If there was one appropriate word to describe The Grind, it was ‘dismal.’ Whereas the market pavilion was lit with the brilliance of screens and shops, The Grind did not host the vast array of hues from advertisements and businesses. Its central market comprised of hagglers and hustlers in dirty drab clothes on dirty brown streets. It replaced the awe and excitement that filled the air around the clientele of the pavilion with desperation and gloom. This was home to the hardest hit workers of Sodoria.
When he first started coming to The Grind, Wesley was certain there would be no shortage of anti-AI sentiments, as AIs were the ones replacing the jobs. He had made certain to cover himself even more than he did at the pavilion, only allowing a narrow slot for his eyes. As time went on, he noticed some AIs were sneaking out to take a stroll around The Grind and absolutely nobody cared to say anything. Soon, he learned that he could remove his disguise and wander around freely - his blue, black, and white screen offering a warm glow in the icy darkness.
Wesley approached the central market, watching the weary faces of its clientele warm ever so slightly at the sight of him and his bag.
“What’s it today, Wes?” an older woman asked.
“I have some bread, some strawberries, cucumbers, tomatoes, and fish. I also have some antibiotics. Give me just one moment to separate everything.”
The crowd gathering took a step back, waiting patiently as they always did. Wesley’s donations commanded respect for his process and he ripped and cut into the goods, making small meals for as many people as he could feed.
“Okay,” he said, when he finished his pikes, “one at a time, please.”
The residents of The Grind obliged, forming a line and taking the goods from Wesley. He handed out the items, offering antibiotics to those that needed them, keeping one packet to the side for his promised delivery to Grim.
When nearly all the residents present were obliged and the rest were profusely apologized to, Wesley spoke to some people separately as they went back to bartering and buying.
“Excuse me, sir,” he said to an old man that stopped to inspect a worn-down pair of shoes, “I’m looking for somebody that goes by Grim. Have you heard of her?”
“A little,” the man said. “Don’t know much other than she has some contact at the pavilion and tries to sell items for medicine. I’ve never seen her, though.”
Wesley nodded, looking around the market, his screen dimming a little. The task he agreed to do for Eternity was becoming more daunting by the minute.
“Excuse me, madam,” he said to a young woman. “Do you know of a girl named Grim that sells items from the pavilion?”
“Never met her,” the woman said, picking up the crumbling wooden handle of a shovel. “But most people that have pavilion items tend to congregate on the north end of the market. That’s where the serious buyers are.”
“Thanks,” Wesley said. “That’s helpful.”
He worked his way through the crowd, making his way to the north end. He thought about what Eternity had told him. If Grim worked at the north end of the market and lived in the southeast sector of The Grind, that was a very long walk with goods that were in outrageous demand in a very rough area. No doubt the person he was looking for would be prepared for such a trip.
As Wesley came closer to the north end of the market, the surrounding air seemed thicker - stifled. People eyed the area nervously as they bartered over stolen goods and contraband items. There was a hush of secrecy in their dealings that weighed down the area like a lead sheet. Wesley’s circuits ticked with the nervousness that buzzed in the air like the surrounding flies. This was an area that could get many people arrested should there be a raid soon.
He stopped at a few sellers to inquire about Grim. Even though he was an AI breaking the rules, the residents here were more tight-lipped and reserved about the information they gave. “I don’t think you’re bad apples,” one braver resident said, “but I also don’t know that you aren’t some new Sodorian Army AI that’s busting people who give you too much information. Sorry.”
Wesley continued his search in vain. He had never been to this area of the market and wasn’t as trusted as he was in the south end. He was just about to leave when he heard a conversation close by that triggered his sensors.
“C’mon, Grim, you know my family needs to eat!”
“I’m not in this for charity, Anders. The price for this pomegranate is two vials of antibiotics - period. Try trading your piece of fish elsewhere for something less luxurious. Don’t play games with me.”
Wesley turned to see the person at the stand, selling fruit that was never seen in The Grind. She didn’t appear to be much older than Eternity with long black hair and crystal blue eyes. She was tall and thin and wore a torn dress that fell over her in a shapeless form, highlighting her thin limbs.
Anders, a tall man with red hair and a scraggly beard, huffed and w alked away. Wesley walked up to Grim’s booth and waited patiently for her to acknowledge him. She was currently rearranging the fruit on the stand, putting it in an order on the display that made sense only to her. Wesley had to admit, the display was eye catching, with deep burgundies of pomegranates, furry browns of kiwis and light greens of melons scattered in what looked like a collage of color and shape.
“If you’re coming to waste my time with anything but antibiotics, you can just leave,” she said over her shoulder, not bothering to look at Wesley, “I don’t want anything else.”
“I came to offer you exactly that,” Wesley said.
Grim looked up at him, her eyes widening. “You’re a bot,” she said, as though the information was news to Wesley.
“Indeed. As such, I have no use for your fruit,” he said, handing her the packet of pills. “Please consider this a gift at the request of a young man named Eternity.”
“Eternity,” Grim said, her face brightening a little. “You saw him? Is he still okay?”
“He hasn’t been arrested yet, it seems,” Wesley said. “Unfortunately, he seems a bit secretive, so that’s all I know about him.”
“Right. Good,” Grim said, nodding. “Well, thanks. I’m just about ready to pack up for the evening, so…”
“Would you mind the company if I walked you home? Eternity mentioned you live on the other side of the area and I know it gets dangerous here.”
“Well, I don’t really like company. Besides, I can hold my own.”
“I’m sure. But you do seem to have a lot of antibiotics. It’d be terrible if tonight were the night you lose them. Especially with the risk people take to get them this far. I’m certain they aren’t easy to come by.”
Grim considered this for a moment and then sighed. “Yeah, I guess you’re right. Okay, Bot, you can come with me tonight. But there are some things at home that I would appreciate you keeping to yourself when you see them. I’d hate to have to have you reprogrammed.”
“Understood,” he said. “And it’s Wesley, by the way. You can call me Wesley.”
“Well, Wesley,” Grim said, grabbing a worn wooden wagon, “you can start by helping me pack up this stuff so we can wheel it home.”
While Wesley packed, Grim counted the packets of antibiotics carefully. “Good,” she said, “this is another week’s worth.”
“What’s wrong with your father?”
“Some sort of chest infection that he can’t shake. It’s causing a lot of trouble for some…projects…that we have going on. I’ve got to get him back in shape as soon as I can.”
There was a conspiratorial tone to the word ‘projects’ when she said it. Wesley knew that there was more to Grim’s father than just a sickly old man.
“Well. Everything is packed. Care to lead the way?”
Grim placed the antibiotics into a pocket of her torn dress and grabbed the handle of the wagon. “Follow me.”
Wesley did so, taking a step into a destiny that, even with his technical marvel and abilities, he could have never foreseen.