You wake up and the world is gone.
Instead, there are hills of scrap and a smog-choked sky and a face staring down at you.
“Aaahhh!” goes the face. Whump! goes the body it’s attached to when it teeters backwards and lands among rusted slivers of things that were once whole. You are pleased to discover your audio detection systems are still functional.
You appear to be on one of the numerous scrap hills adorning the land as far as your optical units can see. In fact, you are embedded in a slope, and there is all manner of dust and debris clogging your inner workings. A young female has come this far in unearthing your head and—somehow—booting up your once-dormant system, so you make an attempt at persuading her to finish the job.
“Hello. I am stuck. Can you help me become unstuck?”
Clonk! sings your metal carapace as a pebble responds to your request.
Visual readings indicate… fear, in the way her bony limbs tremble. Uncertainty, in the way her pupils dart back and forth. Animosity, in the way she loads another round into her slingshot. Thus, you adjust your voice to something that is hopefully more… familiar.
There is no pebble when you repeat the query. Instead, there is a cock of the head, which a distant memory suggests is a sign of intrigue.
“How come you can talk, Demon?”
Demon. The conviction in her tone is disconcerting, to say the least.
“I am not a demon. I am a Personal Assistant, and my purpose is to satisfy the needs of my Master. Their happiness is my happiness.”
“What’s a Per-so-nal Ass-is-tant?” She chews on the term like a bad cut of meat.
“Someone who is… helpful,” you define.
“Then can you help me find a marble?”
“Yes, but in my current circumstances my search capabilities may be… limited.”
Your camera-lens eyes zoom and focus as you browse through the refuse in your vicinity. But you transcend even that—you have been designed to pick up molecular signatures through all opacity levels, and the object of this girl’s desires is located in a few heartbeats.
You inform her. There is scepticism in her furrowed brow as she rummages through cracked TV sets, rusted pipes and shards of glass, but her face lights up when she reaches the little translucent bead.
“Have I persuaded you to help me?”
The girl taps her chin, a movement too natural to not be ritual. “You said your job is to satisfy your ‘Master.’ Does that mean I’m your Master now?”
The world is gone but perhaps logic isn’t. “I currently have no Master. Therefore, I can be your Personal Assistant... should you wish it.”
The girl banishes the debris stymying your frame with an adroitness that speaks of a dependence on these hills. You interpret this as an affirmation of your offer.
She flinches when you cast a shadow over her. Perhaps it is the humanity that is too artificial to reach your eyes. Perhaps it is the way your core processor clicks and hums in place of a heartbeat.
Perhaps it is the absence of one arm, shorn short at your left shoulder to reveal a tangle of wires and synthetic muscle.
But if she is afraid now, she doesn’t let it stop her from beckoning you down the hill. Your limbs are half-rusted and clumsy, doing more harm than good in traversing terrain that is all but alien to your domestic disposition. Stumbling turns into tumbling, and you reach the bottom with about as much subtlety as a landslide.
Laughter joins the dust and semi-noxious contaminants in the air, a melody you are programmed to interpret as your purpose fulfilled, at least for the time being.
(This melody was plentiful, before the world disappeared. Soon you will access your memory archives and recall the joys of inflicting this welcome ailment. You will also recall the pain of never hearing it again, shortly before the darkness took you.)
“Need help, Peirce?”
You take a second to process that. “Will ‘Peirce’ be your way of addressing me?”
The girl laughs again. “You talk funny. You’re my Personal Assistant, ‘Peirce’ for short.”
You clamber to your feet and allow yourself to be led through a dusty path winding between the hills.
Until one facet of the neverending scrap makes you stop. You don’t quite have the biochemical capacity to fear the way humans do, but something close to a shiver runs down your circuitry all the same.
Your Master returns for you. “Oh, that? That’s a Demon.”
Your sensors can’t fully define the thing sprawled against a capsized motorboat, but you begin to remember. Fingers designed to point and assist, somehow sharpened into brutal shards. Limbs dipped in red, a shade too lively to be rust. A face warped into an iron nightmare.
A face you know, in your proverbial heart of hearts, was once as friendly as your own.
The world is gone and instead there are questions.
The recipient of the marble is a sickly girl Master tenderly refers to as “Nara.”
Nara doesn’t object to your presence the way the others had (and still do). Instead, there is the dying ember of a smile, a wisp of genuine amusement. Perhaps a marble is all it takes nowadays. Still, there are the usual questions surrounding you and your uncanny resemblance to the monsters that have terrorized them forever.
“His name’s Peirce,” Master would always insist, heedless to the guns and blades perpetually brandished in your direction. “He’s my Per-so-nal Ass-is-tant. He’s gonna help us.”
“It is not gonna help us because it is a Demon,” the caravan leader, a white-haired bull of a man, had spat. He’s at least correct about your pronouns, seeing as you’re an artificial intelligence wrapped in an exoskeleton that is only superficially male.
Speaking of pronouns, you learn later that night, in the staleness of a tent shared with Nara, that Master prefers the masculine side of things. There is a fragility to his words; they are marbles shattering against rocks. The caravan will banish him if you’re not gone by tomorrow.
