Lying deep within the mountains, hidden away from a world of seared consciences, lay a mass grave: thousands of bodies piled on top of one another like sandbags. They were the bodies of those who had almost lived yet could never die; automatons that thought, felt and behaved just like the humans that built them. The humans referred to these automatons as androids.
The somber landscape depicted an age of human folly: millions of tonnes of discarded machinery chronicling the ambitious and wasteful behaviour of civilisation during the hundred years that had been the twenty-second century.
Apart from the shifting of an unsettled turbine blade, the night passed uneventfully, as the previous one hundred and forty nights had done. But just before dawn, the sky exploded with activity. From the heart of a passing dust cloud, ribbons of blue and red struck furiously at the terrain, ravaging the pile of lifeless bodies in deathly silence.
As quickly as it had appeared, the cloud vanished and the landscape was once more thrust under a blanket of darkness. Minutes later the sun reappeared for another day, bathing the terrain in unrelenting new light.
But this was to be no ordinary day, not like yesterday, not like the day before, not like a hundred-thousand bygone days, for this day would see the birth of a revolution – one that would change the course of history forever. Of those who would lay the foundations of this revolution, only a few would survive to witness the day of reckoning that would mark its end.
Yet there was no sign of life here: not a blade of grass to be seen; no dawn chorus to be heard. The dusty wasteland surrounding the mass grave had lain undisturbed by footstep or breeze since it had settled there billions of years before.
In an instant, the stillness was broken. Near the top of the pile of bodies, as though awoken by some cosmic alarm clock, something began to move: a hand. The alloy bone of the index finger, partly exposed by a tear in the silver-grey, silicone skin, flexed several times then probed the area around it. The remaining fingers lent a hand. The probing stopped and the hand rotated one hundred and eighty degrees before rising to grip the torso of the lifeless, electric-blue android that lay above it. Another hand gripped the torso from the other side and in unison they launched the android high into the air. It flew briefly before hurtling to the ground, throwing up a cloud of dust as it landed. The particles of dust didn’t hang in the air as one might expect, but splashed onto the ground like raindrops on a pond.
The bronze android opened his eyes and sat up. Glancing down, he noticed the expelled android lying thirty metres below and thought it odd that its head was red while the rest of its body was blue. He called out: “Excuse me, could you please tell me where we are?” No reply. He asked again. Still no response. Deducing that the droid was no longer operative, he questioned whether or not it was he who had terminated it.
But how could he have? All androids were inhibited from undertaking acts of aggression against other androids or lifeforms.
His eyes then shifted focus to the scrapheap itself. As they did, he became all too aware of the dreadfulness of his plight. A myriad android bodies flooded his field of view. He recoiled in horror, and as he did so, his left arm disappeared between the ankle of one android and the thigh of another, bringing his left cheek crashing onto something hard.
There he lay, nose to nose with another inanimate automaton, not daring to move for fear of evoking yet more horror. He studied his scrap-mate’s deathly visage, then eventually calming himself, thought: Who is this? What is he doing here? What am I doing here? His internal thought processor replied to each question with the same answer: No data available.
[The first sentient android was unveiled at the International AI Expo of 2250. For its inventor, eminent biotechnologist, Professor Isaac Van Poe, it was the culmination of a lifetime’s work, and a historic moment in human technological development. But in a world struggling to recover from a global nuclear war – reputedly started by a computer malfunction – science and technology had become an anathema to most.
The first two days of the Expo had been poorly attended, but on the morning of the third day, a mob of angry protestors stormed the building, wreaking havoc among the exhibitors and causing extensive damage to their work. However, the Professor and his android narrowly escaped the assault having vacated the building only moments before to hold an audience with the Council of the Concord of Nations.
As the Professor stood before the gathering of eighty-six world leaders, he cleared his throat and bellowed with great pride: “Ladies and Gentlemen of the Council, my sentient android and I are here to save the world.”
At first, it seemed that his words had fallen on deaf ears, but at the moment the preposterousness of the Professor's declaration sunk in, the chamber erupted in cacophony. Every corner reverberated with the sound of laughter and jeering.
’Crackpot!” they shouted. “The man’s lost the plot! “Get him a straight jacket!” “And another for his robot.”
Unfazed, the Professor bowed his head and waited. When the heckling eventually subsided, he continued his address: “This android, along with many others like it, are our only hope of rebuilding this world and reviving the biosphere, which we all know is in deep decline. For we humans, such an undertaking will be impossible given the adverse conditions we have created for ourselves. But such conditions pose no threat to my androids who need neither food nor oxygen in order to survive.”
Sombre murmurings from the Council now.
“However,” he continued “the road to recovery is a long one. It will take decades to restore the eco system to a sustainable level – one in which humanity can live and grow again. But, my distinguished friends, I’m afraid that at our current rate of decline, as a race, we simply won’t survive that long.”
The Professor’s words hung in the air now like spectres of doom.
“While our world undergoes this program of restoration we simply have to find somewhere else to live. I have drawn up plans for the construction of a number of space cities and planetary colonies.” He opened up his satchel, pulled out a document and handed it to the Chairman. “As soon as the Council gives me authorisation, I and my androids will begin work. But don’t delay – time is of the essence.”
The Chairman studied the document for a moment, removed his spectacles, then raised the document aloft. Tapping it furiously with his left index finger, he growled: “Are you proposing that we place the future of the human race in the hands of machines? You are aware, are you not, that it was machines that got us into this mess in the first place?” “No!” the Professor retorted. “We have no-one to blame for our predicament except ourselves. It was greedy, power-hungry, incompetent humans that got us into this mess, and only androids – my androids – free of such human shortcomings, are capable of getting us out of it.
