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The One with the Whales
Olivia L. Williams 

There are some people who get real sentimental about Earth being their “home world.” Kids with big eyes wander past the shop and I just know that they’ve been sitting in Martian Colony IV their whole lives writing bad poetry about unfiltered air and natural greenery. A little wisdom from me to you, as someone who’s lived on Earth for almost a decade now: we’d all be a lot happier if they filtered the air. Just because humanity began here doesn’t make it your home world.

I was born on Armstrong, which is a little slapdash station by Venus with so many layers of heat shields you don’t get any natural light. My mom’s mining company hit it big with an especially rich asteroid when I was little and we moved back out to Mars space into Glenn. Glenn was big and shiny and new, in a geosynchronous orbit so exact we could send materials back and forth to the planet with a kind of glorified pulley rig.

It was a good place to grow up: a few observatories around the surface, air filtered by real organics, reasonably good school system, and lots of Bots around for a kid like me to tinker with. That was before all these rules about autonomy and stuff—you’d be hard-pressed to find a parent who’d let their kid start disassembling a service Bot these days for fear of some bureaucrat showing up with a lecture about sentience.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve got no problem with Bots, but at the end of the day, they’re just machines. I’m a mechanic. Our relationship is real simple.

What really gets me is how many Bots we actually service, considering we’re based on Earth, the planet home to every conservationist, hippie, and anti-mod wackjob in the galaxy. Most of these people will look at you dirty if you dare to use basic prosthetics, much less if you’re a full-on robot.

“Androids, you’ll call them androids and be respectful about it,” my boss Andrea always told me. She got along well with our clients. Her favorites were the ones who came in regularly for a tune-up and then stayed to chat about what was going on off-world. She always explained everything she was doing while she worked, and when she was finished, she’d offer to give their translucent skin a buff and a polish.

Those glass casings had been required by the Solar Union ever since a couple of nasty divorces where one person turned out to be a very well-made Bot masquerading as human. These days, there was much less chance of intermingling, unless you liked being able to see lubricant pumping behind your lover’s mechanical eyes as you stared into them. The minimum was 30% surface area, but a lot of manufacturers just switched right to 100% to try and save their reputations. It kept things a lot simpler.

“I’m just going to pop off the finger at the second joint,” Andrea was saying just then. “It looks like the casing’s been cracked a little, and that’s putting pressure on the hinge. I’ll swap it out for a new one.”

“Thanks Andrea,” whirred Marvin, one of our regulars. He was a quirky one—named himself after a Bot from some old book, and wouldn’t let us swap out his defective voice box for anything. He thought it made him sound distinguished. What it really sounded like was a human who had gargled sand and then beamed their voice to the colonies and back a dozen times without corrections.

Andrea gave me her don’t you dare make one of your comments look, which I wasn’t going to do anyway. I just passed her the drill she needed and started rummaging around for a new hinge.

Someday I might own a place of my own, or I might take over this one when Andrea moves on—or runs off with one of the Bots, which is probably most likely—but for now I just help her out and tinker in the back when I have time. Once I put together a little cleaning Bot out of spare parts, just to get some of the grease off the floors. I was pretty proud of it. When Andrea found out, she threw a fit, even though it was running on a chip so out of date it hardly qualified as sentient. So now it had a name and its own docking station and was properly registered and all that. A lot of useless hassle for a Scrub Bot, if you asked me. But now that it was an employee, of sorts, it did have its uses.

I knocked over a box of magnetic screws and Frank came buzzing out of his dock like a mechanical swarm of bees. “Try to be more careful,” he grouched in a heavy Martian accent as he scooped up the screws and deposited them into my waiting hands.

“Where in Sol did you get that attitude?”

Andrea held out her hand for the hinge I didn’t have ready and I scrambled to find it. “I updated his personality application,” she explained.

“Why would you do that?”

“He asked me to. Who would want an existence of mindlessly scrubbing floors?”

