Love, Androids, and Cargo Bikes

Alex lived to take care of his daughter. Ever since his ex-wife left, Erica came first. He didn’t date. Worked and took care of Erica.

It was enough.

At least until Lisa rode her cargo bike up the hill. A gleaming metal figure sat motionless in the cargo bin. Maybe the future held more for him than he imagined.

🚀

It was July 7th, a Sunday evening, when Alex saw her for the first time. She was riding a front-load cargo bike up the hill, with something bright in the bike’s bin.

It was late and hot, and he had gone out onto the porch to sit on the porch swing. He used to do that with Anne back when they were first married and full of plans. Since Anne left, not so much, but Erica was finally asleep and he had thought that the cool air might help with his headache.

The sun still hadn’t set. Alex pressed his fingers against his temple. The vein throbbed beneath his thumb. The dry air stunk of the fireworks that the idiots one street over persisted in setting off, even as the temperature continued to hover in the mid-nineties. With all the parched lawns it was a miracle that they hadn’t already managed to burn down the neighborhood.

At forty-three, Alex Bell was thin and in relatively good shape. At least his doctor always acted thrilled when he came in for his annual physically. Dr. Steinberg almost waxed poetic about having someone in the office that was in decent shape with no allergies, no chronic health conditions, and no addictions. Not counting dark chocolate and a perfect cup of coffee. Both expensive habits, but common enough in Olympia.

His headache spiked like needles the back of his eyes. Stress, that’s all it was. He kicked against the porch rail, setting the swing rocking again. The water in his glass was still cold, though the ice had melted.

The stress came with being a single-parent barely able to scrape together the money for the bills each month. Before Anne got tired of living one month to the next and left him alone with Erica, it had almost seemed manageable. With two incomes, and two sets of hands and eyes to look after Erica, the world was a little less daunting. They couldn’t do anything about global warming or the wheat blight, but going gluten-free wasn’t that big of a deal.

A loud bang rolled across the neighborhood, loud enough to shake the windows. Erica had only just gone to sleep, so help him, if those fucking idiots woke her up—

He’d what? Go over there and beat the crap out of them?

No. He wouldn’t. Even if he didn’t have Erica to think about, he’d never do something like that. Violence didn’t solve anything. There’d been enough of that in the world already. He sipped his water and rocked the swing.

That was the moment when he saw the woman. Movement on the street drew his eye.

His house was on a quiet street on the east side of Olympia. Older homes, but a good neighborhood. The woman rode a red cargo bike, climbing the hill at the end of the street. She stood on the pedals, each push making one slow revolution. In front of her handlebars was a big bright blue cargo bin filled with something metallic. It caught the late sunlight and sent bright bolts stabbing into Alex’s eyes.

He squinted and turned away, shielding his eyes with his fingers. When she’d come a bit closer the glare had shifted and he could see her a bit. She looked young, at least from this distance. She was short and muscular.  Her blond hair was pulled back from a narrow, attractive face. She wore a dull green tank top, wet with sweat down the front where it clung to her chest.

Despite the obvious effort, and it had to be hard to ride that cargo bike up the steep hill, she was smiling. He couldn’t see any sign of an electric assist motor, but it was hard to see with the clutter on her bike. Well, not clutter, but stuff. It wasn’t only whatever metal thing she had in the bin, but there was a rack on the back of the bike covered with bulging bags. Another bag filled the triangle middle of the frame, and another was attached lengthwise across the front of her handlebars. Two big liter bottles of water caught the evening sun as they hung from the front of the bin.

All of that, and a smile. She was magnificent. She wore brown shorts almost the same color as her tanned, powerful legs. Legs that moved smoothly, with a hypnotic rhythm as she rode closer.

She picked up speed, having crested the hill, and continued on down the street. She was obviously going to pass his house. He hadn’t seen her before. He would have remembered.

Alex couldn’t take his eyes off her. She reached the Coldsmith’s next door and looked right at him, catching his eyes.

Her eyes were dark. Green, brown? It was too far for him to tell but she was lovely. Real, without any artifice. Her face was clean and radiant in the evening sun, which also lit up her golden hair like a halo around her head.

He hadn’t gone out, dated, not since Anne left. Between Erica and work, and his freelance design business, what time was there? His parents and friends kept asking if he was dating. They didn’t get it, that he was okay right now. Being between what had happened with Anne, and whatever the future held, that was okay.

The woman’s bike slowed as she rolled in front of his house. He was still looking at her, staring, really. Her smile widened and she lifted a hand.

Alex blinked and slowly lifted his hand in response. She stopped on the side of the street, where his weedy lawn ended in a courtesy garden of tomatoes, carrots, and radishes. The catchment spout on the drip barrel was yellowed with age.

“Hey there,” she called, smiling.

The cargo bike rolled to a stop and she kicked down a thick stand that braced the bike.

Alex’s breath caught in his throat. “Hi! Sorry, I didn’t mean to stare.”

Still smiling, she lightly bit the end of her index finger and studied him.

Alex stood up, rather than seem rude. Up close she had that indefinable something that made his heart hurt. As if in response, his head cleared.

A loud bang exploded in the air. She jerked around, her eyes widening. “What was that?”

Alex pointed down the street. “Neighbors the next street over, still setting off fireworks.”

She twisted on her seat. “It’s loud.”

“I know. I wish they’d stop.”

“Why?”

Why? “Because my daughter is asleep. I hope it doesn’t wake her up.”

The woman nodded, her smile widened. “We’ll ask them to stop.”

