The Gift of Purpose

Six robots walked together across farmland. They were not the hulking brutes of iron imagined yesteryear, but lightweight skeletons of nanodiamond-laced titanium. Two carried a makeshift stretch of iron hastily hammered into shape, and one did not walk but lay there, its legs shorn off. They did not walk in straight lines, following the shape of the land, but viewed from above their path was straight as an arrow.

That arrow flew directly for a town. Called something like Fair Weather Village in the local dialect, the town featured one huge factory, smoke billowing from its stack as people worked iron within. Around the factory, dozens of red-roofed homes clustered like children begging for a sweet.

As the robots neared the town, they had no choice but to join a common road. People saw them then, and ran. The robots were not surprised. Closer, now, they walked among small homes with gardens, with mothers who ushered their children inside, with children who peeked through the windows. They also walked among burnt-out shells of homes, taken by the bombs.

They were again unsurprised when a crowd of men and women stopped them a quarter-mile from the town gate. A few had pitchforks or hoes, some of them had swords, but most of them carried the large-bore, breech-loading flintlock rifles they’d used during the occupation. The robots also had weapons, attached to their backs or hips by clever magnetic locks. Autonomous systems highlighted the townsfolks’ weapons, calculated how much damage the squad might sustain before their superior weapons cut the townsfolk down. The two robots set down the stretcher in unison.

One of those drew its weapon, a short-barreled automatic rifle, and set it on the ground before walking forward. The first row of townsfolk stepped back. The back row of townsfolk pushed forward. This robot’s face was shaped to more closely resemble those of the people it faced. It stopped three strides away and spoke.

“We mean you no harm. Our masters have fled, leaving us behind.” Its voice was mellifluous. Its hardware read facial reactions, postures, strength of grip on gun stocks, adjusting its timbre and cadence in response. “We are no longer an occupying force, so now we have no purpose. We cannot exist this way, without purpose. We would go mad. We ask you, humbly, to permit us to help you as you see fit. To give us purpose. To be our saviors.”

That word hung in the air for a breathless moment. “You killed my boy!” one shouted. “I didn’t—” began the robot. “Where were you when you bombed my home? Where was your purpose then?” “Then our pur—” “How many did you kill? How many did you, personally, kill?” The crowd erupted into screaming, wailing recriminations, cries of anger and hate, bottled up and finally released.

The robots all saw the first shot coming. Systems they could not deactivate saw the barrel rise, marked it an imminent threat. They ignored reflexes to shoot first. The rifle bullet struck one of the emissary robot’s ribs with little effect, ricocheting and leaving a barely perceptible dent. It had a greater effect on the crowd. They rushed the robots, mobbed them, slammed them against the ground, stomped them, shot them point-blank, blamed them for the ricochets that hurt their own, smashed them with big rocks until they no longer moved and the mob had run out of its collective breath.

“A sacrifice, then,” said the emissary, just before it could speak no more.

 

Coda

Miraculously, the mob overlooked the robot on the stretcher. Perhaps they spent their attention and their rage on those that had been standing. Perhaps they saw its legs, missing in a frightful tear of metal, and assumed it was already dead. It didn’t move, and so didn’t disabuse them of the notion.

After the mob had gone and the townsfolk had gawked and taken their souvenirs, a young woman approached and sifted idly through the remains. When she came upon the casualty, she crouched and inspected it for some time. “You’re not dead, are you?”

The robot, lacking the specialized hardware of the late emissary, spoke in affectless tone. “No.”

“Why did you come here?”

“To find a new purpose. We became a sacrifice.”

“You didn’t.”

“No.”

“I have a little workshop. If we worked together, do you think we could repair your legs?”

“We could replace what is lost with something adequate.”

“I’d like that.” She lifted the robot by its shoulders, marveled at its light weight, and dragged it into town.

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