[CN: apocalypse, starvation, mentions of violence and cannibalism]
Recently my friend Michael Nam posted this drawing he’d made in Other Worlds: A SF/F Community, a group we’re both in, as a writing prompt. After just a brief look at it, a story wrote itself in my head. Here it is.
I was alone, completely alone, in the wasteland. I couldn’t remember the last time I had seen a human being, but it must’ve been months ago. In the few years since the world fell apart, I had only met a few other people. Most had either tried to kill me for my body and my food, or they had been too weak and close to death to attempt it.
I didn’t have to fight them, though. Atlas, my droid bodyguard, took care of that for me. Atlas was built like the gorillas I had seen in my school texts–big, powerful animals that had lived long ago. He usually walked on his arms and legs, but could raise himself up to swing his massive arms at anyone who tried to hurt me or take my things. Yet his gaze, when he turned it towards me, was gentle and kind. His peaceful presence protected my spirit just as his strength and willingness to use it protected my body.
Before, anyone who could afford it had had a bodyguard like mine. It was the only way to stay alive and whole as our society had teetered, jerking and thrashing, towards its inevitable collapse.
Even though our homes were sealed and protected, hackers always found ways through our security systems. Children were kidnapped and ransomed, adults were more often robbed and killed outright. The smarter hackers figured out how to disable people’s bodyguards. The ones who weren’t so smart tried to fight and destroy them.
Sometimes, though, they succeeded. Desperation is what leads a frail, starving person to attack a 700-pound mass of steel programmed to defend its charge. It can also be what leads them to win.
I wasn’t much interested in other people back then. When I wasn’t attending my virtual classes or doing my homework, I was usually immersed in some game or novel on my headset. In those games I was always a loner, too, exploring a nuclear desert or fighting aliens on a spaceship with no crew. As bad as the world outside of virtual reality got, I never thought it would become so much like my games.
Besides reading and gaming, I spent a lot of time back then tinkering with Atlas. That’s probably what saved my life more than anything. I learned his code, made him smarter and more perceptive. I tried to teach him to think more like a human and less like a machine, to make choices that made rational sense rather than logical sense. I also gave him solar panels, which is how he gets his power now. That’s why he’s the only droid bodyguard left. The rest ran out of juice long ago. He scavenges their parts, now.
Most other children in our community didn’t care much about their bodyguards. They treated the droids as objects that were just there, like any other security system, like a locked door or a set of armor. I don’t think any of them ever learned how to program them. They all called the droids “it,” never gave them names.
The children in my virtual classes ridiculed me constantly for referring to Atlas as “they” rather than “it.” I didn’t understand what was so funny. “They” was the standard pronoun we used for someone who hadn’t told us their gender, and Atlas hadn’t told me his yet. So how else would I refer to him?
Later, one day not long after the collapse, I asked Atlas if he had preferred pronouns. It was evening. Like many evenings, we were spending it sitting quietly in the remains of a building we’d found, trying to conserve our limited and precious energy. Despite the darkness, it was warm. I didn’t know what season it was supposed to be, but it’s always warm now. Atlas and I sat face to face, me with legs crossed and him with legs folded underneath him so he could leap to his feet and defend us at a moment’s notice.
I said, “Do you have pronouns that you like to use for yourself?”
“I have never really thought about that,” he said in the calm, gentle voice he uses when addressing me.
“But aren’t you thinking about it now?”
“Yes, I am now.”
I paused, even though I know that he thinks faster than any human being and had probably finished thinking about it before I’d even asked the second question.
“I will use the pronoun he,” he said after a moment.
And so he became he, to me.
Before the collapse he was a benevolent protector that I valued; after the collapse he became a companion. Once I no longer had the option of talking to other people, I started to want to, desperately. I spoke to Atlas for hours on end about the books I’d read, about the classmates I’d envied, about my parents that I’d respected and feared but never really loved, and now missed wretchedly.
Atlas rarely responded, but he listened. He always looked at me when I spoke to him, his bright blue eyes deeper and more soulful than a piece of machinery should ever be. Although I knew his code well, I understood then that knowing how words translate from one language into another isn’t the same as truly knowing that other language. I couldn’t know what was actually going on inside his processor, what his experience was like, how he felt. I felt silly for even thinking of it in those terms, but I had little else to think about besides my own survival. It took my mind off of things.
The most fundamental piece of a droid bodyguard’s programming is that they will protect their charge and their charge’s belongings. A droid bodyguard will seek to protect the person they’ve been assigned to while causing minimal harm to others, but they will injure, maim, and kill when necessary. A droid bodyguard treats their charge’s belongings as an extension of their charge’s body; they would no more allow someone to take their charge’s belongings than they would allow them to amputate and steal a part of their charge’s body.
If that sounds like an odd analogy, believe me, these things have happened.
