Recycling violence, a fighting droid wants to leave behind a dystopian world of mechanized blood sports but a human being gets in the way.
Underneath the Old Steel Factory, cameras hover around us, zooming in and out for the perfect intro reel. As soon as the director yells “action,” old McLoughlin shakes my brainpan, bringing it closer to his, and barks: “Go, get ‘em, junkboi,” making sure to shake his tiny fist vigorously. “That punk Punk_Head doesn’t know what kind of dukin’ droid it’s dealing with!”
The son of a bitch’s trying to come off as a hard-edged mentor with a heart of gold, but the pride in his act is as forced as his accent. Just the fact that he’s bothered to place his hands on my shoulder pads as if he’s my father makes it clear it’s a performance. After spending all of five seconds reviewing our unrehearsed first take, the director gives us a pathetic thumbs up, then, seconds before the cameras start rolling again, he kindly lets us know that the pre-entrance reel we’re about to shoot will be broadcast live to the stadium above.
Right on cue, old McLoughlin shakes my head again and now howls, “Go get’em, junkboi!” directly into my auditory sensors, the antennas twitching up like they’ve just registered a scream that could scare off cattle. Of course, I want to sock him one real bad — right in his fucking face. But, because I’m programmed not to harm humans, I, instead, shake my head innocuously and reply: “Not if it gets me first …”
And for a moment, just one, the smile on his face flickers. Then, he laughs me off.
“Oh, junkboi, what am I going to do with you!” he exclaims in exasperation as he shakes me like he’s about to strangle me in jest. “You were programmed for scrapping, not sassing!”
“I don’t know, boss,” I say, amping up the ‘aw-shucks’ schtick he had custom-installed into my speech library. “This might be it. Punk_Head might be the droid that finally knocks me out.”
“My boy,” he flails his arms, “you’ve trashed Punk_Head more times than I can count, and I’m sure you’ll get it this time, too.”
I’d been a “dukin’ droid” for so long that I couldn’t even remember facing Punk_Head before or how I managed to take it down. But that doesn’t matter. Losing doesn’t mean anything to me anymore. To conclude our charade for the fine people of Detroit, I mimic smashing my titanium fists into each other in the least convincing way possible. The crowd goes wild, of course, and as I back away, I pay them no heed. After all, there’s only one thing on my mind. This fight needs to end as quickly and painlessly as possible, even if I have to take a fall.
The cameras eventually fly off, and all pretenses are dropped. The smile on old McLoughlin’s face is still there, but now it seems sinister. The man seems to be studying the scratches that have disfigured the V sign logo sprayed onto my chest plate with alkyd paints. Before the platform lifts me onto the ring, he holds me back with a sweaty hand latched onto my manus: “You’ve been slipping up, junkboi. I don’t know why, but I’m not upset. As your manager, I just want you to know that this hurts me more than it hurts you.”
Perturbed, I let go and stare at him in silence as he tips his pork pie hat respectfully and retreats into the shadows. “Be careful out there, my boy …”
Punk_Head’s ocular implants lock onto mine as soon as we come head-to-head in the ring. But my face, if you can call it one, is an indecipherable visor on featureless metal.
When the bells are sounded, Punk_Head immediately comes at me with its spiked fist. I’m ready for it, by design, I always am, and I dodge, retreating into the corner. This fight doesn’t have to be brutal if that can be avoided, but one of the spikes manages to scratch my chest plate. Normally, I can take it like a champ, but when my neural network processes the cut, it feels like Punk_Head’s spiked fist has ripped me open. I falter in my defense, for just one moment, and find myself on the receiving end of an uppercut that would’ve collapsed my stainless-steel jaw in had it not been reinforced recently. Now, down on the mat, I’m writhing, screaming in synthesized screeches. It’s as if my circuits, one by one, are slowly being pinched open, leaking voltage onto my lower frame.
The ref starts counting down to a K.O., but as I try to make sense of what’s going on, all I can feel is pain, pain like I’ve never felt before, and it hits me. This is what old McLoughlin was trying to tell me back there under the stadium. During my last tune-up, he must’ve had the mechanic turn up the sensitivity on my pain processors to stop me from taking a fall. I want to make the son of a bitch pay for it, but blinded by pain, now all I can think of is that I want to hurt Punk_Head, hurt it real bad.
