Dizzy from thirst, Natalia let the water jugs slip from her hands. The plastic containers landed with hollow coughs against the sand. She swayed unsteadily, panting. If she fell, she would never get up. Her dry tongue traced over cracked lips as she looked ahead at the towering obsidian wall.
Three figures sat like guardian statues against the forbidding structure, dwarfed by its size. Not a hopeful sight. But there was no other hope now. Resolutely, she picked up her empty water jugs and trudged toward the statues. The sun was hot on her hair, the sand cooking her feet through worn-out shoes.
One of the statues stood as she approached. He was a giant of a man, over two meters tall, shirtless and with forearms as thick as a normal man’s thigh. Heat shimmered from the wall behind him.
“You’re a real girl, aren’t you?” he said in a deep voice. “What are you doing here? This is an android crossing.”
She wasn’t a girl anymore, and she wasn’t turning back. There was more at stake than just her life. “My grandma died, señor.” Her voice came out a dry whisper.
“Where are your parents?” asked a pretty woman in a miniskirt.
Natalia stared. The woman had no arms. “Other side of the wall.” She tried to swallow, but couldn’t.
“She’s not a child,” said the third, a man in a butler’s suit. The back of his head was caved in. “What’s your name, amiga?”
“There are safer places for a mortal to cross, Natalia. On a raft along the coast,” he suggested kindly.
She shook her head, black hair drifting in her eyes. It was a long way to either ocean. “No money for the coyotes.”
The female android nodded sympathetically.
Two Mounties wearing hoverpacks screamed along the top of the wall, just above the razor wire. Natalia cringed, but they zoomed out of sight.
“If you had money,” said the armless woman, “you’d come into Canada across the Arctic beaches, like rich folks. The Minnesota Desert is no place for a mortal to cross.”
Natalia countered, “You are here why?”
“I’m just sending them across,” said the big man. “I’m their coyote. These two think the grass is greener on the other side, or at least, that there is grass. Venus here is looking for an arms dealer, and Jeeve5 needs a brain.”
The woman glared at him. “My designation is Maid&More, not Venus, and I don’t need arms.”
“And I have a positronic brain, GIJoe,” said Jeeve5, thumping his chest. It wasn’t hollow. “We’re leaving America for the same reasons mortals do. No jobs. No services.”
“No food,” whispered Natalia.
“And the scrap metal dealers,” added Maid&More.
Natalia looked at the debris near the wall: splintered ladders, severed ropes and broken android parts. It looked like most crossings failed.
“Agua?” she begged. Thirst was an ache that wouldn’t leave.
The three looked at each other. Maid&More said, “Androids don’t drink.”
Jeeve5 looked at her empty water jugs. “When did your water run out?”
“After noon. Early.”
“That’s too long,” said Maid&More. She looked at the other two. “The Law.”
“The First Law,” muttered GIJoe.
Jeeve5 recited, “A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.”
“Even if the mortal is too dumb to get out of the sun,” muttered GIJoe.
“Come sit in the shade, señorita,” said Maid&More.
“Don’t be afraid,” said GIJoe. “She’s unarmed.”
Maid&More rolled her eyes, and Natalia went to sit beside her.
“There’s a lake on the Canadian side,” said Jeeve5.
“You’re saying we should toss her over?” said GIJoe.
“No, por favor-” Natalia started to say.
“That’s just Joe’s artificial humor,” said Maid&More.
“I meant there might be water at the bottom of the tunnel,” said Jeeve5.
“Tunnel under wall?” said Natalia.
“It’s a collapsed tunnel,” said GIJoe. “Mortals dug it years ago, but the Mounties blew it up before it was finished.”
“I’ll check,” said Maid&More. “I’m the smallest.”
“No,” said Jeeve5. “Where the tunnel supports have collapsed, someone has to lift them. Someone with arms.” He turned to Natalia. “Give me your water jugs.”
“Can he go?” said Natalia, pointing to the giant. “He is…”
“A freak?” GIJoe finished for her.
“We’re all freaks,” said Jeeve5.
Natalia shook her head. “Muy fuerte. Strong.” She hesitated, then added, “Maybe I order him.”
GIJoe barked a laugh. “The Second Law? I obey a mortal if he’s my commander. Not a runaway girl.”
“But the Law…”
“For most androids,” explained Maid&More, “the Law about obeying mortals is only a suggestion.”
“And the Third, self-preservation, is a no-brainer,” said GIJoe.
“For some of us,” countered Jeeve5, “all three are Laws.” He began walking east along the wall.
GIJoe shouted after him, “Keep thinking that when the tunnel roof flattens what’s left of your skull!” He stretched out in the sun, and Natalia saw the fine solar collecting hairs on his chest bristle to collect power.