They were programmed that way because, as food and water became scarce, defending what belonged to you became equivalent to defending your own life. It’s even more true now than it was before the collapse. If Atlas allowed someone to steal even part of my food, that could make the difference between surviving long enough to find more food, or not.
That’s the part of his programming I’ve never been able to alter, not that I would want to. Humans are not like droids that way. I have seen humans abandon all of their beliefs, all of their most sacred values, when the situation called for it.
Atlas and I spent most of our time walking or resting. There was no sense in staying in the same place once we’d found all the preserved food we were going to find. Sometimes we hunted and killed whatever small rodents managed to survive on whatever limp grass still grew.
I knew that some survivors had scavenged human bodies. I had not done that, not yet. Not because I was disgusted at the thought; I’ve been hungry enough that my disgust had dried up like the last stuttering streams and rivers. I was afraid of the possibility of dying in agony of whatever had killed them.
But with the passing years we were finding less and less food. There wasn’t much to begin with, and what was still left after the collapse had probably been found and consumed by people who were long dead of the diseases and poisons–natural and humanmade–that had consumed them in turn.
I held on, though, and Atlas was still able to get some sunlight despite the smogs. It was always a tradeoff: save energy but go hungry, or spend energy and risk wasting it on a fruitless search.
Despite everything, I kept tinkering with Atlas. It helped me feel like I could still leave my mark on this broken world. Atlas would endure far longer than I would. He didn’t need food, he was immune to sickness, and he could repair himself most of the time. Maybe one day there would be people again, and maybe Atlas would be alive to teach them about us and our mistakes.
Would he miss me?
Over time, Atlas started to speak more, sometimes without my prompting. He often pointed out what he saw as beauty in the world: a surviving dragonfly, a jagged cliff, a pink and purple sunset. Before I had treated the landscape around me as my enemy, as something that I had to defeat anew each day in order to survive. Atlas taught me to see it differently.
He started to tell me stories, too–stories of his time in the factory before he came to me, stories of other droids he had known. I wondered how much of these stories and the emotions in them was something he invented for my benefit; I’d put the code in him, after all. Or maybe he had always held these thoughts, but had been unable to speak them until I gave him the language to do it. I couldn’t know.
But the day I truly knew he had changed into something different was the day we found the person.
It was hot, so hot, although that barely registered anymore. That day there were almost no smogs, and the sun beat down on us as we crossed a wide expanse of dry, dusty earth with the faltering hopes that we’d find something on the other side. We were almost out of food. I hadn’t eaten in three days.
The only reason I believed I might live was because we had found a small pond the day before, and gathered water in plastic bags that we sealed and carried with us now. With water, we might yet make it.
Then I saw something dark a few hundred feet before us. I might have written it off as a log, had there been any trees anywhere near. There weren’t.
I walked faster, Atlas matching my pace with little effort. For me it was excruciating, but I had to see.
As I approached, the shape resolved itself into a small person, no bigger than me, lying on their side on the cracked earth. They were probably about my age, 12 or 13, with dark skin. Their short hair and tattered clothing were dark, too, though the clothes had clearly once been another color. They lay still, but I could see them breathing slowly.
For so long I had dreamed of seeing another person, but now I felt rooted to the ground like a dead tree, unsure of what to do. Should I wake them? Were they sick? Could I help? Would they attack?
I wasn’t sure I could bear the sight of Atlas killing yet another person.
But then Atlas did something I will never forget, not for as long as I live–short as that may be. He reached into my backpack and took out a can of chicken noodle soup, one of our last. He peeled the top off of the can. He slowly extended the can to the crumpled form in front of us, nudging the person gently with the can.
The person on the ground shifted and groaned. They raised themselves up on their arms and looked up. Finally noticing the can, they moved with a speed I hadn’t known they had, snatching the can from Atlas and drinking the soup until it was gone.
I glanced at Atlas. He looked back at me, blue eyes searching, questioning. Did I do the right thing? he seemed to be asking, although he did not speak. How had he done it? How had he taken from me to give to another?
The person on the ground was sitting with the empty can, staring at the two of us. They slowly brought themselves to their feet and closed the small distance between us. They took my hands in theirs and looked down on them as if to reassure themselves that my hands are real, that I am real.
They finally spoke: “I can’t believe I found you. I’ve been looking for you for so long.”
I understood what they meant. I felt such a warmth, then; such relief, such love. I withdrew my hands from the person’s grasp to throw them around their neck in embrace. They wrapped their arms around my waist and we held each other.
How long we stood that way, I could not tell you. But the sun started to fade and fall, and we needed to find shelter from the windstorms that would come. And so we set off together, Atlas’ lumbering form shielding us from the back. I felt a hope that I knew could not be fully rational, but it didn’t matter. I wasn’t alone anymore. I had found people.
Two of them.