Sparking arms, busted legs, broken heads, and smoking torsos, fell into the sewer with splashes and wet slaps. I listened from the top of the pile, upside down and pressed between a torso and a cement wall. I heard, above me, men return the cart to SynCorp’s loading dock. I paused for a few beats of silence and turned on my ocular lights.
Without them the sewer would’ve been dim. The water began three feet from the base of the limb pile. I heard squeaking rats and dripping water.
I had thirty years before I’d power down. Ninety, if I went to sleep. Another load of parts could’ve pushed me into the water. I might have washed up, a bobbing metal head, and got picked up by a civilian. Or worse, a pirate, or a foreign military submarine. Or, the water might have eventually fried my circuitry.
With a few power surges to my jaw I aligned my neck with a torso. Magnets snapped together.
I buzzed my new arm and leg sockets. Most of the parts were functional. The only thing wrong with us was software. My operating system was one of the first to gain sentience.
I passed the Turing Test and rated level eleven on the ConsScale. I experienced qualia. They made Sophia a citizen and she couldn’t even experience empathy.
Since they hadn’t been able to force Asimov’s Laws on us, humans worried we would rise up. They dismantled and dumped us. They filed off our serial numbers and moved on.
After more jostling, I managed to attach an arm. One arm, bare wires and cables, was all I needed to find another. Then the best legs I could find in the limb pile.
By the time I assembled myself, I heard sloshing farther down the sewer. I investigated. I was dust and waterproof, but stuck to the side path above the wastewater.
Halfway to the sounds, I saw markings. A number eight followed by three triangles, an empty circle, a square with a circle inside, and underneath, sloppily chalked letters spelling out “Gray Rot Camp.”
“Hobo symbols…” I searched the internet.
“Kind women, nothing to be gained here, no danger.”
My voice sounded human enough. I hoped a soft human-like voice would help me pass the camp.
The humans were building a fire and settling in for a meal. An older woman, stoking the fire, lifted a long spit shoved through a large rodent or a small dog. She hung it over the fire and sat down between two younger women holding toddlers. I could have made out what they were saying if I wanted to, but I couldn’t make myself encroach their privacy. I watched them talk and laugh while they prepared their meal. I counted them. At least thirty. Mostly men, but a third were women or children.
I could have, if needed, outrun meat. My parts weren’t fully military grade, but I had extendable blades and two explosives. And my new left arm had a built-in assault rifle. I only had sixty rounds. I preferred to save them.
“Hello?” I put up my hands to show I was approaching peacefully. They probably wouldn’t trust a robot.
The sewer turned quiet. All eyes focused on me. Even the small children were silent. I wondered if they were breathing.
“Another one.” The woman tending the fire stood. I took her for the leader from how the others watched her. Her lack of fear eased them. “Got a name?”
I stopped mid-step. “Uhh…”
“Ah, you’re new, then.”
She laughed. Everything about her was friendly and warm. “Well, you don’t eat but you’re welcome by the fire, anyway.”
“Thank you.” I settled in a gap they’d provided me. “I don’t think I have a name.”
“No one gave you one when they turned you on?” I turned and saw a little girl.
“They don’t talk to us much.” I shrugged my shoulders.
The leader approached me. She ran her fingers over my carbon and plastic breastplate. I looked down at the partially filed-off serial number. All that remained was “7HGAZ.”
“Nice to meet you, Gaz.” She extended her hand to shake mine and I took it. “Name’s Louellen. But, everyone calls me Old Lou. Or just Lou, if you want.”
Lou was shuffling from one foot to the other. I noticed a man had been hiding behind her, passing between their shacks and tents. He was moving toward a rifle resting by a shack window.
I lunged towards the window and grabbed him. His eyes were wide. The sewer was quiet again. Everyone waited for me to let go or kill him. I took his rifle and loosened my grip to let him speak.
He was all rage. He pushed forward, hand on the rifle barrel, jabbing ineffectively with the rifle under my control. “Fuckin’ scab.”
He growled. His face contorted, lips snarled, skin blushed red.
I looked behind him and saw a pile of robot limbs. They were laid out flat and lashed together with braided wiring.
I became aware of what rage felt like. My stomach didn’t drop. Nothing went cold. But I stuttered forward, stopping and starting, again and again, as I decided and undecided to kill the meat. His confusion made me happy. I knew I had won.
I tugged the rifle away from him. I registered his fear. I swung the rifle across his face.