“When we cross?” she asked.
“We?” He eyed her suspiciously. “Are you a spy?”
Weakly, he shook her head no.
“What will you do, Joe?” asked Maid&More. “Send her over or take her back?”
“She hasn’t paid,” he growled. He turned to her. “Were you planning to offer me something?”
She froze in his gaze.
“The young woman has nothing you want,” said Maid&More. “Leave her alone.”
The giant shrugged and closed his eyes.
Natalia craned her neck, looking up at the wall. She wondered how these androids would cross where so many others had failed.
“How you climb?” she asked the armless woman.
“I won’t. We—”
“Say nothing!” growled GIJoe.
Maid&More frowned. To Natalia, she said, “We paid.”
I have not, Natalia despaired. She had come so far, and it mattered so much.
“Didn’t your parents send money south?” asked Maid&More.
“Every month. To my grandma.”
“The dead one,” said GIJoe. “Probably too old to sell her for parts.”
“Soon, you sell me for parts,” croaked Natalia.
The giant scowled at her. “Of course not.”
“What about the dog?” asked Maid&More.
“The dog wasn’t a mortal. Just an android in another form.”
“What dog?” asked Natalia.
“Joe sold a dog who couldn’t pay.”
“I sold a pain-in-the-ass machine that deceived me.”
“You’re lucky it didn’t call on Zorroid to avenge it.”
“It was a Japanese dog. It didn’t know about Zorroid.”
“Zorroid is who?”
“None of your concern,” said the giant, and closed his eyes again.
It was after sundown when Jeeve5 returned and Maid&More roused Natalia. She must have fainted. The butler suit was covered in dirt. His dress shoes had dried mud on them. And one of Natalia’s jugs was half full of cloudy liquid. The other was empty.
“There was no water in the tunnel. Near the point where it had collapsed, I dug a seep-well.” He handed her the jug. “That was the best I could do.”
“Gracias,” said Natalia. She drank greedily, and some of the water seeped down her neck into her shirt. The water tasted like mud, but she didn’t care.
GIJoe got up. Walking to a pile of debris piled against the wall, he dug out two big sand-colored crates.
“You think it’s dark enough?” asked Maid&More.
“Who cares about dark?” said GIJoe. “Mountie machines see as well as we do. But the shifts change soon. When the mortals in the Vancouver nerve center go home, outsourcers in Siberia take up watch.”
Natalia paused from drinking. “So is safe to climb?”
The giant looked at her. “Why are you still here?”
“She’s come this far,” said Jeeve5. “We should help her the rest of the way.”
“She thinks you’re climbing,” he scoffed. “Maybe I should boost her to the top. She can Rapunzel her way down from the razor wire.”
“The First Law,” Jeeve5 admonished him.
“Nothing protects us from them,” countered GIJoe.
“Does el Zorroid protect you?” asked Natalia.
“Zorroid is a myth,” said Jeeve5.
“No!” the other two said simultaneously.
“You accept as fact that a lawless android appears out of the night to right android wrongs?” said Jeeve5. “Are you out of your positronic minds?”
“There are many, many accounts,” said Maid&More.
“And I’ve heard him beyond this wall,” said GIJoe. “Two of my customers were attacked. One called out for him, and I heard him save them.”
“But you saw nothing. I believe in the Laws, and in the laws of physics. Zorroid obeys neither.”
Natalia wondered if Zorroid had a reversed brain, a negatronic brain. “He cheats all Laws?”
“Even the Third,” said Maid&More. “He will sacrifice himself to save an android in peril.”
“So… end of story?”
GIJoe shook his head. “He reincarnates, again and again.”
Surreptitiously, Natalia crossed herself.
GIJoe opened the first crate. After peering up at the top of the wall, he grasped the contents with both hands. As he pulled it out, Natalia saw that it was black, a folded spider-like mechanism that completely filled the crate.
“A ladder?” asked Natalia.
The giant looked at her. “You’re obsessed with the idea of climbing.”
“She’s going with me,” said Maid&More. “Neither of us weighs much. Plus there’s my problem with the control lines. She’s the solution.”
“You’ve been telling me for two days that you don’t need arms. Now suddenly you do?”
“What is your problem, Joe? Do you want to escort her back to town?”
“Payment is a matter of principle.”
“The principle of stupidity? You think like they do.”
“I concur with Maid&More,” said Jeeve5. “The mortal’s best chance for survival lies with us. The First Law dictates our course of action.”
“You’re saying I have no choice.”
Jeeve5 and Maid&More nodded.
Natalia sighed with relief and raised the jug to her lips again.
