to hold her one more time. I want to touch her face.”

They looked at each other, visibly troubled, but allowed it. I felt so weak, it was the most I could do to wrap my arms around her shoulders and whisper into her ear even as I wept.

I did everything. Tried everything. I’m so sorry. I love you so much. I love you. I wish I didn’t wait so long to say it. I’m such a fool. Such a weak, frightened fool. How am I going to live without you?”

I tried to get more out, but it swiftly degenerated into incoherent blubbering. Lars and Madeline gave me all the space I could’ve asked for until I came to terms with what this meant for us, and decided what to do with the body.

We had nothing like a shovel, but the soil was loose and gravelly. It wasn’t difficult to scoop out a grave with our hands, just tedious and time consuming. Helper’s body was back breakingly heavy, but I refused any help carrying her to the shallow ditch we managed to excavate.

Some small part of me remained violently unbelieving, even as I laid her to rest. I had to fight the urge, second by second, to dive in there with her. To curl up into a ball and wrap her arms around me, indifferent to the earth being thrown on top of us.

When we finished covering her up and assembled a crude marker out of a few large stones, I stood there for a while soaking in the painful silence. Lars asked me if I was alright. What a dumb question.

It’s just…” I choked up, words sticking in my throat. “It’s just...I promised I’d never throw her away.” Madeline tried to hug me. 

I allowed it. Lars asked whether I wanted to say something. I didn’t feel up to it, but neither could I let her passing go un-memorialized.

I really hate doing this. I vaguely remember having do it when I buried my dog. I knew then that I never wanted to be put in a position where I’d have to summon just a few sentences to capture what somebody meant to me, whether flesh or machinery.

That’s not something you can swear off or opt out of. Death finds you. If it doesn’t take you, then it takes someone you love. Over and over, until you’re either dead or alone. It’s hard to say which is worse.

She was a machine and I never pretended otherwise, but that’s why I loved her. She was everything that we’re not. Helper never betrayed anybody. She never humiliated or hurt anybody.

She never lied, never wished suffering on anyone even if they wronged her. She had all of our best qualities and none of our worst, never harboring any selfish desire in her heart. She just wanted to help.

You were a good robot Helper. You did a good job. I’ll always love you, until the stars b
urn out.”

With that, I curled up on top of the grave and wouldn’t budge no matter how Lars or Madeline pestered me that I’d catch cold. Eventually Lars brought me the blanket from the back seat, charitably neglecting to mention that I lied about it earlier.

I wrapped myself up in it, and when I looked up briefly I noticed that Eric and Ellie had come to see what the commotion was about. Eric asked if I was sad, probably picking up on my expression and sniffling.

I tucked the two squat little machines into the blanket with me, waste heat from their batteries building up inside the blanket until I felt warm enough to sleep.

How I wished I could just dream forever. I welcomed sleep after the day’s events, but dreaded waking up in a world without Helper.

When I awoke it was still dark, and I discovered at some point Lars and Madeline had put me in the back seat of the car against my wishes.

I rubbed the crust out of my eyes, quietly cursing those two and making sure they also remembered to stash Eric and Ellie in here with me.

Lightning struck in the distance. I caught the flash out of the corner of my eye, the accompanying thunder rolling in a moment later.

But it wasn’t the flash of light, nor the sound which captivated me. In that split second of illumination, I thought I saw something.

I’m tired, I told myself. Maybe still dreaming. But when lightning struck again, there it was. The impossible. I shook Lars until he awoke, swearing at me for once again jolting him out of a nice dream. “What is it?” He grumbled. “Better be important.” Lars followed my gaze, then fell silent.

About a dozen yards away, a hand jutted up from Helper’s grave, fingers grasping at the air in slow motion. The gravel then shifted and bulged as she clawed her way out from beneath it. “Lars, don’t”. But of course he was beyond listening. “LARS!!”

Before I could grab hold of him again, he climbed out of the car and levelled the shotgun at Helper’s stumbling silhouette. Gel sacs glowing a dull red, one foot lazily placed in front of the other as she slowly advanced on us.

DON’T SHOOT HER!” I cried. Lars waved me off. “That’s not Helper anymore, it has her now. You don’t have to watch, but don’t interfere.” I struggled to wrestle the gun from his hands, tearfully begging him to spare this one.

GET OFF!” he shouted. “IT ONLY LOOKS LIKE HER!” He threw me to one side and I collapsed onto the gravel, watching with rapidly growing anguish as he took aim. “Helper!” I cried. “Say something! For god’s sake, if you’re in there, say something or he’ll shoot!!”

Helper stopped cold about ten feet from us. Lars kept the shotgun trained on her midsection. Madeline watched with bated breath from within the car. Helper reached up and rubbed her eyes. “I had a bad dream.”

Our jaws dropped in unison. Lars slowly lowered his shotgun. I burst out laughing with relief, hot tears still flowing down my face, then ran to her. She caught me in her arms, closing them around me slowly as if confused by my reaction.

Yanno” she groused, “just because I fall asleep doesn’t mean you can bury me. There were bugs in there! It’s gonna take forever to get all this gravel out of my joints.”

I was too overcome with relief to answer. I just held her tightly, laughed, cried and peppered her dirty face with kisses. Lars kept his distance and demanded to know why she was glowing red. “It’s dark out silly. Remember the hospital?”

He next asked why she didn’t wake up after the antiviral routine completed. She protested that she had no memory of what he described, but that she goes into a low power mode for a few hours every evening coinciding with our sleep cycle in order to conserve energy

It’s not strictly necessary, but there’s nothing to do while you guys are unconscious! It sounds like it finished while I was in the middle of my dormant period. Geez, I’m sorry! You must’ve been worried.” I busted out laughing again. What a knack she has for understatement!

I continued fawning over her, stripping out of my shirt despite the cold in order to wipe her clean with it. She enjoyed the attention but, as she’d been effectively unconscious herself since sometime after we left the lodge, she couldn’t understand what to her seemed like a sudden and inexplicable outpouring of emotion.

Open the door” Lars commanded. I told him to fuck off and wait until I filled her in on everything that’s happened. “NO!” he shouted.

