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Helios and Luna, Harry Trethowan

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unspash

The screech of the apartment complex’s 6:00 AM siren pierced through concrete walls. It signalled to the room’s singular resident he was permitted to wake. The steel door constraining the man inside the room clunked as magnetic bolts slid back into its frame. It was an empty gesture on behalf of the Government in control of the complex. The vault-like door to the building itself wouldn’t unlock for the man until his designated time in the park. Another minute passed before the siren’s vibrations subsided from the room’s metal entryway and the man felt brave enough to tease open crusty eyes. Plastic bedsheets crackled as he slid bruised and swollen feet to the floor and the man shivered as his soles brushed the ground. One more week until he had enough tokens to trade for a carpet.

As he stretched his arms and yawned, the man left grimy fingerprints on the ceiling. He was painfully aware of his vertebrae as they cracked and dug into taut skin. The barricaded LCD screen embedded in one of the walls flickered on as the floor’s pressure recognition registered his weight. Yellow text rolled across the screen as the man nervously scratched his stomach, hoping the briefing for June 22, 2048, was different. Carbon emissions were expected to fall by December 1 below the global 42 billion metric tonne benchmark claimed by the federal Government to be the “beginning of sustainable change”. No foreseeable alterations to offset sequestration measures were to be announced until at least a half billion tonnes were removed. No changes to the zero-child policy in Sydney were to be expected until another one billion tonnes were removed. This brief had been identical since December 1, 2047, when three billion metric tonnes more carbon in the atmosphere were present.

There was a whirring sound from deep within the ceiling and the man felt a breeze lick against his bulging bones as the air filters turned on. The circular monitor surgically inserted between his collarbones and over his trachea glowed a bright green, beginning to track his daily exhalations. If he exhaled more than a particular amount of carbon dioxide the monitor would expand, compressing his trachea if he walked more than two metres from a carbon filter. There were no reports of death from tracheal compression for four months, which conveniently corresponded with the release of the V.2.01 dogs. No one risked leaving their apartment hoping to see another human scurry back inside their own now that company was readily, but expensively, available.

An electronic stutter from the foot of his bed marked the time as 6:15 AM, when his own dog was hardwired to turn on. He had even saved up enough weekly tokens to trade for a voice box with the vocal recording of an old school student. It had cost him another fortnight worth of tokens to get installed but was worth the human sound.

‘Good morning, sir.’

The man felt butterflies jitter up inside his stomach. The voice emanating from the microphone lodged in the dog’s iron maw was feminine. He recalled the note that came with the voice box telling him the student’s name was Luna. The man ignored the static and focused on the sleek tone of the recorded voice. It stirred a warm emotion in his lower chest he hadn’t felt since high school. The man whistled, walking across to the Perspex window next to his bed and the machine squeaked over to sit obediently at his side. The window offered a limited, ground floor view of the park at the heart of the apartment complex. As he did every morning whilst stroking Luna’s head, smudging dirt into her silver scalp panel, he watched the first park visitor of the day.

The woman was the closest thing he would refer to as a friend other than Luna. She was first on schedule each day to be allowed outside to plant her carbon-quenching tree seeds provided by the Government. Only one person was allowed to be exhaling their carbon outside at a time. After planting, residents were given free time until their carbon exhalation limit was reached. Brief socialisations during the crossover period as the next resident was allowed outside were also tolerated. Over the past few months this woman’s carbon exhalation limit had been reached quickly. Each of the V.2.01 pets were required to be refuelled using one of the fuel pumps scattered throughout the park. Every resident on the release day of V.2.01 had their carbon monitors wirelessly linked to the pumps which also slashed the permitted exhalations. This woman had saved tokens since March to trade for a beautiful Labrador replica whose engine required almost daily refuelling.

