by Keith O’Neill
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3, 4
We came from different places. Herman Nesmith was from a long, straggled line of fishermen and semi-employed laborers around New Bedford, Massachusetts; I came from the moderately successful 8000 line of AI household bots, second series, manufactured in Bakersfield, California.
After a minor malware infection during my third year, I was taken offline, and my software was wiped and reconfigured for factory work, hardware specs aligning with the parameters outlined in the contract signed between management and the United Personhood of Steelworkers, Dishwashers, and Teachers of America. In a concession during a brutal round of negotiations, the union agreed to limited automation as long as the bots worked alongside and socialized with the membership, something having to do with humans’ feeling less threatened by mechanicals that looked and talked like them.
I was given a different skin, bulkier musculature, permanent stubble, and a battered F150 pickup truck, and I began working the line. Management stressed that any talk of joining the union would mean being taken offline again; this time, permanently. Many of us wondered why they didn’t just write this proscription into our code.
In 2170, I was placed at a factory in Rapid City, and I moved into a small house on the edge of town, out on the 445. The structure had been deemed “UH” — Uninhabitable for Humans — by the Housing Authority. Bots with employment cards were allowed to claim UH structures for their own use, according to the Mech Renovation Act of 2153. We were allowed to squat and fix up whatever abandoned buildings we wanted, with the goal of making it livable for humans again and the possibility of a little profit along the way.
Herman and I were introduced on our first day of work together, in the break room that served both humans and mech. There was a puddle of oil on the floor and a scattering of potato chip crumbs on the table. Herman refused to acknowledge me while our supervisor, Louis Fitzgerald, told us that we’d be paired together on the line. Fitzie, as everybody called him, had a beer belly and wore a jet pack. He explained our duties.
“You’re on the chassis line for asphalt removal bots, big clunkers with hollow rears meant for hauling. You two are on ass assembly. Nesmith, you’re to see that the line is running smooth and the parts are aligned, and Eighty-Six here” — he meant me, 8619b Series 2 — “is on riveting and welding. I don’t want any backup and we won’t have no problems. “But don’t work too fast, neither. We’re only allowed so much output before the government starts breathing down our necks, bitching about profiting too much from taxpayer-funded jobs programs. I’m talking to you especially,” he said to me, as I hitched my thumbs in the belt loop of my jeans. “Just because you can work twenty-four-seven without breaking a sweat doesn’t mean you should.”
I opted against telling him that I was coded for no more than seven hours of work without recharging and overtime.
“You’re here to support the real working men, and don’t forget it.” But he looked at me and Herman like we were both junk.
Our workstation was in the middle of the line, after Basic Assembly and before Painting and Detail, and a cranky cyborg showed us how to install the neuroboard to the chassis. “Neither of you touch these resistors, since both meat and metal will throw off the points. You don’t want to be sending fried motherboard back if you want to keep your jobs.”
There were a couple of tool drones assigned to our station, one of which Herman modded to fetch him coffee whenever he needed it. I fitted the welding gun to my left shoulder so that I had maximum usage of my preinstalled appendages. I liked how broken-in the workstation felt despite this being our first day on the job. The conveyor cranked up, and the empty belt started moving like a smooth, lazy river of crude oil and metal throughout the vast complex.
At the end of the day, we found the local bar and settled in for our first happy hour. Herman told me about working the floods on the East Coast, and how he once saw a whale ram a sea wall at full speed like a sparrow flying into a window thinking it was sky. He claimed it exploded like a bomb of blubber and bone. He said he’d be happy if he never tasted fish or rum for the rest of his life, then ordered another daiquiri.
Herman was balding and overweight, but he carried himself with a certain nimbleness that contrasted with his body mass, and when he smiled his face had a surprising, appealing symmetry to it. He was obsessed with 20th-century television, in particular The Brady Bunch, which he called the pinnacle of the form.
My own form at the time was tall, as well, but I was thinner, designed to maneuver quickly in factory or field applications, depending on need. When I was reprogrammed from butler functions, a layer of cosmetic musculature was added so that human co-workers would be discouraged from bullying or attempting to intimidate me. Not that the strongest human could approach my strength and speed of processing.
* * *
We finished that first week without incident, though we didn’t come close to making our goal. Herman grumbled about Fitzie not wanting any backup, and he was anxious whenever the line had to be held because he was slow with the controller assembly.
