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Short Story: Junk

shabby district of town with brick buildings with graffiti

Snitch shuddered as she awoke from sleep mode. Fragments of scrap metal tumbled and clinked against her body as the junk pile she was leaning on shifted under her weight.

   Her sensors had detected an illegal transmission. Every character of her code told her to find the source and eliminate it. She shuffled over to the security gate and pressed her palm to it, knowing her cold, mechanical hand would not generate a response. She hooked her fingers through the tiny holes in the chain-link fence, pressed her forehead against it, and closed her eyes.

   Snitch intercepted the transmission. It appeared to be a live feed streaming to an unregistered video sharing platform. A new one she didn’t recognise. Then again, her internal clock registered 517 days since she was last online. The platform may not have been that new after all.

   By analysing the smooth skin, protruding laryngeal prominence, and wispy moustache on the top lip, Snitch deduced that the human was a teenaged male. His face was framed by a car wing mirror, and every five seconds the feed went black as he blinked. The camera must have been an eye implant.

   ‘So, a bit of background,’ he said to his reflection, ‘for anyone who’s been living off the grid for the last decade – and welcome back if that’s you.’

   The video was titled Waylon’s Dare – Grace Lane Mechanoid Storage. Waylon turned to face the sign and Snitch caught a glimpse of the front gate – a sight she hadn’t seen for 1,482 days.

   ‘The UN declared that sentient robots were ‘living’, so now it’s illegal to scrap them and reuse them for parts. But machines don’t last forever. They get old and glitchy. Their hardware starts to fall apart. They’ve got no family to support them in their old age and no one buries them when they finally kick the bucket, so they end up on scrapheaps like Grace Lane Mechanoid Storage. Useless but still alive.’

   Snitch glanced at the three bodies laid out on the far side of the pen. As each one had eventually become unresponsive, she had carried them into the north-east corner where, on the days when the smog was thin enough, the setting sun shone on them as night fell. Each time, she had said a final goodbye and taken a handful of steel nuts from the junk pile, placing them in a row across each mechanoid’s chest. They had all now rusted in place.

   It was a lie that no one cared for them.

   The camera scanned the front gate as Waylon looked at it. ‘All these signs say there’s super high security, but now I’m actually standing here, it doesn’t look all that intimidating. There’s a guard shack over there behind the gate, but when I zoom in, it looks empty.’

   She needed to stop the broadcast. Detective Constable Clarke had described it like an itch that needed to be scratched. Snitch assumed this was true; her exterior sensors were different to the ones that humans had. But the illegal signal produced a desperate need inside as her programming forced her into action. It consumed her CPU, preventing her from processing any other information.

   But there was nothing she could do. She needed access to the hardware, which was on the other side of a series of human-controlled security gates.

   ‘In we go,’ Waylon said as he scanned his palmprint and pushed open the gate. A labyrinth of chain-link fences stretched out before him. ‘There’s some crazy stuff in here. Most of the mechs got sent here cos they went psycho.’

   Snitch banged her head against the fence as images flooded her memory banks. She saw blood on her hands. DC Clarke – her friend, the one who gave her her name – was shouting at her, his eyes wide with fear. Then she was sitting in the Superintendent’s office. A flaw in your programming makes you a danger to the public.

   The transmission had to be stopped.

   She scanned the pen she was in and came to a new conclusion. Most of the items on the junk pile were tiny pieces of discarded metal left over from when the site was an actual scrapyard. There were, however, a few larger pieces that could be put to use.

   ‘Annie,’ her voice rasped through her dirty speaker grille. ‘Wake up. I need your help.’

   The heap of metal in the corner of the pen beeped and raised its head.

   ‘Quick, Annie, help me.’

   Annie placed both hands over her head. Her index finger was missing where an anaesthetic syringe could be attached. As Snitch dragged a large dead battery to the other side of the pen, Annie began to make a wheezing sound, and Snitch knew she was crying.

   Waylon was still exploring the storage facility when Snitch finished her makeshift staircase. Judging by the size of it, it still wouldn’t be high enough for her to climb over the fence.

   ‘I need you, Annie,’ Snitch said.

   No response.

   Snitch closed her eyes for a moment, then moved to the resting place she had created in the north-east corner. If she added the dead mechanoids to the pile, it might give her the height she needed. Their names ran through her CPU, linking up to images in her memory banks.

   No. She couldn’t use them like that. Their bodies should be respected.

   ‘I think it came from over here,’ Waylon was saying over the video feed. Moving the junk around had generated a lot of noise and attracted his attention.

   Snitch watched her pen appear in the distance. The mound of scrap wasn’t high enough to allow her to escape. Annie was still wheezing. Waylon was on his way.

   She looked at Annie crying in the corner and dropped to her knees. She rocked back and forth, allowing her head to thump on the concrete.

   ‘Look at this!’ Waylon said, glee lighting up his voice.

   Snitch watched herself through his eye. There was only one way she could stop the transmission: it would have to be removed.

   A flaw in your programming makes you a danger to the public.

   ‘These two are still alive! Let’s take a closer look.’ He glanced down at the palmprint lock and pressed his hand against it. When it clicked, he pulled the gate open with a metallic creak.

   Through the feed, Snitch could hear Annie hissing and wheezing. She watched herself rocking forwards and backwards with a clunk every time her forehead hit the ground.

   ‘Proper insane,’ Waylon said. ‘I’ll get as close as I can, but I’ll leave the gate open just in case.’

   He stepped closer to Snitch. ‘No way! This one was a police mech. Look; it’s got the logo on its arm.’

   It. Snitch lacked certain body parts, but considered herself to be female. Something about the contours of her body reminded her of humans who were categorised as women, so she did the same. She wasn’t an it.

   Waylon leaned down to her shoulder so the camera could capture a clear picture of the police shield. Snitch needed to stop the transmission.

   She rocked back and thrust her arm out. Waylon swore and jumped back. Snitch pushed herself to her feet, but Waylon was already running. Her rusted old joints were no match for a rush of adrenaline.

   She staggered forward, trying to gather the power to run. The video showed the exit approaching, then abruptly cut to black. The broadcast had ended.

   Snitch looked around her. It was a perspective she hadn’t seen for 1,482 days. She was in one of the corridors linking the pens. Behind her, the gate to her pen was open. She was free.

This story was written for Lady Jabberwocky’s ‘one foot in the grave’ prompt. The story is set in a graveyard, just not one for humans.

While writing this story, I was reminded of one of my favourite lines from the TV show Red Dwarf. Kryten is a mechanoid whose programming makes him believe there is an afterlife for machines when they’ve stopped working. The other characters try to tell him it’s nonsense, and he replies with ‘No silicon heaven? Preposterous! Where would all the calculators go?’

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