02-04_haunted

Jalissa pulled up her knees tighter to her chest, white-knuckled fists pressed against her face.

“Was it- was it a d-dead body?” she stammered, voice quivering.

“Something like that.”

The unremarkable white plastic face peeking out of the pin-striped waistcoat seemed like it belonged in a horror film than simply a forgotten android, but Anny tried her best to set aside her initial shock.

“Can you help me here?” she asked.

WISR bent down, grabbing the robot by the legs and hauling them over his shoulder in one swift move. 

“We can take the shell into one of the rooms, open it up there.”

They wasted no time, storming into the first room they could find, Anny tearing back the top sheet and comforter and setting out some of the fluffy hotel towels, there was no telling what kind of fluids and spills they would find inside this robot. Still, she made sure the android’s head was pillowed comfortably, partly out of knowledge that she was being watched.

“Did they have to make them all so heavy?” WISR complained, rotating back his shoulder a few times and rubbing at the joint.

“Hush, you’re stronger than I am and your muscles don’t get sore,” Anny said, “Help me with this?”

Together, they undid row upon row of buttons, peeling away the clothing until all that was left was a bare, featureless chest. Anny grabbed a flathead screwdriver from out of her bag and used the tool to jimmy open the panel. Most days, a functioning android could unlatch it themselves, but this time it needed a little more effort.

“There we go!”

As soon as she worked the panel free, a cloud of burnt plastic smell, spent oil, and charred components erupted from inside, making her cough and sputter.

“Ugh, gross!”

“For once, I agree. A whole lot of their vital components are either melted, fried, or just broken,” WISR said, peering into the viscera of the robot’s open chest cavity.

His eyes were reduced to square pinpoints above a short, thin line, the entire screen tinted a slightly brighter green.

Anny nodded, opting instead to focus on getting her analyzer plugged into the wires at the android’s wrist.

“There are at least half a hundred error messages here. Management worked them until they dropped.”

“Quite right. When will people learn?”

“The heart drive is missing,” Anny noted, looking over and pointing, “See, right there? Empty slot.”

“That’s probably what blew.”

Anny tilted her head up to the ceiling, “Can you lead us to where you’re actually plugged in?”

A light down the hall lit, pointing the way.

“Come on, let’s go!”

“What’s the plan?” WISR asked, following the trail of lights.

“Not sure. I mean, what can we even do to stop this?”

“It’s not exactly illegal yet, so until androids are freed…”

“And then we’d be free of each other, too. That’ll be the day.”

Finally, the lights halted above a black-tinted glass door, making Anny skid to a stop. Inside, a series of telltale twinkling lights told her that this had to be some kind of server room. She threw the door open to find in the center of the space, atop a shorter unit, a heart drive sat, its wires winding from each machine like spiderwebs, its status light fading in and out again like a pulse.

“I have an idea,” Anny said.

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02-03_haunted

“That’s weird”, WISR remarked, tucking the cables back into his wrist.

“What is?”

“It says that the system was disconnected from the official server around the same time the strange things started happening. And the code of the thing that’s running it? Looks nothing like what it’s supposed to.”

His smile switched to the data output and Anny grasped both sides of his monitor to tug him in closer, peering at the various strings of numbers and letters.

“That’s an android,” she said, as he swatted her hands way and straightened, “A service model, maybe, probably one of the staff. They plugged a living robot into their controls and now they’re messing with them.”

“dun-Dun-DUNN!” 

Endon’s attempt at a musical stinger didn’t impress Jalissa, who replied with a firm shoulder nudge.

“Ow! Sorry! But still, what a twist!” he cried.

“Seriously,” Jalissa said, “Is that even legal?”

Anny waved her hand from side-to-side, “Sorta. Either way, we had to investigate.”

Row after row of empty-eyed androids stood like sleeping soldiers, the lights at their hearts slowly breathing in and out of standby glow. Anny shuddered, more than slightly unnerved.

“Do you see any that aren’t on?” WISR asked. 

