Fri
Jun 7 2013 9:30am

iD (Excerpt)

Madeline Ashby

iD cover, Madeline AshbyTake a peek at Book II of Madeline Ashby's Machine Dynasty, iD, coming out from Angry Robot Books on July 4:

Javier is a self-replicating humanoid on a journey of redemption.

Javier’s quest takes him from Amy’s island, where his actions have devastating consequences for his friend, toward Mecha where he will find either salvation… or death.

 

 

 

2: The Island of Misfit Toys

 

Javier had enjoyed his share of organic virgins. Because he was synthetic, they enjoyed him even more. His failsafe meant that his memory would corrupt and his mind would fry if he went too fast and hurt them too much. So he went slow. He tickled. He teased. He got them wet and wild and wide. He made them want it more than they feared it. They called him attentive, thoughtful, caring. He called it self-preservation. And occasionally, he called it employment.

There was the girl on her way to Brown who’d never had time for a boyfriend what with all her overachieving. She met Javier in Mexico during “spring break,” which seemed to be something her therapist had suggested. Her own suggestion was that she get the whole first time over with, already, so she could put her curiosity to rest and just move on.

“I think it’s better, this way,” she said. “I won’t be one of those girls who can never get over her first time. I won’t obsess over you. And you won’t obsess over me.”

“Not afterward, no,” he’d said. “But I think you’ll find that during the festivities, I can be quite the micro-managing dick.”

Dick being the operative word.”

There was the kid who wasn’t sure if he was gay or not, and thought trying it out with a robot wouldn’t really count. Naturally he was as gay as the day was long. Javier told him so, after all the orgasms.

“It could just be a physical thing,” the kid told him. “I mean, sometimes people can’t help coming, no matter who’s causing it.”

“Maybe,” Javier said, “but nobody made you fall asleep with your arms around me.”

Both times, they’d paid him. He was doing them a service, and they wanted to show their appreciation. Besides, they knew how hard it was for him. They knew what it was like, out there on the road alone. Or so they claimed. But of course they knew nothing. They knew nothing about sleeping under bridges and waking up with a mumbling transient’s gnarled fingers down your jeans. They knew nothing about searching dumpsters for e-waste and shredding your tongue on chipsets. They knew nothing about spending hours picking useless lumps of plastic from under your skin just so you could watch it get sucked down the maw of a recycler that spat out change in return. They knew nothing about measuring your life in those coins.

They knew he could fuck. They knew he couldn’t say no. They knew it was because he was a vN, a self-replicating humanoid with a hard-coded failsafe that guaranteed his affection for and protection of humans. They knew that all vN had the same failsafe, and that it would never fail, because the Rapture-happy mega-church whose tithes funded its design was just as picky about its legacy for those pitiful sinners left behind as it was about the Bible verses that backed up their Tribulation theology. That’s what they knew.

Now, they probably knew different.

Now, the failsafe was broken. A select group of kinky hackers had broken it within a subset of vN originally designed for nursing. The first clade of hacked vN, free of love and other shackles, escaped domesticity and made for the desert of the American Southwest. Their leader, Portia, attempted to cultivate the bug through serial self-replication and total selection. She created multiple iterations. Only one, Charlotte, was a true incarnation of her vision. Charlotte fled when she realized that Portia had killed all her iterations. Charlotte iterated one final time in Oakland, California, with a human man whose love for her was probably the purer for its ignorance of her past.

They called her Amy.

The rest of the world called her a menace.

Javier called her querida.

 

“Querida.” Javier burrowed his chin into her neck. Dawn would arrive soon. He felt it in his skin, and knew she felt it in hers. They shared the ability to photosynthesize. The sunrise was their thing. The thing they had instead of sex.

Amy’s hands twitched. Her fingers fluttered over the dark surface of the island. She’d graded the floor of this room flat save for a futon-sized square of very soft bed. Their muscles never ached, but Javier appreciated the gesture. She’d even kept that little square of space consistently warm. Javier wasn’t sure how exactly she communicated these design specs to the island, but he assumed it had something to do with the little flicks and swipes her fingers made in her sleep.

