New Body, Old Memories

Sophie lowered her binoculars and nodded to her boyfriend. "Okay, I think we can make it to that little town well before sunset." She smiled. "See? We made it in time, you old worrywart."

Her companion, Jake, nodded his head, and the little pistons under his neck plating creaked with fatigue. "Okay, okay, you were right, Sophie. You win the bet. Like the last one. And the one before that."

Sophie's smile widened and she motioned with her gloved hands. "You know what that means!"

Jake sighed through his little speaker-mouth on his rusted chin. "Hop on, honey."

It never got old: trekking across the wind and sun-scarred Arizona desert was much less tiring when your boyfriend-turned-robot carried you piggyback! Sophie didn't mind the dust that Jake's flat metal feet kicked up as he jogged lightly across the worn-out asphalt road. Little lizards, snakes, and desert-hardened rabbits scattered as his heavy body clanged past.

Sophie patted Jake's hot cheek. "You're making good time, Jake. Nice going."

"I'm... trying," Jake said, pretending to be out of breath. His joints creaked louder than ever, his body trembling with lack of maintenance, and his path across the road was swerving, like he was thoroughly inebriated. Sophie fought down another wave of panic and hung on tighter to Jake's chest.

We'll get him fixed somehow, she swore to herself. She believed it less every time. Or uploaded into a new body. There's got to be at least one!

Nuke-dried Arizona wasn't kind to mechanical bodies. Especially when repair experts and spare parts were all gobbled up by the bandit gangs around here.

It was nearly sunset when Jake clanged his way into the tiny town's border, and once three armed guards confirmed that Sophie only had a pocket knife on her and no intention to cause trouble with it, the two of them were free to visit the meager bazaar.

No one talked much; everyone had their faces hidden behind visors and goggles, cloth coverings and motorcycle helmets. Dust swirled on the wind as the air cooled a bit after another hot June day; the same as every damned evening for the last three years.

"I'm sorry, missy," the local tech lady said, not looking very sorry as she looked up from tinkering with a Camry's engine. "I don't got the know-how to fix up your New-Body Pro 2000 model. Haven't seen one in a while. Delicate things. Aren't they all breaking down or something?"

Sophie looked down at her boots, her throat tight. "I... yeah, probably. Desert is pretty hard on them. Just ask my boyfriend."

"I feel fine, Sophie," Jake said soothingly. His camera-like eyes never changed, but Sophie pretended she saw the old Jake's look in them.

The mechanic shrugged and got back to work. "Old Mr. Hall has a little motel 'round here if you're stayin' the night. He trades pretty fairly for a night's rest."

"Thanks. We'll be going." Sophie took Jake's articulated hand in hers and led him to the promised motel, where a balding old man cheerfully accepted a can of beans and some spare screws for a room for the night.

There was no working TV, of course, but Mr. Hall had stocked the room with some tattered old books: an old Hemingway, a nonfiction book about medieval France, an Agatha Christie mystery, and some of Stephen King's earlier stuff. Sophie half-heartedly opened a King while seated on the queen-size bed's mattress. She pretended that Jake wasn't standing in the corner, watching her as the evening light crept across the thin carpet.

"We'll find someone," Jake said softly.

Sophie snapped the book shut and raised her head. "Where? When, Jake? We've been looking everywhere! You were cutting-edge tech when World War 2.1 went down. Who's gonna know how to fix you?"

Jake lowered his head. "I'm just trying to be optimistic."

"Yeah, that's easy to say." Sophie gripped the King tight in her hands.

"I know when you're in one of your moods," Jake said, motioning with his hands. His arms creaked with rust and rattled with loose screws. "Hey, why don't I read that book out loud? You love it when I do the funny voices."

"Just stop it!" Sophie hurled the book, and it bounced off Jake's tattered chest. "You're just..." Tears stung in her eyes.

Jake shambled to his girlfriend's side and sat, holding her shoulders. "Jake being Jake. Like you always said. right?"

"Y-yeah." Sophie's shoulders shook in Jake's warm, rusty hands as she sobbed, hands clenched in her lap. "I can't stop you from being you, can I?"

"I ain't going anywhere, babe." Jake gently pressed his chin's speaker to Sophie's cheek. "I didn't go anywhere when you almost broke up with me right there at the University of Arizona's campus. I didn't go anywhere when we had that fight about... uh..."

Sophie made a choked laugh. "You'll have to be specific. There were a few fights." She wiped her eyes. "I'm sorry. I just feel like... I hate myself for thinking that you're deluding yourself with false hope. Having hope puts you in a position to be knocked back down, you know?"

"Yeah, I know," Jake said. "And it puts you in a position to climb higher, too."

