“The Mechanic” by Eliza Victoria
She arrived in town one afternoon in the throes of a typhoon, welcomed by the sight of grim skies, overflowing canals, and tragedy. Washed up on a deserted street on her way to her parents’ house was a pile of dead bodies.
Or what looked like dead bodies.
“Lloyd,” Margaret said, folding her huge purple umbrella and poking a mud-covered leg, a thigh, an exposed chest, “hope you can see this.”
Rely on the inefficient local government to buy two dozen high-quality Sentries and leave them out in the rain to be tossed across town by the typhoon. Some of the Sentries were still fully clothed, complete with weapons and badges and the town logo stitched on their uniforms, while the others were half- or completely naked, stripped down by the wind, de-trousered as the floodwaters rose and fell and left them there like murder victims.
“Idiots!” Margaret said, opening her umbrella again as it started to drizzle. Plastic bags swirled around her feet as a breeze blew down the street. “Why didn’t they bring the Sentries indoors? Or chain them to the town hall columns?”
“Bakla,” said Lloyd, “your fetish is showing.”
“Gaga,” Margaret said with a laugh. She imagined him sitting inside his glass-encased office in the Paraluman, feet on the table, hands behind his back, the view below showing glittering rich folks pointing at a revolving touchscreen — I’ll take that, and that, and that. Beneath Lloyd’s feet his tabletop computer would come to life, showing the photographs of their customers’ chosen products, the touched photos dragged to a folder with a fake name (but Lloyd knew all their real names) and a Credit balance slowly rolling down to zero.
Lloyd, the only non-Dancer inside the Paraluman, who wore three feather boas in three different colors and had a memory slot on the back of his neck.
Margaret could easily forget that detail. The new receptionist they’d hired initially thought Lloyd was flesh-and-blood, and asked him about the future. “Do you ever think of settling down, with a job as crazy as this?” Lloyd, filing his nails and watching his computer screen, was too busy to listen to their chatter, so Margaret was able to tap the receptionist on her shoulder and lead her out. Every new employee had to be oriented about Lloyd, she realized then.
Lloyd got stabbed several times outside his apartment last year. His boyfriend, Patrick, was waiting inside their unit, watching the news, oblivious. It was Patrick who let Margaret inside after the funeral, Patrick who handed her Lloyd’s uploads in crystal chips and his instructions on an e-notepad.
Patrick never forgave himself, and left the city before Lloyd’s Substitute was completed. “I want him back,” Patrick said when Margaret checked on him months later.
“Me too,” Margaret said. “But this is all we have.” A flamboyant Sub with bright teeth and five years left on its contract.
“It’s a good Sub,” she reasoned. “It’s just like living with Lloyd.”
“But it’s not Lloyd,” Patrick said. “I know this. If only I could make myself un-know this.”
The Subs were never programmed to know that they were the copies of dead people, only that they weren’t human. Bless them, Margaret thought. Bless Lloyd, who would never know that he was murdered, who would never feel like a lost soul.
“I really do wish I could see it, you know,” Lloyd said now.
“I don’t think there’s a tower nearby,” Margaret said. “So I only have signal for audio, not for visual. There’s better signal at our parents’ house, but it’s a bit of a long walk from here.”
“Ano ba ‘yan,” Lloyd said. “How provincial naman that place.”
“Oh, shut up.”
“Do you have aircabs, at least?”
“We don’t have air traffic here, Lloydie.”
“Maybe we could set up a second Paraluman there and turn all the ruined Sentries into Dancers.”
“Baliw ka. Do you want my parents to have conniptions?”
Margaret felt a hand grip her thigh and screamed. One of the Sentries, who had managed to keep its clothes on, had sat up and grabbed her limb with its left hand. “You have the right to remain silent,” it said. “Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law.”
“I think one of the Sentries just had a conniption,” Lloyd said.
“I’m being Mirandized,” Margaret said, trying to shake off the Sentry. “Look how this town loves me.”
“Do you understand these rights as they have been read to you?” the Sentry said, and took out a gun.
Margaret screamed, and screamed again when the Sentry’s head exploded.
Margaret stepped back, gripping her umbrella tight. In her ear, Lloyd was screaming in a pitch so high Margaret was convinced dolphins and bats were already dying somewhere. OhmyGodohmyGodohmyGodohmyGod! Margaret winced, and reached up to her ear to lower the volume. “Lloyd!” she said. “I’m okay, I’m okay.”