GIJoe turned away and pressed something on the device he’d pulled from the crate. The mechanism unfolded itself like a mechanical tree. It was now half the height of the wall, wider than a museum-era pickup truck.
“What is it?” asked Natalia.
“Smart nanotubes. Built before America’s military-industrial collapse.”
“It does what? Climb wall?”
“Maybe it eats girls who ask about climbing.” He unpacked the second machine, just like the first. The twin unfolded itself, four legs anchoring in the sand. The giant looked up at the wall, then heaved two of those legs out of the sand, orienting the mechanism to better face the wall. The machine swayed high above him. He did the same for the other. There was a large crank on the side, and he began winding. As he cranked, the top of the machine began bowing down, its feet corkscrewing deep into the sand.
“It’s an android tosser,” Maid&More explained.
GIJoe gave her a pained expression. “I supply the services of two precision torsion catapults. If they were just android tossers, you and the wall would—” He smacked his fist into his other hand.
Natalia looked at the height of the wall and the arching spine of the machine. Deeply disappointed, she shook her head.
“I am only bones,” she said.
“What?” said GIJoe. “No plasteel? Maybe you can flap your arms like a bird.”
Natalia didn’t like being made fun of.
“We will not let you come to harm,” said Jeeve5.
“She doesn’t trust me,” said GIJoe. “The water in the lake is soft. Can you swim?”
Natalia shrugged, frowning at him.
“Then you can’t. Why do you want to pair with her, Venus? She’ll be dead meat, dragging you under.”
“Just show her what she needs to do, Joe.”
“Soon enough.” He finished winding the first catapult and started on the second.
Natalia stared south into the desert. She couldn’t cross it again without more water, even if the giant helped her. And a fall from the height of the wall would surely kill her. She tried to keep from crying.
Maid&More leaned toward her and whispered, “Joe will teach you to fly.”
When the giant finished winding, he inspected the two catapults, then dug a big sack from the debris by the wall. He dumped out its contents: two sand-colored backpacks.
“Know what a parachute is?” he asked.
“Ever used one? No, of course not. Venus, stand up. This goes on you.”
“Not hoverpacks?” asked Natalia.
The giant snorted. “If I could afford hoverpacks at a million Canadollars apiece, you think I’d be scrounging work like this?”
He put the parachute on Maid&More’s back, tightening straps around her arm stumps. He lifted her from behind by the pack, shaking her like a doll.
“That’s enough, Joe!” she snapped.
He put her down and beckoned to Natalia. “This isn’t a tandem rig, and I don’t have extra straps. Got the next best thing, though: duct tape. Back up against the front of Venus, here.”
Pressed against Maid&More, Natalia heard sounds inside the android’s body: a feathery rustling, as if she were filled with tiny sparrows.
GIJoe began taping them together, waist to waist.
“There are two of you,” Maid&More whispered in her ear.
Natalia inhaled sharply.
“A symbiot?” asked the giant.
“No,” said Maid&More. “I hear two heartbeats. One small and fast. The mortal is with child.”
“Is that correct, amiga?” asked Jeeve5. “You appear too young.”
Looking down at the sand, Natalia nodded.
“Does this affect our obligation to the Law?” asked GIJoe.
Natalia heard Maid&More’s snort of derision.
“Does the father know you’re here?” asked Jeeve5.
“Immaculate conception?” asked Maid&More, “or scrap-dealing scum?”
“He left me.”
Maid&More nodded. “Did your grandmother really die, or did she throw you out?”
Natalia’s grandmother had died a long time ago. “No place to raise a child,” she muttered.
“Touching,” said GIJoe. “Jeeve5, get this parachute on.”
He put it on.
GIJoe tightened the straps for him. “I’ve programmed your chutes to deploy at apogee. That’s a couple seconds after launch. You’ll have four lines to the chute. Pull on one or two of them to steer your descent. You’re not paragliding for the view.”
Natalia had never flown. How could she steer when she knew nothing?
GIJoe must have read her expression. “You’re duct-taped to a precision guidance controller. She’ll tell you what to do.”
He lifted Maid&More from behind. Natalia flailed for balance, suspended by the duct tape around her waist.
“Ready for launch,” said the giant. “Screw the countdown.” He hoisted Maid&More and Natalia into the mesh scoop of the catapult.
“What do—” Natalia shrieked as the spring launch of the catapult knocked the wind out of her.