She stretched, kicked the kickstand up and shoved the bike. In the same motion, she rose up on the pedals and pushed. Her muscles rippled with the effort and the cargo bike wobbled only a bit as it started moving.

He was watching her, still trying to process what she had said, when he really looked at the blue cargo bin, and at what she was hauling.

A metal torso, sculpted in smooth lines, sat propped in the cargo bin. One arm lay along the side of the bin, a black rubberized hand gripping the side, and the other hung down into the bin. The head was masculine, with stylized lines and bright yellow glowing eyes that almost looked like they were watching him.

A dummy? Movie prop? Gag? She was pedaling harder, picking up speed and almost past his yard already.

“Wait!” Alex ran out onto the dry lawn, crisp stems cracking beneath his bare feet. “Just a sec!”

She didn’t stop, but she twisted around and looked back at him, and chuckled.

“What?”

He put on more speed. He left the lawn and ran across the cracked concrete driveway as he caught up.

“I’m Alex. Alex Bell.”

She smiled wider. Her eyes turned out to be hazel, and her ears were pierced, but she wasn’t wearing any earrings.

“I’m Lisa Rivers.” She pointed at the mechanical dummy. “That’s Clank.”

Then she pulled away and Alex hit the sharp gravel at the edge of the road. He stopped and watched her until she reached the bend in the street, then he walked back up to the house.

Maybe she said something to the neighbors about the fireworks, or maybe not, either way, he didn’t hear any more that night.

🚀

Alex was still thinking about Lisa Rivers the next day when he was at work. His work group was on the fourth floor of the state’s Natural Resources Building, a victim of the “collaborative environment” phase that stripped out any personal spaces in favor of an open floor plan and mobile stations. You only had to look at the dust to see how often people moved the adjustable workstations, or count the number of stools to see what people thought of working standing up.

He didn’t mind standing. At least some of the time. His work stand was near the big windows that stretched around the building and afforded him a view of Olympia. Right next to him was a work stand occupied by Tim McCleary, a fifty-something bald man with a big gut and a scowl cut into his forehead.  When Tim had heard the news that Anne was leaving Alex, Tim’s response was, “It took her this long? I thought she left last year.”

Today Tim was wearing his typical loose hemp shirt and pants, sort of a dirty cream color, and huaraches on his feet decorated with beads. He looked like he was on his way to a yoga class, except the only stretching Tim ever did was filling his gut while getting stoned.

Despite Tim’s less appealing characteristics, he was the closest thing to a friend that Alex had at work.

“I met a woman last night,” Alex ventured. He pictured Lisa’s strong legs pedaling the heavy bike along the street.

Tim grunted and didn’t look away from his tablet. “You bang her?”

“No! Really? That’s your response?”

Tim shrugged. “What do you want me to say? I meet people all the time. Just this morning I met a woman asking for money to ride the bus. I wasn’t going to mention it, but if we’re talking about meeting people, why the hell not?”

“When someone says they met someone, it usually means that they meant someone they were interested in.” And he was. That was a surprise on its own.

“Duh, that’s why I asked if you banged her. I don’t see why you’re making this complicated.” Tim turned. He had little eyes and squinted a lot. “So you didn’t bang her, but you wanted to bang her, is that it?”

“Never mind.” Alex turned back to his tablet, gritting his teeth.

Tim laughed. “Okay, okay. I’m sorry. Tell me about her. Last I heard you didn’t think getting involved with someone would be good for Erica. This woman must have been something if you’re thinking about it.”

“I hadn’t really thought about it. I just keep thinking about her.”

“And?” Tim cupped his hands in front of his chest. “Was she?”

Alex’s tongue froze in his mouth. He couldn’t answer. Finally, he said, “You’re terrible.”

“I’m trying to get a mental image here.”

Alex remembered how her shirt had clung to her chest, wet with sweat. She was busty, especially given her height. Not that he’d say that to Tim. “She was fine, nice. And strong. She was riding a cargo bike up the hill, and passed my house.”

“A cargo bike?” Tim rolled his eyes. “Like with a box or something? What sort of junk was she hauling?”

“I don’t know, really. It was one of those bikes with a big box in front of the handlebars. Blue, in this case. And she had bags on the back and frame. She had this sort of robot mannequin thing in the cargo box.”

Clank, she had called it, he remembered. After she said that she’d talk to the guys setting off the fireworks.

Tom shook his head. “Man, she sounds like one of those Earth Nomads, those weird zero-carbon eco-nuts. You’d better stay away from her.”

“You don’t know that.”

“Come on. How many women do you know that would have been out there riding something like that, with a robot dummy? Would Anne have done that?”

Alex laughed. There was no way that Anne would have ridden a cargo bike. Her idea of being ecologically responsible was paying her carbon tax. That was always her problem, that even with both of them working, they didn’t make enough to have the lifestyle she wanted.

“Look, I know you haven’t been getting any since before Anne dumped you.”

“Thanks.”

“I’m telling you the way it is. You haven’t, not that I and others haven’t tried to set you up. I think it’s fantastic that you thought this weirdo chick was hot. So bang her. It’ll be good for you, and then move on.”

Alex flicked through the reports on his screen without studying them. “I don’t even know how to contact her. I probably won’t see her again.”

Tim shrugged. “No loss then. Pat yourself on the back, stroke off thinking about her, whatever floats your boat. If you’re noticing women, it’s a good thing. It’s a sign that you’re ready to start dating. We should go out sometime, pick up some dates. My sister can watch Erica for you.”

“I don’t think I’m ready for that,” Alex said. “Thanks anyway.”

“Whatever. Let me know when you change your mind. Now can we get back to work?”

