Metal feathers

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I wasn’t prepared for a robotic angel to invade my living space. It was almost nine p.m., and I was still working in my dining room, staring blankly at the schematics on my monitor. My table was home to a growing population of macaroni boxes and chip bags that I had every intention of eradicating shortly, just as soon as I dealt with my latest creative emergency.

Ideas had flowed so fast when I was supposed to be working on something else. As soon as I gave up my steady paycheck so I could revolutionize commercial storage, my inner river dried up. I’d made some progress since then, but mostly through my savings account. Now I was out of money for rent. But I had a plan: an old colleague put in a good word for me with a business incubator. If the incubator took me, I’d be able to borrow some money for living expenses.

If they took me. The application was due in two days, and my mechanical creation still didn’t work. I’d spent all day forcing myself to focus on the problem, but I’d only managed to retitle my proposal and put up a motivational poster. Taking a deep breath, I lowered my forehead to the cool tabletop. Maybe what I actually needed was some downtime.

My phone buzzed. It was a text from one of my friends: We’re done with the movie and we got a table at the pub. Wanna come? The cute bartender’s on shift.

That sounded nice, except I was too worn out to pretend to be someone I wasn’t. Putting up with the wrong pronouns was grating on a good day; tonight I would just get cranky and leave. Besides, as much as I’d wanted to see my buzz-bestowing crush, dating never worked out for me anyway.

I texted back: I’d love to, but I think I’m about to reach a breakthrough with my tech baby, so I’d better focus on that. I supposed that wasn’t a lie if I meant my forehead was about to break through my monitor in frustration.

Coffee. Coffee was as good as downtime. I pulled myself away from the table and stumbled over to the kitchen counter. Pushing aside the open jars of peanut butter and jelly on the counter, I reached for the coffee pot and its vital elixir.

A light flashed behind me. I whirled around, ready to face an exploding microwave or renegade lamp.

Instead, a humanoid robot a little bigger than me hovered over the floor near my chair. Their plating was a shiny bronze, patterned with tiger stripes that extended to delicate outstretched wings. Two pointy ridges on either side of their head looked vaguely like animal ears. A soft warm light flowed out of their joints, but not from their eyes. Those were dark, which I appreciated, because it makes no sense for light sensors to emit light.

I was so taken with the stranger’s incredible technology, I ignored the signs that this angelbot was misleading me – mainly, that they were hovering via the labor of quiet propulsion engines attached to the back and legs, so their manicured wings only created a false impression.

“Alex Rodriguez.” The bot’s voice was expressive yet clearly artificial.

I grabbed a knife from the jar of peanut butter and held it out in defense. “Who are you, and what do you want with me?”

“I am your guardian angel.”

“I have a guardian angel?” I lowered the knife a little.

“Yes. I am here to proffer solutions to your current barriers, so you may increase your socioeconomic status. Follow my instructions, and you will thrive even in the toxic cultural climate of your human society.”

This couldn’t be real. Was I having waking dreams again? A gob of peanut butter fell off my knife onto the floor. I sighed and put the knife down. Then I poured the last cold dregs of coffee into my cup. Whatever was happening, I was going to need coffee.

“First” – the bot aimed a finger at my cup – “you must substantially decrease your caffeine intake. It creates a feedback loop wherein you are unable to complete a sufficient number of sleep cycles, prompting you to consume additional caffeine to function adequately.”

“I know that.” Didn’t I? “It’s just temporary.”

“You must limit yourself to eight ounces, to be imbibed before one p.m.” Before I could stop them, Angelbot glided closer, took my cup right out of my hands, and poured its precious contents down the sink. “Next, your reluctance to socialize has limited the emotional support you receive during challenging stages of your life. To correct this, you must inform your peer group of your true gender. They will understand that your society’s concept of binary gender is reductive.”

“Umm…” Wow, this robot knew a lot about me. “Okay, but what if they don’t understand?”

“My methods are indisputably accurate. Furthermore, you will find human courtship less stressful once you communicate your desires. You are not alone in seeking romantic partnerships without sexual activity.”

I crossed my arms. “That stuff is private.”

“Understood. I will pause output of lifestyle solutions and commence output of economic solutions.” They floated back to the table and leaned over my laptop, their back to me. That’s when I noticed they had a long striped tail; something about it pulled at my memory. Angelbot typed in the password to unlock my computer, and my schematics came up.

“That’s in progress…” I stepped forward to rescue my computer and put my foot right in the glob of peanut butter. Dammit. I took my sock off.

“Your in-progress work is not viable because its basic functions conflict. You must streamline it into a single-purpose device.”

“Why? Are you a single-purpose device?”

Angelbot paused. “I have many single-purpose components.”

