Joey stepped around the pulse trees, lifting her hair away from the back of her neck for a moment. Behind her, Thea crashed through the underbrush, servos whining to push it forward. Joey watched the large quadrupedal machine catch up to her, and then cock its head. She knew it was a result of a worn bearing in its neck, but found the affectation endearing all the same.
“Not long now,” she said, “Just back through that damn mud.”
It had rained a couple nights before, and hard, washing away part of the dirt packed path. There was almost a perfectly straight demarcation where a rivulet of runoff water had passed. Dust and then sludge. She dropped one filth-caked boot into the muck and then the other. There was an unpleasant sucking sensation with every step. Thea had a harder time of it, the heavy coil it carried pushing it in deeper. Joey walked slowly, pursing her lips. The familiar pitch of Thea’s motors had raised an octave or two. There was little she could do about it. This was the path.
Just over halfway through the ground slurry, Joey heard a loud metallic ping and flinched. It was a sound that she’d come to dread. Thea toppled into the mud, beeping as soon as its center of gravity was misaligned. Joey squished back over to take a look, too tired to give voice to her epithets.
The front left actuator had popped. Again. Ever since the original had blown out a year ago, she’d gone through three replacements. Not one breakdown in ten years and then all at once. The problem was Hab Threes shitty printers. Even when she’d sent over her own schematics, there was no accounting for inferior materials.
Hands slipping in the mud, Joey leaned down and set her shoulder to the underside of Thea’s chassis. With a grunt she pushed herself upward and they limped forward together. Each step was a strain on Joey’s back, and a sharp edge dug into her collarbone painfully.
Finally they made it back to the main road and Joey collapsed onto her back, panting and covered in drying mud. Thea stood unsteadily on three legs, its fourth tucked up against its body.
Joey heard a voice from down the road. “Hey Jojo!” She lifted her head to see Henning jogging towards her. Behind him, Tex moved silently, the discharged coil it carried hardly bobbing at all. “What’s wrong? Its leg go again?”
Joey sat up, and braced for the argument she knew was coming “Yeah.”
They looked at each other, silent save for the wind pushing through the pulse trees and the humming of Thea’s micro-adjustments to stay upright. Joey would wait as long as it took, and Henning knew that. He broke the standoff early.
“I know,” Joey said.
“Why is it such a problem?”
“I like Thea. I know how it works.”
“It’s not working very well right now,” he said. Joey scowled at him, and Henning went on before she could respond. “And don’t be blaming Hab Three for this again. It’s not up to them to keep making custom parts for an antique.”
“Okay then. I don’t blame anyone. It just happened and I’ll fix it before the next run.”
“What? Why do you care what platform I use? What’s it to you?” She felt the words sting her tongue on the way out. She was tired and frustrated.
“You are being absurd,” Henning snapped back, “Even if I didn’t care about you, I care about the network. One node goes down and—”
“I’m very aware.”
“Are you? Because I think if you were, you’d be a little more concerned about making sure that piece of shit doesn’t shatter a coil on the ground and leave us to hoping the emerge team can get there fast enough.”
Joey didn’t say anything, but she did get to her feet. Henning took a step back and ran his hand through his hair.
“Listen, I’m sorry. Just…if it’s a money thing, I could—”
“It’s not a money thing,” Joey said.
“You are so frustrating! What is it then?”
“We shouldn’t have to pay for them at all.”
“Sure, but we do. Get ov—” He cut himself off. “Whatever. I tried.” He strode away, Tex gliding after him. Its polished head tracked her as it passed, reflecting the afternoon sun. She watched them go, and then looked over Thea. Its yellow paint was brittle and flaking off, dented from a decade’s worth of misadventure. She laid her hand on its tilted head.
“Let’s get you back to the shop.”
Six weeks later something else broke. Some fiddly part deep inside its core popped when Joey went to turn Thea on, followed by a wisp of smoke and an acrid stink. Joey had to call in a favour to get a runner with a day off to cover her route. She also had to promise that their drinks would be free for a month. Joey did not need to mention that her substitution was to be kept from Command — there was already an understanding.
“Just what I meant,” said the gruff woman at the fabricator. “Can’t be fixed.” Joey should really have known her name by now.
“Maybe at Hab Three?” Joey asked.
“They’d have the same problem like as not. Nozzles not set up for the kind of materials you need.”
“What’s the point of a machine that can print everything, if it can’t print anything,” Joey muttered. She cast a worried look at Thea’s open core on the workbench.
“This thing’s working days are over,” the woman said, “It don’t owe you anything.”
“Yeah, thanks anyway.” Joey felt a prickle at the back of her throat. She wracked her brain for any other kind of solution.
“Uh, listen,” the woman spoke up, “I can’t recommend it as a forever solution for running, but if you just wanted it up and at ‘em for some extra help around the house or something…well I hear Hab Six has got some personal printers. You might find someone willing to do the config change there. Probably expensive though.”
“It’s worth a shot! Thank you!” Joey hurriedly started packing Thea’s core back up.
“You really like that thing huh? Can’t say I don’t understand,” The woman gestured to some kind of powertool on the bench beside her, “I’ve had that there for damn near fifteen years. Don’t know what I’d do without it. Don’t make ‘em like that anymore.”
“Don’t I know it. Thanks again and take care.”
It was late when Joey made it back from Hab Six, freshly printed part tucked safely in her rucksack. She flicked on the lights to her workshop and let out an audible gasp. Thea’s chassis was gone. In its place was a new platform, shiny under the fluorescents. Joey could hear her heart in her ears. There was a card placed on her workbench, and she read it with a shaking hand.
Congratulations! In honour of your many years of service, Command has gifted this new platform to you free of charge. Below that was a handwritten addendum. Let us know when you have some time to take a couple promo shots. The news eats up that kind of thing.
Joey looked back at the machine. It was a Tessellated Enterprises Model Ten. The same one Henning had. She hurried across the floor to the shop communicator, giving the interloper a wide berth. A quick stab and Henning’s comm was ringing.
“Hello Joey,” he said. His voice was clear. He hadn’t been sleeping and must have been waiting for her to call.
“You ratted me out,” she said.
“I saw someone else on your run. I helped you!” he responded, sounding rehearsed. “You were playing with everyone’s lives. It was a mistake waiting to happen.”
“It was my mistake to make.”
“I just wanted to help! Joey I—” She hung up on him.
She stood in front of the Model Ten, stuck in its dramatic pose for a photo she would never take
When Henning next saw Joey it was a few weeks later at their usual crossing point, on the way back from charging their respective nodes. She was a ways down her path, half-hidden by some trees. Her Tex glided into view behind her, looking incongruous and unfamiliar as her companion. Henning and Joey stared at one another for a long while.
“Jojo!” Henning eventually called out. He moved forward to meet her, losing sight of her momentarily between the pulse trees.
When he arrived at the clearing she’d been standing in, she was gone, having left no footprints. Her Tex — with its advanced distributed balancing procedure and individually actuated footpads — had left none either.