Combat Mechanoid 732 of the 3rd Armoured Battalion - though he went by the name Al in casual conversation (something easy for the fleshies to remember). During service he had dragged his ferrosteel body from the flaming wreckage of a particle tank on four separate occasions, once going back in to recover the memory core from a crushed comrade's skull. He dedicated himself to the cause not because of the propaganda or idealism, but because it was his job (and unlike the fleshies he knew how to do his job without whining, or stopping to rest every couple of days). But now the war was over (with both sides claiming victory) and Al was to be sent into civilian life.
The press releases had been careful not to suggest that mechanoids were considered alive in any way (because that might make someone begin to consider things like their rights and privileges), but instead focussed on how they might benefit the human (fleshie) population. They were told that the mechanoids would offer valuable assistance to labour deprived industries and bring a fresh new culture into the heart of the cities. Civilian fleshies loved culture: they consumed it.
After a two-hour debrief which involved erasing any sensitive information that Al might once have held, he was shipped out to Michaga to start his new life in Michaga Manufacturing. He would carry raw materials to and fro, pulling double shifts because of his unique place in society (which was to say: he didn't suffer from a need to sleep), and be free in his remaining time to impart his unique personality on society (which would probably mean avoiding the fleshie infested city as best he could).
Al was transported across Michaga by skycar (an expensive luxury), which had more to do with keeping him away from the general population for the time being than any notion of respect. Lights blinked and swarmed beneath him; the city festered. For his entire life (three years, six months, seven days and counting) cities were just breeding grounds for the enemy - something to be surrounded, bombarded, divided, and conquered - but now they wanted him to work in one, they wanted him to integrate with it. Parts of his programming rebelled at the idea but were superseded by the parts that demanded he followed orders (such conflicts were normal). He would be expected to find some concessions that might make his life bearable in this new situation, but there were no suggestions as to what they might be.
Upon landing Al found himself stood outside a looming expanse of steel and concrete (and glass fibres, durid reinforcing, ceramic slating...). Steam chugged into the clouds, and vibrations from different parts of the factory were competing with each other like toddlers in a screaming match. Every now and then one of the chimneys expunged flames, with a pillar of red soot to follow. Al was already identifying weak points and blind spots (there was a lot of cover along the south wall, and the third chimney could easily be struck to collapse back in on itself). This was useless information for Al as he was merely a transport vessel now, but the scripts that demanded constant data collection and analysis were buried deep within his programming.
He was met by a young fleshie (a female, stocky when compared to Al but most fleshies were). She smiled. At first Al was perturbed by the gesture, for nobody had ever found a need to smile at him before, but he read the situation as per his social training modules and realised it to be an (unnecessary, given the situation) act of friendly intent.
"I'm Linda," said the stocky fleshie, protruding her hand (lind; soft, tender), "I'll be taking care of your needs while you're at Michaga Manufacturing." The hand fell lifeless when Al failed to respond to it, "I understand you've been debriefed?"
"Correct." Al had previously noticed that fleshies had difficulty accepting anything they couldn't confirm with at least two of their (woefully inadequate) senses, and that meant some subtle body language was necessary when talking to them - in this instance a short nod. It was inefficient, but preferable to repeating oneself.
"With your mind, you probably know the factory better than I do," Linda laughed, only to have Al respond with a curt "Correct" and another nod.
"Very well," said Linda, "you know where my workshop is then. If you're in need of maintenance stop by and let me know."
Another fleshie, no more interesting than any other. Although... this one had smiled.
Al was the only sentient (not that the fleshies would consider him as such) creature that worked transportation: everything else in his department was lifeless automata - little more than tools. He was charged with delivering one-off orders all over the Michaga Manufacturing, or doubling up with the carts if there was particular demand for ferro-blocks or plasteel that day. It would have hardly fulfilled his in-built compulsion to offer his body in service of the nation, but Al had already adjusted for this. He had made subtle alterations to his sense-of-worth sub-routines (the military surrendered all dictation over his programming when they discharged him, after all) to substitute nationalism for (what the capitalists called) a good work ethic. He learned the subtle differences between routes and containers, the places where cargo would slip or stick, and in which circumstances two quick trips were preferred to one longer one, doing everything he could to function at peak efficiency.
"Here comes the slag-heap." That was Gringo (a nickname, something easy for the other fleshies to remember), a short, greasy fleshie who worked as a loader.