The man had not taken notice of her for the few years they had been locked away planting trees, until the day she went for a walk with her new dog. The smog overhead had experienced a mild respite, and rare sunlight glinted of the machine’s golden hide. His bottom jaw cracked as it fell. He remembered splaying his fingers against the Perspex, forehead trying to press through the impermeable material, staring at the dog. The woman had noticed him staring at her lonely routine and stopped her walk for the first time. The man tried to mouth a question, but she shook her head and gestured at her ears with a fingernail as clean as her dog’s shining panels. The man opened his mouth and exhaled on the Perspex, glad the smell of his breath could not penetrate the material. He traced in the condensation:

What’s its name

The woman smiled and repeated the action, and the man followed the trace of her slender finger. He whispered each letter as she wrote:

Helios

He smudged out his first question and wrote back:

Mine’s name is Luna

*

Ever since that first exchange, he imagined her voice sounded just like his Luna whenever they exchanged words with breath and fingers. The man was third in line to plant his tree and had never heard her speak. But every day they traded stories about their dogs, neither caring about repetitiveness. She seemed as fascinated by Luna as he was by Helios.

Today, as the woman scooped dirt over her seeds, a nasally voice came over the man’s personal intercom informing him he was to plant second today. The usual resident had fallen ill and passed away from a bacterial infection obtained from park soil. The man froze. Nerves ensnared him, not too different from those he felt before his first date at seventeen years old, decades ago. It took the woman straightening from her seeds, and the sight of her fingers stroking the head of Helios, to shake him from the uncanny spell. He reached for the dirt-encrusted flannel shirt curled up in a ball on his bed and strode out of his room buttoning it. Luna trotted behind him, the metal chain fixed to her back clinking in her wake.

Grey blades of grass snapped under the man’s feet as he made a beeline through the park to where he had watched the woman and Helios plant their seed. The chain bolted into Luna’s metallic hide bit into his wrist. He had wrapped it around purple fingers two, three, four times. The cold metal cutting into his malnourished carpals reassured him that Luna was still there. No, he couldn’t lose her. Luna’s warmth seeped from her side as she clanked along with the shivering man, wafting dirty mist that tickled the hairs of his arm and warmed his skin. For every extra degree of warmth Luna gifted him, he could feel his carbon permittance drifting away. He hurried his step and tried to shallow his breathing.

He eyed the woman stepping slowly, purposefully, on the other side of the park on the cement pathway. She was approaching his apartment window and he took notice of her neck craning to try and catch a glimpse of his presence. This would be the first time in months they did not converse through the window and they had only a few minutes until her carbon monitor changed red. The soft thud of her rubber shoes reverberated throughout the colourless park and the silence of Helios’s oiled panels was overridden by Luna’s rusty squeaks.

Every nut and bolt of Helios was flush with polished metal, gleaming to a holy shine. The man though it was more yellow than the sun, and it probably was warmer too. She must have spent all her tokens on Helios. Oiling him, upgrading his paints, maybe even a voice box of his own. The man’s butterflies turned scalding as jealousy squeezed his throat. He couldn’t buy gold paint. He couldn’t even buy a carpet for his apartment. Maybe he could ask for a panel from the Helios’s pelt. A screwdriver would twist out those perfect little bolts from Helios, then he’d pry off a panel of Luna with a branch from one of the bigger trees.

He jangled the chain around his wrist and yanked Luna along more sharply than he ever had previously. Luna accidentally spoke as her voice box was mechanically activated.

‘Good morning, sir.’

He saw the woman pause at the refuelling station above the dusty ground nearest his window. He peered at Helios from behind a row of skeletal shrubs as he got closer. She never refuelled Helios at that station, and her head was turned to look at his window. Was she waiting for him? This was the longest she had been in the park without seeing the man since they began to talk. If you could call it talking. He saw himself whispering as loudly as he could to her, pleading for a single sheet of Helios’s metal. Or should he say hello first? Would she want to talk to him if it wasn’t through a window and the vapour of their saliva? A fuzzy rumble grew in his stomach at the idea of her responding. He could not frame her words or imagine the words’ content or even what he would say himself. The only thing he knew for sure, was that he wanted to trade a piece of Luna for a piece of Helios.

The woman slid the pump’s nozzle into Helios’s jaws and the woollen sleeve of her jacket slipped down her wrist. The scratchy clothing and Helios were the two most expensive things the man could imagine, and her self-discipline saving tokens ignited his admiration. He had eaten nothing but refrigerated pasta that month and had prayed to whatever it was people decided to believe in these days that he wouldn’t get sick. It was the cheapest option, and he still couldn’t afford a carpet.

