Volume 28, Number 4


Catherine Bradberry

The dream program had gotten dreary. His creation core hadn’t even tried to pull anything else from his memory bank. Perhaps it had finally sizzled out and died and just left the vivid recollection of how this loop began on repeat. The soft whirr of the Plexiglas shield doors slowly dropping broke him out of his pre-dream state and placed him back in the simulation world. While Iota wasn’t too eager to leave the comfy, insulated superstore with its riot-proof hexagonal windows and automatic customer rejection checkpoint, he had his orders. His vision looked down to the weight hanging on his left hand. He knew it was the groceries he had been sent to fetch, but he wanted to check anyway; at least if he found a glitch. He could fix it and take some time out of this dream limbo. But the basic food items sat inside the bio-plastic bag, one the worker droids had to go all the way to the back warehouse for. They hadn’t been expecting any customers. It had become much more expensive and rare to even find the bare necessities for the household. Maximilian used to always come shopping with him before, but once things began to go downhill, Iota went alone. It was too dangerous now for a human like Maximilian to come here.

He swung the metal plate on his chest out, safely tucking the groceries in his holding tank. Once he closed the door the soft fabric lining around the inside expanded, cushioning the groceries against any sudden impact he may take. Iota braced himself as he crossed the barrier, exiting into the run-down street that formerly was a glittering downtown metropolis. The pavement past the ten-foot perimeter around the superstore was cracked and broken, and the shops across the street sold clothing with tags written in permanent marker. The iron bars on its window had been hacked at by primitive bolt cutters a dozen times over, tiny chips and wedges taken out of any exposed metal. Coming to the edge of their territory meant Iota was at risk of being scrapped by one of them. 

That risk had only multiplied once the evacuation noticed had been pushed out to every android and robot in the city. Iota had been in the store when it had happened, looking at the new SR-5 ligaments that were rotating around the conveyor belt on the components floor. He hadn’t heard the explosion because he was two levels underground, but he knew it was a short blast followed by the sound of glass hitting the earth, the shards falling as readily as snow. He had watched that in the short five second clip that came attached to the message—it hadn’t told him much. It was only meant to give the androids something to look at as they passed on the notice to their operators.

Now his brain nagged him endlessly about the message he needed to deliver. It was marked extremely important in his data banks, but he couldn’t access it until he saw Maximilian. The blinking letter icon was annoying; every time the LED flickered on and off it’d make a high-pitched beep sound to show it was time-sensitive. For the messenger bots and city reclamation droids that was acceptable, but Iota had become accustomed to human noises. It sounded like an annoying bird, particularly the ones that liked to hitch a ride on his shoulder casing when he was walking on Third Street.

Iota walked along the broken sidewalk, past the extravagant high rise office buildings of blue and green tinted glass and the mansions of pale yellow stucco with fountain spray wafting into the street, over the hedge fences and onto Iota’s eyes. His windshield wiper activated, shedding the dihydrogen monoxide in sheets, and suddenly the world was clear again. He pulled his hand to the base of his neck, pushing the lever along the crown of his head until his steel visor had fully extended. Now he wouldn’t have to worry about the water. In the dying sunlight, his eyes looked downward to keep the glare off his ocular modules, but the dark diamonds dancing on the warm pavement made his curiosity core spark. Of course, he knew what they were already. He had gone through this memory countless times, after all. But all those times would never make this any less painful.

He tilted his head up, cogs cranking as they shifted his neck angle upward towards the kites, the master strings coming from a nearby field. His danger process screamed as he watched the patches of red fabric dance together in a line, blotting out bits of the sun, but he quelled it with a quick command. Iota knew this was a dream, after all. The program kept him from deviating from the assumed path and actions, but he could control his emotions however he liked. He knew what would happen in a few steps. The impending sense of doom just made it worse. Iota picked up his pace slightly, setting his legs to a faster movement speed as his mechanical joints clicked with each step. It wouldn’t be any use, but at least he could get it over with and relay the message that much quicker. He wanted the beeping to stop.