“Not as far as I can tell.”

She switched on the flashlight on her watch, casting sinister shadows on lifeless faces. These androids weren’t customized or personalized like consumer models meant for families and companions. Each one was a flat, featureless face with the smallest peak of a nose in the middle of the shiny white surface. Anny knew that behind the plastic was an LED light array that would project eyes and mouths to convey emotion – usually an inhumanly cheery grin in upturned half-moon eyes, as they were oh-so-pleased to serve, but without the added futures, they looked more like pale ghosts in waistcoats. Genderless, featureless, anonymous.

They made her jump back, arms waving, shouting something unintelligible.

“You alright there, partner?”

Plastic and metal hands on her shoulders only served to frighten her further, she whipped around, her flashlight dancing wildly.

“Easy, there. They’re just robots, same as the ones you see every day. Unless you’re this scared of me too.”

She swore his smile grew smile grew a few pixels into a smug grin. Anny just frowned.“Only scary thing about you is that no one’s fed you through a woodchipper by now.”

“Come now, you would have lost your job three times over were I not there to save you. It wouldn’t be a pleasant experience for either of us. But onto the task at hand, shall we split up? Cover more ground?”

“Y-Yeah,” she stammered, a hand rubbing up and down her goosebump-prickled arm. 

Alone, Anny marched down the row, thrusting her light at the shadowed bodies, but each one had a status light to match. It was in the middle when she bumped up against another figure, sending terrified shivers down her spine.

“Find anything?” WISR asked, his monitor glass glinting in her flashlight before he gently pushed her arm aside.

“No, they’re all on. You?”

He shook his head.

“Well, now what?”

“We could call management back, tell them we’ve had enough nonsense for one day. You’d take a hit on your paycheck, maybe, but you wouldn’t have to deal with the scary ghosties any more.”

“What? No! No way! I’ve never given up on a job before and I’m not going to now.”

“But just look at you! You’re positively shaking! Clearly, this kind of job is too much for you. There is no shame in quitting while you’re ahead.”

Anny pushed past him, trooping back up the stairs in a huff. 

“I’m not quitting, not now, not ever.”

Once her eyes adjusted to the world outside the musty basement, Anny noticed something.

The light above her head flickered out as soon as she stepped beneath it, the next one stuttering alive. She narrowed her eyes at it, then took another step forward. It too went out, the one after uneasily blinking on.

“What are you doing?” WISR asked.

“Trying something,” she answered, following the light down the hall and around the corner.

When she took the next step, however, the light stayed in place. Nothing seemed different or unusual about this spot, though, same foil-embellished wallpaper, same ugly patterned carpet.

“Well. That was pointless,” the android announced.

This couldn’t be just it. There had to be some reason why she was lead here. If she was lead here. She looked to her right, looked to her left, and spotted a closet. She grabbed the doorknob, the door creaking open almost of its own accord.

Amongst the ancient, stained mops and cleaning supplies, their labels faded and peeling, a figure sat collapsed and crumbled in the dim shadows.

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02-02_haunted

The Golden Desert Hotel on Tyche was a strange place and Anny didn’t like it. Sure, its “gilded” crown molding was gold spray-painted to look like it had seen flaky centuries, the elaborately framed mirrors artfully “tarnished”, and canvas-printed “paintings” of pastoral landscapes may have created the illusion of an old and timeless locale, but to Anny it seemed more like a theme park ride, only convincing if you really were in the mood to believe.

She would be merely annoyed, roll her eyes and sigh, if it weren’t for the eerily flickering lights overhead, the creak of doors opening and closing in the distance on their own, and the fact that they had yet to see a single solitary soul. That last part was design, however, their briefing documents emphasized that while they were left alone to investigate without interference, there would be security staff watching through the cameras and they were not to take or leave anything behind. Anny shot a glance at the lidless black eye sweeping back and forth from its perch in the ceiling and shuddered. The quicker they could finish his mission, the better.

