I don't have time to write much of a post so it's fortunate that I have another story for my Advanced Creative Fiction Writing class to post. Like the previous one I posted, this one is also about a character from "Space Girls". It isn't due for a little over a week so this is a rough draft of a rough draft and please take pity on it, but I'm posting it today because I'm busy with General Conference. So here it is. This one turned out a little differently. Jane Padgett is the de facto main character of "Space Girls", so it's mostly from her perspective, so the previous one that focused on her was in the same vein and that was easy. This one is about her robot, so it's a new perspective and it really had a lot of freedom to evolve in ways I couldn't predict. It ended up being weird. But I like it like that.
KC-1138 was programmed to fear death as a self-preservation measure, but unlike the meatbags who had created him, he had no facial muscles to project it against his will. “Hello, ugly,” he said in the region's native language to the man pointing a gun at him from the alleyway. “What do you want?”
The man was dressed in rags drawn so tightly over himself that Kaycee had to turn on his night vision to see the unshaven, haggard face. Cloth and skin alike carried a coating of aquamarine dust from the soil that covered this part of the planet. When he spoke, his breath smelled like he hadn't brushed his teeth in, well, ever. “Just the package you're carrying will suffice,” he said.
Kaycee drew himself up to his full height, which barely reached the man's waist. He wasn't built to look intimidating. His body resembled a shiny metal trash can on a set of treads, with six spindly arms – two of which cradled a small package – and a pair of binocular “eyes” mounted on an adjustable neck. He wished he could squint in a contemptuous manner. “This package is for my mistress,” he said. “Are you my mistress? I think not. She has much better fashion sense and less facial hair. Now, if you'll be so kind as to leave me alone –”
“Just give it to me and you can be on your way,” the man said, making a “gimme” motion with the fingers of his free hand. “I'm not gonna hurt you.”
“I think if you weren't gonna hurt me, you'd have left the gun at home,” Kaycee said. He spun his head around for a moment to check the unpaved street behind him. It was falling apart, full of garbage, so that the man looked perfectly at home here. At this time of day no one entered or exited the small businesses that lined it, most of them shuttered anyway, their neon lights dimmed forevermore. The drivers of the few cars that whooshed through didn't give him a single glance. A solitary spaceship passed through the purple sky overhead. The only other sign of life was a few scraggly pink trees next to the road.
His fear level rose slightly.
“I don't want to hurt you,” the man said. “This is nothing personal, is what I mean. In case you hadn't noticed, I'm starving.”
“Starving, eh?” He did look malnourished. Kaycee held the package up closer to him. “Look at the label, numbbolts. This is a polytronic combustion regulator. A spaceship component. I happen to know your variety of meatbag can't digest metal, so –”
“Maybe I'll ransom your mistress for it.”
“She doesn't have the money left to buy it again,” Kaycee lied.
“Then maybe I can resell it in a bigger town,” the man said, putting his gun away and snatching the package with a speed surprising in one so frail, breaking Kaycee's grip like a pair of twigs. “Thank you for your contribution. This will feed me for weeks, if I can find a buyer.” He turned to leave, but paused and marveled for a moment. “You know, I thought sassy robots like you only existed on TV.”
“That feature came extra,” Kaycee said. “My mistress insisted on it. She finds it charming.”
“It is, in a weird way,” the man said. He turned to leave again. “Pleasure doing business with you. Nothing personal, remember.”
“Neither's this,” Kaycee said. He sent full power to his treads and rammed the man's legs. The man sprawled one way, hitting his head on the pavement, and the package flew another. Kaycee wheeled over and picked it up. “If this is damaged, I'll come back and harvest your organs as compensation,” he said, and left.
He maneuvered around the trees as he wheeled alongside the road. The fear dissipated as he moved away, leaving a void for annoyance to rise. Creating robotic emotions was simply a matter of copying the chemistry of meatbag brains, minus the defects, and laying it down in circuitry. Kaycee's brain housed a labyrinth of electronics, like the home of some mythical beast best left undisturbed. He didn't fully understand how it worked himself. He didn't need to. He was just a beneficiary of it.
On the next block, a young woman who couldn't have been more than twenty stepped forward, dressed as poorly as the man who had just accosted him, holding out a cup. “Please, friend –” she began.
These barbarians still used physical money, but Kaycee hadn't carried any more than he needed to buy the part, and in any case he wasn't in the mood to deal with people. “Sorry, I'm done talking to freeloaders,” he said, not bothering to avoid running over her foot as he passed. She didn't so much as whimper.