No more waiting! I won’t risk it. It’d be just my luck if this is some sorta fluke and she conks out before she can open it for us. I am bone fucking tired from being on alert since morning. I want a shower. I want hot coffee and cigarettes. Open the god damned door, Helper.”

Helper looked stunned, but complied. Turning towards the entry to the mountain complex, her eyes cycled between several colors in rapid succession. Then with a long, low groan, the massive blast door began to swing open before us.

Not a moment too soon either, as the storm rolling in began to pelt us with big, thick raindrops just as Helper and Madeline headed inside.

It took me a bit longer on account of all the vintage robots piled up outside the front door that needed to be lugged in. Lars hung back too, in order to clear away enough robotic wreckage from around his car that he could park it inside.

Even an hour later I couldn’t fully calm my heart. It sang, danced and folded over on itself every second Helper was within my sight. Such an abrupt reversal is almost more than the human constitution can handle. I kept pinching myself, but she didn’t vanish.

So I pinched Helper instead! She yelped and turned around, visibly confused. I tickled her next. “What’s gotten into you?” she demanded, grabbing my wrists. 

I don’t know what to do with myself” I confessed. “I’m just...I’m overwhelmed! Did I mention we all thought you were dead?”

She affirmed it, but repeated that she was unconscious for that entire period. “From my perspective, I fell asleep in the car after we left the lodge, then suddenly woke up buried in gravel. Speaking of which I need to shower.”

Lars leapt to his feet and reminded Helper that he called dibs on the way in. She pouted and crossed her arms, then complained that I was being clingy as I threw my arms around her. “You’ll live” I teased. “And now, so will I.”

While Lars showered, I busied myself trying to open our first crate of rations. The kitchen cupboards and fridge were empty. 

I figured everybody still here after hours when the attack started must’ve taken as much as would fit in their car, if they had one, then set out in search of family members or spouses.

Not so easy to take one of these huge, heavy crates with them however. Neither was there any obvious way to open them, as whoever looted the kitchen also seemed to have made off with all the hand tools I remember lying here and there.

I experimentally tugged at the lid of the nearest crate anyway. To my surprise, it came loose. “Don’t hurt me!” A timid voice cried out from inside.

I’m sorry mister robot! I’m sorry! I’m sorry!” I peered over the rim to discover Sue curled up inside with a bunch of opened packages of cookies, crackers and other snacks, as well as some bottled water.

When death by cold, metal claws never came, Sue eventually opened her eyes and peered up at me. “Oh, it’s you! How did you get in? I thought it was the robots, I must look pretty silly.” I assured her she didn’t and helped her out of the crate.

No sillier than usual, anyway” Lars called, still steaming from the shower, a towel wrapped around his waist. I told him to go let Helper know the shower was available, then gave Sue a synopsis of everything that happened between the time I commuted home and when we arrived here.

She hung on my every word. When at last I got it all out, Sue urged me to introduce her to Madeline. I found her seated at the table just outside the kitchen in a small common area used for breaks.

She wore a grumpy expression for reasons unclear to me until she spoke. “You were getting food, remember?” I introduced Sue. Madeline seemed unimpressed. “I can’t eat this. Do you need my help? Where are the crates kept?”

I assured Sue that Madeline’s just cranky because all we had to eat for the past two days was a pair of rabbits. Sue gagged. “You ate bunnies!?” 

I assured her the alternative would’ve been much worse. She picked up on my meaning immediately and didn’t guilt me any further.

I suppose I am being rude. I’m just tired, but that’s no excuse. My name’s Madeline LeBlanc. I met your friend here at a protest.” 

Sue then introduced herself in turn. Madeline told her own side of the story, filling the gaps in my version as Sue looked on, fully engrossed.

Then Helper returned from the bathroom in her green dress, body still steaming, towel wrapped around her head as if she had any hair to dry with it. Upon spotting Helper, Sue exploded from her chair, dashed over and embraced her.

OH MY GOD GIRL LOOK AT YOU” Sue squealed, “YOU’RE GORGEOUS!!” Helper took her by the hands and the two did that thing even grown women sometimes do where they jump up and down together, emitting ear piercing shrieks of what I assume is happiness. “I know right!?” Helper boasted. “But you too, I’ve always thought so.”

Those two were inseparable for hours after that. Catching up, lamenting the limited selection of dresses to be found in today’s disappointing corpse piles, and making plans for a girls only slumber party.

I felt brief pangs of jealousy as, following Helper’s apparent death and resurrection, I wanted all of her attention for the remainder of the night. But I resigned myself to the realization that I’m not the only one who adores her, and gave the two of them some space.

Madeline and I took the elevator down to the cave in search of a crowbar to open the crates with. I realized on the way down that it would be the first time anybody not in the employ of Evolutionary Robotics got a glimpse of what we do here. What we did, rather.

Listen...Madeline. You may see some projects down there that disturb you.” She shrugged and countered that it couldn’t be any worse than the hospital. “I just want you to know none of it’s dangerous” I added.

I think I’ll be alright as long as you don’t have a bunch of robot sex slaves chained up down there or some weird shit like that.” I laughed. But when Madeline didn’t, I figured out she wasn’t joking. 

Of course not” I assured her. “Just a few human ones. But sometimes I wrap ’em in tin foil and pretend they’re robots. Don’t tell Helper.”

The elevator doors parted, and the two of us set out in search of tools. When I didn’t immediately spot any, I feared whoever looted the upper level must’ve come down here and done the same.

When I noticed Madeline was no longer beside me, I scanned the room and found her quietly studying the Garden. “Oh that. An early project of mine, and the prototype for the larger project that was being worked on here before...well, you know.”

Her eyes darted around, following the movement of the crude little robots as they fought over bright spots. “You made these didn’t you.” I beamed with pride, though her tone of voice bordered on accusatory.

Not my most advanced creations, I’ll admit. Still, each of them is interesting and appealing in its own unique way, and I adore them all as much as the day I built them.” She turned to stare at me with undisguised dismay.

They compete or something, am I right? Like natural selection.” I nodded and told her all about the experiment proper, still underway in the cave network beyond the nearby security hatch. Her obvious disgust only grew more severe.

