Steel Defender is Book 2 in the Rusted Wasteland series. I’m excited to share Block’s next adventure with you! Click here to start reading.
Block enjoyed a gritty, grimy baseboard. The point where floor met wall collected the most dust and filth, especially when the dirt-encrusted boots of soldiers were constantly stomping around. Black sediment collected in the crevices and cracks—remnants of shoe grease, soil, glass bits, and sharp pebbles. Though baseboards were often overlooked, Block made sure to keep them clean. He ran the edge of his mop along the corridor in the neglected former elementary school that now served as Hemlock’s command station.
Block tried his best to keep the olive green linoleum floors polished, but it was tough. Nova had told him to stay out of their way—out of everybody’s way—which was challenging because men and women came in and out of the gymnasium at all times of the day. At first, the human soldiers had been frightened of Block’s presence, recoiling from him or casting narrow-eyed looks while muttering slurs. They called him things like rust bucket, scrapper, and sheetmetal. Those were the nicer names.
Until one day Nova gathered them all together and told them Block was a friendly robot, that she vouched for him, and that he’d saved her life. Nova was Shane’s girlfriend, so they looked up to her. They had to. Shane was in charge of the Hemlock survivor camp.
The soldiers were actually soldiers-in-training, people who had survived the SoldierBot raids on cities. Any women and men in decent shape between the ages of sixteen and sixty-five trained for combat and defense. There was no choice after the AI Uprising.
The troops relaxed a bit after her speech. They stared Block down and smirked. The name calling didn’t stop, but they were less obvious about it. And then, after a few weeks of such treatment, they’d let their guard down and just ignored him. That was fine with Block. He didn’t like to be the center of attention anyway.
Sunlight filtered in and cast a speckled glare on a yellowing concrete wall. Dust motes drifted through the air, rendered brilliant in the sunbeam’s arc.
“That won’t do.” He whipped out his vacuum extension—a long hose through which he sucked in particles that fed into his microbial fuel cell chamber. There, his digestive enzymes devoured dirt, grime, oils, and petroleum, fueling his mechanical body. Block strolled forward, still unsteady on his modified feet. He’d lost his original sole, heel, and ankle parts three months ago when Cybel Venatrix had fired upon his legs. That had been the second worst day of his life.
Strangely—and Block had thought about this many times—it had also been the second best day of his life because Wally and Nova had been kept safe. Alive. That a day could be both awful and joyful didn’t compute in his logic module. He couldn’t explain it, and there were no other robots around to discuss it with.
He walked down the narrow corridor, noting the sagging ceiling tiles—very grimy! He added them to his cleaning checklist for later. Extending the mouth of the vacuum before him, he sucked in dust, weaving the hose back and forth as if conducting an orchestra. The floating specks first spread, then clustered together as if finding protection in staying close to one another. Block was like a dust predator, sucking them in, feasting on them.
He supposed there was something interesting in this chain of events. A lot of skin particles fell off of humans—over a million cells every day. He sucked in their leavings and used the human bits to feed himself. Nothing was wasted. He was helping, in his way, even if nobody realized it.
A gruff voice came from behind. “Move it.”
Block had stepped into the middle of the hallway, lost in the frenzy of dust collection. He spun quickly and was nearly knocked over as Shane brushed past him.
If Block could physically cringe, he would have. Shane was the one person Nova had especially warned him to steer clear of. Block backed against the wall, pointing his vacuum tube down. He even turned the suction off.
Nova walked a few feet behind Shane and lingered after he kept going. She held a thermos in her hand from which little wisps of steam rose. “Hey, Block,” she said, half smiling.
“Hi. I tried to stay out of his way, but he came upon me so fast.”
“I know. He’s just…” She sighed, arched her head back, then rolled it around on her neck. Block had only seen her do that when she was exhausted.
“Are you having trouble sleeping again?”
“You could come by this evening, and I’ll help if you would like.” When he’d worked at The Drake hotel in Chicago, Block had learned to manipulate certain pressure points that helped people relax. He hadn’t been allowed to practice on the hotel guests, but he’d helped the human employees often. Twice before, he’d helped Nova fall asleep by pressing points on her spine and neck.
She looked sideways in the direction Shane had gone. “I don’t think that’s such a good idea right now.” She sipped her hot drink and strode toward the gymnasium.
“Okay.” Block tucked away his vacuum hose, grasped the handle of the broom, and started pushing it along the baseboard edges. Then he stopped, remembering something. “Nova?”
She turned back.
In his second to lowest voice setting, barely audible, he asked, “May I visit?”
She frowned. “Also not a good idea.” She moved closer, confiding in him. “Shane’s been in a foul mood. Things aren’t going well. Now isn’t a great time.”
Block had only visited Wally twice in the five months he’d been at the Hemlock camp in Colorado. The child was in good care. That much he knew. She lived with a woman named Helen who had lost her young son in the fighting between AI and humans. But Shane didn’t like Block to have any interaction with Wally. Nova had explained that, according to Shane, a robot and human relationship was unnatural. Shane—and most humans—harbored resentment and fear against robots since the supercomputer Mach X had overtaken the world’s computer systems, caused the AI Uprising, and declared war on humans.
The humans had reason to be suspicious. After the Uprising, many robots had become unpredictable. He’d witnessed SoldierBots execute his former boss and fifty hotel guests.
Still, not all robots were dangerous.
Block hung his head and pushed the mop a few inches. He stepped forward, his cobbled-together soles awkwardly clanking against the linoleum. Nova had welded them herself from scavenged metal from rust-speckled pupil desks, claiming they were temporary until they could find stronger material.
A tattered old bulletin board hung on the wall. The red construction paper background had faded to a dull pink. Most of the children’s decorations had been torn down, but one remained: a child’s handprint, stamped in yellow paint. Block paused and stared at it, then reached out his hand and placed his steel digits on top. His was much larger than the small child’s print, of course.
He wished there were more tiny humans around. They weren’t as frightened of him as the adults.
“Jesus,” Nova said behind him.
He began mopping, but she came over and touched his arm. “Five minutes,” she whispered. “But we have to be quick and avoid anyone seeing us.”
Five minutes with Wally didn’t seem like much at all, but he could play back the memory as often as he wanted. Maybe if he was quiet and polite, Nova could finally convince Shane to let him spend time with Wally. Humans changed their views on occasion. It was rare, but it happened.
But would Shane ever believe that robots and humans could be friends?
END OF EXCERPT
If you haven’t read Book 1 yet, here is the link to buy Steel Guardian.