About two kilometers away, Kaycee found Jane Padgett exactly where he had left her, the only customer sitting on a stool at an outdoor cafe in the nicer part of town – “nicer” being an entirely relative term, of course. There were more trees and a few small domestic animals scampering around, but the buildings were still falling apart and shady characters still lurked in the shadows.
The cafe with its bright colors was like a child's bandage failing to cover an infected wound several times its size. The plate of half-eaten food on the table next to her looked like a month-old pureed corpse, smelled worse than the mugger's breath, and made Kaycee grateful that he only ate electricity. He couldn't tell whether the food was actually rotten or just a local taste.
Kaycee didn't think he would ever understand why she had dragged them both away from the mansion she grew up in for surroundings such as this. Every time he thought they'd seen the armpit of the galaxy, she took him to another planet and proved him wrong. But at least it was better than staying on the ship. Sometimes she made him do that in case they needed to make a quick getaway, which they usually did.
“Hey, glad you made it back,” she said, refreshingly in English, rising as he approached. “You got it?”
“No, I decided to buy a pair of shoes instead,” Kaycee said. “Of course I got it, Jane. The guy said I was his first customer all week. Can we leave now?”
Jane grinned at this display of her favorite personality. “Lillis is still trying to find a thrust coil recompensator that will fit,” she said. She took the package, looked it over, and set it on the table beside her. “I should have made her wait so you could go with her.”
Their pilot, a woman about Jane's age who also competed with him for mechanical duties, ironically had less emotion than him. He liked her just fine, but being alone with her always set his processors on edge. “No thank you. This errand boy nonsense is a complete waste of my skills. Although I did finally get a bit of action, so thanks for having no regard for my safety, I guess.”
“Yeah?” He saw how her face perked up with surprise and a little worry. “What happened?”
He basked in the flattering glow of her concern for a moment. “Just some homeless loser wanting to pawn this for food. I knocked him out cold. I can show you, he's probably still there.”
“Hmm.” Jane looked upset. How could she be dissatisfied with his performance? “That wasn't nice of him to try and steal from you,” she said after a moment, “but he's probably starving, after all.”
“He did mention something about that, yes.”
“We've got food to spare,” Jane said, her eyes brightening again. “Go back and bring him some, would you?”
Kaycee was obedient, but he also had a protocol, meant to protect both himself and his mistress, that required him to make an effort at talking her out of ridiculous ideas. It seldom worked. He facepalmed with one hand while throwing the other five up in the air. “Seriously, Jane? You want me to reward him for trying to screw us over?”
“Where's your compassion?” She frowned. “Are you glitching? I swear I've seen you be compassionate before.”
“I have compassion for you, because you're my mistress,” Kaycee explained, activating a subroutine to prevent him from losing his patience. “And for Lillis, because she's your best friend. I'll do nice things for anyone else if it's in my, your, or her interest. And that's about it.”
“Then just pretend this guy is my best friend too,” Jane said.
“Because he's a person, and he has feelings, and intrinsic worth,” she said, starting to look annoyed. He didn't want her to be annoyed. He had tried, but now he would have to gracefully segue out of this discussion.
“And that concerns us how?”
“I don't have time to explain right now,” she said, forcing a smile. “Come on, let's get some food from the ship and you can bring it to him.” She grabbed the package and motioned the waiter back over to her table. With crude sign language, she indicated that she was ready to pay her bill and adamantly did not want a doggy bag. He acquiesced.
Kaycee would have been unable to suppress a smile if he'd had a mouth. In spite of himself, for all her quirks, he always felt good around Jane. “I'll bring it to him, but I won't like it,” he said, following her. “Are you coming too, or being a hypocrite?”
Jane dismissed the waiter with a curt nod. “I've got to bring this part to Lillis and see if I can help her find the other,” she said. “But I can't wait for you regale me with how good you are at making friends.” She winked.
Though the gesture made a component inside him tingle, he shook his head and said nothing. He wasn't programmed to make friends, but of course he would do as his mistress commanded.
Compassion. Why should he give a crap about compassion? If Jane had wanted him to be compassionate toward anybody but her and her close associates, she ought to have specified that when he was put together for her. It obviously hadn't been a huge concern for her at that time. But how had it come to be so now? As far as KC-1138 was aware, humans couldn't rewire their brain chemistry, at least not without extensive surgery. Shouldn't they be stuck with the worldviews and feelings they developed before adulthood?
