Escape Pod 609: Wasps Make Honey

Wasps Make Honey

By Penelope Evans

The scrap heaps at the edge of the settlement are taller than the average colony building. They offer up next to nothing good. But the factory doesn’t want either of us anymore. Power cells don’t come cheap now. In fact, they barely come at all. “Sometimes I think we should give up on this,” Jax tells me, leaning on a big busted-up engine piece—an oscillator from a collector class ship or something of equal size. This is her half of the argument, where she begs me to give up. She has a lot of arguments, and they are all at least mildly convincing and a little hurtful. I’m getting old (true), she’s getting old (also true), sooner or later her drivers will fail and I could be doing better things with my time (true and true).

“I’m not giving up on you anytime soon.” This is my half. My half is not an argument, more a refusal to argue. It infuriates Jax. It makes her tv-screen face go fizzy red and yellow. I’ll hike up the closest heap and heft out something funny and wave it at her, and if she’s really sulking, sometimes toss it down at her so she has to dodge on many-times repaired joints. And some days, she’ll chuck something back, so I have to dodge too, even with my bad knee.

“Ena,” Jax’s tone is grave. “One day you’re gonna be too old to do this.” She sounds like she really wants to gear up for a lecture. We have tread this path already, not once before, but countless times.

“I’ll worry about that day when it comes.” I haul the door of an old refrigerator open. The mess of rot and mold inside is so astonishing I stumble back, but Jax leans a little closer to get a better look, gifted as she is to be missing a sense of smell.

“I wouldn’t call this much of a find,” she says. I laugh. She kicks the thing shut. We move on.

Later, we trek back down, and Jax offers me her hand. I sling the coil of copper wire we’ve collected over my shoulder so I can take it. Her fingers are warm as ever (the old models run hot like you wouldn’t believe) and I butt my head against the side of her big blocky one on our way back towards the settlement, because I know it’s likely to make her screen flood with verdant green.

Back home I dump the copper wire into the padlocked bin where we keep our best finds. Jax empties her bag of parts onto the kitchen table, and we sit down across from one another. I pass her an old toothbrush; she slides me a rag. Just us here, and we work in silence, just like our days back at the factory.

I met Jax when I was nineteen, a wide-eyed kid who’d never been out of system, who had scraped up all her savings just to get off planet. The colony is full of people like that. It’s not a destination. No travel posters for a dusty, empty place like this, because you don’t need them. It’s a place for people escaping something. And I had something to escape, like loads of nineteen year olds with bruises under their clothes do.

The easiest job to get in any colony is factory work, so that’s the job I got. We were making androids for the war effort. I met Jax. Back when she was still smooth unblemished chrome. Her screen was clean glass. Her fingers were smooth unmarked metal and plastic, and she was faster than me. The day we were assigned to each other, Jax looked me up and down, her screen glowing impassive grey, and let out a little noise, a kind of unimpressed “chuh.” I didn’t like her either. But as it turned out, we were a good team. We were faster than any other assembly team, actually. We worked it down to a science.

At first, Jax would flash me a picture of the tool she needed when she needed it. We’d announce trading parts before we did it. But soon, that sort of fell away. I don’t know. We got into a motion.

During breaks, Jax would grab her charging cell from her locker and I’d pull a pack of smokes from my jumpsuit pocket, and we’d go out to the one picnic table in the small lake of concrete outside the factory building, and watch the ships overhead.

We asked each other questions you are not supposed to ask. “Why’d you come here?” “What was so bad on your home planet?” “How do you have a job if you’re an android?” “Don’t you belong to someone?” It was like restrained fighting. It was one of those games kids play, where you keep hitting each other until someone lets go. But somehow, it gave way to kinder conversation. We started asking each other better questions. “Where would you move if you could live anywhere?” “What’s your middle name?” “Have you ever been outside of the settlement?”

Somewhere in there, we became a team. Jax was a free android, she had served in the war for five years. She was released for failing to terminate an enemy soldier in the field. Everything was still shaking out then. Androids were getting rights, it was a given, it was just complex. It was just taking time. And still, we were in that factory breathing plastic dust; assembling android bodies on top of beautiful metal endoskeletons.

The factory shut down four years later. When it reopened, we were making laser rifles. It was a job. Most of the workers I knew moved away eventually. Not Jax. She and I were a team. Somewhere in it, we had pledged ourselves to one another. Lacing your fingers together. We happened like that. We got a place together because it was cheaper that way. And then we got older. My knees started giving out, Jax started needing repairs. The joints in her hands were no longer smooth. She wasn’t faster than me anymore.

Twenty years in service. This is what my time in the colony adds up to. Twenty years spent on factory work. Here are my results: one ruined knee (repaired by colony surgeons, at a cost), early onset arthritis in my hands (no fix for this), a small house full of small memories, a garden that I no longer care to tend (and nothing loves to grow here), and Jax (my best friend in the world, the one I love above all others, a failing soldier android).

Over the years, the factory produced many things besides laser rifles. In our last year, we were making androids again, and in the way that designs are cyclical, these new ones looked much more like Jax than any other we had made, with blocky screens and metal and white plastic limbs. Then the factory let us go. There was an influx of new colonists, and they could afford to hire faster, younger workers.

