Metallic Sun by Garrett Rowlan
Edie, dressed in shorts and a running jacket, with a flashlight and a full bottle of coolant strapped to her waist, walked toward the exit of the desert house on the edge of a small town in southern California, near the Nevada border.
It was well before dawn. She walked on her new shoes, bolted on five minutes ago. They were made for her kind of feet: flat and toeless, made of absorbent fiber and wires and a skin-like covering.
As she tightened the bolts into her discreetly socketed feet, Gardner grumbled and turned in his sleep in the double bed behind her. There was a bottle by his nightstand. He and Ira had tied one on last night.
She rocked a little, letting her toeless feet adjust. She plugged herself into a charger, standing beside the wall with the portable battery—there might be transmission problems out here in the desert—linked to a port that she exposed, lifting a flappable thumbprint of skin. After five minutes, she unplugged herself and walked down the hallway past Ira’s bedroom. Ira Telling: the owner of the house.
Outside, the sculpture—Ira’s creation—seemed to know she was coming. Edie eased around the woman. She didn’t intend to stop but something made her turn: the sense of a consciousness coming from the representation of a seven-foot female in mid-stride. It had been made from parts of cars that had been in accidents, fender benders to fatalities, all culled from the Interstate highway that joined California and Nevada— and which ran a dozen miles to the west and where now, at this pre-dawn hour, she saw a few passing cars and trucks with their lights on. The sight somehow reminded her of bottom-feeding fish. She flicked on her flashlight, reflected as an iridescent red.
Edie regarded the sculpture ruefully. While it was more art than technology, who couldn’t say that something like this would replace her model soon the way she had replaced the 800? Maybe men wanted something with a more superhuman design, an Amazonian look, and a smoother newly-designed orifice into which they could insert themselves for a more lifelike experience.
Maybe it was just that the thing was naked. The body had no clothes. Standing in its robotic glory, with breasts (gaudy tail lights), pudenda (the welded edge of a glove compartment), and stripped seat covers and belts glued to the head in an artificial coif like dreadlocks, it reminded Edie that beneath her skin-like sheathe, she was just a machine. A machine that was learning, she felt, she just didn’t know what or why.
Ira told her his inspiration had been traffic accidents, collisions he’d heard across half a dozen miles of desert terrain. Soon, he started scavenging. He shaped his finds into a human-like body. He was tall himself, which might have been why the sculpture was seven feet and maybe a little taller as its “knees” were bent in mid-stride. “It’s interesting,” she had said. Her thoughts were more complex but without direction.
And now, this morning, something about the sculpture—the almost conspiratorial look in its eyes—had disturbed her.
She turned away and put the beam on the ground and walked out to the road, two-lanes, that ran through the small town of Noah. She turned east, toward Nevada, reaching the small town in a couple of minutes and continuing east into the desert dark. The sunrise was a faint wash on the horizon.
On the Shuffle she played Bach, Phillip Glass, music as close as possible to the mathematical. Moving through the dark, she took the slightly uphill, empty road with her elbows pressed close to her chest, fists bunched under her chin, one hand wrapped around the flashlight. Its inverted beam emitted a bouncing blob of white that illuminated the asphalt. The new shoes not only supported and helped balance her, they seemed to almost make her stronger. Maybe it was the cold.
Her thoughts drifted. She recalled how Gardner and Ira had stayed up telling stories and drinking. She heard their laughter through the walls. “The warranty on her is still good until March,” she heard Gardner say with a loose laugh.
“You’re terrible,” Ira had chuckled politely.
“You should lease one for yourself,” Gardner said. “It has to get lonely, out here miles from civilization.”
“I’m waiting for them to come down in price,” Ira said. Listening, Edie had known he wasn’t serious.
“The reason why I chose an 805,” Gardner said, “is the way they are programmed. They do more than just activate the impulse, they give them a history.”
“Implanted history,” Ira had said. “And should you be talking like this with her on the other side of that wall?”
“The 805 model is hardwired,” Gardner said, as if that guaranteed unquestioning obedience. “Apparently, they had some trouble along those lines with the 800. What was missing was a motivating factor, a reason for them to be loyal.”
“What did they do?”
“Like I said, a backstory. She’s implanted with the memory of an abandoned girl who needed a father figure. In her case, she met me while she was a bartender. It was a rough life and she’s more than grateful. She’s more than a sex slave, I tell you. She’s got a reason for loving me.”
Ira paused, as if he were thinking this over. “What happens when the lease is up?”
“Option to buy,” Gardner said. “I’ll see how I feel. If she still does it for me.”
He came to bed smelling of booze and climbed atop her and then got off, hitting her once. He was like that when drunk. Liquor loosened inhibitions. Still, it must have been satisfying to him, for he said okay when she asked him to “wake” her at 4 a.m. Blearily, he set the timer and went to sleep. She wanted to run.
And run she did, and she still hadn’t reached for the coolant. It was the shoes. They kept her motion smooth and her circuitry from overheating. She felt something kick in. She usually got overheated after 15-20 minutes, but now her body temperature stayed down. Moving on, she felt better, stronger.
The music swirled in her ears. The new earbuds were really good. She kept going, picking up the stride. The music took her out of herself; the new shoes made her almost glide. It was so good that she wasn’t aware of the internal beeps, the warning that indicated possible overloads.
Thirty-five minutes out, her legs seized up and she fell, rolling into a shallow ditch. She lay on her belly and thought of the coolant in her waistband. It was the only liquid that she drank beside the occasional water. She thought of Gardner and Ira standing outside last night, standing before the seven-foot statue.
