The Nature of Things in Motion
By Marlan K Smith
I met the boy sometime after completing column 5526, a span of bridge that soared high over the tips of pine forests and granite ravines. It had been a particularly difficult and time-consuming project due to the lack of matter I had to work with. This section of landscape had been starved of building materials for some time, and it had been years since I had last encountered a supply conduit. Once, in the days of rapid building, when millions of voices sang through my mind—orders completed, building plans delivered, projects processed—I could have depended on a delivery waiting for me at the next column, a large steel box containing epoxy cannisters and hardening chemicals, extruded feeds of raw material. Without supply chains, I had been forced to manufacture these core components on my own from the basic elements around me, a process that took time and energy.
The cities, with their vacant buildings, provided material. Concrete, after all, can be ground to dust and repurposed. Most of the materials I required, while time consuming to reproduce, could be manufactured—girders, bolts, cables, all the things that matter when building a bridge. This process had been easier when I was within the formerly incorporated metro areas, but the cities were behind me when the boy appeared, my bridge spanning kilometers, my columns towering over the cedars and redwoods that now provided my makeshift substrate.
The boy must have seen me as I built the bridge over his village. The columns didn’t need to be as tall then, as most of the landscape had been largely flattened, either by machinery or by the gradual entropy that had consumed the cities. It made for easy harvesting, and for that I was grateful. Construction went on tirelessly during that period of growth.
I spotted the boy behind me one day, keeping his distance. I ignored him, too small to be a threat, unlike some of the adults who liked to yell and threaten with their older generation tools. When he appeared closer the next day, I paused my work and activated the triangular safety reflector at the rear of my body so that he would know not to approach the construction site. He ignored this.
“What are you doing?” he asked, standing small beside me as I spun a tension cable from a balance girder.
“I am working,” I replied. I pulled a bolt from a storage flap and pushed it through a sheet of newly laid paneling.
“Working on what?”
“I am building a bridge.” I paused, looked down at him.
Most animals run from me. These things never change. Raccoons and cats sniff at me and run away hissing. Occasionally, a raven or a crow will land nearby as I process matter from acquired sources, but they typically fly off as soon as I begin to work again. The boy would sit and watch me for hours, however, sometimes coming so close that I would stop, turn, and gently push him aside so as not to see him harmed.
He liked to ask questions.
“Where does the bridge go?”
I paused my work at this query and pointed a manipulator eastward along the central tree line and out towards the cleft in a mountain range. “That way.” I extruded a spray of carbon-steel epoxy to bind a pair of high-tension support cables.
“No,” he said. “Where does it go to?”
“Where does it end?”
I ignored this query as there was no point in acknowledging it. The chorus of transmitted voices that normally guided my construction had gone silent long ago. Now there was only my own internal monologue that chanted Build, Build, Build.
“Why don’t you build something else?” he asked.
“I don’t care to,” I said. “Please move along.”
“Because this is what I do. Please move along.”
I stopped again and turned to face the child, his head level with my lower joints, staring up at me with a shock of sandy blond hair that waved like switchgrass in the high winds above the trees. His faded blue T-shirt had numerous tears, frayed along the collar and sleeves. Shoes made from repurposed tires clung to his feet by Velcro strips scavenged from helmets and other clothing.
“I make bridges,” I said.
“Don’t you ever take a break?”
“I do,” I said. “It is necessary sometimes to pause construction and reclaim materials for fuel and manufacture. Please move along.”
“You mean you eat?”
“I consume matter and repurpose it into useable substrate and reinforcement mesh.”
“So, you eat.”
“Yes. Please move along.”
At this, he pulled a small EZ-NUT BAR protein ration from his pocket and sat along the edge of a railing which I had previously extruded. He unpeeled the bar and stuck the end into his mouth. I sensed that I had grown low on resources as well, and so I retracted my limbs and constricted my torso to sit across from him. Nearby, a section of wall from a housing center sat, which I had dragged along for later, rich in silicate, iron, and carbon. I ejected an epoxy fiber strand, ensnaring it and drawing it to me. We consumed matter, facing one another, and I considered his chewing in time with my own.
