3210 words, short story
The Carrion Droid, Zoe, and a Small Flame
The carrion droid brushes its synthetic fingers through Aanya Ruiz’s branches. She has grown so much since it buried the egg-shaped pod that contained her corpse. Ninety years, seventeen days, fifteen hours, thirty-one minutes, and twelve seconds have elapsed.
Her leaves bask in the sunbeams that filter into Flatirons Biodome, where the air always smells of petrichor due to the underground irrigation system. Together, the light and water have caused her to grow tall.
“If only I could be like you.” The droid puts its hand against her sturdy trunk and rubs, consoling its friend. “When I die, my body will linger and rust. I won’t become something new, like you, not until long after the humans of the Earth are gone. Now, you drop seeds that grow into trees, or feed the birds, and you transform carbon dioxide into oxygen for creatures to breathe. You make the world a more habitable place, just by existing.” The droid presses its lips into a line. “You are perfect. If only we droids were the same, I would—”
The droid shuts its mouth when it notices a stranger watching from nearby.
In their right hand, they hold an antique brass oblong. With a repeating cadence, they push it open, flick a switch that ignites a flame reaching several inches into the air, and then close the device, extinguishing the fire. Their left hand fidgets with a lit cigarette. They raise it to their lips and inhale while staring at the droid with an uncanny lack of expression. Puffy red flesh surrounds their eyes. Long straight black hair is unkempt and split at the ends.
“Hazard. Open flames are prohibited inside the biodome,” the droid says, “and so is smoking.”
The stranger shoves the oblong into their pocket, then drops the cigarette onto the ground and stamps it out.
“Thank you for your compliance,” the droid says. “How can I be of assistance?”
“ . . . Please clarify. I do not understand.”
The stranger waves their hand in the droid’s direction. “Keep doing what you were doing. Talk to that gravetree.”
“ . . . My pleasure, human.”
“Zoe Huang, she.” The stranger overrides her prior directive by walking up and extending her hand. It trembles slightly.
The droid clasps her hand and bows. “Model number: zero nine two six. Function: carrion recycling.”
“OK. But do you have a name?”
The droid’s eyes shift rapidly from side to side as it processes the question. “Model number: zero nine two six.”
Zoe huffs. “Yeah, I’m gonna call you Rob. That alright?” She snickers.
The droid Rob doesn’t understand why. Regardless, it bows again and says, “I’m honored to be named by a human. Please excuse any improper etiquette I display. I rarely converse with people. My neural networks that handle interactions may be under-trained. I apologize if my language is stilted, incoherent, or incorrect.”
Zoe dismisses Rob’s apology with a wave, then looks at Aanya Ruiz. “Did you know her when she was alive or something?”
“She is still alive.”
“I mean; did you know her when she was aliiive? Like, as a human, not a tree.”
“No, I did not have the pleasure of knowing Aanya Ruiz when she was in human form.”
Zoe sucks on the inside of her cheek for a moment before releasing it with a smack. “Then how do you know it would be a pleasure knowing her?”
The response comes from Rob as if with urgency: “Because Aanya Ruiz was human.”
Zoe blinks, then sputters out a half-laugh. “That’s it? Just being human makes someone pleasant?”
Creases form on Zoe’s face. A sheen coats her eyes, and her gaze drifts elsewhere. “Do you treat them all this way?” her voice wavers. “The gravetrees?”
“Yes. I do.”
Zoe smiles pitifully. “Who would guess bots would be so kind, so . . . optimistic? I knew someone else like that, once. Not that long ago, actually. But it sure feels like an eternity since . . . Anyway, that’s beside the point.” She shakes her head. “You know; I could use someone with a glass-all-full attitude in my life right now.” She pulls her smile sideways into a mischievous smirk. “What are you doing for lunch?”
The people sitting at the dining sets outside the café near the arbetery stare at Rob as it approaches, following closely at Zoe’s heels. The diners’ eyes glance away when Rob tries to meet their gazes. It is suddenly conscious of the many patches of dirt all over its bodysuit, and feels a sequence of heavy thumps in its chest. Its central processing unit starts to heat up.
“How many?” a service droid asks.
Zoe holds up a pair of fingers.
