He walked and walked, blinking step by step and shaking off a feeling of sleep. It was confusing, being amid all the trees and grasses; the light was strong, shifting and yellow green, and the air felt cold on his body as he passed beneath the leaves’ massed shadows. He could feel the moist earth on his feet, mud and soil wet with melt but still ringing sharp of recent Winter. He was not used to many of these sensations – he remembered laying in a metal pool a long time ago, and feeling sparks on his hands and his back, yet none of this was vivid now. He didn’t know how long he had been walking. He was stretching his legs in ways he was not used to, seeing things he had never seen. As roots and rocks passed by him, he watched them and they faded and blurred. He found it interesting. Nothing stood out from anything else, and there was so much of this forest that it felt like it was infinite. Infinite and receding to no point at all, as though there was no such parameter as direction here, save the one he was blindly walking by, save the one that was carrying him along like time.
Against the infinite, he thought, nothing has any more weight than anything else.
This observation slowly took root as an image in his mind, and, after a while of turning it over in his head, there was nothing to pace his steps for him anymore, no more synaptic blinking. When he realized this, he stopped and sat down upon a fallen tree, which was as large as nine of his own bodies laid end to end. He sat for a while and looked around him. Then, feeling again an urge toward movement, he leaned his torso forward, crane-like, and smelled and touched the ground with his open hands. It was wet and he sensed it was full of organic matter. He breathed an almost theatrically deep breath of its air, and held it, letting it out finally in a clear cloud of steam. His eyes then closed behind aluminium shields.
With his eyes closed, the robot thought about everything he had done, picking over hazy memories as he sat and touched the small nicks and dents in his hands made by the many different hard metals and carbides he had handled over his prior years. He had been a working robot in a factory, where his job was to manipulate materials with immense strength and dexterity, fitting great squares of carbon allotropes and composites into place along the hulls of massive system-bound ships and deep space gliders, shaping rods of manufactured diamond into struts, and melting rare-earth meshes into casings for delicate and enormous engine modules that would carry men and other robots toward the stars. He felt that past now as a clown might feel the size of his shoe after he has finished performing; it was cumbersome in his memory, and seemed in some ways not analogous to his present sense of the world, here in the endless and lush-living woods.
How long had he been walking here? He wondered at it again. Many months, it seemed. His sensors told him he was far from where he had began. Why should he go on? He thought on that and realized that now he did not know.
After sitting in stillness for a while upon the felled tree, the robot stirred and reached again to the ground. He had seen something else that interested him. He used his immensely strong and dexterous hand to pick up what was, to him, a very tiny plant that was near him, its leafy top separating easily from its roots along a weakness in its stem. Small droplets of water fell as he raised it, dew running down and shaking from its leaves. It was a fern, and he looked closely at the hundreds of small ridges on its quivering leaves with his electronic array of eyes, scanning them individually until he could see them no more. He wondered at the infinity in the gentle plant and its relation to the forest he had stepped through. The fern felt like the softest thing he had ever touched and it needed to be gripped with the absolute lightest grip he could manage; he was barely touching it with his steel fingers. As he held this fern, he felt suddenly more tired than he had ever felt, even when he was lifting and shaping the vast carbon skins of the starships for all those prior years.
Small personal decisions for robots are the most difficult things to program. A set of abstract directives can be embedded within a higher artificial mind with a precision that results in extremely nuanced logic trees, but choices between doing one thing or another in the billions of tiny, temporal, empty spaces that become a robot’s life often still require the strangest of simulated reasoning and most perilous of integral geometric overlays. The mastery of these spaces had engaged robo-gnosists for years, and they were used to baffling outcomes, but yet few of these philosopher scientists, even the greatest triangular thinkers, would have predicted or understood the robot’s decision now. With whirring motors, the robot laid the fern down on the tree on which he sat, and then he used his dexterous and strong right hand to remove his left hand at the wrist. He took his time unscrewing one-hundred-twenty unseen screws and severing one-thousand-twenty unseen wires, and finally his left hand was parted from him, and it lay beside him inert upon the log.
This, alone, was a strange, incomprehensible thing that likely few could have predicted. But fewer still of those robot theorists, who lounged in bright halls of their mountaintop and orbital cities, would have understood when the robot used his one remaining hand to place the fern at the end of his sparking wrist and weave the fibers of the plant into the exposed electrical nodes. The robot himself believed he understood this action, but no one else would have, even if they had been privy to the full matrix of underlying protocols that preceded that strange undertaking.
When this was done, the robot watched the fern at the end of his wrist wave blankly. It bobbed there and shook in the breeze, but it was held tight. The robot looked up and saw that the fallen tree on which he sat created a faint ghost of open space in the forest canopy, and that beneath it was light enough for the small plant to grow. He knew that he would also need to obtain water and nutrients from the ground for the plant, and so he used his remaining right hand to remove his right foot, letting the great metal hoof fall discarded to the ground where it made a dull sound as it thudded against the sodden earth. The robot carefully dug the fern’s disused roots out of the ground, and deftly wove them into his severed ankle, letting the plant’s white tendrils find their way in the earth beneath the fallen tree. His sensors found moist places for the roots, and also felt insects and seeds and worms and frogs in the ground around him. He listened to their movements, knowing where each and every one was.
And for a very long time, he sat there unfeeling. The robot watched and listened to the forest around him, which was most often quiet and empty as he sat there and the days passed. He watched a squirrel race up and down a tree and heard it bark at another squirrel when his eyes could no longer follow it. He watched birds fly from branch to branch eating small insects that they found, and sometimes felt them resting on his metal shoulders to pick at beetles that would crawl there. In the night, his lights would come on and moths would circle closely and bats would swoop toward him clicking to find the moths spinning round that blue aura which was pulsing from him in the midst of the night.
Summer came and the leaves grew lush. His fern-hand became stronger and stretched deep green, and its leaves spread wide. Autumn came and the forest’s leaves turned gold and red and then dropped to the ground. When the deep Winter’s snow fell upon the robot and covered him, he was unable to see anything for awhile, and he was left with his thoughts, which were as quiet as they had been when he had slept in the metal pool. He felt a lessening of the faint electric pulses from the fern at the end of his hand during the winter, and knew that it had become brittle and lost its leaves. When the snow melted and the water ran icy beneath his foot, he felt the sun slowly warm him as it glinted on his shoulders. Soon, the fern began to uncurl itself again from the end of his wrist, leaning toward the sun, and he watched in something like quietude as Spring took hold of the woods again.