Carbon was plentiful. Life seemed to spontaneously erupt from it. Daisies sprouted between girders, grass lifted asphalt and pushed rocks aside. Trees grew in vast numbers. Moss rode the sides of my hull. These were the materials I had to work with now, consuming the strata and flora, grinding it into carbon, and spinning my graphene fibers into new columns for a bridge for which, even now, I cannot remember the original purpose. But rare materials were welcome and one of my eyes rolled to focus on what the boy was eating.
When he finished his ration bar, he extended the silver wrapper. I took it from him with a manipulator claw and consumed it as well. Aluminum, silicate, hydrocarbons. I shunted the construction materials into their proper holding reservoirs and used the extracted hydrogen for fuel. I stood, extended my body, and continued my work.
Human interaction forced me to create a record. This subroutine used to function as a bureaucratic safeguard against tampering. More memory was freed so that the boy could state his inquiries and information.
He told me his name was Felix and that his family lived in the village that had once been a part of the Greater Vancouver-Seattle Metropolitan Strip, a vast construction project that had been growing steadily long before my memory and continued to do so right up until the system fell into entropic disarray. He told me about his mother and five sisters who all lived in one of the abandoned housing units along with several cats and a racoon that sometimes visited. He didn’t remember a time before the entropic disarray, and for him, this was his reality. I had seen the world grow and expand, then collapse in on itself. I am not sure what made him suspect, but he began directing his questions toward the subject of history.
“How long is the bridge?” he asked.
“Five-thousand, five hundred, twenty-seven columns,” I said. “Roughly twelve hundred kilometers.”
“What’s a kilometer?”
“It is what I use to measure distance. It is the sum of a thousand meters.”
“How long is that?”
“You are roughly a meter and a half.”
He watched me extrude a section of framework that would be used to support the next layer of roadway. It emerged from one of my reservoirs and fell in large, goopy layers that congealed quickly. This process often took the most time, especially with such a lack of immediate resources. Afterwards, I laid down a row of reflectors that I had previously fabricated. They shone bright and yellow like jewels against the gray concrete.
I assessed my progress. The bridge appeared to me as a never-ending gray line pointing to the Pacific Ocean, vanishing at the horizon in the fog and haze. Conifer treetops rose to meet the underside of the bridge. A river babbled somewhere below us, its echo bouncing from granite cliffs. I attempted to access the memory of where it began and could not. These memories had long been abandoned to make room for solutions to new obstacles. Other memories had become corrupted, written over, or simply deleted to make room as they became irrelevant.
At some point, after I had built the bridge far enough, I assumed I would come upon a foreman who would give me the kill order to stop. Felix often told me to stop, sometimes laughing. But Felix was no foreman. I found that if I paused a second, then continued, he would laugh, then tell me to stop again. This did not detrimentally slow my progress, and I didn’t mind. It was better than answering so many questions.
Sometimes, without warning, the boy would dash off, stating his need for another ration bar. I took advantage of these moments to rappel down a column and inspect the structure for weaknesses, suspending myself on a web of extruded carbon fiber. Other times, I would move along the ground, scanning the darkened landscape for suitable raw materials: a tree, a road sign, a deceased deer or racoon. Often, I would resort to simply consuming the wall of a building or a boulder along the jutting cliffs. Litter covered the ground in some places, but this often appeared in such small quantities that gathering enough to produce suitable substrate would take longer than if I were simply to pull a rusted lamppost from the concrete and repurpose it.
I often returned to the bridge and would briefly scan the landscape for the boy. Days would go by with no sign of him, then the next morning, he would appear once again to bombard me with more questions.
“Don’t you have a name?”
“Your name is Bubba.”
He walked around the bulk of my thoracal plates and pointed a small finger at the serial number printed in fading black paint along my flank. I listened to him read out the letters. “B… B… U… B… A… uh… what are these?”
“Not those, the lines.”
“That is a bar code,” I said.
“Oh… Your name is Bubba.”
