by Sierra July
Originally published on Perihelion SF in 2015
Included in the 2016 Write Well Award Anthology
They traveled far to avoid rust, a horde of Robots. Levitating on the winds under their feet, they clunked down on an Ice Planet. Ice did no harm, not like heat, greedy fire that couldn’t be satisfied till all was devoured. Ice was harsh, yet delicate in its approach. Ice had patience. But the Robots had moisture-guarded coating, meaning ice had some serious waiting to do.
This orb of ice the Robots landed on had actually lost its rank as a Planet, but the Robots didn’t know that, couldn’t compute. Although this place was small, it carried the daintiness of a cabin hidden in the woods, a place tucked in the far reaches of the universe all to itself, cozy. Potential wreathed from its shining floors as invisible mist, felt but unseen, secrets just their own. The Robots didn’t see a useless locale best left adrift. They saw Paradise.
-Ice- -Blue- -Home- -Rock- -Home- -Love-
Robot minds were a trifle eccentric, as best minds are. Thoughts zipped and zapped through them like meteors through space. Also like meteors, if thoughts lost their way in the circuit maze coiling within the Robots’ heads, the Robots could crash into uncharted territory and severely malfunction. They’d lost many a friend this way, these Robots, information overloads causing malfunctions and, ultimately, shutdowns, permanent sleep.
These Robots saw things in the Extreme, Extreme worth, Extreme height, Extreme Power (On). It fact, it’s how they saw themselves, larger, more advanced, more menacing than what they were. Had Man stood with them on their Ice Planet, the Robots would reach full height at knee level, including the knobby antennas protruding from their metal skulls. But they believed themselves Giants. Skinny arms snaked from their torsos, wobbly legs strung from beneath. Eyes like store-waxed cherries, how most would describe their glassy-filled sockets.
-Blue- -Ice- -Rock- -Home- -Home- -Home-
One Robot, Robot RL, took a particular liking to their new Planet. He cut slabs of ice from the ground beneath him, being careful to avoid areas where Robot children might be playing (they the size of the smallest of Man’s pet dogs) and sculpted. His right hand, like all of the Robots, morphed into a knife, utilized as the jimmy of all locks in most circumstance, was now an artist’s tool, dripping with productivity. Fluid motion slivered blocky clumps into images of majesty, models of sights seen and sights imagined. The Robot crafted Earthen children (captured from vintage video footage retrieved via satellite) frolicking hand-in-hand, their smiles real enough to ache anyone with a heart (so no aching from Robots); fish of more variety than on Earth, fish with two heads and six fins and no eyes, bizarre and nonetheless beautiful as they posed ready to swim, or fly, through space (found as frozen fossils in Uranus, given personality by RL); Saturn and its rings as seen through Robot eyes, silken, quizzical, confounding. Finished works somehow, someway took on color, rainbows marrying inside an icy blue sheen.
-Ice- -Blue- -Love- -Home- -Ice- -Love-
RL brought art into perspective for his kind. The Galaxy wasn’t the only thing with Beauty, the swirling of the Milky Way, the blaze of an exploding Supernova, the nativity of new stars (the molding and meshing and melding) in its place. Beauty could be birthed with their own hands. Circuits buzzed with excitement over the spectacle, currents from their little hard drives reverberating into a bulbous, incessant pulse. That pulse blanketed their ice palace, holding it tight, a bubble of endless protection. It was their
Wintery as it was, more ice easily replaced what RL stole, temperatures below Kelvin fruiting layer upon layer upon layer, until Pluto was replenished like skin growing itself back, but without a scab. What grew back was near perfection. All the Robots suspected the ice sculptures, too, would be replenished, misted with the breath of their home Planet and made to last eternal. But carved ice is feeble.
Even something thick as bone grows porous, brittle and broken with old age, poor nutrition. Starving for purpose (except in Robot minds), the sculptures hollowed out. Slowly but surely, they all crumpled. The frolicking children discarded plump cheeks for sunken ones, fish were flushed away from their virtual aquarium like drain-bound dirty bathwater, the rings fell away from Saturn, drip, drip, drip till no images remained.
