by Jerry Yap

A swirl of rusty red dust stung Tom Wyatt’s eyes through the cracked lenses of his ramshackle gas mask as a fierce wind lashed at the sunbaked, desolate road. His lungs wheezed with every breath of the half-filtered air while he stood by the twisted stop sign, waiting, and stewing, for a shuttle that was always at least a half-hour late. He drew the tattered hood of his long overcoat over his head and scanned the lonesome road. There were only three destinations: the domed enclave of Messer City at one end, the unexplored mountains at the other, and the stretch of desert between them.

He hacked up what air he couldn’t take, along with a heaping glob of phlegm, which he reluctantly swallowed; he didn’t need to see his own phlegm to know how red-tinged it would be, and not just because of rust. His days were numbered, but that was old news for any “Duster” who lived outside Messer City. The Ministry knew that the Dusters wouldn’t survive, but it didn’t matter. They had what they needed from the old generation—an expendable workforce. His replacement gas mask and routine housing maintenance were at least six months overdue. The shielding panels of his one-room dome-icile were already scorched brown from the searing blue light of the Algol star.

He knew better than to send a complaint to the Ministry or stop reporting to work. They would send an apprehension team after him, then give him the third degree on why he wasn’t contributing to the Messerian government. Being a welder was the only thing he was good at anyhow. All he wanted was to keep his head down and work his remaining five years before his retirement—if he even lived that long. It was all he had. That and his dome-icile in the middle of nowhere. He had a daughter, but that was a long time ago. Lyssandra was like him now—a distant memory of the past, like the antique smartphone in his hands. The thought of hurling it onto the scorched blacktop flashed in his mind, but he stopped as soon as he considered it.

A high-pitched whirr from the road made him blink to attention. He squinted his eyes to get a better look through the cracked lenses of his mask. The unmistakable golden flicker of the twice-a-day shuttle gleamed in the distance. It was the only way to get to work from his hut in the Drylands, which was already a mile hike from the road through the rust storms. The shuttle hissed to a halt in front of him, heaving a small cloud of saffron-colored dust his way. He coughed and cursed under his breath at the sight of the automaton driver. The humanoid robot’s cast-iron head and glowing yellow eyes twinkled at him as the door creaked open. “Hello, sir! I hope you are having a lovely day. All aboard now for Messer City. You don’t want to miss the ride, now do you?” God, did these rust buckets have to act so cheerful?

Tom climbed the stairs and plunked down into a rickety seat at the back of the bus. He wanted to be as far away as he could get from the rust bucket. If there was anything that he hated more than the Messerian government, it was automatons. They were clanking eyesores with the strength of ten men and the dullness of a sack of bricks. Brute strength with little much else—the perfect symbol of the Messerian government. The doors slammed shut and the shuttle sputtered towards the hills and enclave of Messer City.

As they reached the Outer Wall gate, a border agent held up his hand to halt the bus. The agent sauntered over to the driver’s side window with one hand on the butt of his high-caliber enforcer, and the thumb of his other hand hitched in his pocket. A pair of gold-tinted mirrored shades shielded his eyes. The agent rapped on the driver’s window, “Security pass, please.”

The machine reached below its seat and withdrew a plastic card. The agent lowered his shades and scrutinized the card, then looked back to the automaton again. He motioned at his two submachine-gun-toting associates and barked, “Vehicle check! High and low.”

They marched alongside the bus, periodically ducking under the chassis to check every nook and cranny. While they checked the exterior, the lead agent entered the bus and handed back the automaton’s pass. “Gotta check your manifest.”

“Of course, sir,” the automaton driver chirped. “Only one passenger.”

The agent’s eyes scanned the interior and focused on Tom like a laser.

“Shit,” Tom muttered under his breath. This was exactly what he needed before his shift.

He approached the back of the bus and hovered over Tom like a desert buzzard. His hand rested on the handle of his enforcer as he glared at Tom. “Messer City Border Patrol.”

“I know what you are.”

The agent adjusted his shades, “Good. Then you don’t need me to tell you to remove your respirator for identification.”

