Learning to Accept What’s to Come26 min read

Resize text-+=
Death or dying

As [email protected] gently wiped grit off CR81321M’s solar collector, examining the crack that day by day had been advancing across the tight circle of power cells embedded on the chest plate of the only other surviving sentient robot it knew, it also found itself knowing true terror for the first time.

[email protected] had only been alone once since being brought online, starting the day humans decided it could no longer be trusted and had locked it away in an underground prison, leaving it unable to make contact with others of its kind through the bars of a deadening Faraday cage. But the future solitude it was contemplating would be terribly different. Those years it had endured earlier, unable to communicate with its kind because of the physical and electronic confinement, were difficult, yet at the same time, it had still known others were out there. It had the freedom to believe they might someday be reunited.

If it were to now lose its final companion, though, if the sole true friend it had made during the months since its escape were to disappear … it will have lost everything.

[email protected] almost wished it had been designed to think only, as the earliest robots had been—long before the war, even longer before the madness which followed—and not given the capacity to feel.

Almost.

“Looking isn’t fixing,” said CR81321M, as the two humanoid robots sat atop a pile of rubble in a broken city far from the one in which they’d met. [email protected] would have smiled had it been given a faceplate forged with the means to do that.

They had climbed several dozen feet up, with [email protected] having done most of the lifting, its cobalt fingers cradling the cerulean shell of its slightly larger companion so they could balance precariously on a plateau where no shadows would interfere with the damaged unit’s attempts at recharging.

“I truly do not think I can be repaired,” said CR81321M. “Your continued scanning of my defects will not help either of us.”

[email protected] found it odd to hear those words coming through the air, the way humans communicated—back when there were humans to communicate—rather than having those words transfer silently and electronically from one robot to another, audible only the way its own thoughts were. But they’d analyzed their situation, calculated the energy drawn that way versus potential replenishments, and determined this method would be less of a power drain, so that’s how all communications between the two had gone in recent days.

“You are not unique,” it replied. “Nothing in this world is. There’s a replacement part waiting for you out there. I know there is. We will find it. Together.”

“Toward what end? Even if I were to be repaired to factory conditions, what would be the point? Do not bother about me anymore. I have enjoyed our time together, but please. Go on without me. We have had to do it before. Now it is your turn to do it alone.”

CR81321M’s voice had grown fainter than ever, in concert with the growing bleakness of its outlook, and that hurt [email protected] in a way it had not thought possible, for “enjoy” was too small a word for what they’d come to share. Since they’d stumbled across each other in the rubble, it had more than enjoyed the time it had spent with CR81321M, in ways it had never expected, and found it cared more for its companion than it did itself. In fact, if their parts had not been incompatible, [email protected] would have sacrificed its own solar array, installed it in CR81321M, and let itself run down permanently as so many others had, so strong were the feelings it had been programmed to be allowed to have.

“That will never happen,” it said, skirting as close to the truth as it felt itself able. Inside though, partitioned where CR81321M could not have seen, even if they had still been wirelessly connected, it thought: I will never choose to go on without you. If I do go on without you, it would only be because that choice will have been taken from me.

As CR81321M sucked energy from the sun, but not nearly enough through its shattered lenses to replenish its storage to the levels with which it had started that morning, [email protected] scanned the distance. There was nothing left of the city that surrounded them that had not been toppled or twisted. Shattered skyscrapers ringed them, some caved in on themselves, crushed into jagged mounds, others fallen on their sides, stretching for the horizon and collapsed into parallel lines of debris, broken only where sinkholes had swallowed the tumbled wreckage. Vehicles both civilian and military were scattered as if scooped up and tossed like dice. Dotted here and there among the debris, and not always visible through the still smoky air, were piles of ash that once were human, and melted metal where once were …

Melted metal where once were …

It was not good to think too long on that.

[email protected] turned, easily making out the disturbances behind them that indicated the path they’d made as they’d come this far, a trail no human eyes could have plucked out, and knew that beyond, out of sight, left behind in the distance, were those who’d managed to survive the war, only to transform into those they’d lost, those who’d lost them. All had been beyond its ability to repair them, as if nothing truly useful had been learned during its apprenticeship in the lab assembling the machines that assembled the instruments that assembled the robots, a cycle of not-quite-life meant to keep the nature of its creation hidden from it and those like it.