Ice thinned, RL’s sculptures brought something else to the other Robots’ attentions. Ice thinned, the sculptures melted, and melted ice became slush. These Slushies were even more tempting than their zanily bright-colored, artificially flavored Earthen predecessors from age of old; if those flurry refreshments were enticing, Plutonian Slushies were irresistible. Those magical colors that had taken over the sculptures warped into something even a Robot could taste, they were so twisted in emotion, flavors impossible to achieve anywhere else. Red was a mix between berry and passion fruit tinged with actual passion and exhilaration, orange – peach with euphoric high, yellow – pineapple with heated desire, green – lime and relaxation, blue and purple were one – blueberry and grape mingling into a slipstream that made its sampler feel weightless. It was the first time the Robots felt anything truly apparent, solid, not just glimmers.
-Blue- -Ice- -Ice- -Love- -Love- -Love-
Slushies became obsession. Obsession requires feeding. Feed. More Feed.
Robots that once preferred strolling across their Planet on jangly snowshoe feet settled for doing nothing but sitting, eating, slurping. Unlike their exterior finishes, resilient, the Robots’ interiors were entirely susceptible to the elements. The chill brought on what Humans would call Brain Freeze, but the Freeze touched every part of the Robots, a chill that penetrated and frosted every gear so that they ran . . . slow. Their throats slickened, their stomachs grew soggy. Brain gears churned stiff. The Robots had no clue, couldn’t feel their inner workings suffering.
RL was in a slump, slumped, lounging, overcome with cold-induced fatigue for a good amount (minute, week, month?) of time, slurping. He had no desire to carve again, not until all the Slushies were gone. When the last drop of shaved ice was devoured, there was a mad rush for more. RL, with his skills (and a mounted quantity of determination), obtained his blocks the fastest, molded them the quickest, had ice melting the soonest. He needed more. He waited. They all waited.
They returned, the Slushies. Robots sucked the debris till their antennae whirled like helicopter blades.
Obsession breeds obsession, obsession . . . obsession.
Robots balanced on thin ice. Not much of their planet remained from their rabid carving; they were loitering about on a much smaller orb. Ice had been chopped, chopped into bits. Only RL still made sculptures, rather than merely shaving his cubes. But the images he crafted changed. He saw the grotesque within the Beauty, the fault within perfection. Instead of playing children and fish and one of the Eight Wonders of the Galaxy, he scribed tortured faces, eyes engorged in fear and anguish; he etched murder scenes horrendous enough to possess Robots with nightmares (had they slept). He saw the ugliness that had infected his own world, yet he couldn’t quit ripping it apart, scattering ice parts like mangled limbs. Reverse Logic.
The Robot children for which RL was concerned before were all crashed in heaps, disabled, dispensable, from an overdose of a treat they loved. They never had (too much of a good thing) much of a chance at survival. Their parts were too new, too delicate, having never been worn in, too fresh have spoiled, too fresh not to be spoiled. Robot children nurtured and matured by adult Robot hands. Scraps from two Robots, assembled and electrified to life, now nothing but recyclables not likely to be recycled. They made the most beautiful art left on the planet, glazing (cold resilient outer layers still non-cold resilient) with the twinkly ice crystals made residue by hacking creators. None of the Robots had the sense to mourn.
The children weren’t the last. More deaths came about, longer and more drawn out than the children’s (Thank the Milky Way for their quick departuress!) but just as agonizing to see. Robots were slicing, gorging, collapsing, dying, this way and that. RL watched, sculpted, gorged himself, rinsed and repeated. He could no longer see the blue rock of a planet he loved to call home. He no longer saw Paradise. He saw Desolation. He saw Collapse. And could do nothing to stop it, no matter how he yearned to. Reverse Logic. He kept consuming.
RL’s brain was the last to go, of all Robots. He could feel the Slushie hitting the wrong area of his circuits, one of those hit-and-miss games displayed during Human carnivals. There were pins stacked up, or perhaps there was a dart board with circle in circle in circle like the ringlets of a vortex (something only Robots could see); the ice was that ball or dart thrown at its obstacle, and it had finally found its target, pins toppled, dart dead center. No prize won.
When he lost consciousness, RL’s eyes glowed blue, and his mouth gaped wide open, Slushie dribble slipping from the corners. His last thought: