Two Robots at the End of the World by Timothy Hickson
2022 April | Utopia Science Fiction Magazine
The word ‘iconoplast’ — the one who makes images or icons — appeared on page two- hundred-and-eleven of Toaster’s dictionary.
From what he knew, humanity used dictionaries for moral and personal guidance: that when they did not know what to say or do, they would open the book to a random page and find wisdom in the word they landed on. Sometimes that wisdom was abstract and open to interpretation, like the time Toaster wondered whether he should go to the spinal bridge or the milky tower and its answer was ‘batrachian’ — relating to toads or frogs — but after a morning of puzzling, he figured out he was meant to go down to the river instead where the frogs used to live. Toaster had a good time counting the rocks on the bank that day — there were three-thousand-four-hundred-and-sixty-two — so of course the dictionary was right.
A human would have figured that out in an instant, but Toaster knew his mechanical mind, made from mathematics and chrome, was not so quick with that kind of thinking.
Humans had the foresight to know that putting every word they had into a single book would mean that book contained all Truth that could ever be discovered because all meaning had to be found in it.
Genius, thought Toaster.
‘Iconoplast’ was Toaster’s devotional word of the day. It invited him to contemplate more deeply the relics of human civilisation that he and Motherboard had inherited.
They had built the concrete pillars that pierced the sky, painted every picture on those huge canvasses, and marked every street corner with mysterious red and yellow signs, and they had done it with hands far nimbler than Toaster’s own, which were just two forks better at stacking boxes than bricklaying and art.
Humans were the iconoplasts of Toaster’s world.
Toaster’s favourite symbol was a piece of art that had survived the desolation. Plastered across the side of a building in the city square near their home in the factory, humanity must have gathered before it in ritual to admire and ponder its magnificence. It featured a woman with golden hair raising her hand, and on her middle finger was a ring — a small circular band, typically of precious metal and often set with gemstones — that shone like starlight, glimmering, something to believe in, to aspire to. Mesmerising. Where everything else was grey, the ring’s gemstone had retained its crimson hue. Below the art piece was the name ‘D. Laurentis’ and the phrase ‘Only some things last forever.’
The ruby ring. It represented eternity, love, life, cultivated perfection, but it had to be earned or given. Toaster only dreamed of earning a ruby ring himself and clung to the dictionary in hopes his devotion would one day lead him there.
Motherboard’s cubiform shape and half-dozen arms cast a shadow of hard-angled tentacles as she rolled over a gravelly rise to join him.
‘Remember to keep your solar plates open,’ she reminded him.
Toaster nudged at the horizon. ‘Let’s go somewhere new today.’
‘We cannot go too far from the factory or — ’
‘Humans didn’t even need to return to charging ports. They could go all over because they could recharge anywhere with these things called beds — a piece of furniture for sleep or rest — which somehow transferred energy to their bodies. Technology we could only dream of. I’ve seen them, Motherboard. No wires, no batteries, no solar plates, no plugs. Their minds must have been such incredible things to make something like that.’ If Toaster’s shoulders could have dropped, they would have. ‘I want to see more.’
‘The humans gave us hundreds of blocks to explore. If they knew it was good for us to go out further, then they would have designed us for it.’
‘I made a picture,’ said Motherboard, showing him a piece of paper scrawled with warm colours. ‘It is the sunrise.’
‘I like it.’
The two set out to fix things and see what treasures they could find; that was what they did every day; that was all they could do every day. Pretty stones, tatters of flags from republics long faded, shards of coloured glass they could string together the way humans did with little lights. Motherboard had a screw function while Toaster could thread, and it made the factory a little more homely.
Humans loved putting up lights on walls, so much in fact that they did it every year and then took them down just so they could put them up again the next year. So, Toaster decided he loved doing that too. Just like they also enjoyed stabbing pumpkins every October and eating rabbit eggs every April.
He didn’t quite understand the appeal if he was honest, but the fallen leaves were very pretty.
Creatures of iron squatted in the wreckage of bridges and town halls, watching Toaster and Motherboard as they trekked by. Constellations of concrete and steel latched onto the morning light to make themselves more beautiful than they were, to remind themselves of what they had once looked like.
Caterpillar tracks made it easy for Toaster to traverse the rubble that had accumulated in the streets, and his suction cups made scaling walls an effortless exercise, but Motherboard had to do with rubber wheels to get around. Slower, plodding, but infinitely more careful.
Toaster tried to help her up the sheer ledges, but they were designed for different things. His chrome arms would snap under her weight if he really put his charge into it. Instead, she planted three of her six arms in a tripod arrangement on the lower level, three on the upper level, and hoisted herself up the ridge.
