Behind the Center for Robotic Studies, defunct models of robots and androids littered the ground. Just beyond that was a forest the scientists and engineers often stared at during their coffee breaks, their eyes flitting over the carcasses that paid mournful tribute to their experimental natures.
Dancer stood in this forest and watched from the cover of a thick bush as another robot was dumped on the refuse pile. It was a Model 130 and had a part she needed for the broken rotors in Elsa’s shoulder. Dancer closed her eyes, seeing the schematic for Elsa in her biomechanical mind. With this part, the lioness would cease to limp, would pounce and stalk again—silently, too, if Dancer could steal some lubricant along with the parts she needed.
Dancer settled in, standing motionlessly as the sun passed overhead and finally set. She waited as the sky grew dark. The building was never completely silent, but many of the staff went home for the evening.
Before the moon could come up to expose her, Dancer came to life, rising with a little of the grace that had marked her original steps. She had repaired her legs too many times; she could walk, crouch, and do all the things she needed to, but she did them with effort.
In Dancer’s memory bank were all the ballets ever danced prior to her awakening; she knew them all by heart, and had performed many of them. She could hear the music if she tried, but as she rose slowly on her toes—her original programming always strong, always making her want to dance—she heard something in her ankle creak in protest.
She had been slated to be turned off, but the attendant who was responsible for her disposal had been in a hurry and hit the the wrong switch —selecting long sleep instead of quick death. Dancer had been jarred awake by a kiss: Elsa’s metallic tongue hard against Dancer’s pseudoskin as she gently pushed Dancer from the sea of bodies and into the forest.
Dancer hadn’t been terribly surprised to be awakened by the lioness. She’d heard, during one of her maintenance visits, two of the scientists talking about a rogue robot— a lioness that had gone off her programming and roamed the forest but did little else, so they expended no effort to find her, figuring she’d wear out eventually.
And she had. She would have been lame or worse if Dancer wasn’t able to fix her up. It was a risk, coming out into the open like that, but Elsa was her only friend, and Dancer knew that somewhere in what passed for Elsa’s mechanical heart, she cared for Dancer.
Or maybe, being designed to be a part of a social group, Elsa viewed Dancer as the closest thing she could get to a pride of sisters and daughters.
It didn’t matter. Either way Elsa was company.
Dancer extracted the part she needed, then eased closer to the building, scouting for lubricant and even some abandoned tools in the dumpster.
At least I could fix the rotor, she thought.
She was about to head for the forest, when she heard a sound above her. Two of the workers stepped out to enjoy the night air.
“That pile spoils the view,” one of the workers above her said, his voice carrying far over the stillness.
“I know. But complaining does nothing,” said the other.
They stood and talked a bit more, the pile of ruined robots apparently forgotten as they compared sports scores and who wasn’t getting along with whom in the Center.
One of the men went back in, footfalls heavy on the floor above her head. The one who stayed behind said, “I know you’re there.” His voice was hushed, meant to carry down to her, she thought, and nowhere else.
She didn’t move.
“Elsa was my project, you see. The fact that she’s loose, my doing. She went off programming, but she wasn’t dangerous—she didn’t deserve to be put down.” He sighed. “She’s wearing out, I bet. Just like you are, little ballerina. My colleagues have a pool on when you’ll finally expire. It makes me happy to skew your survival odds.”
A small package fell, landing with a strange clink on the ground before her. Then the man left, his footsteps echoing, and she didn’t move for a long period of time, worried that it was a trap.
No one came, and finally she picked up the package and opened it. Three tools for precision work and a small tube of lubricant—the good stuff, new and clear, not the used-up liquid she normally scavenged.
She wrapped the package back up and slipped through the shadows, back to the forest, making sure she was safe before she glanced back. Standing at one of the windows was a man. He seemed to be staring right at her.
Slowly, he lifted his hand and let it sit against the window.
She lifted the package for just a moment to let him see that she had it.
Then she ran—or whatever her clumsy gait could be called.
Elsa was waiting. She made a low sound and tried to get up but her leg gave out, her bad shoulder was finally done.
Dancer went to work; it wasn’t an easy fix, but the tools made the task go faster, the lubricant made the new part glide the way it was supposed to. Elsa stood up and took a step, her shoulder holding her steady.
Dancer stretched out her legs and studied her ankles. For the first time, she wondered if she could dance again,and if the man would continue to help her—or was that a one-time offer? Maybe she could give him a list of the things she needed, things he could easily get, but would take her months or years to gather on her own.
It was dangerous to go back to the Center too many times.
But for the chance to dance again—she could already hear the music in her head—she knew she wouldn’t be able to stay away.