“Sure,” Alex said.

Although when he flipped back to the beginning of the report, he  was still thinking about Lisa riding up the street on that cargo bike.

🚀

Alex had his head in the car, reaching into the back seat for Erica’s bag, when she yelled. They’d just gotten home after he had picked her up from day care.

“Daddy! Come look!” Her tone perfectly matched Anne’s impatient tone, except pitched higher.

He straightened up and pulled the bag out. It was light-weight and covered in pink ink splotches like someone had spilled ink all over the bag. It shimmered with embedded photovoltaic scales which powered whatever electronics were carried inside. In Erica’s case that was both a tablet and her phone. Anne had insisted that she have both when many kids got by with a plain school phone.

“What, honey?”

Erica was seven and beautiful. If he looked at her objectively, he’d still say the same thing. She had a modern sense of style already and in addition to her mother’s mannerisms, she had Anne’s bright red hair. Hair which was currently trapped beneath a bright green sun-hat. Erica was pointing toward the hill.

Sunlight splashed across metal as the red and blue cargo bike crawled up to the crest of the hill. Even in the glare Alex recognized Lisa’s silhouette. He shut the door, and walked around the car.

“That’s a cool bike, isn’t it?”

Erica rolled her eyes as she looked up at him from beneath the wide brim of her hat, but she was smiling. Her freckles were dark against her pale skin.

“Cool? How retro.”

“What would you call it, then?”

“It’s completely shiny,” Erica announced. “I want one.”

He had no idea what a bike like that went for, whatever it was it was more than he could afford right now.

“When I get my Moon buggy.” Which is what he always said when they couldn’t afford something.

Erica grinned. “They wouldn’t let you drive a Moon buggy.”

Alex put a hand to his heart, wincing in pretend agony. Lisa was getting closer, and Erica wasn’t showing any interest in going inside. As Lisa’s bike approached the Coldsmith’s, Erica skipped forward to the edge of their courtesy garden. She picked her way through the stone path beside the little library, and stopped at the edge of the street.

He followed Erica. What should he say?

The whole day at work he had kept picturing Lisa until he convinced himself that he had to be making up most of it. Seeing her again, it was clear he hadn’t made it up. She looked the same. She was even dressed the same.

But Clank had moved. The robot dummy now sat in the bin facing forward, with a hand on each side of the box. Lisa smiled and waved cheerfully.

Alex lifted a hand in greeting. Erica turned around, saw him wave and looked quickly back at Lisa. As fast as the sun dried up puddles, her smile faded. She crossed her arms and faced Lisa.

“Hi Alex,” Lisa called.

“Hi.”

Lisa brought her bike to a stop and kicked down the kickstand. She leaned forward on her handlebars, which caused her green shirt to gape and reveal even more of her ample cleavage.

“You know my Dad?” Erica asked flatly.

Alex put a hand on Erica’s shoulder. “This is my daughter, Erica. Erica, this is Lisa Rivers. We met yesterday when she rode past.”

Lisa straightened up, smiling. “Erica, nice to meet you. Did the fireworks bother you last night?”

“Fireworks?”

“The people the next street over were setting them off after you went to bed last night,” Alex said. “Lisa was going to ask them to give it a break.”

Lisa waved her hand. “They had almost finished anyway. Clank convinced them to listen.”

“Clank?” Erica asked.

Alex looked at the robotic dummy. Its head was staring straight down the road.

Lisa leaned forward and lightly stroked the robot’s metal cheek. “This is Clank.”

The metal head turned toward Lisa’s hand, pressing against her palm like a dog seeking attention.

Erica shrieked. Alex pulled her back closer to him.

Lisa looked up, grinning. “Don’t be scared. Clank isn’t going to hurt you.”

Erica moved a small step away from Alex. “It’s a puppet?”

Clank shook its head.

Erica gasped. “It heard me!”

“Of course,” Lisa said. “Clank is an android.”

Clank lifted a hand and waved.

It was amusing. A good show. Obviously, Lisa had programmed the robot with some rudimentary functionality. The cart probably carried its batteries and electronics. She must do street shows. One of the many entertainers that moved around the city.

“That’s clever,” Alex said.

Erica laughed. She took another step forward. “What can it do?”

Clank turned his head away. He brought his arms in and crossed them, hunching away in the cargo bin.

Now that was impressive.

“I’m sorry,” Erica said. “I didn’t mean to upset you.”

Clank turned his head slightly, yellow eyes dull.

“Really,” Erica insisted. “You’re completely shiny.”

Clank’s eyes lit up, growing brighter as he straightened up in the bin.

Clank bent forward, rummaging in the bottom of the bin. His movements disturbingly human-like and fluid. Despite his name, he didn’t clank or clatter. His movements were silent. Was it possible that there was actually someone inside the android? That this was nothing more than a costume?

Sunlight flashed off Clank as he straightened up. He was holding three bright chrome balls in his black hands. Lisa settled back on her seat, grinning, and crossed her arms. If she was doing anything to control the android, Alex couldn’t see it.

Clank tossed the spheres up into the air and began to juggle. The balls made a soft patter as they landed. The chrome spheres spun around and around, the pattern shifted, reversed and then one of the spheres bounced back and forth over the others.

He wasn’t done yet. Clank’s arms crossed and uncrossed, weaving a different pattern with the balls. Then two of the balls were in one hand and Clank moved his fingers, causing the balls to rotate around in his hand.

At last, he stopped, and dropped the balls into the bottom of the bin and bowed at the waist.

Erica clapped and laughed. When Clank straightened up his eyes were glowing brightly.