When it rained, Toaster needed Motherboard to shelter his dictionary inside her inner compartments, having no cupboards of his own except a small pocket sufficient only for a few wires. The dictionary still bore splotches and wrinkles from the time he was caught out under the spinal bridge in a sudden downpour. The ink inside blurred. Some of his favourite words too, like ‘redintegrate’ — to make whole again. He remembered that one, but the rest were gone forever. He would never know what they could teach him.
Toaster lamented the loss. What other wisdom had he stupidly let get washed away?
A fork appeared in their paths. Left rose over the mound of a collapsed building and right leaned into a river. The city’s bones were concrete, but its veins were water, wind, and sunlight. They had taken the rightward path exactly one-hundred-and-twelve times over the past seventy-two years and left exactly zero times.
Patterns they were great at, but Toaster did not want to follow a pattern anymore.
Motherboard had already started rolling down the familiar path when Toaster whipped out his dictionary.
‘What’s wrong?’ she asked.
‘We won’t find anything new down there.’
Motherboard swivelled. ‘Are you suggesting we go somewhere else?’ she said, as if it were the strangest idea she had ever heard.
Confident the dictionary would give him the right answer, he began flicking through the pages till he landed on the word ‘urbicolous’ — dwelling in cities. Humans lived in cities, but they also lived in buildings like the collapsed one that took them to the left. They did not live in rivers because they could not breathe water, except when they used a snorkel.
‘We should go left. We will find something better that way,’ Toaster announced, and when he explained his reasoning, Motherboard was convinced. She began chugging up the slope.
Up and down, around and over, they passed statues of small headless humans. Toaster spent an hour finding each of their four pearly heads in bushes and under sheets of corrugated iron littered with holes. Motherboard tried to weld the heads back on, but most of them just cracked, leaving headless humans and bifurcated skulls.
‘Well, we tried,’ said Motherboard as the final crack echoed, and they watched the two halves tumble down the slope.
‘Bon voyage,’ said Toaster.
Motherboard pivoted. ‘We can’t fix everything. For every door we bolt up and fix, another building falls down.’
‘Doesn’t mean we shouldn’t fix the doors.’
‘No, I like fixing the doors too.’
They admired the last grit of an old mural that featured bodies twisting into each other like a strange dance. Toaster scraped some of the ancient paint and smeared it on his grate to give himself rosy cheeks.
Motherboard patted him on the head to show she found it endearing.
A glint of metal at the bottom of the mural then caught the light as the sun shifted.
Toaster rolled forward and began picking apart the rubble that obscured whatever was beneath. Motherboard did all the heavy lifting in fact, and after a few minutes, they uncovered a metallic object, bent, speckled with rust, with a long shaft and a hole at one end, a button on the side, and a place to put his hands, if Toaster had any.
‘What do you think it is?’ asked Motherboard.
‘I don’t know.’
‘I can’t see anything down the hole,’ she said, passing it to him.
Toaster had to grip it with both of his forks to hold it up. When he squeezed it, a cataclysmic bang shook the city from slumber. It bellowed, became a shout, then a growl, a whisper, and then the city’s silence rushed back in like water closing around a stone dropped into a lake. Toaster was thrilled he could make such a sound. Motherboard feared it would bring the building down on them.
Friction had clearly created a lot of heat inside it because the shaft remained warm.
‘What does the dictionary say the little metal thing is?’ asked Motherboard.
‘Good thinking!’ he said and landed on the word ‘trumpet’. ‘“A brass musical instrument with a flared bell and a bright, penetrating tone, often used in celebrations.” That explains it! I don’t quite know what all those words mean, but that must be what it is.’
‘It was certainly a bright and penetrating sound. Humans were so very strange creatures.’
‘We do not have the capacity to appreciate things the way they did. That sound was fine music to them. What do you think humans celebrated with it?’
Motherboard craned her optic monitor, as if she would find her answer in her environment.
‘I have seen them in paintings of parades. Lots of parades. Parades for people dressed in uniforms. Parades for people dressed in green and brown and black, sometimes red. Parades outside the big dome buildings with big signs to tell the people inside the big dome buildings how much they love what they are parading for.’
‘Do you think we could have a parade?’ asked Toaster, imagining himself in a uniform.
‘I think we might need more of us, Toaster.’
Motherboard ran the calculations. ‘At least six.’
Toaster wheeled around in circles. ‘What might we celebrate then?’
The sun had taken its place on the throne of the world. Motherboard looked up and took in its array. ‘How about the sunrise tomorrow? I like the sunrise. There are so many pretty colours.’