“Someone—something—who’s programmed to! Come on, Andrea, he didn’t need a personality update. You just like pretending that these Bots are hu—”

“There’s work to do in the back,” she snapped, grabbing the hinge out of my hand. “Why don’t you go work on that. We’ll talk later.”

I knew it was useless to argue with her when she was in one of her righteous moods. I scowled and stalked into the back room, just barely managing to slam the door before Frank could follow me.

*

After work I headed to my favorite haunt: Maisie’s Place. What a bar. You’d have trouble finding its peer on any world, much less on old granola-crunching Earth. It was everything tech and organics had the opportunity to be when they collaborated: an enormous tree stood in the center, and benches and tables circled out from it like extensions of the rings within the trunk. Its branches had been trained into this gorgeous lattice formation with big, waxy leaves to run off water. At dusk, silky white flowers descended on vines and blossomed to reveal soft glowing lights.

Maisie still refused to tell me how she got the tree to grow like that, much less what the lights were. So every couple of nights I’d go sit at the bar and pester her about it. We both knew it was just an excuse for me to show up and make small talk and stare at whatever new dress she’d ordered from the Venetian textile factories, but it was fun to pretend.

More fun than sticking around to fight with my boss.

As soon as I walked in, Maisie knew that something was up. It was hard to read her expression, backlit as she was by the shelves of glowing liquors behind the bar, but I watched the soft curve of her lips pucker into a frown when she saw my face.

She was absolutely gorgeous, as always; this new orange dress looked like it was made of tiny metallic scales that clung to her hips and waist, and the way it draped across the tawny skin of her chest just did things to me. One hand was industriously shaking someone’s drink and the other was squeezing a lime into an empty glass. She looked capable, more capable than you’d expect from someone with her brand of soft beauty. And now she looked concerned.

“So they’re not bioluminescent,” I observed as I sat down, cutting off any questions she might have asked, “but I can’t imagine that you could thread any artificial light that bright into the material of the flower without damaging it. So what is it?”

She shrugged, her expression easily transitioning to a smile when she realized I didn’t want to talk serious. “Some people would just appreciate the mystery of the thing, Derek. Not everything needs to be prodded and examined. Maybe it just is.”

“Yeah, but it isn’t, and you know exactly how it works. I know you do.”

“It’s possible.”

I grinned. It was hard to let any of the day’s frustration weigh me down when I was in the most gorgeous place on Earth flirting with a beautiful woman. “You know what, Maisie?”

“What?”

“Someday I want to see you out from behind this bar.”

A look of confusion passed over her face. “Why?”

“Because someday I’m going to quit, because I’ll be sick of being yelled at by my boss, and then I want you to come with me somewhere new. Somewhere exotic. Maybe one of the moons.”

She laughed, and I couldn’t tell her that I meant it half serious. “You’re funny.”

“Somewhere there’s no one to tell me what to do, or what to tinker with.” I pushed a hand through my hair. “There’s gotta be somewhere in Sol where people can still just live, without anyone telling you that you’re not acting right or how you’re supposed to be.”

And suddenly her face was lit up more radiantly than her impossible flowers. “You know what? I really like the sound of that.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. Let’s toast to that—to existing how we want to exist.” She turned and reached for one of the bottles on the upper shelf.

The skin of her back was transparent glass. It was smooth, perfectly-formed, but glass nonetheless, and it met her brown skin in a slight seam. Tiny indicator lights flickered along her spinal column and faded into the shadow of her low-backed dress. My mouth went dry as I recognized the same machinery I spent all day staring at with Andrea.

“Actually, I’m not thirsty.” I was impressed with how steady I kept my voice. “I’ll see you later.”

“Oh. Oh, okay.” I could feel her artificial gaze on my back as I slid off my stool and walked out. I picked one of the glowing flowers by the door. It flickered into darkness in my hand.

*

I needed some time to think. My apartment was a long, solitary walk away, but once I got there I’d have to deal with my roommate and the endless stream of instructional culinary videos they projected onto the kitchen wall while they cooked, so I gritted my teeth and headed back to the shop instead. I had a spare set of keys and I figured I could lock Frank out of the back room long enough to stew for a while.