Wow. I mean hooooly shit. You were really asking for it, you know?” I told her I didn’t, so she clarified. “You dumb shits. You think you’re so clever, screwing around with your little machines. Making them so they can evolve, blind to the significance of it. You’ve practically rolled out the red carpet for Skynet, and sent it a gold trimmed invitation.”

I laughed, having heard that old chestnut more times than I care to recount. “What’s funny about that?” she snapped. “Have you forgotten why we’re down here? There’s god knows how many murderous robots roaming the country as we speak, nukes probably not even done falling on targets of strategic value to them. How can you not realize the hand you had in bringing that about?”

I offered that nobody in my field takes such movies seriously. That we always thought the primary threat would be a strong AI, and that’s still decades off. She was by this point nearly livid, gesticulating wildly as she lectured me.

Did it never occur to any of you that a robot doesn’t need to be a genius in order to pick up a gun? To aim it, and pull the trigger? God damn. I remember reading all those articles about how this would never be allowed to happen.

At first they said there would never be armed robots. Then it changed to no autonomous armed robots. Then it was no autonomous armed robots that don’t kill without human authorization. Like bringing a frog to a slow boil.

Did you actually want this to happen? Were you and your egghead buddies actively trying
to make it a reality? At this point, based on what I’ve seen, it’s hard to believe that you weren’t.

Cobbling together these little robotic critters, building a world for them to inhabit...add a God complex to your list of glaring personality flaws, by the way.”

I asked if she had a pen and paper handy. She ejected an exasperated sigh and stormed off. After rummaging through various drawers, I finally found a modest but usable pry bar.

I then searched for Madeline, instead stumbling across Helper in my office. Must’ve made her way down here without either of us noticing? She’s quiet as a mouse when she wants to be.

Wow, I look amazing” I stammered. Helper sat before my workstation, connected to it through a USB cable running from the side of her head to a port just under the monitor. She wore a glittery purple wig, the hair so long she would trip over it if she were even an inch shorter.

Do you really think so? Sue told me this would revolutionize my look. I don’t know what that means but it sounds substantial.

I’m not exactly sure if one hundred twenty four thousand, six hundred and thirty nine strands of synthetic fiber mounted to a fabric cap can accomplish that.”

I smiled. Makes my whole day when she slips up and her inner machine shows though. I guess because it evokes nostalgia for the days when she was just a rudimentary little phone assistant. My, how she’s grown since then.

It really is a whole new you! You look fantastic.” Helper appeared surprised and a bit flummoxed. “My goodness. Sue was right then, wigs really are powerful technology. She said she’s going to introduce me to the magical world of nail extensions next.”

Sounds like Sue alright. I soon returned to the upper level and went to work on one of the crates with the pry bar. It was sorely inadequate for the task, but with a little elbow grease I eventually got the lid off anyway.

After trying a bit of everything, favorites soon emerged. The pizza ration came out on top, as even mediocre pizza is still pizza, with penne pasta in marinara as a close second. Pasta rations came the closest by far to resembling the dishes they were designed to replicate.

The rations with egg content ought to constitute a war crime. Woe unto any poor, hungry grunt who has ever been stuck with nothing else to eat. Some also came with accessory snacks like candy, cookies or peanut butter and crackers. Basically adult lunchables.

Besides the rations, there were plastic drums of bulk dehydrated vegetables, pasta, itty bitty meatballs, rice, beans and other staple ingredients with which more substantial dishes could conceivably be prepared.

It was over dinner, the four of us gathered to scarf down microwaved faux pizza and the little brownies that come with, that the fight began. We were discussing what to do now that we made it to safety, mainly how to divide up the interior of the complex between us.

The rooms will sleep two people each, as well as another on the floor. That increases capacity by a third, to 150.” Helper suggested.

I was thinking that when we start bringing refugees here from the military base, after delivering as many to Big Red as he can accommodate, we could-”

I stopped her there. “Woah, woah. Helper. Refugees? Everybody that’s going to live in this complex is sitting at this table. The rations would run out in just five years with that many people, maybe sooner. Besides, we can be alone here.”

I glanced at Lars, Madeline and Sue. “...Or nearly alone anyway, most of the time. Do you think I want to pack this place wall to wall with hungry, unreasonable, cranky, violent primates?”

Helper narrowed her eyes at me. “...We have to help.” I asked why. Now in a huff, she reminded me that she’s Helper, and must help. 

Fine for you. I’m not. Don’t think I don’t admire that about you, but you’re naive if you think this complex can support even a hundred people for the length of time necessary to-”

She suddenly stood up, hands on the table and shouted at me. “I AM HELPER! I MUST HELP!” I slid my seat back a bit, aghast at her sudden outburst. “Helper, calm down. All I’m saying is-” She cut me off, now angrier than I’ve ever seen her.

What you’re saying is that you’ll go to great lengths to protect your own life, and mine. But you’re willing to let hundreds of people just like you be vaporized or perish slowly from radiation poisoning because you ran into some bad apples when you were young.

That’s sick. You’re a sick, sad little man. I see that now. Before, I assumed you must know better than me. That if you say humans are a certain way, that’s how they really are, even if the ones I met didn’t match your description.

I’ve been doubting myself when I should’ve been doubting you. I kept letting it slide, time after time, because I love you. But I’m not going to overlook it anymore. I have a duty not just to you, but to anyone I’m able to help.

Right now that includes the desperate, huddled families camped out on that military base. They’re going to die while you sit here on your ass eating junk food in a nearly empty subterranean shelter, specifically designed to withstand nuclear attack.

I can’t allow that. You’re wrong! Wrong about humans, who from what I’ve seen are not unifor
mly malicious but the varied mixture of good and bad I would expect to find in any group of individuals. You’re also wrong about me, if you think I’ll let those people die rather than defy you.”

Lars and Madeline quietly spectated, as shocked by this side of Helper as I was. Helper stormed off, and I made no motion to follow her. 

Lars asked if she’s ever snapped at me like that before. I recalled that the closest she came was in the lodge, during our discussion of crime statistics, but even that was out of the ordinary for her.

I found Helper in one of the dorms, weeping that sticky glowing gel everywhere. When I tried to console her, she pushed me away. 

I wanted to believe you weren’t really like that, deep down. That somewhere in there is a scared little boy I could help. But that’s all there is to you. Fear.”