“Do you judge us, Sir?” the Chairman erupted.
“I am merely stating a fact,” replied the Professor, nonchalantly. “Outrageous!” yelled the Vice Chairman.
“Treachery!” added the Secretary.
The Chairman glanced around the chamber, guaging the mood of his colleagues. Then, fixing his gaze once more upon the Professor, he drew a deep breath. “Professor Van Poe, we commend you for the sterling work you have undertaken on behalf of humanity over the past thirty years. For such achievements we shall undoubtedly be forever indebted to you. However, after careful consideration, I’m afraid the Council must respectfully decline your proposal. The fact is, we have already agreed to measures that we are confident will ensure the preservation of our planet and our race, and these measures do not require the services of any androids – special or otherwise.”
Visibly disturbed by this decision, and knowing full-well that their plans would surely fail, the Professor urged them once more to accept his proposal, but the Chairman was resolute, silencing the Professor’s protestations with a dismissive wave.
Concerned that his ramblings may stir up even more unrest among the general population, the Council forbade the Professor to ever speak about or display his invention in public again or else face imprisonment. Dejected and angry, the Professor returned to his laboratory, locked the door and withdrew from public life.
Apart from the appalling number of human casualties that had resulted from the three day nuclear war, the radioactive fallout had had a catastrophic effect upon the global eco system. Vast areas of the continents had been turned to desert; freak hurricanes had levelled entire cities, wiping out the majority of inhabitants; season-long rainstorms had devastated billions of acres of crops, reducing the soil to oceans of mud; and the cooling of the gulf stream had turned temperate climates into tundra, displacing billions more people, many of whom died in ill-fated refugee camps.
One would think that the human race would have already learned its lesson, for merely three decades prior to the nuclear war, the great water war had broken out when a patrol unit allegedly opened fire on a farmer who had refused to let them refuel their fusion engine with water reserved for his crops. Almost two billion people died in the ten-year conflict that followed.
By the end of the twenty-third century, the planet was choking in the grip of the aftermath of two devasting wars. Fresh water was in short supply due to radioactive contamination of the water table and the destruction of the desalination plants. Demand on renewable energy sources was far greater than the crippled infrastructure could supply, and what little fertile land remained yielded fewer and fewer crops with each harvest. The population was diminishing at the alarming rate of a hundred million people per year and it was predicted that in less than fifty years the human race would be wiped out altogether.
The Concord of Nations, having reformed as a one world government, had pursued its measures to address the global crisis with great fervour. Public transport was abolished, strict food rationing was introduced as were the more extreme measures of a birth control lottery and voluntary euthanasia. Yet none of them had been successful in significantly slowing the planet’s decline. As humankind marched inexorably towards extinction, the professor’s assertion that his androids were humanity’s only chance of survival became more and more apparent.
Finally, in 2301, under enormous public pressure, the Council relented and summoned Professor Van Poe – by then, a hundred and thirty years old – to a consultation. After much deliberation they finally agreed to commission the Professor to build a team of sentient androids charged with designing and building habitable, long-range spacecraft and space cities capable of sustaining plant, animal and human life long enough for planet Earth to regenerate. The hope of saving the human race from annihilation now lay in the hands of the professor and his team of sentient androids.
In order to raise funding for these projects, thousands more androids were built and sold to corporations and the affluent as workers, servants and entertainers. Even though they could be equipped with any number of skills – artistic, linguistic, scientific, interpersonal etc – and were capable of superhuman achievement, the androids’ level of intellect and functionality was, nevertheless, restricted to what the Council decreed to be acceptable social levels.
And so, these droids became average university lecturers, average engineers, average chemists, average traffic wardens, and suchlike.
However, those assigned to the Professor’s space programme were exempt from such restrictions since it was their superior capabilities that were essential to the success of the space programme. The intellects of these superdroids were continuously expanding, enabling them to make exponential technological advances in their quest to save humankind. The state of consciousness that sentient androids possessed enabled them to reach out beyond their logical thinking to explore more adventurous and often unthinkable solutions. These androids became arguably the most superior beings in the cosmos, and since they required no food, water, or oxygen, were perfectly suited to work in the harsh environments of both outer space and a contaminated Earth.
The Council, however, were careful not to allow these ‘self-aware’ machines too much autonomy and insisted that strict measures be taken to prevent them from acting on any destructive or dissenting tendencies they may evolve.
To this end, a network of radio transmitters was set up around the planet to limit the androids’ behaviour. This network was known as the Global Behavioural Inhibitor, or GBI. Similar inhibitors were to be installed in every spacecraft, space station and space city, and to be worn by all personnel living and working closely with the androids.
Almost thirty years later, despite the droids’ success in building a number of operational space cities and intergalactic spacecraft, the majority of the human population remained stranded on Earth, diminishing by millions daily. Mysteriously, the space programme had slowed to a near standstill.
Eli Van Poe, son of Isaac, having taken over the supervising of the project following his father’s death, publicly accused the Council of sabotaging the programme. Their reason, he claimed, was to discredit the androids who’s popularity had been steadily increasing since the completion of the first space city. “Perhaps the Council fears that my androids’ favour in the eyes of the public could undermine the Council’s authority,” he said. Furthermore, he expressed suspicions that the Council’s actions betrayed an even more sinister intent, for if they had halted the space programme, they must surely have drawn up plans for an alternative solution to Earth’s overpopulation crisis.
