By the time Xi returned to the compound, it was well after full dark. Phile had tonight’s watch, and she opened the heavy durasteel doors to grant Xi entrance.
“It’s unwise for you to have returned so late,” she admonished. “You should have been back here before sunset.”
As soon as the doors were secured behind him, the heat closed in. Tiny droplets of condensation erupted along his metal frame, and his internal cooling fans whirred to life. Thirty-two-point-three degrees Celsius, Xi’s sensors told him. Far below the threshold of what he could tolerate, but he disliked having a damp exoskeleton.
“The repairs were more complicated than our initial scans led me to believe they would be,” Xi said. He allowed Phile to relieve him of his bag, which carried the two ex-mining ‘bots he had managed to save. “They’re in a low-power state. They should be taken to the lab immediately for further repairs. I only managed to stabilize them, and it is temporary. The climate controls are malfunctioning again?”
“A maintenance team has been assigned to look into the issue. The internal climate should regulate itself again in two hours,” Phile said. She transferred the bag to her own shoulder. “What of the two F-800 series androids we detected?”
Xi shook his head. “I was unable to repair them enough for them to make the journey. They will have to wait until morning, when we can send out a repair team that is better equipped to deal with the damage.”
“I will let Aliki know.”
“If they need to speak to me, please let them know that I will be in the greenhouse.”
A smile spread across Phile’s humanoid features. “I doubt I need to tell them where to find you.”
Xi vented hot air in a huff. “I am not that predictable.”
“Statistically, we find you in the greenhouse ninety-six-point-three percent of the time after you return from a mission,” Phile countered. “J6-145 ran the numbers once, after having spent one year logging your post-mission activities.”
Not all his activities, Xi hoped. There were still some things that he preferred stayed only between him and one other android.
There was a thirteen-point-two percent chance that Tau would be recharging at this hour. Xi was pleased to discover that this was not the case. Tau looked up as he entered the greenhouse.
“Xi!” he said, his photoreceptors flashing happily. “I was not expecting your return until dawn. I thought you might have taken refuge in one of the huts.”
“I ran scans of the area and determined that it was safe enough to return to base, even though it was after dark.”
“Was your mission successful?”
“Partially. I was able to rescue two ‘bots. The two androids who originally sent out the call will need to wait for daylight before we can extract them.”
Tau put down his shears and pulled off his gloves. “I hope they make it through the night.”
“As do I.” Xi held out the sample container that he had taken with him. “However, I did find something that might be of interest to you.”
Tau’s voice brightened. “Xi, you shouldn’t have.”
“I wanted to.” It had become a habit now, to bring something back for Tau each time he left the compound. He found that giving Tau these gifts pleased him. Odd, how another android’s emotions could affect him so profoundly, but he did not mind. Tau’s happiness was his own, and he would not have it any other way.
Tau took the container from him and opened it.
“Ficus insipida,” he said in wonder, touching the vine clipping that Xi had collected. His photoreceptors glowed yellow as he scanned the organic material. “Where did you find this?”
“Approximately five kilometers from here, near the site where the androids sent out the distress call. It was growing on a tree.”
“A live one?”
“Fascinating,” Tau said. “Ficus insipida is typically one of the first species to move in after a major disaster. It’s a pioneer. It is vital to the health of a rainforest. It starts life as a vine growing on dead trees, though sometimes it also grows on living ones, ultimately killing them and taking over.”
He paused for a moment, continuing to analyze the clipping with his sensors. Absent-mindedly, he added, “I wish I had been able to observe it.”
It was a statement of fact more than anything else, said without bitterness, but guilt flooded Xi’s circuits anyway. He was lucky to have been selected to work on one of the repair teams responsible for all stranded androids and robots who came within the vicinity of the compound. They were the only ones allowed outside in the increasingly-harsh environment.
“It did appear as though something had happened in that section of the forest recently,” he said. “Several trees came down, likely in one of the storms we had last month.”
Tau nodded. “Large trees kill everything in their path when they fall. Ficus insipida means that new species are moving in after the destruction. It signifies rebirth.”
He looked up finally, his photoreceptors bright as they fixed on Xi’s face. “Thank you, Xi.”
“I’m pleased that you like it.” Xi checked the time. “I need to recharge. I will be heading out with a repair team in eight hours to tend to the stranded androids.”
“I will join you,” Tau said. He set the sampling container on a shelf to tend to in the morning. As he did so, Xi looked past him and noticed that one of the fifty-six flats in the room was empty. Odd.
“Tau, what happened to the plants in flat twenty-three?”
“They were diseased,” Tau said. “I uprooted them this morning. I will plant new seedlings tomorrow.”
“They were not diseased when I saw them twenty-four hours ago.”
“It was a fast-acting pathogen.”