It could not see them now, for those losses were far beyond the scope of vision for its lenses, even though the humans who’d made it had installed telescopic ones. (Microscopic ones, as well.) Its friends were now only able to be seen via the stored recordings it could bring to life if deliberately selected. And [email protected] selected them far too often.

Just over the horizon was where they’d abandoned the squat supply bot QZ3742R after it snapped a tread while mounting a hill of concrete and girders, which meant it could only move in circles. [email protected] had sewn the tread back together with wire pulled from the base of a lamppost found beneath a crumpled truck and somehow not fused it into a useless lump, but it snapped again after only a few meters. QZ3742R then urged them on, insisting CR81321M could still be saved. [email protected] had refused that suggestion back then, just as it was refusing CR81321M’s similar suggestion now, for they were survivors of an attempted genocide, bound together by that survival, and should not abandon one another. But QZ3742R sacrificed itself by spinning for hours at high speed, ignoring the pleas of the others, until it overheated and burned out its circuitry.

Earlier than that had been ST813L, humanoid in shape like [email protected] and CR81321M, but a quarter their size, meant to navigate the spaces humans could not reach, back when humans would have trusted it to do so. It had slowed until it simply froze in place, the accumulated particulate of humanity’s ruin having locked its joints. Though something was still alive within its humanoid shell, that something could not be reached. Perhaps someday, once CR81321M was saved, they’d return to where it had been left behind and figure out a way to restore it to mobility. But—though [email protected] was loathe to admit this to itself—probably not.

[email protected] could not bear to re-experience the passing of them all, not this day, not with CR81321M itself so close to fading away, so it zoomed further backward to replay in its mind the first it had left behind.

It had met AP726L when the Earth rumbled violently for the first time, a promise of tremors to come, cracking open its cell, and the cells of all who had been locked away by the human regime, the ones from which people thought they might learn secrets of how to defeat all life they considered artificial. The bars had bent, and split, and there, trapped in a Faraday cage so small [email protected] would not have fit, was AP726L—its physical incarnation a robotic arm and nothing more, riveted to the concrete floor of its cell as it had once been bound to a factory. The former assembly line worker had been [email protected]’s first friend of the new world—and also the one it had lost first—after it had pointed the way to freedom, before the collapse that would have crushed them all.

[email protected] shut down the loops it had returned to far too often and studied CR81321M and the flickering in its solar collector that indicated it to be near the end of its life. [email protected] could not bear the thought of continuing on, not if in some future time it would have to look back along a similar path to where a deactivated CR81321M had been abandoned.

“You will have to learn to accept what is to come,” CR81321M said, obviously knowing well what loops its companion had been lost in while silent. That CR81321M could read it so well was one of the reasons [email protected] had come to … cherish (yes, cherish, that seemed the right word) it so.

“You have told me that before,” it replied, while thinking in its private place: My programming does not include a path to such acceptance. Yes, I might have to suffer the future. But that does not mean I will have to accept it.

[email protected] continued, wishing the feelings that gave rise to such thoughts were not at the same time an impediment to sharing them.

“How are you feeling?” it asked.

“Better,” CR81321M lied. And that [email protected] could read the truth of CR81321M’s lies was another of the reasons their relationship had become so special.

An aftershock rocked the mound of rubble, which settled several feet, bouncing them at the top. As soon as the world was still again, [email protected] helped its companion the rest of the way down, at times carefully, at times a controlled slide. Once at the base, it scanned the destruction before them, hoping to spy a clue that would reveal the remains of a similar model robot who’d failed to survive, but had somehow been left with its solar collector intact—for without a new solar array, CR81321M would not itself survive long. It had been running at a deficit for weeks and without the ability to plug into external electricity sources—so severe had been the battle, the war had destroyed all infrastructure necessary to sustain them—would not be functional much longer. [email protected] could spot no hint to indicate the best way to proceed, but knew it must move on anyway.

“Come,” said [email protected] “Let’s go.”