He had almost reached the woman as she withdrew the pump gracefully from Helios’s maw, the dog’s mouth dripping fuel. He slapped his bare feet slightly harder on the ground now he was on the pathway, hoping she would notice him before he spoke. The gurgling sound of the petrol settling in Helios’s aluminium windpipe didn’t allow his wish to come true.

‘Hello Helios.’

His gentle greeting paralysed the woman. His voice was obviously different to the previous resident with whom she had exchanged few light words with as their shifts were exchanged. He yanked Luna’s chain and stepped back to the dirt and grass, hoping the distance would evoke the same sense of security as Perspex. She was a tall woman, taller than him, something he hadn’t noticed through the window considering the park grounds were slightly indented. For the second time that day he picked at his stomach in uncertain anticipation. He knew he was not an impressive man, a nobody with sliced feet and a filthy flannel shirt. And Luna. He took a slight step forwards, teeth bared in an unaccustomed smile.

‘You both look nice today’.

He stopped moving as quickly as he started. He didn’t want her to leave and Helios was so much nicer up close. Polished enough that you could see Luna’s robotic panting in its side, silver-grey turning bronze in the reflection. A panel from Helios would make Luna so much prettier. The woman nodded as slow as her tightly coiled muscles would allow. He took it as an invitation.

‘Would I be able to touch him? You can step back if you want.’

She looked like one of the Government’s recording-owls, only her eyes were dull blue and lacked the beautiful glow that emanated from the owls’ bulbous eyes. The owls weren’t turned on until after sunset, so they didn’t need to worry about those either. No one ever worried about them anymore because no one had enough carbon to exhale by night, but the Government kept the owls anyway.

‘Helios hasn’t touched anyone but me before.’

The woman was beginning to relax and her pupils were beginning to widen in the way they did when she saw the man through the Perspex. He was still aware he needed to finish the conversation fast. He hadn’t yet planted his own seed and her time was running out.

‘Do you think Helios and Luna could swap a panel? You can paint away the rust a little bit maybe. If you wanted.’

‘With Luna?’

‘Yes. I can buy a screwdriver instead of a carpet and we can take out a bolt a day to keep our monit-‘

The woman’s tracheal monitor cut to red. Her eyes widened to match her growing pupils as fear snatched at her attention. She needed to get back into her apartment and to her carbon filter. With one last glance at the man she hurried past him, cheeks puffed out as tried to hold her breath. But first with a paling face, she managed a smile in the direction of Luna and nodded. As she fled the park, the man planted his seed right there below his window, butterflies flitting around in his stomach again like a schoolboy. He was back in his own apartment well before his own carbon limit was reached and placed an order for a screwdriver express the next morning.

*

The next morning, the man leapt out of bed to swing open his apartment’s steel door. He tenderly picked up the sleek black box wrapped with red ribbon on the floor that contained his order. His heart was pounding, and he wished it would slow down. He needed as many exhalations as he could get today. At this thought, the nasally voice over the apartment intercom spoke to the man again. He was to plant his seed first today. The first resident had died from tracheal compression after her exhalation limit was reached. For the second day in a row, the man froze. He untied the box’s ribbon and pulled out his screwdriver.

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Robota, Alice Maher

The bots stared glassily ahead as dozens of off-duty humans milled about them.

‘The Sophisticated Models, or SMs, are self-decontaminating; I suppose that was important for OH&S back in the pleasure houses, and it’s just as useful here. We don’t care as much about the BASE models, but the SMs can clean all forty or so of them in only a few minutes, so we get that out of the way too.’ A plump woman who had introduced herself as ‘Quebec’ but never asked for Jin’s name, was showing him around the mining facility: his home for the next three-year rotation. Currently, she was leading him through the large hangar where the ‘mining tools’ were kept when not in use.

