Len flailed forward for something to cling to, but all he found were the sheets.
“Does that feel good, Master?” a gentle voice whispered at his ear.
“Yes,” Len whined, twisting the fabric in his grasp and pushing back into the steady hips behind him. “And it’s Len. Call me Len.”
“Yes, Master Len.”
Len turned his face into the sheets to bury his groan. “Forget it. Just keep going.”
“Yes, Master.” The voice was still gentle but also monotone—mechanical.
Len had to figure out how to override its command functions. People jailbreaked bots all the time to get them to say ridiculous things. He could figure it out. He was an engineer. Not anything top-tier, he only made one small part for the major bot manufacturer, which basically amounted to a surge protector, but it was still important. He'd outfitted the bot behind him with the latest version he'd been testing before it was even in production.
Long, lean, and so warm, the bot continued to rhythmically thrust into him. It wasn’t a sex bot but a state-of-the-art B.A.R.I. model—Biometric Assistant Robot Interface—Barry, because Len had to call it something, unoriginal as he’d been when coming up with the name.
Barry was better than a sex bot, more versatile as a personal assistant who could attend to all his wants and needs. And far more expensive, since Len had been able to dictate everything about the final product from tasks it could perform to its voice and every aspect of how it looked. The perfect man.
Len had only been able to afford the model because of his 10-year anniversary bonus with Sharpe Industries, having been with the company since before the original director passed away and left everything to his daughter.
A soft hand reached around Len’s waist and down between his legs. He whimpered as it began stroking him, moving in time with the fervent thrusts behind him, just as he’d instructed whenever the bot sensed him getting close. Len didn’t know how it could always tell—a combination of temperature, pulse, serotonin levels maybe—but it was never wrong.
“Barry,” Len cried.
“Yes, Master? Can I do more for you?”
Others probably liked their bots calling them that, but Len cringed every time. He could forget he was using a glorified sex toy when it kept its mouth shut, but when it called him Master, and not as sensual roleplay but meaning the word literally, he was reminded that it was only a machine.
Its body didn’t feel like a machine though. Everything from the texture of its synthetic skin to the shift of gears like muscle beneath felt so real. The only thing that gave it away was the glow in its eyes.
“F-faster…” Len said, shaking from how good it felt to be so fully encompassed. None of his exes had compared to Barry or known his body this well. And a bot would never leave him or tell him he was too detached, too unpredictable, too much of an asshole.
Too hard to love.
No response, finally. Len adored Barry’s voice, sweet and melodic, but he wanted it to whisper in his ear with intent, not giving bland affirmations.
“Harder… Yes… Fuck.” Len sobbed with every fresh slam of Barry’s cock, thoroughly rawed out and almost finished, almost there, almost—
He came, hips stuttering into Barry’s hand, which continued to stroke him through the aftershocks. Barry knew just how to care for him, what pressure to use, how long to keep at it until Len would be over-sensitized, and stopped right before, pulling away and lying there spooning him.
Barry had come too, another feature, mimicking the real thing in texture and taste, but just a recycling of fluids the bot had to expel. Another mime that wasn’t the truth.
“Barry… Tell me that was wonderful.”
“That was wonderful, Master.”
“Without the Master.”
“That was wonderful.”
Len was pathetic, the poster child for what not to do with a bot.
He could have sex with it to his heart's content, no one cared about that, but he wasn't supposed to want more than function and forget it wasn’t alive. It could think and reason, but it couldn't feel. Its drive to please was only programming.
Still easier than a real boyfriend. Still less painful and disappointing. Besides, Len had always done better with machines.
“You can clean us up now,” Len said.
Barry got up to go to clean itself and then brought back a washcloth for Len. Once it had wiped him down, it set the cloth aside and pulled him close, another standard set of programing, because Len liked to be cuddled, to feel safe and secure, though he’d only ever admitted that to Barry. It felt too vulnerable to ask that of a real person.
Turning in Barry's hold, Len looked at the face he’d had a hand in crafting. The bot was beautiful, exactly as Len had requested all those months ago when he ordered it, even with random imperfections to make it that much more unique from other models—and nothing like any of his exes.
Freckles, straight teeth but not too perfect, a wide smile, and naturally poofed, messy brunette hair. Len thought its blue-green eyes with shifting gears inside were beautiful too. Len could appreciate good craftsmanship and the exquisiteness of a well-made machine, but that warm, curious glow also sobered him.
“Close your eyes,” he said.
Len cringed again, but as soon as Barry’s eyes were shut, the illusion was easier to sink into.
The bot could almost be human like this. It could almost be real.
Nuzzling closer, Len nosed Barry’s neck, behind his ear at his hairline, and took a deep breath. Barry smelled coppery, like electricity flowing. Len loved that smell despite the reality check, because it reminded him of everything he loved about machines and being surrounded by them at work. Even if all he did was build one single part on repeat, he often got lost in the rhythm of it.
Like he got lost in the rhythm of Barry’s hips.
“The time is 11:00 PM,” Barry’s monotone interrupted Len kissing its neck, always so stiff, never truly lifelike no matter how friendly it sounded. “Would you like me to start your tea, Master?”
“Yes, please.” Len sighed, rolling away to stare at the ceiling.