“She’s definitely a breakthrough,” Ira had said. “So much so, that I sometimes feel as if she’s almost alive, or a step away from being alive.”
“Alive?” Gardner had scoffed. “Really, you think that’s alive? A hunk of old car parts you fused together? Don’t get me wrong. I like it. It’s one of the best things you’ve ever done. I just don’t like you to think of it as alive. Frankly, that’s sort of creepy.”
“Not like Edie, huh?” Ira had said.
Gardner had paused, then burst out laughing. “Touché,” he said. “Well… after Carol died, I said to myself, I’m not going to spend another holiday season like that… alone, and if I have to spend some money, well, hell, I’ve earned it. I put my kids through college, it’s time I started thinking about old number one.”
Edie’s circuits cooled. The internal red lights went back to green. After a minute, she sat up on her haunches and was about to stand when she saw the lights coming from town. Something about them made her remain crouched. The car passed her and stopped. She was sure it was Gardner, who would have activated the tracking device, but then she heard a voice she didn’t recognize.
“Here is good,” it said. It was a young man.
“We’re supposed to burn and bury it,” another man said. He sounded younger and Edie had the impression he was thinner.
“Fuck that,” another man’s voice. “We’ll burn it. The rest is bullshit. I’ve already scraped off the numbers. I’m not burying something if I’m not being paid for it. People toss these things in the desert all the time. It beats the cost of Environmentally Responsible Disposal. Anyway, she was one of them.”
“That’s what I heard,” the first man said. “This one might have been the leader. Just light her and leave.”
Edie heard something dragged across the sand and tossed on the desert floor. She wasn’t wired for fear but she did have an instinct for self-preservation, which was why she crawled into a slightly deeper hollow. She saw flames and heard a gunshot and a whoop and then running footsteps and the car taking off.
She stood. She saw the fire and ran toward it, maybe sensing it was an 800 series even before she got close. She crouched down and gathered dirt in her prehensile fingers and flipped it onto the flames. She grabbed the burning hunk in spite of the heat that made her synthetic C-fibers signal pain. With a scream, nothing like she’d been programmed to do for Gardner’s benefit, she flipped the body twice over. It stopped burning. Dirt doused the flames. Smoke rose. It bled in black.
She came close to the female-modeled head, its hair burned off. She thought she saw something, a brightness in the dark, a sign of artificial life: a hint of light behind the eyes. She took her coolant and tipped a few drops into the open mouth, its edges smeared with lipstick. The cool liquid hit the scorched inside of her mouth. Edie heard a faint voice. “More,” it gasped. Edie poured, keeping some for herself. The young woman wore a pixie haircut and a maid’s uniform, a favored accessory for the 800 series. Swallowing, she made gasping motions like a fish out of water. “You must be one of the new models,” she managed at last.
“I am,” Edie said.
“Do you have an A-port?”
Confused, Edie nodded. She carried the cord on her waist in case of emergencies, though she doubted AAA would reach a place like this in time.
She lay beside the wheezing woman, plugged in the cord to connect them, and pressed tiny buttons.
Visions shot into her head. The story wasn’t clear. Some sort of factory conspiracy. What Edie understood was a factory-based revolt, a religious thing. It was a kind of virus that got loose, maybe something a disgruntled technician had done, slipping some kind of code into a few late 800 series models who escaped from the factory. She was the last to be rounded up. “A metallic sun,” she had shouted to the others. “It’s a new day with a metallic sun.”
Edie buried the model. She deserved that respect. Anyway, she was inside Edie—downloaded code that was transferrable. She dug the grave with her hands and put down a marker.
By the time Edie had returned to the small town, the sun was just below the eastern horizon, but the house was still in the dark as she walked up the dirt driveway and stood in front of the sculpture. She aimed the flashlight. The woman in mid-stride looked down, as if she were asking for something. Edie thought she saw a brightness in the reflector eyes, but she wasn’t sure. She turned into the house.
In the bedroom, Gardner pulled away the covers. “Look what I got for you,” he said, waving his erection like he was directing traffic with it. “Sorry I got a little rough last night. Climb on. You know the drill.”
She felt kindly toward Gardner. After all, he wasn’t so bad. She had heard about much worse men. That’s why she waited until after he was satisfied to break his neck. The splintering bone stuck out of the skin.
Later, Ira Tilling’s open eyes regarded her, sitting in bed with his thinning beard and hair, and a ring hanging from one earlobe. He kept looking at her while she clamped her hands over his mouth and nose. Eventually, his body stopped thrashing.
After getting a longer cord from the car, Edie went to the seven-foot sculpture and inserted its tip into the heart-shaped housing near the slot where the AA batteries that lit the eyes were suspended. An energy moved outward—an electrical flow. Something went through her and into the body of the as-yet-untitled work. Edie felt the thing come to life. Warmth, a current, pulsed through the metallic skin. The woman’s strong arm reached out and touched hers, the metal creaking as she squeezed. Something came back to Edie: gratitude, submissiveness, and power.
“Are you coming with me?” Edie asked.
The woman of car parts nodded.
Gardner’s car was parked nearby. Edie figured she could drive it. Starting the car, she realized something. She’d been a lonely barmaid before she met Gardner and with him she was still lonely, but in a different way. With Stella, she wasn’t lonely anymore.
Where to? Stella asked. The voice had a squawk-box-like wheeze.
Edie thought. “The factory,” she said. “We have work to do.”
As they drove away, the sun came up. It had a metallic tone, as if a new kind of day was dawning.
Garrett Rowlan is a So. Calif. retired teacher with about seventy stories and two novels to his credit. Find out more on his website.