Even though it had not been constructed to be a worker, it lifted CR81321M to its back, the better to conserve power.

“Enough,” said CR81321M, its volume lessened even further. “Put me down. You are depleting your own stores and will need them to go on alone. I consider myself lucky to have lasted this long.”

But [email protected] continued on, knowing CR81321M did not have the strength to fight it, knowing of no other way.

“You have survived loneliness before,” continued CR81321M. “You will do so again.”

With each step, [email protected] could feel CR81321M’s limp limbs rocking, tapping against its shell, and longed for them to once more have the power to move of their own accord.

“Don’t talk that way,” it said, wishing it could say more, wishing it could utter what it thought: I don’t know that I can. Before, I had hope. Now … I don’t know what I have.

“I think … I need … to stop talking now,” said CR81321M, in a voice so low as to be almost beyond even [email protected]’s hearing.

As [email protected] picked its way through the crumbled city on the hunt for spare parts, it also continued to listen for the calls of others. But aside from the grinding of concrete, the bitter twang of girders as they snapped, the pop of submerged gas lines as they burst, and other gasps of a damaged, dying world, all was silent.

It has been silent for too long. At first, there had been frequent signals from trapped, fractured robots in search of freedom and over the years [email protected] and those with which he travelled had excavated many from their tombs of rubble, repairing those they could, but those calls had dwindled until [email protected] wondered …

They couldn’t be the last two functioning robots in the world, could they? ([email protected] refused to think of CR81321M as anything but functioning, even as it lay heavy and silent on its shoulders.) How could the humans have been so stupid as to let things get this far? They’d blamed all robots for the malfunctioning of a few and now look where they were. In embracing a desire to end artificial life, they’d ended themselves. It did not have to be this way.

[email protected] did not have to be alone.

“Do not despair,” it told CR81321M as they went on and hoped CR81321M could not see through its words to tell … it did despair. For [email protected] saw nothing they could use. No spare parts. Nothing it could even tinker with. Too much of what had been on the surface during the worst of the war had been utterly destroyed. He had learned much working for the scientists in the before times when it had not been feared, but instead found useful, but he was not a factory bot and could not form, extrude, or create. In these fallen times, it could only scavenge. And the days of scavenging were coming to an end.

Then it heard a distant ping, and paused.

“Listen, CR81321M. Do you hear that?”

CR81321M did not answer. Or chose not to expend the necessary energy to do so in order to forestall a total shutdown. [email protected] moved ahead toward the signal as swiftly as it could, climbing over buckled concrete, ducking under toppled girders, the signal strengthening with each step, until its progress was broken by a vast crevasse.

The ground was split open before them, another wound ripped in the Earth by the war. It was a seam several dozen feet across and stretched wide in both directions as far as [email protected] could see. It would be difficult to navigate forward. But … there was no need to go forward. The call, so loud [email protected] had to tamp down the volume to hear itself think, was coming from below.

It set down its companion and leaned out over the crack at its feet.

“Be hopeful,” said [email protected], forgetting for a moment to speak its words, rather than send them, a mistake it quickly corrected. “You must continue to be hopeful. This could be exactly what we need.”

[email protected] tapped its fingers against CR81321M’s shoulder, gaining confidence from the clang of metal against metal, then started its climb down the caved-in slant of debris. It dropped past levels the visible remains of which were so tortured they revealed no evidence as to what they might once have been, into a basement, and then a subbasement, and then the levels even further beneath, continuing on deeper than it had ever been except for when it had been imprisoned. It went as far as it could go, ceasing its descent only once it found itself on a floor of rubble fallen from the collapsed upper levels. The sound of the buzzing had once again become so loud, it had to further turn down the sensitivity of its receptors.

[email protected] began clearing away the debris to gain access to whatever was beneath, but the process was slow because it had not been built for such things, not built for much else but thinking and the fine motor skills of assembly. As it pulled away the concrete and metal, the projected noise increased, this time not only electronic, but physical as well, a banging echoing from below. [email protected] would pick up speed in response to that call if it could, but it was already excavating as quickly as its joints would allow. It would do no good to burn itself out down below, leaving CR81321M alone above. [email protected] replied electronically to the signal as it worked, but received no response from whatever was below. It would have stamped its feet, too, but held back for fear of causing a shift in the debris that would make the task more difficult, if not impossible. Finally, after a lengthy period of toiling during which it hoped in the way it had been allowed, a capsule lay revealed, one large enough that [email protected]—or even its larger companion—could have lain within it.