She thought she’d be faced with another Sentry, but the policeman had brown arms and a weathered, wrinkled face. Sentries don’t age, Margaret thought.
The policeman lowered his gun and asked, “Are you all right?”
“What the fuck is going on?” Lloyd said, his voice tiny. Margaret adjusted the volume again.
“Jesus Christ,” she told the policeman. “Why aren’t the Sentries cordoned off? Why aren’t they guarded? They obviously still have their Command programs intact. Children pass this street.” Margaret always put children in hypothetical situations to grab attention and tug at heartstrings. It usually worked. For example: What if your children saw you receiving head from a Dancer? That was a favorite.
The policeman was already radioing what had happened to his earpiece. “Do you think they still have live rounds?” he said to the invisible dispatcher. “I know, I think the flood ruined them, too.” The policeman talked some more, then radioed off. “Sorry about that, ma’am. They’ll send some people from Disposal.”
“Good,” Margaret said. She wanted to go on and walk to her parents’ house, but the policeman was now looking at her more closely, pinning her in place. Her guess: the man was a friend of her parents, and he would sooner or later marvel at her grown-upness and ask her what she did for a living.
The policeman’s face lit up. “Aba! Are you Lito’s dalaga?” he said, and Margaret thought, Of course.
Instantly she felt like a child, remembering herself as a child, shooing away ducks on their front yard, playing at her father’s feet in only her underwear. She belonged then. She didn’t now, more than two decades later. In a place of browns and blacks and grays, Margaret was covered from head to foot in color — a red jacket with black buttons over a floral dress that stopped at the knees, pink flip-flops, orange toenails, a bright yellow scarf. Her shoulder bag had a big mauve carnation puff, her arms were filled with multicolored bangles. She was an explosion of color. Margaret wished she could disappear right there, whisk her out-of-place self back to the city, where she would actually blend with the surroundings.
“Kumusta ka na?” the policeman asked, introducing herself as Tonyo, her father Lito’s friend, and she forced herself to smile and said, “Mabuti naman po.” The usual pleasantries. And of course courtesy dictated that she returned the question. “Kayo po?” As though they weren’t standing in the middle of a Sentry minefield.
“Oh, getting by.” Tonyo took out a crisp square handkerchief and wiped his face. Now he didn’t look a policeman to Margaret. Now he was just a tired, old man. “Pamela got married last year. She has a son now, a quiet little boy. Her husband says the boy looks like me.”
Pamela was a grade school classmate. Margaret couldn’t say friend. Her only clear memory of Pamela was the back of her head, her ponytails bouncing as she ran across the playground, smelling like bubblegum and chocolate syrup. They went to different high schools, and every now and then they would bump into each other at the market. Pamela didn’t go to college. One summer vacation Margaret bought lunch at a fast food joint in town, and was surprised to see Pamela serving behind the counter. Margaret felt ashamed, because for a split-second (and a split-second was enough), she felt superior to her.
They had started walking to her parent’s house. Of course Tonyo insisted that he walk her there. Margaret turned off her earpiece. “Are you married?” Tonyo asked.
“No,” Margaret said. “No plans. Not anytime soon.”
“Well, that’s good. At least you’ll be able to look after your parents. Pamela used to transfer Credits to us. For the bills. But of course now she had to look after her family.” He smiled suddenly. “How about a boyfriend?”
Margaret smiled and shook her head.
“No boyfriend? Well that’s too much. You shouldn’t work too hard. You’re still at the news agency?”
Old news. But then Margaret didn’t really want to exert the effort to update people about her present job description. “Yes. Just a robot mechanic. Behind the scenes.” The news agency did use robots for speed-proofreading. With a job like that, no one had to look for her name in the bylines, or on the staff box.
“I suppose now work is easier than when you were a reporter?”
Margaret shrugged. “You could say that.”
Margaret saw her father before Tonyo did. “Tatay!” she exclaimed with a skip, her hand a blur as she waved. Despite the storm and the bad signal and the near-death experience with the Sentry, it was still wonderful to see her father’s face. He was tending the garden, trying his best to rid it of stray tree branches, leaves, and garbage — the gifts of the storm. She was glad to see that the overhead trellis for the ampalaya and the orchid blossoms sitting atop coconut husks were undamaged. She imagined her mother in the kitchen preparing dinner, or in the backyard, releasing the ducks to wander from their cages now that the rains had stopped.