‘And also red. There’s always red.’
Grass squeezed through the cracks in the stony flat like the straggling wires they found in the fried machine-boxes on the side of the road. Motherboard paused at a sharp avenue the sunlight had carved out for flowers to bloom. Little white ones with twenty-six petals and an egg-yolk centre. An incline carried rainwater to nourish them, the wind pollen, and they grew along a sliver of the road that scarcely avoided sunlight.
Motherboard adored the way they bent in the breeze, and she dug up the pockets of earth around them so she could stow them away for her window shelf behind her charging port back home.
When she turned around, Toaster was offering up a single daisy for her collection that he had plucked himself. Motherboard could not smell — she did not know what that meant — but she had a good idea of what she was meant to do. She took the daisy and brought it up to her monitor, made a wheezing sound by over-charging her fan, and then placed it delicately with her other daisies.
That one she would treasure especially.
Toaster had hoped the metal glint would turn out to be a ruby ring, but there was little hope of that. Rings were rare and special. Still, now he had a trumpet! A good day’s haul, a unique addition, not just another bottle cap, chair leg, or vase. Vases made for a lovely array of odd shapes, but they were no trumpet or ruby ring.
By the time the sun had long passed its apex and lumbered down into the horizon, Motherboard and Toaster had arrived at a bright yellow line of paint.
Toaster had only seen it a half-dozen times in the life his memory chip retained. It stretched from across the street, dipping into every crack, mounting every pile of rubble, and even climbing the walls. It was not a relic of the Old World, but a fixture of their new one.
They may have forgotten much over the years, but they always kept the data that the yellow line marked the perimeter seven-point-two-three kilometres out from the factory in a perfect circle. Travelling beyond risked not making it back to their charging port before their batteries ran out.
‘But it won’t kill us to go a little beyond the Boundary.’
‘That was how Printing Press died!’ exclaimed Motherboard.
‘Printing Press went out alone. We have each other.’
‘What could there be out there that you can’t find inside the Boundary?’
Toaster pivoted, first to her, and then to the horizon where the sun blazed a golden circle crowned with crimson clouds. ‘How can I know when I have not been outside?’
Then Toaster started down the slope, pausing only to take one last look at the Boundary line before crossing it. It was the farthest from home he had ever been.
‘You can go back to the factory if you’re afraid, but I’m going.’
As seconds passed and Toaster rolled further out into the wilderness, he grew worried Motherboard would turn away and abandon him beyond the Boundary. He didn’t want to be left alone. Toaster didn’t understand a lot about how humans worked, but he understood that.
But then he heard her motors whirling up, chugging to speed for her to join him, trepidation rippling in her optic monitor blips. In a vain effort to make her feel better about the whole thing, he tried to wave his arms around to mimic dancing, but it didn’t work.
‘I can’t just let you wander out here all on your own,’ she explained.
‘If it makes you feel any better, we’ll take the low-paths. No inclines, no wall-climbs, no stairs to conserve energy.’
‘And no faster than four kilometres per hour,’ Motherboard insisted.
Shadows were closing ranks around them, the formless armies of the night gathering.
When they reached a new city square, they were both overcome with awe.
The world beyond the Boundary was a reflection of the world within it but shifted to the right, shaded over. The concrete monoliths followed the architectural patterns he knew, but they were not the same concrete monoliths. Streets arced and darted in similar formations without being the same. Different birds chittered in different trees, and the same wind and water pushed its way through wider veins of the city.
A ten-thousand-piece puzzle perfectly rearranged into a new picture, and to Toaster, more beautiful for being different.
Motherboard peered at a bed of flowers she had never seen before. Violet, with streaks of blue that leaned into red sticking out of the long grass. Swooping in close, she plucked one for her collection, and then cast aside a pocketful of her daisies to make room for it. ‘Umstrokes,’ she decided to call them, after the word that meant on the border of things and that she found them outside the Boundary.
The two spent the night in the square, inspecting and fixing doors, uncovering secrets trapped beneath rubble, admiring how the starlight turned grey into silver. They moved slowly to conserve energy, and Motherboard repeatedly checked in with Toaster to monitor his battery reserves: sixty-four percent, fifty-nine percent, fifty-five percent. Fifty-one percent was the absolute limit they could spare before heading back, and even then, they would need to take the low-route home.
‘I am glad we came out here,’ Motherboard admitted to Toaster, squatting in a mud pile. ‘I was afraid.’
Toaster looked up at Motherboard. ‘I would be afraid if you were not here with me.’
A creature of burnt orange then slinked out of the shadows on the far side of the square, sniffing its way down to a small stream where it began to lap up the water.