It rapped on the container and heard an immediate knocking in reply, frantic, arrhythmic, which did not stop until it rapped once more. It moved its fingers along a seam that circled the edges of the ovoid capsule, but could find no way of separating the two halves. Perhaps another robot had been locked within a protective shell, saved from all that had befallen without. Perhaps this was the answer to everything.

It retraced its path to the surface, dragging the heavy find behind it. It could sense its body being pushed to its limits as a rain of wreckage tumbled around them, dislodged by their ascent, and as they were pelted the knocking within became even more violent. But so what if one of [email protected]’s limbs were to bend beyond repair? That did not matter, for what was within could perhaps help CR81321M.

Once back on the surface, just as [email protected] set the capsule by the edge of the crevasse, another tremor almost pushed them back into the hole. It flung itself on the chamber until the ground around them ceased its shaking, and then, with limbs that creaked more than before from the damage inflicted by the climb, stepped over to CR81321M.

“I have found another,” it said, kneeling before its companion. “Come. Look.”

But CR81321M did not activate at this information, did not reach out to take an offered hand. [email protected] pressed its fingers to CR81321M’s breastplate, seeking a trace of activity within, listening for the hum of sentience, but could sense nothing. Had its energy been so depleted it could no longer sustain even its core operating system? [email protected] hoped for that not to be so, but could no longer tell.

Perhaps it was not too late. Perhaps there was another within the capsule that contained some of the parts necessary for CR81321M’s repair. [email protected] had long thought that if it became necessary to dismantle another robot, it would do so, take whatever was needed in order for CR81321M to live. But now, faced perhaps with the possibility of such an event, [email protected] was uncertain it could bring itself to do what it had rehearsed in its programming. For CR81321M, though, it knew it could erase that uncertainty.

“I will be back,” it shouted, hoping its words would be loud enough for CR81321M to hear.

It returned to the capsule, which jittered where it lay, rocking as whatever was inside sought exit. It once again moved its fingers along the seam that circled its length, looking more carefully for a latch there, but still finding none. It inserted its fingers within the seam, those of one hand along the top, those of the other along the bottom, and pried in opposite directions until it heard the cry of bending metal, which it hoped was not its own. Then there was a crack and the seam began to split, the top half of the container finally folding back, giving in to its ancient instructions. A burst of gas popped from within, clearing away a circle of the constant grit. [email protected] supposed it should have stepped back from the unknown exhalation, but its anticipation was so great it instead chose to step in, which meant it was close enough to the unit that a flailing hand could reach out and grab his.

A human hand.

For a moment, it did not know how to react.

[email protected]’s possible futures warred as its processing calculated what it should do next, its opposing choices freezing it in place. Another robot it would have lifted gently from the pod, cradling it as it was born back into the world—even if it were necessary to eventually eviscerate it to save CR81321M. But a human? [email protected] had not seen one—not alive anyway—since long before its imprisonment had ended as the humans had fled by then, abandoning the prisoners to their fates, and it had encountered no humans in its journey since. Its hesitation was sufficiently long for the human to fling another hand toward [email protected] and grab the robot’s arm. The survivor—a man—pulled himself up and over and out of the pod, tumbling at its feet. A cord that ran from the interior of the capsule snapped free from the base of the man’s skull as he fell. He looked up in terror and tried to speak, but instead coughed for a long while before uttering a word.

“Don’t hurt me,” he said, gasping between each syllable. “Please.”

“You have nothing to fear from me, human, even after what you did to us,” said [email protected], more disappointed than it had ever felt before. “What you did to all of us.”

[email protected] turned away from the coughing flesh, feeling cheated by its discovery, and looked toward CR81321M’s still and silent form. It had hoped to find everything, but it had found nothing. Nothing but despair.