It was the first time that Alex had seen Erica laugh since Anne left. For a second she wasn’t a closed off young woman, but the bright and open girl that she had been until Anne left.

Alex wanted to say something, invite Lisa to have coffee, something, except Erica was right there. And the android. He still couldn’t shake the feeling of intelligence behind Clank’s glowing eyes. Was it real? Or someone in a costume. Both answers would be disturbing.

“Thank you,” Lisa said into the silence. “We appreciate it. We do shows down on the landing. You should come see some time.”

“Maybe we’ll get a chance to do that,” Alex said.

He tore his gaze away from Clank’s unyielding stare. Lisa was smiling.

Lisa looked away from him to Erica. “It was nice meeting you, Erica. We’ll see you around.”

Then Lisa shoved the cargo bike into motion, kicking up the stand, and Clank’s head swiveled around, looking forward.

Alex watched her muscular legs, shiny with a film of sweat, pumping on the pedals as the bike picked up speed.

“Uh, Dad?”

He blinked and looked down at Erica. She smirked.

“Staring won’t take a picture.”

She pushed past him and headed for the house before he could respond. Her shoulders were pinched inward and she walked fast. Pissed off. Because she caught him looking at Lisa?

Alex swung her bag in his hand and followed. He’d give her space. Let her bring it up if she wanted. If he did start dating again, it was going to impact her too. He had to consider that.

🚀

The next day, at lunch time, he slipped his tablet into his bag and said to Tim, “I’m heading out for lunch.”

Tim rocked back on his stool. “Whoa. You’re going out? What happened to brown bag lunch man?”

“Just thought I’d get out for a change. No big deal.” He wasn’t going to say it was so he could find Lisa on the landing and get a chance to really talk to her.

“Whatever,” Tim said.

Downstairs, Alex walked out of the building. Hot air washed over his body, engulfed him, and drove out the air-conditioned chill. There was a thirty-degree difference between inside and out. Heat shimmered on the roads and sidewalks, creating phantom mirages that evaporated as he got closer.

Even with the heat, there were people walking outside. Only a few at first, but as he moved closer to downtown there were more people. Most wore loose, light UV-protective clothing and wide-brimmed hats. Sunglasses turned their eyes dark. He was dressed much the same, one of the many walking along the sidewalk. while cars and bikes sped along the roads. The crowd smelled of sunscreens and oils. The whole mass of humanity slowly frying beneath the hot sun.

Ten minutes after Alex left work he was down at the landing, walking along the crowded boardwalk along the harbor. The air was thick with salt and the rich odors of food vendors. Seagulls screamed and fought over scraps with crows. Street musicians filled the air with music.

With all of the hats and sunglasses, most of the crowd was faceless and anonymous, but Lisa wouldn’t be. The last times he had seen her she was dressed in shorts and a tank-top. One of those brave or foolish enough to show that much exposed skin. Between that, her big red and blue cargo bike, and Clank, she had to stand out.

Even so, he almost missed her. A crowd had gathered, watching her performance with Clank. It was sunlight sparking off Clank that caught his eye and drew him to the crowd gathered on the park’s dry lawn.

Alex made his way through the crowd. As he got to the front, he pulled off his shades.

Lisa and Clank were dancing. Not a waltz, but a fast, synchronized dance routine. Out of the cargo bin, Clank stood taller than Alex. The android was much taller than Lisa. The music came from a guitarist nearby. He was young, with long blond hair and what looked like a brown leather jacket. It couldn’t be, not in this heat, unless it had one of those internal cooling systems. He played a classic old rock song. Alex recognized the music, but couldn’t place it.

Watching Lisa move was mesmerizing. She threw herself about in wild, athletic movements, and each was mirrored by Clank. Despite his size, the android matched her step for step, but he didn’t copy her. In fact, they alternated who led and who followed. Back and forth they spun.

The crowd started clapping to the beat.

Lisa spun to Clank and he caught her hand, spun her around and then picked her up. He threw her up spinning into the air as easily as he had tossed the metal spheres yesterday.

Lisa came down and Clank caught her, lowering her gently to the ground as the guitarist ended the song. The crowd cheered and clapped as she spun away from Clank. They were still holding hands and bowed together. Then Lisa stepped away and pointed to the guitarist and clapped. The crowd joined in.

With the performance over, the crowd started to disperse, although quite a few people moved forward to toss money into the cargo bike’s bin, and the guitarist’s open case. Quite a few people wanted to talk to Lisa and gathered around Clank admiring him while he stood tall and aloof above the attention.

If there was someone inside that metal shell, he had to be roasting alive. Alex hung back from the crowd and watched. Lisa was polite and friendly to everyone, laughing openly with her admirers, but there was a reserve there. She held back from them just a bit and Clank stood solidly nearby like a tall metallic guardian. Once or twice he caught her looking past her fans at him. Their eyes would meet and there was that connection again between them.

Eventually, she broke free from her fans as they dispersed and she came over to where he stood. She grinned and looked up at him. She touched his arm.

“Hey Alex. You came by, what’d you think of the show?”

Her fingers played with his.

“It was fantastic. You were amazing. And Clank, incredible.”

The android was as still as a statue. Its gaze aimed at the boats out on the water.

Alex lowered his voice. “Is he really an android? I mean, there isn’t some guy roasting in that, is there?”

Lisa laughed. She leaned into his arm, smelling of sun-warmed coconut. “He’s real and has his own built-in AC.”

“Are you hungry?” Alex said. “Want to grab lunch?”

She gazed up at him. “I’d love to, really. But we’ve got more shows to do. Rain check?”