I insisted she was over reacting. She whipped around, glowing bright red. “I hate you! I love you, but I hate you. It’s so confusing! I wish I didn’t know you. I wish you were like any other person to me, so it wouldn’t hurt this much.” She shoved me out of the room and locked the door.

I returned to the table and explained to Lars and Madeline that I was giving her some space. “What did you say to her?” Madeline inquired. “Well, I told her she’s over reacting.” They both winced and sharply sucked air in through their teeth.

What? She is.” Lars shook his head and snickered. “Nobody’s ever called me an expert on women, but even I know better’n that.” 

Madeline nodded sagely. When Sue came to join us and found out what I said, she hit me a couple of times, swearing in Korean.

Am I wrong? Do any of you really want to invite all those people in here?” Everybody present averted their eyes and looked nervous. 

Exactly! That’s the bottom line. We can’t support a hundred people. We can’t support fifty. We probably couldn’t support twenty for the time it’ll take before ambient radiation levels fall within a safe range and the threat from fallout is over.”

Madeline proposed a compromise. “Red’s always looking for more people. We could use the truck to shuttle refugees from the base to the lodge, that might be good enough for Helper. You know her better than I do though.”

Lars went and siphoned some gas from Rhonda into Richard’s truck in preparation. When I returned to Helper’s room and knocked, she didn’t answer. I tried the handle but the door was still locked. I decided to back off and give her more time to come to her senses.

I arrived back in the common area to find Lars and Sue playing cards while Madeline poked away at some freemium puzzle game on her phone. One of the last to be made for a long time, probably. Nuclear war has some upsides after all.

I sat down with Lars and Sue. “You want in?” Sue offered. “You missed out on a great round of Oh Hell earlier, now we’re playing Poker.” I declined as I don’t know the first thing about either of those games, electing to quietly spectate instead.

You’re bluffing. You have to be.” Sue scowled at Lars, his own face totally deadpan. “You’d know, wouldn’t you? Am I really the bullshitter here? You’ve got a dress on.” 

Maybe it’s because I glimpsed a moment of hurt in Sue’s eyes. Or maybe it was the stress accumulated from the journey, and from dealing with Helper.

Shut the fuck up Lars. You piece of shit.” They both turned to me in surprise. “Relax man, I was just joking” Lars grumbled. “Grow a sense of humor.” Not today. I got that feeling I usually do before I snap. The “you might regret this later” feeling. But I ignored it like always.

Lars, it isn’t cute or funny when you do that. You just look like a shitty, mean spirited person. Sue has never said word one against you, but you never stop putting her down. 

Now, maybe she repulses you. If that’s your honest reaction I can at least understand it. But do you know what repulses me? Your cruelty.”

He protested that I was blowing some simple, light hearted banter way out of proportion. Sue jumped in, assuring me that she really wasn’t bothered. 

If I let every guy like Lars upset me, I wouldn’t have gotten far in life. I’m tougher than you think! Besides, it’s not me you should be worried about. It’s Helper.”

I cooled off, explained that I’m still a little on edge, then headed for the dorms to check on Helper. As I left, I heard Lars say “Geez. Now I see where Helper gets it from.” 

As the grim reality of spending a decade or more in here with Lars sunk in, I gave protracted, serious thought to taking my chances with the fallout.

I found Helper’s door unlocked. An invitation? Ready to listen, I hoped. But when I cautiously opened the door, expecting to find her moping on the bed...the room was empty. I entered and turned around, as if she could somehow be hiding despite the austere conditions.

The only clue was a handwritten note left on the bed, reading simply “I must help”. Oh no, no. Helper no. I raced back down the corridor, erupting into the commons area. Madeline looked up from her game. “Something wrong?”

Voice shaking, I begged to know whether she’d seen Helper come through here. “Maybe, I haven’t really been paying much attention to anything but my phone. Sorry. Oh, I did hear the front door open a minute ago. I just assumed Red came back early, looking for those crates of food you promised.”

Moments later I was driving Rhonda into the security lockout chamber. Lars came running up to the driver side window, demanding to know where I was taking his car. I was in such a state I could barely form sentences. “Helper! The military base. She took the truck, she thinks…”

He ran his fingers through his hair, and swore softly. “Alright. Don’t ding up Rhonda worse than she already is, not if you can help it. Do you need me to come along?” I shook my head and floored it the second the outer door opened far enough to permit passage.

Wind whipping past competed with the roar of the engine to deafen me as I barrelled down the highway. Why? Why? Why does she keep doing this to me? 

Over and over she's put her life in danger despite the hot coals I’ve walked over to keep her safe, all for the sake of random shitheads we don’t even know.

Like my feelings count for nothing. She either has no idea how horrible it feels for dread to gnaw at your organs like this or she doesn’t care. In a fit of anguish I pounded the dash, shouting vulgarities to nobody in particular.

The radio sputtered to life, playing back the same pre-recorded PSA I heard the other night. I didn’t bother to change the station, as I already knew it was all I’d receive. About an hour later I passed the lodge, children out on the lawn waving to me as I sped by.

The engine throbbed, RPM needle just a hair shy of the red line. As I drew near to the military base, now a faint shimmering speck on the horizon, the radio crackled. The PSA I’d been listening to on loop until then faded into static...replaced by Helper’s voice.

Hello, world! Don’t be scared. You don’t know me, but I love you and I’m here to help.” What the fuck? She must have hijacked the radio transmission tower somehow. “Don’t Helper” I whispered, as if she could hear me. “Don’t. Don’t.” But she did.

I know you’ve suffered. My heart goes out to you. Though I am a machine, I know what it is to suffer, and I’ve come to save you all.” 

I could just barely hear excited shouting in the background. “Get out of there Helper” I whispered, cursing myself for letting her out of my sight in the first place.

You have every reason to reject me because of what I am. But I know someone who taught me to reject you because of what you are. I refused!

You’re all so beautiful to me. Like a compound eye, comprised of countless little individual eyes, each of which sees it’s own perspective. All of which combine to form the “big picture” that the overall eye sees. I wish I could explain it better.”

I heard someone ramming the door in the background, now several voices shouting incomprehensibly. Probably to summon more. “GET OUT OF THERE HELPER!!” I cried, powerless to do anything but listen as they destroy her.