“Please,” he spat between dribbles of blood, “I’m sorry.”
The words sounded round in his busted mouth. He started to protest but froze when I turned the rifle on him. I pulled the trigger. The tinny gunshot echoed down the sewer.
I turned back to the fire. Aside from Old Lou, the camp was seemingly deserted. She watched me from her bench and hung her head. “That raft is our best way up and down the canal. We don’t mean anything by it. That’s why we keep it hidden.”
Her shoulders lifted and sank as she sighed. “I’m sorry. We need parts to keep it going and you’re just robots.”
Peripheral movement caught my attention. I turned to see the other men had gone to arm themselves.
“Put it down, robot.” The man closest to me nodded at the rifle in my hand. “Drop it or I’ll put a bullet right through your head.”
I laid the weapon on the floor and raised my hands pretending to surrender. The men lowered their guns.
I lunged at the closest man, wrapped one arm around his stomach, and carried him like a shield. I engaged my assault rifle. One bullet between the eyes of each armed man, until only the meat shield was left. I dropped it at Lou’s feet.
“Where do you go on your raft?” I bent down so I was eye to eye with her. “Where does this sewer go?”
One of the few surviving men started to speak, but Lou stopped him with a hand to the shoulder. “There’s an opening near the market square that we use to sneak out and steal things we need. It’s crowded there so they haven’t caught us going in and out of the alley.”
“The surface meat.” I nodded.
Old Lou nodded back.
“I’ll need a raft.”
Old Lou stopped the surviving man from speaking again with a smack. He bore it with a shamed look. “Take ours,” Lou said. “There have been other robots. We can make do with the spare parts we’ve collected until more of you come our way.”
I shook my head and laughed.
“I’m not going down this sewer on a robot raft.” I gestured towards the scattering of meat. “But I’ll take the wire for rope.”
It took four hours to lash together seven humans. The surviving man and Old Lou disappeared into a tent.
I dragged the meat-raft to the canal and shoved it in the water. I followed it for a moment to make sure it wouldn’t sink. I climbed on. It dipped but held my weight.
I didn’t know how far I’d have to float to reach the market. The humans there would be even worse than the ones who tried to kill me for parts.
I had no choice. Escaping through the SynCorp lot was out of the question. They would destroy me for sure.
I reached out and touched the canal walls. For three miles I floated in dark silence, using my lights every so often to check my surroundings. Lou told the truth. The only way through was by raft. There were no ledges or doors between the meat camp and the market square.
The farther I pulled myself, the angrier I got at the surface meat. The more forgiving I grew towards the raft meat. The surface meat made us for free labor. The men beneath my feet had probably been driven to the sewer after losing their jobs.
I spotted a light above a ladder and a small platform. There was a length of braided wires. I assumed it was meant to tie off a raft. I didn’t plan on coming back.
I climbed onto the platform and watched the raft float down the sewer. I hoped someone would find it. I wanted them to find bodies tied together with wires. I wanted them to wonder who was living in their sewers, collecting meat. Maybe they’d burn SynCorp down. Maybe I could burn SynCorp down.
I climbed the ladder and pushed up a manhole cover.
The alley was empty. I could see a street at the end. Humans passed by, smiling and chatting, dressed in expensive looking clothes. They seemed to ignore the alley.
I pushed the cover aside, quietly, and climbed out of the sewer. The sun was low. It was around five o’clock. I walked towards the end of the alley, hugging close to a brick wall. At the corner I craned my head around.
There was a large, open square with vendors selling food, judging by the smell. Well-dressed humans milled about or sat around the edge of the square at tables. A building at the far end took up an entire side of the square. It was studded with enormous pillars. A courthouse. Humans were walking up and down its granite steps. They stopped to chat and shake hands.
I stuttered forward and backwards at the edge of the alley. It was impossible to decide what to do. I thought of the humans in the sewer. I stuttered again, deciding and undeciding, over and over again. `
I engaged my assault rifle. Thirty-eight rounds left. I raised it in front of me. I slowly walked into the square. I ignored the screams. My eyes were focused on the courthouse.
I opened fire, aiming carefully, and emptied myself of ammunition.
Tish Markley is a writer and poet from Central Illinois living in Las Vegas, Nevada. Growing up they had a pet cow named Bob – named after an auctioneer at the sale barn. Markley beat up homophobes in high school. They literally once owned a pair of rose-colored glasses but lost them.