“Good morning, Adler. This is a reminder that I am a machine. I cannot think. I have no consciousness. I am here to serve you.”
A steel, human-like robot spoke, laying on the ground of a house in ruins. It had a dented square head and its eyes flickered with a yellowing light. Its legs were missing, and from the bottom of its torso a disparaging mess of wires and broken pistons whirred and sparked. Its arms were pressed against its sides and its fingers convulsed against its metal self.
Adler sat next to the robot, watching through the cracked glass of a window as the sun began to rise behind the distant mountains. The sky turned a radiant pink and orange. Adler’s greasy hair hung to his right and his beard crawled with scurrying bugs, and they glimmered in the sun’s first rays of light. The still cool winds of the night danced around him and he shivered, and his teeth clattered.
“What day’s it?” He asked.
“It’s been 552 days.” The robot said.
“I miss them.” Adler said. “I think I want them to show up today. It would be a good day if they did.”
Five hundred and fifty-two days before, his colony had been evacuated. The world was useless, they had concluded. Infested with mites, they gnawed, chewed and destroyed. Nothing lasted on planet Obrov 4, they had declared. But he had not been home on evacuation day. His forgetful mind and his robot had wandered off into the forest looking for more wood to burn, and they had found wood. It had been a good day, that day. Even at night when they had returned to a silent town it had been good. He had sat outside with his chair in the darkness and the quiet, listening to the hidden sounds of the new nature. A distant singing of an animal he hadn’t yet encountered and the call of insects lulled him. He fell asleep, watched over by his trusty steel friend, in a town that had forgotten him.
“You think they’ll come back?” He said.
“We turned on the distress signal more than one year ago.” The robot said. “I’m not familiar with fleet procedures, but I think they’ll come back. I think we have a good chance they’ll come back.” The robot’s algorithms concocted the best possible answer for Adler’s situation.
The sun appeared above the mountains and its light penetrated through the cracks and broken windows of the house. Adler placed his face in the light and closed his eyes. A smell of rancid oil dissolved into the air. The mites in his beard retreated into the dirt and he stopped shivering. Sleep was hard during the cold nights, but in the day, beneath the warmth of a red sun, it flooded his tired mind and he fell asleep.
“Are you awake now?” The robot asked, two hours after Adler had closed his eyes, but he was not awake.
“Are you awake now?” The robot asked during the day, letting Adler know, in case he was awake, it was still there watching over him.
“Are you awake now?” The robot asked again when night had come. Adler opened his eyes and glanced through the window.
The stars where shining in the moonless sky, blurred behind the broken glass. Adler’s chest suddenly weighed more. The expected peace of sleep didn’t arrive, and in the darkness and the silence of planet Obrov 4 he spoke.
“How strange to be here.” He said. “When I was young, I dreamed of other planets. I used to run outside and stare at the full moon. It was the closest thing I had to another world and I slept in its light after counting all the stars I could count.”
Adler’s beard and body again were swarmed with bugs looking for warmth and an easy meal, and they itched, but he did not scratch.
“Why did you dream of other planets?” The robot asked.
“I’m not sure anymore. The pictures were grand. I used to bug my parents for guides and books and experiences. It was the most impossible journey. I guess in the beginning it was the call to adventure, but over time that changed.”
Black and triangle-shaped, a hundred strange insects gathered at his feet, fluttering their wings, fighting for a good spot by his toes. An endless scratching of their shuffling wings permeated the air, and they chewed. They had discovered a good source of calcium in his toenails, and his feet bled from their tips, and jolts of pain jumped up his legs, into his spine, and he twitched. The toenails were long gone. The triangles now feasted on exposed bones, and occasionally on the rotting flesh around them.
“How?” The robot asked, denoting curiosity in its voice.
“As I grew up my reasons for wanting to leave Earth evolved with me. I didn’t become the role model I thought I’d be. Turns out the world isn’t quite so easy to navigate. I was missing an arm by sixteen. My parents were gone who knows where, and I was living in a parking lot. Leaving the planet was the best way to start again, you know? To leave my problems in the past.”
Adler’s voice was slurred. A hole on his right cheek leaked red spit, as the constant involuntary biting of the loose skin kept blood flowing.
“It sure sounds like you did.” The robot said and gave Adler a shaky thumbs up. “Leave your problems behind, that is.”
“I thought so, too, buddy. And yet I’m here, part of an experimental colony, forgotten.”
He pushed his torso up with his left arm and shook off a few bugs with his stump.
“It doesn’t sound so bad. To be the owner of a planet.” The robot said. “You can go anywhere. You can do anything.”
“I thought so, too. I’ve been convincing myself of that for the past year and a half, but just now, waking up in the night, my lie is exposed. I miss home.”
Unable to walk, he dragged himself to the entrance of the ruined house, and pushed the door open.
“Come on.” He said, and the robot dragged itself outside, too.
“Why do you miss your home Adler, wasn’t it full of problems?”
It was a special night. It was a chosen night. Adler half-crawled to the middle of the dirt road, followed by a black swarm and his robot, and there he laid back down and gazed at the stars.
“Yeah, it was, but life isn’t itself without them, no matter where you go. I used to see a girl. Michelle. She slept by a power station I frequented. We used to run away into the city and sneak into the tallest buildings at night. We climbed for hours and then we’d sit at the top, hungry as hell, watching the city and its lights and we’d talk until the sun came up. I wonder what happened to her. I miss her. You can’t tell when you’re living in a dream, except in hindsight. I miss green trees. I miss crickets. I miss the moon.”
“It’s okay to miss things, Adler. It’s part of your identity. It would be wrong for you to not miss them, in this far away land. Who knows? Maybe you’ll get to see your world again, maybe you’ll see her once more, and it’ll be just like before.”
When the robot finished speaking, the heavy mantle of otherworldly silence again came down and pressed against them. A thousand more insects, detecting their heat took flight towards them. He had been protecting his fingernails, but on the dirt road Adler gave up the fight. The scratching and chewing continued, and blood poured from the tips of his fingers, and his arms twitched with pain, but he was not there.
“One, two, three…” He began to count. Obrov 4 had no moons, and the view of the galaxy seemed to explode from above. A million dots glowed and flickered. A billion worlds floated in the void keeping time and order and chaos. There was a howling in the forest. Wind whirled around them and dissipated. An open window slammed against its frame.
“There it is…” Adler said, pointing with a bloody stumped finger to the sky, and the first rays of a new day peeked from behind the mountains.
“There was a boy once, inside me, but he is not me. There was a mystery to the future, but no more. How strange to know the future of that kid, to know where his dreams would take him.”
“Good morning, Adler. This is a reminder that I am a machine.” The robot repeated upon detecting sunlight. “I cannot think. I have no consciousness. I am here to serve you.”