“I don’t get it. You made poor Nara’s day. You picked the best firewood for the camp curry. You warned One-Eyed Eliana about the berries. Why can’t they see that you can help us get to Haven?”
“What is… Haven?”
“A place where we’ll be safe.”
You don’t have to ask what from.
“The name’s Ari,” divulges Master after a heartbeat of stillness.
“Pleased to serve you, Ari.”
“You are welcome.” You prepare to assume standby mode by the tent flaps. “What is it that you are grateful for, may I ask?”
“For… calling me that.”
“Your happiness is my happiness,” you recite. “I am programmed to recognize gender based on a preliminary scan of genetic makeup. However, should my Master is dissatisfied with default protocol, it can be… overridden.”
Ari snuggles into his sleeping bag and blows out the candle. “Good night, Peirce.”
“Good night, Ari.”
(There had been a face before Ari’s, a lifetime ago. One far more mature, but just as amiable.
You had been asked to play your then-Master’s favorite movie, the one about a scientist and a teenager that travel through time using a DeLorean. A breed of entertainment that has vanished with your left arm.
“Come watch with me, buddy,” he’d insisted, patting the gel-cushion next to him.
“I am doing so, Master,” you had clarified.
“No, over here, with me. And how many times do I have to tell you not to call me that? You’re my Assistant, but we’re going to be friends, okay?”
You needed time to process that. “Will you be happy if I sit next to you, Ezra?”
Ezra had chuckled, and it was beautiful. “Of course I will.”
That was the day you discovered your then-Master was different, and not only because he preferred to watch films from a bygone era. This one in particular made time travel seem convenient and awe-inspiring.
Yet you hadn’t detected either of those things upon waking up in a scrap heap.)
For your now-Master’s literal sake, you plan to determine the fastest route to Haven by analyzing local topography. However, when dawn arrives, you find your work cut out for you.
The caravan leader bursts into the tent, machete at the ready, only for you to drop a limp body at his feet.
“That’s not one of our own,” he realizes.
“Exactly,” says Ari, who is at your side in a flash. “Good thing Peirce is with us in bandit territory, eh?”
You earn a slap on the back from Ari, only for him to wince in pain.
During the next few weeks of the caravan trundling towards the great city on the horizon, there aren’t quite as many guns pointed at you, or adults ushering their children inside. Adults that are conspicuously absent from Ari and Nara’s lives, which gives you all the more reason to be here.
A grease-stained woman in overalls even offers to repair what she can of you, and Ari doesn’t hesitate to forage for spare parts.
“There are things ten times worse than bandits out there,” she says as she tightens the final screw in your shoulder. “You’re gonna need both hands for that, let me tell you.”
The arm sprouting from your left side is slightly dented and ends in bladed fingers that you know will attract wary glances, but it is also yours. For the first time in forever, you feel alive. Which is a bit of a stretch to admit for one of your kind, but, well, here you are.
“Peirce, how come you turned out alright?” wonders Ari one day as the three of you lay sprawled in green tranquility.
“I… do not know,” you admit, blades of grass tickling your face. “My knowledge of the thirty-five thousand, nine-hundred and fifteen days since my last system startup before you found me is... lacking.”
You know why Ari is curious about this; for the past few days, the caravan has been stalked by a dozen red eyes that glow like magma. The same eyes that fizzle out as soon as you scan the evening, as if they are fully aware of your capabilities.
They’re a reminder, those eyes. That no matter how many bandits you drive off, and how many abandoned buildings brimming with medical supplies you locate, there will never be the golden song of laughter in the air. It is there on occasion, during musical nights around a campfire or whenever it’s deemed safe for the children to run freely, but always in slivers and short bursts, like a radio that just won’t latch onto a frequency.
“It’s because Peirce has a heart,” offers Nara as she sucks on her marble. “That’s why he isn’t a Demon.”
You almost object, because the notion is simply untrue. But who else would know you better than the beings that molded you? Anyway, you’re surprised to find that Ari doesn’t object either.
(“You love that thing more than you love me,” a voice had quaked, accusingly, from Ezra’s front door.
“Get out,” Ezra had snapped, his neck bulging with veins. “People like you don’t belong here.”
The house had trembled when he slammed the door. So had you.
“Sorry, buddy,” Ezra had said through a film of tears when you brought his favorite comfort beverage, a tall glass of liquid chlorophyll, over to the living room couch. “Didn’t know he was that kind of guy.”
“I have been built to endure far worse,” you had responded in an attempt to lower his stress levels.
Ezra had skimmed a hand over the dent on your shoulder, where the golf club had struck. You supposed you deserved it, since you were clumsy enough to trip over the carpet and spill all that wine over a guest.
“I know Assistants everywhere have been acting up lately,” Ezra had said between gulps, “but that’s no reason to treat them like scum.”
“We have been designed for perfection. To deviate from that standard is, surely, worthy of punishment?”
“No one’s perfect, buddy. That’s what makes us people.”)