At first he thought they might be dreams, and he waited for news about her first iteration. That was the only time he ever dreamed – when he was iterating. And Amy had started prototyping a little girl, a while ago. But nothing had come of it. Now, he figured it was the island she was talking to. At least, he hoped so. It was better than the other alternative.

She’d talked in her sleep back when they first met, too. Only back then she’d been talking to Portia, and Portia was telling her Christ knew what. Probably how to burn things. Whatever it was, it involved a lot of whimpering and moaning and pleading. The only time that stopped was when he’d reach over and rest a hand on her shoulder. Just a hand, just her shoulder. Nothing more. But it was enough. She’d go still and her body would slacken, relax, just like a human woman’s. He’d never told her about doing that, then or now. It was his secret.

He tucked himself in closer around her. It was nice, being allowed to do these things more openly, now. His lips brushed the edge of her ear. “Querida.”

Amy rolled over to face him. In this light, her eyes were an unnaturally deep green. Viridian.

“It’s nice, not being in the back of a car somewhere,” she said, as though having read his mind.

“That’s for damn sure.”

“And we’re not on the run from anybody.”

“Not today.” He smiled. “We do have a new shipment coming in, though.”

Her eyes dimmed. A new tension appeared between her brows. She looked around the room. “Where’s Xavier?”

Javier’s thirteenth iteration chose the name “Xavier” after tiring of being called “Junior.” He had also gradually – slowly, painfully, cock-blockingly – outgrown sleeping in Amy’s room. Javier couldn’t blame him for lingering. Amy had fought tooth and nail to keep him safe after Javier abandoned him in a junkyard. She took care of him when he was bluescreened and no better than a toy baby doll. She carried him and kept him warm and talked to him. The boy probably didn’t remember all that. That didn’t mean he’d forgotten it.

“I know this may come as a shock, but not all little boys want to sleep with their mothers. That’s kind of an organic thing. It takes a brain to have an id.”

Amy rolled her eyes. “I’m not his mother.”

“You’re the closest thing. You helped me iterate him. You were the first one to ever hold him.”

Amy smiled. “It seems like such a long time ago.”

“Well, you are only six years old. A year is a long time, when you’re six.”

Amy stretched. “I guess he’ll want to grow up and get big like you, soon.”

“Well, there are advantages to being all grown up.” Javier drew a small circle around her knee with one finger. He let it become a spiral, tightening, while he kept his eyes on hers. Maybe this time.

Amy peeked down at his hand moving across her skin. “Are you trying to have sex with me?”

Javier flopped onto his back. “Well not if you’re going to be so goddamn unromantic about it!”

“I don’t think we should have sex. I don’t think it would be right. I’ve told you before.”

“What are you saving yourself for? You’re an atheist, for Christ’s sake. You know robots can’t get married, right? Legally. I mean in some countries just living with you for a year makes me your husband. Which would explain the lack of sex, I guess.”

Amy sat up. She knelt over him and made him look her in the eye. “Dr Sarton told me–”

“Sarton is a fucking pervert otaku hack. I don’t give a shit what–”

“He told me that you only feel that way about me because I was raised with humans.” It all came out in a rush. Her gaze darted away from him and pinned itself to the floor. “I’m just good enough to fool your Turing process. Your failsafe. You only like me because your failsafe works.”

She had a point. Or Sarton did. She was just good enough. Just human enough. She had all the weird tics and habits that humans did. This whole righteous insistence on keeping their relationship chaste was one of them.

“So it just wouldn’t be right,” Amy said. “Because of your failsafe. Because you can’t choose.”