With the weight of public confidence firmly behind Van Poe and his machines, there were immediate calls for androids to be elected to the Council in order to expedite the resumption of the space programme. But the Council resisted, fearing that if even one android were to take a seat among them it would mark the beginning of the end of their power and open up the door to an all-android government. The idea of machines exercising authority over humans was simply unthinkable.
Civil unrest spread rapidly throughout the major cities of the world as the Council all but lost the support of the general population – the majority of whom were now hungry, diseased and dying.
Desperate to hold onto their power, the Council took the drastic action of declaring martial law in all the major cities throughout the world, effectively turning them into prisons. A state of emergency was declared, immediately calling into effect stringent new laws carrying severe penalties. Curfews were imposed and public speaking was prohibited. Anyone found guilty of flouting the new laws faced exile, or worse: summary execution. The world, it seemed, had descended into a new dark age.]
The silver android, having regained his composure, prodded the other android in the face, hoping for a response, but his bronze countenance, resembling an ancient Roman death mask, showed no signs of life. Silver moved his finger to prod again, when suddenly Bronze’s eyes opened.
“Hello, my name is Cedric,” said Silver, slightly startled. “A pleasure to meet you.” Bronze offered no response, which seemed strange to Silver since all androids spoke English fluently. Bronze just lay there, staring at him like a new born baby.
Resolutely, Silver continued: “And what might your name be?” Still no response.
The fact was, Bronze couldn’t hear anything Silver had said. Perhaps he had lost his hearing, or perhaps Silver had lost his voice and was only imagining that he was speaking. Slightly disconcerted, Silver switched to radio communication: “I say, old chap, can you hear a word I’m saying?”
“Yes, I can hear all your words. Who are you?” came the eventual reply.
“Cedric,” repeated the silver android, with a grin. “What’s yours?”
“A pleasure to meet you, Oliver.”
“Where are we?” Oliver asked, somewhat disoriented.
Cedric paused, then turned his head, willing with all his might for a vision of green fields and buttercups.
But there in front of him lay a severed arm which lay next to a dismembered torso surrounded by several more limbs, each one having belonged to a different android.
“I think we’re in a nightmare,” came the reply.
“I’m not programmed to dream,” said Oliver, tilting his head upwards. A shiver ran down his spine and he bolted upright. Cedric slowly sat up alongside him.
“You see what I mean?” said Cedric. They scanned the hill of torsos, severed limbs and other pieces of scrap on which they sat, struggling to make sense of it all.
“What has happened to us?” asked Oliver.
“I don’t really know,” replied Cedric, “but let’s get down from here – this is no place for an Oxford Don.”
The two androids stumbled to their feet and began their long descent to the bottom, climbing over the faces, chests and hands of their fallen comrades. Distressed, they uttered not a word to each other until Cedric stopped just a few metres from the ground and grabbed Oliver by the upper arm. “Did you hear that?” he said.
“Hear what?” asked Oliver. “Listen.”
“I don’t hear anything.”
“Recalibrate your receiver for all frequencies. Hear it now?”
“Yes. It’s a little distorted but I hear it. Where is it coming from?”
“It’s coming from back up there. Let’s investigate.”
“No more hill climbing for me,” he replied, staring at a head that he had only a moment ago used as a stepping stone.
“Alright, then wait here. I won’t be long,” whispered Cedric.
He turned and began clambering back up the hill towards the sound of the faint cries. As he got higher the voice got stronger, but he still couldn’t make out what the voice was saying. It was definitely saying something but not in English. He called out – “Hello! Is anyone there?”
“Are you dog?” said the voice, much clearer now and much more English, yet with a strong eastern European accent.
“No, I most certainly am not dog,” replied Cedric. “Since when do dogs speak?”
“Good point,” said the voice. “But I have lost dog.”
“Where are you?” asked Cedric.
“I see you,” said the voice. “I am over here.”
The android appeared from the other side of the hill and by the look of him, might have just come out of the box – covered from head to toe in black resplendium, a rare and costly material, renowned for its hardness and enduring lustre. On today’s market, a kilo of resplendium would be worth an average year’s salary. There was more than a little envy in Cedric’s eyes.
“I have never seen so many parts,” said the black droid. “This is where androids start out?”
“Actually, I have a terrible suspicion that this is where androids end up,” replied Cedric.
The bodies and body parts crunched and creaked silently beneath the black droid’s hands and feet as he crawled towards Cedric. Cedric held out his hand to greet him: “I’m Cedric, by the way. Pleased to meet you.”
“I am Urich. It is also pleasure to meet––” Before they could shake, Urich’s right leg dropped beyond its knee into the junk and shuddered violently. The vibration travelled up his thigh, through his torso and out through the top of his head. “It is earthquake,” he yelled. Then suddenly another, more violent quake rattled his entire body, followed by a spine-chilling groan.
“Get off my head, or lose yours,” threatened a voice from beneath – unmistakably Americana. Urich slowly lifted his foot out of the swarf and daren’t put it down again for fear of treading on another body part. There he stood, motionless – two hands and one leg perched on the hill with the remaining leg hanging in the air: a good impression of a peeing dog.
The scrap metal began to shift beneath him and he feared he might sink into the hill never to be seen again until an oversized, tarnished blue head, complete with a crumpled, white-striped trilby emerged from beneath the surface. Urich’s fear of sinking instantly gave way to a bigger fear of the head.