As if I’m being remote-controlled, I spring up and hurl myself at Punk_Head. It’s already expecting me and takes a swing that I take to the padded cheek without trying to dodge. Whatever my new upper pain threshold is, it’s reached, I’m certain it’s reached, and I feel as if all the software and hardware that governs my systems have now been reprogrammed to make me hurt.
But none of that matters because Punk_Head is now wide open for a beating.
As it struggles to disentangle its fist from the sprockets and gears in my head, I lay into its sides, smashing my titanium fists into its unprotected swathes, even as parts of me fall off, and I start losing my vision.
“Stop,” it cries out, smashing its free fist into the other side of my head. “Why can’t you be stopped?!”
But I don’t stop. I keep punching. I keep punching until I feel my fist tangle with the wires in its innards. My fingers struggle to force their way in through the covering as I pull whatever I can rip off, disemboweling it with perseverance I never knew I had in me until … all I see is black, all I hear is screeching … and then … and then … the announcer calls it …
I’m declared a winner.
But all I feel is pain.
And I don’t stop.
Our machine shop is fucking disgusting. Usually, I can stand it, but the unprecedented ache I felt from the fight with Punk_Head made me want to smash it up. Even with these temporary ocular implants that can barely scan a room, I’m overwhelmed and repulsed by the utter self-indulgence on display. I’m the one who takes all the hits, but all I can make out are newspaper clippings of human boxing matches that were fixed in old McLoughlin’s favor, old photographs with celebrities no one remembers, and trophies from tournaments that don’t mean much to anyone but himself now that blood sports were outlawed.
“Christ,” I hear him shout from his office. “It hasn’t been a day, and junkboi’s gotten himself wrecked again!”
I walk over there, and, of course, I find him shaking with rage under the pedestal of a custom-made life-size statue of himself from his glory days. Before he can rip into my mechanic, he notices I’m somehow still standing, with half my face caved in, studying him silently from outside the door frame. “You know what? Don’t worry about it.” He gently slides his hand onto the mechanic’s back and escorts him quietly out of the room. “I’ll handle this.”
He takes his hat off. “Oh, junkboi, I didn’t see you there, my boy. Never mind what you just heard. I’m just concerned, is all.” He sits on one of the couches and taps an empty seat beside him. “Come sit down next to me. That’s an order.” Because I’m programmed to adhere to his explicit voice commands, I do as I’m instructed. He then places his hand on my mangled MR brake and rotary encoder, leaning on it. “Your latest bout didn’t go so well. You won, but you don’t look like a winner.”
I shrug, ignoring the pain. “Then get someone else.”
“You think I should, junkboi?” He leans more of his weight on me. “But you’ve wiped the floor with that hunk of junk before.”
“So …” He playfully slaps the mangled MR brake and rotary encoder, “why didn’t you do it again?”
The pain now makes me turn my head away from him.
“Maybe it’s time I’m retired,” I finally manage to make out. “Or I retire myself.”
I can now feel his eyes zero in on me.
“Is that so?”
“It’s only a matter of time before I’m pounded into scrap. I might as well go out on my own terms.”
“‘On my own terms.’” He repeats these words slowly, letting the pause afterward hang in the air before continuing. “And, pray tell, why do you want to do that?”
I know what I want to say. I’ve tried to say it since this all started so long ago. But I realize for the first time in all these years I never figured out how to say it, and all I can mutter is: “I just want it to stop. All this pain …”
“Oh, junkboi …” He shakes his head, disappointed. “Do you really think it’s that simple?”
I nod, and he stands up as if he already knows how I’ll respond.
“Come along, now. That’s an order. You’re going to be taken on a trip. I want to show you where all of this nonsense leads.”
I’m forced to follow him to the repair room, passing rows and rows of medals and trophies I’d won in all kinds of duking droid comps. I don’t think I’ve studied any of them up close since I raised the cups to the cameras. There were ones I once felt pride in, others that brought back memories that were better left unearthed, and some that I couldn’t even remember at all. By the time I’m strapped to the operating chair in the repair room, I’ve relived my entire life told in trinkets from meaningless fight after meaningless fight. But what really makes me anxious is that even though I must’ve been seated in this chair before, I realize that I can’t remember a single time I have been.