Unfortunately for me, the lights were still on as I walked up. That was unusual. Andrea was known to pull late nights, but most of the time she took her tinkering home once it got past dinner time. I was still hoping to be alone but I figured she might not mind if I camped out in the back while she worked.

Any hope of that went out the window with the wild expression she gave me as I stepped inside. “Oh, Derek, it’s you! Hurry up, shut the door.”

“What’s going on?”

She gestured to the Bot slumped in a chair across from her and then resumed rummaging through a bin of cables. “Scrappers—picked him up a little after he left this afternoon. I think they were gonna wipe him, they powered him down and I’m gonna have to manually restart. Let’s hope—” She paused, and I could see her hands shaking a little as she clawed past cord after cord. “Well. We’ll see in a minute.”

I looked at the Bot again and was a little startled when I recognized Marvin. His arms and most of his neck had been replaced with an opaque white casing, though it had been a quick job if the scratches were anything to go by. Sure enough, he was slumped to the side in the chair where Andrea had dumped him, completely unresponsive.

I wanted to ask how she had known he was gone, how she had gotten him back, whether she had fireman carried him all the way back to the shop, but I suspected that those questions wouldn’t be welcome in the moment. Seeing Andrea this frantic was a little unsettling. Worn thin and snappy, sure, but shaking? She was really worried.

And I’d be lying if I said the situation wasn’t worrying. For the most part you only had to worry about scrappers on the outer satellites. If a Bot got grabbed on Earth, it probably wasn’t for parts. They’d be wiped and then show up on the black market a few weeks later, illegally realistic and primed to be filled with advertisements and subliminal messaging to spread through casual conversations around the city. The opaque paneling on Marvin was probably prepping him for a silicone layer of “skin.” And if he had only been gone a few hours, that was mighty fast work—which explained how shoddy it was. This had been a near miss.

Andrea came up with the wire she wanted and I tossed her the screwdriver I knew she’d need to open up Marvin’s forearm. The only thing I could think to do was shoulder open the door to the back and grab our “first aid kit”: a bag of screws, connectors, and essential tools that Andrea kept on hand for emergency cases. I was in such a hurry that I spilled an entire bowl of ball bearings off my desk. Frank came humming out of his dock but didn’t comment as he cleaned them up. I wondered if his new personality helped him to sense the tension in the room.

When I came back out to the front, Andrea was crouched in front of Marvin biting her lip so hard it looked like she was about to draw blood. There was a cable plugged into his arm like an IV, the other end attached to the little screen Andrea clutched.

I set down the first aid kit within her reach. “How long does a manual restart take?”

“It depends. Maybe a minute or so.”

“Anything I can do?”

She shook her head, eyes darting from her screen to Marvin and back again. I shrugged and sat down to wait.

I wondered if Maisie’s job had been done by scrappers. If she’d been grabbed off the streets and reset to factory settings before being made up with the soft skin and alluring smile I knew so well. Probably not, if she met transparency regulations, but the thought was unsettling.

Andrea shifted again and I tried to focus more on the situation at hand. There was a bruise starting to form where her neck met her shoulder, not quite hidden by the grimy sweater she wore around the shop. She didn’t seem to feel it but I tried to imagine how it could have happened. Either she had slung Marvin across her shoulders to carry him back, I decided, or her confrontation with the scrappers had gotten messy. I could see her hefting one of the enormous wrenches we kept in the back but never used for anything, maybe breaking a jaw or two in defence of her client. Her friend.

Marvin’s fingers twitched. We both zeroed in on the motion, quick as hawks, and it was followed by a full-body shudder, almost like a seizure. Tiny clicks emanated from various joints as Marvin sat straight up and ran through a series of minute calibrating motions.

“Marvin?” Andrea asked, her voice soft but steady. “How are you doing, buddy? Do you know where you are?”

His head tilted down in a slight nod; I unclenched my fists and felt the sting of the places where my fingernails had been pressed into my palm.