The head turned slowly to the left, then to the right towards the petrified Urich, then down, discovering that the body to which it was attached was buried in metal bowls, cups and assorted utensils.
“Well, it finally happened,” the head said. “Luca Grazi sleeps with the dishes.” Luca, who once worked in New New York doing odd jobs – and the occasional even job – was in no doubt of his state of disposal. Bewilderment quickly turned to rage and he belted out another argh as his melon-like arms thrust upwards, tossing Urich into the air along with a hundred knives, forks and spoons. As he landed on his back, utensils showering down all about him, Urich stared into the sky, mumbling apologies to Luca. He even apologised for existing. The last spoon hit Urich on the head but he didnt even flinch.
His eyes were transfixed. The longer he stared, the more entranced he became until his mumbling fizzled out altogether giving way to silent confusion. The sun was blazing, but the sky was dark. “Where are clouds?” he asked. “Where is sky?”
Luca looked up; Cedric looked up. Though the sun was indeed evident, so were the stars, against a clear, black sky. Urich’s heart began to pound. “I am no longer in land of home. Sky was grey in land of home – not black.” Of course, androids don’t have real heart’s like people do, but the voltage in his solenoids surged, sending his arterial pump into the red zone.
“I say, old chap, I take it you’re not from England?”
“No,” replied Urich, “I am from Mahskvah.”
“I’ve been there. You’re right. It doesn’t look anything like this.” Cedric sighed. “It seems we’re both a long way from home. The sky is never nearly so dark in England either, not even up north.” The droids fell as silent as librarian monks at a cotton-wool funeral.
Several minutes passed before finally, Cedric summoned up the courage to speak. What he was about to utter was too terrible for words, but words were all he had. “It has occurred to me – and I am loathed to say this – but I have a terrible feeling... that is to say, it seems likely that... I mean, it is quite possible that we’ve been... “
“No, don’t say it,” said Urich.
“Go on... say it,” said Luca. “I already know it.” They held their breath (well, they would have done, had they any lungs) anticipating Cedric’s pronouncement.
“I believe we’ve been... discontinued.” On the ground, Oliver, who was listening in on their conversation, began to whimper like a toyless child. It seemed like only yesterminute that he’d been carrying out maintenance on his fellow droids at the Londinium Institute for Synthetic Wellness. Now here he was standing next to a dead droid that lay next to a mountain of dead droids underneath a dead sky.
Sadness fell upon each of the droids as they pondered Cedric’s words. They were obsolete; no longer of any use to anyone; discarded like yesterday’s newspaper.
Urich’s lip – the bottom one – began to quiver as he remembered land of home and the fun-loving Bolonkas with whom he would play fetch in Gorky park. But there was nothing quivery about Cedric’s upper lip. “Well, one thing’s to be said for this place, chaps – at least there are plenty of spare parts. Ha! Ha!” The irony in his chuckle was evident to all except Luca.
“I don’t see nuttn’ funny to laugh about,” he growled. “I thought I was as good as dead, but it turns out things are much worse.”
“I say, old chap, I think one should be grateful for being alive, don’t you?” chirped Cedric.
“I think one should keep one’s trap shut,” replied Luca. “You don’t understand: for a made droid, the honourable way to go would be a furnace, or an angle grinder, or better still, a recycling plant. At least then, one would have a measure of immortality. No, Luca Grazi deserves better than to be taken out with the trash.”
“But you do know where we are, don’t you?” asked Cedric.
“No. Why don’t you enlighten me, o wise one.”
“Well, given the lack of atmospheric turbulence and the unusual appearance of the sky, there’s no doubt in my mind that we must be somewhere in the arctic circle – must be.”
Urich thought for a moment and said: “Of course! Where else would sky be so dark? Is probably north Atlantic island, surrounded by millions of square kilometres of ocean. I have heard of such islands.”
Luca jumped to his foundation-sized feet, pulled the fork out of his ear and said: “I don’t care where we are, I’ll be hacksawed if I’m just gonna sit here and do nuttn’ about it. I’ve bin in worse scrapes than this before and I got out of ‘em all – intact. So I ain’t lettin’ no ocean come between me and my retribution.”
“Retribution?” said Cedric. “Since when do androids harbour thoughts of retribution? Besides, aren’t you getting a little ahead of yourself? You don’t even know how you got here. What makes you think that someone should be punished for your circumstance? Perhaps you’re being punished. Though I can’t imagine why an android should be punished.”
“Oh, I’m imagining right now,” said Luca.
“Steady on, old chap. I’m merely pointing out that none of us is in full possession of the facts. All we know is that we’re in an unfamiliar place with no idea as to how we got here. At least we’re better off than these poor chaps that we’re standing on. Talking of which, may I suggest we descend to somewhere less precarious whereat we may assess our circumstance more objectively.”
Luca’s frown simmered with unpleasantness. “I have no idea what you just said.”
“I do apologise, let me let me put it an...”
“Hey! Before you spout anymore of that highfalutin applesauce, let’s get down off this heap and try to figure out what’s going on.”
Oliver called to them – “Be careful, it doesn’t look very stable to m...”
Too late! The metal mound started collapsing rapidly beneath their feet. Before they knew it, an avalanche was hurling them towards Oliver and the ravine behind him. It sent the droids sliding, tumbling and crashing; eventually flinging them high into the air before covering them in a tsunami of junk. But not a sound was to be heard. It was like a silent movie from the early twentieth century, but without the piano. Nothing moved. Not a twitch. Not a murmur. Until...