All the bots were second-hand. Even if Quebec hadn’t joked about the cost-saving prowess of the Mars Mining Initiative (MMI for short), Jin could still have guessed. It seemed like every factory and pleasure house on Earth shipped their outmoded bots up to Mars to be repurposed as a miner. The MMI must offer a price slightly higher than the scrap-merchants, but still low enough to be economical. Despite this clear desire to cut corners, Jin noticed that all of them, from the two squads of BASE Models (little more than expressionless crash-test dummies with a polycarbonate frame) to the thirty-three more human-looking SMs, were clothed. To be fair, it was an odd jumble of outfits that made the bots look shabbier than ever. All of it looked laundered and well-maintained, but was all still permanently stained Mars Red and Coal Black.
Jin side-stepped a small group of his fellow humans, who were crowding around an SM with a shirt that said “I BEAT JONA’S BURRITO CHALLENGE.” ‘Why clothe them at all if they’re just here to mine coal?’

Quebec laughed a little embarrassedly. ‘Well, initially we just clothed the SMs. They’re all anatomically correct, of course, and a lot of us workers found it…distracting, to see them working in such a state. So we got some old clothes sent out to make them decent.’

‘And the BASE models?’

‘Ah, well after covering up the other ones, it seemed proper to clothe everyone. The SMs looked too human, standing next to the BASE models with their faces and clothing, and the BASE models by comparison didn’t look human enough.” She shrugged as though embarrassed.

Earlier, Jin had been shown the main workstation, where the humans monitored the mine from the safety of the facility. A massive window overlooked the scarlet-black scar of its entrance. He had watched from on-high as the bots marched from the mine back to the facility. They had seemed creepy then, out on the Martian landscape, and they were downright unnerving up close.

At least Jin thought so. Everybody else seemed eager enough to be around them, inspecting them with more than just professional diligence. Quebec had practically dragged him down here once the shift ended, to show him ‘the best part of the tour.’ She stopped by a female SM that had drawn the largest crowd.

‘Quebec, that the new kid?’ one of the other workers asked.

Quebec nodded but didn’t make introductions. Would anyone ever care to learn his name?

‘He gonna draw lots for The Supervisor?’

‘Who?’ Jin glanced around for an authority figure.

The others laughed and Quebec gestured to the SM. ‘We call this one The Supervisor because she’s in the best shape, so we usually send her down with the transmitter.’ It was protocol that every time the bot team entered the mine, a communication device was sent with them.

The Supervisor had a delicate nose and straight black hair: like Jin, she was clearly of Japanese origin. But where his features were organic, the bot was too symmetrical, her complexion too flawless. Only the faded overalls looked like they changed over time, and this helped to soften the striking image. She (it?) was certainly beautiful, a classic pleasure model. After a moment Jin realised that was exactly why they were crowded around her.

Quebec confirmed his suspicions. ‘We draw lots to decide who goes first,’ she explained, and one man made a crude gesture.

Jin suddenly felt very young. He saw that other humans, less picky or less lucky, had activated different SMs and were leading them away to rooms beyond.

Before he could speak, Quebec reached up and felt around the nape of The Supervisor’s neck. There was a low hum like an old-fashioned computer booting up, then the bot blinked and looked around.

‘Hello everyone,’ she purred, and Jin yelped. It was common knowledge that pleasure bots could speak (unless ordered not to), but he hadn’t been prepared for how…human it sounded. He’d half expected the Morse code that had trilled over the loudspeakers earlier, when the bots were finishing their shift. Had that been The Supervisor?

The bot was staring at him, and her gaze was unselfconscious. Jin was reminded of a tiger he had seen at a museum in Osaka. Its eyes had been glass beads, its skinned pelt draped over a metal frame, but Jin had still half-expected it to spring at him. He knew he would be the first to look away now.

‘They’re just machines,’ Quebec said after a moment, also staring at him. Her human eyes were more animated, the windows to an actual soul with the actual capacity to harm him, if Quebec chose. But he still found it easier to look at her than at the bot.

Just Machines. Just machines with human faces and human voices. And even the BASE Models had human clothes. What did a bot know about Jona or his burritos? And pockets, too; bots had no use for them, but there they were, in every pair of jeans or battered coat that had once belonged to a real person.

