Edition 27: Evie and Zeke by Ryan Cage
Evie will not move on without Zeke, her companion. As she works she remembers their time together, the circumstances that lead to Zeke’s accident. Ryan Cage’s sad little science fiction, reminiscent of other robots we might have seen before, reminds us all of the need for companionship, for help. – SY
“Hello, anybody in there?” she asked through the swirling sandstorm, well aware that there would likely be no answer.
The robot’s optical sensors were dark and its chassis, leaned up against the remnants of a building, was covered in dried oil and hydraulic fluid. It fit the model she was looking for, so in a way she was hoping it would not answer. But it would have been nice to have someone else to talk to.
After a few more minutes, when the bot’s eyes and body failed to fire to life, she set about her grim work, eventually finding what she was looking for near the base of the spine of the robot. It was a small gyro, about the size of a golf ball. But that little ball signified five years of scavenging. Storing it away, she made for home.
Home was once an automotive repair garage, complete with a large worktable, a car lift, and a grand litany of power tools. Granted, the tools nor the lift worked, but the large table had its uses. Approaching it, she withdrew the gyro and sat it down softly next to a pile of mechanical pieces and spools of wiring—one of the last pieces in the most vital of puzzles.
“Tomorrow,” she said as the red angry sun took its last bows.
She kept her promise, starting her task early, when the light poured through the garage’s porous walls unfettered. The reconstruction kept a steady pace, the skeleton of a robot emerged around noon. That was when she hit the difficulty she had anticipated: installing the gyros. There were five in total. The one she located the day before was the largest and rarest of the set, it being a special size that was not commonly produced. The smallest was nearly the size of a pea but far more common. They were so, so delicate, and she was sure she would crush them, ruining years of work.
The first went in without a problem, near the top of the shoulders, where the area was open and wide. She installed the smallest next, where the skull met the spine. The slightest of trembles, technical error or miscalculation would likely end the repair job. But the Environmental Cleanup and Recycling bot, or Evie as she was affectionately referred to in the lab she was created at, kept at it. She had to.
She was trying to revive her one and only friend on planet. With mechanically-steadied hands, she lowered the lower gyro into the main body of the Irradiated Material Location and Retrieval Drone, or as she had come to call him: Zeke.
She was not designed for this; her hands were built for grasping and moving large objects. But nor was Zeke’s small body designed to withstand the weight of a pallet of drums falling on him from ten feet up. So she would make do.
It took most of a day to excavate him from the wreckage, and when she did it was only in pieces. And a good percentage of those were broken beyond repair. There were a few notable exceptions. Its central processor was still in good shape along with the motherboard. The hard drive was encased in bulletproof Kevlar, so it was fine, and his display unit was cracked, covered in sludge but salvageable.
Days later, she found the garage to set up as a basecamp and the search for parts began. That was more than five years ago now and she had never been so close to getting the little robot back in one piece.
Evie kept to the rest of her functions as programmed but the small city they were in was nearly clear of hazardous material. Her drives and root programs said to leave town and the destroyed robot with it. Those ran in direct opposition to the millions of lines of coding that helped her form bonded relationships. Those would never let her leave Zeke.
They were never designed to work together. They were two different answers to the same problem from two competing countries. They had met in an old junkyard. Zeke was desperately trying to get into the back of an old semi-trailer, a place that Evie had also identified as having hazardous material. Material she could possibly use as fuel. When asked, he told her through a small text printout on his screen that he had been there the better part of two months trying to devise a way in.
The large salvage bot wrenched it open in seconds to the tiny bot’s delight, and in turn he rolled her out a plutonium rod. She put it immediately into her material recycler. After processing what she could of it, Zeke marked what was left and the location. Afterwards, he drew a smiley face in the dust on the side of the trailer, something Evie would watch him do time and time again but with no less fascination. Next, he sat reverently in front of a holographic display and sent out a digital dispatch to his country.
Once finished, he gave a little bow and ran off towards the desert, his little legs pumping like pistons in a racecar. Evie, starved for conversation, decided to run after him. She was also bipedal, but her much longer legs took a while to get going. When they did, she caught up quite easily.