He certainly couldn't rewire his own circuitry. If Jane wanted to have Lillis do it, well, that was her prerogative. He hoped it wouldn't come to that. He liked himself just the way he was. He was programmed to have perfect self-esteem.
The man still sat in the alley where Kaycee had left him, conscious again, staring off into space as if waiting to die. He looked up at the robot's approach, then stood and swayed for a moment. His face remained so expressionless that Kaycee couldn't even read his emotions, but Kaycee didn't particularly care what they were anyway.
“Hey, you stupid ugly meatbag, eat up,” Kaycee said, throwing the boxes of dehydrated pizza and hamburgers. The man stumbled backwards as he caught two of them and let the third fall at his feet.
The man blinked in surprise. “Seriously?”
“No, I just like throwing things at you. Add water, or spit in them, I don't care. Bye.”
“Wait,” the man said. “I want to talk to you. Thank you, first of all...”
“I don't want to talk to you,” Kaycee said. “I'm not a huge fan of people who point guns at me, believe it or not, but since my mistress has some severe issues – bless her heart – she wanted me to give this to you, and now I have, so I hope you choke on it. Bye.”
The man extended a hand. “My name's Carson.”
“My condolences.” Kaycee didn't touch the proferred hand.
Carson took it back, unperturbed. “What's your name?”
“KC-1138. My friends call me Kaycee. You can call me KC-1138.” Jane wanted to know how good he was at making friends, and this was it.
“Right, look, I know I haven't made a very good impression,” Carson said, beginning to gesticulate wildly, “but it's not my fault, you know? I had a great life, and then I lost it all. The economic crisis... the trade routes shut down... not enough resources to protect them from the Skreel... this colony is imploding and I was just another casualty. I just want to survive... is that so wrong?”
“If you really wanted to, you could have pulled yourself up by your bootstraps,” Kaycee scoffed.
Carson cocked his head. “By my what?”
Kaycee looked down at his feet. “Right, you don't wear boots on this planet. Look, I'm just saying get off your lazy keister and get a job.”
“There are no jobs. That's what I'm trying to tell you.” Carson's eyes glazed over as he looked back into the past. “I had it made, okay? Everything... and then nothing... I lost it all... lost it all... all gone forever... bye...”
Realizing that this man was a few ships short of a convoy, Kaycee started to back away. He then became aware of someone standing behind him in the mouth of the alley. “Jane,” he said, turning around, “get me away from this –” He froze. “You're not Jane.”
“Name's Branson,” the man said. He looked more muscular and stable than Carson, but less pleasant. Now he ignored Kaycee and talked past him. “Carson, you idiot, were you gonna let this robot get away? We can sell him for at least five hundred galactars.”
“You think?” Carson stroked his chin as he scrutinized Kaycee. His momentary craziness gone, Kaycee wondered if it had all been an incredibly convincing act. “I figured he wasn't worth the trouble. He's pretty banged up.”
“Hey, I'm not that banged up!” Kaycee protested. “It adds character! I'm worth at least eight hundred!” Branson stooped, picked him up by the torso, and looked him over. “Hey, hands to yourself, I just met you!”
“His internal components should be fine,” Branson said, ignoring him. “He's probably worth more as individual parts. We'll have to open him up to be sure, of course.”
“You open me up, and my mistress will open you up!” Kaycee said. “You don't want to mess with Jane Padgett. Everyone who does immediately regrets it. Like the time on Engimus Prime when someone tried to assault her, and afterward she reported it and the authorities asked 'Was the assailant male or female?' and she had to say 'Not anymore.'”
“We should get out of here,” Carson said, glancing around. “We can examine his innards later.”
The prospect of merely being taken apart held no fear for Kaycee. As a fixable and upgradeable machine, he was designed to be taken apart. But in the hands of these thieves he might not ever be put back together. His parts not even stay on the same planet. And worst of all, he would never see his mistress again.
“Jane! Lillis! Help! Help! He–” Kaycee's voice became muffled as both men clamped hands over his vocabulator. He wished he had teeth. They twisted his head at a bad angle, and a stream of ones and zeros resolved itself into white-hot pain, signaling the inordinate stress on his chassis. He fell silent. They didn't relax their grips. His fear level reached its maximum to match the danger.
This was what Jane had gotten him into. This was what her nonsense about compassion and intrinsic worth amounted to. He wanted to hate her for it, but he couldn't. That was against his programming. He mentally forgave her and hoped her next robot would do better at talking sense into her.