On the table was a single room key with the words “ALL ACCESS” scrawled on it in magic marker, Anny scooped it up and frowned. She’d hoped there’d be two so she could send her robot shadow somewhere – anywhere – else but she supposed they wouldn’t trust an android with free run of the place anyway.

“The brief said it all started on the thirteenth floor. Spooky, right?” Anny said as she pushed the ‘ancient’ brass button of the elevator.

“Don’t tell me you’re superstitious,” WISR said.

“Maybe a little! This whole place is eerie as all get out.”

“And you’re sure it’s not the automated system looking for attention?”

“Which is more likely? A simple, voice-activated IF/THEN program gaining enough self-awareness to cause mischief, or…”

“Or faulty wiring.”

Anny looked up to spot Mirae leaning on the counter above her, taking a noisy slurp from the drink in her hand.

“What?”

“Faulty wiring, it was just the electricity. Saw it on a TV show once,” Mirae said.

“Everything seems to be in working order,” WISR announced, snapping the breaker panel closed over an array of green all-clear lights. “Nothing’s broken or needs to be maintenanced. There’s no discernible reason for things acting so strangely.”

“Any…any working theories?” Anny asked, wrapping her arms anxiously around her middle. “Besides… you know.” 

His pixelated smile narrowed to a hyphenated glare, “Don’t say it.”

“B-But what if this place really,” she had to force the words out, “really is, y’know?

“Well, don’t you worry, Anniekins, I will keep you safe from the ghouls and the ghosties.”

“Never call me that again,” she growled.

“Well then, my dearest Anniepoo, if it truly is specters and spirits, is it our duty to exorcise them?”

“I swear, calculator, you’ll be fit for scrap in a second.”

“Any more clues?”

“I’m not sure,” Anny replied, her hands rubbing up and down her arms, “Hey, did it just get really cold in here?”

“My sensors indicate a significant drop in temperature. Almost makes me feel sorry for the organics in the room.”

“Har dee har har. The thermostat says nothing’s changed, though.”

“Faulty wiring.”

Nikolae leaned against the break room door, experimentally tossing the up apple in his hand a few times before taking a massive bite. Mirae who had long since joined Jalissa and Endon on the floor gave Anny a nudge with her elbow and a knowing grin.

“It wasn’t faulty wiring!” Anny insisted, “Will you people give it a rest and let me get on with the story? Although WISR probably already told you all of this.”

“He would if I actually cared.”

“Well, now I know where he gets that terrible attitude from. Will you let me finish?”

He put on a bitter grin and a posh accent, “No, do go on dear.”

“Thank you.”

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02-01_haunted

Another flood of the solar flare washed over the glass dome of Lunette City; wave after wave of colored light whooshing by over the SYMM Headquarters and annoyingly resetting the break room microwave’s clock.

“When did they say the storm would pass?” Jalissa whined, sliding to the floor beside Endon and Anny.

Endon picked at a loose linoleum tile with the point of his knife, “They don’t know, this caught them by surprise.”

“Either way, they say all flights in the areas from Camenae to Vesta are grounded for a good long while,” Anny said.

The room was dark, the three agents making the dubious decision that the lights might be too dangerous with the volatile energy fluctuations thanks to the star’s radiative wrath. Anny was sure it was safe, safer than the place where she grew up when even the smallest flare-up could send them off course for days. Her and the other kids would have all-out wars with scrunched-up paper balls and folded airplanes like what they imagined snow days were like planetside as the adults frantically tried to fix all of the glitching instruments.

“So I heard a rumor your last mission was super weird,” Jalissa said.

“Oh yeah,”Anny shot a wicked grin, “WISR and I got sent to investigate a haunting.”

Jalissa gasped, “Are you serious? Haunted? No way! Ghosts aren’t real!”

“I got an assignment where a guy thought his android was possessed by the ghost of his dead wife,” Endon replied.

“Well, was she?”

“No, but it could happen I guess.”

“Well, this wasn’t just one android that was haunted. It was an entire hotel.”

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01-08_yamaya

“Are you filing the report when we get back?” WISR asked as the speeder leapt into space.