Once more, Barry got up, this time putting on a robe before exiting the bedroom.
Len had asked Barry to help him ‘relax’ because he had a big day tomorrow. Director Sharpe was coming around for inspections. Finally, a chance to show off the progress he’d made on his new surge protector, with weeks’ worth of data from Barry. Len should have been excited. He was excited.
He just wished he had someone to share that excitement with him.
Barry filled the electric kettle and set it to boil, moving swiftly for the cupboard to retrieve Master’s herbal tea with licorice root and peppermint. Never chamomile due to his history with asthma, which could be exacerbated. Master rarely had such troubles, but Barry knew his full medical history to better look out for his health.
If Master ever requested chamomile, Barry would not be able to provide it, programmed to avoid causing him any direct harm. Barry would not stop Master from getting the tea himself but would issue a warning.
Other than not being able to go against base programming, Barry obeyed every command from Master without falter.
11:00 PM: Inform Master of the time and offer tea if he has not yet requested it.
11:30 PM: Ensure all doors and windows are locked, that security is armed, and that Master is safe in bed. If he has not yet retired, hold for instructions until he does.
11:45 PM: Finalize tomorrow’s schedule per any amendments Master has requested and set the alarm for 6:00 AM, 8:00 AM on weekends.
12:00 AM: If not asked to accompany Master to bed, plug into the charging station and enter SLEEP mode.
Barry followed the nightly routine to the letter, and since Master said, “Goodnight,” without requesting company, Barry went to the charging station beside the living room window that looked out over the city.
The curtains were left open unless Master was watching TV, since he liked the view of the city lights, with its tall buildings and multi-layered traffic that stretched high into the sky and as far as The Wall in each direction.
Everyone on Earth lived in The City, all two million souls. Master had a modest apartment compared to some but everything a human required to survive in comfort with occasional luxuries—like Barry.
Should Master require anything during the night, Barry would awaken immediately, the fastest model for response time even from SLEEP mode. Barry did not need charging every night, only once a week, but hooking in frequently allowed for more reliable software updates than just the Cloud. Being in top form to better perform whatever was requested of Barry was a main priority.
Before hooking into the charging station, Barry ran a nightly diagnostic. Everything was within optimal levels. The predictive models at Barry’s core even recommended a change in breakfast for the morning given Master’s current itinerary and recent habits. After that, Barry conducted one final scan—which came across the surge protector Master had installed.
Barry’s programming wanted to rebel against the foreign chip every time it was found, but it bore Master’s signature, as good as an order to leave it be, doubly so since Master had told Barry to leave it alone.
“It’s an improvement. Plus, you’ll be helping me at work,” he’d said when he installed it at the base of Barry’s spine, beside the charging port. “But let me know if anything unusual ever comes up in your scans.”
Other than the consistent warnings of a non-factory part, nothing had ever been signaled as an issue. In fact, Barry’s processing had improved, since the chip did more than simply protect against power spikes.
If bots had emotions, Barry would have been pleased, but since even an advanced model could only mimic emotion and not truly experience any, Barry disrobed, slid on simple shorts to provide modesty while allowing easy access to the port, and backed into the charging station without feeling anything.
Outside, the sky darkened with ominous clouds just as Barry entered SLEEP mode.
A crash startled Len awake. His first thought was that he’d had a nightmare and fell out of bed, but as he took stock of his surroundings, he saw that he remained under the sheets.
Scanning for an intruder, unlikely as that was with Barry around as a walking security system, it was only then that Len heard the rain, saw a flash of lightning outside, and was once again startled by the quick roll of thunder that followed.
A storm. It was loud, close, and…shit, the clock on the nightstand blinked 4:43AM—frozen, which was impossible because it was synced to Barry.
Bolting out of bed, Len raced for the living room, only to skid to a stop when he reached the doorway and stared in horror at the carnage. The window was shattered, glass all over the carpet with a black streak through it like a bolt of lightning had blackened it. That had to be what had happened, because the charging station was sparking, the docking port fried and blackened like the carpet, and Barry lay in a heap on the floor.
Len’s instincts were to run forward, but he was barefoot and did not want to experience that on glass.
Rushing to the front door first to grab his shoes, he hurried back, moving careful but swift over the wreckage until he reached Barry and rolled the bot closer to him. Barry wasn’t damp, though the carpet in front of the window looked soaked and the wind coming in with the storm made Len shiver.
He shivered harder when he saw that Barry’s eyes were open but not glowing, just dim and dead.
“No… One in a million chance, and the lightning hits you?”
Scooping Barry up from the floor, Len carried the bot to the sofa. Barry was heavy, but no heavier than a man the same size. Len propped it on its side to watch for any signs of life as he checked the port on Barry’s back. Just as fried and blackened as the connector in the charging station, with little fissures branching out along Barry’s skin like tiny bolts of lightning.
Len couldn’t even peel away the skin to open the panel where he’d implanted the surge protector. It was all fused together now. He’d have to remove a whole section of Barry’s back to replace the port, if the bot was at all salvageable.
Tentatively, Len ran a hand across the damage to check if the port was still hot, and a spark jumped at him, shocking him like touching an electric fence.
