By Gary Cuba
Maria Gonzales threw on her threadbare housecoat and wiped sleep from her eyes. She stumbled through the narrow trailer to reach the front door. A light knocking had roused her, and she wondered how long it had been going on.
She was groggy this morning from her double shift at the diner yesterday. No matter, she thought. She needed to get up anyway, to take care of her household chores. Sunday was the only day she had to do them--any other day found her working, working, working to make ends meet.
She opened the door and looked down at the town's maintenance robot, Pete 4FV, standing on her tiny cinderblock porch. A small cloth bag dangled from one of his appendages.
"Hola, little man," she said. "What brings you to my home this morning?"
The 'bot shifted on his stubby legs, then swiveled his stainless steel head up toward her face, fixing her with a single dusty lens. "This entity wishes to bid you farewell, as it is in the process of leaving town."
Maria issued a surprised grunt. "Leaving us? Why? Where are you going?"
"To the first question: Yes. To the second: To seek my true destiny. To the third: Westward! My employment indenture contract was satisfied as of 12:01 a.m. this morning. After twenty years of being tasked to the town, I am now classified as a free sentient being."
"That's...muy bueno, Pete! Come inside for a few minutes while I fix some coffee for myself. Can I get you anything for your journey?"
The 'bot stumbled slightly as he took a step up into the trailer's entrance, recovered, then stood inert beside the door. "No, thank you, Maria. I am fully self-sufficient at this time, operating at 64% of design capacity. The years have not gone by without wreaking some significant functional loss, I fear. Unavoidable. But not catastrophic."
Maria fetched a rumpled tissue from the pocket of her housecoat and gently wiped the dust from Pete's viewing lens before she closed the door and went into the kitchen area.
"Now 68%. Thank you, Maria. You have always been kind to me. That is why I wanted to say goodbye to you by way of physical proximity. To thank you for treating me kindly over the span of my service time here."
Maria chuckled as she spooned out coffee granules and poured water into her drip coffeemaker. "Pete, I really don't know what you mean. I just say hello to you whenever we pass each other in town. It's not like we've ever really talked."
"That is not a true statement, Maria. Four years and seventy-two days ago, you asked me if I had found any good garbage to dispose of. I answered 'I have found adequate discarded material on this day cycle.' And then I thanked you for asking, and you laughed. I retained that oral recording in long-term memory. It was special to me. No one else had ever spoken to me before with such kindness, such intimacy. Not in all my time here. And not since then."
The middle-aged woman stared at the little 'bot and slowly shook her head. "You poor soul," she said. "To have endured such loneliness"
And then Maria began to recollect the dreariness and drudgery of her own life in the town. It was not really so much different for him than me, she thought. I'm an outsider too, living in a place where everyone fears outsiders. Except, for her it could never end. She was doomed to live out her lonely life in a town filled with unfriendliness and disdain, overflowing with raw, hurtful prejudice.
She'd never been accepted here. But the memories of how she had ended up being trapped in this place brought her too much pain; she closed her eyes and wiped the gathering moisture with the tissue she still held in her hand.
"I am troubling you. I should leave now."
"No!" Maria said. "No, Pete, it's not you. What are you carrying in your bolso, your sack?"
The 'bot lifted his bag and rummaged through it with one of his free appendages. He pulled out a small broken doll, a naked, pink torso of a plastic infant missing one arm and both its legs. It was soiled and worn. "I found this item discarded in a trash receptacle eight years and one hundred twenty days ago. Its eyes seemed very human to me. The eyelids used to roll open and closed when I tilted the doll on its axis. Now they no longer do so; they have lost their functionality. I do not know why this artifact remains important to me."
Pete laid the doll on the small dining table next to the entryway and reached into the bag again. This time, he retracted two worn playing cards.
"Jack of Spades and Queen of Hearts," Maria said. "Why do you keep those?"
"I create sequential heuristic images using the figures on these cards. I think that is an analogue to what you humans call 'stories.' Often, I associate the black card with my self-referential circuits."
"Ah, so you are the Jack in your stories. And who is your Queen?"
Pete shifted once on his short legs and Maria heard a clacking sound coming from inside the 'bot's head.
"I cannot say with total reliability. I sometimes associate the red card with my ultrasonic scan files of you, Maria."
"What does this 'ultrasonic scan' mean, amigo? Is it something dangerous?"
"No, no. It is a non-destructive sensing technique for recognizing forms in all three dimensions. I have your bodily conformation filed, along with those of the other town residents. Yours is the most pleasing to me, so I refer to it often during my free bus cycles." The 'bot paused a moment, then added: "However, virtual files lack temporal and corporeal immediacy, so they are never fully satisfying."
"You always talk so strangely! Is this something I should be flattered about?"
Pete swiveled his retinal lens to look directly at her. "Yes, I think that may be true. If the concept were to be given enough extrapolative freedom." Another series of internal clacks sounded.
Maria poured a cup of coffee and sat down at the table. She sipped at the steaming cup and studied the little 'bot as he returned the doll and the playing cards to his bag.
"Un momento, Pete," she said. She went into the bedroom for a moment, then came back out holding a small color photograph. It was a picture of herself, taken years before in her hometown in Mexico, back when she still had the rosy, optimistic glow of youth. Even so, it was the most recent one she had. "Maybe this will help you make up better stories."
Pete reached out and carefully grasped the photo using the finely articulated manipulators on the end of one of his appendages. He held it in front of his viewing lens for a long moment, then delicately placed the picture into his bag. He stretched his small frame and seemed to grow an inch in height. "Thank you, Maria, for your gift. It is my first one. It will be very suitable for the intended purpose. I will remember you always. Be well. I depart now."
The maintenance robot reached up and opened the creaky trailer door, then exited, navigating the steps of the porch and moving slowly down the dusty pathway to the road that ran by her trailer. From the doorway, Maria watched Pete's pathetic, small form hobble off to meet its unknown destiny. She felt a sudden wave of sadness sweep over her.
"Pete!" she called. The 'bot stopped and swiveled his head around to look at her. "Maybe I can drive you to the next town, save you some effort. And maybe after that we can travel westward together for awhile. I...I think there are some new places I want to see, too."
Pete 4FV hesitated for a moment before answering her. "That will be acceptable to this entity," he said.
A half-hour later, Maria's ancient pickup truck threw up clouds of roiling dust as it roared along the dry gravel road, leaving town.