top of page


(2,258 words)

(First published in Compelling Science Fiction Short Stories)

Annie rubbed a soft cloth along her arm, polishing the chrome until she could see herself in it. Her limbs and the front of her torso were finished. She reached back with one arm, and then the other to reach her back, but her joints were too stiff. There was lubricant, but Dean had put the bottle on one of the high shelves in his workshop. Even with the stepstool she wouldn’t be able to reach it with her arms as stiff as they were.

She sat at the kitchen table, staring at the dinner she’d made for him. Game hen stuffed with fruits and nuts, served alongside wild rice pilaf. It was sealed, so it wouldn’t get cold, but if it sat there much longer the rice would turn to mush and the fowl would dry out.

Closing her eyes, she sent Dean a message.

Are you working late tonight? Can I expect you home soon?

She waited. Ten seconds. One minute. Five minutes. Then she stopped timing. His responses used to come quickly, but these days they tended to take hours, if they came at all.

With nothing to do but wait, she retreated to her memory files, bringing up one of her favorites.

* * *

She was back in the robotics shop, the day she’d met Dean. She watched as he entered, and his gaze moved around the room until it came to land on her. He met her eyes and smiled, the skin at the corners of his eyes wrinkling in a way that elicited a response in her neuro-processor, which was why she’d saved the memory.

“Your eyes, do they always glow like that? So intensely blue?” he asked.

Before she could respond, the salesman approached.

“The irises can be customized,” he said. “They’re available in seven different colors.”

“Oh. Well, I like this color fine.”

Dean admired her chrome body, gently running a fingertip along her shiny cheek, careful not to smudge her surface.

“She’s perfect,” he said.

She remembered wanting to return that smile, but knowing she lacked the necessary facial dexterity. Instead, she tilted her head in what was probably an awkward way because Dean laughed. Thanks to her vocal processor, that was something Annie could do so she laughed too.

“Remarkable,” Dean said.

“Her voice can be customized too.”

Dean shook his head. “No, just leave her as is.”

“You won’t find a better robotic companion on the market,” the salesman continued. “This model will last you a lifetime with proper care. Her processor’s top of the line. In time she’ll adapt to your needs. She’ll even be able to read your mood and adjust to it. Just about the only thing she’s not made for is . . . well, you know. We have other models for that, if that’s what you’re interested in.”

Dean laughed again. “No, I’m just looking for some help around the house,” he said. “I’m a bachelor and figured this way I’d have someone to come home to. Also, I’m an engineer by day and these new robots fascinate me.”

“Well, you’ve come to the right place. Here, let me show you something.”

The salesman took one of her fingers and turned the tip, triggering the holographic owner’s manual.

“All the care instructions are detailed here,” he said. “But they’re simple enough. The most important things are to lubricate her joints, polish her chrome surface, and make sure she recharges in her alcove once a day. She can do a lot of that on her own, but they’re programmed to put your needs first, see? That’s why it’s up to you to make sure her needs are met too. The charging is especially important. If you don’t charge her, she’ll go into dormant mode. You don’t want that. Her mind continues to work but, to conserve power, her motor functions will shut down. If she’s like that for too long, she’ll need to be sent back here for a full reboot.”

“I’ll make sure she’s charged,” he assured the salesman.

She was delivered the following day. Dean had switched her on and given her a name. Then he’d shown her around the house. Here was the kitchen, where she could put her extensive culinary database to the test. Here was the bedroom where her alcove would go, so she could sleep close to where he did. Last, he showed her his shop in the basement where the walls were lined with bits of scrap metal, some large, some tiny, one piece even chrome, like her.

On one set of shelves, she noticed small figurines made from these bits of scrap. They depicted people, animals, cars, planes, and more.

“This is my hobby,” he said. “Do you like them?”

She wasn’t sure. They were incredibly detailed. She could see that the craftsmanship was solid, and each piece clearly depicted what it was meant to, but there was one thing she didn’t understand.

“What is their purpose?”


“Yes. I was made to have a purpose. To serve as a companion to you. Why have you made these figures?”

“I suppose I just like having them,” he said. “Just to look at. They’re decorative.”

“Decorative,” she repeated. Such a strange purpose to have.

* * *

Annie came back to the present at the sound of the front door opening as Dean walked in. She stood and faced the entrance.

“Good evening, Dean. Your dinner is ready if you’re hungry. How was your day?”

Before he could answer, a message came in on his phone. He looked down at it and began responding to whoever had messaged him. It was several seconds before he turned his attention back to her.

“Uh . . . just put my dinner in the fridge for tonight, Annie. I’ve got to meet up with Jim.”

He started to put his coat on once more.

“Dean,” Annie said. “Before you go, could you please lubricate my joints? I wasn’t able to polish my back.”

“Sure,” he said. “I’m sorry. I really need to be better at staying on top of this stuff.”

He ran down to his shop and returned with the lubricant. He squirted some in all her joints, but in such a rush that only a few were sufficiently loosened. Useless streams of lubricant dripped from the rest, running along her body, and tarnishing the chrome she’d so painstakingly polished.

“There. Good?”

“Yes,” she said. She didn’t want to complain. He was trying, after all.

“Great. Well, I’ll see you later.” And with that he was gone again. He hadn’t even told her about his day, or asked about hers, like he used to.

* * *

Once she’d put away the food, Annie went out to her garden.