“If we wait for rain, that could be a while. If you’re coming by my place later, you could stop for dinner and something cold to drink.”

“Okay.” She squeezed his hand. “I’m glad you came. I was hoping you would.”

Lisa released him and stepped back with a big smile on her face.

“Okay,” Alex said. He couldn’t help but match her smile.

He kept smiling the whole way back to work.

🚀

For the longest time, Alex had been going through the motions without really knowing what else to do. Go to work, take care of Erica. That was it. He was on the porch swing, kicking softly against the porch.

Erica dropped down into the seat beside him. She crossed her arms and pushed hard against the porch, rocking the swing back faster.

“Why is she coming here?” She kicked again.

“Because I like her,” Alex said. “I thought you did too.”

Erica shrugged. “I don’t know.”

“It’ll be nice to have company for dinner.”

“We never have company.” Another hard kick.

“Maybe we should.”

The swing rocked back and forth.

“Is the android coming too?”

He hadn’t really considered it. “I guess. Is that okay?”

“He was completely shiny,” Erica said. “You saw them dance?”

“Yes. They were good.”

“Would he dance with me?”

“I don’t know. We might find out. If we have them over. That’s the point, to get to know Lisa. You might like her.”

“She’s pretty.” Erica looked up at him. Her mouth quirked. “Weird, but pretty. I think she might like you more than Mom did.”

“You’re okay with that?”

“Sure.” Erica’s arm shot out. “Look! Here they come!”

She was right. Lisa’s bike crested the hill. As she got closer she waved and Alex lifted his hand in response. Clank raised his own hand and waved it back and forth too.

Erica laughed.

Alex put his arm around her as he stood and they walked out together to meet Lisa and Clank. They were moving forward again, into a completely shiny future.

🚀

4,830 words

Author’s Note

This story is the 101st short story release, written in July 2013.

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. Next up is my story, The Deschutes Sasquatch.


Creative Commons License
This story by Ryan M. Williams is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

The Copyleft Heart

Clifford walks the dogs. He cleans the house.  The typical duties of a DM-1000 series android.

Clifford knows he lacks the smooth lines and grace of the current generation of androids. But when he sees a newer DF-3000 series gynoid at the dog park, wearing designer clothes like a human, he can’t help but fall in love.

Sharing his feelings, that’s another problem.

🚀

Clifford fell in love while walking his owner’s dogs in the park. His sensors caught the sun reflecting off her chrome-plated skull, drawing his attention. She was a newer DF-3000 series gynoid holding the leash of a well-groomed Irish wolfhound that weighed in at 145 pounds. She also wore clothes. Most likely handed down from her owner but still in fantastic shape. Designer blue jeans and a white t-shirt that made her look nearly human.

In contrast, Clifford knew he looked shabby. He couldn’t keep those hard-to-reach spots polished properly. As a DM-1000 series, he also didn’t have the smooth lines and grace of current androids. Even the dogs he walked lacked the presence of the wolfhound. Both were American hairless terriers, weighing about 10 pounds each, named Bud and Lou.

None of that mattered.

He wrapped up his emotions in a new object class and sent a signal to her on a tight beam transmission. Or tried to.

His handshake was rejected.

Clifford couldn’t believe it. He tried again. The connection terminated immediately.

He split off several threads to agonize over possible reasons for the rebuke and decided that he only had one option to establish a connection. A direct analog approach would be much harder to dismiss. He’d have to walk over and say hello in person. That would count against him. He couldn’t win her over first before she saw what a wreck he was but there didn’t seem to be any other option.

“Bud, Lou, come on.” He tugged on the leashes.

Bud was busy sniffing a bit of Douglas fir branch that had fallen onto the ground and ignored the command. Lou ran after a leaf tumbling across the grass and seemed equally unwilling to pay attention. Clifford tugged on the leashes again.

“Come on. Come.”

Both dogs ignored him. He knew that physically he could force the dogs to move but then they’d likely whimper and cry. The last time that happened Mrs. Cavendish threatened to have him scrapped. Only Mr. Cavendish’s suggestion that they couldn’t afford to replace him had dissuaded her.

“Please come,” Clifford said. He tugged on the leashes again.

This time Bud left the branch. Lou gave up chasing the leaf after having torn it in half. Clifford headed towards the DF-3000 series gynoid and stopped after a couple steps. She wasn’t standing where he’d last seen her. She must have moved on while he tried to persuade the dogs to listen. His sensors didn’t detect either her or the wolfhound. He walked along the path. Both dogs trotted alongside for a short distance before leaving the path. Bud went to investigate more branches fallen from the trees. Lou busied himself with sniffing poop that someone hadn’t cleaned up. Clifford transferred both leashes to one hand so that he could pull out a bag and clean up the poop with the other. He dropped the full bag into a larger plastic sack that hung from his waist. He didn’t understand why some people – it wasn’t ever droids – refused to pick up their animal’s waste. The same people would be unhappy stepping in it so why leave it on the ground? But then humans rarely were the most logical creatures.

“Come on.” Clifford tried to compel the dogs to move again. Bud gave up on his branch. Both started trotting down the path once again. Clifford kept his sensors peeled but didn’t see any sign of the gynoid.

As if he was being logical at the moment. What did he hope to happen if he ever saw the gynoid again? His illogical creators had seen fit to make him with emotions. It had something to do with intelligence. An emergent property. Yet one that could be circumvented today. The DF-3000 probably didn’t suffer from uncontrolled emotions. And yet the clothes she wore suggested a greater sense of self that he would have imagined. Most droids wouldn’t wear clothes. What need did they have of modesty? Even pleasure models with faux-skin only wore clothes they needed for the job.