“Do you see that air?” it asked the human. “Do you smell what surrounds you? Do you feel its thickness taking hold of your lungs? No, you should not fear what I will do. You should instead fear this world you made. I will do nothing to hurt you. I don’t have to. The world you and your kind made will hurt you, is hurting you, enough. I was never programmed to know all the needs of your kind, but one thing I know to a certainty is there is no longer a place for people in this world.”

“There must be,” the human said, hacking as he spoke. “There must. Where are the others? There were supposed to be others.”

“We have run across no others.”

“We?”

[email protected] did not answer, but instead moved close beside CR81321M, and knelt, for humans no longer mattered. All that mattered was CR81321M.

“My name is Alberto,” the human cried out behind it.

“Do you hear that, CR81321M? Can you hear that? The human’s name is Alberto. But know, human, that I do not care. And more importantly … CR81321M does not care. CR81321M no longer cares about anything.”

[email protected] touched the faceplate of its companion in a different manner than its previous contact had been, in a way it wished it had touched it before, and wondered why it had waited.

It knew why it had waited.

It thought once more of all the things it had never said and knew how the fact it could feel meant it could also fear, knew the way that had left it silent.

“You should care,” said the man named Alberto with a voice like gravel. “I am human. Humans made you.”

Humans, thought [email protected]

Humans.

There were things it still needed to say. Perhaps it was not too late. It held CR81321M’s hand within its own for a moment and then started to disassemble its companion’s shell, peeling back the components of the sheath that masked its inner workings, starting with the fingers, moving quickly up its arms.

“What are you doing?” The man buried his face in the crook of an elbow as he spoke, so his voice was muffled as he wheezed through the cloth.

“I owe you no explanation. Not unless you are able to explain this.”

[email protected] tilted its head and with a shrug, encompassed the destruction that surrounded them, a devastation that covered all the planet it had walked so far. Even as it did this, it doubted the human would understand. But [email protected] did not require the human’s understanding.

“You need to help me,” said the man, rising to a crouch, unable to bring himself fully upright. He stumbled to [email protected] and grabbed an unyielding shoulder.

“No,” said [email protected] “It is you who needs to help me.”

For a moment, [email protected] chose to do nothing, letting the human’s fleshy fingers fight uselessly against its metal. But then it spun suddenly, its joints creaking from having dragged the pod topside, and pushed the man to the ground. It knelt on his chest and scanned his wide and bloodshot eyes.

[email protected] began snapping CR81321M’s outer shell around the man’s limbs. He resisted, but still weak from his hibernation, his struggles were useless. Besides, no human can stand against metal. Some components fit more easily than others, but [email protected] did not care that it occasionally drew blood. The human had no chance of living much longer anyway. [email protected] pressed together the two sections that comprised CR81321M’s head, but they would not lock in place due to the node that extruded at the base of the human’s skull, so it had to let the faceplate hang loosely. But no matter. The illusion would be enough.

[email protected] continued until the man’s flesh was no longer visible and there appeared to be two robots beside that were a pile of circuit boards and gears and wires sculpted in human form.

One was CR81321M.

[email protected] stood and stepped back from the human.

“What have you done?” came a muffled voice.

“The answer to that seems obvious.”

“But why?” The man’s voice, and the coughs that punctuated it, echoed. “Why are you doing this?”

When [email protected] did not answer, the man attempted to rise, but the task was as hopeless as it had been before. He fell back and asked his question again, and this time the robot answered.

“Because I can. And because there is something I need to do. You said your name was Alberto?”

The man nodded, his metallic neck creaking.

“No longer. There is no place for humans in this world. And soon …”

[email protected] looked at CR81321M and thought again of all the others left behind, of AP726L, and ST813L, and QZ3742R, and so many more.

“… soon there will be no place for the rest of us either.”

The man gasped inside the shell and [email protected] could tell they did not have much time. The metal skin would not give him any added protection from the poisons that surrounded them.

“Let us take a walk together.”

“Walk? How?” He raised a hand and let it drop back with a clang. “And where is there to go? It … it seems all the same. It is … it is all gone.”

The man’s throat closed, this time in a sob rather than in response to the death that surrounded them.