Anny shook her head, “I gave him six months. Maybe he’ll come to his senses.”

“Still that’s… a long time to live through that kind of mistreatment. Even for a robot.”

“You’re right, no one should go through that, not even a robot. But if I told him ‘do it now, or else!’ nothing would be fixed. Giving him pressure and a time limit might just make it happen.”

The android didn’t respond, only leaned his monitor head against the window..

Anny broke through the reverie, “Are you still gonna ask the boss to reassign you?”

“I… don’t think I work well with anyone at this point, much less a human and one like you at that.”

The speeder yanked to a halt.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“I mean that if you would like me to be nice to you, you’d have to order me to do so. Oh wait, we don’t live in ancient history and I don’t have to listen.”

“What is your problem? We just completed our mission without PAXing a single android and we may have saved the lives of hundreds of robots! Aren’t you even a little happy?”

Before he could answer, she cut him off, “And don’t even try and tell me you coulda done all that yourself.”

“You’re right. Perhaps by some freak or fluke of nature, we did accomplish something. I still don’t like you, though.”

Anny sighed and aimed her speeder back to the crescent moon dotted with the towers and tall buildings of the city.

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01-07_yamaya

The dining room that night was quiet, none of the overseers or partners or shareholders there to share in the misery of the androids. Anny and WISR alone sat across from Mr. Cassia.

“Now what is that thing doing here?” he demanded, setting aside his silverware in disgust.

“I thought we were discussing matters of our work,” WISR replied, his tone nothing short of cheerful.

The foreman elected to ignore him, instead turning to Anny.

“I trust you’ve finished the job. You know, the one I paid SYMM for.”

“As far as we can tell, any talks of uprising are justified,” WISR announced coldly.

The foreman coughed and sputtered, the lollipop in his mouth spattering onto the tabletop.

“And how does that figure?” he demanded, his face red.

Anny answered, “Working conditions are barely enough to keep them functional, let alone happy. Charging stations are overcrowded, forcing androids to work on low power reserves, and the quarters are far too warm, causing their systems to break down and overheat. Changing that alone would cut your repair costs in half, if you even bothered to fix the broken ones, which you don’t.”

“Now listen here, I didn’t hire you both to come in here and tell me how to run my business! Those things aren’t people and I won’t treat them as such!”

“You’re right,” she continued, “They don’t have the same rights as you or me. But they do have rights to begin with, and we’d hate to report this establishment for mistreatment.”

“And where do you propose I conjure up this money to improve ‘conditions’?” Mr. Cassia asked with a heavy dose of air quotes.

WISR’s parenthetical smile became a smirk, “Well, that’s the thing. If you do the math, with all of your laborers and low overhead, even accounting for those who don’t work very efficiently thanks to disrepair, you should be taking in at least 10,000 credits more than you report to Central Government.”

“Now that is a baseless accusation!”

“Is it? He’s a rather talented calculator, although an annoying one,”Anny admitted, “You have six months to improve conditions here for your working metal men or I will submit the report on the charges of Gross Mistreatment of a Robot and fraud to Central myself.”

Anny stood and began to walk towards the door.

“I’ll have your job, girl. I will. You will never work again if I say so! I own this moon!”

She ignored him and continued walking.

“Yes, I’m sure your ownership of this swamp will save you from an Interplanetary Tax Audit and felony charges,” WISR remarked dryly before following her out.

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01-06_yamaya

The Library wasn’t technically off-limits to Anny, but she still didn’t want to be caught browsing the shelves. Strictly speaking, it wasn’t exactly a part of what was expected on the job, and there was no real good way to justify it. She slipped into the tiny room off Mr. Cassia’s office, looking over her shoulder once, twice, to make sure she wasn’t followed.

The air smelled like stale cigar smoke. S almost opened the paneled window across the room, but then she’d be caught for sure, and =the peppery atmosphere outside was no better. On either side of the window were a pair of tall, narrow bookcases, each one sparsely populated.