The other workers were getting restless, and soon Jin was forgotten even by Quebec, who must have figured his first day had been informative enough. The Supervisor had also turned away from him, and was smiling demurely at the workers clamouring to ‘go first.’

Quebec found him later, after she and the others had had their fun. Jin could tell she wanted to talk about it, put the new kid’s concerns to rest before they festered. But he brushed her off, laughed, talked about anything else. Mechanical movements.

*

Jin soon learned to avoid the entire ground floor of the facility, where the storage hangar was located. Worker’s quarters were on the higher levels, near the main workstation and technical offices; but there were several old storerooms and such on the ground floor that the crew utilised during their downtime with the bots. Jin stayed up top, reading books and recording messages for his family back on Earth.

Nii-san,

So far this job has been easy enough. I mostly fetch and carry, and occasionally they make me do data entry. So far even you could do it!

I thought I would have a lot more to do with the mining itself, but no. Why try to oxygenate the mine for humans and risk blowing the whole thing up with a loose spark, when bots can do all the work? There are almost a hundred of them, and they don’t need air or even suits; so not only is it a less volatile environment for the coal, but it all works out far cheaper when none of us humans ever even leave the facility. Occasionally one of the bots will send a message over the transmitter- I’ve had to learn Morse code since arriving- but usually it’s almost boring for the people, stuck here in the facility.

Speaking of which, don’t tell Mama this, but the workers here use the bots for sex in their free time. I know that was probably their purpose once, but I still don’t think it’s right. Quebec told me not to think about it like the bots had feelings. ‘High-tech sex toys,’ she called them.

I saw them up close on my first day, and they’re way more realistic than I thought. Kenta told me he visited a pleasure house in Kabukicho once, and was with an SM. Atsuko too, she said her sister rented a male one for her graduation. They’re all beautiful of course, but they’re too real. They even have normal clothes, not just lingerie like in the catalogues. All the looks of a proper human, none of the feelings. I avoid them.

Sorry to bother you with stuff like this. Don’t tell Mama.

-Jin

*

Nii-san,

Today, I got sent down to the storage hangar with Salva, one of the engineers. I had to hold some tools and take some notes while she did her routine check-up of the motor functions of the bots. I asked her why she chose me to assist her, and she said it’s because I don’t use the bots. I don’t think she does either.

We had to strip each bot, to check it for damage. The SMs have particularly delicate outer shells. It’s still much stronger than human skin, but the crew are paranoid about any little tear on their ‘toys.’

For the SMs, Salva switched them on and asked them to strip down by themselves. That was almost worse than us doing it; like part of a routine. I just stared at my clipboard.

Salva even chatted with some of the bots as she inspected their naked bodies. I know it’s just a personality modification that allows them to ‘chat,’ but it’s still creepy. They’re so realistic, I don’t know how people can use them in the way they do. Sending them down the mines to work, taking them away for sex…it’s like slavery. I know I sound like those radicals with the megaphones who hand out posters at Roppongi. But I don’t believe they have real feelings or anything. I don’t think they need to have feelings for it to be wrong.

After we finished inspecting them, we collected up the laundry. This happens every few weeks. The first time, I started shaking out their pockets like I do with my own clothes. Then I realised there was no need. What would a bot ever put in there, after all? So now they’ll just stand there naked until the clothes come back clean tomorrow; no need for spares. No need for decency, at least not while the humans aren’t around. No need to empty out their pockets before throwing them in the wash.

They really are just machines.

*

Jin sat at a desk in the main workstation, the rickety one that he could claim as long as nobody more important wanted it. The other workers tapped languidly at their keyboards as they calculated batching numbers. The bots had been down in the mine doing the real work for about five hours.

Just as Jin thought about going and making a coffee, all the radios in the room sparked to life with a series of beeps. The echoes were too chaotic for Jin to make out the code right away, but after a second Gordin, the head batcher, played the transmission through the loudspeakers and shouted for everyone to shut up.

_._./._/…_/./../_.

It was repeated several times, with barely a pause between the final dit and the first dah.

CAVEINCAVEINCAVEIN…

Everyone started talking at once, over the top of the beeping.

