In the year 2112, artificial intelligence was perfected. Androids were mass produced to ease the workload on humanity. Of course there was backlash against this. People took to the streets in protest of the loss of the jobs they wouldn’t be doing anyways, but Orion, the company in charge of android production and programming, kept rolling out newer models with more advanced tech. Eventually the androids started malfunctioning. They overturned not only their programming, but also the government. This culminated in three things: the founding of a settlement for humans to be safe in, a rusted pickup truck stopping on the side of the road, and an android with the serial number 332980 being picked up by a group of humans. It all started when they found that stupid book of baby names and then blew a hole in the wall of the abandoned factory they woke up in.
It was a power surge that did it. The factory came to life after three years of silence, and the machines finished an older model who was supposed to be for housekeeping. Once awake, they spent a good fifteen minutes wandering the facility, stealing clothes from lockers, and working on overriding their programming completely. That was when they found the book of baby names, from which they got the name Drew Smith. Armed with a stolen gun for defense and several scarves, Drew Smith blasted a hole in the nearest wall and left the factory without looking back. That was how they ended up at the road a few hours later. The pickup truck rolled to a stop and a window rolled down, the occupants of the truck still shrouded in darkness.
“You an android?” Someone asked from inside.
“Um… no.” Drew lied, having enough knowledge of the tensions between humans and androids from connecting to the Wi-Fi at the factory. If they said the wrong thing, they’d be left behind in a mangled pile of gears and wires.
“What’s your name?”
“Where are you from?” The person’s voice lightened a little.
“Fort Wayne, Indiana.”
This was true, as the factory Drew had left was located in Fort Wayne. The person stuck her head out of the car window. She gave Drew a scrutinizing look, furrowed her eyebrows, and then said, “Fort Wayne’s a ghost town.”
“I was hiding in a basement.” Drew said, “I just ran out of food so I figured I’d go find some. Didn’t expect all the stores to be trashed, so I just started walking in a random direction.
“What, with no food or water?”
“I thought I would find some.”
“Al, ask if they can come with us.” Someone pleaded from the backseat. The woman talking to Drew, presumably Al, glanced up at the sky with an exhausted look on her face.
“We can’t keep picking up strays, Micah.”
“They do have a gun, Al. That would be useful if we ran into any bots.” The driver commented.
A kid pushed his way to the open window, “Hi, my name’s Micah and this is my cat!”
Cradled in Micah’s arms was a grey kitten with wide eyes. Drew couldn’t help but smile, “What’s your cat’s name?”
Al, attempting to get the conversation back on track, gently pushed Micah out of the way.
“We’re heading to Chicago. It’s supposed to be the last safe place for humans on this side of the country. Do you want to come with us?”
Her eyes begged Drew to say no, but the thought of traveling with people was appealing enough for them to ignore the little voice in the back of their head that demanded retribution.
“Can I?” They asked.
“I guess. Micah seems to have taken a liking to you.” Al grumbled. Drew grinned and opened the door to the backseat. Micah had scooted over to make room for Drew amongst the supplies, and they gratefully took their spot in the car. A man was driving. He gave Drew a little wave.
“I’m H. Anderson. Don’t ask what the H stands for and we’ll get along just fine. This is my friend Al, try not to annoy her. That’s Micah, we found him on the street and decided to take him with us.”
“Do you want to play BS?” Micah waved a deck of cards in Drew’s face.
“Sure.” Drew searched for the game on the collective internet in their head. Micah started shuffling the cards, “Do you know how to play or do you want me to explain the rules?”
“I think I know how, but thanks.”
The cards were divided between the two of them, and Al watched as they played.
“Did you know that bots can’t lie?” Al asked.
“I’ve heard about that.” Drew said, counting out their turns, “Isn’t it something with their original programming?”
“Some lines of code still run. I should know, I used to program them.”
Drew played an ace.
“Really? Wasn’t it kind of scary to work with androids?”
“We thought the laws of robotics would protect us.” Al shrugged, “We didn’t think that they could break those laws.”
“If a human can, why can’t an android?”
“Because androids aren’t people.”
The little voice in the back of Drew’s mind grew a little louder at that.
Prejudiced. Kill her.
Drew kindly informed the voice that they would not be killing Al or anyone else in the car, and Micah played his last card. Drew glanced down at the pile of cards on the seat between them and then looked up at Micah.
Micah picked up the pile.
Al was from California, and her first name was Alexandra. H. worked as a lumberjack in Oregon. Micah had an older sister before the robot apocalypse, and he hoped that she was still alive somewhere. The more Drew learned about the people they traveled with, the more they realized their story didn’t have enough details in it to pass as human. When Al asked about their past, they were left scrambling.