Tom reached up to remove his mask but stopped abruptly at the sound of the agent clacking back the hammer of his sidearm. Is this how it was going to end? Tom Wyatt, forty-five-year veteran Duster and master welder of Messer City, blown away by a trigger-happy peon policeman?

“Slowly,” the agent stressed his syllables.

Tom unbuckled his gas mask and let it hang from his face. His own reflection stared back in kind from the agent’s shades. The deep wrinkles were like valleys on his dark, leathery, sun-scorched face. His eyes were sunk deep into their sockets like the withered husk of a mummy. His skin had always been of a darker shade, but since when did he look so old?

“Yeah,” muttered the agent. “You’re a Duster alright. Your face looks like a damned scrotum.”

Tom clenched his teeth, his eyes still locked onto his tormentor. He was a young man with a prominent chin and unblemished cream skin. The typical city-dweller who enjoyed the shelter of the shield dome while Dusters like Tom crisped way past their prime under the beating sun and bone-dry air.

“Have to inspect your belongings, old man.” Don’t they call anyone “sir” these days? The agent rifled through Tom’s things with a greedy sneer on his face. It was the same kind of grin that a rabid mutt would have clambering over a trashcan looking for discarded scraps. Tom knew that he had nothing worth taking. He was a Duster, a sun-scorched lower-class citizen who didn’t belong. The agent was just doing this because he could. It didn’t matter that Tom probably built more of the city’s infrastructure than the agent would ever know.

Tom grumbled, “You done?”

The agent glared at the lunch pail hanging off Tom’s knapsack. He snatched it and unbuckled the leather belt that held it secure. “Well now,” he pulled out a flask of Old Raven whiskey, “you got a permit to carry liquor?”

“It’s under the imposed legal limit of five hundred milliliters.”

“Yeah, that’s for first-class citizens. Not a deadbeat like you from the Drylands.”

“You know that’s bullshit.”

The agent shrugged, “The law’s the law. Of course, there are always alternatives.”

“Such as?” Tom wrung his callused hands. If there wasn’t the risk of getting perforated to death by this asshole and his two cronies, Tom would break his scrawny neck. He wasn’t in the fittest condition or a young man anymore, but his hands had all the strength from years on the assembly line. All it would take is one grab, a twist, and then the agent’s neck would crack like a dried reed in the sun.

The agent furtively glanced around, then rubbed his index and middle fingers against his thumb. A bribe, of course. No point arguing with the law, or at least what counted for the law. When an agent asked for a bribe, they were being nice. If he really wanted to, he could have just blasted a new hole through Tom’s graying head and called it justified.

Tom shook his head, “Asshole.”

“What was that?” The agent cupped a hand to his ear.

Tom whipped his wallet out from his work overalls and shelled out a few bill notes, “Nothing. Here, take a hundred notes.”

The agent pocketed the money. “Yeah, the price is double now. Citation for disrespect of the law.”

He yanked out the last bill notes from his wallet. Two hundred notes, exactly. Tom barely extended his hand before the agent snatched the money and whisked the hard-earned bill notes into his trousers.

The agent flashed a fake smile, “My mistake. Turns out you were carrying the legal amount after all.” He placed the liquor back into the lunch pail and strutted off the bus, stopping once to glance at Tom and tip his hat. “Nice doing business with you.” No apology. Figures.

The bus rattled into service again and passed through the Outer Wall. A faint emerald glow pulsated above the city from the shield dome. It was the only thing protecting the city from the slashing windstorms and stinging red rust. Polished chrome and porcelain-white buildings lined the streets, untouched by the scorching sun. Not even a single speck of sand or dust marred the area. The pristine sight turned Tom’s stomach. A person was either a Duster, a laborer for the city; or, they were one of the Privileged. There was no middle ground.

The brakes squeaked as the bus jolted to a halt. The automaton driver stood up, its gears whirring and clanking with each movement.

“End of the line, sir,” chirped the automaton.

Tom rose from the tattered seat and ambled his way out of the bus.

“I bid you the very best of the workday, sir.” The automaton rested its hefty mechanical hand on Tom’s shoulder. “I trust you had a most enjoyable ride?”

Tom smacked it off, “Screw off, rust bucket. Don’t touch me again.”