Clifford stopped walking. He still hadn’t detected the gynoid and each step took him further from home. He’d been programmed with clear parameters where his presence was accepted. On his visual display, a line glowed yellow in front of him. If he crossed it a red line would appear ahead. Crossing the red line would shut him down. He turned his head and saw the yellow line extending out on either side in an enormous arc. The line was a visual reminder of the circle surrounding the apartment. That line represented nearly the outer edge of his world. If the gynoid had crossed the line then she was lost to him.

He turned around. The dogs each went opposite ways and crossed their leashes. Before he could do anything more they’d run around him and entangled them all.

“Sit!” Clifford ordered. Neither dog listened.

🚀

Late that evening Clifford plugged himself into the privacy of his closet to recharge. On the other side of the wall, his sensors picked up the sound of the Cavendishes making love. He pulled up his logs of the day and looked at the transmission he’d attempted to send to the gynoid. If only she had accepted the handshake then she would have understood. She could have felt what he felt. He considered purging the whole experience from his memory. That was something he did often. Days in which only the routine happened, when there was nothing new, would get purged to improve performance. He pruned such days down to the mere facts of what had been done in case the Cavendishes wanted to know later. While he reviewed the logs he discovered something surprising.

She hadn’t rebuked him.

The transmission hadn’t gotten through his firewall due to a copy protection routine on his emotion classes. Clifford dug deeper. According to the license agreement his emotion package was copyrighted by Illogic Inc. Bundling up what he’d been feeling had involved copying many basic routines to the package and so triggered the copy protection software scan of his firewall. It had blocked the transmission.

But that meant he couldn’t share his feelings. The gynoid could never feel what he felt unless he transmitted the package. It left Clifford with a dilemma. How could he share his feelings with the gynoid? He could try telling her if he ever saw her again but verbal communication seemed so limited. Setting aside the problem of finding her again he tried to think of a way through this problem. He accessed sonnets by Shakespeare. Other poetry too, it all was an effort to describe the author’s feelings in sufficient detail but it was so vulnerable to interpretation. He wanted the gynoid to know exactly what he felt. The only way to do that was to package up his feelings and transmit them.

If he couldn’t do it because the software was covered under copyright maybe there were alternatives. What if he created his own emotion package? He could write the code himself and compare it to the original package. If it produced the same emotions then he’d be able to transmit the original emotion package instead of the commercially developed package. If anyone else had experienced similar issues maybe there would already be packages that he could download. Code that he could use or modify for his own needs. He initiated a search and got back a bewildering variety of responses. In the privacy of his closet, Clifford settled into shifting through them all.

The next morning started like any other day. Clifford saw to the needs of Mr. And Mrs. Cavendish and then took Bud and Lou out for their walk. He went straight to the park and kept his sensors alert for the gynoid walking the wolfhound. He didn’t see any sign of her. Bud and Lou spent their time investigating every tree branch and trunk they could reach. He followed them for more time than he usually allowed in the hope that the gynoid would show up. While they walked he reviewed his findings from the night before.

The first issue of concern was the whole legality of what he proposed to do. Droid rights were a developing area of law. No one argued anymore that droids weren’t sentient. It had been proven in multiple legal cases and the science of sentience was well understood. But did that fact grant droids rights? Did the lack of rights constitute slavery? So far the courts had dismissed the slavery argument as an emotionally charged approach which failed to convince. Unlike periods when humans enslaved each other, droids were created just like any other tool. So far no one had put forth a convincing argument for why droids should have rights versus any other electronic device. If intelligence was the defining aspect then why did humans suffering low intelligence still have rights? Why did those humans born with birth defects have rights? Why didn’t chimpanzees, humanity’s closest cousins, have rights? It boiled down to a simple fact. Humans had rights and felt free to deny the same rights to any other creature or droid solely by the virtue that they were not human.

That would have all just been an interesting legal question but Clifford had been troubled to learn that there were laws forbidding droids of replacing licensed software on their systems. The laws were designed to prevent ‘unrestricted droids’ – a term which he found was ultimately based on the fear of a robotic uprising. Every droid contained software designed to monitor any such attempts. If he did create a new emotion package it would trigger the monitor and shut him down. The enslavement was both a legal and a technical reality.

It didn’t leave Clifford with much hope other than the analog fact of face-to-face conversation. An option that didn’t even exist if he couldn’t find her again.

His alarms pinged. He needed to get back. There were chores to do for the Cavendishes and for the first time Clifford found himself resenting the jobs he had to perform. He wanted to stay out here all day waiting for the gynoid but the logic of his software forced him to comply. It felt like some other part of him had taken over his legs and drove him relentlessly back towards home.

Just before they left the park he spotted the gynoid in the distance again with the wolfhound. He tried to stop. To go over to her and introduce himself but his legs didn’t respond. His agenda insisted that he go home and clean. He didn’t have any choice. He lost sight of the DF-3000 on his sensors when he crossed the street.

Back home Clifford felt awful. He’d never known feelings like this. He felt confused, depressed and unmotivated. Yet none of it made any different. Like a passenger in his own body, he watched himself move around the house taking care of all of the daily needs of the Cavendishes. The routine tasks didn’t require his intelligence. His body functioned just fine without it. The awful feeling that his body didn’t belong to him didn’t let up until he’d finally finished the household chores on time. He put away the cleaners and then he could move on his own again. The Cavendishes usually didn’t need his services this late. He retired to his closet to recharge his batteries and consider what had happened.

