Luz arrived in the last days of Ursula’s life, slipping as silent as a cat through the clouds of white linen that snapped and fluttered in the sea breeze. Ursula lifted her head a few inches above her pillow and squinted at him. In the cream-colored light, he looked as if he had a full-body halo, like a painting of the Virgin.
“Ursula,” he said. “How’d this happen?”
Ursula sighed and dropped her head back down. She still had the strength to do that, at least. She never liked Luz. He always showed up at inopportune times during her life - her sixth birthday, her high school graduation, and now, her death - and lingered on the sidelines of whatever crowd might have gathered, watching but never really participating. He’s a distant cousin, she told her questioning friends, who never looked closely enough at him to realize the truth. Very distant.
“The way it always happens,” she said. “Microbes.” She closed her eyes because her lids had suddenly become too heavy. “How’d you get in here?”
“I asked,” he said. “And I showed the guards my circuitry.” He shrugged and then kneeled down beside Ursula’s bed. “It doesn’t matter. I came to care for you.”
Ursula wanted to say, I don’t need you to care for me. She wanted to say, I never needed you, ever. But then she felt her slowly-desiccating lungs rising up the canal of her throat, and she turned her head and coughed, once, twice, her body curling up involuntarily, blood splattering out of her cracked dry mouth and across the white bedsheets like the tail of a comet.
Ursula was dying of a disease that had originated in the dark and unfathomable vacuum of space. The virus - a pale-green squiggle in the news-feeds, wriggling and squirming against the liquidy background of a microscope slide - had infected the crew of a deep space science ship and was then able to pass onto one of the shuttles that shuffled back and forth between Earth and the space station hanging like an ornament in its orbit. This was in the early days of light travel, when the filters were rough-hewn and unrefined. An accident. Nonetheless, the virus burrowed itself neatly into Earth’s ecosystem, jumping from continent to continent for nearly a century. Whenever it appeared, they contained it. The hospice colonies were always built along the water. The sand got into everything. It didn’t matter. There was no cure. If you were infected, you were sent to those encampments of white linen and armed guards, and you were given a bed in which to die.
The encampments employed no doctors or nurses. They certainly didn’t allow visitors. Just the constant rustle of the fabric, the roar of the ocean. The encampment here had a few worker automatons who buzzed and whirred amongst the tents, bringing clean linens and fresh water. They looked like fever dreams.
Occasionally you heard a shuttle buzzing overhead. Ursula always wondered what the colony looked like from so up high, to those people on their way into space. Once, in the first few days of her confinement, she saw the shadow of a shuttle pass over the fabric of her tent. Back then she still thought she might survive, that she might be the sole person in the history of the disease to have a natural immunity. Ursula watched that shadow cross the fabric, the only view she would see for the rest of her life, and wept, and the simple act of weeping exhausted her.
But now, Luz. She was not lucky enough to survive, but she was lucky enough, she supposed, to have him. He changed her sheets and wiped the blood from her face and her hair. He didn’t whir or click like the other automatons, and his touch, even she had to admit, was more natural, more human. She closed her eyes against the white afternoon sunlight and listened to the sound of water dripping from the rags into the ceramic pot he brought into the hospice colony with him. The ocean rushed restlessly in the background. The sound of the sea always reminded her of the freeway over which her old apartment had overlooked. She remembered spring evenings, leaning out of her kitchen window, smoking a cigarette, thinking about some boyfriend or another. The scent of jacaranda and jet exhaust. The sky purple and twinkling with satellites.
Ursula took a deep, shuddery breath. Luz pressed a damp rag against her forehead; she opened her eyes. He looked back at her dispassionately. Everything about him was dispassionate. The curve of his mouth. The opacity of his dark eyes. He was so realistic otherwise. He could fool you if you didn’t look close.
“You’re upset,” he said. “Talk to me.”
“It hurts to talk,” said Ursula.
Cool rivulets of water dripped down her temples, pooled on the pillow beneath the crook of her neck. In comparison her skin seemed scorching. She imagined puffs of steam rising up out of her pores. The sunlight filtering through the fabric of the tent was too bright. She wished she could roll over onto her stomach, her side - wished she could block out all that brightness.
“Luz,” she said. “Luz, the light is too bright.” She didn’t mean to ask for help. She didn’t want to. It must be the fever.