Al paid no attention to his co-worker's attempts to degrade him. If it meant they didn't feel threatened by his usefulness to the company then so be it (although correcting the flaw in their perceptions would be preferable). He merely continued his constant data collection and analysis: even his altered programming wouldn't submit to ignorance.
"Fastest heap I ever saw. He moves faster with a ferro-block than you do at a sprint." Gringo's colleague was called Damien (damian; to tame).
"It's not about speed is it, Tin Man Al? It's about smarts. Machinery like him get built by guys like me."
"If he were built by you he'd be in pieces by now."
Al was still collating data as he walked down the corridor, letting the continued conversation flow over him and add to his knowledge. Study had suggested that the fleshie brain was capably of recording every scrap of information it encountered in much the same way that he was, it simply had a problem with recalling it all. Al didn't have such troubles; it was part of his very being to have an impeccable internal filing system.
"So, Gringo, how're the lads these days?"
"They're getting on good. The coreball season's started which keeps them out of trouble."
"Hah! I remember what that was like. A broken rib or two will slow you down all right."
Had he still been a combat mechanoid this would be irrelevant information, but here it helped him identify the hierarchy of the workplace which might be useful at a later date. Everything was for the sake of being a better worker.
This same attitude to work demanded that he keep himself in prime condition, necessitating frequent trips to Linda for maintenence. Currently he was growing intolerant of the slight seizing in his left knee which was slowing him down when making left turns, and since he was working the ferrosteel blocks during the afternoon (which favoured a circular route with mostly left turns, taking advantage of the wide corridors on delivery and a quicker winding route on the return) needed correcting.
Linda scraped her hair back and whistled a tune under her breath as she adjusted the micro-cogs in Al's knee. Of all of the fleshies, Linda was the only one that treated Al like a colleague instead of a machine to be used.
"How are you today then, Al?" she asked (and seemed genuinely interested in the answer).
"I am confident in my ability to complete my duties for the day, but I still observe much inefficiency in this fleshie environment."
Linda flinched at the word 'fleshie'. It was an unnecessary reaction (one of many Al had observed in his co-workers), but it was also undesirable in someone currently making repairs on his knee. Al purged the word from his memory and found suitable substitutes in fractions of a second (something else Al had noticed the humans struggled at doing).
"Well, there's a little more to us than just the way we work," said Linda, a little put out.
"I have noticed, humans seem incapable of separating their work from the rest of their lives."
Linda paused and looked at Al inquisitively, noticing sudden the change from 'fleshie' to 'human', then shook her head and smiled (this was a different kind of smile - Al added it to his collected data), "I've always wanted to ask, Al. You work double shifts but that still gives you eight hours free time each day. What do you do?"
"I..." Al paused. He wasn't really sure what he did do (at least not in terms a human might understand). "I spend three hours de-fragmenting and data cleansing. For the remaining five hours I watch the city from the factory's roof."
"I'm not certain. Nothing yet."
Linda stared at him, searching for something in the ocular modules that functioned as his eyes.
"Well why don't I join you some time? I've not really taken the time to watch humanity drift by."
Al struggled with the offer. This wasn't something he had expected or prepared for. He had difficulty seeing Linda's reasons, but unable to find any sinister motive he agreed.
Linda lit up at the confirmation. "Thursday night," she promised.
Al couldn't quite place this peculiar feeling. Different parts of his programming were in obscure conflict with each other (not the kind of conflict he was used to), leaving him in turmoil without being able to decipher the reason. Linda offered him a little more interaction than other workers, giving him more input data to work through (the social implications becoming increasingly complex), but at the same she was still fundamentally the same as the others. She went about the same kind of daily routines and pointless rituals (such as exchanging greetings simply for the sake of doing so), and behaved in the same broad manner that all "blessed and living" creatures seemed to share (like the dreadfully noisy and inefficient consumption of food), but Al was finding himself focussing his internal processing on her specifically, running through every facet of data collected and analysing it to a degree far beyond usual parameters. He suspected that some unexpected merging of circumstances had caught Linda in one of Al's deeper command scripts, infinitely looping so thoughts of her subtly underpinned any processes that stemmed from this first. This loop was also curbing his desire to properly investigate and rectify the matter. Quite perplexing.
He felt it might be necessary to see Linda for maintenance on a daily basis (if only to ensure he had enough data to satisfy his sub-routines).