Anny tugged down the huge, hardback book, Basic Android Repair, which might have been a textbook from a trade school. The sticky, yellowed pages pulled apart noisily and the copyright was from the same year her parents were born. Beside it were books about logging and cultivation, their spines hanging off and pages warped. She was sure none of those would be useful.

Against the right side wall were rows of binders, each one given a date and labelled T1, T2, T3. Financial records, exactly what she was looking for! She pulled down the most recent one, footsteps sounded in the distance, the unmistakable jangle of Mr. Cassia and his belt of keys. 

Anny dove under the huge wooden desk, binder pressed to her chest, hand covering her mouth to muffle unsteady breaths.

His heavy heeled boots wandered in, and after an eternity, faded away. Finally, she let herself breathe, cracking open the cover and pulling out her phone. All these numbers may make no sense to her, but a calculator like WISR may find something useful there. She sent him close to a gigabyte of pictures praying he wasn’t too busy.

The response she got was immediate:

Will take a look. “Uprising” has no leader, robots just angry @ working conditions/lack thereof

Good 2 know, thx.

Carefully, she emerged from under the desk and gently replaced the binder, although she nearly dropped it in shock when her phone again beeped.

My office – Foreman

The foreman didn’t look up from his papers, lollipop stick swinging left and right under his stubbled moustache.

“What do you have to report?” he demanded. “I want this revolt dealt with and now.”

“What if it isn’t one robot talking about it? The supposed ‘uprising’? What if they’re just- just upset?

Mr. Cassia’s eyes narrowed.

“PAX them,” he replied, “PAX them all.”

Anny took a startled step back.

“Wh- what? Using my key costs 1,000 credits per use, to do your entire staff, let alone the time-!”

“Don’t care. You’ll have dinner with me tonight once the job is done and then you and your machine will get off my moon. This nonsense has gone on long enough.”

“O-Okay,” she stammered, pulling out her phone, “I’m gonna call WISR so he can help me get started.”

“Good girl,” he replied, biting down the lollipop in his mouth in an angry crunch.

Anny backed out of the office before tearing down the stairs and out into the swampy sunlight of Yamaya’s sunset. As she raced up the irritatingly steep hill, she frantically dialed her android partner.

“He wants me to PAX all of them!” she cried.

“What?”

WISR’s voice was barely audible over the scream of electric equipment.

Breathlessly, she repeated herself, “Mr. Cassia… wants me… to PAX… all the androids! We have to do something!”

“Right! Got it!”

When he met her just outside the workhouse, she was completely out of breath, half-unbound hair plastered to her face with frantic sweat.

“Hey, easy,” WISR said, grasping her shoulders, “If you pass out, they might PAX me too.”

“Glad to know… where your priorities… are,” she gasped.

“Well, someone has to look out for me. C’mon, let’s get you into a cabin where it’s shady.”

The air inside was stifling and peppered with the burning spice that clouded the entire camp, but slightly cooler than outside.

“Is it always this warm in here?” Anny asked, fanning herself with a hand, “This isn’t safe for androids.”

“It cools down a little at night, but you’re right, most of the robots here are half-dead from the heat alone. Not to mention all the sawdust, lack of charging ports, disrepair…”

“No wonder why they want to rebel. That’s inhumane, like, illegal!”

“But what can we do? You have a job to do.”

“And I have no intention of PAXing a hundred androids today. We have to end this, here and now. Did you get a chance to look at the financial records I sent you?”

“Yes, and either our dear foreman was lying about the success of his operation to you or to the government, according to his tax reports he’s barely breaking even.”

“Then that’s it!” Anny cried, leaping up, “I know what we’re going to do!”

“What’s that?”

“We’re going to go to dinner.”

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01-05_yamaya

Although the pepperwood plank salmon was delicious and the chilled wine imported from the planet Canenae was refreshing, there was only so much Anny could hear about “the boltheads” and “the metalfaces”. 

“And then- then it was begging me to stop!” a red-faced man guffawed. 

