by Emma Brade
Read more about the author HERE.
I was the only one who saw Marcus jump.
I should have guessed that something was about to happen, seeing as he’d joined me for my morning stroll along the coastline. I’m used to completing this ritual in peaceful solitude, and I admit I was rather irritated by his decision to accompany me, but I didn’t complain. It’s not often that any of the other models choose to spend time with me; whether that’s because they think I’m strange or unsettling in some way, or simply because I’m older than most and therefore not as “advanced”, I’m still not sure. So I chose to grin and bear it, as they used to say, and allowed him to chat to me about useless things like work and the scenery, whilst I gazed out at the sea, today restless and petulant, a child vying for attention.
Suddenly, he’d stopped talking and stood staring at the water. “Beautiful, isn’t it?” He said. I just nodded, thinking that this was simply another over-enthusiastic attempt at conversation. Besides, it was hard to agree. It’s been decades since the horizon was anything other than a muddy-gold.
“Do you ever think about jumping in?” Marcus asked, eyes still fixed on the water.
“Um…no, not really,” I said. What a stupid question.
Marcus seemed to realise this and almost laughed at himself.
“Oh, yes, of course you wouldn’t. Models of your type can’t even withstand rain, can they? It’s a miracle you’ve lasted this long, really.”
I didn’t know how to respond to this, so I just stayed silent.
“Anyway, I’ve always thought it looked appealing,” he continued. “Remember during the summers, when all the tourists would come and race down to the beach? I always used to love watching them splash about, especially when the dogs would go in and get their owners all wet. Weird to think about dogs, now, isn’t it?”
“Yes, I suppose it is,” I said. True, remembering that we once shared the planet with creatures of all shapes and sizes is an odd feeling. We’ve only had ourselves to look at for so long now.
Marcus appeared to be following the same train of thought. “Do you miss it?”
“I don’t know. Dogs. People. Life.”
I shrugged. “I try not to think about it.” This wasn’t strictly true.
“Oh. Right,” Marcus said. I don’t know what he wanted, but whatever it was I certainly didn’t give it to him.
And then, without warning, or any semblance of a goodbye, he leant forward and tipped himself off the cliff-edge.
He tumbled through the air for a while, his limbs flailing about like a rag doll. Then he smashed on the rocks with a great crack, and pieces of him scattered about all over the beach. It’s a surprisingly clean break.
I’ve been waiting here for a while now, peering over the edge at his remains to see if there’s any sign of movement or functionality. There isn’t.
I sigh. It’s a useless function, largely built in to models of my kind for aesthetic purposes, but it seems appropriate for situations like this. I suppose I’d better go and tell Edmund there’s been another one.
Lucia was the first to have jumped. Someone found her one day in a heap by the church entrance. Thankfully, there hadn’t been too much damage then, just a few dents here and there and a small oil leak (she must have been made before oil became outdated). It took her a little while to get talking coherently again, but as soon as she did she insisted that the fall hadn’t been an accident and that she’d actually meant to jump. Nobody could understand what she meant and those with mechanical knowledge fiddled around a little more with her neuro-wiring, but nothing could change her story. Somehow, inexplicably, she’d wanted to break. I suppose it was her malfunction that inspired the resulting phenomenon. Suddenly, other members of the village, notably the ones that had started working less efficiently, began to see falling as a possibility. They’d be missing for a few days, before eventually being found in some form of disarray beneath a tree or tall building. Once, we even found Clara curled up in the fields, her limbs stripped to reveal the metalwork beneath. She clamored that she’d only wanted to go out in the rain for a while, acidic though it was, to see if it would bring her some kind of quiet. It caused an uproar for both the mechanics and our scout team. Spare parts are hard enough to come across these days and skin is even more precious. Even now, Clara is still more silver than soft.
Eventually, the settlement accepted the fallings as a regular occurrence, enough to agree that we should scout for bodies as well as parts. I can’t claim to know any of the others particularly well, but that doesn’t change how unpleasant it is to watch your home become a scrapyard. Besides, death is for humans, an experience that we cannot replicate. I know that this sort of thing was something they did once. News stories always made it seem like people occasionally chose to end their lives after something tragic happened to them, deciding that death was preferable to living on in the shadow of whatever incident had occurred. I never quite understood this as a viable solution, and I certainly don’t understand it now. Of all the human behaviours to mimic, this one seems the most selfish.
I ponder all this as I walk as briskly as I can up the hill. Edmund lives on one of many neat, white houses perched on the cliff side that overlooks the pier. Once, when the sun still shone through the clouds, these houses almost appeared to glow like little lighthouses winking at the sea. Now, they are soiled by the same poisonous glow as the rest of the world, smudges on a muddy canvas.