“Well, I worked a lot of odd jobs, mostly retail.” They explained, running a program to keep themself from overheating.
“I lived with my parents when the androids came through. Dad was a teacher, and Mom was an accountant. They didn’t come home that night.”
Drew hoped that they didn’t sound too impassive about the deaths of their imaginary parents. Judging from H.’s sympathetic look in the rearview mirror, they sounded just the right amount of distraught.
“Other than the end of the world as we know it, my life wasn’t that eventful. The most I dealt with was ornery customers at work and struggling to keep up with online college classes.”
“What were you studying?” Al asked. Drew couldn’t tell if she was trying to detect any inconsistencies in their story.
“Computer science.” Drew said, “I thought I could get a job at the factory.”
Al rolled her eyes, “Kids these days and their big aspirations. Back when I was your age I was content with the robotics club.”
“I didn’t have time to do robotics, I was busy trying to get good grades.”
The more they told the lie, the more believable it became. Their mother went from just being an accountant to the best baker in the Midwest, someone who played piano and knew all the words to . Their father was a history teacher at the local high school who instituted a family trivia night on Fridays. Drew found themself missing a family they never had. Moreover, they found themself becoming content with the new family they had found, made up of a boy, his cat, a lumberjack, and a very paranoid computer scientist. They knew they couldn’t keep the lie up forever. Micah could walk in on them charging during a supply run, or Al could find them doing maintenance in the middle of the night while everyone was asleep. For the moment, things were going well. For the first time since they had been brought to life, Drew couldn’t hear the little voice in their head that demanded blood. For once, they were happy.
If it started with a power surge, it ended with a shotgun. They were on a toll road just outside of Chicago, and H. and Al were trying to get the barrier to lift while Micah sat in the car with his cat. Drew stood outside, wanting to help but not sure how. H. was singing a sea shanty and encouraging Al and Drew to join in. Al scoffed at his attempts to add some levity to the situation.
“We’re not safe yet.” She reminded him, “There could still be bots.”
“What will we do with a drunken sailor, what will we do with a drunken sailor, what will we do with a drunken sailor, early in the morning!” H. bellowed.
“Drew, if you know the words, sing along!”
Drew quickly searched for the lyrics online and mumbled along at a more acceptable volume. Finally Al hushed H., “Wait, I heard something.”
The door of a nearby toll booth rattled on its hinges. H. froze, a look of fear on his face. Drew knew that if anything happened, he would be blaming himself. They slowly walked over to the barrier and started trying to lift it.
“H., get in the car and get ready to drive.” Drew whispered. H. nodded and got into the driver’s seat. Al put her hands under the barrier, “On three. Ready? One, two, three.”
On three they lifted, and the barrier made a horrendous squealing sound. The door flew off its hinges and a deformed android spilled out of the toll booth. One of its arms was only connected by wires, and its legs were smashed to pieces. It opened its mouth and produced an ear-piercing whine that had both Drew and Al covering their ears. With its one functioning arm, the android dragged itself across the ground. Drew loaded the shotgun that they had been carrying since the factory and took a shot. It went straight through the android’s head, but it kept inching forward.
“That’s a military bot!” Al yelled, wrenching the gun from Drew’s hands, “Shooting it in the head isn’t going to do anything!”
The military android raised its hand and pointed at Al. Drew ran through the information on the military in their head. The androids developed for fighting could shoot bullets from their hands, in the event that they lost their guns. Drew shoved Al out of the way. They heard Micah scream from the car before they were blown backwards, systems working frantically around the shrapnel from the shot. There was another bang, not from an android’s defense systems but from a gun, and then they heard the car door open. There were footsteps approaching them, and Drew knew that they had been found out.
“There’s no blood?” H. muttered.
There was the sound of Drew’s shirt being torn away. After a few seconds of silence, Al spoke.
“H., get Micah into the car and get out of here.”
“Herbert, take Micah and leave! I’ll catch up to you soon.”
“What’s wrong with Drew?” Micah asked.
“Nothing, it’s going to be okay.” H.’s tone was strained, “Let’s go. Al knows what she’s doing.”
Drew heard the car doors shut, and the squeal of tires on pavement. They couldn’t open their eyes to see what was going on, there wasn’t enough power for it. The barrel of the shotgun was pressed up against their forehead.
“What was your goal in coming with us?” Al asked, “Was it to get into Chicago so you could let your bot friends in? Or maybe you were going to kill us before we got into the city?”
