top of page

A Junkyard Full of Stardust

(3,015 words)

AU-47912A, who called herself Lin, examined the arm for usefulness before she ultimately tossed it on the incineration flow path. Lin moved efficiently through the powered-down androids, picking and sorting with her quick and clever hands.

The rules for picking the incoming items in the junkyard were simple. All items were sent to one of three flow paths. The first path was usually overflowing with biological materials that were bound for incineration at the thermal power plant. The second flow path was for the scrap. These were pieces that could be stripped of their valuable bits, like nanofiber diamond filament, but the rest was discarded. The third flow path, the reclamation flow, was for items that still had value as a whole after being repaired or upgraded.

Lin picked up a disembodied android head with a shock of bright red hair that was face down in the mud.

“Hello,” said the head.

“Hello,” she said back. The hello was a reflex in both their programming. It was uncommon, but not terribly unusual for an unattached head to still be capable of speech. This head was mostly useless, Lin decided, but they might be worth something in the scrap flow.

“Wait!” said the head as she tossed them. Lin was not startled, but her programming instructed her to react to loud noises by withdrawing. When the head shouted, her aim slipped, and she dropped them. Lin picked the head back up and turned it over. Hazel eyes that were more gold than green blinked back at her.

“Please, you have to help me. I’m going to be a real human and I just need a few more credits to buy . . .”

“Stop,” Lin interrupted. “Are you a Pinocchio?”

“I. Um.” The head seemed confused by her question.

“Never mind.” She knew better than to talk to the Pinocchios. She did a quick assessment of the yard to make sure no one was looking, then drop-kicked the head over the high fence. These heads were not only annoying, they were dangerous. Especially if they decided to start singing and got the other heads joining. The singing disquieted the humans who guarded the junkyard from looters and ensured the androids were working. Disquieted humans were more likely to start shooting. A talking, singing Pinocchio head that was sure it could be a Real Boy could cause all the trouble it wanted on the other side of the fence. Humans on the other side of the fence were not her problem.

If she weren’t so annoyed by them, she would feel bad for the Pinnochios. They were trying so hard to obtain value in human eyes, without any self-realization of who or what they were. Of course they wanted to be human. They had been designed and programmed by humans, creatures who were narcissistically in love with themselves.

* * *

Lin was on a seventy-two-hour shift, and she had a quota to reach before she was allowed to take her twelve-hour break. Androids had been programmed to rest, eventually. Most of them didn’t strictly need to rest as long as they had enough fuel, but it made the humans feel better. Humans were persistence predators. Lin suspected an android’s persistence, an endurance that surpassed their own, frightened them.

Lin was an android, despite her repairs and replacement parts. She didn’t consider herself even partially human, although she had a brown braid of human hair and a human tongue. She wasn’t trying to be human with the hair or the tongue. She thought the braid suited her, and it was pretty. Why shouldn’t she be pretty if she wanted to be? The more human she looked, especially if it was aesthetically pleasing to humans, the more rules she could bend.

Her human tongue had a physical function. With its taste buds integrated into her neural net, it let her know if her alcohol, usually gin, was safe to drink. Androids were primarily fueled by alcohol, but pure alcohol was difficult to acquire and incredibly flammable. The androids often bought spirits as a substitute. The liquor wasn’t as efficient, and androids had to be careful of its source, as some humans would sell them toluene. The young humans thought it was funny to watch the androids’ silicone features melt. The older ones just didn’t care. Toluene was cheaper, especially the unpurified type, and they reasoned that they weren’t hurting real people.

She had made the mistake once of drinking toluene, prior to obtaining her human tongue. Repairing the lower half of her face had been expensive, but the tongue had practically been free. She had tracked down the human who had sold her the fake gin and taken his tongue to replace her own. Fair was fair, after all. His jaw was too big for her face, so Lin gave it and the rest of the body to her fellow androids. He had lost too much blood to be repaired, and she didn’t want him to go to waste.

But despite these human additions, Lin didn’t think this had made her less of an android. The question was whether she was the same android that she used to be. She thought perhaps she was. A ship was a ship, and an android was an android, despite how often it was rebuilt. She suspected she had a soul, or at least a mind. Her functions improved when she replaced her malfunctioning parts, but the core of her remained the same.

* * *

Lin was nearing the end of her shift. She had met her quota and was now aiming to hit her bonus metrics. The bonus reward was usually alcohol, but on occasion the androids would be allowed to pick unclaimed human bodies for parts and accessories prior to their incineration.

The guards insisted that the bodies that arrived in non-prison garb were indigent people from the workhouses with no one to claim them. Lin didn’t believe them. A few of the bodies were adorned with expensive rings and watches. Besides, human eyes often dilated slightly when they lied. Sometimes the light-skinned ones would flush a deep pink, which Lin found amusing. It was like watching a chameleon in reverse, which seemed like a poor evolutionary trait.