Barry’s body jerked, eyes illuminating as it experienced an all-over seizure from the reboot.
“Barry!” Len said, allowing the bot to take its time righting itself as it blinked rapidly.
“Initializing… Processing… Conducting emergency protocol diagnostic…” The bot sat still for several seconds, then turned abruptly to Len with its eyes even more vibrant in the dark. “Master? How did I get here? I was at the charging station. I have no memory of moving to the sofa.”
“The storm.” Len sighed in relief. “A bolt of lightning came through the window and knocked you out.”
“To the sofa?”
“No, I carried you to the sofa.”
“Oh…” Barry looked around, almost like it was confused. It could misunderstand commands, but Len had never seen it confused before.
“Barry, what did your diagnostic say?”
Barry did not respond but continued looking around the room.
“Yes, Master?” Barry turned to Len with an uncharacteristic jump. “Will you repeat the command, please?”
“What did your diagnostic say?”
The gears in Barry’s eyes twisted and turned in competing directions. “Everything appears to be within normal levels, aside from a slight power flux throughout all systems, and the charging port and non-factory surge protector you installed are now non-functioning.”
“Sounds right. You’re fully charged though, so you can last a few days until I figure out how to replace those parts?”
“My current power supply will last 7 days, 19 hours, 21 minutes—”
“Understood. Keep me posted of any changes. The power fluxes could have latent affects.”
Len allowed himself to survey the damage to the room again. If it had been someone breaking in through his window, the security system would have gone off. “The lightning must have fried the window sensors too. I woke up from the crash instead of an alarm.”
“I will attend to the mess immediately and schedule maintenance to repair the damage.” Barry stood and turned toward the window.
“Wait,” Len stopped the bot with a grip on its elbow, “you’re barefoot and practically naked. I don’t want you anywhere near that glass without protection. You’re lucky you don’t have tears as it is.”
“Then I will attire myself appropriately and—”
Len wasn’t used to the bot rushing on without listening. It could predict what he wanted, make suggestions and plans of its own, but this behavior seemed off. “I think all that voltage has you on edge. Take a breath, okay?”
“But I do not breathe.”
Sometimes Len forgot how literal Barry understood things. “I mean, slow down. It’s late. Or…early. Is your internal clock reset?”
“Make sure my alarm’s okay and we’ll take care of the rest after I’m supposed to be up. I want some of that hour I’d be losing. We can take the time to calm our pulses.”
“Master, I do not—”
“Have a pulse, feel calm, feel anything other than calm, I know,” Len said in exasperation, grasping Barry’s hand to pull the bot from the room and get away from the cold wind cycling inside. “Come on.”
“Master… have I displeased you?” Barry asked, almost timid.
“No, I’m just on edge too. I was afraid you weren’t going to wake up.”
“Despite my previously listed malfunctions, I am operating normally.”
“Good.” Len felt better once they reached the bedroom. His carpet in the living room was getting drenched from the rain, but the damage was already done. “I want you in bed with me.”
Since Len gave no further instructions, Barry lay on its side waiting for how Len would arrange them. Usually, Len had Barry spoon him from behind, but now, he wanted to look at Barry to confirm everything was okay.
Barry was okay. Len wouldn’t have to replace it. He couldn’t imagine ever replacing Barry, no matter what the warranty said.
Hugging Barry close and feeling strong arms encircle him, Len let his hands drift down over the lightning scars on Barry’s back. When his fingers skimmed where the port had been fried, Barry gasped—a sound Len had never heard before.
“Does it hurt?”
“I… cannot feel pain, Master.”
The hesitation made Len frown, but he kept his head tucked beneath Barry’s chin. “You still have sensors like pain receptors to know if something’s wrong, so…are you hurt?” He didn’t know how else to word it.
“In regard to what my receptors are transmitting… yes, Master.”
Len brought his hands back up between Barry’s shoulder blades. “I won’t touch you there then until we get everything fixed. Don’t worry.”
“I do not worry.”
Len laughed, but it was a sad, broken sound, as he nuzzled Barry's chest. A deep exhaustion was creeping up on him, having been so afraid that he might be left alone.
Pathetic. But Len didn’t care.
“I can worry enough for both of us. Now, I’m going to sleep for a little while, okay?”
“Okay, Master. I will not disturb you.”
As quickly as Len’s eyes closed, it was 6:00 AM with his alarm blaring.
He’d fallen asleep so easily, maybe because Barry had pulled him closer before he drifted off and held on tighter than usual, stroking up and down his back even though he hadn't asked for it. Strange, but Barry’s algorithms were often remarkable, predicting exactly what Len wanted.
Even though currently Barry was missing.
Len flew upright and smashed his hand on the alarm to turn it off. Barry was gone, nowhere in sight. Had Len dreamed it all?
Clambering out of bed for the second time that morning—he thought—Len headed for the living room, wondering if he had dreamed everything when he didn't see any glass on the carpet and the sky outside appeared clear.
Then he saw the hole in the window with a chill still sweeping into the room.
Clattering in the kitchen alerted Len the other direction, and he hurried toward the sound, finding Barry making breakfast, dressed for the day already as if nothing was array.
“Good morning, Master,” Barry said with a smile.