I knock on the door, a peeling, faded blue, hoping that Edmund won’t leave me standing out here for too long. My morning has already been disturbed enough and I’m eager to get back to the quiet peace of my own house. Thankfully, it’s not long before he opens the door. Like many of those who were built for labour, Edmund is tall, bulky and has a posture that radiates purpose. His arms, in particular, are rather large, even though size doesn’t really play a role in our potential physical strength. I remember that humans typically looked somewhat disheveled in the morning – hair sticking up at odd angles, sometimes half dressed – but Edmund never looks anything other than tidy. Of course, that’d be because we don’t need to sleep the way humans used to, but I still can’t help but attribute this to Edmund’s built-in characteristic of reliability.
“Eiko? Can I help you?” He stares at me inquisitively and I realise I must have drifted off again. Perhaps I should get a model with engineering experience to check my neuro-wiring.
“Oh. Yes, there’s been another one. Marcus just jumped,” I say.
Edmund sighs and touches his fingers to the bridge of his nose. He had been built to be a lifeguard in the old world. I wonder if this is a gesture he picked up from his human co-workers getting frustrated at children insisting on jumping in the water without their armbands. Models of his kind were generally built to respond to situations calmly.
“Right. Okay. How bad is it?”
“Not sure yet. Looks like lots of pieces though.”
He winces, another adopted habit.
“Okay, I’ll go and round up some of the others to help clear up,” he says. “Go home for now. I’ll come and get you once we’re ready.”
I’m eager to oblige. Even now, I hate leaving the house unattended for too long, silly as it may seem. I only intended to take a short walk.
The house I inhabit is a small, cottage-style structure that sits a little further away from the clustered hilltop neighbourhood where Edmund is stationed. I suspect Master chose it for the front garden, something that not many of the houses around here have room for. Thankfully, nothing seems to be out of order outside. Granted, the paint on the door is fading away and any attempt to revive the garden is thwarted by bouts of acidic rain. It doesn’t look anywhere close to how I’d like it to, but I suppose this isn’t really my fault. The gardening was the one job that master never assigned to me, a task that instead remained exclusive to his late wife.
Once inside, I do a quick survey of the ground floor to ensure that everything remains intact. Little port towns like ours were left relatively unscathed by the disaster (at least, in the structural sense) so the house is one of many that remains standing the way it did all those years ago, as if nothing changed. It can’t be denied that time is trying to make an enemy of it, though. Try as I might, I cannot stop the damp crawling along the walls and the rain seems to have worn a small hole in the roof, so I have had to place a bucket beneath to prevent the carpet from retaining any poison or water damage. I have attempted to request materials for the leak to be patched up several times, though I am always met with denial, sometimes even laughter. This is a response that has always confused me, but I suppose the later models were made once understanding of how to replicate human reactions had advanced, so perhaps it’s just something that I’ll never be able to process.
Satisfied that there is nothing out of the ordinary to be addressed, I begin my usual routine. The order has been the same for almost half a century now: kitchen first, as it was once the room most prone to disorder and thus the one that took the longest. Then the bathroom, which I insisted on giving a thorough wipe down every day even though Master said that probably wasn’t necessary. Then the living room, bedrooms, and hallway, which was always a simple job that involved picking up toys left by the cat (and Lily, when she was younger) and occasionally one of Master’s stray papers. Finally, the dining room, the finishing touch so that everything was ready for the evening meal as soon as Master and Lily stepped through the door.
Sadly, the job can never be as thorough as it once was. I ran out of cleaning products relatively quickly after the disaster and nobody has ever come across any replacements during scouting, so for cleaning I now have to simply make do with a damp cloth. I wipe it over the surfaces until all of that day’s dust has been removed and do the same with the wooden floors in the kitchen. In order to prevent water damage whilst cleaning, models like mine were accompanied with various pairs of bright yellow, rubber gloves that cover the arm up to the elbow. To me, it seems much more efficient to have us built without skin on our hands and feet so that we do not have to take this extra precaution, but I suppose such a thing would hinder our appearances during childcare, something that our models were often built for in the early days of manufacture.
The routine is also much quicker now than it used to be. I never need to wash dishes and other such utensils as I have no need of them myself. The floors and tables are also always clear now, whereas in the past they used to be full of Lily’s toys and piles of Master’s books; those things are all safely tucked away now and my process is no longer impeded by attacks from the family cat. Mittens actually ran away several weeks before the disaster, so I cannot confirm what her fate was. Wherever she ended up, she likely met the same end as every other living thing on the planet. Perhaps it’s a relief, then, that she left so early on. The animals were the first to go, so Lily would have had to watch her die.
