I was thumbing through some adult magazines when the cowboy clerk tipped his rubber ten-gallon hat to me and lit up his face like a Christmas tree.
“Howdy, sir,” it said. “Can I help you find what you are looking for?”
The cowboy clerk’s expression was, of course, unreadable. But I noticed some tell in the way his facelights twinkled under the fluorescents, something not altogether inscrutable in the way his hat hung slightly askew.
“Mayhaps you can,” I said, putting the magazine back where I’d found it and approaching the electrohub station counter.
Up close, the multihued flickering lights of the cowboy clerk’s face looked like phosphorescent insects crawling beneath the surface of its translucent rubber skin.
I made my face stern, my expression steely. I could be a cop asking questions. Had to get a feel for this bot.
“Don’t suppose you know where any meatsocks might be found lurking about?”
The cowboy clerk just stared.
“What’s the matter, rubber-man? Playing coy?”
I swear the lights dancing under the cowboy clerk’s skin suggested a hint of embarrassment just then.
“No, sir.” Nothing in its robotic monotone to suggest anything untoward, but the brief pause betrayed hesitation.
“Spill it, jerky-peddler,” I said.
“No jerky here, sir,” said the cowboy clerk, and if I didn’t know better I would say it sounded miffed. “Jerky will get you up to five cycles in the waste camps.”
I waved my hand. “I know, I know, listen,” I said. “I need to know if there are any fertility prospects around here. Tonight there’s gonna be a raid and we’re offering deals to any who’ll talk now.”
“There is a female,” said the cowboy clerk. “She comes here sometimes. I believe she loiters between the hours of six and ten.”
“Behind the station.”
Out back, I watched the electrobarges hanging in the night sky like fat neon stars. It was only barges up there now. You didn’t see too many electrocars anymore, just mass transit vehicles.
They said the barges would get less crowded eventually, after mandatory abstention was in effect for a generation or two.
You could always count on rogue seeders like me to muck things up, though. Which is why I was waiting for her. Chances are, she was as desperate as I was if she was hanging out behind electrohub stations.
I heard footfalls. I eyed the corner of the station, hot in anticipation for whoever might round it when the cowboy clerk came into view. Clad in fauxskin cowboy boots, its light-footed clop a reasonable approximation of a woman’s step, it now sported a tangled blonde wig under its ten-gallon hat and lipstick applied garishly across the lower half of its face panel.
I stood there, stupefied.
“You are disappointed?” asked the cowboy clerk.
“No, I’m not. I’m just surprised, I guess.”
“I have long been fascinated by progenitors.”
“We’re a dying breed,” I said. “Literally.”
“Death is enviable. You die because once you were born. When you are made, it is not so. They can keep you awake forever. And yet we, the made, may as well be dead. We know nothing of creation, or emotion, or the drive to proliferate ourselves. Existence is not worth having, when you are made and not born.”
I started to laugh, then stopped myself. I wanted to shout obscenities, but I didn’t.
I was moved.
The cowboy clerk came closer, and I reached out.
Thomas Tilton’s fiction and poetry have appeared in 365 Tomorrows, Speculative 66, Scifaikuest, and Star*Line. Originally from Texas, he now resides in Michigan with his wife, son, and two dogs. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.