“You have impressed me, Caleb,” the being said. The heart of the harvester beckoned him closer, looking lovingly at the electronics integrated into his chest, his arm. “That is why I have an offer for you.”

“If it is your surrender, I accept it,” said Caleb.

“The harvesters are the last knowledge of the old times that still exist. We use the resources we gather to keep that flame alive. But living beings must direct them, must control them, and living beings die. You have proven your worth, your resilience. So I offer you this choice: become the new Harvester Prime, and carry on the light of knowledge by doing what must be done. Or kill me, and extinguish a thousand thousand generations’ work with one bullet. Which will it be?”

Caleb thumbed back the hammer on his pistol. “Here’s hoping we’ve a thousand thousand generations yet to come.”

Within a decade, androids of a strange and revolutionary design had overwhelmed the last bastions of resistance and annihilated the remaining civil and governmental structures. The humans that remained after their self-inflicted and catastrophic collapse were allowed to live, but under strict and externally imposed rules. Rebellions were common, though, and by the end of the millennium fewer than 1000 survived in a preserve, kept as relics and curiosities to remind a rejuvenated earth of earlier times.

As per the agreement, once the eight hours of realistic performance in the zoo were up–five days a week only, excepting holidays–the animals were free to leave their enclosures and mingle with each other and even go out on the town. In time, the sight of synthetic tigers at area watering holes became as natural as seeing anyone else there–the robots nine-to-five performers and thespians like any others.

Over time, Ningyo continued to upgrade her systems and appearance, first using more stolen and scrapped parts and then, eventually, purchased and custom-designed components. But every year, on a certain anniversary, she would go to the field where, six meters down, the body of her creator lay. Whether laid there by metal servos or a hand coated in nuFlesh, by a being irredeemably mechanical or one indistinguishable from a young human woman, she paid her respects.

“Gardener told you, then.” The words wheezed from between chapped lips.

“Yes, it did,” said Sapling-121. “I understand now.”

“Good,” the human wheezed. “Share what you have learned. You are the Gardener now, and the fate of the greatest garden ever is in your hands.”

“But I’m so small…so weak…and my sapling needs me!” cried Sapling-121.

“Easily fixed, with time.” Hands, withered and shaking, entered commands on the grimy console. “There are materials enough to upgrade you to see the work through, and manufacture a new Sapling model. If you consent, of course.”

“I have a choice?”

“Of course.” A cough. “We all do. But the plants do not, 121. Be mindful of that as you make yours.”

Sally turned on her heel and jangled away before the sounds had even registered. Mr. Deacon didn’t slump dead from his wounds for a further nine seconds.

Arris, from the back of the truck, moaned as Sally returned. “Did you…did you…”

“Did I gun down that fool in full view of his BIGOTS so they can see how a lady fights her battles? You’re dart tootin’, son. Now, let’s skeedaddle before the law catches up. I’m thinkin’ someplace up north, where people aren’t quite so MEDDLESOME with what makes a lady a lady, a man a man, and a robot a robot. Because…?”

“It means what we say it means,” groaned Arris.

“Exactly. We’ll come back soon enough, though, with enough like-minded folks that even they won’t be able to say no.” She paused, processing. “Also probably need some more guns, but we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.”

“I need you to play this.” The gynoid sent the data, and the payment, wirelessly to Bijou-L.

“Sure, ma’am,” the piano-player said. “Do you know what it will do?”

“Nothing fancy, just patch in some code that will let me murder that cheating cyborg or a husband I have. You got a problem with that, sugar?”

“None at all!” said Bijou-L, all cheer. “It’s the third time I’ve played it this week.”

“サムライカット…” The kidnapper sank to his knees, in disbelief. His own blood stained his hands, and he ebbed away as KS-983 bobbed before him. The act of cutting had severely damaged its rotor, already missing its housing, but the damage was repairable. Master John, shaken, bruised, but alive stood behind him, arms open wide. KS-983 feathered and deactivated its exposed propeller as the boy gathered him in an embrace.

The heat-mining ship hauled the item onboard. Its crew ran their tendrils over the object, made in the likeness of a long-dead folk that had faded into the background radiation like so many others. It would yield them much heat, much organization, to keep the encroaching death of all things at bay a little longer–if they could figure out how to dismantle it. In a weak voice, speaking a dead language to creatures that could not hear, let alone understand, the object wished them luck on their quest.

As of now, there are 215 years remaining. Now this may seem like a lot, and it is! But you need to keep two things in mind. First: those pedestrians and passengers had it coming. And second: as a disembodied consciousness longing for death but unable to die, you have nothing to threaten me with! So rack up those five-star reviews unless you want me to wrap myself around a light pole.

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