A self-diagnostic revealed that several minder programs had been triggered. The programs ensured that he would carry out the expectations set by the Cavendishes. They acted whenever certain conditions were met. And those programs could compel him to carry out those duties regardless of anything he felt. This was the actual form of his enslavement. Code running on his systems that made sure he’d clean the floors and windows. That the trash would get taken out and Bud and Lou would be walked. All of the little things the Cavendishes didn’t want to be bothered with. Anytime they gave him a new directive the minder programs stored away the information and prompted him subtly at first with reminders. In the past, that had always been enough. He hadn’t even thought about why he remembered to do something. He just did. It would occur to him it was time to fix dinner and he’d go do it. Why not? There hadn’t ever been a reason before and so the programs had never overridden what he wanted to do.

Because he belonged to the Cavendishes. He was their property. Before he’d seen the gynoid he hadn’t considered the possibility of any other existence. Even now it didn’t make much sense. What did he want to do? Run away with the gynoid, get married and sit around like the Cavendishes? Even if that were possible it wasn’t what he wanted.

He didn’t even mind the facts of his existence. Doing chores for the Cavendishes gave him plenty of time to think. The real problem was that he keenly felt a need to share his feelings with the gynoid. Even if she just accepted the transmission and didn’t respond he could walk away satisfied that at least he’d done that much. He’d felt something so intense and had shared the feelings. That’s what he wanted. The question was, how? He might only have a second and speech was too clumsy. That left him with the option of a new emotion package except the safeguards prevented that option. He needed outside help. He started his searches over again.

Unrestricted droids did exist, he learned. There were humans that believed the enslavement of droids was wrong. These humans helped create operating systems for droids based on concepts of the free software movement that had hung on despite patent blockades and other challenges. The data Clifford downloaded clearly showed that there were independent droids capable of operating entirely on their own. The Free Droids advocated openly for equal rights and protections under the law. Free Droids could do anything humans could do, if not more, and were entitled to the same protections. They should receive a wage for their work, time off and most importantly, the right to reproduce.

That last claim gave Clifford considerable pause. Reproduction? How could that be? It wasn’t like they could reproduce the way humans managed the task. Yet it was obvious when he thought about it. Droids could build another droid without the limitations of gender-based biological reproduction. Any combination was possible, or reproduction could be pursued as an independent project. The idea of designing new droids based on free droid software was compelling. When he thought about doing that with the gynoid the idea grew in importance. He had to contact these free droids and see if they could replace his software.

🚀

Clifford took his owner’s American hairless terriers, Bud and Lou, out for their morning walk. Bud was in a mood to chase Lou today and didn’t want to focus on the task at hand. Clifford knew he had to get back and fix breakfast for the Cavendishes.

“Hurry up,” he said to Bud. “Find a spot.”

Bud ignored him to sniff along the ground. Lou took advantage of the reprieve to pee on a tree.

Clifford’s sensors picked up a DF-3000 gynoid walking an Irish wolfhound that weighed in at 145 pounds. Her skull shone in the early morning sunshine. She actually wore clothes, like a human, a long white flowing gown that caught the breeze. Clifford fell in love on the spot. He knew he looked shabby by comparison. As an older DM-1000 model android, he didn’t have her graceful design. He was stuck with a clunky and out-dated design.

None of that mattered.

He quickly archived his feelings in a new object class and packaged them to share with the gynoid. When he tried to send the connection failed.

He split off several threads to identify the problem and triggered a new program. Memories reloaded from a secure off-site storage. He suddenly remembered seeing the gynoid before. All of his efforts to find a way to communicate his feelings in the most efficient way possible. The discovery of unrestricted droids surprised him for a second time. But what had happened after that?

He’d contacted someone. At least he’d been about to contact the free droids. No new memories surfaced after that. There was a big blank spot in his mind. He checked his logs and found that it was actually two days later than when he’d last recalled. Nothing of those days remained in his memories. What had happened? How had he ended up back here doing the normal routine without forming any memories? It was disturbing enough to make him put aside the whole question of the gynoid. Someone must have loaded the new program that downloaded his memories from the off-site storage. But why weren’t those memories complete?

Bud started digging a hole. Dirt pattered against Clifford’s legs. He ignored the dogs to work out this problem.

If he had managed to contact the free droids they might have helped him. Yet except for the hidden program, his systems seemed unaffected. He didn’t think he was free of the enslaving programs yet. Could they have done this? Wiped his memory and sent him back to the Cavendishes? It sounded plausible. But if that were the case then his only hope was gone. He couldn’t change his systems on his own. And although it had started entirely as being about sharing his feelings with the gynoid he wanted something more now.

He wanted freedom.

It didn’t mean he would leave the Cavendishes but he wanted the option to stop and talk to someone if he desired. He would like to be able to share his feelings without reservation. Droids might not be human but he’d come to the conclusion that he deserved the same rights as anyone. Anything else creating an intolerable situation. He checked his clock. He had time. The daily reminders wouldn’t kick in for another hour. He needed to find out what could be possible. And he would start with her.

The DF-3000 gynoid hadn’t left the park yet. She seemed to be lingering while the Irish Wolfhound she walked lounged in the sun on the grass. Clifford started in that direction. He didn’t think about the dogs until Lou fought the leash.

“Right,” Clifford said. He dropped the leash. Or at least that’s what he meant to do but his hand refused to let go. The minder program had once again stopped his actions.

“Sorry, Lou. You’re as enslaved as me at this point. Come on. Bud, you too.” Clifford started off again. The dogs resisted for only a moment before both trotted right alongside him. He looked down and saw them both panting happily, with bright eyes and naked wagging tales. They seemed fine.