“I found a new shirt.” He ran back around to stand before me and pulled the material away from his slender torso to show the faded ATARI logo on the front. A long tear ran down one side, exposing pale skin and the ridges of ribs.
I extended a finger along the tear, using micro incisors to stitch the seam together. with graphene filaments. He looked down at the mend and then up at me. “You said you couldn’t make anything but bridges.”
“I did not make anything.”
“You fixed my shirt!”
“I repair and build bridges. There is little difference in process.” I turned to lay down another layer of sealant along the newly laid concrete before the rain began to fall. The boy wrinkled his nose at the fumes. This process often took the most material fabrication, mixing the appropriate components at an atomic level to produce such chemicals that didn’t otherwise appear in nature. The process consumed time and energy. I turned to sit.
“Are you hungry again?” he asked me.
“I require raw materials.” I began to reel an empty oil drum in my direction.
“Can you eat anything?”
“Yes,” I said as I began to consume the metal cannister. It bent and shrieked as my internal shredders disassembled it.
“I didn’t know machines ate anything at all?”
“Everything eats something,” I said. I pulled a fallen road sign into my intake orifice. Shredders reduced it to splinters and then into finer materials—then to molecular core components. “Everything that does not wish to become inert consumes energy and matter. That is the nature of things in motion.”
“But if you eat…” his eyes traveled down the length of my body. “Where do you poop?”
“I extrude repurposed substrate in the form of construction components. That is what I use to make this bridge.” To demonstrate, I extruded a long thread of carbon fiber epoxy, which I used to draw a brick into my intake orifice. I clamped down and felt it crumble under pressure.
At this he began to laugh.
“What is funny?”
“You made a bridge out of poop,” he said, giggling. This sound rose in a crescendo. “All the bridges… are made of robot poop.” His mouth opened wide and he continued to laugh louder, holding his stomach.
I decided that in order to fully interface with the boy, I should duplicate such body language. Forcing the micro servos and manifold plates of my intake orifice into a facsimile of what I approximated as a similar expression, I turned to him with my smile.
“Don’t do that,” he said. His smile had evaporated.
“Why not?” I widened the smile.
His face turned still and tense. “Because I don’t like it.”
“It is what you do.”
“It isn’t the same. Just don’t.”
“Ok,” I said and continued my work. When I turned around again, the boy was gone.
Long stretches of intensive work often kept my mind from inquiring of the boy’s whereabouts. A subroutine had emerged so that I might be aware of his presence, so as to not accidentally push him off the edge of the bridge, or to suddenly turn and impale his small body with a support strut, or accidentally push a tension bolt through a panel only to realize that he had been hiding there in an attempt to surprise me. A small percentage of my concentration always returned to the boy, and as a result, I soon found that my construction efforts were nearly 0.37% more efficient when he was around and accounted for.
When I saw him next, he had arrived slowly along the bridge as steel-colored clouds rolled across the sky, dumping sheets of silver-gray rain on top of us. He wore a black plastic garbage bag over much of his body with holes torn out for his arms and head.
I looked in his direction and raised a bolt-cutter claw in a small wave.
He did not respond immediately, but instead sat nearby on a safety rail and stared at a small doll in his hands. After a while, he placed it on the ground and took out another protein bar, chewing it slowly as he observed me, pausing only to cough every few minutes. After he was finished, he offered the wrapper to me again, which I gladly took, consuming it.
“This doll was my sister’s,” he said. “She died last night.”
I turned an eye in his direction, continuing my work, spinning extruded polymers to use for a distance placard. “How did she die?”
“Sick.” He coughed.
“And your other family?”
He shrugged. “Sick also.” He put a fist to his mouth and coughed into it, looking at the gray concrete. I continued working. “Lisa, my big sister, she’s gone.”
“Is she also deceased?”
“She ran away. I think California.” He coughed into his fist again. “I didn’t want to waste the wrapper because I know you like them.”
“They contain aluminum and small traces of hydrocarbons. The organic remnants inside the wrapper also contribute to my materials reserve.”
“You’re welcome.” He watched me file down an uneven tensor coupling and then asked me, “Remember when you fixed my shirt?”
