Last autumn my short story Last Words was published in AE: The Canadian Science-Fiction Review, edited by D.F. McCourt and Helen Michaud. This month it was named by the storySouth Million Writers Award as a notable story of 2011.
And now, I’d like to share it here with you. Our tale begins beneath the fold:
When robots become garbage they come to us. We strip them, we melt them, we recycle what can be reclaimed. We shovel the detritus into our ovens and, if we listen, we hear the garbled buzz of their final words.
These aren’t fancy robots, mind you — not your Zorannic types with delusions of sentience or anything. These are regular machines: butlers and security guards and masseurs, nannies and infantry, forklifts and hookers. They are the image of life, and we’re there to witness their simulation of death.
They cry out, some of them, but they don’t have pain so it’s not a sound from suffering. It’s random. It’s just one of the glitches that can happen in those last seconds when all the cerebral parts liquefy and run together. Hell, I’ve heard one I could’ve sworn was laughing all the way down to slag.
“The kettle,” one might say after I’ve shovelled him on. “Sir, breakfast is served,” might say another. But usually it’s nothing but nonsense syllables, stutters and tones without rhyme or reason. “Do be do, do be do wah.”
Voice boxes are cheap. We never bother to dig them out first. Nobody wants to buy a used tongue.
“If master is satisfied, I shall now retire. Retire. Retire. Retire.”
“Do you like it like that? Oh yes. Do you like it like that?”
“Lam, vam, ram, yam, ham, om.”
My name is Dell Kraft and I was brought to this planet by the humanitarian arm of a now-defunct charity. I’m lucky to have this job. I’d be lucky to have any job. I subscribed to school back on Earth but that doesn’t mean much on Mars. Here I’m just another refugee — too pale and too short and too genetically spotty to ever make my way among natives. We’re a lesser kind of human being, but at least we’re the kind that gets to be alive.
We are garbage men.
After work we drink beer and watch soccer. We’re all Earthish at the bar, so nobody worries over accents or feels self-conscious about neopox scars. Well, mostly. There’s this barmaid named Nivea who’s sweet on me, I think, but she never goes home with anybody on account of her scars. “I’ve got pocks places you don’t even want to imagine,” she told me once.
“You shouldn’t be embarrassed,” I said.
She smiled sadly. “You wouldn’t say that if you’d seen them.”
I want to see them, but I’m too shy to push. Instead I just tip her too generously and sit so I can watch her. She always gives the tips back to me. “Don’t be stupid, Dell,” she says. “You miscounted again.”
I can never bring myself to spend the coins she’s touched so they accumulate in a jar by my bunk. I have daydreams where I break open the jar and spend the money on some kind of fancy jewel for her, or maybe a classy thing like tickets for a museum or an opera. And she’s so touched she goes home with me that night after mopping the floor. A perfect fantasy.
One night my friend Wrigley asks the bar, “What’s the weirdest thing you ever heard a dying robot say?”
Answers are shouted. Everybody guffaws. They’re jokes, for the most part, not real stories. I bite my lip, quiet in the corner. Today I don’t want to talk about it because today I heard something awful.
I turn my beer on the table, fiddling with the glass. In the mirror behind the bar I watch Nivea watching me. Her stippled brow furrows. She’s concerned.
I leave. Suddenly she’s behind me. She calls my name. “What’s the matter?”
I shrug. She pulls on my arm. “Don’t walk away.”
I like it when she touches me. I get goosebumps. I sniff and look out over the busy street. “I put a robot in the fire today,” I say, then lick my lips. “It told me there’s going to be a murder.”
“Going to be?”
I turn to face her. “The thing wouldn’t shut up, even as it melted. Said its mistress is sick and lives in a bed. Her nephew’s supposed to be taking care but he’s not. He’s cruel to her. He wants her will changed. She won’t do it, though, because she thinks when she does he’ll finish her.”
Nivea cocks her head. “Must be from a theatre. Repeating things it heard actors say. One of those murder-mystery dinner skits the Martians go ga-ga for.”
“Probably doesn’t mean anything,” I agree. “Creepy, is all. Can’t shake the feeling.”
“Poor Dell,” says Nivea. She’s still touching my arm.
She comes home with me when her shift is done. We make love in the dark. Her skin is textured all over with neopox scars. I don’t mind at all. I kind of like it. I’m not sure if that makes me a pervert.
Afterward she whispers, “What if you could save her?”
“The bed lady. The one with the nephew.”
“Not really my business. I’m no native.”
“No, but when Earth collapsed it wasn’t anybody else’s business either. But offworlders bothered to save us anyway, didn’t they?”
I shrug and roll over. “You’re getting all churchy,” I accuse. After a sullen moment I add, “Nothing but noise. Babbling glitches. Nonsense.”
Nivea says nothing.
“Besides, who knows how long that robot was in the heap? Even if what it said were real, it all could’ve happened months ago. There’s a backlog.”