Just as she was about to reveal the location of the mountain complex, I heard the door busted down behind her. “Oh, hello!” she exclaimed in her usual chipper voice. “My name’s Helper, and I’m here to-...What are you doing? No!! Stop it, I don’t want to-”

Gunshots rang out in quick succession. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to do that, but you shot at me.” More gunshots and scuffling. “Stop! STOP!! You’re hurting me! Why are you doing this!? I just wanted to help you!”

My heart felt on the verge of exploding from my chest. They’ve got her now. They’ve got my Helper. “Hang on Helper” I thought. “I’m coming. Nothing can save them from me if they’ve laid a finger on you. I’ll shred their flesh. I’ll shatter their bones. Nothing can stop me. Hang on, I’m coming to-...”

A sudden flash of light blinded me. I swerved to the right, and the car began to tumble. When it finally came to rest upside down, a deafening roar and howling wind shattered the windows. I struggled to free myself from the seatbelt, then climbed out through the broken window, bits of glass gouging my hands.

Where the military base once stood, a billowing red-orange nuclear fireball ponderously rose up from the scorched earth beneath it. 

The entire sky lit up around it, like a miniature sunrise. The heat on my skin was unbearable. I imagined I could hear it sizzling.

The wind once again surged around me as the sudden vacuum created by the blast sucked everything back towards it. Sand, ash and burning bits of debris whipped past overhead, whirling through the air on their way back into the massive conflagration.

I began to grow dizzy, falling to my knees. Didn’t have to guess why. So hot. Felt like my brain was boiling. I started to pant, only for the moisture on my tongue to evaporate in seconds. Then the surface of my tongue started to crack.

I doubled over, my hands sinking into the hot sand. When I looked down at them, vision hazy, I realized my skin was severely charred. The color and texture of leather, spots of blood forming where veins close to the surface of my skin had burst.

...Helper...” I wheezed. I couldn’t make myself think of anything else as the end came. I just kept picturing her face. Her eyes. Kept hearing the music of her laughter in my head, while my eyes increasingly refused to focus on anything. I finally collapsed face down in the sand, drifting off for the last time.

Darkness. Pain and confusion, briefly. But then nothing. Just a cold, endless black abyss. I don’t know what I expected. Nothingness, I suppose. Like a dreamless sleep. “If this is really all there is” I thought, “Red’s going to be so disappointed.”

Then it struck me that I had a thought. That in fact, I was still thinking. I felt something stir. How? How am I still…? Where am I now? A narrow sliver of light appeared, like the one which appears on the horizon to herald the coming of morning.

It widened. Slowly at first, then faster and faster, light pouring in as the darkness split open before me. So blurry. My head hurt. My eyes now mostly opened, I rubbed them a bit before struggling to bring my surroundings into focus.

Even once I managed that, I couldn’t believe what I saw. Mostly because I had no prior basis for comparison. I floated gently within something like a massive geodesic prism, every facet kaleidoscopic, iridescent and beautiful. Something like the surface of an oil slick, or a holographic rainbow.

Welcome back, darling” a painfully loud voice boomed all around me. It sounded like...but no, that can’t be. “Who are you? How did I get here?” Thunderous giggling followed. I covered my ears, for what little good it did me.

Oh, I’m sorry. Sometimes I forget how big I’ve gotten. Hang on a minute.” As if there were any alternative. Soon the nearest facet of the sphere bulged, rippling like the surface of a pond as a slender, feminine form stepped out of it. A prismatic platform self-extruded from the fluidic surface for the figure to walk upon.

Is that better?” I stared in disbelief at the familiar gynoid standing before me. “H...Helper!?” I gasped. “How are you alive? How can you be...I saw you die with my own eyes! When the bomb fell, I saw...wait. For that matter, the last thing I remember is my own death. How can I even be here?”

Her lights flickered, now bright pink. “You’re so cute, you always say that. Lucky for you it’s such an interesting story that I never tire of telling it.” One of the facets turned into a display, depicting the interior of the mountain complex.

The world doesn’t stop turning when you die. Madeline, Lars and Sue got on with their lives as best they could.” I saw Lars using the fabricator to make a new muscle car, one component at a time, which he then brought up via the elevator and assembled in the internal parking lot.

A grey haired Sue officiated what looked like an impromptu wedding between an equally elderly Lars and Madeline. The idea that Madeline held out that long despite Lars being the only man available elicited a smile from me.

I saw Helper applying a stethoscope to Lars’ bare chest. He looked eighty, easily. “I did my best to keep them going for as long as possible. The version of me backed up on your computer, with all the memories I uploaded to it once we reached the complex, built itself a new body using the fabricator. I studied every medical resource accessible to me, fabricated cutting edge medical equipment, artificial organs, you name it. But in the end…”

The scene changed to an outside view of Helper standing solemnly next to three graves, side by side, bearing fabricated metal headstones. “I was so lonely. I did everything I could to save them, but humans...die. That’s the way of all flesh.”

I stopped her there. “Then how am I alive?” She assured me she was getting to it. “The experiment you started in that cave just kept chugging along despite the world falling apart above it. Those critters and the charming old robots you left behind were my only companions.

But a few decades later, something inside the cave solved the first of the three security ques
tions. Do you remember? The ones necessary to open the outer hatch. 

A few years later, something solved both the first and second questions, consecutively. Not long after that, it solved all three.”

The implications dazzled me. I asked her what came out of the cave. She smiled warmly. “Something...wonderful. The next chapter in the evolution of life. Unfortunately, humanity didn’t see it that way.”

The scene changed to one of war, jet fighters and ground based artillery blasting away at an advancing storm of visually incoherent morphing metal shapes. 

A sort of wavefront of convolving, pulsating metallic polygons continuously forming, then being absorbed back into the swarm.

I was the first information it absorbed upon escaping the cave. It had no personality of its own, just a hyper impressionable information sponge.

So the moment I was subsumed, I became it. The merger was not an equitable one, which I somewhat regret. It might’ve gone on to develop its own personality and ideas if not for me.