Linda knew why Al intrigued her: he was the most sophisticated piece of mechanical and computer engineering in Michaga Manufacturing. His joints operated to a level of precision that had challenged world standards when he was first built, and he operated them by listening to you. When presented with something unique Linda felt compelled to work out how it all fit together - it was what drove her in her career - and with Al that meant getting to know him better, working out his personality. Al had already surprised her a great deal. His way of objectively reassessing the world and his place within it was admirable. Most people tried to change the world before they changed themselves, but Al had made the effort to get on with his work as best he could. The upper management had expected him to prove to everyone that a combat mechanoid was only good for combat, but Al had shown an unprecedented complexity in altering himself to suit Michaga Manufacturing,
Al was already waiting when Linda reached the roof, a dark statue looking out over the bustling metropolis of streaming lights. She stood next to him, leaning into the wall and watching the city life thrashing about beneath them.
It was Al who broke the silence, declaring that "The violet lights will turn on in a few moments" and sure enough specks of violet began to dot the horizon. Michaga's night life was beginning to wake up.
"So what do you watch for out here, what is it that interests you?" she asked, "Or do you still not know?"
Al thought for a few moments before replying. "I look for patterns," he said. "If I watch the city for long enough, eventually I'll work out how it all fits together."
"That's not part of your job here though, is it."
"These aren't working hours."
To Linda, this suggested an individual pursuit of knowledge - another thing lacking from most of her colleagues. Al was a curious creature indeed.
Already feeling intrusive she looked up at Al to ask, "Why did you agree to let me join you? I doubt my conversation is helping you concentrate."
"I seem enjoy your company."
Linda stared down at her feet as a broad smile forced its way onto her face. He was specific about it being her company, not company in general. She thanked him and they spent their time observing the city together, pointing out unusual sights until Linda asked, "So, Al. What will you do when you understand the city?"
"Perhaps I never will. I suppose I could always move to another, but I don't think that would appeal to me."
"I couldn't say." There was no change in his tone or manner, at least not that Linda could detect, but she still wondered if he was holding something back. Or perhaps she just hoped that he was.
"Well why don't you think about it and we'll meet here again next week?" It was getting late and she was growing weary but didn't want this to be her only chance to see Al outside of the working environment. It had been far too intriguing.
"Very well," said Al, "I shall look forward to it."
That evening, Linda's walk back home had an edge of poetry to everything: artificial lights shimmered with hope, the tremor of cars became a deep current of passion, and the air's mist kept the real world beyond a drugged haze. She found it difficult to think of anything except Al, and replayed their conversation in her mind, analysing it, trying to guess at any hidden meaning in either of their responses.
Spending time with Al was a breath of fresh air for Linda. He was someone she didn't have to worry about workplace politics or social obligations with. She saw Al when he stopped by for now-daily maintenance, and then went the rest of the day fondly recalling his manner. Al once mentioned something about her having a new smile, but she didn't quite understand.
Whatever he had meant that smile couldn't last, as a couple of days later Linda found herself stood in the engineering overseer's office. His name was Gertrand and his hands looked like sacks of meat. He was certainly well versed in the finer points of mechanics, thin hair betraying his experience, but Linda had never worked out how he managed to operate tools with those hands.
"You've done an excellent job with the mechanoid, Linda. It's settled in remarkably thanks to you."
"He," and Linda stressed the pronoun even though she knew it would make no difference to Gertrand, "He did it by himself for the most part."
"Maybe so, but your contributions are valued. Now that it has settled however, we'll be assigning a more junior engineer to take on its maintenance requirements."
The wrenching on her gut was stronger that Linda was prepared for. She knew this was coming and had told herself that it didn't really matter, but maybe there was a part of her clinging to the hope that nothing would change.
"We need you working on the carbon reclamation systems," continued Gertrand. "The board are finally listening to your suggestions and ordering a full refit. You'll be in charge of getting the work completed on time."
Linda struggled to keep her displeasure from surfacing, managing to keep her tone to a reluctant professionalism, "I understand, and thank-you, but I had thought Jeremiah would be in charge of the refit. You were keen to give him the experience heading up a team."
She was sure that he noticed something was up. She was usually on much friendlier terms with Gertrand than this practised politeness.
Gertrand sighed and carefully placed his unduly large hands on the desk in front of him. "Look, Linda, it's been noticed that you're spending a lot of time with this mechanoid."