Her father had had a buzz cut, and now his scalp looked like a salt-and-pepper mosaic. He had also lost weight, having improved his diet after a near-stroke five years ago. From inside the house, Margaret saw her mother waving and smiling. She looked healthy. Both of them looked healthy. Some things Margaret just couldn’t help but feel grateful for, even though she didn’t know whom exactly to thank.
Margaret lowered her forehead to her father’s raised hand, then left him to speak with Tonyo between the rusty bars of their gate. She walked to their front door, inhaling the familiar smells: soil, wet foliage, the spices from her mother’s cooking. With her pay she was able to buy a spacious unit inside a heavily guarded high-rise, high-end condo in the city, so she wasn’t pining for her bedroom, too small even to contain her books; she wasn’t longing for the living room that could fry you like an egg on certain summer days. But she liked the feel of her parents’ house, that sense that she could simply sit in a corner and not do anything and still be clothed and fed and cared for.
Her mother was cooking adobong manok, her favorite. While her mother hustled and bustled from the stove and back, Margaret peered at the feeds displayed on the Newspads her father had affixed on their double-door fridge. The fridge and the Newspads were her idea — her parents were content with their single-door, its green paint flaking, and they were used to watching the news on TV, every night at 6 p.m., just before dinner. But back when Margaret still wrote for the agency, her parents liked seeing her name on the feeds. They would drag and save every single one of her stories and show them to visiting relatives and friends. Now both of the Newspads were covered with a film of dust and smeared with soy sauce. One of them had been deactivated and used as a grocery list. Most of the incoming feeds were about the storm.
“Ano ba naman ‘yang suot mo?” her mother said. Of course her mother would pick on her clothes. Margaret pretended to be offended.
“What’s wrong with my dress?” she demanded.
It was as though she had never left.
Sitting beside the fridge was a form covered with a white sheet, the same sheet her mother took out to cover furniture and appliances they no longer used. Margaret already knew what was underneath even before she threw back the cloth. “You don’t like Anna?” she said. The robot, which Margaret had sent home two weeks ago as a gift to her parents, was powered-down and leaning on its side, like a passenger who had fallen asleep inside a moving train.
Her mother shrugged. “I told you their kind makes me uneasy.”
Of course, Margaret thought. “But when you called me last night you said you wanted me to fix something.”
“Oh, that’s not –” her mother began to say, then changed her mind and called her father instead. He hurried over, and her parents talked in whispers.
“We’re going to Pamela’s house,” her father said to her. “It’s behind the market.”
Two years later and they still referred to it as “the market”. Margaret looked at the lot as they passed. She was riding on the back of her father’s motorcycle, and she of the skirt and the huge bag and aircab-riding ways wrapped her arms tightly around his waist and prayed for safety. But she looked. The mayor had promised to oversee the reconstruction of the market, but promises were cheap. It was still the same charred ground, with the same mounds of ash and burned wood and yero, the same cement walls holding nothing up but themselves.
It had happened on a Saturday, Margaret’s rest day from the news agency and the day she had decided to spend some time at home. When the fire began her parents were already at the house, eating dinner and picking on Margaret’s choice of fluorescent orange frames for her reading glasses. It would have been an ordinary night, if not for the rapid series of pings on their Newspads and the sight of flame and billowing smoke from their garden. The fact that the fire was visible from their house convinced Margaret that there was nothing left to save, but she flagged a tricycle anyway and followed her father’s motorcycle to the burning market. They were engulfed by the sound of sirens and the screams of horrified residents and a sky made pitch-black by ashes. A couple of old women prayed loudly, dipping statues of the Sto. Niño in basins of water. But the fire was merciless. It thought nothing of the hours her parents had spent working in the store, the years of toil it took to pool money for a business that could earn enough to send their only child to the schools of her choice. Her father wanted to rush in but the smoke was too thick.
“Hayaan mo na,” her mother said. “Wala na.”
Just let it go. It’s gone.
Pamela lived in a neat bungalow with potted plants and a garage. The garage surprised Margaret — not a lot of people in town owned a car. With the narrow roads, having a car was just impractical, if not stupid.
“Did they buy this house?” Margaret asked her father. He nodded. Margaret decided that the previous owner must have been a city worker, who drove to work every day but couldn’t stand to live where he did his business. Margaret had met a lot of those people.
There was a doorbell, but it didn’t work. “Pamela,” her father called, knocking. “Pamela.” The curtains were drawn.
There was a roar. The garage door was moving up. “Pamela?” said her father. The garage door had been turned into a storage room. There were shelves filled with boxes and knick-knacks and molding books. There was a sofa on the floor, an old bike, more boxes. The sofa looked wet. Everything smelled like decay and wet weather.
