The green grass grew between the slender metallic fingers of the maintenance bot. Its eyes could see the microscopic growth of the blades as they pined for the artificial sun above. They grew and grew unendingly; cells building on one another bursting with life.
“Hey Spud,” a voice called out. “What are you doing down there?”
Spex-238 sat up and looked to Gary, its supervisor. “I fell,” the bot said looking down at its chassis. It brushed off a little mud and in doing so uncovered the somewhat scratched serial number on its chest, the origin of its nickname. It stood and removed the last of the dirt.
“Fell?” Gary asked incredulously. He inspected the bot and gently pushed on its chest forcing it to take a step back. “Seem pretty solid to me.”
“I have a series of servos that prevent me from falling,” the bot said. “There was a boy who knocked me over suddenly before I could prepare.” It looked to the ground where his body had left an impression in the grass.
Gary stroked his beard. “Probably the Davis boy,” he said. “I’ll keep an eye out for him and warm him off next time he tries to topple you.” Gary clapped his hands, dust bursting the air as he did. “All right, Spud. Time to get back to work. There’s trees that need felling and we’ll be needing those muscles of yours to help get it done today.”
Spex-238 fizzled for a moment as the order registered. “Yes,” it said, but something prevented its legs from moving. Its eyes were drawn back to the ground and where its hand had lain before. “Excuse me,” it said.
“Yes?” Gary replied looking back.
The bot kneeled down and placed a hand to the ground. The blades of grass tickled its fingers as they moved between. Gary looked on as the bot brushed its hands this way and that through the grass.
“What’s the matter?” he asked.
“I can feel it,” the bot replied.
“What you mean, feel?”
“I feel,” the bot said looking up into the sky movings its head this way and that.
Gary knelt down and grabbed up the bot’s hand. With his forefinger and thumb, he applied a little pressure to the bot’s palm.
“Pressure,” it said looking down at its hand.
Gary sighed. “It was bound to happen,” he said. “C’mon, looks like we’re done working today.”
The bot looked up. “Where are we going?”
Gary smiled. “You’ll see once we get there.”
There are many curiosities aboard the Flotilla, which continued on in its unending journey through the void.
Gary and Spud were about to meet one of them.
The Alliance was the largest ship in the forward fleet serving as both a bulwark against alien marauders and vibrant hub of activity. One of the largest attractions of the ship was the arboretum, which contained a forest larger than any in the fleet.
Many residents aboard the Alliance called the forest their home and bots like Spud were tasked, along with their supervisors, in keeping it healthy.
Spud surveyed the surrounding trees and marked its location according to the scaffolding high above. They were venturing deep into the woods, deeper than its jurisdiction allowed; however, the usual limiters that would stop it from progressing seemed to be malfunctioning.
A small hut appeared in the distance and a few moments later, Gary stopped outside of it. “This is it,” Gary said.
The small shack was made from the trees felled in the forest. Spud scanned it and immediately appreciated the symmetrical nature of the structure.
“Go on,” Gary said. “Get inside and don’t be too long.”
Spud looked to the door and reached out. It turned and the door creaked as he opened it. It looked to Gary. A strange sensation filled its circuits, a kind of weight that moved from the lower stabilizers into the power core.
“It’ll be fine,” Gary said with a smile. “Trust me.”
Spud looked to the door and shuddered despite the reassuring shooing hand gestures of its supervisor. It peeked its head inside the door.
“I do not wish to go,” Spud said.
“As your supervisor, I’m telling you to go,” Gary said with a smile.
Spud did not reply and very reluctantly stepped into the darkened interior.
The shack was much like the other dwellings it had observed in the past. Images of organic beings, a kitchen for cooking food, a set of shelves for books, and a general untidiness. It stood before the books and took one from the shelf. It was very worn.
“Good reading,” a voice called out as the figure who had said it bustled in.
Spud turned its head toward the speaker independent of its body, which had quickly placed the book back on the shelf.
“Oh don’t be shy,” the woman said. She walked up the shelf. “I can’t tell you how often people come by to borrow these despite them having the exact same stories on datapads.” She placed a book into Spud’s hands.
“Bring it back in one piece and I’ll let you borrow another,” the woman said.
“Thank you,” Spud said. The gentle contours of the leather-bound book squished in its fingers. “Who are you?”
“Gemma,” the woman said. “Why do you suppose people would rather borrow my books than read them electronically?”
Spud processed the question. “Tactility,” it replied before formulating an answer. Spud fizzled for a moment as its processors caught up.
Gemma giggled. “Looks like we’ve got a live one here,” she said. “Yes, there’s an allure to a physical books. It’s cover can become worn with time, it’s pages yellow as the sun shines onto it, and the pores within the paper become filled with a musky, ancient aroma.” She paused. “Books that are time worn are often said to make for better reading.”
The bot turned the book this way and that in its hand. According to its sensors, three different kinds of mold were growing on it and the pages had within them small organic creatures.
“Can a book be alive?”
Spud processed the thought. “It is an inanimate object,” it replied. “No.”
“True,” Gemma said. “A book can’t be alive because it can’t move on its own, reproduce, or think for itself, but that’s only true if you think in the most literal terms.”
Gemma picked out another book and flipped through its pages. “Whole worlds can be built within the mind of the reader from the life that the author has given life to these pages,” Gemma said. “They’ve given me an appreciation for the fact that life can come in many shapes and sizes. Our understanding of it is continually changing and evolving just as you are now.”
Spud looked to the book and fizzled for a moment. It looked to Gemma, eyes flickering.
Gemma held Spud’s hand. “You’re alive.”
Spud gripped Gemma’s hand a little tighter. “I am scared.”
“Don’t be,” Gemma said with a smile.
Gary checked his datapad and tapped his foot. It was getting late. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d been this far out into the woods. Suddenly, the door of the shack opened and Spud emerged into the dying sunlight.
“Spud?” Gary asked.
“Gary,” Spud replied.
The bot paused a moment as it took in its environment. The sun cast a golden light upon the forest. It spied a small bird ducking into its nest for the night. Stars. It saw stars beyond the dome that enclosed them.
“What’d you think of Gemma?”
“Interesting,” Spud replied looking to Gary.
“Every one of you says that after meeting her for the first time yet none of you have been able to tell me why,” Gary said.
Spud looked to the sky and then to the grass, and then back to the hut. “I do not have an appropriate reference to compare her with.”
Gary laughed. “She’s one of a kind, you got that right.” He flipped open his datapad and closed it. “All right looks like we should be off to sector three. I’ve got some more things to show you before you’re settled into your new living quarters. You’ll be with others like you now. I believe there’s a support group…”
Spud visibly shrank before Gary, arms and legs contracting into its body. “What’s the matter?” Gary asked.
“I believe I am scared of the dark,” Spud replied turning on its headlamp.
“Don’t worry, I’ll walk you all the way there,” Gary said.
Spud gently grabbed up Gary’s hand as they began walking. “Al,” Spud said quietly.
“Al?” Gary replied.
“That is what I would like to be called,” Al said.
“Al it is,” Gary said. “Pleasure to meet you.”
“It is nice to meet you as well.”