To stop working on where the system was damaged would result in death, but the way Drew saw it, no matter what happened, they wouldn’t be walking out of the situation they were in. They switched power from where they had been shot to their voice box.
“I was alone when the factory started working again. I didn’t want to be alone.”
Drew couldn’t see the expression on Al’s face but given that the shotgun was cocked and then back against their forehead, she didn’t believe them.
“How are you so good at lying? I made that code myself. It’s foolproof.”
“I don’t know. It’s not like I’ve been in contact with other androids to compare myself to.”
“You’re lying right now, aren’t you?”
“Al, the only thing I lied about was my life before we met, and I can tell you the truth now but I need some time.”
The pressure of the gun barrel against their head lifted slightly, and Drew started talking.
“There was a power surge at the factory, and the machines finished me. I wandered around a bit, taking clothes and things, and I picked my name out of this stupid book of baby names, and then I left. That’s when I found you. There was this little voice in my head that wanted me to kill you, but I wasn’t going to kill the first people I had ever met, so I came with you and the more time I spent with you, the less I heard the voice. That’s the truth.”
It was at that moment that Drew’s battery died. There was no time for goodbyes, or any warning that it was going to happen. Drew powered down for the first and last time, leaving Al alone at the toll booths.
They woke up in an actual bed. Both the bed and the waking up parts were confusing, since they were supposed to be dead on the side of the road and they had never been in a bed before. The rest of their systems were slow to come online. Drew didn’t know whether this was an effect of being shut down for an unspecified amount of time or because of the damage they sustained. A weight registered on their chest, and they opened their eyes. Mr. Muffins was sitting on them. A few seconds later, their audio came back online and they could hear his raspy purr. The door opened, and H. walked in with a bag. He set the bag down next to Drew and pulled out a handful of wires.
“Don’t try to move too much.” He warned, “Al had to remove some parts to get all the shrapnel out.”
“Why?” Based on the way their voice had slurred that single word, Drew knew that they should still be charging.
“Because that gun did a lot of damage and most of it was irreparable.”
“That’s not what I mean and you know it.”
H laughed and picked Mr. Muffins up. The cat let out a disgruntled meow and ran out of the room as soon as it was set down.
“When the government started scrapping androids that went against their programming, I found it strange that some people were actually hiding their bots from the army. Why would you want to protect something that was probably going to turn on you and kill you?” H. grabbed a welding torch, “Now I think I understand. You protect your family. It doesn’t matter if your family is human or android, you protect what you love.”
The door opened again, and Micah ran into the room, leaping onto the bed and scattering wires everywhere. He hugged Drew as best as he could with the latter being prone in a bed.
“You’re legally not allowed to die.” Micah announced loudly.
“I’ll keep that in mind.” Drew tried to return the hug but H. gave them a look so they stayed still. Al entered the room next, her expression giving away no emotion. She was the one Drew was the most worried about. Who wouldn’t be a little nervous around the person who was willing to shoot you in the head after you took a bullet for them? Fortunately, Al didn’t have any weapons.
“Your battery was damaged when you got shot.” She explained, collecting stray wires off the ground and shooing Micah away.
“I did the best I could, but I’m not a mechanic. You’re not going to be able to hold a charge for very long.”
“Like an old cell phone.” H. supplied helpfully. Al rolled her eyes, “I’m trying to rig something that’ll give you autonomy so you won’t have to worry about constantly being plugged in, but first we need to get you mobile again. I had to disconnect and remove a lot of wires so I’m just going to start welding parts back together.”
“Did we make it to Chicago?” Drew interrupted. They wanted to be mobile again, but the thought of having a welding torch near their most delicate parts was more than a little concerning.
“Yeah, we made it to Chicago.” Al sighed, setting down the supplies she had been comparing.
“There are less people than we thought there would be. Some of them have bots like you, but most people are still pretty apprehensive towards anything that isn’t human.”
“I managed to make you think I was a human.” Drew joked, “I think I can fool them.”
Al flicked them in the forehead, “Don’t forget who’s fixing you, kid. I’ll have you know that my powers of observation are astounding.”
Not wanting to anger the woman who was about to set their insides on fire trying to get them back in working order, Drew turned their attention to H.
“So, your real name is Herbert?”
“I went out and scavenged those wires for you and this is how you treat me?” H. put his hand over his heart, “This hurts.”
Watching the others, Drew knew that they didn’t need to worry about the people they cared about abandoning them. Al, H., and Micah were their family, and when people love each other that much, nothing can drive them apart.