“I do remember.”
Another pause. “Do you think you could do that for my mom?”
“Is her clothing in need of repair?”
How long had it been since someone had asked me to reroute programming to do a new task? I couldn’t remember. “I am not able to perform medical procedures or diagnosis.”
He put the doll down into his lap and looked at me frowning. “Why not?”
“It is not the same as building bridges.”
“Being sick is just being broken.”
“It is not the same.” I turned my body halfway towards him, trying not to crowd him off the ledge. “I lack the required algorithms and diagnostic software to perform the same functions as a medical automaton.”
“Can’t you, like, I don’t know, make a pill or something? My mom said that machines used to make pills all the time.”
“That requires a schematic for molecular synthesis of non-organic compounds into pharmaceuticals. I have no such schematic.”
“But isn’t it all just the same stuff? Isn’t everything made of the same stuff?”
“Everything is constructed of the same materials, but there is an infinite number of ways in which those materials can be combined. Lacking the proper schematic for the synthesis procedure, I have no way of knowing how to combine the atomic components properly.”
“Can’t you try?”
“It could kill her.”
“Oh…” He slouched on the barrier and looked again at the doll in his hands, as small by comparison as he would look in my own manipulators. Rain soaked the doll’s polymer hair, turning it from blond into darkened algae strips, its surface battered and scarred from use. “Thanks for trying anyway, I guess.”
“It is important you understand what I am intended for.”
“Yeah…” He looked up at he as I started to turn my attention back to my work. “Can I stay up here with you for a while?”
“You may stay within my presence for as long as I construct this bridge.”
“Thanks,” he said.
“You don’t wish to tend to your family?”
He shook his head. “I only lived with the one sister and my mom anymore.”
“Does she require your attention?”
“She said she wanted some time alone.”
“It’s probably good you can’t make medicine,” he said. “Because she’d just use it all anyway. She really likes medicine.”
“I see. Perhaps you are correct.”
I constructed a large half-shell over where the boy sat, shivering, in order to protect him from the rain, then placed a row of hot welds to prevent his core temperature from falling below acceptable levels, in accordance with safety protocols. When the rain finally ended and the sun shone through the thick clouds in bright golden shafts, the boy walked around the platform, talking to his doll in low tones, and I consumed the shelter for its core components. At night he would sleep in a new shelter that I would construct further along the roadway, his body curled around the doll in the dark, the red weld bubbles making his hair glow like fire. I worked through the nights.
One morning, while working, I turned to see the boy standing dangerously close to the edge of the bridge. The sun was out that day and his stark shadow stretched across the roadway. He held in one hand a segment of detached graphene carbon fiber, raising it up above his head in the wind. He laughed, but I could find no pattern in the humor.
“You should not stand so close to the edge,” I warned. My caution lights activated on their own accord, yellow shafts of spiraling gold in the morning mist.
“Why not?” he asked and danced along the edge of the barrier.
“Because it’s dangerous.”
“You do it.”
“I am designed for it.”
“What if I do this?” The boy spun in a circle and turned his head up at the sky. Small droplets of mist spattered on his face and slid down his skin. He smiled up at the clouds, then shot me a defiant glare.
“Please step back from the edge,” I said, turning.
“You are fragile. Your pattern cannot be replaced.”
“I thought you replaced everything.”
“I fix things. I construct things.”
“Then you can just fix me if I fall.” He pulled the carbon fiber into a swoop like a small bird, making a swishing sound with his mouth.
“Physical patterns are easy. But your internal behavioral pattern is in the neurological and chemical systems, active matrices that make up—”
“I don’t care!” he shouted in singsong voice.
“—your behavior and imprint upon the world are unique only to you and are brought about only through your accumulation of dynamic experiences through time. Once you are gone, it would be impossible to replicate another. That is a great risk.”
He kicked a loose piece of concrete over the edge, watched it tumble down into the trees below. “My dad said the reason we were so poor is because he couldn’t find a job building things anymore.”
“Did he try doing something else?”
“No. He died.” The boy spun in a little circle, holding the carbon toy.