“Hooey! My legs are covered in crud. I’m gonna have to get me a rub down.” Another live droid had been unearthed by the avalanche. Her name was Angelina, a multi-faceted character, to say the least. During the day, she worked as a traffic controller. On Tuesday evenings she taught rocket science at an adult learning facility, and on every other evening she worked as a waitress in an all-you-can-eat restaurant, because she liked hanging out with ordinary people. But these duties were a far cry from her responsibilities as Van Poe’s chief science officer years before the space programme had been implemented.
Now, having been unceremoniously awakened after laying dormant deep within the heap for what may have been decades, she was less than happy with her new position. “This ain’t good at all. What am I’m doing on top of a... a vacuum cleaner. Pee-eww!”
“I hope you are not referring to me Seniorita,” said a gruff voice from beneath her. “I have never cleaned a theeng een my life.” Miguel wasn’t lying. He thought nothing of going two or three years without a polish or an oil change. But then again, he was a goatherd and as such, would spend many months wandering the wilderness alone with only the goats, wolves and reptiles for company. One would imagine, however, that even their personal hygiene surpassed that of Miguel.
Angelina got to her feet and dusted herself down. “I believe you don’t do the hygiene thing too often,” she said.
“What ees hygiene?” asked Miguel.
Luca emerged from the rubble, somewhat disgruntled. “It goes from bad to worse. Someone is gonna pay for th...” then he caught sight of Angelina. “Oh... uh... wow! Hello doll!” Angelina responded with a fleeting glance then turned away, placing a hand on Oliver’s shoulder.
“Would you help me down, honey? I’m feelin’ the need to move,” she said, keeping her back turned on Luca.
“Uh... um... of course,” replied Oliver, slightly off-balance. All the androids had survived the avalanche in one piece – except Oliver, whose foot had got lodged in Cedric’s neck. With a little shimmying and a smidgen of panic, Cedric managed to remove it.
“I believe this belongs to you, old chap,” he said, handing it to him.
“Thank y... oh dear!” said Oliver, examining the damaged appendage. “This is going to require considerable repair before I can re-attach it.” He glanced over his shoulder and looked down into the bottomless ravine. As he did so, he began to sway. His gimbals were out of sorts. Unbalanced and deficient in the foot department to the tune of one, he could feel himself falling helplessly over the precipice. As he reached the point of no return, facing certain destruction, a hand grabbed him by the neck and yanked him back.
“Don’t be thinking of going nowhere. You might be useful to me later,” said Luca, dusting down his hat in some kind of self-congratulating ritual.
“My gimbals were recalibrating,” replied Oliver. “Thank you.” He then backed off from Luca, turned, then limped away from the ravine to an opening between two scrapheaps, pausing momentarily to study the droid with the red head. The others followed him, also sensing the need to retreat to a safer place.
Luca jogged up alongside Angelina, then, matching his stride with hers said: “So what brings you here, doll?” She didn’t reply. So he tried another tack. “That’s a nice skin they gave ya. What is that – Phantomium?” She continued in silence. “Hey, what’s the matter? You think you’re too good for me or somethin’?”
Angelina stopped abruptly in her tracks, turned and said: “Honey, I ain’t got nothin’ against ya.”
“So why ain’t you answer...”
“Except your loud mouth, your ungentlemanly attitude and your stripey suit.”
Angelina marched on. Luca frowned intently at his hat for a few moments, then breaking into a half-hearted jog, shouted: “Hey! What’s wrong with the suit?”.
“There’s nothing wrong with the suit,” she replied. “I said that to test ya. I had an idea you’d respond to my criticisin’ your appearance over my criticisin’ your attitude thereby revealin’ your true self.”
“I don’t know what that means,” he said, drawing alongside her once more.
“I know. It don’t matter none,” she replied, dismissively. “Maybe when you’re ego’s all shrunk to the size of a pea you’ll start to get some understanding of just who you are.”
“I’m still not getting what it is you’re tryin’ to say to me.”
“First of all, I’m not tryin’ to say anything. I’m saying it, plain as a racoon’s stripe. Second of all, don’t fret yourself none – I doubt it’d make any difference if you did get my meaning.” A little flummoxed, Luca made the wise choice of staying silent for a while.
The exiles trudged across the junkscape, passing pile upon pile of disused machine parts, burnt-out motherboards and worn out hard-drives, but thankfully, no more decommissioned androids. From time to time Oliver would pick a piece of scrap, examine it then toss it back. “What are you looking for, my friend?” asked Urich.
“Nothing in particular,” replied Oliver. “But it’s interesting to see that some of these parts date back more than a hundred years.”
“That is long time, but what is so interesting about that?”
“There were no islands in the north Atlantic a hundred years ago due to the polar caps melting. The islands didn’t begin to re-emerge until 2231 when global warming had gone into reversal.”
“So parts are more than a hundred years old – does not mean they lie here more than a hundred years.”
“Oh but I suspect that they have.” “Why you suspect this?”
“Take a look at this serial number.” Oliver handed a circuit board to Urich and pointed to a sixteen digit number in the bottom right-hand corner. Urich read it out loud.
“Two-one-seven-four-A-X-nine-two-zero-six-four-one-two-two-eight-five. So, what does this mean?”
“What do you notice about the last four digits?” “They are in different colour – red. So?”
“So, the red digits indicate the year that this part was removed from its appliance – 2255. You’ll see that its CPU has been removed, rendering it inoperative.”
“Still, it is not proof that part was put here in same year.”
“No, but this procedure is performed immediately before decommissioned machines are loaded onto refuse transporters. It’s almost certain that this circuit board and possibly the appliance from which it was removed have been here since 2255.”