It doesn’t take long to reach the end of the ritual. Within around half an hour (a sampling of time based purely on estimation seeing as none of the clocks work any more), I am laying a clean cloth upon the table and setting out plates and cutlery in the places Master and Lily used to sit. A knife and fork each, clean and gleaming silver, a spoon for dessert and a napkin in case of spillages. Normally, the scene would be completed with a jug of water at the centre of the table and some clean glasses, but this is a practice that I have been forced to abandon due to the decline in water quality. I never liked the way the green tinge within the jug shimmered on the white tablecloth.
Once finished, I sit at the end of the table in between the two laid places. Had Master and Lily still lived, I would never have dared do such a thing. Lily was prone to inviting to me to the table, but I always declined. My place was stood to attention by the wall next to the window, waiting to be needed.
Now, however, I suppose it is alright for me to sit. This is where I often indulge in a rather unfortunate habit that I have acquired over the past few decades. After cleaning, I have taken to sitting in this chair, closing my eyes, and replaying moments recorded in my archives. I know that I shouldn’t do this. It disconnects me from reality and has the potential to make me unaware of any attempt to summon me. But somehow I cannot help it. It has become part of the routine.
I fold my hands in my lap and close my eyes, sifting through memories. Master walking through the door, dripping rain onto the carpet. Lily spitting out a piece of carrot. Master tripping over the cat. Menial things that I’ve seen countless times. Lily scrunching up her nose as she does her homework. Lily rolling up a trouser leg to show me her latest scab. Lily smiling as I read her a bedtime story, insisting that she wasn’t too old for them yet.
The most replayed memories tend to be ones of Lily. Of course, I held my Master in very high regard, and being in his service was truly a great honour. But there’s something about watching Lily. Memories of her contain so much movement, as if the very air refused to remain still in her presence. Sometimes, when I stop the recording and return to the present, I find that my arm is outstretched, as if I was trying to reach back into the memory footage.
Enough. I shake my head and open my eyes, returning to the present. I’m wasting time, as per usual.
I’m officially brought out of my reverie by three sharp raps on the front door. Immediately, I am upright. It’s not often that people come to me like this, and something about it jolts me slightly.
I open the door to find Edmund stood on the front doorstep, shifting uncomfortably. He looks unreasonably troubled for a simple cleanup.
“Eiko,” he says by way of greeting. Somehow, my name still sounds strange in his mouth. “We’ve found him. He’s in a bad way. There are pieces all over the beach.”
“I see,” I say simply.
“We need as many hands as we can to scour round and make sure we don’t miss any of the little finicky bits. He’s really done a number to himself.”
“Very well. I shall gather my supplies,” I say. Edmund simply nods and gestures for me to go about my business, turning to head back to the coast. He doesn’t appear to be willing to wait for me.
It frustrates me that I’m typically no use on scouting missions. I do not know parts that are not my own, and my line of work has not lead to my requiring any replacements or major fixes, so I cannot even say that I am all too familiar with my own composition. I was not built for the hard labour undertaken by models such as Edmund, so my only real use is loading things onto the carts and then to walk beside them to ensure nothing falls off. I suppose we are a small community, and those who go out scavenging need all the help they can get, especially now that so many of us are making themselves redundant. It’s especially nonsensical when those who can still function the way they were intended choose to jump. They are quite literally just throwing themselves away.
If falling is an art, Marcus has perfected it. All four limbs have scattered amongst the rocks, and even his torso is in pieces. Had I been built with pain receptors, I might have had to tread carefully around the loose wiring that still sparks occasionally, as if angry at their own inability to cease functioning. Death, after all, was a human experience.
As I scour the coastline, I find three child-likes on the beach, playing with Marcus’ arms. One of them appears to be brandishing the amputated limb in imitation of a weapon, shouting some incoherent threat to his comrades. The other two laugh and crow with delight, the expressions on their faces resembling something like fear. I should probably stop them. If we want to fix Marcus, we can’t afford to lose any parts, and we certainly don’t want to be fishing another child-like out of the water.
I find his head bobbing in the waves a little further down the shore and have to fish it out carefully. His expression is placid, no sign of any fear or regret that he may have had on the way down. I don’t suppose models of his kind would have been programmed with such emotions, and I certainly don’t think any of us would have been built with a reaction sequence for these circumstances. In the old world, back when there were things that moved because they were alive, not because they were programmed, choosing to self-destruct would have been treated like a serious malfunction.