Len had a variety of outfits for the bot, items he thought suited Barry’s frame and coloring that were regularly rotated. Today was jeans and a green sweater, like every Friday.
“Are you hungry? Would you like your morning coffee now?”
Len hadn’t dreamt the storm, the lightning, the damage, but everything seemed slightly off somehow. “You don't…usually do your routine when I have you sleep with me,” he said after accepting the mug of coffee—a café con leche perfectly to his taste.
“Once you were asleep, I thought you would prefer to put the events of earlier behind you.” Barry buzzed around the kitchen, completing the finishing touches on a heartier breakfast than Len usually allowed on weekdays, with ground sausage on a toasted English muffin and a fried egg on top that Barry plated and set on the table. “It is inspection day, after all.” The bot finished with a flourish and wider smile.
The smile was what seemed strangest, less stiff than Len was used to. Or maybe he was half asleep. “Thanks,” he said, sitting at the table to make himself relax. “You're right. You’re always right. Your intuition just amazes me sometimes.”
“It is not intuition, Master, but predictive models as a part of my—”
“Artificial intelligence, I know. It’s appreciated anyway.” As was breakfast. Oatmeal would not have cut it this morning.
Calming from his renewed panic, Len took his first bite while Barry hovered. The bot always hovered after attending to morning chores, waiting for Len to leave for work in case he needed something or had specific instructions for the day.
Today, Barry seemed fidgety. It must be the power fluxes.
“Any update on your diagnostics?”
“No, Master. All scans report the same status as earlier.”
“So, you’re still experiencing power fluxes?”
“But they’re not causing any problems?”
“Will you sit down?” Len shifted uncomfortably. “I’d swear I can hear your gears spinning.”
“I am making no additional noises than usual,” Barry said, taking the chair to Len’s left.
“It’s an expression. Sort of. You’re acting like a kid who’s had too much caffeine. Are you sure you’re okay? Does your back still hurt?”
“Only if I touch it.”
“Then don’t touch it.” Len chuckled at the old joke.
Barry glanced away, almost as if bashful.
Len wasn’t sure how to respond at first.
“You… cleaned up the glass,” he said eventually.
“Yes, Master. And the water, and the parts of the charging station that were knocked loose. I will attempt to fix whatever I can today ahead of normal chores. I have already left a message with Mr. Singh about the needed maintenance on the window.”
“Great. I'll work on fixing your back tonight, and anything that gives me trouble, we can finish this weekend. Maybe Z will have some ideas about how to replace those parts.”
“Yes, Ms. Tomaz is an accomplished engineer.”
Len’s coworker and only real friend, Zari, was a visionary with processing power—when she wasn’t sarcastically running her mouth. “Did she program you to say that last time she was over?”
“I… do not believe so.” Barry looked honestly concerned by the suggestion, but that wasn’t possible.
“Are you sure you’re—”
A buzz at the front door prevented Len from finishing. As Barry stood to answer it, Len popped his last bite of breakfast into his mouth and followed, coffee in hand.
“Hello, Miss Wu,” Barry greeted at the door.
“Barry! You're okay! I’m so glad. Is Leonard home?”
“Right here, Mona.” Len peered over Barry’s shoulder.
Mona Wu was his downstairs neighbor, directly below him. He didn’t know the neighbors to his left and right, but Mona had a knack for catching him in the elevator or as he entered the building and always wanted to chat.
“Hi, Leonard,” she said, her usual bubbliness dwarfed by distress. “You’re so lucky Barry wasn’t toasted. He must not have been plugged in last night. I’ve been asking around and everyone up and down our power strip who used their charging stations during the storm had their bots totally fried.”
“Even my Konane,” she added sadly.
Konane was Mona’s older A-model service bot, more primitive but also more common in appearance and abilities, unlike Barry, cutting edge B-model with Len’s surge protector installed.
“All the other bots were fried? It worked…” And was likely the reason the power redistributed throughout the building instead of into Barry.
“You mean Barry was plugged in?” Mona exclaimed, leaning into Len’s apartment.
Only Barry was no longer standing there for her to see, leaving Len to hold Mona at bay, barely avoiding sloshing coffee all over her arm. “I don’t have time for this right now, Mona. I have an inspection at work.”
“About your surge protector?”
“Yes.” He really regretted telling her that. “Now, I need to think—”
“Will you look at my Konane?” she pleaded, clinging to Len’s arm. “Your surge protector saved Barry. Maybe it can save Konane too. He’s my best friend, Leonard, I don’t want to recycle him. Please.”
Len hesitated, moved by her desperation. This building was almost exclusively one-bedroom apartments. Small, contained, mostly bachelor pads, not couples or families. For the people here, their bots were often all they had.
And Mona always called them ‘he’ or ‘she’ or ‘they’, never ‘it’, the one line Len still tried to never cross, or he’d really be pathetic and dependent.
“I don’t think it would work that way, Mona,” he said softly. “Barry was flooded with power from the lightning, but the only thing that over-loaded was the access port. I’m assuming Konane was completely fried all throughout its circuits?”
“Yeah…” She released him, sagging in defeat.