He coughed into his meaty balled fist, the flesh around his eyes erupting into purple. 

“But by then, its insides had already blown, wasn’t like we was gonna put it back together again! So I kept going until it was fit for scrap!”

Mr. Cassia gave a hearty laugh at that. 

“I’m sure that scared the gearies good n’ plenty!”

“Oh yeah! Not one of those things looked me in the eye a solid week!”

Anny set aside her cloth napkin. “Will you excuse me, gentlemen? I’m not feeling well. Must be the heat.”

“Of course, my dear!” Mr. Cassia waved with a smile, “Can’t wait to hear what your own calculator has to say about the rest. Goodnight.”

Over her shoulder she heard one of them bark to an android standing at attention in the corner, “More wine, rustbucket!”

Anny slammed the door shut, pressing her back against it and rubbing at her eyes. It was only when she’d opened them again, taking a few blinks in the planetlight, did she notice the android sitting on her bed.

“What are you doing here?” she demanded a bit more acidly than she meant.

“Forgive me your majesty,” WISR spat back, “But our mission will come to an abrupt halt if I cease to function.”

“Don’t be so dramatic. I was fine before I had to work with you,” she said, crossing her arms.

“Ah, yes, I imagine you were stuck with me by pure coincidence.”

“Hush. What is it you need?”

He reached into one of the enormous pockets of his cargo jeans and pulled out what seemed like unending piles of junk. A rolled-up android repair kit, a mini first-aid pack, a packet of crackers, a lump of paper napkins, and something that looked suspiciously like a hacked microchip for a video game cabinet.

Finally, he came up with a travel adapter, the kind that plugged into the wall and took hours to get a decent battery percentage.

“Have you a free outlet? I’m running low.”

Anny snatched one end of the wire from his hand as he settled the other into port at his wrist.

“You coulda done this yourself, you know,” she huffed as she bent down to plug it in.

“All of the charging stations in the cabins were taken and I didn’t want to be seen outside of them. And is it so hard to imagine that I’d want to check up on my darling partner, compare notes and such?”

Anny rolled her eyes.

“You didn’t need to barge into my room for that.”

“Ah, since your prior mission had gone so well, were you planning on letting your utter incompetence bring me down with you?”

“What did you just say?”

“I’m… sorry. That was uncalled for,” WISR finally said.

She turned away, “Doesn’t matter. You’d be thinking it anyway.”

“Well, yeah.”

“Here, let me see?” she asked, sitting beside him and reaching for his arm.

“But of course, who am I to deny you?”

Anny rolled her eyes but said nothing, pulling one of the tightly-wound wires from WISR’s wrist and plugging it into the top of the handheld device on her lap. The screen in the middle of it sprang to life with the requisite logos and startup screens before showing her a menu of options. Selecting one, it showed a list of error codes and messages, of which there were blissfully few and she let out a relieved sigh.

“And here I thought you didn’t care.”

“I don’t, but if you don’t come back in one piece, [boss] will have my head if not my job, and who knows what this environment would do to you.”

“Indeed, I’ve seen firsthand the effects the place has on other robots.”

“Yamaya sucks,” she said, mopping at her glistening forehead with the collar of her shirt balled in her fist.

“I agree. Here I thought our forced partnership would be the worst part of this job.”

Anny scowled at him.

“Do you really have to be so mean all the time?”

“Come now, you dislike this just as much as I.”

She leapt up and went to the window, the thick breeze off the bayou failing to lend any relief.

“We need to figure this out and soon. But we have a revolution with no way of stopping, a client who I hate with every fiber of my being, and with no answers, there’s no way out.”

She turned back to face him.

“Is it bad that I don’t want to help put a stop to this ‘uprising’?”

“No. Although it might be a bit self-righteous to think you can do anything to help.”

“That’s not true! That’s our job, to help androids in need. And these need us now.”

“Strictly speaking, our job is to do what the clients – the human clients — say.”

“They aren’t the ones who need us now.”

“But what exactly can we, alone, accomplish?”