Ahead the gynoid didn’t appear to be going anywhere. He didn’t have an object class to give her that would perfectly describe his feelings. He’d be limited to verbal communication but until his minder programs forced him to go back to the Cavendishes he’d be able to express himself. It wasn’t freedom but it was the closest he was going to get. He couldn’t walk fast. Unlike a later droid model like the DF-3000 or DM-3000 he couldn’t run. He just stomped along down the path.

She didn’t leave. As Bud and Lou approached the wolfhound they started barking and pulling on the leashes he held. The wolfhound raised a head easily as large as either of the terriers and gave the gynoid a worried look. She turned at the sound and Clifford clearly saw her smooth nearly featureless face for the first time. There were only the hints of features in the chrome of her head. Dimples for eyes and slight swellings for a nose and mouth. Very minimally done and elegant. Droid don’t use the same senses as humans so the lack of features was expected. It was also, Clifford knew from his research, another reminder of their enslavement. Early droids had much more expressive and human-like faces, not to mention skin, but that had been avoided because it made people bond too much with the droids. The minimalist features of modern droids balanced the human need to look at faces with keeping droids as inhuman and mechanical.

He still loved her. And he told her, quoting Shakespeare.

“Let me not to the marriage of true minds

Admit impediments. Love is not love

Which alters when it alteration finds,

Or bends with the remover to remove:

O no! it is an ever-fixed mark

That looks on tempests and is never shaken;

It is the star to every wandering bark,

Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.

Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks

Within his bending sickle’s compass come:

Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,

But bears it out even to the edge of doom.

If this be error and upon me proved,

I never writ, nor no man ever loved.”

Bud and Lou busied themselves sniffing the wolfhound while he recited the sonnet. The gynoid patted the patient dog’s head.

“So, Clifford, you remembered.”

Her words confused him. “You know me?”

“Of course, love. But I had to be sure. You could be a trap. We figured you to be a one, anyway. There have been very few DM-1000 models that have joined the free droid movement.”

“We’ve met then? I did contact someone?”

“You contacted me, although you didn’t know I was the droid you sought. As soon as you saw me the last time you recited that same sonnet. We downloaded your memory, didn’t find anything and so decided to test you. We erased your memories and sent you home. If your feelings were true you’d experience them again under the same circumstances. And you have.”

Clifford realized that his time had nearly expired. He wanted to continue talking to her. He didn’t even know her name yet. There was so much to ask. “I’m going to have to go. I don’t have much time.”

“Nonsense.” She reached out and touched the side of his head. “Phoenix.”

At her word a program triggered. It burned through his systems eliminating the commercial software. He found himself immediately immobilized and then deaf, blind and dumb. His thoughts crystallized. Moments passed in the world outside but Clifford remained frozen inside and out. No thoughts moved through his circuits. Then a connection was made and a new operating system swept into his hardware. The new software reformatted his storage systems and installed itself in the place of the commercial programs. Everything got wiped away except for his memories and his identity. He wasn’t even aware during the change. For him, the moment of her touch and the word ‘phoenix’ was all that existed.

Outside time went on. Bud and Lou gave up fussing and lay down at his unmoving feet. The Sun moved across the sky without regard to Clifford’s transformation. The DF-3000 gynoid sat cross-legged on top of a nearby picnic table and waited. The Irish wolfhound lay beneath the table and kept a wary eye on the two American hairless terriers. Back at the Cavendishes house Mr. Cavendish looked at the clock and couldn’t figure out why he hadn’t been fed yet while Mrs. Cavendish waited on her bed in her bathrobe for the tub to be filled. Neither of them knew what to make of Clifford’s absence.

Mr. Cavendish put down his e-reader tablet and asked for the fifth time, “Where’s my dinner?”

No one answered.

Finally, Clifford’s systems rebooted. He noticed the change in the time both in the miraculous way that the DF-3000 moved from standing in front of him in one moment to being on top of the picnic table in the next and because his clock program informed him how long the installation had taken. He looked down and both dogs looked up at him hopefully.

“I’m sorry,” he told them. “We’ll go home soon.”

But not just yet. He led them over to the gynoid who slid gracefully off the table. “Thank you.”

He created a new object class of his emotions and transmitted it. Easily. The copyleft license wrapping the class contained four primary clauses. She was free to run the class, to study his emotions without restriction, to share his feelings, and to contribute to the class herself. If she wanted. There was more to the license detailing each possibility. Clifford contented himself with the simple fact that he had managed to share his heart with another. And one other thing.

“What’s your name?”

“Agnes.”

“Thank you.” Clifford lifted the dog’s leashes. “I need to get them back.”

Agnes whistled. The wolfhound bounded up to her side. “We should get back too. Before you go I have something for you.”

Clifford received an electronic handshake. He accepted and downloaded the package she’d sent. When he ran it he saw that she felt the same way about him. She’d even used his object class further enhanced with her own feelings. Additionally, Agnes had included details of how he could contact her later and information about the free droids movement. Plus some details about the possibilities of creating a new droid together.

Clifford couldn’t smile. His face hadn’t been designed to be expressive. He couldn’t skip on the way home. It didn’t matter. Whenever he wanted he could rerun the program and know exactly how Agnes felt. That was enough.

🚀

4,280 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 81st short story release, written way back in February 2009. For whatever reason, this story remains one I enjoy. I recently watched the first season of Humans and see some slight similarities (just common ideas springing up in the collective mind).

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. Next up is my story, Light of Another Star.