Pretending to be human always proved difficult for Wesley, no matter how often he had to do it.
Of course, nobody in the upper echelons was truly human anymore. Augmentation and redesign were the most lucrative markets, and everybody took advantage of summer sales on new limbs, sharper eyes and, of course, weaponized add-ons. To some extent, Wesley couldn’t blame them; the city was getting more dangerous as desperation rose in the face of the new mayor. He had given jobs to AI in order to save a dime for his important corporate backers, and the workers of Sodoria felt the strain.
Too bad it wasn’t the poorest of the city that could utilize new weapons to defend themselves. The imbalance between the two made it too easy for the richest of Sodoria to decide the fate of the poorest. Illicit markets were growing, and so were the population in the cellblocks.
As an AI, himself, Wesley was relegated to working and rebooting. If authorities knew what he was doing, they would disassemble and reprogram him before the morning. He couldn’t risk losing the empathy glitch in his most recent upgrade—having a purpose was almost addictive.
Wesley pulled the scarf and hat around his screen, covering everything but the space for his eyes, which he projected to look like any augmented eyes of the crowd. He moved slowly as to not draw attention to himself, avoiding making eye contact for too long. There was a jolt in his circuits as he made his way to the markets. The bright, neon screens advertising the newest models in augmentations or the newest smart device for the home lit up the nighttime pavilion, casting hues of pink or blue or green across the throngs of people. The hum of voices and movement echoed around him as the people, in their nicest clothes with their expensive jewelry and prosthetics, haggled for new parts or replacements, for fresh vegetables and fruits, for thick cuts of meat or for much-needed medicine. He placed his hand in his pocket, finding the parts he had taken from his shift in the AI hardware development sector.
He slid up to a usual customer; a thin man named Tess that never asked too many questions. Tess knew two things—that his clients needed their augmented limbs re-tightened and that they didn’t want the usual cheap materials that made up the commercial-grade quality. They desired government quality parts, but these were scarce unless you paid exorbitant prices or, as in Tess’s case, knew somebody who could sell it at a discount.
“What you got today, Wes?” Tess asked, looking down at his tools as he readied them for the next client.
“Six titanium bolts, ready to go.”
“They aren’t categorized, eh?”
“Have I ever sold you categorized parts?” Wesley asked. “My contact and I would be in deep trouble if that happened.”
“Don’t know how you do it,” Tess said, not looking up at Wesley. “Don’t want to know how you do it, either. Your price is reasonable. Seven trendles still okay?”
“Still the going rate for this kind of haul, yes.”
“Great,” Tess said, wiping his brow and finally looking out of the side of his eye at Wesley. “You make a lot of clients happy, Wes. Lot of clients.”
“What can I say,” Wesley said, trying to keep the disdain he felt for Tess’s clients out of his voice, “I aim to please.”
Once Wesley sold his wares, it was time for him to gather supplies. He went from booth to booth, grabbing whatever he could afford—berries, a couple pounds of ham, fresh tomatoes, a few yards of canvas cloth, thread, needles and antibiotics. He gathered everything in his black backpack and walked out of the pavilion, into an alley when his sensors picked up another presence close by. He tried to see behind him, but he wrapped his scarf too snuggly around his screen to switch to a clear rear imaging. instead, he picked up his pace. There was a sudden scuffle of footsteps following his path. He repressed a groan, needing an empty space to activate a wormhole back to the Grind.
He turned into another alley. The footsteps followed. He took another turn. The footsteps turned with him. He felt his circuits jolt again as he wondered if this would be the day that they would reprogram him. Too many people were depending on him now, he couldn’t risk it.
Wesley was about to turn another corner when a hand reached out and grabbed his arm, pulling him to the side of the alley against the wall.
“Shut it, bot,” a young voice hissed, “they’re close by.”
Wesley was at a loss. This person knew what he was, but, judging by his rigid posture and the way he pushed Wesley down into the shadows of refuse and boxes, he didn’t seem interested in turning him in.
Wesley heard more footsteps coming down the alley, and then voices murmuring.
“Hey, kid,” somebody said, “you didn’t see anything abnormal going on, did you?”
“Like what?” his apparent accomplice asked.
“Like somebody carrying a bunch of goods down these alleys?”
“I saw tons of people doing that, yeah.”
“Come on, kid, you know good and well there’ve been a string of smuggled goods being distributed to the Grind. We need to know who’s doing it. You don’t want your family to struggle as much as those people do, right? Where is the guy?”
“I told you, I seen a bunch of people walking around here. There’s not a thing wrong with taking the alleys to get home. Crimes are happening in the streets, maybe these are the safest places.”
There was a frustrated grumble and a short “Come on,” before the footsteps turned back around and left.
After a few moments had passed, the boy grabbed Wesley by the shoulder and lifted him up. Wesley grabbed his backpack and got a good look at the kid. Judging by the lack of augmentation, he couldn’t be over 15 years old, with shaggy brown hair and green eyes. He was a lean kid, but Wesley could tell he was putting on some muscle in that awkward, teenage boy phase humans went through.
“Thanks,” Wesley said. “But why—”
“I’ve seen you around here. You take food and supplies somewhere by creating some sort of passage.”
“Okay?” Wesley said, unsure of whether he should confirm or deny the boy’s accusation.
“Look, I have a friend in the Grind and her dad is sick. He has some sort of infection in his lungs. He needs antibiotics. Do you have any?”
“I do,” Wesley said. “What’s his name?”
“Don’t know. I just know hers—Greta Pim. Goes by Grim. She lives somewhere in the southeast sector. She’s always hanging around the market area to find things for her family. If you can help her, I promise to keep an eye out for you like I did tonight.”
“I see,” Wesley said. “And your name is?”
“Just call me Eternity. I don’t want to give you my real name. For obvious reasons.”
“Of course,” Wesley said. “Well, look, Eternity, if you want to help me, then you have to be ready for a lot of dangerous situations. You’re a kid—”
“I’m 14,” Eternity said, balling his fists and scowling.
“Right. A kid,” Wesley repeated.
“And you’re an AI. How ready for danger are you? I get sent to a cell for a bit if I get caught. You get reprogrammed.”
Wesley let this compute for a moment. “Fair point. Look, if you want to help, meet me at the entrance to the pavilion at six thirty.”
“Deal. Now get that stuff to Grim. She needs it bad.”
“How do you know this person,” Wesley asked, curiosity tickling his circuits.
“I just know her, okay. Get her that stuff, time’s getting short.”
With that, Eternity ran off down the alley and around the corner.
Wesley watched where the child had disappeared for a moment and then shook his head. Something told him he didn’t want to get involved in this. A creeping sensation that suggested this was bigger than just a sick father. However, helping the residents of the Grind was what he did. Without another moment’s hesitation, he pulled out a small disk from his backpack. He twisted the top of the disk and pressed the center button. On the wall across from him, a silver portal appeared. He took a quick look, grabbed the disk on the ground and stepped through the W0rmh0le to deliver the goods to the waiting masses.