“You could find out,” she says quietly.
“That kind of access is above my station, Niv. And even if I did find something, what could I do about it? I’m nobody.”
This is true. I am nobody. I live in a barracks with a hundred other nobodies assembled in neat rows in a whole displaced persons camp of nobodies. They’re all around us now, snoring and coughing and shifting in their bunks. We have our privacy, though, because mixing with other people’s business simply isn’t done. You tune out, you turn away. It would be profoundly unearthly to behave otherwise.
That’s what Nivea’s asking me to do: act like a Martian. As if I could.
She’s gone in the morning. My bunk feels too big. The sheets still smell like her though, the bedbugs fat with her blood. I whistle on my way to work, doffing my hat and smiling for strangers, holding open the tram doors for morons. My ears pop as we travel between domes.
Work bums me out. No matter how furiously I strip them down, sort their parts and chuck them on, I just can’t shake a certain gloom. My shovel dips and I stare listlessly into the melting face of a babysitter robot with a heart on her nose and stars on her cheeks. “You mustn’t play with fire,” she advises sternly.
I nod, wiping my brow.
At the bar I drink too many too fast. There’s a game on. I cheer loud. Nivea won’t look at me and so I won’t look at her either. She’s too good for the likes of me now, I guess. I empty another stein sloppily and dry my face with my sleeve. I try to pick up a couple of fresh young things but they fail to be impressed by my stories — slurred, meandering, obscene. They titter to one another when I fall down. Nivea looks away. Wrigley hauls me to my feet. “Nursing a pain, Dell?”
“No pain,” I claim, shaking my head. “Random glitches.”
I wake up in a lot of pain. My shift is a trial. For once it’s a relief instead of a bother to be sent up to administration to straighten out my schedule: because it’s quiet and cool, and because no one is trying to tell me things as they burn. Instead it’s kitten posters and crumbs in the corners of empty doughnut boxes and the cackle-punctuated murmurs of plump office staff. “What can I do for you, beefcake?”
I look down as I smooth out some films on the desk. “Daimler says my card’s all fornicated, ma’am. Wrong shift, wrong furnace, wrong codes.”
She pops a last bit of doughnut into her mouth and frowns over my films. A dusting of icing sugar marks a slalom course into her cleavage. “I can fix this,” she decides, a smile dimpling her face. “Can you wait?”
I nod. She disappears into a maze of cubicles. I linger by the desk, leaning on an elbow. I keep looking over at her unattended terminal…
“You’re not supposed to be touching that.”
I yank my hands away from her keyboard, eyes wide. She purses her lips. “Was just trying to find out your name,” I stammer. Her expression softens.
“Benylin,” she says, cheeks colouring. “Benylin Zeneca.”
“Can I buy you a beer after work, Benylin?”
Nivea does still care about me after all, and I can tell because she’s mad as Hell to see that office girl on my arm until I explain how I’ve managed to squirrel from her terminal a proper street address for the dying mistress. Nivea hesitates from throwing another bowl of peanut shells at me. I peek hopefully out from behind the bar. Nivea narrows her eyes. “So you don’t really like her?”
“Didn’t even go home with her.”
“It was all about the information.”
“And maybe just a little to make me mad.”
I pause, trying to gauge the right answer. “Maybe a little.”
Nivea grins. “I can’t believe you’re really going to do it, Dell. I can’t believe you’re really going to save her.” She comes around the bar and puts her arms around me, peanut shells raining from my hair. “I think it’s the bravest thing I’ve ever heard,” she says, eyes on mine.
The subway sways, tracks humming. I’m off-shift but instead of doing my laundry I’m riding out to the address. The train is very full but I’m a garbage man so nobody sits next to me. I have all the room I could want.
The address is a mansion. The roof is feathered with solar filaments, the dome above washed and polished to transparency. A big old engineered oxygen tree grows in the yard, shading a grand veranda. This is one of the big families, the old families. Heirs to pioneer plunder.
I have no idea what to do. Am I supposed to knock on the door, push the Martian goat aside and then escape with his dying aunt in my arms? Of course not: if I were lucky I’d be charged with kidnapping before even being asked a question. If I weren’t so lucky I’d never knew what took me down. What’s the life of a garbage man when a native aristocrat may be at risk?
I close my eyes and pinch the bridge of my nose. All I want to do is shovel robots on the fire, drink a beer and go to bed. Why do things complicate? I should never have taken Nivea home.
I march up the steps and knock on the door. An expensive and very new model of butler answers. “No contractors are expected at this time,” says the butler. “Sir.”
“Came to see the lady of the house,” I mumble.
“Sir, madam is indisposed.”
“I heard of this new medicine she should know about. It’s for health.”
“Sir, madam is indisposed.”
“She’s been kind to my people. I want to thank her. You know, because she’s such a swell philanthropist.”
“Sir, please hold still while I photograph your face.”
“What?” I ask, then blink after the butler’s eyes flash.
