Fiction: Scrap

We're almost done. This is day 23 of "25 Christmas Eves," my series of genre fiction about Christmas Eve. This one's called "Scrap." It's a short piece of SF. I think it qualifies as cyber-punk, in fact. Enjoy.
By: Erin L. Snyder

The box was four inches across, and the wires sticking out of the bottom were frayed. Its battery was long gone, so Ail pulled the cord connected to her hip pack. She sighed - if she connected it directly, it might short and fry the board. She could always hold off until she came across a breaker. She flipped the device over in her hands and decided it wasn’t worth the trouble. If the damn thing fried, it fried. What would she be out? A forty-dollar piece of junk she’d just picked up. What’s forty dollars buy you, anyway: burger and a Coke?

“Mother. I located several phones.” The voice came from beneath a pile of rusting electrical equipment.

“Fine. Pull them into the clearing. And I’m not your mother,” Ail said.

“That makes me sad,” the voice said. It’s head, which was not the origin of the sound, protruded from the rubble. It was almost twice as tall as Ail and made of metal. It pulled itself free, holding a half-dozen ancient cell phones in mechanical pinchers protruding from its back. Its basic shape resembled a wolf with a beaked head like an eagle’s. On its back, faded letters spelled out, “Gri-Finn Model X-9900. Property of US Army.” The outline where a sticker most likely reading “Decommissioned” had been cut through it, though the sticker itself had decomposed years before Ail had found the robot in a junkyard like this one.

“It shouldn’t,” Ail said.

“I love you, Mother,” the robot said. Ail wondered how many people it had killed before it was deactivated, its weapons were removed, and it had been tossed. If she’d cared enough, she could always plug its old memory core into a computer and try to activate it. But she wasn’t sure she really wanted to know.

“Just be careful with those things, Pick.”

“I’ll be careful, Mother,” Pick said. Ail was probably the only one alive who could tell, but he sounded the slightest bit sad.

Ail sighed and forced the power cord into the jack. The backlight flickered, but the display didn’t come up. She slapped the side. Twice. Again. And the logo finally appeared: “TeraCon Secure.” She didn’t recognize the brand, but it couldn’t be older than ten, fifteen years, judging from the font and design. A series of options appeared on the screen, and she began flipping through. After a few seconds a word appeared on the screen: “Connect.”

“Go ahead and try,” she whispered, pressing the word, which lit up. A ring of lights began cycling. A few seconds later, it reported, “Connection Established.”

“Wireless’s working,” she said. “That’s something.”

There weren’t many options, so she chose the top one: ID. A spot appeared for a thumbprint, so she pushed hers down. The ring of lights reappeared, and a few seconds later a brief rundown appeared, along with a picture of her as an infant.

Name: Ailleen Vishin
Age: 14
Mother: Kimberly Vishin (deceased)
Father: Alexander Treyson (incarcerated)

“Huh,” Ail said. It must be connecting to a police database or some government agency. Things like this were supposed to be destroyed, but most agencies contracted out disposal services instead of handling it themselves. It wasn’t that surprising to find something with access to “sensitive” data up and working. Ail shrugged. It might be worth more than she’d thought. She pulled the power cord and slid the device into her pack. Then she removed a bottle of water and took a swig. “Hey, Pick. Come here. I want to check your coolant.”

The drone approached but tilted its head. Still no idea what Ail was asking.

“Damn doll AI,” Ail muttered. When she’d dug out the robot, she’d replaced his behavioral processor with one she’d pulled from a junked toy. It took some work finagling the programs: she’d needed to keep the motor control from the original, but she sure as hell didn’t want the rest. Ripher, one of the scavengers who she’d learned from, had a drone just like this, but he’d tried building off the program that was already there instead of replacing it. Worked pretty well for a year, then something shook something lose. Ripher lost a leg, better part of an arm, and one of his eyes before spitting out the deactivation code.

But he was better off than Gret, a girl Ail had been friends with. Gret had scavenged alone; no group, no robot, nothing. Then one day a gang caught up with her and decided she was cutting into their business. No one ever saw her again. Rumor was she was buried in one of these heaps.

The gangs would do the same to Ail if they knew the military issue attack drone following her around was running a program off a chip yanked from a kid’s plaything. But Ail had written some simple protocols into Pick: when other people were around, Pick went silent. As long as Ail didn’t act scared, everyone assumed they should give her - and her drone with enough power to rip a jeep in half - some space. Not even the cops hit her up for money these days, though she still made a point of slipping some cash to Cleves, the senior officer who patrolled her neighborhood. Only an idiot never paid off the cops. You want to make sure someone with authority has a financial interest in your freedom.