“Let's go,” Branson said.
Carson nodded, and they moved out into the street. Another pedestrian came their way, finally, and Kaycee started to yell again, but the man didn't even glance at him as he passed by.
“You're just a robot,” Carson said. “If no one cares about us, why should they care about you?”
Before Kaycee could reply, they turned a corner and found their blocked by a third party, one that had immediately registered on Kaycee's sensors as female. Jane?
No, he realized almost as immediately, it was the beggar girl whose foot he had run over after insulting her. Now he noticed her stark green eyes, glowing like emeralds in the sea of excrement that was this planet, showing a calmness and intelligence beyond her years. Well, space spit, as his mistress would say. He was even more screwed now.
“Leave him alone,” she said. “He doesn't belong to you. Someone needs him.”
Kaycee's processors skipped for a thousandth of a second before resuming their normal functions. What the strag? Were his aural sensors malfunctioning? He took another few thousandths of a second to run a diagnostic. No, everything was fine except one redundant chip with a slight flutter. He didn't need to worry about that now.
The men didn't look impressed. “You know,” Carson said, taking one hand off Kaycee to reach for the girl, “you wouldn't fetch half a bad price yourself.”
Before his fingers could reach her, a pistol seemed to materialize in the girl's hand and discharged twice with the slightest of movements. The men dropped to the ground like pebbles in Jupiter's gravity, without so much as a groan. Kaycee slipped from their dead fingers and flopped over onto his back. For a moment he forgot to pick himself up.
As if she could read the surprise in his face, which of course was impossible, she shrugged and said, “I was orphaned and homeless long before the economic collapse. I haven't made it this long by being a pushover.”
Kaycee was starting to wonder how seemingly everyone in this town had managed to procure a gun, but that wasn't the most pressing question by a long shot. “Why did you help me?” he demanded.
“Because you were in trouble,” she said.
He scrutinized her face for signs of deceit or ulterior motive, and found none – just fatigue and hunger. Now a less familiar sensation crept through his electronic mind. Confusion, meant to impel him toward applying his massive brainpower and solving conundrums. But this time he didn't know where to begin.
The girl gave him a nod and turned to leave, limping slightly.
It seemed like minutes, but his internal chronometer told him it was only seconds of hesitation before he followed her. “Are you really going to just leave those bodies out in the open? Are the cops going to come after us?”
She laughed, a soft tinkly sound incongruous with her disheveled appearance. “What cops? For all we know, those guys back there used to be cops. It's every being for itself here.” Yes, that much Kaycee could understand. Why she had deviated from that philosophy was the question she had evaded. Before he could inquire further, however, she froze in mid-step and looked at him. “So you're not from around here,” she said. “I don't suppose you'll be leaving soon?”
“No kidding,” Kaycee said. “We never planned to stop on this craphole in the first place. Mechanical problems.”
“Ah, should have figured.” She hesitated. He saw in her face that she wanted to ask something else but didn't dare. It didn't take much processing power to guess what.
What would Jane say in this situation? What would she want him to say? It wasn't difficult to guess that, either. It would provide them no direct benefits that he could foresee; she had no discernible skills that Jane and Lillis didn't already possess. And yet... he still wasn't feeling it, and he was under no strict obligation to do anything without a command, but the desire to please his mistress was hardwired into his very core.
“Would you...” He couldn't believe what he was saying to this total stranger. “Would you like to come with us?”
The smile that broke across her face denoted her as the first happy person he'd seen on this planet. “That'd be swell,” she said.
With the necessary repairs made, the Indomitable Spirit was soon in hyperspace, en route to its true destination. KC-1138 should have been excited, but he couldn't get those circuits charged up for some reason.
He was parked in a corner of the ship's lounge, staring at the blank television on the opposite wall, when Jane found him. “There you are,” she said. “Our guest is settled. I need you to get me in touch with the United Worlds. The situation we just left is far worse than they realized. If we can't get them to organize a relief effort or reopen the trade routes, I'll do something myself. Somehow.”
Hearing that, and still not understanding her motivation, didn't help Kaycee's confusion any. But an order was an order, so he gave her a barely perceptible nod. At least she practiced what she preached.
She squatted down beside him and placed a hand on one of his six shoulders. His sensors picked up the soft, warm touch, but derived little comfort from it. “What's the matter?” she asked.
Kaycee still stared straight ahead. “It doesn't compute,” he mumbled, as much to himself as to her. “It doesn't compute at all.”