She tumbled up through the air, wind rushing in her ears. The black wall flashed past, replaced by sky. The giant and the catapult shrank below her, spinning wildly. There was a loud pop behind her, and she saw the gossamer parachute unfurling. It was translucent, nearly invisible in the twilight. It stopped her with a jerk. Only the duct tape wrapped around her waist kept her connected to it. She grabbed Maid&More’s hips, pressing her shoulders back against her, gasping for breath. She was scared to death. Below, a dark lake spread out on the Canadian side of the wall.
Something leapt into the air from the American side. Jeeve5.
A second later, his parachute deployed. Swinging from his lines like a baby spider, he waved.
Natalia heard a distant shriek, increasing in amplitude.
“Grab the lines!” said Maid&More. Her knees lifted Natalia, throwing her off balance, and Natalia cried out.
She twisted, grabbing at Maid&More’s straps and pulling herself up. The duct tape didn’t let her move far. She grabbed one of the parachute lines.
“Another line!” said Maid&More. “Two lines!”
The shriek increased in pitch and volume. It was coming from this side of the wall. Natalia grabbed another line. “What’s that sound?”
“An interdiction drone. Pull on your left!”
Suddenly her skin felt like it was on fire. Her arms and one side of her face burned. With a cry, she let go of the lines. Maid&More shook, then went rigid.
The shriek of the drone faded away. Natalia’s face and arms still burned, but her skin was unmarked.
She looked across the twilit sky at Jeeve5 hanging stiffly from his parachute, caught in mid-wave.
Natalia twisted and used Maid&More’s straps to climb again. The android’s eyes were open, sightless, her face a frozen mask. Natalia grabbed the same two parachute lines as before. She experimented until she was steering toward the edge of the lake. Jeeve5 was drifting away from shore.
He continued his descent toward a watery grave.
“Zorroid!” she cried. The wind swallowed her voice. “Zorroid!”
Maid&More was lifeless. The parachute was carrying her toward shore, but Natalia’s arms were tiring. “GIJoe! Zorroid! Help us!”
The parachute drifted closer to the dark water. Shore was many meters away.
“Maid&More!” Natalia shook her body against the android.
The android’s high heels skimmed the water, trailing two V’s. Natalia pulled harder on the lines, trying to lift herself up into the air.
Maid&More’s ankles sank. Natalia felt cool water seep through the holes in her own shoes. The android’s legs sliced deeper into the shallow waves, water rising past her knees toward her skirt. Her stiff body leaned forward, the parachute tugging at it.
The parachute began collapsing toward shore. Maid&More was sinking deeper, dragging Natalia down with her. As the water reached Natalia’s armpits, the tips of her shoes touched bottom. Maid&More pressed against her from behind, and Natalia’s feet dug into the underwater mud. The parachute settled onto shore, lines limp on the water. Natalia staggered, trying to keep upright. Turning her head, she saw Jeeve5’s parachute, flat on the middle of the lake.
“Jeeve5!” she wailed.
A crackling and hissing came from the shoreline, and she turned back. Rhythmic puffs of steam came from a hole near the black wall. More Mountie machinery?
Natalia tried to free a foot from the mud and failed. Maid&More was her anchor.
Against all odds, she had made it out of the American desert, soon to drown in shallow Canadian waters. Sobbing, she cupped water with her hands, drinking from the lake.
A few clods of dirt flew up through the steam puffs. The hissing continued, punctuated by rapid clicks.
Natalia’s hands went to her waist, tugging at the layered duct tape. It was too tight to slip out of, too thick to tear.
A whir and metallic groan came from the hole by the wall. The hissing stopped. Her eyes caught a flicker of movement in the steam: a black hand poked from the ground.
He appears out of the night to right android wrongs, Jeeve5 had said.
“Zorroid?” she said in a small voice.
No answer. I’m not an android. Would he blame her for Maid&More’s deactivation? There was no way to run or hide. Something was clawing its way up out of the earth, scattering dirt. She shivered. A black figure stood indistinctly against the black wall.
The android approached, and she made out his shape. Black and skeletal, not much taller than Maid&More. His form was humanoid, but no one would mistake him for a man. She could see through parts of his torso. Zorroid was incomplete, a corpse without flesh. He was close enough now for her to see his face. Skull-like, with no mouth.
“Help us,” she croaked. “Maid&More no works. I am stuck. And Jeeve5—” she pointed toward the lake “- he sinks.”
Zorroid looked toward the lake. There was no trace of Jeeve5’s parachute, but Zorroid must have sensed something. He splashed through the shallows, deeper and deeper, making no attempt to swim.
“And me?” she tried to shout, but it was a whisper.
He vanished into the depths, ripples spreading out behind him.
“La Ley?” But Zorroid obviously didn’t care about the Law. And once he found that Jeeve5 was just as dead as Maid&More, he would right android wrongs by sacrificing Natalia.