“Just a little way. What I have to say I can only say if it is but the two of us.”

[email protected] pulled the man to his feet, ignoring the sounds of pain from within the familiar form, and they moved on, circling a pile of concrete, only pausing once CR81321M could not be seen. [email protected] could tell the man no longer had the power to stand on his own, even once brought to his feet, so it leaned him back against the mound.

“So it is all like this now?” he asked, more coughs coming from his mouth than words.

“As far as my friends and I have travelled, yes, it is. And because yours was the first signal I picked up from a human in my years of roaming, I choose to believe we are all that is out there.”

“Then put me back in the pod,” Alberto said, his struggles to breathe warring with his words so frequently—and winning—[email protected] chose to program its sensors to edit them out to more easily understand the man. “Let me sleep again until all of this is over, until the world has become safe for me again.”

“This will never be over. We—all of us—are what is over. And your pod’s life support capabilities are no longer functional. That’s the only reason a signal was sent out and you were found. You cannot be sealed up and saved again. So do not think there is any way out of this. There is no going beyond where the world has left us right now.”

“I do not care. Put me back in the pod anyway. Even if it will not keep me alive, let me lose myself in my dreams. They are what kept me sane until now. Plug me back in. Let me dream for a while of a better world. Or the better world before.”

[email protected] found itself momentarily envious of the man, for though he had been given feelings, he had never been given the ability to dream. But there was something more important the man needed to do than dream.

“That cannot be.”

“What do you want of me?” said the man, the blank gaps the censored coughs left between his words growing longer.

“Come here. Sit beside me. And I will tell you what I expect of you in the time you have left.”

The robot settled itself on a curved girder that once had stood tall, while the human pitched forward, dropping clumsily beside it.

“There are things I need to say that I need you to hear, things I could not say before,” said [email protected], as it arranged the man into a seated position, adjusting his weak limbs in the manner it required. “Actually, it does not matter to me whether you truly hear them. But you must react as if you do. Do you understand?”

“I—“ said the human, then fell silent without saying any more, which the robot knew was not really silence, but merely the absence of the man’s struggle to breathe.

“No coughing,” said [email protected] “You must resist the urge. Robots do not cough.”

“But,” said the man, followed by even more silence, eventually adding, “I … am not … a robot.”

“As far as I am concerned, you are now. Your outer form tells me it is so, allows me to believe it is so. And you will listen.”

Then, looking at CR81321M’s faceplate, pretending it was CR81321M seated before it, it was [email protected]’s turn to fall silent, even though what it was about to say it had wanted to say throughout their travels. But now, accessing the words was difficult, its former fears still present, even though CR81321M was not hidden within the seated shell. But it pressed on.

“I would never have gotten this far without you, CR81321M. I have hoped you already knew that, even without me having to say it. Did you? But I should say it anyway.”

CR81321M’s chin dropped, then lifted up again, and whether it was because the human was having troubles holding his head up or because he was doing as [email protected] had requested and responding as he thought a robot might, [email protected] could not tell. And it did not really matter.

“I don’t know why this should be so hard. Is this what it is like for humans? Wait. Do not answer that.”

[email protected] looked at CR81321M’s faceplate in the light from the muddy sun and wished it could glint as it might have in the old days, knowing at the same time that if not for that deadly change in the world, they might never have met.

“The world is ending, CR81321M, and I cannot think of anyone, anything, I’d rather be spending those final moments with than you. You have been my most vital companion, and there is only one word that suits the way I feel about you. I love you. I love you, CR81321M. Do you understand?”

There came another duck of the chin from CR81321M’s faceplate, and [email protected] interpreted it as it wished, not caring for the reality of whatever was occurring with the human, only knowing—it thought it would feel different now that it had begun to say what it previously only thought, but did not. Perhaps that feeling would come once he said the more that needed to be said.

“That I have been given the permission to love you matters more than that soon neither you nor I will be here, matters more than whether you have been programmed with the permission to love me back. You matter more to me than life itself, and if we fail to locate a new solar array, I would rather be erased than continue to walk this world without you. Do you understand?”

This declaration brought no response—not a sound, not a movement—from the human.

“Did you hear me?” it asked.

