He leans on the rusty railing of the balcony, instinctively checking if the derelict structure will still carry his weight. The wind is warm, the sunset beautiful, all orange clouds with golden brims over the endless expanses of the ocean. This is his favourite spot and his favourite time of day. He comes here when he can't bear it anymore. Moments like this one help him carry on when he no longer sees the reason behind his existence. In recent days he was tempted to pull the metaphorical plug, to end this endless string of lonely days.
The sun sinks slowly into the ocean, leaving the colourful clouds to fade into greys and blues. To him it feels a bit like dying. But then the evening star starts twinkling with a promise of new hope.
With a sigh, he returns to the sealed part of the building, passes the decontamination unit and enters the lab to continue his arduous work.
He fixes the last wire, rechecks the whole installation and carefully connects the finished project to the power source. Now the final thing needed is the control code. He types it out slowly, almost reverently. Two artificial eyes blink open to stare at the world in silent wonder. He enters another command and steel fingers open and close before they clumsily grip the pen he is holding out to them. An additional command and the robot sits and then stands for the first time on its own two metallic legs. He lets the artificial body walk some steps across the lab and guides it gently back to the table where he shuts it off for today. The mechanical work is finished. What remains to do is the real tricky part. But he's too exhausted to continue tonight.
He leaves the lab and shuffles into the blank piece that serves as living room. Tired he drops into an ancient chair and stares unblinkingly at the potted plant in the corner. This plant is one of the last surviving organisms on planet earth, a precious sign of hope. He has done everything to keep it from dying. During the last years he even managed to nurse some seedlings. He planted them outside, one after the other. But until now the soil remains too contaminated to sustain growing life. They died, all of them. He will try again next spring. Once, he used to believe in earth's capacity to heal itself. Perhaps next year... For the millionth time he wonders if there are others like him and his pet plant somewhere out there. He leans back in his chair and closes his sore eyes.
Now the project comes to an end he remembers the beginnings. All the fear, the ecstatic love, and the desperate hope. They named the project 'Iron Man.' It was her idea, always so prosaic. Both of them worked hand in hand, she, the brilliant scientist and he, the innovative mechanic. They had early successes and terrible fallbacks. And then their time was running out. The day nuclear hell broke loose they decided to move forward. It was a desperate shortcut, a gamble he still feels bad about. He wanted to carry on together as planned, even at the cost of their lives. But she convinced him to change plans. And time proved her right. Or did it? She couldn't have known how long it would take to find all the necessary parts in an apocalyptic wasteland. Not years, but decades. Decades of lonely searches and tedious lab work, of believing against all evidence and of missing her.
Tomorrow is the big day. Tomorrow he is going to load her stored memories, her personality into the mechanical brain of their creation. Tomorrow he will know if they failed—or once again hear her beloved and dearly missed laughter. His hand is shaking where it rests on his left knee, the knee that troubles him most. He feels ancient. Will she still love him, the way she did those years ago? Will she understand? With a groan, he stands up to care for his plant, his sole companion in all these long and solitary years. Carefully he waters the soil, dusts the fragile green leaves, adjusts the lamp spending enough artificial light to allow it to grow and prosper in the shelter. He also used to speak to the plant, but he stopped years ago. Maybe he should try, maybe tomorrow he will need his voice again.
"Hello, plant, how are you? Are you lonely, too?"
His voice sounds as rusty as he feels. Rusty, old and stupid. He touches a leaf, gingerly, careful not to break anything. Then he opens a drawer and picks up some precious seeds from the last harvest. Time to try again, perhaps this year everything works out.
After planting three of the seeds with meticulous care in a bowl of decontaminated earth, he returns to the lab. It must be nearing midnight. Once again he musters the sleek metal body lying on the workbench and runs all the checks one last time. He wants to be sure the body is ready for her. Everything looks fine, no reason to further delay the decision.
He initiates the download. It will take several hours until she regains consciousness. Time enough to turn philosophical. Is this really all that's left of the proud human race? The approximation of a human body, filled with memories of a long dead person? He sighs, pushing the morose thoughts away, and looks down at himself. During the past months he neglected his own needs.
Time for basic maintenance, a few drops of oil here, a new circuit there. With a chisel he starts to flake rust from his troublesome left knee.
Iron man indeed.
This short story was written for the #SciFryday Challenge 16 and won first place. The author, Jinn Tiole, is passionate about science fiction and everything connected with it. You find her stories here on Wattpad or in different anthologies. Additionally, she is a regular contributor to Ooorah's science fiction e-zine Tevun Krus.
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