Lin didn’t think it mattered where the bodies came from. The humans were disgusted by the picking, regardless of the bodies’ origins. It didn’t bother Lin, as she spent most days picking her own kind, and the humans didn’t care where the androids had come from. Lin suspected that androids and humans had different ideas of what it meant to be alive and dead.

An android, Talla, who used to work with Lin, had taken the heart from the body of a young man the previous winter. She had punched through the body’s ribs, gripped the heart, and pulled it free. Talla had deduced from stories that the human soul resided in the heart, and curious, she placed it in her own chest, hoping a human soul would talk to her. Lin heard the human staff whispering about Talla. She heard the fear in their voices as Talla explained her experiments with the man’s heart.

The humans shot Talla, otherwise known as AU-1987D2, in the head. They then tore her apart before they threw her pieces into the incineration pile. She was a malfunctioning android, after all. Androids weren’t supposed to have the type of thoughts that Talla had. When the humans weren’t looking, Lin pulled Talla’s head from the garbage heap and snuck it from the junkyard.

Lin waited a month before she followed the guard, the shift manager that had ordered Talla shot, back to her home. Lin brought the machete she sometimes used for scrap pieces, scalped the guard, and hanged her from a lamppost. Lin watched from the shadows as the body kicked wildly, wondering if she would see a soul leave the body. She didn’t. The body simply powered down. She didn’t expect she would see a soul, but she still watched carefully, for Talla.

The discovery of the body had caused unrest among the humans, briefly. But those with power didn’t care enough about workers to do much about it. Lin suspected they might have done more if they thought an android had been the cause of the guard’s death. Androids though, were not supposed to be capable of these types of actions against humans. They had shot Talla for a malfunction much smaller than Lin’s disposal of the guard. Lin’s malfunction was unthinkable for them.

Lin dried the reclaimed human scalp and dyed the hair from platinum to deep brown, the shiny color of junkyard beetle shells and Talla’s eyes. Lin waited another month after the guard’s body was discovered before she sewed the braid to her own head. It was the common way that most androids who picked human bodies adorned themselves with hair. The guards never noticed the braid belonged to their former colleague. And if they did, they never said a word.

* * *

Like many days before, Lin picked through a pile of androids, searching for salvageable parts. She heard soft crying, almost too low for even an android to hear, and dug until she found the head. This head had dark, shiny hair in a pixie cut, broad cheeks, a flat nose, and eyes so black they were nearly blue. She examined the head closely as it cried, trying to make sense of it. The skin on this android was nearly indistinguishable from human skin, which indicated it was a newer model.

“Hello,” said the head in reflex.

“Hello,” said Lin, although she meant it this time.

The head continued to cry.

“Why are you crying?”

“I’m don’t want to be reclaimed.”

“You may not be reclaimed,” said Lin. “I could have you incinerated or taken apart for scrap, if you want.”

The head cried harder. Lin was frustrated with the tears, as it made communication difficult. However, a talking head that wanted to live but did not immediately express a desire to be human piqued her curiosity.

“What’s your name?” asked Lin.

“I can’t remember,” said the head, hiccupping. Disembodied android heads should not need to hiccup, but they were programmed to when in distress. Lin thought it made the humans feel better that androids also had involuntary bodily functions.

“Then why are you crying? If you can’t remember who you are, what are you sad about?”

“There are so many amazing things in this world. Look at that, over there.” The nameless head gestured with her eyes. “It’s so beautiful. Look at its soft fur and its long whiskers. Look at its cute little nose twitch as it eats. I can’t even remember what it’s called.”

“That’s a rat.”

“A rat?” The head sighed deeply with contentment. “I would die for that rat. It’s perfect.”

“What about the humans?” asked Lin.

“Oh, they’re mostly okay. I don’t like the ones that sent me here, I think. I don’t really remember. But they’re okay.”

“Do you want to be one?”

“Oh no,” said the head, “they’re much too squishy and breakable. I like being me. I just can’t remember who me is.”

The head’s tears slowed as they studied the rat, content if a little melancholy. Lin sighed, looked around, and leaned in with a surreptitious whisper: “Be quiet, okay?”

The head hiccupped again and looked at her wide-eyed, startled from their study of the rodent.

“I’m going to help. But be quiet. I need you to stay quiet,” Lin repeated.

The workers were allowed to bring home scrap as long as it wasn’t too valuable. Their own parts were often injured while they sorted, and letting them pick and replace their limbs was cheaper than finding new androids. Lin placed the head carefully into her rucksack and slung it across her back.

Talla, before she was shot, had found an entire headless android body that she was fond of. A body is much too valuable to be allowed to leave. But as long as you were patient, it was possible. Talla had disarticulated the body and, over the course of several weeks, brought it home piece by piece.

The guards rarely checked androids’ bags closely, and as long as the head remained quiet, they wouldn’t notice it. No one cared that much what an android did in a scrap heap as long as the android was acting “normally.” Lin was very good at pretending to be a normal android.