She went over to the roses and pulled some weeds that had grown at their base. As she worked, she thought of the first flowers she’d seen on a walk with Dean, back when they still went for walks together. She’d been amazed at the complexity of the flowers, the way their petals grew in a perfect Fibonacci spiral. Dean, in turn, had marveled at the way she reacted to new things. It wasn’t long after that that he’d taken her into the backyard and told her she could have a garden all her own, if she wanted it.

They had worked on it together. She uploaded new files on how to care for plants and they planted flowers, fruits, and vegetables. Together they had tended the soil, watered, and added nutrients, until finally flowers bloomed, and fruits and vegetables ripened.

“We did all this,” she’d said. “Together.”

He’d smiled, his eyes crinkling.

She replayed that memory now, as she worked alone in the dark.

* * *

An internal notification told her that it was past Dean’s usual time for sleep. It seemed he’d be out late again. Annie went to her recharging alcove, but rather than connect to it, she found herself sitting on a corner of the bed in front of it.

There was too much to think about. Besides, she wanted to be alert when Dean returned, in case he needed anything. It was clear she was failing him somehow. They’d been so happy once, now nothing she did brought back that smile with the wrinkled eyes.

She brought up a series of memories. Dean talking to her about his work. The two of them playing chess. Dean showing her a holo from when he was a child. It was during this time that she’d felt the importance of her purpose and understood what it meant to be a companion.

She opened a file to another of her early memories. Dean had thrown a party. All his friends were in attendance. Annie walked around with trays of finger foods.

“These are delicious,” a woman said, eating one of the appetizers.

“Annie’s a great cook,” Dean said. “But she’s not just some glorified maid. There’s so much more to these robots. You know, she started a garden? And she has a sense of humor.”

“She’s programmed to laugh at your jokes, Dean,” his friend Jim had said.

They’d all laughed, so Annie had laughed too.

“Don’t you just love that?” Dean said.

Her receptors lit up with pleasure.

They did the same now, even as she closed the memory file.

* * *

Dean didn’t return until morning, then he slept for several hours while Annie waited, listening to him snore. When he did wake, he went down to his shop to work on his metal figures. She followed him down and watched him work for a while.

“It’s been some time since you made a new one,” she said.

“This one’s commissioned. A woman I work with offered me the password for her Enhanced Worlds account in exchange for a dragonfly.”

“Enhanced Worlds?”

“It’s a simulated experience.”

“Yes, I ran a search. I’ve just never heard you speak of it before.”

“Jim got me into it, actually. My new passion is virtual skydiving. It’s intense! Just as good as the real thing, but no danger. It’s amazing how tech has advanced by leaps and bounds.”

Annie’s mind lit up with activity. She recalled the holos she’d seen recently of new companion models. Models with synthetic skin and hair that could pass for human, with fully articulated faces that could even smile.

“Do you ever think of replacing me with a more advanced model?” she asked.

“Don’t be silly,” he said. “You’re the only one I want.”

He sounded sincere, but she still searched her memory for the times they’d passed by the new robot displays while running errands. In her files she saw that he never looked at them; never stopped to check their pricing or features. She could only conclude that he was satisfied with her then. And yet, she couldn’t help but wonder why it was that when he smiled at her these days his eyes no longer wrinkled in the corners.

He finished the figure and left again to trade it for the password. He was gone so long that she finally sent a message.

Will you be home soon? Would you like me to make something special for lunch?

The response took several hours.

I’ll be late again. Jim and I are going skydiving. Don’t wait up.

She waited anyway. She sat in the living room, replaying her memories. When he arrived, she tried to rise to greet him like she usually did, but found she couldn’t. She tried several more times, but her body wouldn’t respond.

She saw Dean notice her, then a look of concern as he realized what had happened.

“Annie,” he said. “Oh man, look at you.”

She felt his hand on her as he activated the manual and searched for something that could tell him how to fix her. Finding nothing, he left for a moment then returned with the lubricant, applying it with care this time. When he finished, he even polished her chrome.

“It’s going to be alright, Annie. I’ll get you working again.”

But it was too late. She knew it and so did he. She was stuck in dormant mode. She could see and hear. She could think. But she was otherwise trapped inside herself. She wanted to tell him to send her in for a reboot, but she couldn’t. She couldn’t even ask him to put her by the window so she could see her garden.

“I’m too exhausted to do more tonight, but I’ll fix you first thing in the morning,” he promised.

* * *

The following day, he took her down to his shop and placed her on a chair, next to his metal figures. He began looking through his tools, when suddenly his phone rang.

“Hey Jim. Yeah, that sounds great. See you in a bit.”

He hung up and looked at Annie.

“I’ll get to it, I swear. But Jim says he knows a guy that can get us a virtual surfing program so real you can feel the water splash against your skin.”

With that he left. She heard the door close and lock upstairs.

Unable to turn her head, Annie could only stare straight ahead where the large piece of chrome leaned against a wall. She could see herself reflected on its surface. She could see herself for what she was now: no longer the shiny new thing. Just another metal figure with no real purpose. Something to have, and to look at.

Nebula-nominated P.A. Cornell is a Chilean-Canadian Odyssey graduate who has published over thirty original pieces of short fiction in respected magazines, including Lightspeed, Apex, and Fantasy. Her work has also appeared in over twenty anthologies, including Year’s Best Canadian Fantasy & Science Fiction, Volumes 1 and 2, the former also listing her debut novella, Lost Cargo, as one of the best of 2022. In addition to becoming the first Chilean writer nominated for a Nebula Award in 2024, Cornell has been nominated for the Aurora Award, was longlisted for the 2023 BSFA Awards, and won Canada’s 2022 Short Works Prize. Visit to learn more.

Radon Journal Issue 6 cover art
bottom of page