He reached the end of the tall wrought iron fences earlier than expected, the well-kept street with chrome fire hydrants tapering out to patchy road. This was the worst leg of the trip, passing through their territory momentarily before reemerging in the safe haven of the upper district. Iota played some classical music in his head as he walked past, the rocks bouncing off his outer coating and back onto the ground. At least this way he couldn’t see them. Well—he could see one, but she wasn’t throwing rocks—not yet. He hated this one. If only she had put her skills to better use, like playing baseball, perhaps she wouldn’t live down there anymore. Her red raincoat, patched with pink and magenta, was always buttoned to the top despite the warm weather, and her rough black hair was always strung up in a bun with a large amaryllis hair clip made out of felt. Iota had flowers like that too, back at home, but he liked how it looked on the black backdrop despite its evil owner. At least it would distract him from the fall.

She wound up her arm, a large rock the size of Iota’s palm in hand, and let it go. It slammed into the side of his neck, nearly severing his control unit and crunching his power source. His robotic legs couldn’t adjust to the sudden force, and he stumbled forward in vain like a toddler and hit the pavement, feeling his casing scrape against the broken asphalt. His audio tuned out for a few seconds until it rebooted, and his diagnostics unit flickered to life as it assessed the damage. His HUD and all the lights on it blinked once and died, and never resparked. All the familiar and annoying beeps stopped abruptly. The knob on his visor lever bounced down the road and sunk into a storm drain, far out of his reach. He felt the spring snap it back into its retracted position, only confusing his artificial balance further. While the rest could be repaired, his cracked eyepiece could not. A long, jagged line split the image from his left eye into two sections as it extended past his casing and up his metalloid forehead. Diagnostics pointed it out to him after a few seconds as if he couldn’t see it. His programs were still a bit fuzzy, so he manually pulled up his control terminal.

C:\Users\Iota: Plant hands on road.
          >Error: Hands not holding plants. (Err:4160 biomatter-code56.43)

Iota hated how literally everything was taken in the robot world, even in his own brain. The humans could piece together what their small offsprings were trying to say by a few grunts and a pout, but intelligent beings of metal and plastic couldn’t. While Iota himself was refined like the humans, his parts held him back.

C:\Users\Iota: MIbackup.


C:\Users\Iota: Ping [ControlUnitDelta]

>Ping Statistics-

>Packets Sent: 4 Packets Received:4. [ControlUnitDelta] Online.

>Avg: 56ms.

C:\Users\Iota: Run VestibularProcess.exe

>Vestibular Unit undamaged. Retrying…

C:\Users\Iota: Position hands under front carriage, parallel with road. Pos: 180.


C:\Users\Iota: Move toes to pavement. Bend knees to move.proc.450k.


C:\Users\Iota: Oscillate weight to abdominal.


C:\Users\Iota: Exit.

>Closing terminal...

He felt his elbows shift, and his knees locked as he pushed himself to his feet, slowly tottering as he hoped the rubber vestibular system in his back would kick in. His feet began to move again, the silicone grips slipping every now and then. He’d soon be home, with the gates firmly closing behind him, and he could slip into sleep mode peacefully under his satin curtain until tomorrow. He didn’t look forward to making the trek back to work, though. He was thinking about sleeping and barely noticed when his hand met the smooth latch.

“Iota, what happened?” the boy cried, jumping over the veranda railing and into the courtyard. A tutor yelled profusely about ruining his new silk clothes, but he didn’t care.

“Maximilian, I am damaged,” Iota said, his voice finally crackling out to the young fourteen-year-old boy.

“I can see that—hold still!” Max jumped onto the fountain’s edge so his head was level with Iota’s cranium. He leaned against a small tree, barely as tall as Iota, to help hold him steady on the thin white brick of the fountain’s edge. He sighed at the exposed prongs of the damaged lever and twisted Iota’s head on its axis to look at his oculars. Iota’s good eye focused in until he could see Max fully, light brown hair and gold-flecked green eyes staring back at him. “Oh man… was it those stupid kids again? Why don’t you just go around them?”

“I only have one programmed route home, Maximilian.” Iota opened the metal plate on his chest, pulling out a metal thermos, a box of cereal, a loaf of bread and instant ration packets. “The groceries are unharmed.”

