by Briar Ripley Page
There’s no real rain in the Martian city, but there are storms of red dust. The danger for the robot is similar. Its skin is supposed to be an impenetrable seal, but the robot is over ten years old and ownerless. No one looks after its maintenance but itself.
Like most ownerless robots, it finds it difficult to earn a living. (Some people would dispute the term, but the robot has no doubt that it’s alive.) The robot’s skin is starting to crack and sag in places. The dust could get in, easy. The dust would fuck it up.
The robot stays indoors for the worst of the dust storms. Sometimes the robot ventures out towards the tail end of one, when the red dust is only a powder on a light breeze. Then the robot carries a sturdy bell-shaped umbrella for extra protection. The umbrella is bright pink, shiny plastic. It matches the robot’s hair. It matches the patching at the robot’s worn joints. The rest of the robot’s skin is a lightish brown, the perfect median of human skin tones in the Martian city.
Nobody ever thinks the robot is anything but a robot, of course. It hasn’t passed for a long time.
The robot picks its way through hazy rust-colored powder, blaring electric signs, and crowds of humans in cold weather gear. Some guy with poor clothes trying to look rich asks the robot whether it belongs to anybody. He hits the outside of the robot’s umbrella with the flat of his hand when the robot doesn’t answer right away. He stands in front of the robot, blocking its path.
“I belong to myself,” says the robot. Its voice is level and monotonous. Its voice is borrowed from someone who died long ago, recorded and remixed. “Please let me go about my business.”
The man grunts. “If you don’t have an owner, I can claim you as my property,” he says.
Desperate greed glitters in his eyes. He grabs the robot by its arm.
“Let it— I mean, let her go!” another voice shouts. Some lady with rich clothes trying to look poor is striding across the road towards them, her chin held high with confident righteousness. “Let her go or I’ll call for security!”
The robot and the man look at one another, equally frightened.
The man drops the robot’s arm and hurries away without another word. The robot clutches the handle of its umbrella and tries to follow suit, but the rich lady has already reached its side. She puts a powder-soft hand on the robot’s bare shoulder, wincing only slightly at the feel of cold metal and plastic. The slime of leaking conductive gel and joint lubricant.
“Do you need anything, sweetheart?” she whispers to the robot. “Any help? There are places you can go if you—”
“I’m fine,” says the robot. If it could modulate its voice, it would speak harshly. It would speak more harshly than it speaks already. “I only wish to go about my life unmolested.”
“Your life,” says the rich lady, pity or disgust on her face. “Very well, then. I saved you, you know. From that man.”
“Maybe so,” says the robot. “Maybe not.”
It ducks away from the rich lady and continues on its path. Red powder dusts the terraformed flowerbeds and city parks like snow, which the robot has never seen except in old pictures. The robot thinks the powder looks beautiful. The winds are dying down; the setting sun paints the artificial atmosphere in lurid flame-tones. Orange and gold and pale blue. This, too, is beautiful.
The robot reaches into one of its smock’s many pockets for the fruit it has saved to trade for new shoulder patching. The fruit is wrapped in paper and string for protection. Flowers are common enough in the Martian city, but edible fruit is precious. They’re the same to the robot, who was built without the senses of smell and taste. (Though sometimes it likes to put flower petals on its tongue and pretend.)
What the robot knows is beauty, and the fruit is very beautiful, with its smooth outer hide and its jeweled interior of tiny wet seeds. Sometimes even the most beautiful fruits on Mars are inedible for humans, but that’s a chance the robot must take.
The robot hums to itself as it approaches Jacinda’s stall.
Jacinda looks up from a small, flashing device.
“Persephone!” she calls.
Jacinda is the only person, flesh or machine, who has ever cared to use a name for the robot. It’s a not-especially-clever mythological allusion based on the type of fruit the robot brings to her in trade for repairs. Still, when the robot hears Jacinda say the name it feels a whirring lightness in its chest. It is good to be called Persephone sometimes.
“Put that thing away,” says Jacinda, gesturing to the robot’s umbrella. “Come under the awning and sit for a while. Show me what you’ve brought me to eat, or to spit out!”
Persephone does, and does, and does.
“Mm,” says Jacinda, sucking thoughtfully on a fleshy kernel plucked from the fruit. “Not the best, but Lord, if it ain’t pretty!” She spits the seed in a wide arc across the road. Persephone sees the little puff of dust where it lands.
“What does it taste like?” asks the robot.
“Bloody. More animal than fruit.”
“I don’t know what that means.”
“Imagine if you reached out to touch velvet, but you felt a ragged, hairy hide instead. A dead creature.”
Persephone reflects on this.
“Enough conversation,” says Jacinda. She puts a callused hand on the small of Persephone’s back. “Sit down. You wanted that shoulder patched, no?”
Jacinda’s touch is the only touch Persephone cares much for. It doesn’t know why that is. Jacinda treats and handles Persephone like a machine, because Persephone is a machine. But Jacinda loves and respects machines, maybe more than she loves and respects her fellow human beings, and somehow that attitude transmits through her rough, grease-stained fingers. Her rough, sweet voice.
“I appreciate this,” says Persephone as Jacinda fixes a new neon-pink web of fake skin over the leaking joint. “You accept less payment than you should.”
“No big,” says Jacinda. “We’re friends.”
Persephone hadn’t known that. It concentrates on the sensation of the heat sealing torch fixing old skin to new. Persephone can’t feel pain, but there is a bright, irritating streak of disruption where Jacinda drags the hot wire. Persephone pictures it as a line of molten gold, denying the drip of inner lubricants into the open air. Denying the dust.
“You ever think about getting a voice upgrade?” asks Jacinda. “You don’t have to go around sounding like a computer, you know.”
“I am a computer. More or less.”
Jacinda laughs. “Fair enough.”
“I wouldn’t mind having your voice, though,” Persephone admits. “If I were to acquire a new one.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” says Jacinda. Persephone wonders whether Jacinda is blushing. She sounds as though she might be. But she is standing behind Persephone.
“Maybe I’ll make some recordings,” says Jacinda. “Do a little demo program for synthesizing this old bitch’s croak.” She laughs again.
“Ha-ha,” says Persephone. “Please consider it. I am serious.”
“You’re all done,” says Jacinda. The gold heat and the callused touch are both gone from Persephone’s back. Persephone stands up, tests the joint, thinks about saying something. But what is there left to be said?
Persephone picks up its umbrella and bows. “Thank you, Jacinda.”
The robot walks out into the Martian twilight, dust dancing around its rubber-soled feet. The storm is past; the night will be cold and calm and full of stars. The robot’s new joint patch shines under the green glow of city signage and the dull yellow beams of streetlights. Passerby jostle it, smirk and stare, but let it go on its way without trouble.
Briar Ripley Page is the author of Corrupted Vessels, a surreal Southern Gothic novella from swallow::tale press, and Body After Body, a self-published dystopian erotic body horror novel. Briar is currently in the process of moving from the US to the UK, but can always be found online at briarripleypage.xyz.