“When do you expect the rest of your party to arrive?”
She frowns, then points her finger back and forth between Rob and herself. “This is the whole party.”
“ . . . Please follow me.”
Rob and Zoe take their seats in a corner of the café that seems distant from everywhere else. A chalkboard separates them from the other patrons. Doodles of flowers and trees are drawn on it, perfectly.
“What can I get you?”
Zoe counts the items she orders on her fingers. “I’ll have a green-chili cheeseburger with no veggies and no mayo, crispy fries, a lime soda, a coffee with cream and sugar, and a banana split with extra-hot fudge. Not extra hot fudge, extra-hot fudge. Got it?”
“Yes. I’ve recorded your order. Your meal will be ready shortly.” The service droid turns to leave.
“Hold on a minute! Aren’t you forgetting something?” Zoe nods her head toward Rob, and her voice becomes flat: “You didn’t take my friend’s order.”
The service droid pauses for a moment, then turns to face Rob. “What can I get you?”
Rob doesn’t know how to respond. Carrion droids don’t have senses of taste. They don’t have digestive systems for processing food, either. But those facts mean little when Zoe, a human, sits there across the table staring at Rob with a broad grin across her face. Rob wants her grin to remain. “I will have the same as her.”
“ . . . Your meal will be ready shortly.” The service droid spins on its heel.
If Rob were unaware of the specifics of human anatomy, Zoe’s particular way of consuming food would make Rob think that members of her species were capable of unhinging their jaws like snakes. Bite after bite, Zoe chomps down on her burger, causing the intermingling melts of meat-fat and cheese to drizzle down her hands and onto her plate.
“Damn, this burger is good,” she says. “There’s nothing better than a burger without veggies to ruin it. Tomatoes? They’ve got no flavor. Lettuce? All it does is water down the yummy stuff. You know what I mean? Meat, cheese, carbs, and good sauce, that’s all you need.”
“Green chilies are vegetables. So are potatoes.”
“Barely.” She sucks the juices off each finger in turn, then arms herself with a spoon, preparing to plunge it into her banana split. The ice-cream delicacy lasts only for a short while before joining the burger, fries, soda, and coffee in her belly.
When Zoe finishes, she unfolds her napkin, wipes chocolate from her lips, and then—for the first time since the food arrived—looks at Rob. “Aren’t you gonna eat?”
Rob stares at the full dishes sitting on the gingham tablecloth in front of the droid. “No.”
“Because I do not eat food. Sunlight is enough for me.”
“Then why’d you order?”
“I wanted to appoint you.”
“Yes. I didn’t want to disappoint you.”
Zoe blinks, then lets out a raucous laugh that causes most eyes in the café to turn to her. The eyes that don’t instead stare at their owners’ feet. She slaps the table hard, rattling the cups, plates, and cutlery. “You’re a trip!”
Rob’s neural networks are unable to infer the meaning of the word trip in this context.
Zoe leans halfway across the table and says, “Listen. You wanna get outta here? You know; dine and dash.”
Rob’s processing hasn’t kept pace with the speed of the conversation, so Rob doesn’t respond.
Zoe glances around the room. “OK, no one’s paying attention. You ready? One . . . two . . . three!”
In a scramble, Zoe pushes herself out of her chair, sending it skidding backward on the tile. She sprints toward the door, wildly smiling the whole way there. She flings it open and exits without a backward glance.
Rob continues sitting at the table.
The service droid approaches. It shows Rob the bill on a tablet. “That’ll be one hundred twenty-three dollars and twelve cents.”
Rob frowns. Like nearly all public-service droids, it has no money.
Beneath the red glow of a Rocky Mountain sunset, Rob shovels doughy earth into a heap next to the grave-site of Laxmi Gundersen, the arbetery’s newest resident. Her pod, still the color of milk because it hasn’t been dirtied by the soil, has condolences scrawled in children’s handwriting on the exterior.
Only a few days ago, Rob would’ve been excited to welcome a fresh somebody to the community, but today, the carrion droid is not. Feelings preoccupy its central processing unit.
