Breaking down her body, I can tell her parts are different from anything else in my collection. I remove her carbotanium panelling and unscrew the protective plate. Resting it on the oil-smeared workbench, I open up the wire-meshed housing unit and connect to her sternum slot.
Data streams up to the console, and the monitor flashes the tell-tale codes of sentience. A whirring builds from her chest cavity. Lights slice blue from side panelling and the power unit spills poisonous-red brilliance across the landlocked shipping container. Shimmering metal reflects in the glittered stars of Advika’s school painting. The bot’s voice unit thrums. I calibrate it, and she speaks clear: “I sense you’re in distress.”
My head burns. An hour since activated, she’s ceaseless with her probing.
“What would you know about how I feel? You were just a fitbot. All the MR-Series were.” Probably her emotional response matrix is damaged. A known issue. “But I’ll soon fix you up good after a road test! Ain’t much I can’t repair or improve.”
“My previous user already modified me. I’ve not been utilized as a fitbot for seven years.” She lets that hang in the arid air.
“What mod? Your parts look standard to me. Can see your chassis has been updated, but …”
“My last user linked up my wetware to a psychiatric research facility’s databank, expanding my person-reading capabilities.”
I’m stunned. “Sorry. I don’t need you for that.”
“I sense repressed memories of trauma in you.” A pause pregnant with understanding transpires, surging static underneath smooth metal. “Why are you running away?”
“I’m not.” My body tenses. “It’s no longer legal to work with your type back home.”
She ponders this a moment, backlit eyes frozen in position. “I sense that is not the real reason. Your accent tells me you are from the East of England. Where is your family—?”
“Enough! It’s none of your goddamn business!” I grind my teeth, remembering the toybot-filled room. I think of my daughter’s smiling, cake-smudged face and the anger inside switches to sadness. Her seventh birthday. The last time we were together before I said goodbye.
I whisper: “They’re gone.”
Smooth-legged locomotion glimmers in bright sunlight: the bot’s running over the uneven terrain with new lightweight parts. So graceful she looks like she’s maglev. Jumps up on the nearest rock-lip and climbs the canyon, deft movements like a Geckobot.
The ‘interference’ with AIs is banned in most places, of course, lawyers asserting it’s an infringement of their rights, tying up collectors in lawsuits the first chance they got, but not here in Australia. Not yet. And if it was, I’d just move again to some other place AI rights weren’t legally set. I have to get my fix – to fix things up. It’s what I live for now. Basic artificial ‘sentience’ wasn’t going to get in the way of that. I have to repair and improve them.
She’s on her second circuit, about to pass me, and I’m thinking I could win good bitcred at the bot races. But now she descends the canyon, and disturbed rocks hurtle down it. Right toward me—
I’m thrown out of the way by aluminium-alloy limbs. Land hard, air crushed out of me. Bloods leaks from my side.
She avoids most rocks with expert ease, but she miscalculates the vector of another and it clips her heel. Makes her sprawl to solid ground. Her arm starts glitching, flailing wildly.
Hooked up to the mobile D-reader, she’s spewing out binary code to the uplink display unit.
Her gelware leaks blue from her cheek.
As an MR-Series, she’ll have the usual issues: motors overheating, intermittent signal problems, sporadic behavioural displays owing to an obsolete patch error. I knew my man Jirra would be selling me something prone to malfunction, but that only upped the challenge, explained why I negotiated him down to half what he wanted. Black market bots were always going to have their problems.
But I start making sense of the readouts, and it’s worse than what I thought. Power levels draining fast. If that went, so did any AI with it. Not usually a problem. But she was old, her parts dated.
“Gonna have to take you back. It’s not looking good.”
How—? Then I remember my ex-wife Layla lovingly stitching my name into my overalls, now smothered with stains. Not long before our daughter was born. My stomach churns; a taste of acid fills my mouth.
Cutting the hover-jeep’s engine, I carry her into the shipping container. She’s light as a child but my legs almost buckle before I put her down. I rush over to a box of spare parts, throw items away, struggle to find anything suitable. Bleeding everywhere.
“I’ll power down. I know it frustrates you if I’m operational while you work on me—”
“No!” I say nothing more. Try not to give anything away. Fail.
“I’m picking up a disturbance in you, Tariq. Your micro-expressions demonstrate concern.”
“I’m sorry. I don’t have the part. Wouldn’t be able to put you back together. Your power unit’s almost burned out, and none of the spares I have fit. Didn’t expect replacing it … I can’t fix you.” I turn away, a lump of birthday cake lodging in my throat. Like I couldn’t fix my daughter’s broken heart when I couldn’t fix the relationship with her mother. My head burns with memory.
She looks at me one last time, into the shadowed part of me. “I understand. I hope you find what you are searching for, Tariq,” she says with feeling, and her power fades. Silence fills the shipping container.
I whisper: “Goodbye, Adv’a,” and start loading essentials onto the hover-jeep. Delicately, I carry my daughter’s painting to the car and place it on the passenger seat. Its stars glitter in the sunlight like metal parts.
I guess the lawyers were right after all. Leaving my equipment and bot collection behind, I climb into the vehicle. The sunset floods red light into my eyes. I’d had enough of running, anyway. The engine autostarts, and I set off toward the airport. Time to go home and try to repair what I left behind.