“I’ll see what I can do,” said Luz, and he laid his hand across her forehead, and his synthetic skin was cool and dry and gentle, like a doctor’s, or a father’s.
When Ursula fell asleep, moaning and twitching beneath the gauze of her cheap, thin blankets, Luz carried the bowl of ruby-colored water out into the open. He threaded through the maze of tents, white linen opalescent in the sun, like an encampment of clouds.
He carried the bowl away from the tents, towards the fence throwing off warning sparks of electricity, and followed the perimeter until he came to the place where they burned the bodies and the linens. It was a long walk. The ocean became a thin glittering seam between sky and land. From here the tents looked like dune flowers.
“The hell are you?”
Luz turned towards the voice, the bowl still balanced between his two hands. He knew it was a person, a man, but the figure looked like nothing more than a shadow in his black bio-covering.
“You a new recruit? Where’s your uniform?”
Luz carried the bowl up to the blackened edge of the incinerator and dumped in the bloody water. “I’m not a recruit.”
The soldier wrapped his fingers around the but of his gun.
“How’d you get in here?” he said.
“I’m an automaton.”
The soldier didn’t answer. Luz pushed the hair away from his eyes and began the long walk back to the encampment.
“You expect me to believe that?” said the man. “Really?”
Luz stopped. “No, I’m not as primitive as the caretakers you have here but that doesn’t change what I am.” He turned around. Luz didn’t like that the guard’s face was hidden. “Besides, why else would I be here?” Luz asked. “No living creature would come to a place like this. Not willingly,” he added, when the man stiffened in his shadow suit.
“You don’t talk like a bot.”
“I’m not a bot.”
“You said - “
Luz stopped. The wind picked up, balmy and sticky with salt. He dropped the empty bowl to his side.
“I’m not a robot,” he said. “Robots are tools.” A refrain someone had given him a long time ago.
“Right,” said the man. “Well, robot-who’s-not-a-robot, what are you doing here?”
“I’m a caregiver,” said Luz. “For someone very dear to me.”
The man laughed. The wind picked up his laughter and carried it out to sea. Luz’s fingers curled and uncurled around the rim of the bowl.
“Fine, man,” the guard said. “Catch it. Bleed to death out here. They’re not gonna let you out alive.”
“I’m not alive,” said Luz. “But thanks for the advice.” And he walked quickly away before the man would have a chance to respond. The guards never left the perimeter of the colony.
As soon as he was back in the encampment proper, he found one of the rare water spigots and refilled the bowl. He carried it back into Ursula’s tent. She was still sleeping. He set the bowl of water next to her bed and stood beside her, watching, looking for traces of familiarity in the lines of her features. There - in the slight upward curve of her nose. The lines around her mouth. The ghost of another Ursula, long since turned to dust.
In her sleep, this Ursula looked calm, calm and pale and nearly not there. She was mist. She was sea foam. Luz knew she did not have long to live.
When Ursula died, one week later, she was expecting it. She felt her body disintegrate cell by cell, her insides turning into lace. Every now and then, she gathered up all her strength and held her left hand up to the light, wanting to see the patterns the virus had formed out of her muscles and circulatory system.
“I’m going to die,” she said to Luz, who hadn’t left her side except to fetch water or find clean sheets.
“I know,” he said.
“I hope I get reincarnated,” she said. “That was always my favorite of the things that can happen when you die.” She tilted her head towards him. Her voice cracked whenever she spoke. “Don’t get all robot on me. I don’t want to hear how it’s not possible. Okay?”
Luz didn’t say anything.
Ursula coughed. The liquid coming up out of her lungs was no longer the brilliant red of before, but darker, purplish-blue, nearly black. It stained the damp skin of her palm. Luz took her hand and wiped it clean. The water was so cold she could barely stand it.
“I’m not sure,” said Ursula, “that I want to die.”
Luz dropped the wet, stained rag to the floor, but didn’t stop holding her hand. She closed her eyes. “You were a good doctor,” she said. “You know - you know you didn’t have to come out here like this.”
“You are my family,” said Luz.
Ursula grinned, the weak muscles straining painfully against her jaw. “That’s the Luz I know. How can I be your family?”
“You are,” said Luz.
Ursula shook her head. Then she gasped. Luz held her hand tighter. Her eyes opened: glassy and bright with fever.