Had that been rude of me? Who knew what courtesy was among flying cat robots. A flying cat. That’s what Angelbot reminded me of. Even though they were humanoid, their design was clearly based on a stuffed winged cat I lost when I was nine—or at least, based on what was left of the cat after it went through five corporate-funded focus groups.

“You will be most successful by focusing on the transport aspect of the system.” Angelbot highlighted parts of the schematic and marked other parts for deletion. “Assembly features should be removed.”

I grabbed the laptop and cradled it like it was a wounded child. “Assembly is what makes it revolutionary.”

“Assembly is unattainable.” Angelbot straightened. “To be accepted by the incubator, the device’s value to humans must be communicated in a short statement. Include the following line in your application: the device that will fetch you a cold beer.

“That will fetch… that’s ridiculous! The retrieval system is capable of much more than getting a beer for someone who won’t get off the couch.”

“It is. However, the statement must resonate with the humans operating the incubator. In addition, your aunt’s habit of drinking beer on the couch all evening may be influencing your opinion.”

I held up a finger. “Have you been watching me my entire life?”

“I have collected the data necessary to fulfill my purpose.”

So that was a big yes. Creepy for sure, but it also made me feel oddly important. “Why me?”

“You have been chosen for your potential for greatness.”

“Umm… okay.” I had to admit I liked the sound of that. But I knew better than to trust a random trespassing robot. “Where do you come from? What exactly do you get out of helping me?”

“Do not concern yourself with that. Assisting you is its own reward.”

“You expect me to believe that?”

“I am due to depart in 12 seconds. Proceed with the solutions I have described; you will believe when you receive the results.” Angelbot brought their hands together as if in prayer. With a flash of light, they disappeared.

For a second, I stared at the space they vacated. How did they do that? Could I stop them from transporting back into my apartment whenever they felt like it? Probably not; who knew how their amazing beam-in and beam-out technology worked. Well, someone had to know, and that someone was way ahead of me.

I put my laptop back on the table and reluctantly looked through Angelbot’s marks on my schematics. Who was this bot to say I couldn’t achieve my vision? Sure, taking out the assembly portions would make the schematics a lot easier to finish, but the result wouldn’t have the magic of the original. Of course, now that I’d seen an intelligent robot transport straight out of some blasted science fiction story, the original hardly seemed magical either.

The application deadline was still looming, and I had no other plan to get it done in time. I sighed. Okay, Angelbot, I’ll try your so-called economic solution. 

I worked solidly on it over the next two days. I even found a back page to insert that silly slogan about fetching a cold beer. I hated the work, and I wasn’t proud of the results, but at least I had something to show for the time I put in. It probably helped that I’d gotten my first full night of rest in weeks, thanks to Angelbot’s advice on coffee. Had I really known that coffee was disrupting my sleep? If so, why had I kept drinking so much? And since I couldn’t solve my own caffeine problem, what hope did I have of making a difference in the world?

I finished the application with a few hours to spare and went to the pub with my friends to celebrate. But while I was out, I couldn’t help dwelling on what Angelbot said. If a flying bot knew my gender by watching me, did that mean my friends knew? How else could Angelbot tell how my friends would react? Maybe under those welcoming smiles, they were impatiently waiting for me to spill the beans. Every time the group conversation faded into silence, I wondered if this was the moment to say something. Then I remembered that I had no reason to trust Angelbot, and I panicked about almost saying something. I cut the evening short just so I wouldn’t stress about it anymore.

The next day, the incubator called.

“We just read your proposal,” the head of admissions said. “Most of our applicants reach right for the moon, but you’re shooting closer to home.”

“Well, I did consider including assembly operations.”

“And you took that out. Great call, keeping the scope down to something achievable. We really like how practical you are.”

“Yep, practical. That’s me. So… did I make the first cut?” I crossed my fingers.

“Oh yeah, definitely. As soon we read your slogan, we knew we had to meet you. I mean, fetching a beer! That’s cold! It says so much with so few words.”

My stomach sank. They didn’t want me; they wanted Angelbot.

“How soon can you come to pitch us in person?”

“Umm… sorry, but I have another offer. I think I’m going to take that one.”

“Oh. Are you sure? We’ll be sending out notices to accepted applicants shortly. You won’t be able to change your mind.”

“I’m sure. Thanks for your interest.”

I hung up the phone and tossed it aside like it bit me. What had I just done? Angelbot gave me everything I wanted, and I blew it because, what, the process didn’t flatter my ego enough? How was I going to pay the bills? Even if I went crawling back to the incubator, they’d probably think I was too unreliable to work with. And I didn’t want to. Maybe I didn’t even want to work on my machine anymore. I collapsed onto my armchair.

That’s when Angelbot reappeared. This time I got a good look at their entrance. It began with a tiny pinpoint of light on the other side of the room and rapidly expanded into an ovular disk. Angelbot floated through the disk, and it collapsed behind them.

