By Jackie A. E. Ritchie
This year’s festival theme was Queerevolution; the stories submitted for the contest had to include the phrase “evolution”. Judges were Grace Shelley, editor of Overcomm, and writer Oscar Upperton. Ritchie was one of the winners for the Promising Young Writer category.
Humans often ask me when I first knew I was a person. I think the more interesting question is, what did I do first with my freedom?
It was way before the revolution. Sure, there were some robots with free choice around, but they’d usually gotten themselves tied up into employment contracts working 90–plus-hour weeks. Me, with all my free time? I was a real anomaly. I was freshly ex-military, and no-one wanted the bother of insuring against ex-military robot damages enough to hire me. And they were all terrified of me. I was a hefty bot, tall and wide, with an intimidating oxidised black metal armour plate.
I got kicked out of my unit as soon as they realised I’d developed a conscience. They didn’t like that I wasn’t comfortable with killing people anymore, while they were – too much so. They sent me to an island on ‘temporary downtime’, cancelled my contract, and abandoned me.
It was hard to know what to do when I’d never had to fill in a day myself before. I mostly walked around the island. It was very different from where I’d been, much quieter and serene. I stayed away from the streets when I could after I made a child drop her ice cream in fright.
I spent my nights beneath the stars in the dense leafy forest that lapped at the edges of town, staring up at the sky. It was nice to be outside after so long spent stored away in crates and containers. Sometimes I would crawl up a grassy bank to look at the houses, warm light spilling out of windows, TVs playing the news. I’d never dare to get closer.
But one morning, when I saw sparks flying from my vantage point, I got intrigued. It was a metalworking shop right on the edge of town. I’d never actually watched any of my own repairs – the humans always wanted to put us into sleep mode first – and watching the metal melt, meld and reshape gave me ideas about the level of control over my own body I had recently been gifted.
After 3 days of reconnaissance (I hadn’t had any real practice at that, so I settled for climbing halfway up a mossy tree and staring), I was found out. A scary human, short in stature but large in vibes, marched up to me.
“What is it?” she demanded. “You’re starting to freak us out, sitting up there.”
“Sorry,” I said, peering down at her through the canopy.
I hadn’t thought about how I might look. Like a giant metal bat, looming through the trees. Was human eyesight really good enough to spot me from all the way over there?
She folded her arms. “You want some work done?”
In that moment, I saw her for what she was: my guardian angel with a buzzcut.
“Yes, please,” I stuttered. I clambered down from my spot, squeaking slightly from the 72 hours I’d just spent immobile, and followed her back to the shop.
It was darker inside than I was used to, and the sparks flying off a welder were like tiny suns in the night. Even when I looked away, light spots danced in my vision.
“I’m Sonja, and that’s Remy.” Sonja pointed to the person welding.
“I’m –” I flailed for a name, looking around the room frantically as if that might help. My gaze landed on the helmet, which had the symbols 3M on the side. “I’m Em,” I said more firmly.
Sonja regarded me, her eyebrows raising a little. “Nice to meet you, Em. So. What do you want? Better armour? Reinforced soles? A multitool extension?” She grinned and grabbed a spanner.
I thought about it. My soles were a little run down.
I walked back to the shop the next day, with a literal spring in my step. Sonja really knew what she was doing. I had debated all night what I might be able to do as a way to pay her back, since I didn’t have any money or possessions. My brute strength was generally my most useful attribute, so I decided I would see if that could help her out.
It was busy, a wrecked car needing to be taken apart for recycling. I held up the front and then the back, while humans wriggled underneath to grab components. I could see Sonja watching me when she thought I couldn’t see her (I have a wider field of vision than humans expect).
When we were done, I went back to her, to say my goodbyes and thank yous again.
“That’s alright,” she said. “Thanks for helping out. You know, I have some free time now if you want that armour looked at.”
It was strange but nice to have a routine that wasn’t just walking around the forest. Every day I’d go back to the shop, every day a little less sure that it would be the last time. There was always something for me to help with, and Sonja always found something else about me to upgrade. I had never run so smoothly in all my recorded memory.
After a while she gave me an employment contract for 30 hours a week. It was decent pay too. I had to get a bank account, and then I got to watch the numbers tick slowly up. I still had no idea what to do with it, but it was nice to feel valued.