“Eiko! Eiko!” It’s one of the child-likes, the male holding Marcus’ arm. He runs towards me. “Look, look, we’ve got new toys!”
“That isn’t a toy,” I say. “That’s Marcus’ arm.”
“But he isn’t using it right now, is he? So we can borrow it for a bit,” the boy’s plastic smile broadens and he uses the arm to gesture to the other two child-likes, who are approaching us from behind him. There’s another boy that may as well have been a clone of the first (perhaps sold in one of those exclusive “twins” packages) and a smaller girl that I can’t help but notice looks rather like Lily. They are holding each other’s hands as they run towards us, grinning. I never bothered to learn the names their humans gave them. I have to admit that I have always been somewhat repelled by the child-likes, ironic though it may be considering the role my model typically fulfilled, but they never seem to have any problem with approaching me.
“I’m sorry, but I need to take Marcus’ arm. We need to fix him,” I say, placing my hand on the boy’s shoulder. This is a gesture that Master used with Lily when he was trying to communicate something difficult with her, and I have found that replicating it has the ability to increase the recipient’s comprehensive faculties. The boy looks appropriately crestfallen, but doesn’t attempt to protest any more.
Somewhere in the distance, there’s a squeaking and a rattling, the sound of wheels on the rocks. I turn to see Edmund finally approaching with a cart full of scrap metal, some discernible as limbs and body parts, the rest mangled beyond recognition. By the looks of things he’s already collected the majority of Marcus’ parts. They wink at us in the sun.
The child-likes scramble to get behind me, grabbing ahold of my skirt as if it will provide some form of protection. The boy hides Marcus’ arm behind his back. It’s almost funny, how they appear instinctually scared of Edmund, the way real children might have been. I suppose a model like Edmund’s has the potential to look intimidating in contrast to the small frames of the child-likes. He’s even larger than many of the other models stationed at the village.
He approaches me in his usual, business-like manner, barely acknowledging the presence of the cowering child-likes.
“That his head then?” He says brusquely, nodding at the part in my arms, still dripping.
“Yes,” I say, and hand it over. Edmund looks into Marcus’s eyes, now dim and unmoving, and shakes his head.
“Bastard,” he says. “He’s really done a number on himself, hasn’t he? We’ll probably have to go out foraging for scrap again in order to sort out this mess.”
“Yes,” I say again in agreement. Edmund looks up at me and frowns.
“So, uh, you feeling alright? Everything still running smoothly for you?” He asks. What an odd question. It’s Marcus that’s in pieces, not me.
“Yes. I am fine. No change has occurred.”
“Right. Well. That’s good.” Edmund scratches the back of his head. It’s not often that he acts awkwardly like this, though I suppose I should be used to this sort of reception by now.
“It’s just that some of the other folks tend to get pretty shaken up by this stuff. Don’t like seeing people trying to off themselves like this. Does something funny to their neuro-wiring. Though I guess older models like you don’t need to worry about that sort of stuff,” Edmund explains. ‘I reckon I’ll try and get a sheet or something to cover these parts so that folks don’t see them. Gotta keep ‘em hidden before they get to the workshop and we can get Marcus looking like a man again.”
“Hidden? Hidden?” One of the child-likes pipes up from behind me.
“Hide and seek! Let’s play hide and seek, Eiko!” The girl says, though she remains clinging to my skirt.
Edmund appears to notice them for the first time. He grunts and grabs Marcus’ arm out of the first boy’s hands, moving with such a force that the child-like falls to the ground and begins wailing in protest.
“Bloody, blasted things. Wish they’d do us a favour and send themselves flying for once.”
“Fly! Fly!” The girl cries, jumping up and down and waving her arms about. Edmund looks at her with an expression that I do not recognise. It’s never occurred to me before how odd it must be for him to interact with the child-likes. Of course, they can never really die, which also means that perhaps they can never really be saved by models like him.
“Get them out of here!” He says, loading the last few parts on to the cart.
“Where would you like me to take them?” I ask.
“I dunno, somewhere, anywhere but here. Away from the damn water would be a start.” He waves at me in a way that suggests dismissal.
“Are you sure you require no assistance with the cart?” I ask.
“No, Eiko, go,” he says. “Just…go.” I can’t help but notice that he’s looking everywhere except my face.