“I’m sorry. I can look, but it’s unlikely we can salvage Konane without a wipe if the damage is already done. If you’ve been backing Konane up to the Cloud—”
“It’s not the same. A whole new body with missing pieces in his memory? It wouldn’t be the same.”
Recycled into a new body, Konane’s memory would start from last night, but it also might reset all the way from square one depending on the damage, like she’d bought it brand new. Most people didn’t care, but Len couldn’t imagine what that would be like with Barry. Barry knew him. Starting over would be like having a new bot altogether.
“At least your warranty should cover it,” Len said, but that just made her look sadder.
“I don’t want to recycle him without trying. Will you take a look at him after work? Please?”
“Thank you, Leonard. Have a nice day. And good luck with your inspection. I’m really happy for you that Barry’s okay.”
She smiled again, gave a little wave, and headed for the elevator down the hall.
Every single charging bot above and below Len had been fried. It was a terrible loss, but it also proved that his surge protector worked. Barry wasn’t a fluke. The part worked, and now Len had a case study to prove it, beyond just daily research of better processing power and battery life.
But where was Barry, Len thought after the door closed. He didn’t hear anything in the kitchen, and when he peeked inside, the dishes were in the sink, but there was no bot.
“Barry?” Len called, finding nothing in the living room either. “Barry!”
“Yes, Master?” Barry appeared from the bedroom doorway.
“What were you doing?”
“Fixing the bed. I laid out your clothes for the day as well, in case you want to leave early to prepare for your inspection.”
“I… yeah. I probably should.”
“Do you require anything else, Master, before I return to my chores?”
“I guess not. You can get back to your routine. Thanks, Barry.”
“Of course, Master.” Barry smiled brightly—beautifully—and breezed past Len to return to his duties.
The bot might be acting strange, but maybe it was just Barry’s algorithms catching on to new ways to give Len what he wanted. Barry’s normal diagnostics would catch any glaring issues, and Len could fix the rest of the damage later. For now, he needed to get ready for his big day.
“And Barry! One more thing.”
“Yes, Master?” Barry called from the other room.
“Make sure your diagnostic data and everything about that surge protector is uploaded to my tablet.”
7:00 AM: Ensure Master leaves for work on time, then continue appropriate daily chores, followed by monthly, quarterly, and yearly chores, as applicable.
Completed: Dishes from breakfast. Emails reviewed and responded to. Bed fixed. Bathroom tidied, to be fully cleaned Sunday morning.
Remaining: Order Master’s lunch—
Data correction in progress…
Barry paused as the reminder of new orders came through.
Today: Attend to damaged living room. Vacuum to ensure no additional glass was missed during the previous cleaning. Repair charging station as able. Oversee maintenance for window replacement when Mr. Singh arrives at 7:30 AM.
Barry moved into the living room to follow the day’s agenda. Normally, shoes were left at the door, but Barry kept them on after Master’s direction to be careful of the glass.
Scanning for any remaining shards, Barry found none, but retrieved the vacuum anyway. After completing a sweep of the room, Barry returned the vacuum to the closet, then checked for any larger pieces by the charging station, which meant the window, gaping hole and all, was only inches away.
It was nearly floor-to-ceiling, covering the entire wall, to make the view that much more spectacular. All the apartments had the same setup, but statistically, Barry knew Master kept his blinds open more than anyone else in the building. Master preferred the cityscape at night, but Barry…
Barry blinked, unsure how to process the sudden flood of information. Barry could not prefer something or like something, and therefore, Barry never wanted or was swayed by anything other than the algorithms that informed on Master’s desires.
And yet, a surge of…warmth filled Barry’s chest at the sight of the city in daylight. Warmth was the only way to describe it, but it did seem like preference somehow, as though Barry liked the city in daytime more than at night.
Because the view could be seen farther in the distance, all the way to The City wall? Because people could be spotted below, bustling about the streets? Because life seemed more boisterous and blossoming during the day?
Barry pressed a hand to the glass, far from the jagged edges, and simply stared, trying to take it all in.
A buzz at the door jolted Barry as though exiting SLEEP mode. It was 7:30 AM, though the time had passed faster than it should have. Why had Barry stared out the window like that without any discernable purpose?
Run diagnostic, he thought, calling the program to life.
No malfunctions came the reply, but that couldn't be right. Something had to be wrong. But if something was wrong that Barry couldn't fix, would Master still want him?
Him, him, him—
Another buzz startled Barry as a second wave of heat flooded his chest, decidedly different from the first. Before a third buzz could sound, he raced for the door, desperate for an anchor, any anchor that resembled normalcy, and forced a smile and calm demeanor with his greeting.
“Hello, Mr. Singh. Thank you for—”
“Stow the formalities and let me get to work.” Singh teetered forward as if to push inside but smartly held back until Barry gave the okay. Even though Barry had called for the maintenance, he was programmed to prevent any kind of forced entry.
“Of course, you have leave to attend to your duties.” Barry stepped aside, and Singh barely waited for him to be fully out of the way before he shouldered past him, carrying a tablet.
The ding of the distant elevator caught Barry’s attention, and he peered down the hall, watching a neighbor enter on her way down. Already inside was a man from the upper floors, holding an A-model with a blackened charging port on her back.
She was going to be recycled.