“We could report the mistreatment. Androids have rights, too.”

“Only slightly more than your house pets,” WISR remarked sardonically, “But with the condition a lot of the robots are in, many would be scrapped immediately.”

“And that doesn’t help anyone.”

She grabbed at the tufts of her white-blonde hair and huffed out loud.

“What are we supposed to do?”

“What we’re supposed to do is the job. Find out who is leading this revolution, put an end to them via PAX or more permanent means, go home, collect our respective paychecks, and get suckered into doing it all over again. What we should do, however, is a little different.”

“What we should do is convince the foreman to treat his androids better and there wouldn’t be a need for an uprising at all.”

“Correct-a-mundo,” WISR replied dryly, “But he doesn’t care about the wellbeing of his androids at all. So what does he care about?”

“The other humans working here? We could stage an assault or start a fight!”

“And get Interplanetary called.”

“Right. Police would make everything worse. What about money? He sure cares a lot about that, he went on and on this afternoon about how much the operation rakes in.”

“Did he mention a number?”

Anny shook her head, “No, but I suppose I could investigate and find out.”

“Who knows, maybe there’s something in those numbers that will give us a clue.”

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01-03_yamaya

Yamaya’s air was thick with swampy marsh water, tinging the atmosphere of the moon a sickly green. Moss dribbled from the trees, ran between the cobbletones, and clogged the fountain at the center of the square, every surface slick with something slippery and green.

Tumbledown wooden shacks, repair shops, and an equipment distribution and logistics building ringed half of the circle, flanking a massive white mansion house. A man emerged from inside as Anny touched down in an unoccupied parking space, and he leaned casually against one of the massive pillars, adjusting the jeweled clip holding the bolo tie around his neck.

“You must be the SYMM agents I sent for,” he said, a lollipop stick dancing in his mouth, the candy clacking against his teeth.

Anny reached out an arm to shake, but the man turned it over sideways, pressing his prickly lips to her knuckles.

WISR stiffened.

“Yes… Well, we’ve been dispatched-”

“I don’t recall giving you orders to speak, machine,” the man cut him off coldly, but his charming smile was back when he regarded Anny. “My name is Mr. Kazimierz Corin Cassia, owner and foreman. We run primarily on robot labor, although there’s a small crew of humans overseeing and repairing the things. Problem is that my overseers have been hearing some words of contention out of our units. We think one is discussing an uprising, or worse, unionization. But we’re not sure which one.”

“I imagine that’s where my associate comes in,” Anny said.

“Correct-a-mundo. It’ll pose as one of my laborers, and get word from the inside while we observe from the out. Make sense?”

Anny and WISR nodded.

“Some of my machines look too human for comfort, so I mark them all with one of these.”

From the table behind the pillar, he picked up a swath of itchy brown fabric.

“Oh, joy upon joy. Our first assignment and I have to be a slave,” WISR said.

Anny tossed the rough burlap garment at him. It hit him square in the chest and fell with a plop to the floor, forcing him to bend down and scoop it up. She hesitated a moment, instantly feeling guilty, but he’d already gotten it and settled it over his shoulders before she could help.

“Well, get over it,” she replied sharply, “We came here to do a job and we’re going to do it. Go join the ranks.”

A line of androids, monitors and synthflesh and metallic parts alike all streaked with the grime of grueling work, trooped by in a relentless march. WISR let his entire body droop in exasperation before he resigned himself to the hunched fold of the other robots and trudged to his place in line.

“It always talk to you like that?” the foreman asked Anny, crunching noisily on the candy.

“It’s our first mission but so far, yeah.”

“Come then, lemme show ya a tour of the operations.”

Mr. Cassia led her up a massive hill with steps set in the earth, bordered by old and splintering wood. About halfway up the incline, sweat plastering her shirt to her back, Anny began coming up with better names for the logging camp: ‘Camp This-Stupid-Hill’, ‘Camp Never-Shoulda-Taken-This-Job’, ‘Camp Why-Me’. As they got closer and closer to the top, she choked back the spicy smell of fresh-cut pepperwood .