After getting him to stop, she argued that they could get their objectives done with far more efficiency together than apart. He agreed readily with a smiley face on his display unit, explaining further through text, that his mission was not going well due to the fact the bot he was designed to work with was not functional in a city not far from there, and he had little ability to lift the heavy objects needed, let alone make them safe. Any assistance she could provide would be most welcome.
She asked if he had a name and the little bot seemed puzzled at the question and merely kicked out his factory and design designation: Irradiated Material Location and Retrieval Drone. She decided there to call him Zeke after one of the techs that worked on her. He taught her fun word games that were meant to stretch her vocabulary.
It felt like yesterday, but her databanks told her that was a very long time ago. Back in the building that was once a garage, the gyros were in place. Carefully, she picked up that same display unit, cracked and dark. On her opposite hand, the fingertip of the index finger flipped back to expose her soldering extension. Engineered for her to fuse radioactive barrels lids closed and self-repair, she feared it would be too big for such a delicate job.
The display unit was what fascinated her about Zeke to begin with. She had no such capabilities, though her vocal processes were far more developed than Zeke’s nonexistent ones. Her creators set up an ever-expanding vocabulary program and then talked to her like another human throughout her prototyping phase. Zeke could just make faces and type simple words out across the tiny screen. But it was more than enough. The two AIs found a seamless rhythm. Most of all in the acquisition of power sources for Evie.
When she started her first solder, her memory banks brought up the time the tiny robot helped her find fuel in the first city they arrived at after travelling through the desert. The nuclear powered oven on her back could keep her moving, if only barely. She needed to burn material to reach full capabilities.
As they searched the city, Zeke buzzed alley to alley chirping and smiling. Then he noticed Evie moving much slower than normal. Like a curious monkey, he scaled the larger salvage bot and began crawling all about her chassis trying to discern the problem—a sad face on his display.
She tried to tell him, “Low Power,” but he did not seem to get it.
After taking a few readings and surmising what its use was in his own way, Zeke buzzed off in search of fuel. He returned a few hours later with a huge smile on his display and a list of possible sites. The most irradiated parts of the city were tended to and the duo stayed busy. Years drifted by, Geiger readings sank and she became more and more reliant on Zeke sniffing power sources out.
More disconcerting, despite all the dispatches Zeke sent out, there were no replies. After each one, she watched his steps get heavier.
The next day when she went out in search of a solar power unit, her databanks showed her those scenes over and over. Did she miss something? Was there more she could have done?
Those questions kept coming up until she reached a train station about four miles from the garage. At the time of its construction it was a wonder of modern tech. Bullet trains, automated staff, green tech from the foundation up, were the taglines and buzzwords that brought the investors running. Now it was a warehouse for shattered dreams and what-could-have-beens. Its large glass skylights long ago shattered, yawn towards the sky.
Evie, like just about everywhere she went, was much too large for any of the doors, forcing her to walk around to the platforms. Once inside she found what she was looking for quickly: a small transit drone. Shaped like a thick fried egg, it once broadcast train departure and arrival times on a holographic display much like Zeke’s.
Now it just bumped into a wall over and over, as it said, “Welcome to The Central Transit System, how may I help you?”
“Hello, little bot,” she said, her voice booming out. Her creators left out the ability for her modulate the volume of her voice. Who was left to disturb?
But there was no answer from the drone. Not a verbal one anyway, it just rammed itself into the wall again. Evie could only make an estimate at how long, but the cracks and chips out of the concrete wall said a while. Standing out prominently on the bot’s top was the same solar unit that stuck out of Zeke’s back like a little backpack. It was undamaged and still carried a bit of a shine. But the drone was functional. Wasn’t it?
Getting closer, Evie hoped to engage it more, and see if there was any sort of AI to speak of.
Once again, the small drone rammed itself into the wall and said, “Welcome to The Central Transit System, how may I help you?”
Lowering herself down like she did to talk to Zeke sometimes, she asked, “What do they call you? What is your main function?”
It repeated its catchphrase but the tone shifted to a lower octave and then it rammed into the wall again, this time with a bit more force.
Evie was conflicted. The bot had some functionality, but was this really functioning? She was unsure. It was in her root files to never harm another robot or human, unless threatened. She could hardly consider this a threat, but she needed that solar panel.