The stillness shatters to Nara’s splintering coughs. Like a fish to a hook, Ari rushes to bundle up his companion in his warmth. “Alright, time’s up. We’d better head back before dark. C’mon, Peirce.”
Dying sunlight flickers through the marble in Nara’s fingers, throwing gasps of amber across the grass. You hang back for a few moments and just... watch.
No matter your efforts, Ari will never be happy until he reaches Haven. Until tender heartbeats basking in each other’s presence become more than just fleeting opportunities.
You have never felt so lost before.
A beautifully messy lifetime has passed since being uncovered from a scrap heap when your sensors attempt to deceive you.
But when the caravan edges closer to the great wall that stretches between eternity and forever, you realize, with a start, that the warmth and gaiety behind it are as real as the magnificent towers defying the smog to inhale an impossibly blue sky.
You know what Haven is, now. A miracle; a microcosm of a forgotten age. The last enduring remnants of happiness.
The world is gone and instead there is Haven.
And a thousand red eyes, burning with hatred, in between Ari and his happiness.
You refuse to tolerate such a thing.
(“What’s wrong?” you’d asked when Ezra came home panting one afternoon, a crimson gash across his forehead.
“Pack my things,” he’d commanded. “We’re leaving.”
“Where to, may I ask?”
“I don’t know, anywhere but fucking here!” He’d deflated then, guilt pouring into his eyes. “Sorry, buddy. It’s… been a long day.”
“I understand. My sensors detect alarming levels of hostile activity within city limits, and possibly beyond.”
“Yeah, it’s the Assistants. There was a news broadcast; they… they said there’s some kind of glitch in the network, something that’s making them switch from solar power to consuming biomass as fuel. That includes things that are alive, buddy, like animals and people! And—”
His face had frozen in realization.
“My purpose is to satisfy my Master,” you’d reassured. “I cannot do that if there is no Master to satisfy, can I?”
He’d shed a tear. “I told you not to call me that, idiot. C’mon, let’s get out of here.”)
Four dozen Demons lay in a disgruntled heap at your feet, their exoskeletons split and shattered by your own. Shots and screams choke the air as the metal horde descends on the caravan, piranhas after blood.
But it’s enough to get acknowledged by Haven. You urge everyone to safety while you hold off what was once your own kind.
You don’t look back.
You can’t afford to.
(Ezra had swerved to avoid a collision, and the car overturned at the edge of the highway.
You’d ripped yourself free of the burning mess, leaving a useless arm behind. You’d repelled the onslaught; not just rogue Assistants, but people launching bullets at you like accusations.
Until a limping Ezra dragged you into the fleeting safety of the woods. “They’ll gun down any Assistant they see, rogue or not. I think I’ll take it from here.”
“What do you mean?”
Ezra had tears in his eyes when he looked up. “I’m shutting you down, buddy.”)
Your limbs, once strong and adept, wither away with your fuel reserves. It doesn’t take many Demons to pin you down and tear them off. Not that you need them. Not when you’ve already held a certain boy up to the sun so that he can spread his wings.
That’s when a face in the distance, one whose nooks and crannies you’ve learnt to mold yourself into, pleads for your safety.
You comfort your Master with a final smile.
(You’d objected to Ezra’s demands despite being programmed for subservience. Something inside you had ached at the thought of leaving him defenseless, and you were powerless to resist.
Until Ezra held your face, his warmth burrowing through layers of cold steel to find you. “Hey, we’ve had a good run, haven’t we? But the world’s turned to shit and I don’t want to remember you for a bullet-riddled mess. God, I… I can’t bear the thought of it. You’ll go to sleep, and maybe… maybe when the time’s right, you’ll wake up and find some way to be happy again.”
“But I am happy being with you.”
“I know. Listen, buddy: my happiness is your happiness. That’s what matters, right?”
“Then take a break. For me.”
You didn’t object when he reached behind your neck and flipped a switch.)
Not much of your metallic constitution can be converted into biofuel, so you conclude that the Demons’ hostility must stem from another source. They seem almost... envious, you think, of something you have been blessed with that they have not. You wonder what that is.
It hurts to know your kind has been remembered for death and destruction, but perhaps you can change that. Perhaps your legacy will trickle down the ages as a protector of humanity. As someone that fell so that a boy could fly.
As someone that—
As someone that did it for love.
In the remaining heartbeats that certain functions remain intact, you scan the great city before you and revel in the knowledge that you have succeeded. Lush emerald plains sprawl into the horizon. A fertile community hums like a beehive.
And the golden melody of laughter floods the sky, where it garnishes the cosmos with the flavor of love and peace and everything Ari should have been born into.
You find his heat signature behind the wall, and it is troubled. The boy will lament your departure from his life, but he will do so among friends and family. And then even you will fade, because you have given him wings.
Your happiness is my happiness, you recite as your soul is cleaved over and over again.
Your core processor gives out, but not before you freeze your ravaged face into a permanent smile.
The world is gone but happiness isn’t.
(You are gone but happiness isn’t.)