“Luz,” she whispered. “Thank you.”
And then she died.
Ursula Lorca had been the last of the line.
In those first few moments after she died, Luz stared down at her, unmoving save for the ripple of his hair in the wind. There was an overwhelming sweetness in the air, like rotten flowers. A churning inside of himself, an uncomfortable warmth as his circuits nearly overheated.
After a time, he cleaned her body of the dried blood and wrapped her in fresh white linens.
Then he carried her out to the furnaces on the other side of the encampment, the sea breeze blowing sticky and damp through the fabric of his shirt. In the distance, seabirds cried out to one another, their shadows silhouetting against the haze rising up from the military outpost on the edge of the colony.
He didn’t look down, only up, away from Ursula’s pale face, her unblinking eyes, her cracked lips. He looked at the spindly tops of buildings poking up over the horizon: closest was the military outpost and then, beyond that, the rim of the city, the government offices and apartment sky-rises that made up the outermost ring. It had been nearly a month since he’d last seen the inside of the city, nearly a month since he’d strolled unhindered through the gates of the encampment, his sorrow short-circuiting inside of him.
The furnaces were abandoned when Luz arrived, his feet crunching against the black gravel. The sun had just begun to sink into the ocean, and the light was honeyed and thick and pooled in places where normally you’d find shadows. Gently, Luz knelt down and laid out Ursula’s body, draping her hands across her chest, sliding her eyelids shut. He stood up. The sea breeze blew his hair into his eyes.
“Ursula,” he said. “I’m sorry I failed you.”
Luz was familiar with death - with the eradication of life - even though it did not relate to him directly. He could not die, although he supposed he could be destroyed. He thought of how Ursula looked before, when her face had been smeared with blood, her clothing all stained rust from it. She had been destroyed. It was not the same as drifting away at the end of one’s life, after one has propagated, filled the space left by death.
Luz didn’t know what he would do with himself, now that it was over, so suddenly. Two hundred and fifty years of family wiped out with a coughing fit and spray of mottled blood.
Luz wanted to weep; it was impossible.
Luz returned to his place of appointment the day after Ursula died in the hospice colony. He was a star cartographer, designed long ago for work on the first generation of lightships -- although he had never once left the planet.
His first day back Coronel Ruiz called him into her office. The golden sunlight, hazy with the city’s pollution, streamed in through the windows behind her desk. Dust floated in the air and whenever Coronel Ruiz leaned back in her ergonomic chair she stirred it into swirls and eddies. Luz calculated the paths those specks of dust would take on their journey to the carpeted floor.
“Luz,” said Coronel Ruiz. She smiled, folded her hands in front of her desk. “You know that all employees are given three days for a death in the family.”
“I’ve been gone for a month,” said Luz.
Coronel Ruiz waved her hand dismissively. “Which is why three days really isn’t so much in the grand scheme of things. Go home.”
“I’d prefer to stay,” said Luz. Two hundred and fifty years’ worth of human interaction scrolled through his memory processors, interrupting his calculations on the dust patterns. He knew the things he needed to say. “It allows me to take my mind off it.”
Coronel Ruiz sighed. She shook her head. “I don’t want to take advantage of you,” she said.
“You’re not,” said Luz, and he stood up, nodded at her, and then walked out of her office. Coronel Ruiz had always been overly preoccupied with treating him like a human being. It was she who had given him his most recent name, in fact, many years ago.
He was the only automaton utilized in the command center. The only automaton who refused to go into space. Coronel Ruiz let him stay because she liked him.
Later that day, Luz sat at his station, mapping out the trajectory for a shuttle launch to Neptune, when he felt a pull at his circuits. A lag. His entire body froze up, his right arm still reaching out towards the computer touchscreen. Inside of himself: a click-whir, the sound of something going wrong. And then --
He is at one of Ursula Lorca’s intramural football matches. He sits in the stands and watches her kick the ball half-heartedly through the overgrown grass. The match is at one of those parks the city built on the top of an office building, fifty stories high, the wind whipping the leaves off the trees. Time speeds up. Ursula jogs off the pitch and turns to look at him over her shoulder, strands of her dark hair sticking to her forehead. They stare at each other, neither of them moving. It is the only time she acknowledges him that day, even after the game has ended (her team loses, 2-1), even after Luz walks by the place where she drinks water with her teammates, and so that moment stays for a long time, frozen like a photograph: the overly green grass, the sky white with heat, and Ursula, her face red from exertion, her cheeks the same coral color as her lips, the skin of her bare shoulders golden from the sun.