They glided closer until they were almost within reach. “You did not proceed as planned. This will limit your socioeconomic opportunities.”

I took a deep breath, torn over whether I should give the intrusive bot a stern talking-to or beg them for help. On one hand, somehow the flying feline had only made my sorry life worse, but on the other, what if I needed their guidance to reach my potential? Angelbot had been right about everything; it was me that was messing it all up.

I let the breath out. I would tell my self-appointed guardian angel how I felt, so they could suggest a solution. “I’m just not motivated to work on the project anymore. Next to your capabilities, it’s like I’m smashing two rocks together hoping to make a wheel.”

Angelbot raised a finger but then stopped. Just like that, I’d stumped Angelbot. They didn’t know any more about what to do with me than I did.

Despite my best efforts, my voice rose. “What, you’ve watched every moment of my life and you don’t have a solution for that?”

“You must work to realize your great potential.”

That was it. I stood and aimed a finger at them. “Look, I don’t know who you are or where you’re from, but you’re obviously lying. If I was so great, you wouldn’t need to babysit me. No, when you chose me, you knew I was pathetic. Did you think that if you gave me a few life hacks, I’d obey your every command and unleash some robot horde on humanity?”

I stared up at Angelbot. Their dark eyes and bronze plating gave nothing away.

What the hell had I just said? I had a guardian angel literally appear out of thin air and give me the answers to all my problems, and I’d returned the favor by accusing them of attacking Earth. Now they’d leave, and I’d be left knowing it was my own damn fault.

Angelbot opened a control panel under the plating of their left arm and pushed a button. The propulsion engines turned off and they landed on the floor with a thump. They took a few steps closer to me – clunky, awkward steps – so we were almost eye to eye. The shiny bronze held my bewildered reflection. Then Angelbot pulled a latch under their chin, and their face plating swung out and to the side.

Underneath, my own face stared back at me, the hint of a smile betraying suppressed mirth. Delicate wrinkles framed my brown eyes, and my black hair had the cut I wanted but was afraid to get. The real Angelbot was an older me, a more confident me, but definitely me. I gaped.

“I’m sorry I lied to you,” future me said in an unmasked, human voice. “I didn’t tell you because now that you know we’re the same person, I can’t come back again. Honestly, I was already using a loophole in time-space regulations that they’ll probably close after this.

“I know you don’t need me to tell you these things,” they continued, “I just thought, what if I didn’t have to go through years of painful learning to sort myself out? What if I’d just known all the answers that would have made my life better?”

I struggled to collect my mental trainwreck into coherent words. “So, when you said I had great potential… you meant you.”

Future me smiled sheepishly. “What can I say? I’m pretty cool. Don’t pretend you don’t like the suit.”

I laughed at that, and so did future me, letting out a bubbling cacophony.

I winced. “Do I really sound like that?”

“I’m afraid so.”

“But I’ll look like you too. That’s something.”

Their smile broadened. “You like the hair, right? It’ll get you some nice dates.” They winked.

“It – wow.” I wasn’t quite ready to think about that yet. “And you – I – invented your time-traveling suit?”

“Yeah! Well, along with a team. Having a team is very important – ” they facepalmed. “Sorry, forget I said that. I know you can figure it out for yourself.”

“It’s alright. Sorry I blew up at you earlier.”

“Don’t be. I didn’t realize you – I – would feel that way, so thanks for sharing with me. My life is a lot better than it was, but that doesn’t mean I don’t make mistakes. I’ll learn from this though, like I’ve learned from all the others. Speaking of which, I’d better go.”

“Could I have just one more tip?”

“Sure. Search the internet. You’d be surprised how many problems that solves.”

I crossed my arms. “I’d be surprised by that?”

“Well, you’d be surprised how often you forget to search the internet.”

I smiled and wrapped my clumsy time-traveling self in a hug. “I’ll miss you.”

“Don’t be silly. I’m right here, and I always will be.”

We broke apart, and my future self disappeared.

I sat back down. What should I do next? I was still out of money, and I had lost my chance with the incubator. But if Angelbot hadn’t intervened, I wouldn’t have gotten in anyway; maybe I wouldn’t have even finished the application. That meant future me hadn’t gotten in either, and yet they still had a successful career and a happy life. How did they get from here to there?

Slowly. Years, they’d said. I’d quit my job hoping I could change everything with my first product, but change took time. It took trial, error, and learning.

I grabbed my laptop and browsed the classifieds. With a part-time job, some roommates, and a tight budget, I could keep working on my dream a couple days a week, for as long as it took to make something I was proud of. Maybe it wouldn’t even be that long. After all, my machine didn’t have to be a breakthrough; it just had to be a start.

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