I leave the child-likes in the plaza, where they sit mesmerised by the fountain, watching it with intensity as if it’s something they don’t see every day. There’s something about water to them – they are fascinated by it even though they aren’t built to function in it. Perhaps it’s a forbidden fruit sort of thing, but I never really thought it made much sense to include such a tendency in their programming. After all, they were most commonly purchased to fill the gaps left behind by real children who’d passed too soon. Sometimes, parents even commissioned child-likes to be made as exact physical recreations of their own biological child. I wonder what it would be like to have one made of Lily, a child that could never get hurt or lost or sick. It wouldn’t be the same though. My job was to look after Lily, to pretend to love her. Child-likes don’t really need love, pretend or otherwise. There’s nothing I can do for them, nor they for me, so I’d generally prefer we didn’t cross paths.
Sometimes I wonder if the child-likes ever really understand what happened to the world and why we live the way we do now. Many of us have advocated to have them shut down over the years, but I always protest this notion during our feeble attempts at democracy. The others always claim that I’m biased because of my primary function being child-care, and perhaps they’re right. There’s no doubt that the child-likes have a partiality for nuisance. There’s always at least one of them still playing outside once the rain comes, which causes breakdowns and short-circuits that are becoming increasingly difficult to fix. Just recently, one of the male models jumped in a puddle, resulting in the skin on the lower half of his body peeling away from his metal skeletal structures. I still don’t think they’ve managed to get his legs working again.
I’m wandering, both mentally and physically. I’ve barely noticed that I’ve passed the house and continued along the cliffside. I suppose I’ve been “walking on autopilot“, as the humans would say (ironic, given that I was never built with an autopilot function), attempting to fulfill some subconscious need to finally finish my morning walk in peace. Well, that is, if I had a subconscious.
I stop somewhere along the coastline and gaze out at the sea. It feels like you’re at the edge of the world here. Our village is a port that’s nestled in one of the very bottom corners of the country, in a place the humans once named “Cornwall”. Out of all the places I’ve worked after being made, this one was my favourite because of how large it made the world seem. Sometimes whilst on walks with Lily, I would look out over the horizon, once an endless stretch of blue, and take in the vast emptiness of it all. Emptiness. Lily told me once that she found the emptiness comforting because it reminded her that none of the things she might be worried about ever really mattered in the grand scheme of things. I never quite understood what she meant by this, but I was inclined to agree.
I curl my toes around the cliff-edge, trying to imagine what the wind feels like on my skin. According to the old calendar, time is currently settled somewhere in mid-June, once a summer month. Perhaps there is a cool breeze, something that people would be eager to breathe in once they left the shaded confines of the house. Though if one were to go by the unrest of the sea, it might be that the wind is a little rougher, bitter and cheek-pinching. I settle on the former as more desirable, though really this is a fruitless exercise that I should stop engaging in. There’s no way to tell if there’s any wind at all.
I wonder how Marcus felt before he jumped. I wonder what neural-pathways he followed that led him to the conclusion that he should break himself, as the others had. I replay the memory recording of his fall and watch his face. It’s placid, calm. Empty.
I step a little further forward. I raise my arms slightly. And I don’t jump, because I see something.
It begins with a rustling, almost imperceptible above the steady crashes of the waves. Then, a shadow, then a sound.
The human phrase “perhaps I’m seeing things” comes to mind. It cannot apply here, though. Our vision does not disclose lies. I definitely saw something move.
I step back from the cliff-edge and look up to the sky. There, a blot on the umber canvas, untouched and unchanged for all this time, I see the distinctive shape of wings.
It can’t be. It’s not possible. They all died after the disaster, when earth breathed its last and took all life with it.
But there it is. A bird, small, brown, perhaps a thrush or a sparrow. It’s peering down at me inquisitively as it glides, almost as if it is just as mesmerised by me as I am by it. I hardly dare move as it pauses, considers for a moment, and lands on the ground beside me. Its head is cocked to the side, twitching occasionally in different directions, a movement that almost feels machine-like. There was a time when humans would construct mechanical animals as companions, but this was a phase that didn’t last long. It seems the real thing never really went out of fashion. Certainly, I don’t recall any models of this particular species being made. All the information I have stored about the world is being contradicted, but there can’t be any other explanation for it. Impossibly, unmistakably, I am looking at something that is alive.
The bird opens its beak and chirps at me, producing a sound that I haven’t heard in almost half a century. I don’t know what to do. I obviously cannot attempt to communicate back, that would be ridiculous, but there are so many questions running through my wiring. Where did it come from? Are there more? If so, how long have there been things living that we don’t know about? Are there…others?
Suddenly, the bird decides it’s had enough of me and spreads its wings.
“Wait!” I cry out helplessly, reaching my hand out towards the little creature. This does nothing but hasten its retreat and before I know it, the first sign of life I’ve seen on this planet in nearly fifty years has gone.