And then Luz was back at his station, the computer beeping urgently at him. He hadn’t finished the calculations before his fit. Luz ended the program and sat very still and stared at his reflection in the blank screen. He waited for something else to happen: another lag, another sense of breaking down. He didn’t have the equipment to run a diagnostic check here at work - it was all back at his apartment in the old center of the city.
Perhaps he should take another day off after all.
Riding home on the TL, barreling fifty yards above the central city park, it happened again.
Luz sat at the very back of the train, next to an old man who snored faintly as he slept against the train’s metal wall. Buildings flashed by the windows, refracting the toxic orange light of the setting sun. He blinked. And then the entire length of the train stretched out before him. His limbs slumped down in the tattered old seat. He couldn’t move.
He is in his apartment when his apartment is new, part of an old mansion that has been partitioned off. He has only recently acquired it. Someone knocks on his front door and when he answers Esperanza Medina leans against the doorframe, her dark hair falling in a wave across her left eye. The long ropes of fake silver she wears draped around her neck flash in the buzzing fluorescent hallway light.
Her father owns the apartment building. He is one of the first to sell to an automaton. Luz is uncertain why the landlord’s daughter is standing outside his front door.
When he eventually says hello, Esperanza Medina smiles, and her teeth are white against the red smear of her lipstick. She looks like Ursula.
The TL jerked to a stop, sparks flying up against the grimy windows. The old man’s head snapped up, his snoring stopped, and he pulled himself up to standing with the commuter bar overhead. Luz fluttered the joints of the fingers of his right hand. He wiggled his toes, flicked his eyes back and forth in their sockets. The train exhaled passengers and inhaled more, men and women in grey business suits, their skin damp from the humidity outside. The train lurched forward on its way into downtown. Luz found he was able to turn his head.
He was confused.
He was confused as to why he had been accosted by a memory of Señora Medina, the apartment caretaker. It had been a very long time since anyone, including himself, had called her Esperanza. She now wiled away her days sitting in a metal garden chair in the apartment’s overgrown courtyard, smoking cigars and watching telenovellas on her ancient viewing screen.
Luz had thought the strange malfunction this afternoon was a product of his grief, but now he grew concerned that it was symptomatic of something deeper and more troubling. Perhaps he spent too much time in the salty air. Perhaps the sand had seeped into his joints and was eroding the complex web of his circuits.
When the train creaked and rumbled into his stop, Luz stood up and took a few halting steps out onto the platform. He was still stiff, his limbs rigid, his movements jerky, the way they’d been in the first few months of his existence. A group of teenagers standing on the corner of his street stared at him, all their conversation drying up as he walked by. An expected reaction, considering his new condition. Too much like the cheap automatons that worked in the shops or the homes of the middle-class. He would not allow himself to be bothered by it.
At his apartment, Señora Medina sat in her usual place in the courtyard, her wrinkled face illuminated by the pristine Arctic light of her viewing screen. Smoke swirled blue and thick from the cigar smoldering in her right hand. She glanced up when Luz shuffled across the dirt-covered brick and her face twisted into a frown.
“You all right?” she asked. She puffed on her cigar.
“You don’t seem all right.”
“I’m fine.” Luz pressed his palm against the key scanner, and the door clicked open. He attempted to smile reassuringly at her, but the response of his facial features still lagged, and he lacked the ability to make any nuanced expression. Señora Medina narrowed her eyes. He slipped into the dank stairwell, pulled the door shut.
The stairs loomed at an impossible angle, although he could see his apartment door from where he stood. The antique lamp affixed to the wall glowed dimly. Heaviness spread through his legs, his arms. He placed one hand on the banister.
The work lamps are so bright they wash out all the color in the room. Ursula leans over him. Her hands smell of solder. when she smiles her eyes fill with light. Her mouth moves but he doesn’t understand what she says. He is brand new. He is brand new.