Android rights came through, too little too late. The cost of power cells, already high, skyrocketed. They were now an item exclusively for individuals, never businesses or companies. I looked for work. Jax looked for work. I found buyers in the repair shops, the android clinics which would pay good money or good service for salvage.

At the table, I passed Jax the smaller brush she was about to need, and got up to put the kettle on. There was a knock on our door, heavy, loud—a knock that seemed to have a threatening authority to it. I glanced over at Jax. Her screen was concerned white. I set the kettle down as Jax got up from the table. We walked through our small house together. I peered through the peephole to see our next door neighbour. His name is Gary Frye. He despairs of Jax’s and my refusal to properly attend to our dead garden. It is possible he also disapproves of our relationship.

I opened the door, and once I did, noticed the figure standing behind Gary, at the base of our crumbling concrete steps. An android in a t-shirt and torn jeans, standing on one leg. The blocky design—but not the old kind. A new one. The kind that Jax and I were making before the factory let us go.

“I found this,” Gary jerked a thumb back towards the android, and then, eyes flicking to Jax, corrected himself. “—guy, out behind my house, sniffing around my garage, looking for who knows what. Had half a mind to call the roundup. But he claims he knows you.” I exchanged a glance with Jax. Her screen was grey, unreadable. The young android’s screen was blood red, rage red, furious. He was gripping his one leg, and through the torn jeans I could see mangled circuitry.

Now, a fact that not everyone knows about the new androids versus the old ones: older models do not have a sense of touch, as the technology for it was too expensive. Newer androids do. They feel sensations. And they feel pain, or something that closely equates to it.

“Yeah, we know him. He works at a clinic downtown. Must have mistaken your house for ours,” Jax said. I nodded.

“Right, well. Anyways,” Gary said. “Have a nice day.” He marched down our steps and back towards his own house. We looked at the android, still clutching his leg, screen still flooded with swirling red. And we had no option but to let him into our house.

“Come on. What are you waiting for?” Jax said. The android looked between us. And then he limped up the steps. I shut the door behind him. The three of us stood there for a moment, looking at each other. And then he wavered a little, and Jax grabbed his arm.

“Don’t touch me.”

“Don’t fall over,” she said.

“Why don’t we all go back into the kitchen?” I said. We should have stopped at the couch, because there were torn wires hanging loose from his leg and operating fluid leaking into his jeans. But he walked the whole way there, head held high, like he was a soldier.

I cleared off the table. Jax pulled the repairs kit from under the sink. I passed her the scissors to cut away the torn pant leg. Watching us from a chair, the red in his face drained away, melted into a curious or terrified or bewildered blue.

“What are you doing?” he asked, glancing towards the back door. You could scrap a new model like him for a lot of money. You could scrap a new model like him and buy power cells for a year.

“We’re going to fix your leg, and then you’re going to leave, and not come back to this neighbourhood, ever,” Jax said.

“Look thanks for the help with that asshole human—” he glanced my way, “no offense. But I thought you were just going to let me out the back door. I don’t need any charity. I didn’t ask you for anything.”

“You asked us for help when you told him you knew us.”

“I was just trying not to get scrapped, you know?”

“Well the door is unlocked,” Jax said, sitting down opposite him. She placed the scissors on the table between them. It was like a kind of dare—or a show of faith. You could hardly get the same cash for Jax as you could for this new model, but you could still scrap her for something. And you could scrap me for something too, to the right buyer, who is looking for the right organs. In response, he stood up and limped out the back door. We watched it close behind him.

“Just like that?” I asked. Jax’s screen was impassive grey.

“If he doesn’t want our help, he doesn’t want it. The roundup will find him. Or the street boys will chop him up and sell him off. It’s hardly our business,” she said, but there was pink bleeding through the grey, and I could tell she was upset. I opened the back door so it was just the screen between us and the outside. He was sitting in our yard, right at the bottom of the back steps, hunched over. Jax went back to scrubbing a part clean.

“He’s just sitting out there,” I said.

“He can come in if he wants to,” Jax countered. I sighed. I wondered if maybe he couldn’t. The leg was truly and deeply mangled. Maybe he couldn’t climb back up the steps. He was staring out at the yard, resolutely. I lingered in the doorway. “He can come in if he wants to,” Jax said again, firmly. “We don’t need pride like that in our house.”

“I can hear you!” he yelled up the steps.

“Then get out of my yard!” She was met by furious silence. I pushed the screen door open and crouched down (although my knees protested) like I was teasing a stray cat in.

“Gary Frye is going to call the roundup on you if he sees you outside. And then what was the point of us helping you in the first place?” I said. He ignored me. To release my knees from their torture, I sat down on the narrow top step. From the bottom, he looked up at me. “Don’t you want to live?” I asked. He looked down at his leg. I heard a sound behind me. Jax was in the doorway. Her screen was a beacon of white light.

“Come inside before someone sees you,” she snapped. He didn’t look up, instead mumbling something towards the ground.

“What?” I said. We waited.