Another gust of wind blew against him and he laughed, eyes closed.
“Felix, please step back.” My posterior safety triangle began to flash.
But it seemed as though the boy couldn’t hear me. He spun and danced with the wind in his hair, holding out the carbon fiber segment, piloting it in dips and rolls. He twisted and balanced along the asphalt, seemingly unaware of the two-hundred meter drop below. He jumped, and his foot landed on the barrier askew, twisting at a sharp angle. He cried out, spinning in the air, his body nearly vanishing below the edge before I managed to lasso his ankle in an ejection of carbon fiber epoxy. The action caused me to neglect the timing of a bolt that was to be projected through a reinforcement plating, and I could hear the section of bridge crumble away, falling into the forest beneath. A murder of crows took flight from below, disturbed by the sudden intrusion.
I moved to the edge of the structure, looking down at the child as he dangled midair, his eyes staring out at the treetops, the carbon fiber bird fluttering downward into the river. He looked at me but said nothing. I reeled him up.
The boy’s ankle had been damaged from the slip, bending at a new angle, and when he attempted to walk, he stumbled and began to cry. While I lacked the schematic to set bones or produce healing gels, I could extrude a makeshift cast. I wrapped his leg in a cocoon of carbon and projected UV rays, hardening the epoxy in seconds.
“That will hold your ankle in place while it heals,” I said.
He inhaled a sob and did not look at me. “I wish you’d let me die.”
“Your pattern is—”
“Shut up! It doesn’t matter!” When he looked at me, his eyes were lined in red. “Patterns, patterns, patterns. If it’s all patterns, why didn’t they make patterns that would last? Why do you get a pattern that lasts forever?”
“I will not last forever,” I said. “Eventually. my task will end, or my parts will become too worn by entropy to perform and I will lack the resources and rare-earth minerals to repair them. When that happens, I will shut myself down and become inert.”
He blinked, his face streaked with tears. “You’ll die, too?”
“Everything ceases to move at some point.”
I built a new shelter around him with rows of bars on one side so that he could still breathe, communicate, and watch me, but could no longer harm himself. While still incapacitated, a pattern in his behavior suggested that if he chose, the boy might find his way to the edge again.
I required time to produce composites, and so we sat together, staring out across the wide, sprawling landscape as the boy chewed on a nutritional bar from his pocket, his eyes scanning the tops of trees from inside his protective shelter. Sometimes, he would cough, his body wracked in great spasms.
“My dad used to have rough hands,” he said. “They were huge and covered with calluses. I was really little then. My sister used to say they were as big as dinner plates, but I think she exaggerated. That was just before she ran south. She used to feed the animals that would come to our porch, big raccoons and birds, and deer. I remember how she would hold out bread and sometimes the deer would come right up to her and eat the bread from her hands.”
He looked over at my manipulators, big and ceramic and hollow. He looked down at his leg, wrapped in carbon fabric. The other end had been tethered to the inside of the shelter for his own safety.
“Aren’t you going to untie me?” he asked.
“I will,” I said. “Your heart rate is still elevated, and you are in a heightened emotional state. I will sever the cable when I am done inspecting this column. Knowing where you are allows me to work more efficiently on this problem.”
“When will that be?” He asked, then coughed into his closed fist.
But I didn’t answer.
I had been converting raw matter into substrate for a crucial step in the construction process. I extruded a ribbon of steel and carbon from one opening and attached it to the side of the bridge, then lowered myself down a support beam that ran underneath the mesh of carbon and steel. I’d been stuck on this one column for a few days now, because the rest of the structure depended on it being as sound as possible. With a posterior eye, I watched the roof of the boy’s shelter recede up into the cold steel sky.
Column 5527 had been sound, according to all the lidar and x-ray scans, but this column, 5528, was showing structural anomalies that I hadn’t noticed until recently. My programming would not allow me to continue to the next column until the current column was cleared of all imperfections. This behavior had been hardwired into my mind since before I could remember.