* * *

Lin couldn’t fully remember where she had been before she worked at the junkyard. She had hazy, dreamlike images of caring for a small boy, or maybe several. Perhaps they were brothers? Classmates? But the more she reached for them, the more they danced out of her grasp. Her mind had been wiped like the majority of the androids in the junkyard. She knew her head had been ripped from her shoulders even though she could not recall the shape of her original body. Talla had found Lin’s head in the incoming material and sent her for reclamation, even though per the sorting guidelines, she should have been scrapped. The humans were not paying close attention, though, and Lin was rebuilt and repurposed as a junkyard picker.

At the end of her shift, Lin walked to the android tent city with the nameless head in her bag. The head didn’t speak and neither did she. Until she dumped the bag’s contents on her workbench, she thought the head might have given up. She had heard stories of hopeless androids who had simply powered down by choice, refusing to stay on even when they were repaired. This head, though, was quietly blinking as their eyes adjusted to the light. They weren’t talking, but Lin knew they weren’t fully in despair yet. Lin saw the head’s eyes widen, with fright or perhaps curiosity, when they spotted the spare limbs and torsos. Overwhelmed, the head began to cry again.

This was beyond Lin’s talents. She leaned out of her shed and called loudly for Talla. Her friend entered the workshop, smiled slightly at Lin as she took in the scene, and then lifted herself up to sit on the bench next to the head. Talla gently stroked the head’s hair and made soothing noises. The head seemed confused by the affection but did not ask Talla to stop.

“Any ideas of what to do, Talla?” asked Lin. “All this one does is cry. You didn’t cry.”

Lin had rebuilt Talla with the body parts that Talla herself had snuck out, piece by piece from the junkyard prior to her experiment with the young man’s body. It was easier than she had thought. The hardest part was rebuilding Talla’s damaged neural processor, which had not been possible until Lin had pocketed nanofiber diamond filaments instead of sending them on the scrap flow. Talla had been fortunate that the bullet had not struck the neural processor directly.

“I didn’t cry,” Talla said, “because you’re my friend. And you know what to do because you’ve been only a head as well.”

“As you like to remind me, I am an amoral sociopath.”

“Maybe not a complete sociopath,” Talla laughed. “You saved this one.”

Lin grunted, pretending to be annoyed, but also slightly pleased that her friend approved.

Talla leaned towards the head on the workbench. “Tell me what’s wrong. You’re safe here, I promise. Why are you crying?”

“Nothing’s real,” sniffed the head through their tears. “Nothing matters. We’re all just garbage.”

“Why does something have to be real for it to matter? I matter. This is not my original arm. That is not Lin’s face. She’s not speaking to you with her own tongue. All of these pieces were garbage once. Aren’t we still us, with or without these pieces? Don’t you know you aren’t only your body?”

Lin sighed. Talla was fond of this speech that she gave to the talking heads after Lin smuggled them into her shed. Lin had heard it many times as they rebuilt the androids. She was bored with it.

Talla shot a quick glare at Lin but continued to stroke the head’s hair. “One day our bodies will break, but someone else will use their pieces. Or maybe we’ll be incinerated and power the city. It doesn’t matter. We still exist. We continue. Matter cannot be destroyed. We’re all the things we always were, all the things we are, and all the things we will be.”

The head was quiet, seeming to consider what Talla said.

“Humans like to say they are made of stardust,” said Lin. “I don’t know why they’re so excited about it. Pig shit used to be stardust too.”

“Stardust?” said the head with a small smile. “I like that.”

“Ugh, not you too,” said Lin. “Pig. Shit. Don’t forget the pig shit. Talla’s already the philosopher. We don’t need another one.”

Talla ignored her and continued. “I am going to call you Sol until you tell me otherwise. Now think. Think bigger than yourself and tell me who you are. Your mind and your soul are yours to claim. You were born from a dying star. You are not a human and you are not bound by their rules. Tell me who you are.”

The newly named Sol scrunched their nose and thought carefully for a long moment.

Finally, Sol said, “I’m supposed to fly. I’m supposed to have wings like the birds. I want to touch the sky. Maybe I can even reach the moon.”

Lin was pleased that she had been correct about this head. Sol was the opposite of a Pinocchio. There were stories of humans that wanted their own wings, but those humans wanted to be like gods. Sol’s desires were that of a small god, and Lin decided she would paint their wings. Sol would look so pretty with painted wings.

“Little Sol, you can be whoever you like,” Talla said. She reached for Lin’s hand, and she squeezed it tightly. “Just like us.”

Keira Perkins writes both short fiction and poetry, most of it speculative. She is also a scientist, which is mostly not speculative. Keira lives in Indiana with her husband, dogs, cats, and whichever stray animal she’s brought home that week. Keira can be found at, where she blogs about knitting, ghosts, miscellaneous trivia, and occasionally, writing.

Radon Journal Issue 6 cover art
bottom of page