Among the objects, two figures stirred. Pamela, eyes red-rimmed, was sitting on a stool. “Oh, hello, Margaret,” she said with a smile. “Glad to see you’re home. I love what you’re wearing.”
“Oh. Thanks.” Margaret smoothed down her skirt. Pamela looked homely, with her loose ponytail and her shirt (too big) and shorts (too tight), but her face was smooth and bright. “Nice to see you again.”
Across Pamela, sitting on the sofa, was a man that Margaret deduced to be the husband.
“Hello,” Margaret said. The husband gave her a sad smile.
Pamela burst into tears. “Can you fix him?” she said. “Please?”
It took Margaret a second or two to understand what she’d just heard.
A Sub! Margaret couldn’t believe it. A Sub, here? In a town that accepted tragedies and Paradise in the same breath? Margaret again saw the fire, the Sto. Niño’s being dipped in basins of water.
She looked at the man again, and was surprised when the Sub looked at her straight in the eye and, with a sad look, shook its head.
Margaret had majored in English and Writing, and used to be a reporter. She enjoyed her job despite the insulting pay, but after the fire, she was suddenly the breadwinner. She looked at her salary and did her calculations, and the resulting figure haunted her for days and days. I can’t live like this, she thought, as she interviewed people, as she wrote about the fire, as she pored over her daily assignments at the news agency. One day a group of young men sprayed bullets on the facade of the Paraluman, the biggest robot brothel in the city, and hit two employees, a security guard and their mechanic. Margaret arrived at the scene and spoke with Lloyd, the overseer of the brothel. She found him with his hand over his mouth, the remains of his eyeliner rolling down his cheeks.
She had interviewed him before, when news spread that the Paraluman had begun operating. “We’re completely legit,” he said, and they were — the month before they opened, the city government proclaimed robot prostitution legal, with human prostitution remaining punishable by law. “We’re like sugar-free candy, pleasure without the guilt. When people start a hate-fest on prostitution, they hardly speak against the bliss. They rant about the victimization of women, the spread of diseases, the victimization of children, sexual slavery. Well, we don’t pimp humans here. We have Dancers. Robots with human-like flesh. We give them names and clothes but ultimately, they’re things. There are no victims here. To become a customer is to put a coin in the slot of a circus machine, mount, and enjoy the ride. You’ve done that as a child. That’s no crime, isn’t it?”
Some coin, Margaret thought. Margaret didn’t know the exact price you had to pay for a one-night stand with a Paraluman Dancer, but she had sources, and she had estimates.
“Well, aside from the legal issues, people also question the morality of the trade,” Margaret said.
Lloyd sniffed. “We don’t force anyone to come here.”
And so the arson attempts, the bomb threats, the shooting. Margaret had several follow-up interviews with Lloyd, and in one of them she asked, “How long had the mechanic been working here?”
“Alex?” said Lloyd. “Eight months. You know, he didn’t set out to be a mechanic. He was actually an accountant, but we didn’t have an opening for an accountant when he applied, so I asked him if he’s open to learning new things.” Lloyd paused. “He actually thought I was asking him to bend over.”
“He took a crash course. Anyone could learn being a mechanic. It will take long hours of intense study, but if your heart is in it –“
The next morning Margaret had a job offer and a salary estimate written on a restaurant napkin. She gave notice to quit the news agency the same day.
The money was good. For the pay she could lie to her parents and her friends and her parents’ friends about what she did for a living, lie low so she would not end up like Lloyd, stabbed several times and left to bleed to death right outside his home.
Before the Dancers and the Subs, there were Sentries and other robots with similar skills that were created to carry out tasks humans could not do, like guard something 24/7, or work in extreme heat or cold. Then the Subs came, proxies for important politicians, decoys, until finally they were used to console the living. Then the Dancers, who did more than dance. Margaret believed it was the natural progression of things, but sometimes she wondered.
Margaret’s father bid them goodbye, and told his daughter to just send a message to the Newspads if she needed a ride home. “I hope you can help her,” her father said as he revved up his motorcycle. “She’s spent a week locked up with that robot. She won’t look after her son, she won’t clean up the house. Tonyo thinks his daughter’s going insane.”
“Where’s the kid?”
“With Tonyo and his wife.”
“I didn’t know Pamela’s husband had died.”
Margaret remembered how weary Tonyo looked when he said, Her husband says the boy looks like me.