Whatever was preventing the support column from being a hundred percent sound proved difficult to detect, and it seemed that every time I’d thought I had located the issue, ultrasound tests had shown the bridge to be unusable to heavy traffic. This would not do. A bridge with no structural integrity was simply an eyesore, a blight on the landscape. I thought for a moment that perhaps it would be better to simply deconstruct the entire segment and start over. I considered this a while, but decided to perform a detailed, high density scan instead. Starting at the base, I worked my way upward, centimeter by centimeter, from the ground anchor, sending pulses through the material and analyzing the integrity of the composition from a molecular to a structural level. I couldn’t feel the freezing rain and wind, my attention committed instead on finding the one minor flaw that could invalidate my progress.
I began to run an internal audit of my systems, suspicious that perhaps all the distraction with the boy had pulled processing cycles from my primary evaluative subroutines, resulting in oversights that resulted in integrity flaws to the construction.
The clouds glowed with the last light of day before a last-minute cursory scan found the problem: a hairline fracture along the sixty-seventh segment of the support base of column 5528. It had been difficult to pinpoint because of the angle, but now, with the wind blowing, the minor movements of the bridge made the fracture yawn and stretch as much as a tenth of a millimeter. Under heavy traffic, this flaw would result in a catastrophic failure, in loss of property and life. Immediate repair was required.
I ejected a viscous filler into the millimeter gap. It foamed and expanded, seeping into the crevice, forming a carbon scar. I then extruded a long, fiber ribbon, wrapping the entire column with it until the scar was no longer visible. After allowing it to cure under UV projection, I then ran a secondary sanity-check scan to ensure it was indeed the cause of the failure. I then cross-referenced these results to ensure my work was finished.
Satisfied, I hoisted myself back up through the rain, past the trellises and girders, past the patchwork bolts and swinging carbon-fiber panels, past the cedars and granite cliffs, until I reached the roadway again.
“This would be easier with better direction,” I said to the boy. “My memories before the entropic disarray are corrupted, their imprint is not retrievable—”
The boy lay on his side, lips blue and eyes open only enough to reveal a sliver of white. The boy’s frame, pelted by small drops of near-freezing rain, appeared motionless beneath the soaked and dirty clothes. A film of pink spittle and phlegm had hardened along one waxy cheek. No exhalation escaped the nose or mouth. The body was inert.
Until now, I had been too busy to keep a record of the elapsed time. I checked now and found that sixteen hours had passed, the sun nearly set, the ambient temperature barely above freezing. The boy’s leg was still bound in that carbon-fiber cast, tethered to the shelter. Unbreakable. I considered this for a moment, then rested my bulk on the bridge a few feet from the body.
Down the length of the bridge, I noted the hundreds of other girders and beams, pillars and columns that I had placed during the countless years I had been on this task. Emilie with her red ribbon that whipped tattered in the wind at Beam 228, Andrew and the broken model airplane he would sometimes tell me about at Beam 1115, Colin and his family photo at Beam 311. How many other children had I befriended? How many orphans, stray dogs, wounded crows, lonely vagrants, had crossed my path, all refugees of the entropic disarray? Those memory nodes had been permanently lost, no longer necessary for my job function.
I consumed the inert organic matter slowly at first, starting with fingers, feet, and hands. I then worked my way up to the more complex organic systems and skeletal structure. I processed these into their core components, allocating them to my various reservoirs, parsing the elements of Felix into their assigned containers.
When the intake was finished and the processing complete, I turned my attention to a new column, one that I would build the next segment of bridge upon. I began at ground level, anchoring it into bedrock among the trunks of trees and the solid earth, then built it layer upon layer until it met the roadway above. I ended that task with a plaque:
Once completed, I moved on and laid down framework for a new segment of the bridge, one composed of carbon and calcium, magnesium and phosphorus, hydrogen and iron. All the things in this world that mattered.
About the Author:
Marlan was born in Central California, played video games in San Francisco, and earned his master’s degree in English from the University of Idaho. He is currently teaching at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and is working on a couple of novels while he pursues an MFA in Creative Writing. He holds a special fondness for robots and cats.
Copyright remains with Marlan K Smith