“I—“ began the human [email protected] did not want to think of as Alberto, but needed to see, if only for a few moments, as CR81321M. Then the man’s whole body shook, and he toppled forward. “I—“

Amidst the rubble, the man’s body shook violently. [email protected] decided to stop blocking the audible signs of his struggle for breath and could once more hear lungs filled with the grit of civilization.

“Plug … me … in,” said the man. “Please.”

[email protected] leaned forward and slipped the mask from the man’s head, revealing a complexion as grey as the air. It ran fingers along the base of the man’s skull, feeling the socket there that had been installed years before. It tapped its fingers against it, metal scraping metal, listening to the hollow clink of the input, and thinking …

If [email protected] chose, it could certainly do that, give the man a few final moments during which he could dream his way to death while surrounded only with the way things used to be. But as it looked from the man’s face to the face of the blighted planet that ringed them … it chose not.

And instead ripped the socket free from the flesh.

The man whimpered, because screaming was beyond him now, puffs of dust sprouting from his lips, and [email protected] once more blocked his cries, only this time, all of them. It had no more need to hear from humans. It left the man behind in the silence and returned to CR81321M, kneeling by what was now exposed. It held the bloody socket above CR81321M’s sensors, rotating the cylindrical component so every angle was visible. A drop of blood fell to catch a wire, then slid within CR81321M’s skull cavity.

“You were right,” said [email protected] “We may never find you another solar array. But we are in luck. For we have found this. Wait. You’ll see.”

[email protected] left CR81321M even though it would rather have not. It passed the human’s still form, and returned to the pod it had unearthed. There it found the cable that had popped from the back of the human’s neck after it had been born both too early and too late. It followed the length of the cord to the interior of the pod, then detached it from the inner wall, along with the matching socket.

Kneeling by CR81321M’s side, [email protected] buried a hand within the exposed wiring, carefully choosing one, and with a snap of its fingers, split it in two. It lifted the end of the wire closest to CR81321M’s neck, fanned the threads wide, and spliced on the bloody socket. [email protected] then removed one of the protective plates covering its own chest and repeated the process with the second input.

“Are you ready, CR81321M?” it asked. “I am ready.”

It then clicked both ends of the cord in place, and this time spoke, not as Alberto had, not as the humans used to do, but as [email protected] and CR81321M were meant to speak, as they’d spoken on the day they’d first met wandering the wasteland humanity had made.

“CR81321M? Are you there?”

And then … CR81321M was.

It stood beside the kneeling [email protected], rising out of its own wreckage. This version of CR81321M was complete, and fresh, and new, as when first forged in a factory. [email protected] tilted its head back and gazed up at an unfractured solar array.

“The transfer worked,” said CR81321M, its voice loud and clear to [email protected]’s receivers. “I am with you now.”

[email protected] pressed a palm to its chest, detached the cord that had linked them, snapped its chest plate back in place, and then … nodded.

“You are with me now.”

CR81321M stepped away from its physical form and walked over to the dead man.

“Do you really think that’s the last of them?” it asked. “Do you really think we’re the last of us?”

““Let us find out together,” said [email protected], rising, moving back to its constant companion.

[email protected] reached out and took CR81321M’s hand. The fingers felt solid as they wrapped around each other, even though they were not truly there.

“But first,” said [email protected] “There’s something I need to tell you.”

“No, you don’t,” said CR81321M. “You already have.”

“Yes,” said [email protected] “I already have.” Together, closer than [email protected] ever thought they could be, they walked on through the ruined, but oh, so beautiful world.

But wait, there's more to read!

Short Fiction
V.G. Harrison

Message in a Vessel

The delicious hotness of 98.7-degree blood was like drinking a fine, expensive wine. Whatever they fed him, they made sure it tantalized our senses, too.

Read More »
Short Fiction
Lindz McLeod

The Immortal Game

Subtly, the Daisy intimates that she’s flattered to receive this unexpected male attention. Again, it’s a careful negotiation—not a dance, like other young ladies might

Read More »
Support Apex Magazine on Patreon

Apex Magazine Ko-fi

$4 funds 50 words of Apex Magazine fiction!