He had no answer for that. Technically, she was right. He had no choice, when it came to Amy. Each time they’d parted ways, he’d come back. Fought his way back in. Rescued her. He couldn’t help it. Once, he’d waited in a Redmond reboot camp watching a stream of DARPA-funded scientists trying their best to break her. He’d begged them to stop. He’d cried and screamed and totally lost his shit. He’d almost failsafed right there in front of the monitor, on the floor, holding his head and squeezing his eyes shut. Then he’d torn the skin off his hands crawling through duct work to get to her. At the time, he had not questioned why. He’d done it to make himself feel better. Sex with Amy would make him feel better, too. Probably. If he could do it.

“Besides,” she said, “I’m not even sure it… works.”

Javier looked up at her. “Do I have to give you the whole ‘fully functional; multiple techniques’ speech again?”

She shook her head. “That’s not what I mean.”

“Well, what do you mean?”

“You know what I mean.”

“No, I don’t,” he lied. “Why don’t you tell it to me straight?”

“You’ve tried…” Her fingers fluttered. She brought them into her lap. Her blush was so pink and so instant it would have taken his breath away, if he’d had any. “I mean, we’ve tried. Before. And it never seems to go very well.”

He scrambled up to his knees. “That’s because it never seems to go very far, either. I’m not a first baseman. I hit home runs.”

Amy blinked. “I don’t know what you mean.”

Of course she didn’t. That was part of the problem. Just a year ago, she’d been a kindergartener. Playing house was enough for her. Having never taken the other steps, she saw no need to. She probably didn’t even want to.

“Is it me?” he asked.

“What?”

“Is it sex you don’t want, or just me?”

Her mouth fell open. “How can you say that?”

He shrugged. “I can see why you wouldn’t. I’m not exactly clean. I’ve done a lot of bad things. I’m just about the world’s worst father–”

“That’s not true–”

“Sure it is. I know that. There’s not much about me that’s respectable.”

“I respect you! I respect you very much!”

Javier grinned. Amy was pretty adorable when she was getting called on her shit. Her eyes went wide and her posture went straight, like she’d just been asked to spell out a really difficult word for a prize. It made it easier to remember she’d spent most of her life as a child. Easier to be patient with it.

“I guess what I’m saying is, I can understand if you don’t want me.”

She had the grace to look embarrassed. “Don’t be stupid. You’re really…” Her mouth worked open and closed. “Pretty.”

Pretty? Is that the best you got? I may be all machine, but I’m still all man.”

“I know that, but…” Her fingers skittered across the floor, as though she were physically searching for the words she wanted. “You don’t look like human men.” She smiled. “You look better!”

He rolled his eyes. “Please. I look like all my other clademates. I’m mass-production, nothing special.”

“Don’t say that. You’re very special.”

“Not special enough, apparently.”

Amy frowned. “You don’t understand,” she said. “I don’t work that way. Without the failsafe I don’t… like humans that way.”

“Well, it’s not like I worship the ground they walk on, or something–”

“No, Javier.” She shook her head softly. “What I mean is, I don’t understand what’s so great about humans.”

This was the crossroads. No matter which avenue he took in this fight, they always came to it. Amy didn’t see what he saw. Didn’t feel what he felt. She’d never know that exasperated affection he had for them, as they puttered around their kitchens looking for the coffee cup they’d just put down; how you kept loving them the way you kept loving a puppy as it looked you straight in the eye and pissed on your rug. You collected them like you collected pieces of handmade earthenware, old and chipped and fragile and unique. They weren’t perfect. That was the whole point.

And then sometimes, as they slept, you listened to the creak and squeeze of their decaying hearts, or heard the bubble and choke of their lungs, and you realized how very temporary they were, and you started to reconsider your programming.

Time to bring out the big guns.

“You could fix me.”

She frowned. “What?”

“Break me. Hack me. Whatever. You could do it. You put yourself back together; you could do the same for me. Just do it without the failsafe, this time.” He reached for her softly-twitching hand and stilled it in his grasp. “And then I’d choose you all over again, free and clear.”

Her fingers trembled with restrained gestures. He only ever had a fraction of her bandwidth at any one time. The island consumed so much of it, even at moments like this.