“Hmmm…” Max paused. “I’ll have to order the parts. But the delivery van barely comes anymore. It’s becoming too dangerous, with everyone down there attacking anything they see. You know something’s wrong when they’re attacking messenger bots...” he rambled. Max twisted Iota’s good eyepiece, comparing the undamaged eye to the damaged one. His vision zoomed in like a camera lens, softly whirring as he felt the glass shift. As he did, Iota’s vision focused in on a thick, grey pillar of smoke rising from several of the skyscrapers in the distance. “Maybe once I take over, I’ll add a shipping company to the conglomerate. And my company won’t be afraid of a few violent idiots with bats… Who uses primitive weapons like that anymore?”

In that moment, with the smoke circling up the skyscrapers lazily, Iota remembered the message he had forgotten after his fall. The letter icon and the annoying beeping turned on once more, and Iota ached for it to turn off again. 


“For the billionth time, call me Max.” Iota had never heard Max use that tone before. It was new to him.

C:\Users\Iota: Run EmotionsCheck.exe


>emotions found: 2. Identity 0004356 and 000023: <Anger and Annoyance>

“Order rejected.”

“... Override Rejection.” Max twisted Iota’s eye the other way, reeling back his zoom.

“Override overridden.”

“It was my father, wasn’t it? God—Why are you robots so difficult all the time?” He jumped off the fountain, heading towards the nearest open double doors that led away from the courtyard. “C’mon, I’ll at least see if I can buff off some of the scratches on your exterior.” Iota had something important to say first.

“Oh, Maximil—”

“Set Voice Module to zero.” Max crossed his arms. “You can turn it back on when you call me Max.”

“... Accepted.”

C:\Users\DetectionCore: End

>Ending sim.dream43


A soft flutter woke Iota from his dream, and his ocular flickered to life in its rusted well. His curiosity core sparked again, and he looked around for what had woken him. At least nineteen years had gone by since he had last booted up. It may have been another bird trying to make a nest out of his visor, permanently locked in its closed mode.

A red empty battery signal blinked in the corner of his vision, along with a frowny face above it. The message icon was above that too, beeping just as loud as ever, but Iota couldn’t do anything about that until he found someone to relay the message to. The date and time were at the top of his HUD, but he never bothered to look at that anymore. The numbers seemed to rotate too fast now. He shook out of his machine cradle, stepping over his fallen curtain and immediately toppling to the floor, foot caught on the fabric. The house had degraded even more since his last awakening.

C:\Users\Iota: Run diag.exe


>Some results are inaccessible on low-energy consumption settings:

>devices running: 12

>devices connected: 54

That number was lower than the last time he had awoken. His parts must be corroding at last. The plastic and chrome would last for years, leaving him a shell, but his internals would be rusted through soon enough.

His parts slowly brought him to his feet, and he heard his cooling unit speed up to help relieve the strain. The warm summer air was thick with moisture from the sheets of rain that washed over the mansion, cascading through the holes in the roof onto the checkered marble floor into oblong puddles. One lay at his feet, and Iota avoided looking into it.

He moved his right foot over the puddle, watching it dangle in front of him by a few sparse wires. He set it back down next to him again. Shakily, he kneeled, turning to the satin that had tripped him. It was a pale blue color and shimmered like a pearl in his hands. Although he was reluctant to destroy anything in the house, he tore a long strip of satin from the curtain, binding the foot’s rebar bridge back to his leg. He’d be sure to log an order for another curtain if Max walked in. When he walked in. Right after he delivered the message and the beeping stopped. 

With his newfound balance, he stepped over the puddle, more confidently this time, and picked his way across the broken chandelier and the buckled escalator. He steadied himself once he reached the courtyard by holding on to the chipped brick, feeling it crumble in his hands. When he returned, they would need to hire someone to renovate the place—and hopefully, this time, with better quality materials.

A flash of red dashed by the courtyard’s gates, shocking his system. He felt himself swoon as his ocular strained to follow the motion to no avail. The blur that had dashed through the failing sunlight had barely registered. That was an odd anomaly, indeed. Iota had been built with some of the best oculars available at the time of his creation.

Had he come back? The emotional part of him began to well up and take over, but he pushed it down. That was illogical. Max would have used the front door, not the gate.

Was it an intruder? As the sole servant for now, he had a duty to protect the house. He checked his protocol.

>Investigate source. If unauthorized personnel, dial 911. If authorized, greet.

