5: Down to This Wire
On the far outskirts of Place was the trash heap. In Place, most material was recycled—the system was a closed one, with few new raw materials entering—but some years trash production exceeded recycling capacity, and the leftovers ended up on the trash heap.
The heap was an unsorted pile of anything from food wrappers to broken appliances to splintered lightbulbs. There was even the occasional defunct Unit. All things considered, the trash heap was an unsightly mess—to most people.
But Unit 877—Malcolm Defroster—saw more in the trash heap than most people did. Savannah didn’t understand what the newfound attraction was, but each morning that she had to make her own bed, cook her own breakfast, and remember where she’d left her backpack, she wondered what it was that took the robot so far so early.
Malcolm didn’t make a secret out of his visits to the heap, but he only admitted that he was scanning it. Every morning for hours he did stare at the junk with his expressionless eyes.
“I guess he’s meditating on robot mortality,” Savannah’s dad said. “It’s a phase—he’ll grow out of it—they all do.” He shut the door behind him and was gone before Savannah processed that statement enough to wonder whether her dad’s cell-phone-like unit had ever actually been worried about its future.
Savannah shrugged off her curiosity, found her backpack at last, and walked to the complex where she was learning interior design, the job AI had assigned her at birth, sixteen years ago.
But today Malcolm hadn’t gone to the trash heap—yet. Savannah, walking carelessly, grinning at the central column of Place and thinking of how powerless AI was over her, didn’t notice Malcolm standing, all but out of sight, at the street corner.
Whatever else Savannah had taught Malcolm, she evidently hadn’t taught him what dragging a person on cement would do. Malcolm jumped from his hiding spot, knocked her down, and started dragging her along the sidewalk and only realized his mistake when Savannah sat up with a yelp and tried to yank her legs from his grasp.
She glared at him in stunned surprise, then tried more violently to break away. “Let me go—what do you want?”
“I want you to come with me.”
“What about the magic words, please and—ow! Stop it!” Savannah howled, as Malcolm began his inexorable walk forward again. “You’re rubbing all the skin off my back,” she shouted, writhing.
But Malcolm had made it to the moving walkway and Savannah sat up again. “You’d better have a pretty good explanation for this,” she said wrathfully.
“I think you are the one who ought to explain things. You have not done that, so I had to take matters into my own hands.”
Savannah rolled her eyes at him. “Is this about—” she glanced around nervously “—you know—because I thought we were over that.”
“Do you mean that you’ve stopped?”
Savannah thought about lying, but then decided that wouldn’t work. “Uh—no.”
“Then we’re not over it.”
They had reached the end of the walkway, and Malcolm was evidently ready to drag Savannah farther, but she protested emphatically. “I don’t know what you’re up to, but at any rate I hope you’re too humane to drag me until I bleed to death. Hold my arm instead of my leg, I’ll walk.”
“That simplifies matters,” Malcolm agreed, and he switched his vice-like grip and the two walked on—with a few futile attempts on Savannah’s part to get Malcolm to tell her what he was doing—until they reached the trash heap. Then, without the slightest warning, Malcolm tripped Savannah and laid her out flat on the ground, pinning her in an instant.
Savannah gasped—but Malcolm’s metal hand on her throat was suffocating her. She was vaguely conscious of something over her mouth and nose after that and had a brief instant to wonder if, after all, she’d been wrong to think Malcolm really loved her—to think that he would let her live—and then she lost consciousness.
Malcolm stood back up, putting away the anesthesia and the mask he’d used to administer it. For a second he looked down at the unconscious Savannah.
By code, he had one job now: to end Savannah’s life.
Malcolm’s steely eyes glittered with their own light as he opened a toolbox. The robot took a tiny glowing core that dangled from a thin wire and held it in his palm.
It had taken painstaking hours of scanning the trash heap to find the materials he needed for this device, and hours more to do the work of creating it. Malcolm looked closely at it, making sure one last time that it was fully functional, ready to do what he expected of it. Scenarios flashed through his processor as he sat patiently counting down the seconds until he could be sure the anesthesia had taken full effect.
The glowing dot of technology was a triumph of Malcolm’s robotic intelligence—but the fact that he had made it at all was a triumph of how near-human Unit 877 was. Perhaps no other Unit could have made it—certainly no other Unit would have.
The chip pulsated with it’s blue light in his hand, and the intended scenario ran through Malcolm’s mind: that blue dot, inserted via a tiny incision into Savannah’s brain, reaching the center of nerve control, eliminating not only the Juice that had built up in her system but her addiction to Juice as well. And then the device would disintegrate, travelling along the lone wire until it reached the outside air, to vanish into pulverized nanoparticles, leaving Savannah fully normal.
But Malcolm’s thoughts didn’t stay with the glowing core for long. Instead he was remembering—remembering Savannah as she used to be—and remembering the code. As he prepared the sharp blade for the necessary incision, the code—his job—was flashing through all his circuits.
For a second Unit 877 glanced along the sharp blade and the hard light reflecting off it glimmered on his metal fingers. Then he decided—decided what he had known would be his decision all along.
The code wasn’t Malcolm’s first job. His first job was to care for his assigned human.
Savannah would have a second chance.
Continue to Chapter 6: The Last Sunset
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