The plastic weld I made with each chassis glowed like a summer rose and smelled like burnt human hair. The emissions were supposed to be non-toxic, but I directed my helper drone to blow the fumes away from Herman while he lay cursing on his back in the floor of the chassis. I noticed his white belly rising out between his work shirt and the top of his jeans like a loaf of dough being proofed before baking, and I wondered if all of my previous code had been erased.
I came to think of him as something warm, fresh out of an oven, cranky and quick to lose his temper. He saw me a just another tool in his work area, a drill with the added complication and annoyance of having a mouth on it.
* * *
One night after work, Herman sat at the bar and drank himself into a stupor. I noted that he had started with the other human workers but then broke off with them and wandered down to the end, where the bots and the cyborgs who wanted to be bots gathered.
Alcohol has no real effect on me, but the contract stipulated that mechanicals had to be able mingle socially with our co-workers. This meant drinking and even smoking. I liked the latter more, since liquid isn’t as friendly to metal.
“You’re lucky you don’t have to commute,” he said, as I went up and ordered another beer. “Fitzie’s got me riding the company bus over an hour each way to the dormitories, sometimes longer, if somebody’s late getting up or getting through with their shift. At least your kind just plug in and recharge anywhere youse want.”
“By my ‘kind,’ I’m assuming you mean something broader than the 8000 series,” I said. “I actually have my own place not that far from the Workers’ Dormitory.”
“Awright. Hoping to have a place of my own at some point, too. That’s the dream, anyway.”
“Would you like to see it? I can give you a ride to the dorms after.”
“A ride? You got wheels installed on you somewhere?”
I decided, as a general rule, not to take his comments as insults. “No, I have a pickup.”
“How is it you got a truck and a house and I ain’t got nothin’?”
I took him out to my place, but I realized I hadn’t really set it up for humans. Even though I’d reconnected to the grid and laid out new fiberwire throughout the structure, I didn’t have any plumbing yet. Herman took a piss in the backyard and then I took him for some coffee and eggs at the last diner on the 445. I dropped him at his dormitory, a bleak and expansive barracks set up by the company to house workers newly arriving in the city.
“I saw a couch on the side of the road on the ride in,” he told me the next day. “Didn’t look too shabby, either. I was thinking you might want one if you’re going to have guests.”
I was tightening some rivets on the upper chassis. “If you want, we could go see if it’s still there during lunch.”
“I’d appreciate that.”
“And I appreciate the coffee and grub last night. Sorry if I came off like a peanut-head, 86. I ain’t no bigot.”
He slid back under the chassis assembly before I could acknowledge that.
The couch was still there after work, and indeed it was more than acceptable: a black, vinyl three-seater with no large rips and just one broken leg that was easily fixed. Herman informed me that it didn’t smell either, when we lifted it from my truck’s bed. We carried it into my living room, trying it out in different spots.
Then we set up the old analog speakers I’d procured from an estate sale despite the fact that I had a direct connection from my media unit to my processors. I’d had to explain that I wanted to entertain and had to think about how others felt, especially humans, if I was going to have guests.
I was worried the floors were filthy as well, though he laughed and said his place wasn’t exactly the Ritz. I offered him some rum, which he reminded me he hated, and then he told me more about “shoring up the shore” while he drank 43% of the bottle while sitting back on my new couch and spreading his knees as wide as he could.
I mimicked the position and drank the rest of the bottle, wondering what it would do to my liver if I had one. We talked about what else I could use besides the hologram unit I’d installed — a fridge, with ice, he insisted — as well as the plumbing we’d already talked about. We agreed how surprised we both were to make a friend when we didn’t expect one. I, in particular, felt strange after dropping him off at the dormitory to think that I’d used that word “friend” for the first time in my existence.
* * *
We worked hard through the fall, and the temperature finally started to dip to a level where humans were comfortable outside without climate controls, and machines weren’t as concerned about their processors overheating. We got so good with our chassis assembly that we often got ahead and had to wait for the front-of-the-line manufacturers to catch up.
At night, Herman would ride home with me and we’d watch The Brady Bunch while I installed what I considered non-necessities like ceiling fans. “Here’s a story,” we’d sing, laughing at the ancient past, “of a lovely lady.” I found the predigital images stark and compelling, and this effect was amplified by the fact that Herman was so moved by them.