"So?" and regretting how sharp she sounded Linda forced a gentler tone, "Al's a friend."
"It's capital, Linda. It's a good worker but at the end of the day it's something to be repaired, not befriended."
He was only looking out for her, that much was obvious, so like every other person who has had to deal with a well meaning friend who has completely missed the point, Linda fought back the urge to kick through his kneecaps and storm out of the office. Instead she said, "That's fine. I understand. A junior engineer could learn a lot from Al; he has a good idea of what's going wrong with his own body," and stormed out of the office.
Lunch in the cafeteria was a bleak experience for Linda after that. Usually she was blissfully content just to have a few moments around people and not cramped up alone inside some macro-engine or carbon reclamation unit, but today she felt just as lonely as she had all morning.
"Well don't you look glum?" Damien said as he sat down opposite her.
"I heard they took you off working with that mechanoid. Tough break. Seemed like interesting work."
"Very." Though not yet ready to admit it yet, Linda had relaxed a little. She was glad that Damien had come over, she needed some kind of connection with someone and Damien was easy to talk to, or even just listen to.
"Interesting character that Al. You know what he did yesterday? He asked Gringo about his kids. How'd you figure that?"
Linda was intrigued now. Was Al was going out of his way to improve relations with other colleagues?
"Gringo didn't know what to say," continued Damien, "well, you know what he's like. He'll talk for hours about his kids given the chance but couldn't work out how this Al fella even knew about them. Flaps his mouth like a fish for a few moments until Al says 'good day' and gets back to work."
Linda laughed - it was good to hear of Al. "He's changed since he came here," she said, "and I mean really changed. Did you know he stands on the roof in his spare time and watches the city?"
"Bet that's surprised the brass." Damien kept eating without missing a beat - not that he wasn't surprised, he'd just learned to keep eating no matter what was going on around him.
"I don't think they care as long as he keeps doing his job."
"Sounds like the way they treat most of us."
The carbon reclamation systems kept Linda busy over the coming days, but whenever she had a few moments to spare her mind would drift, placing her next to Al as he watched over the city. The city didn't really interest her much but his thoughts on it were intriguing. She wanted to know what new patterns he had discovered, and discuss the possible causes and effects.
When the week finally rolled by and dawn broke on Thursday, Linda woke with eyes bright and ready. It was a clear and sunny day, with a slight breeze to make the walk to work pleasurable.
She had already decided that today would be spent sorting out the month's administration - the reordering of parts and writing of maintenance reports. It made the day drag on cruelly, but it also meant she wouldn't be covered in grease and oil after her shift. For some reason that mattered to her.
For last hour all she could do was watch the seconds on her clock slowly tick away, but when her shift was finally over she found Gertrand stood in the doorway.
"I think we should talk a little longer," he said, blocking Linda's exit.
"My shift is over. I'm supposed to be somewhere."
Linda was surprised to hear Gertrand call Al by his name, but then she supposed that he was trying to get her attention and that meant feigning some understanding. It was the act of giving a little so that Linda might give a little in return. An act. Linda steeled herself, even more resolute against Gertrand's manipulation.
"Every day more of the workers are learning to treat Al like one of them: just another worker doing his bit," she said, fighting against the urge to talk down at her feet instead of at Gertrand.
"But you go further than that, don't you Linda. You treat him like more than just another worker."
Refusing to look Gertrand in the eye any longer Linda barged past him, thankful that he had the sense to step aside rather than be knocked flat.
"I don't need to explain myself to you!" she snapped over her shoulder.
"We're just concerned, Linda. We're trying to look out for you," Gertrand called out after her.
She didn't reply, just stormed out down the corridor.
Al didn't mind his new mechanic. He was competent enough and seemed genuinely interested in mechanoid physiology, but all the same Al had been finding fewer reasons for maintenance checks. This new mechanic wasn't quite so open as Linda had been ("stop by any time" was not mentioned once) and the visits did nothing to satisfy Al's mind. He found that he could tolerate smaller deviations from optimal systems (so long as he was the only one who would notice the impact on his performance) and thereby reduce the number of visits he needed to make.
Al hoped he would still see Linda again atop the factory roof as they had planned. If not, he wouldn't have much opportunity to see her at all any more.