Iota had no love for the rain, none at all. On his list of hates, it was antepenultimate only to the girl with the amaryllis hair clip and the beeping message. And without his visor the water would mess up his vision, but he was too curious to let this go. He stepped forward, feeling his foot sink into the buckled sod of the yard, but he ignored his warning sirens telling him to clean off the mud and kept going. The years had taken off the collar the gardeners had previously put on nature. Ivy speckled the walls of the inner courtyard, and the massive tree next to the fountain had destroyed the delicate bricking and torn up the yard. Step by step he slowly crossed into the rain, and he tried to ignore the water as best he could. To ignore how it seeped into his chest, and sparked the stripped wires on his neck and arms.

Walking through the courtyard was ten times worse than walking past the kids each day. He did the math in his head. Walking on an average day gave him -5 utils. But this was -50 utils. So this was ten times worse.

He focused on that simple equation—ten times five—over and over until his swinging hand tapped the front gate. The noise echoed back in the courtyard and reverberated out into the street like someone had struck an empty oil barrel, and Iota felt his sensors strain once more. His auditory module was overloaded all at once, and his senses died out for a few moments.

He saw nothing, heard nothing and felt nothing in those brief seconds. The first to come back was his sense of touch. He gripped the gate firmly so he wouldn’t topple over. Next was audio; he heard the roar of the rain slowly fade back in, odd splashes greeting him in quick succession.

The LED in his ocular lit up once, twice, failed again, and held its light the third time as Iota regained vision. At first he thought he was seeing things; the black shape was the only object his eyes picked up for a few moments. But everything faded into his recognition eventually. The black shape turned to black hair, and the red smudge he saw earlier faded to the red raincoat, which time had not been kind to. It held more patches than before, and the hem was nearly destroyed. There was no clip in her hair this time.

The two of them stared at each other for what felt like hours. She looked exactly like the girl from all those years ago—but just a bit different. A bit younger. The big, brown eyes of her childish body looked into his good ocular, without much expression to them.

C:\Users\Iota: Run EmotionsCheck.exe


>Err: Unknown Emotion.

He stared longer. She stared back. Neither of them moved. Iota was not human and thus did not care for their stubborn games of seeing who could do something for longer—he drew his hand away and took a shoddy step back.

She finally broke her stare too, but instead of running off again like Iota had hoped, she firmly took hold of the rusted latch and yanked it with all her might to the side, unlocking the gate. The girl swung it open with little grace, and the hinges screamed at their abuse, but with enough time she finally had it open despite its age.

C:\Users\Iota: Run phone


C:\Users\Iota: Dial 911

>No usable tower in range.

He froze, unsure of what to do. If anything, at least in the formerly well-kept grounds of the mansion, she didn’t have any ammunition to throw at him. She walked forward, pink boots splashing in the pockets of uneven ground. Though once she neared him she trudged slower, seemingly to avoid splashing him.

Iota tried to speak, to tell her to go away, but his voice module hadn’t been under his control since the day of his recorded dream.

The girl paused, circling around him slowly as if in awe. She barely reached Iota’s waist, thus she was smaller than the one before her, but that didn’t stop her from jumping up and down to try and see higher.

Well, she wasn’t throwing rocks at him. May as well give her what she wants and hope she goes away.

He bent his knees and locked them in a crouching position, letting her see whatever it is she was so excited about. She lingered out of his vision, and Iota was getting nervous—until he felt a small finger slowly touch where his broken lever was. Then he was really nervous. The four prongs barely peeked above their slots, unusable without the handle that had been broken years ago.

The girl circled back into his vision, looking up to him to make sure she had his attention and then back down to her raincoat. She took hold of the first button, the flower shape the button had all too familiar to Iota. With some struggle the girl finally broke the threads that held it on, holding the free button in her hands with some triumph. She looked up at Iota with a small smile and darted behind his back once more. It snapped into place perfectly, the four prongs accepting the button as a substitute. Iota braced as he felt the prongs lurch forward after years of stagnation, pushing through the dust and slowly releasing his visor once more.

C:\Users\Iota: Dismiss evac.ann.01

>evac.ann.01 is marked as extremely important by the communications core.

>Override and delete? <Confirmation needed>

C:\Users\Iota: Confirm action.

>Dismissing notification…

The beeping envelope disappeared after nearly twenty years. Iota knew now that he no longer needed it.