“Can’t,” he mumbled, a little louder. When he looked up, his screen was bold white like Jax’s. His metal and plastic hands were curled into fists. Jax pushed open the screen door. We came down the steps and we carried him back inside. We got as far as the kitchen floor (he was heavy) when we gave up on it. I cut away his torn pant leg. Jax severed the wire that was relaying pain up to his CPU. The sound he made as she was doing it was so high and piercing it echoed against the sterile walls of our small kitchen, the cry of an infant in a hospital room.

Jax handed me a screwdriver without needing to be asked. I slid pliers across to her.

“You have a name?” Jax asked. He glanced away towards the door, still cagey.

“I’m Ena,” I volunteered. “This is Jax.” Jax made sound of annoyance through her speakers.

“Charm,” he told us. Jax laughed.

“Some name for such a rude robot,” she said. I stifled a chuckle. Charm’s screen bloomed pink.

“What are you doing all the way up here?” Jax asked.

“What makes you think I’m not from the old factory district myself?”

“If you could go home, you’d have gone,” Jax replied without hesitation. Charm’s screen flashed a picture of the slopeside, the back alleys where the android clinics and the organ dealers have set up, just distant enough from the downtown army base.

“I was s’posed to be a warbot. Didn’t make the cut. Faulty attitude, apparently. Plus my reflexes are glitched, and the hardware fix was gonna cost too much, they said.”

“Attitude, you don’t say,” Jax said. I gave her a look.

“What the hell happened to your leg?” I asked. Some of the bits I was looking at were cracked or shattered.

“Scrappers. Wandered into some territory I’m not supposed to be in,” he said.

“You should be more careful,” I said.

“Careful doesn’t pay the bills, lady. I already hibernate more than I should. I don’t want to go to sleep and miss everything. Or… you know. Not wake up,” Charm said. Bots like him and Jax, like humans, couldn’t shut down altogether without losing something. If there wasn’t at least a little power committed to cooling the central processor, their brains turned to jelly. Jax had, in the dead of night, when I lurked by her charging station, shared similar fears with me.

“Rather be chopped up by the street boys then?” Jax said.

“Kind of,” Charm said.

“Broken screw in here rolling around,” I said. Jax handed me the pliers. My hands weren’t as deft as they have been, but I managed to pluck it out. I turned it over in my hand, thumbing operating fluid off it. Then I froze.

“Ena?” Jax asked. I blinked. “Ena,” she said.

“Jax, look.” I dropped the screw into her waiting palm.

“What?” Charm asked, in the silence that followed. The screw was standard make. I must have seen a thousand of them. Maybe a hundred thousand. It had been dipped in thin green paint, now half chipped away. In the last year that we worked in the factory, Jax used to dip our short screws in green paint because the boys who worked at the station next to us were always taking ours “by mistake.” If we saw them with green screws in their internals, I’d raise hell about it. The week before we got let go, the foreman banned people from doing this, because it was merely fuelling disputes, rather than settling them. And because some people had adopted the strategy, but with thick paint that gummed up the internals.

And all of these facts are the thoughts that rushed through my head rapid fire. Jax, I imagine, beat me to the conclusion. She stood up quick, one fluid motion.

“What?” Charm asked.

“Jax,” I said. She marched out of the room.

“Hang on, I’ll be right back,” I said. “Don’t go anywhere.” Charm gestured to his opened leg, as if to point out that I’m an idiot. I chased after Jax. She was standing at our front window, looking out at the street.

“Jax,” I said. Her shoulders hunched up a little. Then they lowered. She straightened her back.

“We built him,” she said. And we did. We built him. We gave birth to him in tandem, in a perfectly synchronized effort. All those years, all those androids that we made together.

“We made him,” Jax said, and when she turned to face me, her screen was ink black, like the color when she watched me making tea, or the color from back when we worked in the garden together. The color when we saw each other for the first time after being apart. I never had children, because I loved Jax and we were all that we needed, and where in the world would we have gotten children or the money to feed and clothe them but here, a son, had fallen into our laps, a son that was already ours in equal parts, that we created out of nothing. “And he found us,” she said.

We went back into the kitchen and we put Charm’s leg back together. And then I began to tell him about the factory, about Ena and Jax, and green-dipped screws.

The next day, he followed us out to the scrap heaps like a stray kitten, limping. And when Jax sulked I chucked a tin can at her, and she smacked it out of the air, and Charm let out a burst of laughter that made me feel like I was born for a reason, and I worked for a reason, and I destroyed my knees for a reason, and it was to hear that noise.

About the Author

Penelope Evans

Penelope is a a writer, a student, and an indie games developer.

Find more by Penelope Evans


About the Narrator

Karen Bovenmyer

Karen Menzel (née Bovenmyer) earned an MFA in Creative Writing: Popular Fiction from the University of Southern Maine. She teaches and mentors students at Iowa State University and Western Technical College. She is the 2016 recipient of the Horror Writers Association Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley Scholarship. Her poems, short stories and novellas appear in more than 40 publications and her first novel, SWIFT FOR THE SUN, debuted from Dreamspinner Press in 2017.  Karen’s website is at Karen was an assistant editor of PseudoPod team from 2018 to 2021.

Find more by Karen Bovenmyer