“Sir, police have been notified concerning this matter of criminal trespass. Please do not resort to physicality or it will be my regret to immobilize you.”
I run away. I skulk back home. I twist in my sheets. In the morning I have to slap myself around a bit to wake up. I roll up little wads of paper and stick them in my ears so I don’t have to hear any robots whine today; the paper squishes around in there and makes everything sound like flames.
“Did you go, Delly? What happened?”
I shift in my bunk, Nivea’s face against my chest. “Nothing did. Maybe I’m too late.”
“You’re not too late,” she says, talking right into my sternum so it sounds like it’s coming out of my heart. “You can right this.”
I sniff and shift again. I draw little circles with my finger on her textured back. “Help me think of a plan, Niv?”
“Don’t complicate it, Delly. Just put a stop to it. You’re Earthish and you’ve got arms like tree trunks — do you think any Martian fop’s going to stand in your way?”
I do a good enough job of standing in my own way. For two days I avoid the subject and avoid the bar. My bunk is lonely, my work onerous. With unfocused eyes I watch robot faces run together, the colours of their various carapaces mixing into swirls.
“Toxic fumes have been detected. Please use designated exits.”
“It flatters your figure, madam.”
“Heigh, heigh a nonny-no.”
A voicebox pops in a hail of sparks, making me jump. I realize I’m standing too close to the furnace. The hairs on my knuckles are curling, the skin threatening to blister.
I go back. On the way I stoke my courage. I’m going to walk right off the street and through the front door and up into the bedroom and carry that poor crone out over the threshold like it was our wedding day, her nephew left gaping at the jamb.
I’m going to do it. I’m going to do Nivea proud.
Decisively I round the corner. On the soft grassy street outside the mansion floats a long black hearse.
Too late. It’s too late. I’m too late.
I look at my hands. They could’ve held justice. But they don’t. I look up at the mansion again. Funerary robots in sombre black carapaces escort a draped pallet down the steps and into the waiting maw of the hearse. As it draws away other cars sweep in, making waves in the grass when they bob to a halt. Noble Martians emerge and approach a thin man on the veranda, taking his hand and nodding their respects. They step aside to allow the passage of a caution-striped robot carrying a bag of biowaste followed by a freight-porter balancing medical hardware on its head.
I step off the curb and cross the road. The thin man glances at me, drops his eyes to my waste management coverall, looks away to continue receiving guests with his fancy butler. I form up behind an unladen freight-porter and walk in through the front door.
In the hall renovators are discussing the destruction of a wall between two dining rooms. Freight-porters step around them porting antique furniture and dusty paintings in gilded frames. A lawyer leans by the window, panning her telephone around in search of signal.
A helical staircase takes me to the upper floor. Smells of medicine and meat guide me to the master bedroom, its great double doors thrown wide to showcase a four-poster bed surrounded by a disarray of monitoring equipment. Four deactivated nursing robots stand nearby, arms and heads hanging limp and inert. In the middle of the bed is a slightly stained impression of a small, frail body.
I drop my head. My eyes sting.
“What are you doing in here?”
I turn. Nephew stands in the doorway, features pinched in disgust. “Who told you to come in here?”
“I’m from waste,” I say.
“The waste is gone. Get out of my aunt’s room this instant. Have you no respect?”
“How did she die?” I ask.
His brow furrows. “What business is that of yours? Who do you think you are?”
“Interested in justice, is all.”
“You’re Terran. What do Terrans know of justice?”
I shrug. “Just the broad strokes, I guess. We know it’s wrong to kill.”
His eyes widen for a fraction of a second before he masters his expression. “You understand nothing. Leave this house immediately, mongrel.”
I rub my chin. I offer him a frank expression. “Know what I understand? An eye for an eye. It might not be churchy, but at least it renders accounts.”
Nephew hesitates. “I’m summoning the police,” he says, reaching for his pocket.
I step closer, flexing my big hands.
Nephew drops his telephone. He’s shaking. He’s starting to understand. “What is any of this to you?”
“Do you know why people throw robots out?” I ask him. “It’s not because they break. It’s because they’ve seen and heard too much.”
He pales. He’s made the connection. He whispers, “I can make you rich.”
Martians are tall. Their bones are long, and fragile. Nephew folds, his noises muted by my hand until his mouth is clogged with gauze. He folds until he fits inside the disinfectant-smelling yellowed carapace of a nurse, its inside parts left in a heap upon the rug.
I throw the nurse over my shoulder and hump down the stairs. I doff my hat at the milling nobles but they turn away without meeting my eye.
A freight-porter stops me. “Sir, that is hospital property.”
“It’s busted,” I say, and lope out the door.
In the blazing furnaces at work the nursing robot sizzles and then screeches. My supervisor wanders by and shakes his head, tongue clucking. “What kind of a sick pervert would fix a robot to caterwaul like that?”
I shrug and take up my shovel. “Takes all kinds,” I tell him, turning back to the job.