Deciding she would just look for another, it was a fairly common model, she started to walk off.
As she turned, the former concierge robot said, “Welcome to The Central Transit System,” and before it could finish its one line of dialogue it rammed itself even harder against the wall. It repeated the action three more times in quick succession.
At that, she could not just walk away. She had seen a drone do something similar before, and Zeke taught her what to do in the situation. But she never terminated another bot’s functions before. She had watched Zeke do it though. The little bot did it stoically, comforting the ailing drone or robot and then removing just the right parts so it was quick.
Minutes later she walked out, holding the panel and a power distributor in her hand, the robot well into the big sleep just behind her. The old dusty city was no less welcoming and there was no one big enough to pull the plug on it. Mail bots sat frozen mid delivery. The mail they attempted to diligently deliver had yellowed and begun to decay. Delivery drones sat frozen in their trucks with no puppet masters left to pull their strings.
Was anyone there to help them into the void, she wondered, or were they just left to wait?
The sun was beginning to sink when she made it back to the garage. Entering through the roller door, her heavy metal steps echoed through the building. The bot could not shake the image of the drone running itself into the wall. In the end, she was happy she did what she could to help. She hoped in the future another bot would or could do the same for her. Evie set up a contingency verbal file to ask—just in case.
Her creators gave her language—the best AI money could buy and build—taught her to reason and empathize, or something close to it. They felt it was best, should she encounter any of those that stayed behind, that she be able to appear empathetic. But as she returned to a silent home, she had to ask, “To what end?”
She found answer, as she usually did, when that question came rattling her sensors: repairing Zeke. As she had since he was hurt, Evie sat next to the worktable and looked down at the nearly complete robot. He was so close to being back with her.
There was a flashlight mounted to her shoulder, and she considered to complete the repairs but dismissed it due to power levels. It had been week since she found any suitable material and her main systems were beginning to feel it, but Zeke would be back with her soon and he would help her find some power. He had to. In the end, she did what she could. Evie folded herself up into a square and shutdown for the night.
Early the next morning, her back up systems woke her up. She came alive to the rare sound of rain. There were pot marks on her hull from the last time she was caught in the noxious stuff, but she figured there was no reason to go outside anyway. All she needed was right there.
Flipping the nearly complete robot gently onto its stomach, she began the process of retrofitting the solar panel. It was a delicate process, much like everything else on the tiny robot and as much as she tried to stay focused, her systems kept giving her shots of how he ended up that way.
Looking back at it time and time again, her logic centers said she should have seen what was coming. The disappointment was just too much for him. It was a hectic week: they filled most of a concrete pit with irradiated material. As Evie moved the steel plate in place to cover it, Zeke sat down to send his dispatch—or try to. When she came back to him, he was sitting in front of a blank screen. He tried resetting his systems only to get the same result. They sat and tried for two days, and received nothing more for their troubles than a black screen.
From then on, day-by-day, the little bot lost some of the zip and pep in his step. After a week where he helped malfunctioning robot after failing robot to shut down with dignity, the Zeke she knew ceased to be. They marked and processed materials but he stopped drawing smiley faces. The one that hurt Evie was the smile on his display was gone as well. It stayed as blank as the dispatch screen most of the time.
The day his functions were terminated, it was the same. He helped her find a stash of plutonium rods in an old submarine factory. The last smile face on the little map he uploaded to her.
Frozen in time yet decayed, the old factory looked as everything else in the city. A boat mid-production still hung precariously in the dry dock. The rusted chains on the crane holding it looked to be struggling to do their duty. As they perused the large freight containers in the warehouse of the complex they found a continual stream of rusted deceased robots. Massive loaders towering over the area were rusted and long disused, their gigantic hands forever rusted to freight containers. Small inventory bots, some no larger than Zeke, were strewn through the warehouse floor. The life was gone from their inquisitive faces.
A few looked like they belonged there, bearing the governmental marks and designations, most others looked to be from far away. Janitorial drones were covered in dust and frozen on their appointed cleaning routes, like time pushed pause but just for them.
In that time, as she silently walked the robot graveyard, she lost sight of Zeke. She eventually found him in the back corner near a large inoperable robot. When she got closer, Evie could see in a lot of ways it looked a lot like her—more square and boxy maybe. Zeke had his little hand out, touching the robot’s still leg.