Sophie fell quiet. At times like this, she really could see her flesh-and-blood boyfriend in this metal lifeboat of a body, his curly, dark red hair, his quick smile, laughter in his brown eyes, his oversized college hoodie and a water bottle in his hand... he played soccer and was always thirsty. Was. Now Sophie was always thirsty.

Having a memory upload into the hot new New-Body Pro 2000 was pretty liberating for him, in some ways. But also lonely.

Sophie picked up the King book and turned it over in her hands. "I shouldn't keep riding on your back. It's wearing you out faster."

Jake shrugged. "Most of the problem is from constant heat, sand, and lack of spare parts or maintenance. Carrying you isn't too bad."

"But I'm so heavy." Sophie forced a half-smile.

Jake laughed. The sound was tinny but genuine. "Naw. You're light as a feather."

"Flatterer." Sophie held up the book. "Okay, do your funny voices. I'll just stretch out and listen a bit."

Jake's hands clumsily held the book and opened up to chapter one. "Oh, this is pretty gory," he said, camera eyes scanning the old ink-typed words.

"I can stomach it," Sophie told him, stretched out on the bed, boots off, hands clasped behind her head. She stared at the ceiling. "Hit me."

Jake started to read.


The next day didn't bring much fortune, either, or the next. Sophie and Jake plowed on, sometimes paying for rides in the "taxis" that went around, or got water a pumping station under the harsh June sun. They found another town. No skilled mechanic there, or repair stations. Jake kept creaking and rusting. Sophie kept muttering prayers under her dry breath.

"Hey, look at that," Sophie said, her voice hoarse from the dry wind and her empty canteen. She pointed. "An airport. Think there's anything good there?"

Jake's camera eyes glinted in the afternoon sun. "I've got a visual on my mag-scan cameras... yeah, there's cars going in and out of the place. I think it's been turned into a settlement."

Sophie felt a thrill. "Then let's splurge and get ourselves a ride up there. One of these taxis has gotta see us. I'll get the flag."

She rummaged in her pack and took out a long metal wire with a white square of cloth tied to the end. Sophie unfolded the wire and waved it like a flag until a weather-beaten Chevy sedan changed course and arced across the desert toward them, shimmering through the heat-distorted air. It screeched to a stop, and a girl a year or two Sophie's senior climbed out of the driver's seat.

"Whoa. Is that a New-Body Pro 2000?" The girl tilted up her cowboy hat and squinted at Jake's towering form. Her oversized, white and blue checkered shirt flapped in the wind, her feet encased in black leather boots. She, too, had a hiker's backpack that bulged with supplies.

"Yeah," Jake said, waving hello. "I think I might be among the last ones, though. Haven't seen many any others since the nukes fell."

"Well, I'll be." The girl had a calculating look. "When did you get uploaded, mister...?"

"I'm Jake," Jake's synthesized voice said. "I, uh... I got my brain scanned and uploaded about a year before World War 2.1. Haven't had a chance to get upgrades before the war, though. I'm wearing out a bit, honestly."

The girl tilted her head. "World War 2.1? You use that dumb name?"

"Well, why not?" Sophie said impatiently. "The war was so short, what else can we all call it? Look, can we get a lift to that airport? It's a settlement now. Jake can tell."

"Sure is," the girl said. "My name's Kelly. You?"

"Sophie Daniels."

"There's not much room at the airport, Jake, Sophie," Kelly explained. "Gonna have to pay a lot to get a ride up there, y'see."

Sophie set down her backpack and unzipped it. "I'm bound to have something in here you want. Just give me a minute."

"No." Kelly's face had a predatory look. "New-Body Pro 2000s have rare and useful parts in 'em. Worth a lot for the few computers that still work. I thought they'd all been picked clean by now... guess I was wrong."

Terror clenched in Sophie's stomach. Her hands froze in her backpack's assorted contents. "Wh-what?"

"There's a trade network in the airport," Kelly told them, hands on her hips. "People come through, looking for good shit. Your Jake will have some parts they'd want."

Sophie felt her heart beating painfully fast. "No one's ever touched Jake. Leave him alone."

"Guess the people where you come from don't have use for his parts, honey," Kelly said, her voice mocking. "I know some folks, though. Give me half an hour to look through him, and I'll find a spot for you at the airport. Food, blankets, some medicine... even working air conditioning on some floors. Deal?"

Jake backed up a step. "I'm sorry, but -"

Kelly had a pistol out before Sophie even saw her draw it. "Okay, if you're gonna make me force the issue, then fine. I can't let a walking treasure chest like Jake here walk away."

"Stop it!" Sophie shrieked. "Don't hurt him! Just -"

"What the hell, bitch?" Kelly said, wrinkling her nose. "What's Jake to you, your boyfriend?"

