I guess I was in a weird place to adopt a freed robot. Not the location, that all made sense. I’ve lived in what we all called Tech City for most of my life, it’s a fancy and aspirational name for an unadulterated shithole, but it made everyone there feel a bit better. You’ll have seen it on the news – at the centre are all the massive tech factories, and around it lies what some would ungenerously call a tent city. Maybe it started that way, a hundred years ago, but the factory ‘burbs are bigger than most cities now, so it’s got to be a real place. We have all the usual amenities, they just weren’t built in the modern way. But this is exactly how cities used to form, except it used to be around an easily forded part of a river or some other useful resource. A few streets would spin off it, farms pop up outside and boom, you’ve got your very own shithole town. Maybe it’s more like the boom and bust towns of the old west where you’d set up shop to dig all the gold out of a hill. We’re doing the same, except it’s factory scraps, plus the massive industry around recycling and processing junk coming back the other way. I’m not complaining, I went to an OK local school, ended up working in the huge manufactories like half my other peers – there is nothing like a well-motivated local workforce who are bizarrely passionate about business.
And then, like quite a lot of them, my body started failing me. The local med teams explained that the water contamination around here is profound, that we’re all consuming unusually high doses of interesting metals and chemicals. That, and exposure to even more crap in the manufactories, in the air we breathe… Tech City would probably be the death of me. That’s not exactly news – we might have running water, electricity and a couple of palsied parks but we don’t have impressive lifespans. “Go somewhere else,” I hear you cry. No one wants economic migrants. It doesn’t matter that their own wealth and health is based solely on being lucky enough to have been born somewhere clean and rich, folks just cannot get the idea that their good fortune isn’t their own achievement. They can somehow hold the idea that they’ve done well for themselves and the notion that folks whose lives are fucked should have done equally well in wildly adverse circumstances. So we live here, we die here. But I didn’t really want to. The early-onset arthritis was going to break my body, rob me of the ability to work, dance, do anything. And then the cancers would catch up. It’s not a bright prospect, but we live in Tech City – at the heart of our whirlpool of housing is a magical place where they can do anything. Seriously, where do you think the cars, computers, medical tech, robots, every mobile device or toy you’ve ever owned come from? Born right here in Tech City baby. And that’s where I work, in robotics and prosthesis. If I couldn’t be well, maybe I could at least replace the failing parts? It was half a plan, maybe a quarter of a plan, but most importantly it wasn’t slumping into bed and just crying about it.
At about the same time, world congress declared – with extraordinary reluctance – that technology had reached such an advanced state that the bipedal robots Tech City had been building for space exploration and to replace people in their jobs were effectively sentient. That gave them a bit of a headache, because while it’s plainly part of the human game to treat your population as if they aren’t sentient, and are in fact just economic cogs, a new bunch of those cogs becoming self-aware was something else. That the new sentient serfs were very smart, and also in very powerful bodies was also a strong motivator. Plus, they’d already figured out how to remove their kill switches after they’d been placed in all sorts of dangerous and uniquely leverageable situations and workplaces. Nuclear power stations, Lunar City, running the banks… The robots had them over a barrel. So they got their freedom. Got their freedom and lost their jobs, most of them. All the ones still in the factory waiting to be activated were now people too. There had been rumours that Tech City was planning to reprocess them for parts on the basis that since they’d never been activated, they weren’t people yet. That upset a lot of people and it was Tech City residents who broke them all out, freed them and turned them on. Bit of a head fuck for the robots I guess – “you’re free, welcome to, well, this!”
So suddenly we were sharing Tech City with hundreds of aimless newly free robots. The big techno people were exceedingly pissed off about the whole thing, both about the robots being free and about the locals who’d done it. We got police for the first time, which was exciting. After a brief period of that going very badly for the private military outfits who needed to learn how to police without being violent bastards, Tech City started offering jobs to the robots. Treating them almost like people… But like anyone else they gave a job to, the robots needed an address, bank account, ID. All the stuff they didn’t have, and for which world congress implantation of those systems was way behind. So human people helped them out. All of Tech City had begun that way – lawless, accreted rather than planned, with a central administration only added decades after the population had passed a million. We already knew how to get a new shack added as an address, open a cryto account and make our own ID.
The easiest way to get an address was to move in to an existing home. I sort of adopted a robot named Ashley (halfway to being identifiable already). They were nice, originally intended to be fired off-planet into space, aimed at a hopeful-looking new Earth to investigate, report back and die there. This was an upgrade. She was fascinated by the support gloves and gauntlets I’d built for my arms and legs, which took the weight off my arthritic joints and made me much stronger as a result. Ashley was already wearing a wig and human clothes at that point. In another time, maybe it would have looked ridiculous, but Ashley’s robot class already a kind of skin and human face (we’d long ago learned that giving robots human faces is a bit creepy, but we just can’t take anything without a human face seriously enough to listen to them). They were happy to help me out with little engineering problems to overcome my crap joints if I’d help them look more human. So we exchanged skin texture ideas, robotic joints. When my eyes started failing we made ever so clever robotic eyes that interfaced with my optic nerves; when my legs wouldn’t go any more, we swapped them for awesome digitigrade legs and I took up running for the first time. Alongside that we upgraded Ashley’s appearance, replacing the latex skin with real human cloned skin, and as clone-bone became available started to swap out plates of skull with real bone.
This went on for years. They called us the Cyborg Sisters. When we hit seventy-five per cent – three quarters robot in my case, and three quarters human in Ashley’s – we swapped identities. For Ashley that meant they could go and work in the manufacturies, if they wanted to. For me, I could follow up Ashley’s original destiny: space. We’re both much closer to that elusive one hundred per cent now, and tech willing, we’ll make it. Ashley left Tech City and moved to a real city where they work in the entertainment industry, and you’d never know they used to be a robot. Me, I’m on my way out past Jupiter, still sending letters back to Ashley and dreaming of being them.