Luz was plunged back into the darkness of the stairwell. He took a faltering step backwards. The scent of solder lingered heavily on the air, washing out the stairwell’s usual moldy smell, the dead cockroaches, the whiff of sweetness from the flowers in the courtyard. Luz dragged one foot onto the first step and then the other, pressing his hand against the banister all the while. The stairs moaned beneath his weight. Slowly, he crept up the stairs, dragging his limp legs up one at a time. When he finally came to his apartment, the key-reader on the door recognized the pattern of invisible light emanating from his fingertips and let him inside. Once in the tiny living room, he slumped against the wall.
He sees Coronel Ruiz this time, only she isn’t a coronel yet. She’s only just come to work at the science center and in civilian clothes she seems softer, her edges ill-defined. She laughs, throwing her head back. I hate the name Alphonso, she says. It reminds me of my uncle. He was a drunk and kind of a son of bitch, you know? You need a better name.
What would you suggest? They sit side by side at a picnic table on the roof of the science center, the city spiraling out around them. Ruiz squints in the sunlight, throwing up one hand to her brow. Her half-eaten torta lays scattered across its biodegradable paper wrapping. All our technologies are made of sunlight, she says. Have you ever heard that before?
It’s too poetic, says Alphonso. It doesn’t make any sense. Alphonso has no use for poetry.
You’re made of light, she says. I’m going to call you Luz.
I’ve always had male names.
Because you look like a male, Ruiz says. But boys can have girls’ name.
Alphonso says his new name. Luz. He decides that he likes it. He’s found it necessary to make these transitions now and then. To change a name, to reprogram some antiquated command. It’s been a long time since he’s done either.
Luz snapped back into functionality. His apartment was dark and bone-still. He couldn’t hear anything from the neighboring units, no footsteps, no creaking bedsprings, no gurgle of water in the pipes. He lay still for a moment, still pressed against the wall. A sweep of lights flooded his windows, momentarily illuminating the small crowded living room, before turning back into long shadows.
Luz stood up, without lag or difficulty. He said, “Lights,” and the overhead lights clicked on. He walked into the bedroom -- he actually had installed a bed in there, an old one, with a thin, broken mattress -- and sat down. He clenched and unclenched his fingers. He rotated his ankles. All normal again, for the moment.
He shouldn’t have these attacks of old memories.
Luz pulled his diagnostic equipment out from the bedroom’s closet shelf: the ancient computer tablet and the long beige cord retrofitted to snap into place at the top of his spine. He arranged everything on the bed, tapped the computer screen, typed in the password, the list of commands. With practiced hands, he plugged himself in. A jolt of electricity, sudden and uncomfortable, as everything lined itself up, and his own system melded to that of the diagnostic program. He lay on his side, the cord snaking over his shoulder, and watched the litany of programs scroll across the screen, each one illuminated green for normal.
And then, he felt it. A tug. An infinitesimal pause. Something was wrong.
On the screen, the program list paused. Luz pushed himself up.
There. In red.
The name blinked twice and then slid to the right side of the screen. The scan started again. All green save for the one, blinking dully off to the side.
Luz pulled the computer tablet close to him, scrolled back through the list of normal programs, looking for the directory of memory files. They were uncorrupted. Normal. He frowned. So were the programs that dictated the sorting and storage of his memory. Luz closed out the diagnostic program and opened up the file of schematics. He couldn’t place the promise command, which bothered him. He thought he knew everything about the way he worked.
As Luz typed, searching for the location of the invisible command, he felt another lag, a paralyzing stillness vibrating through his limbs. He paused, his fingers pressed against the cool screen. He paused and he waited. Nothing happened. Nothing yet. He began to type faster – although his fingers grew stiffer and darkness crowded in at the edge of his thoughts.
The promise command was tied to his memory files, although it was itself separate from them. Separate and older. The installation date was set for five months before he had ever even attained consciousness.
Luz yanked the cord out from his neck and let it drop across the top of the threadbare mattress.
He sat very still on the bed and searched inside of himself, digging through all of his original programming, all of that programming Ursula had installed in him in the bright room two hundred and fifty years ago. And then he found it, a blip in the software, running silent all this time in the background, unobtrusive, like his programs for movement or speech.
Now it was broken.