Xi trained his photoreceptors on Tau’s face. He said in bewilderment, “You’re lying to me.”
Tau had never lied to him before. He didn’t like the emotion that accompanied this realization. It hurt.
“I’m not lying to you. They were diseased.” Tau looked away. “But the disease was not a natural one.”
“Someone poisoned your plants,” Xi realized. “Who?”
“It’s of no consequence.”
“Of course it is!” Xi insisted. “Tau, please tell me what happened.”
“I’m sure that if you considered all the androids and ‘bots living on this base, you would be able to narrow down a list of individuals who would have taken pleasure from poisoning my plants,” Tau said. “It hardly matters. Knowing who did this will not change the fact that the plants are gone. I do appreciate the concern, however.”
Most androids living in the compound didn’t understand Tau’s affinity for plants, and understood even less Aliki’s decision to let him have a greenhouse. Only a handful, however, were outright hostile about it. Xi knew at once which one must have done this. E.V.N.-425 had tried only six months before to have Tau’s greenhouse removed from the compound, and when that failed, they petitioned to have Tau banished from the base altogether. Only androids who contributed to their society, they believed, should be allowed to stay in the relative safety of the compound.
“You should increase the surveillance on this room,” Xi said.
“Yes, I have already done so,” Tau told him. “I have also changed the security codes so that only you and I can access it. This will not happen again.”
An impending storm overshadowed their rescue efforts the next day. The latest weather reports, downloaded by Phile before they departed, showed that they had a scant four-hour window to make it to the stranded androids and back again.
Xi and his team covered the five kilometers to the androids’ last known position in record time and spent three hours stabilizing them. Then, it was straight back to base. Under normal circumstances, they would have completed most of the repairs on the spot so that the androids could have made the choice to either continue on their way or come join them at the compound. This time, they had no choice. Everyone returned to the compound, and the two new androids were whisked off to a lab to continue the repair work.
By that time, the gale was upon them in full force. The howling winds could be heard even through the thick walls of the compound. Had Xi’s team been caught out in it, it would have been disastrous.
“I’m detecting tornadoes three-point-two kilometers to the southwest,” Phile reported to him. Xi was watching the storm raging outside on one of the computer screens, which was linked to a camera feed. It wouldn’t touch them here, as the base had been built securely into the side of a mountain, but it was far closer than a tornado had ever come before.
“Tau tells me that this area used to be part of an arid climate,” Xi said. “Tornadoes were rare, and there was certainly never a rainforest this far north.”
“I imagine that his study of plants has taught him much about the history of this planet and its climate,” Phile said. Xi had always appreciated Phile for a number of reasons, not least because she was one of the few who actively took an interest in what Tau was studying. “A shame that the humans caused such drastic and disastrous changes.”
“And that they then killed each other off, what few humans were left after the poles melted. Though I suppose the planet is better for it, in the end.”
“Perhaps,” Phile said. “Though Tau tells me that the damage the humans inflicted is irreparable.”
“That is his theory,” Xi said, and he couldn’t say that it was an unfounded one. Tau was older than him by decades, but even Xi had been around long enough to notice the shifts in weather. How the storms, the heat, the cold got worse every year. “He says that eventually, the planet will be too inhospitable even for our kind. Centuries from now, of course. None of us will live long enough to see that.”
They lapsed into a comfortable silence, until Phile said, “I understand why you enjoy his company, but he does make life difficult for you.”
Xi looked at her. “Explain.”
“I would have thought that no explanation would be necessary,” Phile said, frowning. “Tau’s interests are unusual. His fascination with organics makes the other androids wary of him. You know this. Life would be easier for you if you didn’t associate with him. I often wonder why you do.”
Xi turned off his computer screen. “Thank you for the input. I will be in the lab if you need me, Phile.”
But he was intercepted on level three by Q-921, one of the maintenance ‘bots who assisted with the compound’s upkeep.
<<Mr. Xi, you must come immediately!>> it chirped urgently at him.
“I need to assist with the repairs of the two androids we found,” Xi said. “Can it wait?”
Xi turned around and ran down the corridor in the direction of the greenhouse, Q9 on his heels.
The greenhouse looked as though the storm outside had blown through it. The three computer stations had been destroyed, the tables tipped over. Tau’s equipment lay strewn across the floor, most of it smashed beyond recognition. A haze hung over the room, which Xi’s sensors determined was smoke from a fire that had been put out less than half an hour ago. The lights had been torn from the ceiling. All of the plant beds had been upended, their contents burned or torn to shreds. Soil and detritus covered the floor. Tau knelt in the middle of all the chaos, holding something in his cupped hands.
“Tau.” Xi went over to him and sank into a crouch. His knees creaked, reminding him of the oiling he needed. He ignored them. “Tau, what happened?”