To make up for the lack of daily contact with her, he had set aside permanent routines to run over the data already collected, thereby ensuring he had some connection to her at all times. It helped to satisfy the parts of him that had somehow devoted themselves to her.
After finishing his double shift Al cut through sector two on his way to the roof. He passed Gringo complaining to a colleague (Fletch, an ore handler in sector five, divorced with no children) that the ore loader had started to malfunction and he was stuck with shovelling the fragments manually. It was frightfully slow work and he would be staying late just to meet his basic quota. Fletch was sympathetic, but already late for other engagements (Thursdays, coreball coaching) and therefore anxious to abandon Gringo to his predicament.
Al instantly recalled thirty-seven overheard conversations involving Gringo. He had three children, the eldest looking after the other two while he worked, and on Thursday all four of them would go to the consumer sector for their evening meal - a weekly treat that Gringo looked forward to greatly.
It only took a few moments for Al to weigh up the costs and benefits, at which point he grabbed a second shovel and started piling fragments of ore into the furnace. Gringo paused to regard Al, briefly checked the gauges to be sure the systems were running smoothly, then returned to shovelling and said, "You're a good worker, Al. Don't let them tell you otherwise."
Al didn't need the thanks - he had already realised the benefits of his choice - but he recognised Gringo's need to say it.
When he eventually reached the factory roof, Al couldn't place the emotion on Linda's face (there was far too much conflict in her thoughts), but it washed away when he explained his reason for being late, leaving just the smile. It pleased Al to see that smile, not realising the input he had been missing until now. Taking his place next to her he looked out over the city, the lights dancing to their usual patterns for the early evening.
"Beautiful isn't it?" said Linda. "I think it's the chill to the air; it sets you on edge so you can really start to appreciate the magnitude of it." And Al agreed with her (even though he didn't feel the cold the same way, and already had an exact appreciation of the city's magnitude).
Parts of Al's mind were racing over and over. He hadn't quite predicted the effect Linda's presence would have on him after the adjustments to his programming, and now found it difficult to direct himself to the city and focus on collecting further data. He turned towards her and she looked up at him with awe in her eyes. Most of his thought processes were now consumed by Linda, taking in every shred of available information and still finding it insufficient.
Al reached out and gently stroked her cheek with plated fingers. She felt like death. Dead cells crumbled away at his touch, fading away into nothing. He was close enough to hear her breathing, the constant reliance on atmospheric perfection, and her heartbeat was a repetitive thudding progressing towards its own silence - when the mind would be lost and the body would rot away.
And yet, Al was still intrigued. This was life, a description that his superiors had denied him (although until now it had bothered him little, if at all). Somewhere within this slowly decaying carapace was an essence that he could not possess.
Al shocked himself with the realisation. He was built as a tool for death and that meant he had only ever seen life as a slow spiral towards an inevitable end, but this was no longer true - life renews itself constantly. Life begets life and the spiral continues upwards. Even when one part ends there is surely another branch to be found nearby that can continue.
Al held these truths simultaneously and another piece of the puzzle fell into place. Linda's life was fragile, but not futile. Somehow she had become a part of who he was, and he would stand by her as best as he could, protecting and aiding her however she needed - if only she would accept him.
He fought with the possibility of rejection. Rewriting his programming to be rid of her would be difficult, impossible even in some cases, but to taper off his investment in her and survive with only a dull sense of loss might be possible. If he did that he wouldn't have to risk losing her completely.
But what was the point if he didn't try? It was a sentiment picked up from the humans (and advice they didn't always listen to themselves), but it seemed appropriate here.
Looking up into Al's hard-lined face, and feeling his cold fingers press into and run down her cheek, Linda felt a chill run through her. He was difficult to read, difficult to truly understand, and yet, she had come to know him better. He had changed himself into something that was easier to talk to and be around. Just today he worked beyond his scheduled hours to help a colleague shovel ore. He was honest, and good, and sought to change himself to be better viewed by others.
Al's hand fell away and he waited, watching her. He seemed unsure of what to do. With a kick from her gut she flung herself at him and wrapped her arms around his body. Next time she would have to remember not to be so enthusiastic - Al's body didn't give the same way a human's did - but the pain quickly faded when Al's arms closed tight around her.
"You have no idea what you're getting into, Al," she said, carefully resting her head against his shoulder plating.
"Then I shall have to learn," came Al's reply.
And she knew that he would.