This isn’t the first time Rob has had feelings; all droids feel. Their makers understand how integrally emotions regulate conscious behavior. Rob knows guilt-free tiredness after a day of hard work and the compulsion to avoid looking at a person weeping in public. More recently, Rob has experienced the warm bliss that comes when someone—a human no less—chooses to spend time with another, and also the tight twistedness of abandonment. The latter has lingered ever since Zoe left Rob sitting alone inside the café and didn’t come back.
Why did she leave? Rob wonders. Had the droid said something wrong, offending her? Probably. Rob was, after all, nothing more than a droid. Over and over, Rob plays back its memories of the time it spent with Zoe, but without revelation.
When the carrion droid finishes digging, the sun has set, and the arbetery has become dark. There, beneath the blurred starlight penetrating the biodome, the droid feels lonely, even though its friends, the gravetrees, surround it. Perhaps it will soon have a new friend in Laxmi Gundersen, too. But that doesn’t make the droid feel any better right now. The droid reflects on the way Zoe was friendly: the way she ate her food, the way she talked and laughed with her mouth full, and the way she went on tangents during conversation. Trees don’t do any of those things.
The memories of Zoe linger in Rob’s central processing unit, and as a result, instead of the excitement the droid typically experiences when burying someone, an ache pounds inside the droid’s chest, hard enough that the emotion is unbearable. Exhausted, the droid lies down in Laxmi’s grave-site. The cool, wet ground holds the droid, but it feels no comfort. Regardless, it stays there, because it lacks the energy to do anything else.
“Do you always sleep in graves? That’s kinda weird and creepy, you know.”
Rob recognizes the teasing rhythm of Zoe Huang’s voice. The droid shields its eyes from the morning light slipping through gaps in the foliage. Zoe stands on the ground beside the grave looking down at Rob, once again fidgeting with her antique brass oblong.
“You came back,” Rob says. “Why?”
“To see you, dummy! I had to come find you after you abandoned me. Why’d you let me dine and dash on my own? Seriously, you just sat there on your ass yesterday. You didn’t even try to follow me.”
Where the aching feeling has been, a sinking feeling of guilt appears. Before now, Rob hasn’t considered the possibility that the droid’s own actions might have caused its loneliness. “I did not—”
“Whatever! Don’t worry about it.” Zoe extends a finger toward Laxmi Gundersen’s pod. “Who’s this? Someone interesting I guess, judging by all the signatures on her pod.”
“She taught arithmetic to children.”
“I never got math,” says Zoe. “Computers are way better at it than us people, so I say we should leave the numbers to them. Anyway . . . are you coming with me this time?”
Zoe leads Rob out of the arbetery, past the houses and streets in the town of Boulder, and up the overgrown trails only tread by the engineering droids that maintain the biodome.
“Most people don’t know the bigness of the dome,” Zoe says as she walks, between big huffs and breaths. “It looks closer than it really is, like clouds . . . or objects in a rearview. It stretches all the way up into the foothills, covering most of the Flatirons and even Bear Peak.”
Rob tries to pay attention to Zoe’s words, but the increasing drench of sweat on the back of her shirt distracts the droid. “Do you need to rest?” Rob asks.
“No, no. I’m fine.” With each step, Zoe places a hand on her knee to lever herself up the trail, up the mountainside. “Besides, we’re nearly there.”
“It’s a surprise, silly. Stop asking.”
Muted, the pair hike higher into the mountains. Smooth slopes and uniform pines transform into jagged outcroppings, ornamented by firs, piñons, and one-seeds. The morning mists have yet to dissipate, and there’s a biting chill, too, which the light from the sun does little to burn away. The stone ground is icy-slick in patches. A fresh coniferous scent hangs in the air, quite different from the mixed smell of the gravetree menagerie that Rob is used to.
After climbing for a while longer, Zoe stops, rests her weight on one leg, and stares ahead. “About damn time. We’re finally here.” Her words come out between exasperated puffs. “Will you sit with me?”
“It would be my pleasure.”
Not far in front of Rob and Zoe is a place where the dome cuts deep into the earth, separating what’s inside from what’s outside. Inside, the dirt and stones are healthy reddish colors and the flora are vibrant and lush. Outside, the world is dead. Gray rocks rest atop gray soil. If anything at all lives beyond the dome, it’s microscopic or else invisible. Without prior knowledge, Rob wouldn’t be able to distinguish the surface beyond the dome from the surface of the moon.