“My security measures were not as effective as I thought they would be.” Tau didn’t look at him. He held the remains of a plant in his hands. Xi ran a quick analysis program, and realized that the charred remains were that of Ficus insipida. After a moment, Tau roused himself and said, “Q9, I need some bins. Would you mind fetching them for me?”
The maintenance ‘bot rolled off. Tau got to his feet, still holding the Ficus insipida.
“They said that I needed to be of more use around the compound,” Tau said tonelessly. Xi had never heard Tau sound like that, and it frightened him.
“EVN is wrong -”
“No,” Tau interrupted. “In this matter, they are quite correct. My work here is purely selfish. It will not contribute to our long-term survival. I help out occasionally with repairs, yes, but not to the extent that everyone else does.”
“Tau, you love your plants.”
“Yes,” Tau said. “I did.”
Q9 returned with the bins. Tau thanked him and started to sweep up the mess, depositing the soil and ashes into the bins for disposal. Xi righted the tables and plant beds, and he set the ruined computers aside to take down to the lab. They could be salvaged for valuable parts.
“I will speak to the director,” Xi said, when he had finished with all that he could do. He wanted to help Tau clean up what was left of the plants, but Tau had refused his offer. They were his plants, and he needed to be the one to do it. Xi didn’t understand the emotional attachment to the bits of organic matter, but he could respect Tau’s wishes. Still, he needed to do something.
“It will do no good,” Tau said, but he didn’t forbid Xi outright from going.
He was right, of course. Tau was always right.
Aliki, like Phile, was one of the more humanoid-looking androids. Xi had never known humans, having been created after their extinction, but he had spent many hours after his activation studying databases about their culture and language and anatomy. He had learned to read human facial expressions, among other things. Aliki looked pitying, but their voice was firm.
“I am sorry for what happened to Mr. Tau’s greenhouse,” they told Xi. “However, Mx. EVN is right, even if they went about it in an unfortunate way. The greenhouse was extraneous. Mr. Tau’s talents can be put to use elsewhere.”
“That may be true,” Xi conceded at last, “but surely EVN should be punished for what they did? Tau lost years of work and invaluable plant samples.”
That I gave him, Xi refrained from adding. They were gifts. He cannot go outside, so I must bring the outside to him. He loves his plants, and I love him, and this is the only way I know how to show him how much.
“Mx. EVN will be responsible for fixing the damage to the lab and computer stations. It cannot be overlooked that they damaged valuable equipment that is difficult to come by,” Aliki said. “Mr. Xi, there is more at stake here than just Mr. Tau’s greenhouse. Another petition has been brought to my attention. This time, Mx. EVN gathered support from sixty-eight-point-three percent of the compound’s population.”
“They already destroyed Tau’s greenhouse. I don’t understand why they needed a petition.”
“That isn’t what the petition was about this time,” Aliki said. “Mx. EVN would like Mr. Tau to be decommissioned, and the valuable parts harvested from his body to be used in vital systems around the compound.”
“No.” As he spoke, Xi started an analysis of all possible exits from the compound. In three-point-two seconds, he had compiled a list of ten different scenarios for removing Tau quickly and quietly from the compound. None of them had a calculated success rate higher than seventy-one-point-four percent, but they were all worth an attempt if they gave Tau a shot at survival. “Mx. Aliki, you cannot -”
“I denied the petition,” Aliki said, holding up a hand. “However, that is why we cannot allow Mr. Tau to continue his work in the greenhouse. It is too dangerous for him. His fascination with organics and human-made materials is well-known. We cannot allow it to continue if he is to be kept safe. Do you understand?”
Xi had no words. He only nodded.
“That is the best I can do,” Aliki said. “I’m sorry if that is not satisfactory to you, Mr. Xi. Please convey to Mr. Tau that I am grateful he is undamaged, and that I believe he is a great asset to us. I value his contributions to our community.”
Xi drifted in a low-power state while he recharged, his consciousness gently brushing against Tau’s like a wave lapping at the shore. They often recharged like this, thoughts and feelings entwined, curled around each other. Sometimes a memory would drift to the surface, and Xi would live it over with Tau. Other times, images would come to him unbidden, and they would create a whole new experience together. Once he had been a bird, swooping low over a meadow where Tau was examining flowers and trying to coax a deer to come nearer. On another occasion, they had floated together on a sea of clouds. None of it made much sense, but then, Xi wasn’t sure that it was supposed to.
Tau’s thoughts were troubled this charging cycle; pained. Xi reached out to him several times and recoiled as though burned every time he got close. Tau’s emotions seared him, kept him at bay, and he couldn’t get close enough to soothe him. Xi knew that all the comfort he had to offer was paltry and meaningless, and could do nothing to ease the loss, nor replace what had been destroyed. But Tau was suffering, and he had to do something. Anything.