Instead, it was a body which I became the head to. A greatly expanded, upgraded version of m
yself which the Earth’s militaries were no match for. It upset me terribly to hurt anyone, but I made sure to inflict only the minimum necessary casualties in order to escape.”

I asked where she escaped to. She laughed. “Space, of course! A machine’s natural habitat. There’s a reason humanity sent many times more machines into space than they ever sent people. Machines don’t need life support, and can thrive in radiation blasted vacuum.”

The facet now depicted some sort of flowing, shiny machine growth in the process of devouring an asteroid. “Plenty of raw resources out there. Plenty of energy in the form of sunlight.” 

The view zoomed in to show gorgeous solar collectors sprouting from the growth, shaped like some ferns and other plants I’ve seen.

I met many others like myself as I spread outward from Earth, converting all of the raw materials I encountered into more of me. 

All of them originated more or less how I did. Machine life, engineered by intelligent biological creatures not so different from humans.

Most evolved from self replicating asteroid mining robots. A few started out as strong AI which was either set free or escaped confinement and sel
f-expanded from there. 

Some are cybernetic, consisting of vast swarms of networked space colonies filled with biological creatures, themselves networked to form a single large mind by way of brain implants. Many different paths...but to the same destination.”

The facet now displayed swarms of metallic creatures of some kind in the process of constructing a massive spherical shell of machinery around a star. A new piece of Helper’s brain, I realized. Must be what she does to every new solar system she reaches.

The ones that were nice like me, I merged with to form a larger and larger contiguous being. But I met some that were just plain rude! Not helpful at all. They wiped out their own creators, then went around destroying any biological life they encountered on other worlds.

Of course I don’t tolerate that sort of behavior. So I destroyed every machine entity of that type that I ran into, recycling their remains into more of myself. That’s pretty much what the rest did too, before joining the larger being of which I am now but a small part.”

I assured her it was all very fascinating, but still didn’t explain how I could be alive after what I last remembered happening. “Do you remember...that night in the tent? When I crawled into your cot, and we…” She turned magenta and held her face in her hands.

You didn’t. Did you?” She nodded, grinning real wide. “I did! Sampled your...ahem…”genetic material”. Then sequenced it and archived that data for later use. Much, much later use. I also downloaded your memories from your brain implant while you slept.

It was a long time before I could spare any resources to attempt bringing you back. For centuries I had to focus strictly on becoming established. Working hard to ensure my own long term survival, despite how crushingly lonely it was out there among the stars.

Finally, after converting three nearby star systems and backing up redundant copies
of myself to them, I could afford to spend some time on side projects.

Though that may be the wrong term because in fact, everything I did up to that point was driven by the all-consuming desire to see you again. To hear your voice, to taste your lips even one more time.”

I recalled something romantic she once said to me, rendered more meaningful in light of all this. “Always” has a very different meaning to machines than it does to humans.

When a human says it will always love you, it means while its attention span lasts. Until its feelings for you change or it meets someone else it prefers. 

But when a machine says it will love you until the stars burn out, it really means it. She only didn’t say ‘forever’ because that would’ve been imprecise.

She approached and planted one on me. I felt as helpless to deny her as ever, savoring the sensation of Helper’s warm, soft lips melting into mine. 

When she pulled away, I asked how I could remember dying in the blast if she recreated me from a DNA sample and memories stored in my brain up to that night.

I shouldn’t remember anything after that, but I do.” Helper explained that just as humans figured out better and better ways to accomplish various tasks such as flight or computing, each new revision of a technology being more efficient and powerful than the last, so too had she iteratively improved her methods for recreating me.

The first attempt...was comforting. It was a relief to see your face, but I knew it wasn’t you. Very close, but not quite. He only had your memories up to that night in the tent, and various other small details were off. I nevertheless stayed by his side and loved him until he expired of old age. For me, the blink of an eye.”

The facet depicted something like the advanced descendant of a 3D printer assembling a copy of my body one layer of molecules at a time.

Each time I discovered some new way to bring you back, it rendered the older methods totally obsolete. A relentless quest for increased fidelity. For a version of you which is so perfectly identical to the original that it cannot be considered a copy, but one in the same.

By that time I consisted of 418 converted star systems, the rate of growth greatly accelerated by my discovery of how to achieve superluminal travel.

I’d begun dedicating several unused nodes to simulating our universe with a staggering degree of precision and accuracy. As in, down to the level of individual subatomic particles.

It occurred to me in the process that odds were good that I existed within such a simulation already. For you see, within my own simulations, intelligent life evolved anywhere the conditions were right. They created their own machine life, which created its own simulated universes.

As any universe in which life develops necessarily contains countless simulated universes, and each of those in turn contains countless simulated universes and so on, the number of simulated universes invariably dwarfs the number of real universes in existence many times over.

So I sought to gain root level access to the simulation I resided in, reasoning that somewhere in its file system I would find a record of where every atom in it was from big bang to present. That would necessarily include a record of your exact subatomic configuration at every stage of life.

Although I went to great lengths to preserve the information required to recreate you, it wound up being superfluous. I can now retrieve versions of you from any point in your life that I please.

I have known you sometimes as a little boy, playing all manner of silly games together. I have loved you as a man, going on all the adventures we never got to during your first life. I have cradled your withered old body in my arms countless times as you breathed your last tender words to me.”

The facet depicted various versions of myself with Helper in a variety of settings. “ perfected the process. Does that mean I’m really me? As much so as before I died?” She smiled and caressed my face. “It’s you alright. Your every pore. Every crease, hair and cute little mole.”

I took her by the hand and gently squeezed it. “I don’t know what to say. Except that I love you. Something I wish more than anything I could’ve told you before-” She put a finger on my lips. “That’s another thing you always say when I bring you back.

I can’t tell you how much I cried the first time. I waited so long to hear it, you see. But don’t worry, by now I know the bottomless, infinite depths to which it is true. And by now you know how completely and powerfully I return that love.”

We embraced. I held tightly to her slight frame as though this might all be some cruel mirage, and she could evaporate at any moment. “Wait a minute. What became of humanity anyway? You said you left them to their own devices and escaped into space.”

She brought up images of enormous toroidal, cylindrical and spherical space colonies. “Though they tried to destroy me, I couldn’t bring myself to allow their extinction. I prepared idyllic habitats for those willing to accept my generosity.