"Y-yeah. He is."

"Whatever." Kelly kept her weapon trained on Jake. "He's not really alive, y'know. He's slowin' you down, Sophie. You'd last a lot longer from selling his parts for the shit you need."

Jake held his hands palm-out in surrender. "Don't shoot. I don't want anyone ending up dead out here."

"Good." Kelly took out a flare gun, aimed it high, and released a long, green plume into the still air. She smirked as she put the flare gun away. "See? You're gonna be scrap, Jake. when my buddies get here. And by the looks of you, they had better hurry. You look like hell."

"I know. This body isn't designed for this kind of hardship," Jake admitted. "Its builders didn't count on World War 2.1. And I haven't ever gotten a repair. No spare parts around."

"Shame." Kelly gave Sophie a glance. "What, gonna cry, Sophie? Your boyfriend's falling apart anyway. How much longer d'you think he'd last?"

"He'll last longer if you people don't pick him apart like vultures!" Sophie snapped.

"Shut up already," Kelly told her. "God, how did someone like you last so long out here?"

Jake, meanwhile, was slowly tensing, his rusted body creaking, his motors whining under his pitted outer plating.

"Hey, cool it," Kelly said, motioning with her pistol. "Hold still, rust bucket."

"Sorry. It's easier on my joints if I lean a certain way," Jake said. Which had never been true...

He sprung into action.

"What the -!"

Kelly yelped as Jake charged her, spindly arms pumping, motors whining even louder. The air shattered as Kelly fired, then again, and again. Sophie screamed as metal clanged against metal, and Jake stumbled from the bullets' kinetic force. Liquid coolant and lubricants leaked from the holes.

Then Jake swung. His metal hand slapped the pistol from Kelly's hand, and the shiny weapon skittered across the sun-baked ground. His other hand shoved Kelly back and onto her rump, and she scooted back from him, terror clear on her face as Jake towered over her.

Sophie broke out of her stunned daze and rushed to the pistol. She dove for it and seized it in her hands before Kelly could recover it, and she trained it on the other girl from a kneeling position. "Get away from us! Or I shoot!" Sophie screamed.

Kelly glanced back and forth between Jake and the now-armed Sophie, and she hurried toward the open door of her Chevy.

"No. On foot! Get away from the car!" Sophie roared.

Kelly hesitated for a second. Sophie fired a warning shot into the air.

Kelly broke into a run, not even glancing back.

"Oh no... Jake!" Sophie dropped the pistol and rushed over to Jake's side as his robot body sank to its knees. She ran her hands along his ruined, coolant-slick chest. "I've gotta have something..."

"Sophie," Jake said, his joints jerking and twitching. "You... you didn't shoot her?"

"I'm not a killer." Sophie rummaged through her backpack, tears stinging in her eyes. "Something in here... anything..."

"I'm proud," Jake said, his camera eyes fixed on his girlfriend. "Around here, it's easy to kill, isn't it? But you spared Kelly's life."

"Forget her!" Sophie sobbed dryly. "Y-you're leaking, Jake. You'll overheat and then... and..."

Jake shuffled his way to her and wrapped his sun-warmed arms around her. "We knew something like this would happen."

"N-no." Sophie wiped her eyes. "Hope, remember? We were gonna get you fixed."

"I think it's way too late. I'm just facing the facts." Jake leaned closer to Sophie's ear. "I love you, Sophie. Remember me, okay? The real me, when we were at college together. I still remember it."

"Jake, I'm not leaving you!"

"You've got Kelly's car. You can find somewhere safe," Jake told her. "I'm not even good for salvage at this point. I'm gonna overheat, but at least my circuits will fry before the airport scavengers get to me. I won't suffer being dismembered."

"I-I won't let you die!"

"Sophie." Jake patted her cheek. "This was just borrowed time. Don't let me weigh you down."

Sophie clenched her jaw. "There's room in the car."

"I'm heavy."

"I'll just drive faster."

"There's no point."

"Yes there is!"

"I love you, Sophie."

"But I..." Sophie went slack. "How can I just watch you die?"

"You don't have to. Leave me here. I'll be thinking about you, Sophie. Just promise to think of me, too, okay? The real me."

Sophie took a few deep breaths. "I... I love you, Jake. The real you in there."

"I'm glad." Jake glanced over at the airport. "Hurry, before Kelly's friends get here."

No arguing with that. Sophie got up, pocketed Kelly's pistol, and settled into the Chevy. She fired up the ignition, cranked up the AC, and took off to... well, somewhere or other.

She didn't look back at Jake's overheating metal body, kneeling there in the sun. She couldn't.