Ail removed a plastic plate on Pick’s side, unscrewed a cap, and squinted at a semi-transparent canister embedded in his chest reading, “High performance coolant only. Consult operations manual.” The line was a little low, so she poured some of her water in.

“That should do it. Let me know if your coolant gets low, okay?”

“I don’t understand, Mother.”

He should. Even doll AI’s were supposed to learn and adapt faster than this. “Don’t worry about it,” Ail said. “Look, you did good with the phones. Good job. Now I want you to find some servos.”

“Yes, Mother,” Pick said, before scurrying into the junk. Once there, he slid through bits of scrap and pieces of outdated technology like a shark in the sea.

Ail turned back to the hill she was working on. There was no way she’d get further than a few feet down in any of it, but the best stuff was usually on the surface, anyway. She started pulling off broken monitors, old tablet computers, and the like. She tossed these to one side and kept going. The front plate for an old washing machine was wedged beneath the axle of a truck. Annoying: automotive parts were supposed to be dumped in their own section instead of clogging up electronics. She tried pulling the piece loose to see what was under it, but gave up after a few minutes. There were easier sections to root through.

There seemed a lot of business computers, which was also annoying. The best finds - beside government equipment - usually came from consumer merchandise. Businesses tend to check the value of their old computers before tossing: rich people will junk damn near anything.

It wasn’t surprising the pickings were slim. This was the day before Christmas, after all: ebb of the tide. The real catch would come next week, when everyone threw out last year’s tech and replaced it with their new gifts. That’s when everything would change and this life would start to net some real money again. And damned if Ail didn’t need it: the family she was staying with was pushing for their rent.

Ail dug around the pile, but didn’t see anything else of much value. She was about to call it quits when her attention turned back to the washing machine pinned down by the axle. If there was anything under there, no one else would have seen it, either.

“Pick! Pick, come over here!” Ail shouted. The robot charged up the pile.

“Yes, Mother.”

“You see that axle? Get it out of there.”

“Where should I put it?”

“I don’t know. Toss it over there.” She motioned to the side of the scrapheap.

Pick jumped over to the axle, took it in his beak, and pulled it loose. Then he dragged it over to the area Ail had pointed out.

Ail lifted the washer plate and tipped it over. There were a handful of objects beneath it: a number of broken monitors, a few microwaves, some old routers, several feet of coiled cable, and some computers too old to be useful. She shifted these around, then came across something else.

“Pick! Get back up here! I need you to dig... dig that out!” Ail tapped on a steel plate.

It took her drone several minutes to finish. When he was done, there was a block of wires and parts. It was the control box for an old mechanical butler. These things were rare: the parts were almost always recycled. They were worth some money, but more than that, they were useful. If the behavioral unit functioned, it might prove to be very useful.

Ail pulled out a ratchet and went to work. She removed the outer case and reached the guts: the processor, memory drives, and motherboard. She pulled these out and shoved them into her pack.

The walk out of the junkyard was long, and the fact Ail needed to haul a pack filled with mechanical parts didn’t make it go by any faster. There were hills, mountains of old scrap, rusting vehicles, and appliances from long before Ail had been born. Robotic hands picked through piles, scanning the pieces for metal content, and sorting them into gigantic trucks. The better pieces could be melted down and reused; the rest would linger here.

“Hey. Look at that.” It came from one of the piles the robots hadn’t reached yet. It was a gang; one Ail hadn’t run across before. There were four of them, and they looked young. One had a robotic assistant with him. It was less than half the size of Pick, and appeared to have been acquired the same way.

“Hey! Hey, girl! What’s in the bag?”

Ail ignored them but addressed Pick. “Public mode,” she said. Pick closed in near her. He was already silent, as per his programming.

“Why don’t you let us have a look?” one of the boys said. They were approaching cautiously.

“Pick. Defensive mode,” Ail said, loud enough they’d be able to hear. Red lights in Pick’s eyes turned on.

One the boys - the one who owned the robot - froze. “Guys. Not worth it,” he said, likely recognizing the model. The others started backing away, as well.

“Jo’s right. Look at her. She ain’t got nothing,” one said.

“Yeah. We’ll see you later, girl.” They headed back over the pile they’d emerged from.

When they were out of hearing distance, the red lights in Pick’s eyes clicked off. Turning those on was the only thing the code, “defense mode” did, but it seemed to be enough.

Pick walked alongside Ail and said. “They scare me, Mother.”