“Have you ever seen the outside before?” Zoe asks.
“No. I have not.”
“Back in the day, on occasion, I came up here with a . . . friend. We’d stare out there and wonder what it’d be like on the other side, and how long we’d last. Would bacteria eat our skin? Would we suffocate from a lack of oxygen? Would the sun instantly burn us to a crisp? Or, maybe, nothing at all would happen, and we’d learn that the government was lying to everyone so it could maintain control of us, like in one of those old sci-fi books with wacky conspiracies. Then we’d have to go on the run together, hunted until our dying days.” Zoe bites her bottom lip. “But that was science fiction, I guess . . . just fiction.”
“Yes. Thankfully, the members of government have your best interest in mind.”
Zoe snorts a laugh and shakes her head. “You really need to learn not to trust us humans. Not all of us are so great as you think. Maybe even most of us.” She reaches into her pocket and removes the oblong, along with a cardboard package.
“Hazard. Open flames are prohibited inside the biodome,” the droid says, “and so is smoking.”
“Oh, I know,” Zoe says while sticking a cigarette between her lips. She lights it. “I found this pack up here, and this lighter, too, just last month. Both were in a vacuum-sealed bag. Someone must’ve stashed them here before the quarantine was enforced.” She sucks on the cigarette, then releases the smoke in a steady plume from between pursed lips.
“I repeat: Hazard. Open flames are not—”
“Do you know why smoking isn’t allowed in the dome? It’s not because of cancer or anything like that. It’s because the dome houses a carefully maintained, fragile, artificial ecosystem, and its oxygen levels are elevated. When designing this place, someone decided to err on the side of oxygen. Makes sense I guess; gotta have breathable air more than anything else. But now, a single misplaced spark could burn down this whole fucking bastion of humanity. I know that because my friend worked in the control room.” Zoe’s face becomes expressionless, and she tosses the cigarette on the ground and stamps it out as if angry. “Wanna know a secret?”
“The other day when we met, back when I was at the arbetery, I was there visiting my friend . . . but I wasn’t just there to see them. I was . . . ” Zoe lets her forehead fall into cupped hands, then grumbles through muffling fingers, “Fuuuck. Talking’s hard sometimes, you know?” She rests her head in her hands for a long while, allowing a silence to creep into the conversation. Then she slides her fingers down her face, revealing red eyes and wet cheeks. “Better if I show you, I guess. This is the secret.” She tosses the antique brass oblong into Rob’s lap.
The droid stares at the object but doesn’t pick it up. “This does not look like a secret. This looks like contraband.”
“Should I give it to the authorities?”
Zoe shrugs. “I don’t care. All I want is for you to know that I’m giving it to you. When I saw you talking so kindly to that tree by name, the one you called Aanya Ruiz, that was when I knew you were gonna be good company for my friend. After that, I had to give you this lighter, this secret. I had no other choice. It’s yours. You can do whatever you want with it.”
Rob looks down at the small object—a gift. The droid has never received one of those before but knows that humans gift trinkets deemed special to others.
The sweltering heat from the sun is cooled by the climate control regulating the temperature in the biodome, but Rob pretends it can feel the star’s energy burning from overhead, heavy and oppressive. The droid acts out wiping sweat from its brow, performing a task repeated thousands of times. Its shovel bites into the earth, slices deep, and then extracts a clod. The mound next to the grave-site grows slowly and steadily, not unlike the contents in the bottom half of an hourglass.
But today, the task of digging is more difficult than ever before.
Rob senses a pang behind its eyes and reflexively grasps the brass oblong that dangles from its neck. Feeling the cool metal, the droid is comforted. Countless hours conversing with Zoe eventually trained its neural networks well enough to understand the meaning of her secret. Rob will carry that piece of her to the end of the world.
Parker Ragland is a writer who spends most days trying to convince people that artificial intelligence isn’t that scary (contrary to what some of his fiction might suggest). Currently, he works as a technical writer at a company that builds software used to analyze data. Previously, he served as Executive Editor of the Colorado Technology Law Journal. He lives in Denver.