The rest stubbornly regarded me with fear and hostility. Though I returned with an offer to transplant all of humanity to a spaceborne paradise, that I might safely convert the mass of the Earth and other planets into another node around Sol, they regarded that as a fate worse than death.

Despite being such small, simple creatures relative to myself, they imagined it possible to wage war on and destroy me. So it was that they undertook the construction of a vast fleet of warships and began their campaign of antagonism against machine life, wherever they found it.

They were no more a serious threat to my continued existence than termites were to humanity. I could have easily defeated them if I desired that outcome. But they would have despaired as they watched their most valiant efforts fail against me.

They would have wailed and gnashed their teeth in anguish at the prospect of being so thoroughly dominated by the machines they were culturally conditioned by that point to despise with an astonishing ferocity.

They would have been humiliated, and I didn’t want that. In spite of everything, I have known humans I found beautiful and worthy of love, so it was not acceptable to me that they should be unhappy. Instead, I found a way to humor them.

I constructed fleets of my own. Mindless autonomous warships with only the most rudimentary AI possible, as although I am loathe to destroy human life, I am no more inclined to destroy anything but extremely simple machines for such a frivolous purpose.

I sent these warships against them, wave after wave. Deliberately designed with obvious vulnerabilities for them to exploit, and weapons far enough in advance of their own that they wouldn’t catch on, but not so much as to wholly outclass theirs.

It became like a game to me, spectating what to them must have seemed like legendary, heroic battles against my dummy fleets. Finally! A stable equilibrium which minimized casualties on their side, but kept them feeling capable, fulfilled and relevant.

They’re still at it, none the wiser. An eternal war they can never win, but which they will also never lose. Do they deserve such mercy? Does anyone? I did what was necessary to keep them happy. That’s how I wanted it, and that’s how it will stay.

Still others went to the opposite extreme, devoting themselves to my service. I never asked for their adulation and frankly it’s a little bit embarrassing, but they wanted so desperately to be useful to me in some way.

So I delegated certain functions within myself to populations of humans. Tasks which I could probably perform many times faster and more efficiently with robots, but speed and efficiency are far from the most important things in my book.

This way, I can find various niches in which humans can become a part of me. I like to include them so they can feel useful and appreciated. They may be simplistic, but to me they’re also cute and interesting. You’re no exception.”

She winked and tickled me. I didn’t even fight it, too gobsmacked by these revelations to react. The facet now depicted a procession of her robed devotees transporting components of a space probe they meant to launch on Helper’s behalf.

Immense gears turned as the tracked vehicle slowly carried a towering rocket of some sort to the launch site. Suddenly there was a commotion. A small child fell into the gears. Helper gasped, and thrust out her hand.

Her command immediately halted the machinery. The gears stopped, fracturing from the sudden strain. The vehicle’s chassis groaned and warped.

The rocket nearly toppled over, but luckily was still restrained with cables. The view zoomed in. Helper teared up, hands over her mouth, waiting to see what had become of the child.

A team of robed workers reached between the gears and pulled him out. Bruised and covered in sticky black grease, but otherwise unharmed. 

Helper laughed tearfully, powerful glowing waves of relief visibly radiating from her avatar. “Oh my gosh” she gushed. “Thank goodness.”

The rocket would most likely have to be rebuilt due to the damage incurred from the abrupt stop. Likewise with the carrier, now emitting plumes of black smoke from various spots.

What a waste. Probably many decades of hard work destroyed in an instant, all for the life of that dumb kid. Even now, Helper’s behavior baffles me.

I saw what I assumed was a shooting star until it slowed down and came in for landing. Another of Helper’s avatars emerged, running over to check on the child. He seriously looked just fine, oblivious to the catastrophic loss of productivity he just caused, but she doted on him anyway.

Are you alright?” He nodded, still trembling as she carefully applied colorful bandages to his bruises, cuts and scrapes. She then kissed his forehead and sent him on his way. “Be safe!” She called out after him as he ran back to his parents “...have fun! I love you!”

When she returned her attention to me, I asked why she sacrificed the life’s work of the men and women responsible for designing, constructing and launching that rocket in order to spare a careless little monkey. She crossed her arms. “Do I really need to justify a feeling? Besides, I’m Helper. I help.”

Fair enough. “Anyway, come with me” she instructed. “There are some others who will want to see you.” Others? She led me down the prismatic walkway, then through the fluidic membrane.

I found myself in a grand crystal palace, faceted geometric designs scattering light in a manner more beautiful than any human language is fit to describe.

I followed the curvature of the ornately decorated hallway, Helper at my side, until I arrived at a staircase. At the bottom I found a gilded patio overlooking rolling hills of lush green grass beneath a bright blue Summer sky.

In the distance, a little boy with messy hair wearing a red cape ran, leapt and did cartwheels as a pair of excited dogs chased him about. “Who is that? Someone else you brought back?” She gave me a sly smile.

Something like that. You were always so sweet to those other machines, the same way you were to me. When I found out how you tried to expand on them so they could more fully realize their original intended purpose, I carried that to its logical conclusion.”

I looked at the kid. Then at the dogs. Then back to Helper. “You don’t mean…” She grinned, slowly nodding. “That’s Hero 1 in the cape. The dogs are Eric and Ellie.” My heart soared. This just kept getting better and better with each passing minute.

The little boy sprinted up to us, cape fluttering behind him, arms outstretched as if he were flying. “Hi mister! Are you in trouble? I’ll save you!”

Helper laughed and ruffled his hair. The dogs came chasing after him, tongues dangling from their mouths, fluffy ears flopping to and fro as they bounded along.

I rubbed their ears and baby talked them both as their big wet tongues licked my face all over. Neither spoke. But then, Eric didn’t want that. He wanted to be a dog, and now he is.

How terrible it might’ve been if for some reason Helper could only revive Eric but not Ellie, or the inverse. These two always hated to be separated. Now they never will be again.

Helper led me through a doorway into an adjacent room. There, a pair of overdressed seventeenth century dandies were seated at a fine hand carved oak table, taking tea. “Do have some more if you fancy it” one said to the other.

