She’s dreaming of Shiro. It’s the first dream she’s had since the world ended. He’s in the kitchen, his back to her, his broad shoulders hunched up slightly, the way he looks when he’s being mischievous. In her dream she smiles and steps towards him. She can feel the cool tiles against her bare feet. They’d put those tiles in together, almost a year ago now. A low, rumbling hum creeps into to the room, but she ignores it. She reaches her hand out, gently, for Shiro. She wants to feel him, rest against the firm stability of his body. She wants to cling to him and feel his arms wrap around her. The hum grows into an angry growl. He turns, slowly. There’s a pair of scissors in his hand.
“Wake up.” The machine speaks softly. Its hand is placed firmly against her mouth. She jolts awake and a surge of panic tears at her. Frantically, she writhes and claws at the cold titanium shell of its arm. The machine calmly holds her against the floor. “There’s a group of them outside,” it explains. Eyes wide, she relaxes, then nods. Carefully, it removes its hand and stands, motioning her to follow.
They slip into the hallway. She tries to move with the same, quiet deliberation as the machine, but every step she takes seems loud and clumsy. It glides ahead of her, unnervingly silent. In the gloom of the corridor the machine stops short and lightly presses its fingertips against the wall. Unconsciously, she holds her breath, listening intently. Its sensors can detect the vibrations of a bird landing on the roof. All she can hear is the pounding of her own heart.
“They’re in the stairwell.” The machine draws a vicious-looking automatic and calmly thumbs the safety to the off position.
“They’re coming up?” She shrinks closer to the wall. She can hear them now; an unnatural, rhythmic chattering, echoing through the darkness. “Do they know we’re here?”
“They don’t know anything anymore.” The machine’s voice is flat. “Go to the end of the hall. There’s a closet on the left. Inside is a ladder to the roof. Go now.”
“Go now. Stay low.” The chattering grows quickly into a frenzied roar, filling the hallway. Abruptly, a sharp, metallic whine cuts in. The door to the stairwell explodes from its frame, shattering against the opposite wall. A cloud of dust billows towards them and the smell of burnt plastic creeps through the air. Instinctively, she takes a step back. The machine raises its weapon. A massive, hulking shape tumbles into the hallway. It lurches up, the top half awkwardly swiveling around. She recognizes it. A civil loader drone.
“Share,” it screeches, jerking its immense arm up, reaching for them.
She turns, stumbles, then begins to run. The machine steps between her and the loader and opens fire. In the confines of the hall, the sound is deafening, but she doesn’t look back. Not until she reaches the closet. As she grabs the handle and lunges against the door, she glances behind her and sees a seething mass of blocky figures clawing into the hallway; more loaders, domestic helper machines, medical technics, commercial interactives, autonomous tactical units… Desperately, they pile over each other, an endless stream of thrashing machinery.
“Share.” Their voices garble together, blurring into a single gnashing chant. “Share. Share.”
Something is wrong. Something about the way he’s holding the scissors. Or the way he turns towards her, his head leaning unnaturally to the side. She hesitates, confused.
“Shiro?” she murmurs. He jerks his arm up, pointing the scissors at her.
“Share.” His voice sounds distorted. “Share.”
Instinctively, she steps back. Shiro lunges.
“Wake up.” The machine speaks softly. Her eyes snap open and she jerks upright, terror clutching at her chest.
“What happened?” she gasps.
“You lost consciousness,” says the machine. “I carried you to the roof. You are dehydrated and suffering from exhaustion.”
“Are they…” She is suddenly aware of the rhythmic chattering still humming below them.
“It will take them time to find a way up,” it reassures her. The machine stands beside a small trapdoor a short distance away. Its back is to her. A broken ladder lies at its feet. It must have ripped it from its mounts and pulled it up with them.
“Are you all right?” she asks. It turns towards her. One of its arms is missing. All that remains is a shattered stump and a few dangling wires.
“There’s no pain,” it says. “Although, I won’t be as effective now.”
“We can… find you a new one,” she offers.
It looks down at its remaining hand and works its fingers back and forth. “Unlikely. My retainer only allowed isolated automata in close protection roles.” She looks confused. “I was manufactured offline,” it explains. “I cannot interface with technology outside my original operating system. I suspect this is why I have not been affected like the others.” It looks over at her, its optical sensor adjusting to scan her face. “My retainer did not trust machines that could be hacked or hijacked. Not that it mattered in the end. They ripped him apart, and I could not stop them. The machines, the affected ones, do not seem to realize that you biologicals are like me; isolated.”
“When this started,” she whispers. “Before you found me. Before you… saved my life. I felt… so alone.”
“You are alone.” The machine looks back down at its hand. “You are biological. I am machine. I protect you because that is the function I was built for. That fact does not make us any less isolated.”
She doesn’t say anything. She wants to reach out, move closer. She wants to tell the machine about Shiro, explain how much she loved him, how she never felt alone in his arms. But she understands now. That was the function Shiro was built for.
Beneath their feet the chattering grows into a frenzied roar.
Moriah Geer-Hardwick is an illustrator and designer. His interests include cinema, sequential narrative art, and robots. Mostly robots. He writes things some times.