“Ya alright there?” Mr. Cassia asked, offering a huge and callused hand to help her up the last big step, which was seemingly that much worse than the others.

She tried to make it without his aid, but stumbled up and into his grip anyway. She swore her feet completely cleared the ground as he hauled her up.

“F-Fine. Fine,” she stammered as she tried to get her bearings again.

Stinging salt streamed into her eyes and she tried to wipe it away with her wrist, only to find that did little to help.

“Now over here,” he gestured widely to a building of brown-stained wood, “Is where the magic happens. C’mon, there’s water inside.”

Rows upon rows of androids shoved logs through debarkers and slicers, kicking up more clouds of spicy sawdust that left Anny doubled over coughing.

A big meaty palm came down on her back, over and over again until she could control her unsteady breaths.

“Here,” Mr. Cassia said, shoving a paper cup into her hands. The water was cool but also stung her lips with the specter of capsaicin, “I know, takes some getting used to. I wouldn’t have called you and your pet unless I was sure. Here we slice the timber, grind the bark to ship out as spices, and prepare the lumber. We do it all on-site to keep overhead low and pass the savings on to the customer. Either way, our little operation makes money hand over fist, year after year. You wouldn’t think the most profitable enterprise this side of Camenae would be on this little moon!”

“Where do you get your androids?” Anny asked, not nearly as amused as he.

“Most are pre-owned. Families looking to upgrade will trade in older models, which get sold for labor like this bunch. They’re cheap, they’re easy to get ahold of, and they’re replaceable. I don’t rake in credits by the millions buying new, that’s for sure!”

“And they’re treated well?”

Mr. Cassia grimaced, “As much as a machine can be. We do our best to keep them in working order, but we don’t go out of our way for comfort or luxury.”

“Do you think adding more amenities could put an end to this ‘uprising’?”

“What, you think fluffing up a few pillows could make them stop wanting to take what rightfully belongs to me? Soon, they’ll be demanding air-conditioned cabins and two hour work days and then nothing would get done!”

“But with such a high labor turnover, PAXing one android when others could dissent seems like a waste, looking at cost alone-”

“I said no. I’m not sending this tin cans on some all-expenses paid vacation here! You and your machine will find out who’s gotta get PAXed, and you get out and that’s final. You hear?”

Anny turned away, twisting the paper cup in her fist.

“Understood, sir.”

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01-02_yamaya

The speeder was a XJ-89321, sleek and shiny in iridescent blue-violet colors. Inside, the seats were a buttery faux leather and WISR annoyingly discovered how to turn on the seat heaters before he could figure out how to turn them off. An orange miniature teddy bear, possibly a Silly Meal toy, hung from the mirror.

“This is a rather… unique vehicle,” he remarked, looking over the interior.

Anny grinned, “Don’t’cha love it? My dad and I built him; I named him Skippy and he’s such a good boy.”

She patted the dashboard with a hand and revved the engine a little as if the ship was responding happily. WISR rolled digital eyes.

“The mentality of humans never ceases to astound. You manage to assign a personality to nearly everything around you but never bring yourself to see them as equals.”

“Don’t be a Mr. Grumpy Gears. I’m not happy about this partnership thing either, but you don’t see me insulting your entire race in one go.”

“Believe me, dear,” the android grumbled sardonically, “I am just as displeased with this situation as you are. If not more so.”

“With any luck, we’ll convince the boss this was a terrible mistake when we come back. For one reason or another.”

Anny flipped a handful of switches and, without seeing if WISR was properly strapped in, shoved forward the yoke. The speeder darted towards the glass dome overhead cradling the crescent moon-shaped city of Lunette, blasting through the opening port and into the perpetual night of space.

Like this chapter? Be sure to give a ‘Like’ and Comment what your favorite part is! Don’t forget to Share as well with anyone who loves robots, technology, or the magic of friendship!

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J.D. Locke • Watercolorheart