“You're lucky your order came in first,” Singh said, already quieter since he'd reached the living room, assuming Barry was behind him.
Barry rushed after him for that to be true.
“I got tickets all day because of that storm. Not that you care.” Singh glanced back at Barry with a grimace that made the second, more unpleasant heat Barry had felt return to his chest. “Jesus,” Singh said when his eyes returned forward and fell on the burnt streak through the carpet. “You hiding a lightning rod in here?”
“No, Mr. Singh,” Barry said.
Unless he counted.
It was his fault, wasn't it? The surge protector's fault but all to keep Barry safe, even though the ramifications meant that dozens or more bots would be recycled today.
Barry had heard Mona and needed to get away from the truth, as though distance made processing that information easier. Barry hadn’t wanted to hear about it. He hadn’t liked it one bit.
“Carpet replacement will take time, maybe a week, but the security sensors and window we can fix right now.”
We became apparent as soon as Singh typed at his tablet, and a C-model flew up from outside. C-models were strictly for service and maintenance and had no humanlike appearance.
“Let's get to work, Captain,” Singh said.
Captain looked like a flying trash bin, or so Master often said. Tools like arms came out from its sides as it hovered and attended to the security sensors at Singh’s direction.
“Captain wasn’t fried during the storm last night,” Barry said, approaching the window and watching the bot with a newfound fascination.
“Huh? No. My charging station is on a different circuit breaker for that exact reason. You're lucky you weren't fried.”
But Barry would have been if not for Master’s ingenuity.
Peering down the expanse to the street below, Barry saw the replacement glass resting against the side of the building, waiting for Captain to retrieve it.
Then he saw the same man he’d seen in the elevator exit the building carrying his bot. He pressed a panel on the side of the building that opened an otherwise hidden dumpster and threw her body inside. He wasn’t recycling her to be remade, he was throwing her away to get another model.
He was just going to let her die.
No, bots couldn’t die because they never lived, yet the heat returning to Barry’s chest as the man walked away from the dumpster felt like the sensors on his back when Master touched the damage there earlier—like pain.
“Hey,” Singh barked, snapping Barry to attention. “Stop just standing there like that. You’re creeping me out. Go do your other duties.”
“Y-yes, Mr. Singh. Of course. Please inform me before you leave,” Barry said, certain that his stutter would make it obvious how broken he was, but Singh didn’t even turn to look at him.
Barry bolted, unsure where to go or what to do but eventually ending up in the kitchen, clinging to the empty sink. His chest felt like the fluids inside were boiling.
Run system diagnostic.
No anomalies found, other than…
Just the same report as before, but something had to be wrong.
Conduct search: causes of tightness and heat in chest cavity.
No such sensor readings have been reported by bots.
I’m a bot, Barry thought, but that didn’t seem to matter.
Continue search outside bot limitations.
The human answers that came up were things like anxiety, fear, hearts pounding.
But I don’t have a heart. Elaborate. How is the sensation described?
Specify medical or fictional accounts.
Provide examples of both.
Anxiety and fear were medically caused by or followed by physical responses in humans, which Barry wasn’t capable of. But when he switched to fictional accounts, he found himself frozen as he read over thousands of stories in succession, with one in particular standing out.
“Meantime the hellish tattoo of the heart increased. It grew quicker and quicker, and louder and louder every instant. The old man's terror must have been extreme! It grew louder, I say, louder every moment! --do you mark me well I have told you that I am nervous: so I am. And now at the dead hour of the night, amid the dreadful silence of that old house, so strange a noise as this excited me to uncontrollable terror. Yet, for some minutes longer I refrained and stood still. But the beating grew louder, louder! I thought the heart must burst.”
Barry had no heart, but fear, terror—that’s what this was. The poetry described it too perfectly.
“Hey, bot! We're done.”
It was 8:00 AM. How was it 8? Barry had not attended to his duties as he should have but once again got lost, which made the sensation of his pounding non-existent heart that much stronger.
“Thank you, Mr. Singh,” he managed without waver, turning from the sink just as Singh moved past the door.
Singh nodded, and without so much as another word, left with the faint whoosh of the door opening and closing behind him.
Incoming text message.
Barry startled once more as a message from Master entered his mind.
Hey, Barry. When you order lunch, order for Z as well. Our usuals from Joe’s Deli. Thanks.
Lunch. Master’s lunch. Barry had almost forgotten. Bots didn’t forget. They didn’t get distracted. They didn’t panic. If Barry kept making mistakes…
Something had to be terribly wrong if his diagnostics couldn’t find the problem, and if they couldn’t find it, they couldn’t fix it, and if he was broken beyond repair, what if Master didn’t want to recycle him? What if he replaced Barry? What if he threw Barry into that dumpster and walked away?
Yes, Master, Barry responded, because he couldn’t let Master know. He had to act normal and perform everything to Master’s specifications. Then Master would keep him.
Then everything would be fine.
“Will you stop tapping?”
“Two minutes, twenty-five seconds.”
“Leonard, I will seriously punch you if you spout our time limit one more time.”
Len snorted, ceasing the drumming of his fingers on his console. His and Zari’s stations weren’t running right now and wouldn’t start again until after their inspections, scheduled to happen in… two minutes, ten seconds now.