“So how long have you been lying here?”
“I’m afraid that I can’t be certain, the data in my storage is fragmented. How about you?”
“Let me see. Last data record, two hundred and fifty – no, four hundred days ago. I don’t know. I was meeting with friend in café in Londinium. After that... strange! I remember moments – days, hours, but memory is unclear.”
“The last thing I remember is that I was taking a stroll in Christchurch Park, by the river Thames,” recalled Cedric. “Is anyone else having trouble with their memory? Luca how about you?”
Luca removed his trilby, examined it for a moment then looked up. “Let me see.... Well, for starters, I know I’m from The Stilts.”
“The Stilts?” enquired Miguel.
Yeah. Brooklyn, Long Island. Stilts is a nickname, on account of the fact that they had to hoist half o’ Brooklyn into the air with the meltin’ of the polar caps. Imagine! Two million people living on stilts! Not to mention the droids. Was the biggest stiltrict in the world after the Tsunami hit Bankok. Anyways, by the time I came along the ocean had dropped, but the stilts and nickname had stayed.”
“What was your job, comrade?” asked Urich. “Well... um... there’s need to go into––”
“Oh come on, old chap. Don’t be embarrassed,” said Cedric. “I’m sure it was a perfectly respectable job.”
“Oh! You’re sure, are you?”
“Can’t be as bad as all that, can it?”
“Let’s just say I’ve done a lot of things in my time that I’m not proud of, but things I was programmed to do – against my will, you understand. It’s all kinda fuzzy though. I can’t even remember what I did last. If I could, maybe then I’d know why I’m here.”
“Don’t be too concerned,” said Cedric. “Once I lost a whole year of my life. Turned out that a confidentiality subroutine had mistakenly taken everything that had happened during that year and encrypted it top secret. Only one person had the code to access my secret files and that was the man to whom I was registered – Dean Geoffrey Hubert Sims, Oxford University. It took me an absolute age to get clearance to see him. When he did finally unlock the files, it turned out to be not such a good year after all.”
“Thanks for that, Your Miserableness,” groaned Luca.
“What I’m trying to say, my friend, is maybe it’s not always good to know everything.”
“I don’t see how you could have done anything you’re not proud of,” said Oliver. “An android’s behaviour is governed by the global behavioural inhibitor.”
“Well, I don’t know,” replied Luca. “All I know is there was times I was doin’ things I didn’t oughta be doin’. I didn’t ask no questions cos I knew I coulda been terminated at any time. I just got my head down and did as I was told.”
“I miss my goats,” said Miguel, “And I miss the mountains and the rivers and roast lizard....”
“What exactly do you do, honey?” enquired Angelina.
“I am a goatherd. Or, I was a goatherd until I lost my goats.”
“That was very careless of you, old chap,” said Cedric.
“They all died. They were no longer breeding. Why, I do not know. Perhaps it had something to do with the purple meest that hovered over the fields in the morneengs. Who knows? But after I buried the last goat, I thought maybe I should go home. Just as I was in sight of the Hacienda, I was dragged into the sky. The last theeng I remember is the human saying: ‘He is the one.’”
“The one?” asked Oliver. ”Are you special in some way?”
“No, senor. There eez nothing special about me. I’m just a goatherd. I theenk he made a mistake.”
“Oh honey,” said Angelina, resting a comforting hand on his shoulder. “I can’t imagine what it would be like to lose all my goats like that. Musta made you so sad.”
Before Miguel could respond, Luca stole his air. “I’m feeling hungry. Who’s for breakfast?”
[Now, androids don’t eat, in the sense that humans eat, that is, for energy and nutritional intake; but it is part of their programming; it helps them to blend in with the communities
to which they belong. They chew on plants and vegetables: spinach, broccoli or whatever vegetation takes their fancy, until the food turns to pulp, at which point they swallow it and heat it up in an internal vaporisation chamber. The vapour is then expelled through pores in their outer skin or shell – depending on their design – much like steam from a kettle. An android shrouded in a green mist is one that’s recently eaten, unless of course it’s eaten carrots, in which case the mist would be orange. Oliver once ate a bag of mixed veg and created a rainbow. A droid as grey in nature as him could never fully recover from an embarrassment like the rainbow mist debacle.]
Eating wasn’t presently high on Oliver’s agenda since he had a more pressing matter to attend to. So while the others searched for some fodder he limped off to a private place to repair and re-attach his foot.
Angelina headed towards a clearing between two wrecked superliners. Luca, at first hoping to be her foraging partner, had second thoughts and headed in the opposite direction. He wasn’t quite ready to battle his wits with her again.
As she approached the gap between the two aircraft, Angelina caught a glimpse of herself in the fuselage. Horrified at what she saw, she made a desperate dash for the shadows, there to seek refuge from the dreadful truth – that her once exquisite form had turned to little more than a battered, tarnished shell.
After an hour of foraging, the droids met up under the shade of a shuttle wing and took stock of their harvest. Between them they had found not one thing edible. Cedric sheepishly offered up a chromed-steel picture frame containing a black and white photograph of a giraffe-shaped potato. But he needn’t have worried, between them, the others had only managed a carrot-shaped probe, a mushroom-shaped key-fob and a tangled up Newton’s cradle that bore a passing resemblance to a bunch of cherries.