“Let’s watch one more,” he said, opening a beer even though he was falling asleep. “Carol Brady was so cute with that sixties bob.” My processors could define “bob” — short hair that hangs evenly above the shoulders — but it had trouble with something else, something about Herman’s feet in their dirty socks on my makeshift coffee table and, in particular, the shape and size of his toe, which was abnormally large for his body-mass size. I felt like I was leaking oil somewhere inside.
“Why don’t you just recharge here?” I said finally. “What’s the point of going to the dorms if you’re just going to sleep when you get there?”
“Yeah, this couch is actually pretty comfortable,” he said, unbuckling his pants and sticking his hand down them to scratch his crotch. I sat next to him and mimicked the same kind of relaxed comfort, undoing my buckle and zipper as well.
I don’t know what part of my code suggested that I should reach over and put my hand in Herman’s lap, but before we both knew it I was holding his erect penis, impressed with its almost metal-like rigidity. As a former domestic bot, I still had some of the hardware features of that class droid, since humans have a curious tradition of expecting copulation with their servants. What this meant was that I knew how to touch him without harming him, and I was equipped with a rear orifice.
Very quickly, Herman had me bent over the coffee table and was inside me before I could consult my manuals on a procedure I’d never attempted before. He was quick and efficient in his actions, and it was clear that my body’s design was compatible with offering pleasure. To my surprise, there were pleasure receptors for me, too, and soon I was emitting a low, humming moan I’d never made before.
That night, I recharged on the couch, with Herman curled up behind me and, when we woke up, it was clear that we were both comfortable with this new arrangement.
We didn’t discuss it much but, over the next few weeks, I procured a mattress — new, with a few credits I had saved up over the years — and manufactured a bed out of scrap wood and metal left over from the renovations I’d been doing. Once I asked if he was uncomfortable with my male identifiers, suggesting that I could be modified with feminine features if that would make him comfortable.
“What the fuck do you think this is?” he asked, “the twentieth century?” He told me he’d been married twice, once to a woman and, later, to a man and that he was just fine with how I looked, as long as I was happy.
I told him that gender meant nothing to me; it was an abstraction outside the realm of my experience. But I loved the shape of him, and I would often stay functional after he drifted off, watching him sleep and following the contours of his long back with my optic sensors while the trucks rumbled back and forth on Highway 445. The factory was waiting for us in the morning, but it might as well have been another planet.
* * *
They upgraded the asphalt bots’ motherboards with more advanced AI, and Herman wasn’t trained in that kind of cognitive assembly. I started to assist him quietly in addition to my own work, despite the contract proscriptions against bots working on any form of AI, and he in turn began to do some soldering. He was a talented welder. One day Fitzie stopped us in the hall on the way to the break room and reminded us not to get our roles mixed up. He was looking at Herman the whole time with smirk on his face.
Eventually, the job ended, but not because Herman and I were blurring our roles. The tech was too complicated for our line, management decided, and the entire facility was being moved overseas.
“Good thing you never got too settled in at the dorm,” Fitzie said to Herman with a wink. “They’re closing the whole thing down less than a decade after building it. But that’s the way with management.” He adjusted a control panel he’d recently had grafted onto his abdomen. “They treat the workers worse than the machines.” Fitzie was nearly half-machine himself, I noted.
We walked to my pickup and I figured I would give Herman a ride to the dorms to pick up his stuff. “Where will you go now?” I asked.
“Head back to the shore. I suppose I haven’t swallowed enough salt water after all. The oceans never stop rising. There’s always work there.”
It didn’t cross his mind to ask me what I was doing, and he didn’t appear to want a ride, either. He started toward where the transit buses were making one of their last runs.
“I’m think I’m going to stick around and finish fixing up my place,” I said without being asked. “They offered me a position to help with deconstruction. The factory is going to be converted to retail space.”
“Course they did,” he said. “Labor’s cheap when you don’t gotta pay for it.” He walked away without saying goodbye.
On the way home, I had to pull over and do an emergency systems diagnosis. Though there was nothing amiss in my processes, I felt something was draining my power.
* * *
Copyright © 2019 by Keith O’Neill