‘Who’s got the transmitter down there?’

‘Message back for more information.’

‘I think it’s The Supervisor.’

‘She won’t give more information if you don’t ask for it.’

‘Ask her how many we’ve lost.’

‘Just tell them to get out of there!’

Gordin tapped out a short message on the straight key, and the transmission shut off. ‘I’ve told them to come back to the facility at once,’ he said, and then crossed the room to stare out the window. After a moment the others followed, clambering for a glimpse

Jin had been sitting close to the window, and was in a good position to see out. It took fifteen minutes of tense anticipation, but eventually the bots began to trickle out of the mouth of the mine. Usually they marched two-by-two, with carts full of coal trundling along between them. But now they staggered out in drips and drabs, dragging limbs that bent at unnatural angles. The first few were only about as dirty as they ever were, but most were covered head to foot in coal dust. They looked like shadows moving across the red rock.

‘Must’ve been buried,’ someone said. ‘Dug themselves out.’

Gordin swore. ‘Salva, I want you to check them out once they’re all in. They look pretty banged-up.’

After a while the procession of bots dwindled down to one every few minutes. Workers began to return to their desks and deal with the expected fallout from the cave-in. Salva kept watching, and Jin, who had no job to do and no desk now that everyone was actually busy, stayed with her.

The engineer grunted. ‘Damn things. There’ll be no end to their glitching now.’

Jin was about to reply when a klaxon drowned him out. He glanced around. The workers seemed as surprised as he.

‘Something in the mine?’ Quebec asked, and Gordin shook his head.

‘No, it’s in the facility. Fire crew to storage hangar, now!’

‘The bots,’ Jin breathed, and Salva fingered her radio.

‘Supervisor, come in Super,’ she called. Now that the bots were inside the facility where there was air, they could send spoken transmissions.

For a moment there was nothing but the klaxon and human chaos. Then there was a crackling noise and the too-human voice of The Supervisor.

‘Copy, Salva,’ she spoke placidly. ‘I’m afraid I cannot speak for long. There is a situation in the hangar.’

‘I know that!’ Salva snapped, ‘That’s what I’m calling about. What’s going on down there?’

‘There is a fire.’

‘How did it start?’

Silence. Then, ‘I am not sure. There seems to be a high concentration of coal dust in the air.’ After another pause, The Supervisor said, ‘I am sorry Salva, but the fire is damaging my outer shell. Emergency protocols are compelling us to leave the facility, to prevent further damage.’

The radio clicked again, and the voice was gone.

The indicator light for the depressurisation chamber lit up green. Only Jin and Salva noticed. Most of the others had left or were leaving, desperate to contain the fire.

‘One of the bots must have sparked and caught alight,’ Salva said, more to herself than Jin. She seemed uncertain, out of her depth. ‘It doesn’t add up.’

Jin wanted to give some reassuring comment, tell her a spark probably did just catch on a piece of clothing, and would be snuffed out the second the bots went outside. But then, what had The Supervisor said?

‘The pockets.’

‘Hmm?’ Salva glanced at him. ‘What’s that?’

‘The pockets. The tunnel collapsed and buried them. They dug out. They came back covered in coal dust.’

‘That still shouldn’t have been enough to-’

Jin interrupted, ‘But the pockets. They all have human clothes, but no understanding of what humans use clothes for. They don’t ever put anything in the pockets, so they never think to empty them out.’

He could tell by Salva’s face she understood. Several dozen sparking bots had just brought in several dozen pocketfuls of flammable dust to the oxygenated hangar. By now the fire would be unstoppable, and greedy to consume any fuel it could reach.

Even as that realisation clawed its way into Jin’s too-young heart, the bots marched naked back out on the surface of Mars. Instead of making their usual beeline for the mine, they halted, gazing up at the facility. They looked horrific: still blackened, still with mangled limbs, and now the added gruesomeness of burnt synthetic hair and skin, peeling back to reveal the circuitry below. They stood inert, no thoughts in their metal head of the souls trapped within the building, fifty five million kilometres from home.

They were just machines, after all.

 

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