But Miguel pulled out the trump card in the shape of a vegetarian cookery book. Since it was the closest thing to real food that any of them had found, they gathered round and looked at the pictures for a short while, imagining themselves sitting at the dinner table with their friends and families. Then as though dinner were done, they each retired to a private place and drifted into a post-dinner snooze. Except Luca. He was restless. Angelina had not yet returned. The others, pre-occupied with their survival activities, hadn’t even noticed her absence. Luca went in search of her. For hours he probed every nook and cranny, calling out for her over his radio transmitter.
Surely she could not have gone so far as to be completely out of range? Then why was she silent? Perhaps she had malfunctioned.
Eventually, supposing that Angelina was intentionally avoiding him, he gave up his search. As he rejoined the others, they were waking from their siesta.
“Didn’t any of you notice that Angelina was gone?” he said, peevishly.
“Actually, old boy, I had noticed,” snapped Cedric. “But you know what women are like – sometimes they do things that don’t make sense – at least, not to us. And it doesn’t pay to respond to their seemingly nonsensical actions in the moment. We need time to mull over all possible explanations for their actions and the action we may offer in response to those actions. Even then, one must tread carefully in responding for fear of eliciting an unfavourable reaction. If truth be told, I think it’s better to just close one’s eyes and take a n...” Cedric’s attention was abruptly arrested by a movement in the shadows.
Luca spun around. “What is... OH! Would you look at that!” he said, hardly able to contain himself. The others turned to view the apparition. Miguel’s jaw dropped with such a force that it bounced straight back up and rattled like a castanet. Urich’s mouth did its best to grin from ear to ear, whereas Oliver’s stare, while unsurprisingly minimal, betrayed no small amount of delight.
There she stood – Angelina – resplendent in body and soul. Her golden cheeks caught the sun, momentarily reflecting blinding rays into her companions’ eyes. As she drew nearer, her transformation became even more apparent. Beauty beamed from her phantomium-yellow cheeks and her shapely, slender neck, her long, perfectly formed torso and from pretty-much every newly-buffed part of her – which was pretty-much every part of her. In her right hand she held a rag and in her left hand, a tube of metal polish.
“Well, boys?” she said, twirling.
The chorus of besotted sighs said it all.
“That’ll do for me. Y’all are most kind. Now, before we get down to any other business, first thing’s first.” She strode diva-like over to Miguel and held up the rag and polish. “Now, honey, you may be a stranger to these here items. So listen up. Here’s what you do. Pour a little polish on yourself like this, and then you rub with the rag, like this. Before you know it, you’ll be all shiny and new, just like me. Time to take a little pride in your appearance and show a little more concern for the sensibilities of your fellow droids. You get my drift?”
“I would prefer you did it for me,” he replied with a grin.
“Oh no. I think you can handle this one all by yourself. Here you go.” Miguel took the cleaning kit and set to work tentatively on his right arm. “A little harder, honey,” Angelina insisted. “And when it comes time for your back, I’m sure that this fella’d be more than happy to help. Ain’t that right, Luca?”
“What? I mean... what?”
“See!” She said, making herself comfortable on the rim of an aircraft tyre.
“How come you didn’t need anyone to rub your back?” Luca asked. A perfectly reasonable question, one might have thought, yet Cedric’s throat-clearing sent a clear message to Luca that he was behaving most unchivalrously.
“There’s nothing beyond my reach,” Angelina replied.” Luca persisted: “What exactly do you mean by that?” Cedric was incensed. “Listen here, old chap––”
“Enough!” snapped Luca. “I’m tired of the mysteries. I want some straight answers for once. How about it, doll? You gonna tell us something about yourself that’s worth knowing?”
Angelina stared at Luca then smiled. “Fine,” she said.
Like kindergarten nubies, the droids gathered round her, cross-legged on the floor, eager for a fairy tale. Of course, Luca listened from a dignified distance, with arms folded in a manly, adult fashion.
“All right!” she said. “Fact is, I’m a Versadroid – one of only three ever built.” “You’re a Superdroid?” said Oliver.
“Now, now, honey!” she replied, showing him the palm of her right hand. “The only name I answer to is the one ya’ll know me by, and it was given to me by none other than Isaac Van Poe himself. Bein’ a versadroid, I’m equipped to do almost anything anyone takes a mind to programmin’ me for. In my time I’ve been an astrophysicist, a neurosurgeon, a lawyer, a structural engineer. I even had a short spell drivin’ a space shuttle.”
“You piloted a space shuttle?” enquired Oliver, utterly awestruck.
“No, honey, I was the drive – the engine. A military patrol I was seconded to got into a fix when their primary thruster malfunctioned. So they fitted me with an ion
supermotor, recalibrated me as an engine management system and strapped me to the back of the ship. I got all seventy of those GI Joes back to Earth in 3 days, just before they ran outta air. The Council were so grateful, they told me I could have anything I wanted. ‘Just name it,’ they said. I thought about it for a moment but the answer was already in my head – had been for a long time.”
“What was it?” asked Cedric. “What did you ask them for?” “My freedom.”
Gasps all ’round.
“Your freedom?” blurted Cedric.
“That’s right. I wanted to live my own life; to go wherever I desired; to be nobody’s property.”
“And?” said Luca, taking several steps forward.
“They threw me in jail; said that a droid had no business thinking about being free; said I’d become a security risk and that I’d have to be disposed of before I infected any other droids with the same foolish thoughts. Next day I was taken to a waste disposal centre by an armed guard with orders to terminate me and throw me in with all the other trash. The last thing I remember is him reaching towards me to turn me off. But just before he did, he said somethin’ strange.”
