A painting cyborg ranger rescues a human who has fled her prison of a city, the citadel. He expects most escapees to be dead, but a few are not. This one is not. He works on the first level of a perpendicular pair of quonset huts and saves the second level for things he'd do if he were human, like sleeping, etc.
He feeds her and spares her from a snake attack. She wants to be augmented like the ranger. The ranger cares for the biosphere. She wants to be like the ranger, but he cannot. Moreover, humans are not ready to survive to the outside world. She points out that people are dying to escape the citadel. He is not moved. She cannot survive and be free. She has to choose. His programming won't allow her to help. Maybe she can make it to the survivors, but it's dubious.
[Spoiler] The ranger takes off to save another creature while in the meantime a poisonous cloud sweeps the land. She's a victim, but she's free. He will paint her and put her in the attic where he has no need to go.
What works well: Despite the largely inactive plot, the dialogue exchange is interesting enough and readers are moved by the young woman who wants to live and be free--and her ultimate demise. Hardwick rolls out a fine metaphor of the ranger putting the human painting in the part where he'd live if he were human.
However, why paint or save the girl if he's abandoned his humanity? If he hasn't, why doesn't he race to save her? Maybe this is a "Cold Equations" scenario where the narrator could do nothing to save her. If so, that might have been made more clear.
The science, at times, seems dubious: Why can't humans be fertilizer? Why can't humans be a part of the biosphere? Maybe it's assumed humans will ruin it. If so, why is a cyborg used? And why would humans ever be released? Why keep them alive at all if they only destroy paradise? If it's against his programming to help her, why feed her? Also, why would a small human colony exist? I would think, for a mechanical creature bound by programming, it would be difficult to distinguish a human from any other part of the biosphere. If she's labeled an invasive species, isn't he? Why doesn't he kill her immediately? Why house an invasive species so near where they can't be? Why not simply kill the creatures off if they're so troublesome? (See quote below.)
All of the above questions might have been best answered by showing a part of biosphere complexity and the point of rangers within it and of humans being removed from it. Being a little explicit wouldn't hurt, especially since this is the tale's subject.
Or maybe this is only a tale of how freedom is more important to us humans than life. If so, we should have witnessed the dystopia and the freed person's joie de vivre, even if it means death. The ranger's presence complicates that reading. A line in here makes me think that that's where the tale intended to go:
"She's programmed but no less surely--to dream, to mate, to carve out a life and a home. It's her nature to scrabble and climb and seek every advantage. If fortune is kind, she will fill the world with her progeny. If not, she will be replace by another, with more restraint or less, better reflexes or better luck--whatever it takes to survive."Still an enjoyable tale.