Desperately, she returned her attention to the duct tape at her waist. She bent forward as far as she could, face underwater, her hands tugging the tape toward her teeth. Maid&More’s weight shifted against her, threatening to trap her underwater. Natalia staggered, freed one foot from the mud to brace herself, and jerked her head out of the water. She gasped for air. Water dripped from her hair into her eyes.
Turning her head, she saw no sign of Zorroid. The tape wouldn’t stretch. All she needed was a knife, just a little one. If only Maid&More had arms, Natalia might have sawed through the tape with android fingernails.
She heard a splash behind her and peeked around Maid&More.
Zorroid. His black head emerged from the lake, seeming to float toward her. With a little cry, she lunged against the tape, trying to drag Maid&More.
Zorroid’s shoulders emerged, then Natalia saw Jeeve5’s body cradled in the android’s arms. The only sound was the sloshing of water. In the twilight she couldn’t make out any expression on Zorroid’s skull, or tell whether he was looking at her.
“It was Mounties,” she gasped. “We cross the wall. Mounties…” her voice trailed off.
Zorroid strode past her and laid Jeeve5’s muddy corpse on the shore. He turned toward her.
“Mounties,” she repeated.
He moved toward her.
“Zorroid, por favor…”
He grasped her shoulders, heaving her out of the mud and dragging her through the water with Maid&More. Through his black ribcage she saw cables and shafts that moved as he moved. His body whirred and clicked, not a feathery whispering like Maid&More’s before she’d expired. Clawlike metal fingers dug painfully into her arms. She looked at his eyes, and they were dead mechanical things that looked right through her.
“Por favor!” She shivered in his grip.
At the shoreline he released her. She fell to the ground, Maid&More landing on top of her. She wriggled from underneath on her elbows.
Zorroid turned to Jeeve5, rolling him onto his back. The skeletal figure bent low, ripping apart the butler’s shirt, and slashed a Z-shaped incision in his abdomen. He pulled out an intestine-like cable, then reached into his own ribcage and pulled out a similar one. When he touched the cables together, there was a geyser of sparks, and Jeeve5’s back arched. Natalia heard a rapid tone sequence, and Jeeve5’s limbs moved in rhythmic exercise.
Zorroid, seeming weaker now, staggered toward Natalia. Sparks spat from the cable hanging from his ribcage. He grabbed her, rolling her so Maid&More was beneath her, and reached toward her abdomen.
Zorroid ripped apart the duct tape and shoved her off of Maid&More.
Natalia got to her knees and watched as he tore open Maid&More’s blouse. His metal hand slashed a Z into her belly.
When he joined her cable to his, a spark of his life passed to her, and he collapsed onto the shore. On hands and knees, Zorroid crawled into the lake, disappearing beneath the shallow waves.
Jeeve5 stood, looking around. “I detect a memory gap.”
Maid&More sat up. “Likewise. From the time of the interdiction drone.”
“Zorroid saves,” whispered Natalia.
Jeeve5 looked at her. “Impossible.”
“You’ve had recent repair work,” said Maid&More. She looked down. “Oh dear. So have I.”
“Shoddy work,” said Jeeve5. “This shirt is ruined.”
“But before,” said Natalia, “you are dead.”
“Where did Zorroid go?” asked Maid&More, looking up at the sky. “Off on a hoverpack?”
Natalia pointed down into the lake.
“Is that where he came from?” asked Jeeve5.
“No,” said Natalia.
She led them to the foot of the wall. Jeeve5 climbed into the grave where Zorroid had emerged.
“Is it another tunnel?” asked Maid&More.
After a moment, Jeeve5 looked up. “No. It’s a JIT-Fab. A Just-In-Time Fabrication unit. Recently used. The power and raw materials are exhausted. Even the controller is gone: it must have become part of Zorroid.”
“So that’s how he appears so quickly out of nowhere,” said Maid&More. “Zorroid’s creator must have scattered hundreds of these units across North America.”
“At least he obeys the laws of physics,” said Jeeve5. “Zorroid is a product of nanotech construction.”
Natalia looked north at the water and trees, the land where a future was still possible. She put a hand on her belly, her child.
“And el Zorro,” she whispered, “will be a product of Natalia construction.”
George Walker’s stories have appeared in Helix, Tomorrow SF, Science Fiction Age and other publications. He is an engineer working in high tech in the northwest corner of the U.S., where the rain still falls. More of his fiction is available via his website.
I was inspired by the political controversy around building an impenetrable wall around the U.S., and the thought that sometimes, people building a wall can find themselves on the wrong side of it. Then the characters took over. Credit to Isaac Asimov for the Three Laws.