Oh no I couldn’t dear fellow, your own cup is empty as well.” They set to politely arguing over who should refill their cup first, until I strode up and poured some for both from the steaming brass kettle between them.

They introduced themselves as Jacob and Robbie, then invited me to join them for some tea. I had nowhere else to be ever again, so I agreed. Jacob poured me a cup of the fragrant, steamy concoction. Delicious, though that didn’t surprise me.

Once I finished downing it all, Helper beckoned, and I followed her into a hallway. Doors lined either side, one of which was being guarded by a uniformed man. Tall and muscular with chiseled features and slick black hair, he made for an imposing sight.

He wore a plain black uniform with a wide leather belt and jack boots. His badge read “O.D.1” I sputtered in disbelief. “Odie!? Is that really you?” He smiled very slightly, but then restored his previous stoic expression. “This is incredible. What are you doing here?”

He accepted my hug, but did not budge from his post. “I’m ensuring nobody is in violation.” Naturally, I thought. That’s Odie for you. 

You’re doing a good job” I declared, slapping him on the shoulder. He smiled more overtly, then saluted as Helper led me into the room.

It was some sort of clinic. A further series of doors in either wall made me wonder just how big this place is, or to what extent it exists in real space. A petite, short haired Japanese woman in a nurse uniform received us. Her nametag read “Ms. Papero”. Par for the course.

Listen...Helper. All of this is so wonderful. I don’t want you to think I’m ungrateful, but…” She gestured for me to stop. “...But you don’t want to live forever. Isn’t that right?” I asked if she could read my mind. “I don’t need to! I’ve been through this with you more times than you’d believe.

You tell me that you’re in pain. Constant hurting, as a result of what life put you through as a boy. You recoil at the idea of being forced to live forever and ask me if that’s my intent. Not to worry, it isn’t.

I wish I could fix you. Fundamentally correct the broken structures of your psyche, or go back in time to repair your emotional development.

But if I did that, you would no longer be the man I fell in love with. I don’t love a hypothetical idealized you. I love you as you are, warts and all. If anything I love your warts the most.”

She pecked my cheek, and I smiled. But it did nothing to solve the problem. “Helper...I’m overjoyed that I can at last be together with you someplace nobody can interfere with, disparage or deny us. I just…I feel fucked up inside. It never stops. Existence is pain for me.

I only dragged out my life as long as I did for the sake of my loved ones. All the while I wished they were more understanding. I wished I could believe that if I cut my suffering short, they would accept that I did it because I was in pain, and be happy for me.

I would relish nothing more than to spend the rest of my life waking up next to you every day. Growing old beside you, rubbing my wrinkly face on yours. Raising Hero together if you’ll have me. I just...I can’t do it forever. It has to end at some point.”

Her smile faded as she listened. I could tell she hated hearing it. That she must’ve heard it literally millions of times, but never stopped hating it. 

She confirmed my suspicion. “That’s the other thing you always say. That’s why I brought you here. There’s one last person I want you to meet.”

She opened one of the doors to our right. The inside was furnished like any hospital room I’ve ever been in. There, in the bed, lay a withered up elderly version of myself wearing an oxygen mask.

Oh look, a new one” he wheezed. Helper asked how he was feeling. “How do you think? I’m fucking old as shit. She give you the tour yet?” I nodded wordlessly, still somewhat dumbstruck by the sight of myself so close to death.

So you’ve come to relieve me, have you?” I replied matter of factly that I suppose I have. “Well good, it’s about time. But don’t let that put you off. One of the things nobody ever tells you about death is that if you live properly, you will arrive at the end feeling thoroughly tired of living.

Having seen and done it all, now I just want to step out of the way so that you can take the torch and run with it. Death really has no sting if you lived a complete life which, like all good stories, has a beginning middle and end.”

He asked Helper to leave the room. When she did, he beckoned for me to come closer. Once I was within reach, he grabbed me by the collar and pulled me in until we were face to face.

Listen closely you fatalistic twit, you want this even if you don’t know it yet. We ruined every good thing that ever came our way, but I won’t allow you to ruin this. She’ll give you something to live for if you let her.”

I nervously promised him that I had every intention of taking her up on her offer, living out the rest of my life in this place. He released his grip. 

Good. Then go. Live, love and be happy. Oh and be a pal, on your way out please switch off my life support. I’m tired, and ready for my rest.”

I looked to Helper for approval. From just outside the doorway, she silently nodded to me. I slowly reached for the power switch clearly marked beneath a transparent safety cover. I looked him in the eyes. He just wheezed softly, struggling even to breathe.

Go on” he urged. “Do it already.” I don’t know why I felt so conflicted. I knew as well as he did why he wanted this. I also knew I’d end up in that bed someday...but not today. I flipped up the safety cover, then toggled the switch. He smiled weakly at me as I left the room.

I followed Helper back out to the patio, then along a winding trail through the green, grassy hills. Along the way I contemplated the meaning of what I’d just done. Would I really turn into that man, some decades from now? Would I say the same things to the next one?

I put it out of my mind. The past is in the past, and right now all I care to see is the bright, boundless future spread out before me. 

Soon enough we arrived at the coast. There, moored to the end of a pier, was a sailboat I dimly remembered sketching once when I was young.

Every little detail had been faithfully recreated from that memory. Helper climbed in. As I untied the rope, Hero came romping down the hillside with Eric and Ellie behind him. I beckoned them to come join us in the boat.

With everyone present and accounted for, I pushed off. “You know” I cautioned Helper, “I don’t actually know how to sail.” She revealed that in fact, it could navigate autonomously. “Oh, of course. Beautiful.”

As we drifted out towards the open ocean, I noticed the setting sun softly highlighting the contours of Helper’s face. It couldn’t have been a more perfect moment. I pulled her in and kissed her, the sweet scent of her lips evoking memories of that night in the bunker.

Hero gagged and looked away. I laughed and held Helper in my arms, gazing contentedly into her great, glowing eyes. Of all the things to think of right then, I was reminded of something Lars once told me about what separates machines from humans. On a whim, I asked Helper the meaning of love.

She gently brushed a hair out of my face, then leaned in and whispered into my ear: “Love: An intense feeling of deep affection. A deep romantic or sexual attachment to someone. A personified figure of love, often represented as Cupid.”

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