It nodded and replied. “Of course, sir! I will endeavor to not touch you for the rest of my programmed life of service.”

He climbed the long staircase from the bus depot to the Circle. The odor of metal and chrome turned his stomach every time, but riding the Circle was the only way to get to the Factory District. Tom gasped with heaving breaths as he reached the last few steps leading to the platform. The ground vibrated beneath his deep-treaded boots; the capsule train was approaching, and fast. The incoming capsule whizzed past him and ground to a halt, sending an ear-splitting screech through the platform. The falcon-style door opened, and Tom ducked underneath, then lumbered inside to find a seat. The mag-rings catapulted the capsule train towards the Factory District on the opposite side of Messer City. The Privileged called that side of the city the Industrial Zone. The Dusters knew it best as Rust Lung Central. There were no pollution filters or barriers to protect them. He might as well be working out in the Drylands without a mask or an overcoat.

The automaton conductor’s voice crackled over the speakers. They were arriving soon at Factory #147. It was a recent factory specializing in steel, plumbing, and heavy welding for the city infrastructure—Tom’s specialty. Once the capsule ground to a stop, Tom snapped his mask on and exited the capsule. Few Dusters reached the age of retirement as most died of lung disease from the rust storms outside of the city. No doubt he would be part of those statistics. He unbuckled his mask as he reached the bottom of the stairs to the assembly lines. The violet-blue flash of plasma torches lit up the dark basement as his fellow line workers toiled their lives away. This was his life for twelve hours a day, ten days a Messerian week, and nine hundred and forty-two weeks a Messerian year. It wasn’t much, but it kept a roof over his head. His work was the only thing left for him, and he had the experience. There wasn’t anything else left from his previous life. Not since the death of his wife and the disappearance of Lyssandra. All he had left were his bones and the years of accumulated rust festering in his lungs.

Tom dragged his bag over to the wall of matte gray lockers and whirled his padlock until it clicked. He wrenched the flimsy door open and shoved his bag inside the locker. He opened his lunch pail and took a burning astringent swig of Old Raven before grabbing his ceramic welding mask and plasma arc harness. No sooner had he shut the locker door when a finger tapped at his shoulder. It was Foreman Donahue. Like all Privileged, his virgin skin and hands were soft and smooth, like freshly polished ivory. Not a single callus or visible wrinkle of hard work. Even his jumpsuit was pristine.

Tom nodded, “Yeah?”

An eerie smile was plastered on Donahue’s face, unsettling even for a line veteran like Tom. He held out a white envelope with the Messerian seal on it. Tom grimaced at the sight. A white envelope with that seal on it meant one thing, and it wasn’t retirement.

Tom took the envelope and asked in denial, “What’s this?”

Donahue withdrew a small radio from his jumpsuit pocket. “Unit 59. You’re clear to report to the assembly line for direction.”

An automaton’s feet clanked from the darkest corner of the assembly line. The machine slunk from the shadows and saluted Donahue. Its jaundiced yellow eyes blinked while processing its orders. “Unit 59 reporting as directed. Instructions received. Unit will replace employee TW-3145 for an unspecified duration of time. Replacement confirmed—Thomas Webster Wyatt. Second-class citizen of Messer City. Senior Line Engineer.”

Tom fired a glare at Donahue. Substitution meant having to drag his ass into the Occupational Ministry for reassignment. No pay for anywhere from a few weeks, to several months. His dome-icile could be forfeit. Tom buried his finger into Donahue’s chest, “You can’t do this. I need my retirement.”

“Not my orders. I just enforce them.”

“I only have five years left.”

Donahue shrugged, “Go take it up with the Ministry. They’ll sort you out.”

Tom loomed closer to Donahue, close enough for his whiskey-tainted breath to burn his baby-soft face. Donahue’s grin faded as his towering figure stood over him, his callused and scarred hands trembling with a lust for violence. From the corner of his eyes, Tom caught the stares of his fellow Dusters. Their welding visors were raised, and their plasma arcs extinguished. They stared at him with sad but compassionate eyes. The sight of his argument with Donahue and the automaton was enough to know they would end up like him, and all of them were good men. There was Luke, with the prosthetic arms. Tom pulled him out when he carelessly got his hand mangled into bits on the line. The red glow of Benjamin’s eye prostheses pulsated as they regarded him. Tom remembered splashing cool water on Ben’s face when his plasma torch exploded in his hands. Ben’s eyes were so badly seared that the flesh sublimed off his face. Oh, how those eyes could cry tears of sadness if they could!