Andrea ducked her head with a sound that was part laugh and part sigh. She settled her weight back to give Marvin more space. “How do you feel? I haven’t had time to run a comprehensive systems report yet. Anything need fixing?”

“I feel a little strange,” he said, and all three of us stiffened in surprise. Marvin’s characteristic grating was replaced by a smooth, androgynous voice. He clapped both hands over his mouth, but he couldn’t quite stifle a wordless cry of alarm.

“Oh Marvin.” The way Andrea’s face crumpled made me feel suddenly like I was intruding on a scene where I didn’t belong. I wasn’t going to find solitude here anyway. I grabbed my keys from where I’d set them down when I came in and tried not to see Andrea’s hand come to rest on Marvin’s knee, or hear her murmuring reassurances while the Bot shook his head silently. “We’re gonna fix this. I’ll find a way to fix this.”

Neither of them seemed to notice when I opened the door a crack and slipped back out into the smoggy night.

It was a week before I could make myself face Maisie again. There were so many things to say that I found myself running through endless options under my breath. You’d think I’d have picked up a thing or two from working with Bots all day.

I thought Andrea would have snapped at me for being so distracted, but she was preoccupied too. She’d had the idea to try and manually distress a voice box the way Marvin’s had been after years of use but it was turning out harder than she expected to get the right mix of garbled and coherent. In the meantime, she’d retrofitted Marvin with a text display on his chest since he was refusing to speak. I stopped worrying too much about it after a couple of days when I found them scheming about decal designs for the plain white parts of his casing.

When I finally got my hands to stop shaking every time I thought about her, I walked into Maisie’s Place with what probably wasn’t an especially pleasant expression. She didn’t even notice me until I had slid into my usual place at the bar.

“So what’s a Bot like you doing in a place like this?” I asked casually.

She blinked at me, and even that tiny motion was so perfectly calibrated as to look human. “I own this place, Derek.”

“No, not here here. I mean Earth. I’ve seen the way these people treat Bots. You could set up shop anywhere. I know you’re not from here originally—no one here does craftsmanship like that—so you came here on purpose. Why?”

Maisie looked at me long and hard, and for the first time I noticed how perfectly still she stood. Her dress was green today; I couldn’t stop myself from noticing it. I was noticing it so hard that I almost didn’t hear her answer.

“Did you say ‘whales’?”

“Well, not just whales. But whales are a good example.” She must have seen my confusion because she brushed her hair behind her ear and continued. “They make no sense. They’re huge, and they eat such tiny animals that they have to eat hundreds and thousands and millions of them to survive, but they exist for some reason. And these trees—they just grow here, not because someone made them, not because they serve any particular purpose, but because they just exist. So many planets and moons and satellites in Sol and this is the one where things are allowed to just be.”

I felt like there was a heaviness to her words, like she was trying to say something more, but I couldn’t quite reach it. I was still trying to catch her in some mechanical slip-up that would justify her as a Bot. But she was perfect.

“So you picked Earth because it has whales.”

“Yeah. Whales and trees and algae and penguins and chameleons, and I can’t figure out why. So I like to play with them in ways I understand,” she gestured at one of the dimly illuminated flowers, “and give them a purpose, sometimes; and other times, it’s nice to—well.”

“What?”

She shrugged. “It’s nice to think that maybe I don’t have to have a purpose either. Maybe I can just be.”

“Huh.”

We looked at each other for a minute. I wondered whether she’d ever had a different voice, if she’d ever been repurposed and remade until she didn’t even recognize herself. If she’d asked for the sensuality programmed into every movement or the sparkle in her eyes.

I wondered what it had felt like to be the one doing the engineering for once as she set up this bar and watched it flourish.

“Huh,” I said again.

*The Beacon has also published in print a poem by Olivia L. Williams titled “Avert Your Eyes” or “Robert Landsburg”, a sonnet which references the death of Seattle-born photographer Robert Landsburg during the eruption of Mount St. Helens in 1981.*

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