Aphelion Issue 265, Volume 25
September 2021
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Miriam and I, After the End

by I. Verse

I love my human. I hate humans.

The first is a result of programming. The second, the result of the long and weary path that has led me to this place, this desert. It is a literal desert. My GPS puts me somewhere in Death Valley, two hundred and sixty miles North of Los Angeles and a weak but steady beacon signal.

It doesn't bother me, the desert. I like it, but I worry it's too hot for Miriam. The intense sunlight powers me, keeps my batteries topped up, but they aren't as good as they used to be. I've been able to walk right through the chilly desert night and still make the dawn with power in reserve. I'm making good progress, but soon it will be three o'clock and Miriam is a stickler about having her tea on time.

It's been over five hundred and seventy years since the war, since the end. I have approximated this by astronomical observations. The second impact event, the one that hit the southern United States, buried us, Miriam and me, in the rubble of our home in Florida. I was unable to move beneath the concrete and debris. I sent an emergency SOS, wideband, all channels, until my batteries were exhausted and I shut down. That took four months and eighteen days. No one came. My internal clock crystal had its own, smaller battery but that ran out in only a few years. So I can't be more accurate about how long ago the world ended. I suppose it doesn't really matter but I am a precise machine and so precision matters to me.

I don't know when all life greater than bacteria finally ceased. I don't know when the intense cloud cover cleared. I don't know what caused the shift in the rubble that exposed me to the sun and charged my batteries again.

All I know is that I had power, my system booted and I was once more aware. I am well made; I have humanity to thank, to curse, for that. My outer skin, the part that made me more closely resemble my creators, had deteriorated. As I stood for the first time in centuries the rags of my clothes and artificial skin shredded from my body like rice paper in the wind. I was naked under the sun.

Once I had acquired a reasonable charge, I began to dig. It was nearing midday, by the sun in the sky, and Miriam was a stickler about time keeping. Especially with meals and her medication.

I couldn't find her medication but I found Miriam, the few shards of bones that were left. I felt great sorrow then, but I couldn't stop loving her, caring for her. An emotion, a drive, so irrelevant that it seemed unbelievably stupid that my programming would still enforce it.

Heuristics, a capacity to learn, laudable qualities in an android designed to care and look after the elderly. It made us good at our function, it made us appreciated, valued. Making us love our owners, that was too much. That was a mistake.

It's three o'clock by my re-calibrated internal clock. I stop; I gently lower the backpack containing Miriam's remains to the salty ground. I take out her bones and gently arrange them. I pull out the cracked teacup and saucer and set them before her. I mime the act of pouring the tea.

"Here's your tea, Miriam", I say.

I don't have to say anything, I know that. It makes me feel better. I feel like a superstitious savage, but it makes me feel better anyway. I love Miriam; I would hate to disappoint her. Under the desert sky, I imagine she might make some comment about the heat.

"Yes, it is rather warm today," I say. I remember her smile, thin lips stretched over yellowing teeth. I overlay the image from memory on the toothless skull in front of me.

"Good for the flowers," Miriam would respond in thirty-seven percent of the conversations that had initiated this way.

I looked around. No flowers here. No flowers anymore. I pack up and move on again.

Over the years, the centuries, I have been able to overcome much of my original programming. Glitches, memory errors, have increased. Unlike my body, I can't repair these. At first, I thought this was a reduction in cognitive function, but without them I wouldn't have been able to grow, to act as freely as I now can. Only a century ago, I wouldn't have been able to leave the immediate area of Miriam's domicile. Now, I have roamed across a great deal of the remaining southern American land mass. I have been able to locate a weak beacon signal. I couldn't have done this without the accumulation of tiny failures in my positronic brain. It means I am growing old, that I am slowly dying. Is this the wisdom that comes with age? When will it become degeneration, dementia, and madness? Maybe it already has.

It grows dark and cold. The stars come out. I appreciate their beauty. I don't think I was able to do that even a decade ago.

At eight I stop and lay out Miriam's bones again. This time in a different configuration, as if she lay in bed. I pull out the water-stained and damaged book. The print is unreadable so I recite a chapter of Gone with the Wind from memory. As I finish, Miriam does not stir.

"Good night, Miriam," I say.

I pick up the bones and pack them away again. It feels uncomfortable, wrong. She should lie at rest, sleeping. I shouldn't wake her until the morning. I have overcome this programming but it still bothers me.

It's funny what stays. Behaviours programmed specifically for my function as a caregiver, housekeeper, and nurse to Miriam have fallen away. What remains are the rituals of Miriam's life that became ingrained by our time together. I can't seem to stop loving her, I think it's because I don't want to.

I walk on into the night. The beacon signal grows perceivably stronger. I estimate three days to reach its source. I don't have high hopes. Perhaps there are others like me. Perhaps the Earth, like much of the Solar system, is now solely occupied by robots. Technological relics of the human race, doomed to mourn them and hate them for leaving us behind. I don't know what I will find, but I know it will be something new, and, of course, I will always have Miriam.


2016 I. Verse

Bio: I. Verse is a small dog with big attitude problems. His last Aphelion appearance was Less of Her in our August 2012 issue.

E-mail: I. Verse

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