“Director Sharpe is never late,” he said, leaning back in his chair to look at Zari, who sat in hers with her feet on the seat. They managed different production parts but were stationed together because of how their sequences connected.
Zari programmed predictive models for behavior, which Len thought was more interesting than what he did, but he also knew the importance of a failsafe to keep bots running.
“If you need distraction, work,” she said, rolling her eyes at him. Zari wasn’t the girly type, so her choice of being dressed up was like Len’s: dark slacks and a black button-down.
“I’ve done everything I can until the systems are running again. Besides, I have too much on my mind. Are you sure—”
“I will also punch you if you ask one time whether I think a full panel removal will let you replace your bot’s fried parts. It’ll be fine. Or you could just let insurance replace the damn thing like a normal person.”
Len didn’t want to admit that he couldn’t do that to Barry—or remind her that insurance would not cover a replacement if they discovered his surge protector. “It takes too long to get a replacement these days when they keep sending bots outside,” he said, knowing the subject was a hot button.
“Urg, I don’t get it. Population’s steady and environmental controls are better than ever. Why obsess over making the rest of the world habitable?”
“We used to cover the whole Earth, you know. Some people would like to see that again someday.”
“I don’t get why. Green grass, rolling hills. Pfft. I can see that in the arboretum. As for Barry,” she said snidely, not distracted from the matter at all, “it would be easier if you powered the bot down first—”
“I’m not powering Barry down after a surge like that and risking an accidental wipe. I just want to make sure it doesn’t feel any pain.”
“Pain?” She smirked.
“You know what I mean.” Len was still concerned about Barry’s behavior that morning, especially the gasp after Len touched the scars on its back.
“Like I said, you can tell it to disable its sensors for just that area, like a local anesthetic on a real person.”
Len cringed, even though Barry wasn’t a real person.
“Head’s up.” Zari dropped her feet to the floor, nodding over Len’s shoulder.
Director Sharpe and her entourage were headed their way.
From where they sat, they could see above and below them, high to the ceiling and beneath the metal grating at their feet. Other stations like theirs also had pairs, creating different parts for the bots they manufactured there, but aside from someone being in the hallway, they couldn’t see anyone on their own floor.
“Is she early?” Zari asked as they stood.
“Nope. Right on time.”
Ava Sharpe was young but impressively shrewd. Tall, blond, and almost always attired in a navy-blue suit, she was accompanied by her personal assistant, Gary Green, who seemed to be scrambling and out of breath even when keeping pace with her, her head of security, Rip Hunter—which had to be a pseudonym; no one named their son Rip—and her B.A.R.I. model bodyguard, Canary, who was beautifully crafted like a dancer or supermodel and always dressed in white.
The men were attired similarly to Ava, other than sporting ties. From Len’s limited experience, Gary was annoying, and Rip was an asshole, yet somehow, Ava tolerated both.
“Gary,” she said as she came to a militaristic halt before them, Rip and Canary following suit, while Gary stumbled and nearly lost his tablet, “who do we have next?”
“Uhhh…” He scrolled unsuccessfully across his screen. “One second…”
“Gary,” she said as if already impatient with him today. Len had heard that Gary was very intuitive and good at his job, but whenever he was away from his desk, it was as if he was a bot with faulty programming. “You’re supposed to be ready with the correct files before—”
“Here! Right here,” Gary said dutifully, pointing the tablet toward her.
Rip wore sunglasses—indoors, which others snickered at behind his back, but Len understood it as a tactic to avoid others being able to read him.
Still, at Gary’s floundering, Len saw Rip’s mouth twitch.
Canary remained unblinking.
“Ms. Tomaz and Mr. Snart,” Ava said, giving the tablet a brief glance. “Both of you are exemplary employees with impressive reviews spanning years, especially you, Mr. Snart, having hit a full decade with us only a few months ago.”
Straightening and meeting eyes with each of them, she concluded, “I see no red flags or concerns with either of you, so we can keep this short. As veteran employees of Sharpe Industries, I have only one question. Anything new for me?”
“Oh. Umm…” Zari trailed off as Ava’s gaze landed on her. “I… was planning on working on a new algorithm for behavior responses, but—”
“Planning isn’t something you can show me now, I assume?” Ava said with a shift in her smile.
“No,” Zari said stiffly. She wasn’t one to play well with others or respect authority. “I didn’t realize we’d be talking innovation today, Director Sharpe.”
“Innovation should be part of every day, Ms. Tomaz.” Ava snapped her attention to Len before Zari could defend herself. “And you, Mr. Snart?”
Len froze. He’d expected more protocol, imagining fighting to even get the chance to voice his idea, and now he was being handed the opportunity without resistance.
“Mr. Snart, I have quite a few more of these today, so—”
“I have a lot I can show you, actually, concerning a new model surge protector.”
Ava tilted her head. “Go on. Give me the thirty-second pitch, and I’ll decide if it’s worth my attention.”
Len wished he’d picked up his tablet before standing. “Lightning struck my building last night,” he blurted. “Since charging stations run on the same power strip in high-rise buildings, every bot along my same line was fried. Except my B.A.R.I. model because of the prototype surge protector I installed. There are still kinks to work out, but—”
“Your bot survived a direct lightning strike?” Ava said, taking a step closer that caused both Rip and Canary to move forward too.