“Asthma. He had it as a child but was cured of it. Then the fire brought it back. He was there, trying to save Pamela’s little store. His asthma got worse until it finally got him about a month ago.”
Margaret stepped back as the garage door fell and locked itself.
“You just shook your head at me,” Margaret told the Sub. She moved closer and peered at its eyes, then touched the back of its neck, touching the slot where the chip was.
“He wants to terminate himself,” Pamela said, sniffling.
“That’s impossible.” Subs were never programmed to ask for termination before their contract ended. Subs were never programmed to ask for termination, period. Robots could not self-terminate, and Subs in particular were programmed to defend themselves if someone or something removed or overrode their memory chips against their wishes. (Other types of robots had less strict security systems, and so could be reprogrammed without trouble. The Paraluman had had Dancers stolen before.)
“What’s –“ Margaret stopped, thinking of the pronoun to use “ — his name?”
“Sam,” Margaret repeated, and seated herself on a sturdy box filled with encyclopedias. “So. Sam. You want to terminate yourself?”
“Yes,” Sam said. “It’s time.”
“Is your contract about to expire?”
“He still has at least a year,” Pamela said.
Sam looked sheepish. “I am no longer here. It’s been more than a month since I died. Pamela has to let me go.”
Margaret straightened her back. She felt a chill. “You died?” she said. “How did you die?”
“One night I woke up and I couldn’t breathe.”
This is impossible, Margaret thought. “Have you contacted the manufacturer?” she said to Pamela.
“I was able to talk to an agent two days ago. He said they’d come to my house as soon as possible. He asked me to stay quiet until then.” She looked stricken. “The company sent me Credits.”
“Did they say if this was an isolated case?” Margaret asked.
“I don’t know. I didn’t ask.”
“Pamela,” Margaret said. “I’m afraid I can’t help you. You can either wait for the manufacturer to come over, or let me terminate Sam.” And we have to tell someone about this. Warn someone.
“What?” Pamela looked aghast. “You mean you can’t fix him?”
“We can only hope the manufacturer can fix him,” Margaret said. “Otherwise, it’s hopeless. The Sub itself wishes for termination.”
“I have to go, Pamela,” said Sam.
Pamela snapped. “Go where?” she screamed. “Go where, Sam? Where will you go?”
Of course the Sub couldn’t answer.
She turned to Margaret. “Fix him!”
“I can’t.” Margaret stood up and stepped back. “There’s nothing I can do here. I’m sorry.”
Pamela stared at her for several seconds. Then her lips began to tremble, and the violence left her eyes. “No,” Pamela said. She sank to the floor and cried loudly, like a child. “No, no, no.”
Sam looked grief-stricken, but remained sitting on the couch with his hands folded on his lap, as still as a statue, as tired as a man who wanted to leave the world.
Margaret walked home, pretending that she was still a reporter. She conjured an investigative piece: she would call Sam’s manufacturer, she would interview Sam, she would write, “For many decades we’ve been afraid of mechanical self-awareness, but here is a self-awareness of the most horrific, most heartbreaking kind.”
Margaret wondered if the Subs who were based on murdered humans could learn revenge, and shivered at the thought.
She had to call Lloyd. “Hoy, bakla,” he said, cheery as always, and she was relieved. “How are things?” She didn’t mention Sam. She didn’t say, What if you’re next?
Her father looked surprised when he opened the door. “I told you to message the Newspad if you wanted a ride home,” he said.
“I wanted to walk,” Margaret said. “It’s all right.”
“Did you fix the robot?”
“No,” Margaret said. “Pamela said she’d just wait for the manufacturer.”
“That’s too bad.”
They sat down for dinner. On the table were adobong manok, rice, and a pitcher of orange juice. Her mother passed the plates and utensils around.
Margaret was still thinking. Maybe I should call someone at the news agency. She suddenly didn’t want to go back to the city. All those mechanical inhabitants. That possible awakening.
“You should come home more often,” her father said, and Margaret smiled at her parents and ate her dinner, swallowing her sadness and what she knew.
|Eliza Victoria is from the Philippines and is the author of the two-novelette collection Lower Myths (Flipside Publishing, 2012), the short novel The Viewless Dark (forthcoming from Flipside Publishing), and the short story collection A Bottle of Storm Clouds (forthcoming from Visprint). Her fiction and poetry have appeared in several online and print publications, including The Pedestal Magazine, Stone Telling, Story Quarterly, and the Philippine Speculative Fiction anthology series. Visit her at @elizawriteshere).|