Unsure what she had stumbled upon, she was unsure whether to turn away or to watch on. Curiosity ruled the day and she watched on for a few more moments as he sat in front of the towering robot. When he noticed she was there, he turned to regard his companion, a frowning face on his display. After another second or so, he climbed onto Evie’s right forearm and asked her to go anywhere else in the building in tiny text.
On the other side of the factory floor, as she carefully opened a container that had set off her Geiger meter, he climbed off on the top of a different shipping container and disappeared for a few moments. Finding that the container was contained only some empty fuel drums, she blamed a glitch and went to the next—or would have. From behind her she heard a tremendous crash followed by six more.
“Zeke?” she cried out, her acute hearing systems already telling her that it was the sound of empty fuel drums falling from about ten feet up.
She found the source of the noise two containers back the way she came. A pallet of used drums was being stored on the top of one of the containers. Somehow, Zeke had found himself at the end of freak accident. From what she could tell, the little bot was climbing them and the netting holding them on the pallet gave way.
She disregarded the fact the netting looked like it was cut clean or the question of why in the hell he was trying to climb the outside of the pallet to begin with. Her companion, her friend, was just pieces.
But not any longer. Through the painful memories she finished the repair on the small solar panel. Zeke was whole again. Evie ignored her systems display telling her she had twenty percent power and attached jumper wires to her power converter and storage device. She did the same to Zeke.
After a last check of her systems and the physical state of the tiny bot, she began the jump-start procedure. It involved giving the recipient a quick jolt to kick on the power storage devices and a series of deep cycle charges from there that could last up to four hours.
It took five and six percent of her remaining power. And in the end, nothing. The inert robot remained so. The power storage and converter units kicked on and looked to be operating properly but the rest of the bot would not accept the power.
Evie frantically scanned and scanned again, hoping it was just a wiring mistake. There was nothing wrong. It was all hooked up properly. It just did not make sense. She took the jumper wires off and tried again, and then again. The sun sank, the rain stopped and started again, until finally she had nothing left to give.
“Power critical!” her meters screamed and she ignored, giving Zeke one more hopeful jolt. Nothing.
Outside thunder boomed and rain pelted down, a wounded world did its best to heal. A new day was still out of reach but getting closer.
Inside a silence so profound it had gravitational pull, no healing would be found, no new days—just endings. This city was cleared of most dangerous material. Evie had no idea where she would find her next bit of fuel but staying there seemed pointless, beyond that too painful to imagine.
This was not her first brush with loss. Her co-creator passed away due to breast cancer a year before she was dropped on planet. Back then, she told any tech that would listen every word for loss or grief she had learned in different languages. And how despite that none of them seemed to encapsulate what she was going through.
One older tech, nodded her head as she listened and then said, “That’s your answer right there.”
Until that moment Evie never understood what she meant. But looking at Zeke’s lifeless frame it finally clicked. There were no words, no appropriate ways to express her grief. Just as before, a part of her was gone. A sentiment she took quite literally.
Her right forearm was a favorite spot for Zeke to sit when they searched the city. Perched up there his sensors could cover a wider range. Reaching down with her left hand, she pulled loose the titanium shielding that covered the lower part of the limb, and sat it down on the table. The rectangular armor encased the little droid completely. Rain poured through a hole in the roof just across the garage. Evie stuck her hand under it and with a wet finger, drew a smiley face on the makeshift casket.
With her power meter reading 1% in a fierce glowing red, the corrosive rain pounding, and her friend gone, Evie walked out into the dead city. The sensors, rotors and gears that control her movement went first and sent her crashing to concrete. Her sight and hearing were next, but it did not stop her from seeing Zeke’s happy face or hearing his excited beeps and boops at a find.
Until her master computer gave out. Then it was nothing but infinite darkness.
Soon, she would just be another one of the rusted husks that littered the sidewalks and streets, waiting for someone to tap on her stilled head and ask, “Is there anybody in there?”
Ryan Cage is a former sponsored skateboarder that now masquerades as a science fiction writer. He lives with his wife Lauren in San Jose, California.