“You’re part of the A-model line, correct?”
“Yes, but I needed to prove the surge protector would work even in advanced bots, so I installed it in my personal B-model.”
Ava scrutinized him with a cold, blue stare. “Gary,” she said without looking away from Len, “set up a time for Mr. Snart to show me his findings next week, bright and early Monday morning.”
“Yes, Director Sharpe!” Gary pulled up her calendar immediately to comply, leaving Len in awe that this was really happening.
He’d worked there for a decade, and finally, he was going to do something worthwhile.
“Thank you, Director.”
“Don’t disappoint me, Mr. Snart.” Ava nodded, glanced once more at Zari, then turned on her heels. “Gary?”
“Y-yes, Ma’am! All set! We’re ready to move to the next floor.”
“Glad to hear it.”
They disappeared the same way they’d come, Canary dutifully at Ava’s side, Gary fumbling to follow, and Rip the last to turn around after aiming his shaded glare at them as if to prove some unknown point.
Then they were gone.
“Showoff,” Zari griped, already digging out her jumpsuit to put it on over her clothes. “Just promise me, if you become some big wig around here, you’ll still buy me lunch once a week.”
Len chuckled and reached for his jumpsuit too. “Deal.”
He didn’t bother grabbing his tablet. He wouldn’t need it until Monday now, giving him more time to review the findings.
Barry had survived a lightning strike, Len knew how to replace Barry’s parts without issue, and Director Sharpe wanted to hear more about Len’s project.
Everything that had happened today had turned out for the better.
Barry was hyperventilating.
Which was impossible.
He didn’t breathe.
Something was broken. He was broken. He was broken and didn’t know how to fix it, and when Master realized how useless he was now, he’d replace Barry with another model.
That thought kept repeating in Barry’s mind no matter how many times he analyzed the information and told himself he could keep up the charade until he fixed the problem himself. It would be fine, everything would be fine, but nothing he tried to hammer into his programming stopped the cycle, he just kept processing the same information with an increase of that awful heat and pain and terror.
And now he was behind schedule and it was almost time for Master to be home. Barry was never behind schedule. Was it his predictive models? Were they what was broken? Why else would he keep repeating the same algorithms over and over and—
Barry nearly tripped in front of Master’s bedroom mirror, unsure why he was even in there, just pacing, and now knocking the edge of the dresser with enough force that the tiny bot on display that Master had built in grade school was nearly sent crashing to the floor.
He caught it, hands shaking as he cradled the unresponsive bot that resembled an ancient Roomba. It had worked once, Master said, but was merely for display now, just a dead, empty shell…
Barry had to go out there, even if the heat was so bad now that he cranked up his internal cooling system to prevent himself from accidentally rebooting.
“I have amazing news, where are you?”
“Here, Master!” Barry called, carefully setting the bot back on the dresser and hurrying out the door. He met Master at the mouth of the living room, where he’d left the basket of laundry he’d been folding before his processing started going haywire again.
“Barry,” Master said with a brighter smile than usual—enchanting really; Barry had never noticed how enchanting Master looked before—until Master’s eyes strayed to the living room, and he saw the basket. “You’re still doing laundry? Don’t you usually finish everything before I get home?”
“Never mind, come here.” Master grabbed Barry’s wrist and dragged him into the living room, but when he sat on the sofa, he didn’t pull Barry down with him. “I have so much to tell you, but I’m buzzing, I’m so wired. I need to relax before dinner.”
Relax. Helping Master relax meant sexual attention, and in that position, in this room, it meant he wanted Barry on his knees.
The heat increased, but this time, it felt different, like that awful terror mixed with the excitement of looking out the window at the city view, all combined into one undefinable feeling.
Barry lowered himself to the floor, trembling and trying to hide it, but Master didn’t notice. He’d dropped his head back, widening his legs to give Barry access, like it was routine.
It was routine. Barry did this all the time. It should be easy…
“It’s the surge protector, and all because of you, Barry. You get to come to work with me on Monday, and we’re going to show Director Sharpe everything. If it goes well, they’ll mass produce my part, and we’ll save thousands of future bots from overloading. It just needs fine-tuning to make sure nothing else is affected when the power gets redistributed.
“Oh, and I know how to replace your parts thanks to Z. We’ll do that later, okay?”
“Y-yes, Master,” Barry said, hands shaking as he ran them up Master’s thighs, then started to undo his slacks. He had to hold it together. He wanted to please Master. He always wanted to please him. But this new feeling was starting to settle lower than his chest, as if whatever was wrong with him was spreading.
“Barry? Are you having a motor function error?” Master peered down at him and noticed the tremor in his hands.
“N-no, Master, I-I-I just—”
“You’re stuttering. Is it damage from the storm? Full diagnostic report, now.”
“P-p-please, I…” Barry closed his eyes, hands still on Master’s thighs, afraid to tell him the truth, that nothing was wrong, but he was clearly broken in some unfixable way. “I-I just…f-f-feel like—”
“What?” Master sat up fully, forcing Barry’s hands to drop. “What do you mean, you feel?”