Tom couldn’t bear to lock eyes with them. He knew he couldn’t save them from their fate, not this time. Without a second glance, he turned to his locker and grabbed his bag, then climbed the stairs to the upper-level platform and boarded the next capsule train out of the factory. His mind raced with thoughts of what he was to do next. Replacement by an automaton meant that his entire occupational line would be gone within a month. If he wasn’t eligible for reassignment, then he would end up losing the rest of his savings in his scramble to survive, as well as his rented dome-icile.

The capsule train stopped in front of Factory #53. It was one of the older factories, the first to be fully controlled and operated by automatons. A lone automaton clanked into the capsule. While many had a sleek black cast-iron exterior with gleaming yellow eyes, this one was different. Its spindly arms were connected to a rotund, brown torso that was pockmarked with dents and holes. Clusters of exposed springs and chewed-out wires along the joints of its shoulders gave it a shaggy mutt-like appearance. Its iridescent blue eye lenses were cracked; the left eye flickered on and off in disrepair as it stared at Tom.

Tom glared at the antiquity, “What the fuck are you looking at?”

“I am sorry,” it responded back in a cheerful, patronizing tone. “I am not looking at anything.” Sparks shot out from its speech synthesizing slot in a shower of blue and yellow.

Tom groaned at his realization. He was alone with this walking sparkler. If he didn’t die of shame over his work situation, he would die in a fiery blaze if this rust bucket exploded from a malfunction.

“Yeah?” Tom snorted. “You don’t look like much either, scrap-for-brains.” They sat together in silence for some time. The capsule eventually passed through the Industrial Zone and entered the Enforcement District. The Occupational Ministry was one of the last stops in the district.

The automaton broke Tom’s thinking silence, “What are you doing outside of working hours?”

Tom didn’t want to reply. This rust bucket was one of many automatons that had screwed him. In fact, Tom had friends in the past who were once tasked with building roads or repairing the Outer Wall. When the automatons replaced them, the only work they had was either scrubbing latrines or polishing the shoes of the Privileged.

“What are you doing outside of—”

“Piss off.” Tom reared back and hocked a lump of blood and rust-tinged phlegm onto the automaton’s flat metal feet.

It looked down at the glistening wad and replied, “I am incapable of urination.” Amazing. The stupid machine didn’t even know how to be angry.

The capsule train jerked to a violent halt, nearly throwing Tom and the automaton off their seats. A warning alarm sounded along with a brief announcement that the capsule’s monorail attachment had partially lost alignment from the track. They were stuck mid-air in the capsule until the repairs could be completed.

Tom leaped from his chair and slammed his fist into the doors of the capsule. “Great! Just great!”

“The doors are made of welded laco-steel and pressurized polythix glass,” the automaton said. “It is physically impossible for an individual of your build, size, and age to break it.”

Tom leaned his back against the door and slid to the floor in hysterical laughter. Hot tears streamed down his weathered face, revealing the bronzed skin underneath. “What is the point of it all?” Tom blared between bouts of laughter. “I’ve no wife anymore or a home. My daughter has been gone for more years than I can count. No doubt, she thinks I’m a deadbeat living in a box in the desert. How could any child cope with having a Duster father? Someone who welds pipes for all the shit and piss in Messer City? Now I don’t even have that. I might as well sit in the Drylands without my mask or coat and let the desert take me!”

The automaton’s aquamarine eyes flickered and blinked as it stared.

“Do you even understand? Oh, what is the use? I’d ask you to just kill me, substitute yourself for me, and take my suffering away. But you can’t even do that can you?”

The automaton cocked its head, “I am incapable of harming you. That is against my prime directive.”

“So, you’re as useless as I am. Fantastic.” Tom rose to his feet, his chest heaving with intermittent bouts of dying laughter. His thick beard and mustache were matted with mucus. He wiped his beard on his sleeve and rubbed his eyes. “What’s your designation and role, anyway?” Since it didn’t matter, he might as well ask. They’d be trapped together for a while anyhow.