The first Ursula had worked for one of the cybernetic corporations that grew along the northwestern shore of the United States, in the years before that country splintered and fragmented into non-existence. A memory of her face, lit with white lights and powdery with makeup, was his very first. Later, she had brought him to the little clapboard house surrounded by pine trees. She told him he was special. She told him he was loved.
He accepted this; he had no reason not to.
Ursula was his first experience of death. She did not die of illness but of but old age, the oxygen in the air rusting her body until it could no longer function and she broke down. Unlike the last Ursula, the final Ursula, she’d had a child, a daughter named Alka, who later had a son named Simon, and so on through the years. She left pieces of herself behind, and Luz had followed those pieces -- molecules of Ursula -- as they emigrated down through the desert and into Mexico, where they settled, became hotel clerks and electrical engineers, biologists and hairdressers.
Ursula Lorca was the last of them. The last of the line. Sometimes, in the empty nights, when all the rest of world slept, Luz sat on the dusty floor and recited their names to himself as a form of prayer.
Luz dragged himself off the bed. His feet stumbled on the loose carpet. He shuffled into the bathroom, the sink coated with dust from disuse. He switched on the light and looked at himself in the mirror. The lights cast deep shallows in the sockets of his eyes and highlighted the slick artificiality of his skin.
The edge of his vision wavered. His limbs began to lock up.
“I’m breaking down,” he said. His voice dragged out, ringing with electronic feedback. The sound of it, distorted and unfamiliar, jolted him. He snapped his mouth shut and faltered backwards.
Coronel Ruiz might come looking for him, when he missed work. Because she liked him, she might ask Señora Medina to open the apartment. She might walk through the living room, the bedroom, before finally finding him collapsed in a tangle on the peeling, cracked bathroom tile.
She might. Or she might not.
Luz collapsed on the cold floor. The rusted pipes underneath the sink flickered. He closed his eyes and fell backwards against the wall, his thoughts crusting over, everything slowing down slowing down
I’ve programmed you to make me a promise, Ursula says.
She looks down at him. She’s only just beginning to age: her hair swings heavy and black against the back of her neck, but lines radiate out from the corners of her mouth. A single mote of dust drifts through the oppressive white light cast by the work lamp.
Do you think you can do that? she asks. Keep a promise? There is a teasing lightness to her voice he can’t identify. Her hands reach for the latch at his chest cavity. Another malfunction in the test run. His calculations were machine-perfect, but he is still yet to cross the valley which will allow him to serve his purpose aboard a lightship.
Yes, he says, his voice tinny and mechanical. He considers for a moment. What is the promise?
Ursula smiles. He stares, transfixed by the way her skin stretches out across her face.
That you’ll always love me and my family, she says. That you’ll always care for us.
For a moment, silence wavers between them. He feels the gears of his consciousness clicking into place.
I promise, he says.
Ursula peels the blue latex glove off one hand and smooths his hair back away from his face. She doesn’t say anything. The movement of her hand soothes him.
Alka too, she says. Keep an eye on her for me, after I’ve gone. She smiles again, quickly, just a twitch in the muscles around her mouth. Then her hand drops to her side and she turns away, momentarily disappearing into the haze of light. He can’t move to follow her because she has disabled his spine -- a formality, a requirement from the corporation. She returns with a new glove and a soldering iron.
I only have a few more adjustments to make, she says. Then we’ll be on your way.
Into the stars, he says.
Ursula laughs. No, she says. How can you keep your promise if you’re off-world? That’s one of the things I’m fixing. I had to overwrite some of the standard programming. Didn’t build you from scratch, you know.
He doesn’t say anything. All his short life he’s anticipated his installation on a lightship, which is the unavoidable destiny of all the models in his line. He doesn’t understand why Ursula would claim different.
Ursula crouches down over his abdomen, eyes narrowing in consternation. She mutters to herself. Where are you? Where is that little -- oh! I see the problem now. A lilt of triumph in her voice. Her hands flutter across his circuitry.
Something snaps into place. He can feel it, a minute vibration of electricity. Ursula stands up.
Lovely, she says. She smiles, teeth flashing. The lines around her eyes spread out to her temples.
I think I’ve got it, she says. She stands next to his head and places one gloved hand on his chin. She tilts his face toward her. In the light of the work lamp her eyes are pale and serious. The corners of her mouth turn down. Lines furrow in her brow.
Do you love me? she asks.
And he says yes, because the answer is always yes.