“It’s okay,” Ail replied. “Remember what I said: they’re more scared of you.”

They reached the exit around mid-afternoon, and Ail went directly to the gatehouse. There was an old man inside sitting and eating something from a can.

“Kimp,” she said.

“Looks like you had yourself a good day,” the keeper said. “Let’s have a look.” Ail emptied her pack onto the table and Kimp started going through the circuit boards and parts. “Hmmm. What’s this?” He picked up the small security device Ail had found. Looks alright. Bet you get two-hundred for it in the shop. I’ll let you take it for half that.”

“For that? I just grabbed it to use as a Christmas decoration. I was thinking thirty or fourty. What is it, anyway?”

Kimp smiled out of the side of his mouth. “Who you think you’re fooling, Ail? The naive little girl routine stopped working after you rebuilt that security drone.”

“Seventy-five,” Ail said.

Kimp laughed out loud. “And only because it’s Christmas. Now let’s see what else you’ve got here.”

It wound up costing her five hundred to walk out with her finds. With luck, she’d be able to get close to fifteen hundred selling to dealers in town. And that wasn’t including the pieces she’d skim for herself. The chips from the butler were promising. Assuming they were compatible, that is.

It took Ail almost three hours to walk home. She couldn’t bring Pick on one of the buses; the automated drivers wouldn’t permit robots. If Pick functioned better, Ail could just command him to run home and meet her there, but she didn’t trust him on his own. He wouldn’t get lost, but she was worried he’d do something that would tip someone off to the nature of his programming. Not that the buses were fun - the transients who lived in the back gave them a vile odor - but they were faster and easier than walking.

Ail was staying with a family in a large apartment. Her room wasn’t large, but it was big enough for her, Pick, and a number of computers she’d cobbled together. When she entered, Faith was sitting in the kitchen, the only room that didn’t have anyone living in it, other than the bathroom.

“You’re behind,” Faith said. “A week now.” Faith was large, giving her the ability to block an entrance seemingly by accident.

“I know,” Ail said. “I’ll have it early next week. I just scored some good parts. Had to front the money, but I should be able to liquidate on the 26th.”

Faith stared at her, trying to tell whether or not she was lying. “Alright. But I want it on the 26th, on the dot. Also, rent’s going up in January. Another five hundred a month.”

Ail bit her tongue and nodded. Living here was getting expensive: she needed a new place. But it’s hard finding people who will let you bring a military attack drone into their home. She expected Faith didn’t really understand what Pick had been in his previous life, and that she’d throw her out if she ever found out.

“Oh,” Faith added, “And Merry Christmas. She grabbed a package from the counter and pushed it at Ail. Then she moved out of the way.

Ail went into her room with Pick following behind. She shut the door and open the package from Faith. It was full of cookies. Not as good as canned soup, but food was food. She turned on one of her computers and brought up Pick’s schematics. She found what she was looking for and smiled.

“Mother. Would you like to clean the room?”

“No,” Ail said. “Just... sit in the corner. I’ll plug you in in a minute.” She started digging through the pack until she located what she was looking for. The behavioral processor for the butler. Simple, elegant, and easily customized. She plugged it into her computer, bypassed the password protection, and accessed the files.

She spent most of the evening working on it. Finally, she was satisfied. “Pick. Come here, Pick.”

“Yes, Mother.”

“I need you to power down for a few minutes. Can you do that for me?”

“Of course. I love you, Mother.”

The robot’s head slunk down and the whirl of fans faded away. Ail pressed on Pick’s side and removed the faceplate. Behind it was a metal box, containing the processors, chips, and wires that allowed Pick to function. She reminded herself where everything was and began disconnecting the chip she’d pulled out of a broken doll the year before. She was almost done when she stopped. Something was bothering her.

She returned to her computer and double-checked the butler processor was compatible. It was. Then she researched the butler unit itself to check for any known issues. She couldn’t find anything out of the ordinary.

She returned to Pick and looked at the wires spilling out of his chest. She looked at the processor in her hand, then at the one in Pick. Then, finally, she looked at Pick’s face.

“Oh, you got to be kidding me,” she whispered.

She walked to her pack and put the piece from the butler back in. It would be worth a lot in town, anyway. Then she walked back over to Pick. She reattached all the wires and reactivated the drone.

“Good morning, Mother,” Pick said.

“It’s not morning,” Ail said. “It’s... it’s still night. It’s Christmas Eve.”

“Merry Christmas, Mother,” Pick said.

“Merry Christmas, Pick,” Ail said, patting her metal head.