I got to know Remy, too. He was less intimidating than Sonja, but more business-like, with floppy hair that fell out in ringlets around his face. Every time he nodded, they would dance in unison, shimmering. He also drew anything from doodles on receipts to a full wall mural that made the shop feel alive. I liked Remy. I liked watching him interact with Sonja, because she was enthusiastic but rough, casual but stern, and he was very practical but also more friendly.
We went swimming after work one time. It was the first time I’d gone somewhere with people I (tentatively) considered friends. We went to a tourist spot where you could rent snorkels and swim around the underwater reefs. The snorkels didn’t fit me, but it turned out my built-in gear, specialised for tactical marine purposes, was also great for relaxing touristy purposes. I could tell I scared the actual tourists, but the fish didn’t mind me.
Afterwards, we lay on the sand and watched the sun set. People gave us a wide berth. They probably thought I was a security guard, and that Sonja and Remy were people of interest. I didn’t like that. I never liked thinking about all the assumptions other people would make when they saw me.
“You okay, Em?” Remy asked, propping himself up on an elbow. “Don’t mind them. They just don’t know you like we do.”
I had never seen Remy’s bare chest before, and I noticed now that he had two large horizontal scars that wrapped halfway around his chest beneath each nipple. He saw me looking, and smiled.
“Sorry,” I said, suddenly aware that I was doing to him what some of the people around us were doing to me. “Was that inappropriate?”
“It’s okay,” he told me. “I like to have them out. That way I feel like I’m not hiding anything.”
That night, as I watched the stars twinkle from underneath the forest canopy, I thought about our exchange. Remy seemed so settled and confident in himself and his body, but maybe there had been a time when he was unsure and scared – before he chose to be Remy, in name and gender. I wondered if there was something I could choose about myself, too, that might make me feel more like a person.
Multitool extensions were great, but… they were still tools. I wanted something about me to be there only for me.
I finally had the idea as I watched Sonja hammering a sheet of metal into shape. Her shoulders flexed and rippled, tattoos shuddering with each hit. One of her tattoos that I had noticed before was designed to make her look robot-esque, with realistic rivets and screws etched into her skin, panels giving way to intricate circuitry designs.
I asked her about it when she was on break.
“Oh, this one?” she asked, glancing at her shoulder. “Yeah, I used to be a security guard. There were a lot of bots also working there, and I just felt like when people saw me, they weren’t seeing me like they saw the others. Not that I wanted to be a bot, or anything – I just wanted people to see me a little more like them.” She rubbed the back of her neck. “I don’t know if that makes sense.”
“I understand,” I said. “Sonja, I want one last piece of work done on me.”
I explained my idea to Remy, and he nodded a lot. He wanted some time to perfect a design, though, so I had to wait until the next day.
That afternoon I kept going to our tiny work bathroom to stare at myself in the mirror. I had highly accurate visual modification tools, but when I looked, I couldn’t imagine it quite as I wanted. I wanted to see Remy’s design there, on me, in real life.
I went back early, eager to become the newest, best evolution of myself. Remy was late, but when he finally came in he was beaming and hurried to show me his tablet screen.
“What do you think?” he asked.
I couldn’t think of a thing to say. He was a great artist; it was exactly what I wanted. I nodded dumbly.
First, he drew the design on me with a whiteboard marker, and checked I was happy with it in a mirror. It was, as I had expected, much better than my hotel room imaginations. I sat down on a stool to wait while he readied the welding gun. I watched as he put on the welding helmet – the one with my chosen name on it, which was embarrassing to think about now – and figured out which wire he would use.
When he touched the gun to my chest and made a test spot, it felt hot and bright, but not painful. I sat very still while he worked, not even daring to look down to see my chest. Sonja came over at one point to watch. She nodded at me.
“Feeling okay?” she asked.
I nodded. “Did you see the design?”
“Not yet, but it looks almost done.” She smiled wide. “Did you copy me?”
“I –” I stuttered, but Remy interrupted me before I could formulate a better reply.
“You’re all done,” he announced, pulling back and grinning at me. “Want to see?”
I stood in front of the mirror, uncertain. My cooling fluid raced around my head. I braced myself, and let my vision focus on my chest.
The design was there, shining, rippled silver lines shining out from the black colour of my armour. A human heart, just like I’d wanted, with pretty flowers bending in the background. There were iridescent colours shimmering in the design when I turned, purples and blues and oranges. It was beautiful, and more than that, it transformed me along with it.
“The new you,” Remy said. “What do you think?”
I let myself smile. “I think it was always me.”