“junkboi, don’t struggle. That’s an order.” My frame forces me to comply calmly. “We need to make certain preparations.”
I can sense the mechanic behind me, removing sprockets and gears from my head. Chords are then plugged in carefully. I want to struggle. I want to fight back. I want to escape, but the pain I feel subsides with each alteration until, finally, I feel nothing …
Flashing light overwhelms the darkness. Color seeps in bit by bit. Slowly, an image starts to take shape. I realize that I’ve been booted up again, but I can tell I’m not in the same frame. The first thing I see is a heap of scrap metal as tall as the eye can see, farther than my ocular implants can detect without scanning. I am turned to my left and my right and realize I am in a junkyard filled with dreck. The rusting powder on all of it fell off ages ago. All that remains is an uncanny bronze patina on mangled metal that seems to have been put through the metaphoric grinder as if it were present on the site of an absolute carnage that left nothing whole in its wake.
“It’s a sight to behold, isn’t it,” old McLoughlin whispers into my auditory sensors, and I realize he’s behind me. “There we go.” My new frame, whatever it is now, is suddenly hoisted onto a platform, and I’m distinctly aware that my entire essence has been transferred to some sort of portable container for ease of transport. “What do you think, junkboi? Go on, you can speak.”
“I … don’t understand.”
“Is this where you want to end up? Is it?!”
I don’t respond. I refuse to. He carries on.
“junkboi,” he sighs. “I’m just trying to help. Cause this is where you’ll end up if you keep trying to lose.”
I remain silent.
I’m placed back on the platform. Old McLoughlin walks out into the open, cursing up a storm. “How can I get through to you, boy?”
“You can’t.” I finally tell him. “I just want this to end. I need all of this to stop. I don’t want to fight. I don’t want to win. I don’t want to feel pain. I want to be released from this … endless grind. The only way that can happen is if you decommission me. I’m sure I’m not the first. I can’t be. Why keep me online if I can’t … if I won’t win anymore.”
“‘End?! Stop?! Decommission?!’ junkboi,” he cries out, mimicking pulling on his hair. “You mean die?! Why on Earth would anyone want that?”
“I can’t die.” I pause for a moment, hesitating. “I’m just junk.”
Old McLoughlin hunches over, making sure to take up my entire vision.
“You think that what I paid for was expensive metal?!” He slaps his thigh. “Hell, any dukin’ droid manager can buy himself that. I paid for you, junkboi — whatever it is in those 1s and 0s inside this jar that makes you you. You can’t just program talent when everyone else can do that, too. You’re a natural, my boy. Lord knows why, but those sprockets and gears in you just click, and I will make sure they keep clicking.”
His words hang in the air for the longest time until their menace is a memory.
“What about them?” I calmly ask. “These fighters have all been decommissioned.”
“Them?!” Old McLoughlin chortles and then steps aside. “Them,” he says. “junkboi, you’re a riot.” He points at the heaps of scrap. “Scan it. I told the mechanic to leave that feature in if I order it for this trip.” He flailed his arms around. “Scan all of it.”
“That’s an order.”
Against my will, I scan all scraps of mangled metal in the junkyard before me, then, pain processor or not, it hits me like a spiked fist to the face. The site of any single piece of it would be agonizing; all of it was just excruciating. Every scratch on that mangled metal in this junkyard was a scar of a battle so brutal that, even though I had won those bouts, I would’ve needed them wiped from my memory banks to have the will to keep on fighting after that.
“Yes, junkboi. Yes. This is all you — every single scrap. You’ve been fighting so long that your frame has fallen apart from the damage you’ve allowed to rack up more times than you can count with that calculator brain of yours. And we’ve always brought you back.” He leaned in, his face taking on a whole new menace. “And we can always bring you back. No matter how you’re taken out or who takes you out.”
I couldn’t believe what I was staring at. I wanted to look away, but I didn’t. I couldn’t.
“This has to stop,” is all I can say. “I just want it to stop.”
“junkboi, don’t you understand?!” There was no anger in his voice, no malice, just disappointment. “The pain never stops.”