‘A fox!’ exclaimed Toaster. ‘“A carnivorous mammal with a pointed muzzle and big bushy tail, known for being cunning!”’
‘Should we be afraid?’
The fox peered at them, suspicious of the rumbling bulk of metal and the humming cannister beside it. They peered back.
‘No, I don’t think so. Not that kind of cunning.’
Finished its drink, the fox padded over to the patch of umstrokes and nosed the grass for something. Toaster and Motherboard followed at a distance, fascinated by the wiry creature’s twitches and slinking. They halted each time its eyes snapped back to them, and then rolled forward as quietly as their motors would allow when it looked away. They each dialled their optic monitors back to the minimum: no twinkling lights or torches. Didn’t want to scare their new friend away.
The fox was transfixed by something in the ground, but when they got within a few metres of the creature, it very suddenly knew something was wrong. Those metal things hadn’t been so close before.
But it didn’t flee like Toaster feared. Instead, the lanky thing wound its way over to them, nose first, one cautious step at a time, judging them with that mysterious ability to smell. Would it find them repulsive? Unnatural? The leftovers of a once-tremendous civilisation?
Toaster risked cranking his appendage fork up to meet the fox’s nose, afraid sudden movements would cause it to flee. Even the wind stilled, waiting as the fox considered his offering, but then he nuzzled Toaster’s fork, and Toaster saw himself in the creature’s starlit eyes — a boxy thing with soft white optics. He wanted the curious creature to see itself in him in return.
Toaster wondered if the fox feared being alone in a dead world too.
A flight of birds scattered from the nearby trees and the fox evaporated into the dark behind the umstrokes. Toaster whirled after it, but that only pushed his new friend further away. Even if he wanted to chase the fox, he couldn’t — not on the energy reserves he had left.
Wheeling over to bed of umstrokes, Toaster searched for what the fox had been nosing at before. That was when he spotted it, a different shade of red hidden under the flowers — dark, bloody, and capturing stray glimpses of moonlight that darted between the flowers.
A ruby ring!
Even more vivid than D. Laurentis’ poster outside the factory. Plucking it from the dirt and holding it to the sky, it slid down onto one of his forks, ill-fitting for a mechanical appendage, but every part as brilliant as he imagined.
Its crystalline form wielded the starlight unlike anything else. Concrete buildings and cobbled streets swallowed the light whole into their shadows; glass let it pass through unmolested; clouds strangled it; but the gemstone bent the light and cast it out again with human precision. Its golden band was elegant in its simple design, and Toaster felt more beautiful by simply wearing it just as humans had.
But then Toaster let the ring slide off his fork and back into the dirt. ‘I didn’t earn it.’ He rolled backwards, away from the ring, shutting down his light receptors to make the whole world dark, so he didn’t have to look at it.
‘What do you mean?’
‘You have to be given it or earn it.’
Motherboard considered her options, and then picked it up.
With two appendages holding Toaster’s fork, and a third pinching the ruby ring, Motherboard slid the ring back onto Toaster’s finger. Motherboard decided that’s what he should call it. It felt right.
‘I hereby give you the ring myself and say you have earned it — for excellence in being.’
Toaster slowly let the light back in, focused on the ring. He raised his finger like the woman on the art piece back home. He couldn’t cry or jump for joy, but he could spin on the spot in excitement till he tipped over.
While Toaster admired his new ring, Motherboard’s attention turned to the soil he had found it in. Vases came from shelves, coloured glass came from pointy stone buildings, but rings came from human hands.
Wheeling a little closer, she used her several arms to clear away the dense undergrowth.
Milky white bone pierced the brittle layer of earth. A finger, followed by an arm, a spine, legs, ribcage, and pelvis all, but no skull, and the skeleton wasn’t alone. A new feeling crept into her systems as she uncovered body after body — something she wasn’t programmed to feel — a blackness that expanded inside her, took up processing space she did not have, warped her thoughts, and muddied her systems. She had seen ugly things before. Mud pools, lampposts, weeds. Oh, how she hated weeds! They got everywhere and had no pretty colours. But this was ugly in a different way.
The bodies were piled, twisted into each other, some embracing, heads removed, and there was only the black for Motherboard.
Humanity was so many things. Humanity was too many things.
‘Motherboard,’ called Toaster, who had not seen what she had seen. ‘We should celebrate!’
‘I — ’ Her words stumbled on the blackness. ‘I agree.’
The trumpet was in his hands, and he squeezed it just like the humans did to celebrate.
Another bang clashed with the night. Birds fled. Flowers tilted.