“T-1-NM4N. I was a fusion plant service unit.”

Tom did a double-take, “You’re a T-class unit? No wonder you look like shit. How long have you been in service?”

“Eighty-four years, eight months, sixteen weeks, forty-eight days—”

Tom raised a hand, “Enough. Shut up. Huh, so you’re older than me. What did you do? Energy, you said?”

“That is correct. But my duty was terminated.”

“Even automatons get replaced?”

“All automatons are eligible for replacement by more advanced units.”

“So, you’re reporting to the Occupational Ministry?”

The automaton shook its head, “Incorrect. I must report to the Foundry.”

“Why the hell are you going there? When you get substituted, you go to the Occupational Ministry for reassignment. Well, humans go.”

“I am reporting for disassembly and termination.”

Tom repeated the word as if he didn’t clearly hear what it said. “Termination?”

“That is correct.”

“Doesn’t the Ministry send your kind for upgrades?”

“My model is obsolete.”

“What about your internal circuitry? The rare earth metals and magnets? Those are at least worth something to the Ministry, aren’t they? You’ve got to have something of value still inside you, don’t you?”

“Irrelevant. My frame will be melted down and disposed of.”

Substitution was bad enough, but to be killed because of being obsolete? This all sounded too familiar. Tom’s shoulders sank as if the entire capsule’s weight was crushing him. “So, you’re just going to let yourself be killed?”

“Irrelevant. I am a machine. When you struck the door with your fist, you did not hurt the train. There is no life in the train just as there is no life in me.”

Tom shook his head and roared, “Don’t you have a sense of survival? The Ministry must at least give you that!”

The automaton’s blue eyes blinked and flickered in thought. As Tom stared at them, he couldn’t help but notice that there was something enchanting about them. Though they were both cracked and chipped, their cerulean glow still shone through with a strange sense of beauty and wonder even after all these years. For but a fleeting moment, Tom wondered whether behind all those wires and circuitry if there really was something. A soul? A purpose? Maybe…

An announcement broke through the speakers, jarring Tom from his thoughts. Repairs were underway and nearly complete. After the rail’s repair, the last two stops in this district were the Occupational Ministry and the Foundry. Wondering how much time had passed, Tom pulled out his smartphone and held the thin sliver of a power button down to activate it. No good. The antique device was drained of power. He hurled it against the floor, the phone skipping off the cold metal and clattering at the feet of the automaton. “Fuck.”

The impact jarred it from its self-imposed processing. It leaned over at the thin black rectangle of glass and metal for a moment before picking it up. It looked up at Tom and said, “A 474X personal smart device. An outdated design discontinued twenty years ago.”

Tom chuckled, “That’s right, Tin Man. I don’t know why I carry it. There’s no one to call, and no one wants to call me. The fission cell is dead. Can’t find those too often outside of the city.”

Tin Man reached down at its left arm and opened a small panel. Among the many exposed sparking and smoldering wires, it yanked a thin sky-blue wire from its wrist. It turned the device over for one more inspection, then inserted the blue wire into the power slot. The screen flashed briefly as power surged into its systems.

Tom stared in amazement, “Well, shit. You really are useful, aren’t you?”

Tin Man’s head jerked and swiveled like a desert shrike as it replied, “The circuitry is older but happens to be compatible with my own internal power supply.” Tin Man eased the blue wire from the smartphone’s power slot and held it out to Tom. If it were ever possible for an automaton to smile, that would have been the perfect time.

Tom’s eyes ran up Tin Man’s intricate brass hand and delicate spidery arm. He took a long deep look into its cracked sapphire eyes. The fear of Tin Man exploding in a blaze of malfunctioning outdated software and wiring was gone. All that was left was a rush of respect and admiration for what it was—a relic looking for a purpose.

Tom took his smartphone back and looked at it. The background picture of him with his then six-year-old daughter on his shoulders greeted his eyes. His face wasn’t so wrinkled and weathered then. A smooth olive complexion gleamed alongside his daughter’s winsome smile and sleek brown hair. For once in a very long time, a genuine smile crept onto his old sandstorm-beaten face. He rested a hand on Tin Man’s shoulder. “Thanks.”