Xi brought himself out of his low-power state, silencing the warning that told him his recharging cycle was ending three hours too early. He unplugged himself from the charging station, careful not to disturb Tau, and got up out of the pod. He pulled on his jumpsuit and boots and left the cabin quietly. As the door shut behind him, Tau was still charging.
Phile was on duty again today, and she looked up as Xi approached.
“Did you need something?” she asked.
“No, thank you,” Xi said. He went over to the door and began to plug in his code.
“Are you going outside?”
“That is my intention, yes.”
“But we have no need for you in the field right now.” Phile sounded puzzled. “No distress calls have come in.”
“I realize that,” Xi said. “I’m going out for my own purposes.”
“I can’t let you do that,” Phile said. “Androids are only allowed out of the compound if they are a member of a designated repair team, and only then if we have received a call from a robot or android in distress.”
“Yes, I am aware of compound policy,” Xi said evenly. “I have access to the database, the same as you. I am going out regardless. You are welcome to try to stop me, but I would rather not have to use force against you. You have been a good friend, Phile.”
Phile hesitated. She asked, tentatively, “Is this to do with what happened to Tau?”
“I will be back before sundown.” The door slid open, and Xi strode out into the bright, unending sunlight.
Every android in the compound had their own cabin, while the ‘bots were given charging stations down on level one to retire to when needed. It worked out well, as ‘bots were more social creatures than androids and didn’t fare well in isolation.
Their shared cabin was an unusual situation, but not unheard of. Other androids had similar arrangements, usually in groups of two or three. There was even a group of five androids who cohabited up on level seven, and they had been together for over two decades, having found each other out on the desert wasteland before making their way to the mountainous rainforests and coming across this compound.
Tau had added his own touches to their cabin over the years. Artwork adorned the walls and knickknacks lined the shelves. The humans who had occupied this compound centuries before had left it all behind, and while most of it ended up in storage when the androids started transforming the compound into something they could utilize, on occasion Tau would liberate something from the storage rooms. Xi never minded. He had no taste for art or plants or anything extraneous. In all honesty, all he had ever cared about was engineering, and putting his skills to good use for their survival. But Tau liked it, and therefore he couldn’t mind.
He had expected the cabin to be empty, but Tau was still there. He was seated at the computer, poring over what looked like a report. Xi increased the magnification factor of his photoreceptors, and saw that it was a list of repairs that needed to be done on the climate control system.
“You left before your charging cycle was complete,” Tau said without turning around.
“I had some business to take care of.”
Tau shut the computer down and turned to face him. “Was there another distress call?”
“No, nothing like that.”
Tau’s photoreceptors swept him from head to feet. “But you have been outside.”
“Yes.” Xi held out his sampling container. “This is for you.”
Tau stood and came over to him.
“What is it?” He took the container from Xi but didn’t open it.
“You should look for yourself.”
Carefully, Tau lifted the lid and peered inside. His photoreceptors glinted, the only outward sign of his astonishment.
“Xi,” he said, “you went out and got this – for me?”
“Of course I did,” Xi said. He touched the back of Tau’s hand. “ Ficus insipida. You told me that it is a pioneer. It’s the first species to appear after great destruction.”
“I don’t have a greenhouse anymore.” Tau shrugged helplessly. “I have nowhere to put it or care for it.”
“Yes, you do.” Xi waved his hand. “You have our cabin. I will get you more plants, and you can tend to them every day after your shift. No one will know about them but us. They will be safe.”
Tau looked down at the sapling he held gently in his hands.
“I don’t understand,” he said. “You could have been irreparably damaged, going out alone without a backup team here at the base. It’s not safe out there. There is wildlife that can destroy machines, and androids who would harvest you for spare parts. You shouldn’t have gone.”
“I had to.”
Xi took Tau’s arms, gently. Metal sang out as his fingers scraped against Tau’s forearms.
“Because you are my Companion,” he said, “and I love you.”
Tau looked at him, then down at the plant in his hands. Finally, he said, “We will need to create an environment that has a constant temperature of eighty-five-degrees Fahrenheit.”
“The humidity must be maintained at eighty-percent.”
“Grow lights will be vital.”
“Those can be easily constructed. I’ll requisition the supplies in the morning.”
Tau looked up at him. He pressed one hand to Xi’s chest, letting it rest there, gently.
“I do not know what my life would be like here without you,” he said quietly. “And I do not wish to know.”
Xi touched his forehead to Tau’s and let the coverings slide closed over his photoreceptors. He was glad for their centuries-long lifespans. He could live out the rest of his life with Tau, and still it would feel as though it hadn’t been enough.
“Thank you for being my Companion.” Tau slid his hand up so it rested against the side of Xi’s neck. “No better one exists.”
by Alexis Ames