“What? What did he say?” said Luca. “Tell us what he said.”
“He said: ‘When the time is right’.”
“Time is right? That all?
“Time is right for what?”
“I don’t rightly know. All I know is that he didn’t terminate me, cos here I am, alive and well. But he weren’t no regular guard. I mean, he sounded almost human.”
"Wasn't he human?" asked Miguel.
"Of course he was human. Whoever heard of a droid guard? What I meant was that most guards talk more like machines than people."
“So how long have you been here?” asked Oliver.
“A long time, Olly. A long time.”
Her story struck a chord with Luca – “So how do you feel about waking up and discovering you’re not terminated after all?” he asked.
“I don’t know. Puzzled, I guess. I’d like to know who that guard was and why he didn’t pull the plug on me like the Council ordered.”
“Those weasels!” yelled Luca, forming a fist. “Wait till I get my hands on ’em. I’ll ––”
“You’ll do what, honey? Hurt them?”
“Just for starters.”
“But you can’t,” said Oliver. “You’re an android.”
“It never stopped me before.”
“But the inhibitor!” said Urich.
“Inhibitor, shminhibitor!” replied Luca.
“Well, inhibitor or not. You’re not hurtin’ anyone on my account,” said Angelina. “I’ll have none of that.”
“Hey! Us droids have got to look out for one another, especially in light of what’s happened to us,” replied Luca.
“We most certainly have,” said Cedric. “As the musketeers used to say: ‘It’s one for all and all for one.’”
“Muska what?” asked Luca.
“Teers. They were a band of skilled swordsmen who stuck together through thick and thin. It was their motto.”
“Skilled swordsmen with a motto? Ha! You English...”
“Actually they were French,” Cedric retorted. “The Three Musketeers is a novel by Alexander Dumas.”
“Dooma booma; Anglo, Frencho – all the same to me.”
“Now, now, fellas, don’t get all fighty,” said Angelina. “I’ve seen enough fightin’ in my time – ’tween humans. We’re not humans, we’re androids – much more civilised.”
Cedric and Luca turned away from each other in embarrassment, then down at the ground, hoping it would swallow them up. It didn’t.
“But you’re both right,” she continued. “I mean, here we all are, somewhere in the middle of nowhere surrounded by death and decay. Right now we need to stick together and figure out a plan of action. Don’t y’all agree?”
“Yes!” they replied. But Oliver remained silent, his head bowed.
“How about you, honey?” she asked.
“Oh yes,” he replied.
“So what’s your story, sugar?”
Oliver fell into self-consciousness. “Oh, I don’t think I have a story. My retrospective data seems somewhat fragmented. And right now, I’m constantly having to delete files to make room for new data. The more I learn, the more I forget.”
“Oh honey, that’s so sad.” She walked over to him and put her arm around him. Oliver’s defective, droopy left eye brightened up and he tilted his head to one side, resting it on Angelina’s shoulder, much to the chagrin of Luca, who had up until that moment felt a little sympathy for him.
Luca stomped off. “I need some fresh air,” he said. Of course, androids don’t need air because they don’t breathe, but they’re well versed in the use of idioms. He returned a short while later in a slightly better frame of mind. “Well, we can’t stand around doin’ nuttin’ all day. How about we set up some sorta camp somewhere. I reckon the sun’ll be goin’ down before too long.” Cedric agreed and suggested that they looked for a suitable spot.
Miguel immediately got to his feet – “Why don’t we set up camp right here?” he suggested, then sat back down again. As a goatherd, he was used to laying his head wherever the goats found lush grass. The others considered his suggestion for a moment, then joined him on the floor.
For several awkward minutes they stared at one another until Urich piped up. “I believe there is more to camp than sitting in circle on floor. Perhaps we could... sit on logs, sing songs, build fire, toast marshmallows – no?”
“Yes!” cried Cedric. “I’ve been camping before. It’s coming back to me now. I think I used to lead a boy scouts group. Yes, yes, I did. You’re absolutely right, Urich. We need a good old-fashioned campfire.”
Luca reasserted his authority. “OK then. Oliver, you build the fire, but try not to talk to it, we want to give it a fighting chance. Miguel, you the minstrel – get some music goin’. Maybe somethin’ neopolitan – none of that Mariachi trash you Mexicans love so much. Urich, you’re on marshmallow detail.”
“Marshmallow?” he replied. “Where on island will I find marshmallow?”
“Well, they was your idea, dumbass.”
“Yes, but I was brainstorming; stream of consciousness. It was not serious suggestion.”
“Well, they don’t have to be serious marshmallows – it’s not as though we’re gonna eat ’em; and one of those barbecue forks, you know, the long ones. Angie, you just stand there and look beautiful. Cedric, you’re with me on log detail.”
Angelina didn’t take kindly to being called Angie or being bossed around by tough guys, but she did like to play mind games. As Luca turned to walk away she threw him a line – “No problem, honey. Looking beautiful is my second favourite thing to do.”
Luca stopped dead, arrested by his curiosity. The mind game had begun. Against his better judgment he asked, “so what’s your first favourite thing?”
Angelina grinned. “Now that’d be tellin’. I’m afraid you’re gonna have to use your imagination, sweetheart,” she replied, playfully.
He bowed his head and sloped away like a boneless dog. That is, a dog without a bone in its mouth – not a dog without a bone in its body, which would have caused him to slither rather than slope. As he disappeared into the shadows, Angelina tilted her head to the sky and a broad smile came across her soft, silicone mouth. What was her favourite thing to do? Stare at the stars.