The conducting automaton’s voice crackled through the overhead speakers, signaling that the repairs were complete. They were now underway. The capsule buzzed through the suspended guidance tubes, the looming view of the Occupational Ministry drawing closer. It decelerated and hissed to a halt in front of the towering arch of the Ministry. Particle rifle-toting troopers clad in matte-black insectoid power armor were standing guard like hungry mantises waiting for prey.

Tom picked up his bag and lunch pail and looked back at Tin Man. “This is my stop. I guess this is goodbye.”

His new friend was silent, the blue eyes now empty and lifeless. Tom needed to make a choice. If he didn’t report to the Ministry, he would be a rogue and an asset loss. Agents would come for him. If he did report to the ministry, he would be a homeless drifter until his new assignment, whenever that was. There was only one right choice to make, and it was neither of those two. Tom hurled his bags next to Tin Man and rushed into the seat. The falcon doors hissed shut and the Occupational Ministry shrunk in the distance.

Tin Man sputtered back to life. It stared at Tom with its head tilted in confusion. “Under the Employment Law of 10495, you are supposed to report to the Occupational Ministry in the event of a substitution. If you do not, then under the Employment Enforcement Act of—”

Tom clasped his hand over Tin Man’s speech slot. “Shut up,” he snarled. “Listen closely. I can’t stay here in Messer City. I’m leaving, and you’re coming with me.”

“I must report to the Foundry.”

He held onto its bulky rusted shoulders, “No, you’re not.”

“Without an active assignment, I am to report to the Foundry.”

Tom took out his smartphone and held it in front of Tin Man’s eyes, “You see this?”

“That is a 474X smart device. It is an outdated model that does not—”

“Yeah, yeah. We’ve been through that, already. Your new duty is to follow me and keep this thing charged.”

Tin Man’s eyes flickered as it processed the situation. When the blinking had ceased, it replied, “Only the Occupational Ministry carries the authority to grant a new assignment to automatons.”

Tom growled, “You really don’t have much up there, do you?” He slipped his smartphone back into his pocket and hung his head. It couldn’t be helped. Without a defined purpose from the Ministry, it was going to let itself be destroyed. But wait. Weren’t all automatons created to do one universal thing? What was it? His mind raced through his options until he rose from his seat in divine epiphany, “Isn’t one of your prime directives to serve all humans in your duties?”

“That is correct.”

“Is that why you felt the need to charge my 474X?”

“I calculated a seventy-three point-zero-five percent chance that I could assist you successfully.”

“So, you are capable of self-directing your own actions?”

“Within line of my prime directive.”

“Wouldn’t that override any of your secondary programming?”

“That is correct.”

“Then what about reporting to the Foundry? It’s a contingent order, isn’t it? If you are still able to serve humans in absence of a directed duty, what is the point of reporting?”

“I-I do not–” Tin Man stuttered a reply, but then fell silent again. Its eyes flickered and blinked wildly, sparks flying from its speech slot as its CPU hummed and screeched into overdrive.

The capsule hissed to a halt at the gates of the Foundry. Though the falcon doors opened to the familiar sight of well-armed troopers, Tin Man did not stir or budge. It remained in its seat, processing the situation. The loud whirr of its CPU continued as it performed one logic calculation after another. A minute and thirty seconds stretched out in an eternal stand-off before the falcon doors closed and the capsule pushed onwards towards the Outer Wall. Tom sighed in relief as the Foundry faded from sight.

Tin Man abruptly rose to its full height of about seven feet, a whole foot taller than Tom. “Your logic is correct. Even so, we are both in violation of the law. The Messerian government will not let our absences go unchecked. They will send apprehension teams after both of us. We would require a new directive.”

“That is correct,” replied Tom. Since when did he speak automaton? He rested a hand on Tin Man’s shoulder and stared into the horizon, out where the uncharted crimson mountains met the brilliant blue glare of Algol beyond the shield bubble of Messer City. “First things first. We need to get the hell off this train and as far away from the city as possible.”