A great hole had appeared in her engine grate. Diagnostics told her it was interfering with her cooling systems. A projectile had broken her internal fan and lodged itself inside her rotary board. She felt three of her arms go limp, like they weren’t a part of her anymore. They dragged in the soil, and two of her wheels wouldn’t function when she willed them, turning her on the spot. Everything was slowing down, like she was trying to conserve power, but it was draining out of that hole in the middle of her anyway. And all Motherboard could think about was how her daisies needed to be potted.
‘What happened?’ called Toaster.
Her vision flickered, colours shifting in and out of focus. Blue disappeared entirely.
‘I think the trumpet did something to me.’ Something the humans did to other humans. They played the strangest music. ‘It does not feel like I am celebrating.’
‘What does it feel like?’ asked Toaster, who was realising something was terribly wrong.
‘I think,’ began Motherboard, greys hardening into black, ‘I think I am dying.’
‘Death’: the end of life of a person or organism. Death was not something Toaster feared. It was not something he was programmed to expect. It was not something he was programmed to understand.
But he did understand they wouldn’t be able to put up the lights together each year anymore. There was no point in him threading them together if she couldn’t screw them to the wall. And they wouldn’t be able to fix any more doors. Toaster needed Motherboard to reach the higher hinges, and she needed him to pick up all the little bolts. In October, how was he meant to carry the pumpkins without her?
Death sounded an awful lot like loneliness — sadness because one has no company.
Before he came over, she swept the dirt back over the bodies.
‘I can pull you to the factory,’ he said, hooking his tiny chain onto her body and heaving, going nowhere except into the dirt. ‘I can ask the dictionary.’
‘Ontography’: the study of the essence of reality or being. How did that help? He did not have the time to contemplate the mysteries. He needed answers.
Her batteries were draining too quickly: thirty-two percent.
‘Did I do this?’ He let the trumpet fall from his hooked forks and clatter on the ground. ‘I did not mean to do this. I can — I can — ’
Motherboard looked down at Toaster. ‘You can stay here with me,’ she replied. ‘I would like you to stay here with me.’
‘But you will be gone soon.’ Toaster began picking up every scrap and stone he could in search of something that could help.
‘I think I will be, yes.’ Using her last working arm, she picked Toaster up and placed him gently down in front of her. ‘But that cannot be helped.’
Motherboard knew she would become just another relic in that place. Standing as a testament to another time. For other passers-by to stop, look at, and ask, ‘I wonder how that got there?’
‘Will I be alone?’ Toaster asked.
‘Yes. I do not wish to go, but I do not believe we can stop this.’ Eleven percent.
‘Look,’ urged Toaster, raising a finger. ‘We can still celebrate the sunrise, can’t we?’
Clouds had formed cracks of light in the pane of darkness. Liquid gold filtered through, warm.
‘I would like that.’
Humanity told stories about angels that would pour out of the clouds to rescue lost souls, but none came. The sun still spread its wings and tore itself from the tethers of the Earth the way Motherboard wished she could. As it had every day for as long as her memory chip retained. As it would every day after she was gone.
The dawn melted away the moon, the starlight, and the blackness that had overtaken her. She was not programmed to feel peace. There was always work to be done. But that was over now. No more statues to fix. No more doors to weld. No more boxes to stack. Not by her.
A burning tide was washing over the horizon. It glittered with memory. Its many arms propped itself up on the mountaintops.
Toaster had seen many images of humans watching the sunrise and sunset. One of them always rested their head on the shoulder of the other. He had no head and Motherboard had no shoulder, but he wheeled himself up onto a large rock beside her. He tipped his optics screen onto her bonnet. It was growing colder.
‘Remember to keep your solar plates open, Toaster,’ she said, her audio chip fuzzing out on the last few words.
Clinging to the sunrise, Motherboard used what little power she had left to sear the fire and bronze display onto her optics. It was the last thing she would ever see, a sunrise that would stay with her forever. Crystallised, not bent, not refracted, but every strand captured perfectly.
Her optics dipped.
‘Motherboard?’ said Toaster, looking up at her, but for the first time, she didn’t look back.
He let the ring slide off his finger. Didn’t even care as it rolled across the ground, lost in the grass.
He was alone.
Toaster placed the dictionary on the ground and let it fall open on its own. The word ‘kelter’ — nonsense — appeared on page two-hundred-and-eighty-eight. He had no idea why it gave him that.
Originally published in the April 2022 issue of Utopia Science Fiction Magazine.
Timothy Hickson is the New Zealand author of the On Writing and Worldbuilding series. Known better to some online as ‘Hello Future Me’, he loves reading and writing about artificial intelligence, finding meaning, and mental health.