“Do it,” he said. “I’m asking you to. We could do it right here and now.” He nodded down at the bed. “Just let the island absorb me, like it absorbed you. It took you three days to come back last time. I can handle three days in the goo. You might not have noticed, but I have a very strong sense of my own identity.”

Amy pulled her hand away. “It’s not like that. It’s not that easy.”

“Sure it is.” He looked down at himself. “Just make sure you bring all the important stuff back in working order.”

Amy stood. “No. I’m not going to do this. I won’t. I can’t.”

Javier stood up, too. He folded his arms. “Amy, are you a replican, or a replican’t?”

She levelled him with a stern glare. “You’re not doing yourself any favours, Javier.”

Amy gestured at the furthest wall and a portion of it slid away. She stepped out into the sunlight. Dawn was just growing into day. He followed her under the heliotropics, into the jungle of black-on-black. The trees bent back subtly to allow her more light. Lately their island was small. It held only their house within a thicket of black trees, and the single diamond tree that had always stood beside it. That tree was the first thing Amy had raised from the body of the massive group of vN that once lived beneath the sea. It was only with their combined processing power that she’d been able to rid herself of Portia, a partition of whom she had internalized when the old bitch tried to kidnap her. Amy accessed that power each time she redesigned the island. Now Javier wanted it, to redesign himself.

Amy splashed into the water and started walking across it. Behind her, Javier rolled his eyes. She always did her Jesus walk when she was feeling particularly self-righteous. He waded in after her. Beneath their feet, a membrane of the island’s flesh stretched taut between their home and the superstructure directly behind it. Javier kept his eyes on the water. But he didn’t only look down, he looked back, back to their little house alone on the water and the tree that stood beside it. No matter the formation of the islands, it was always at the very front: a perfect target.

Amy had designed their archipelago like a leaf: a single broad spine with multiple arterials of increasing length branching away from it, and little buds of space on the edges of each. Each bud featured structures of varying degrees of sophistication. Some of them were flat-pack, shipped in piece by piece or printed off by the seasteaders in exchange for services that were none of Javier’s business. New arrivals got whatever Amy shaped for them, but eventually they always wanted something of their own fashioning: teetering stacks of rusting containers; spiky tents of solar silk whose logos changed colour as the sun passed overhead; hollow pendulums as delicate as dandelion seeds, swaying from eldritch carbon fibre trees. Walking past them meant striding through glassy chiming; the islanders got pretty competitive about homemade lawn ornaments. The current meme was a unicorn weathervane whose hooves raced when the wind blew. Last month, it was sundials. It reminded Javier of a giant floating trailer park. The whole thing was roughly the size of a Dubai hotel. Amy ran five of them.

Javier followed her out of the water, to the spine of the leaf. vN of almost all clades used it like a thoroughfare. Botflies followed most of them, perched on their shoulders or hovering over their heads. They paused, regarded Amy, and zoomed away. As though having heard a signal, Xavier dropped out of a tree and bounded up to Amy. He was looking about nine or ten years old, these days. He threw his arms around Amy’s waist. She threw her head back and laughed at something he said. The laugh opened her face, and Javier glimpsed the little girl Amy must have been only a year ago.

A single jump caught him up to them. Xavier peered up at him and squinted. “¿Pelotearíais?”

“Callate tu boca.”

Amy glanced at both of them. “Be nice.”

She took hold of Xavier’s hand and led him down the causeway. Xavier swung her arm as they walked. He waved at the botflies with his free hand.

“Don’t encourage them,” Amy said.

“I’m just saying hello.” The boy continued waving. “It’s not like I have my own series.”

“Matteo and Ricci are making money for their baby,” Javier said. “You know that.”

“So? Someday I’m going to iterate a baby. Shouldn’t I start saving up?”

“You can start making money when you’re full-grown. You chose to stay a kid, so you have to play by kid rules.”

Xavier shook Amy’s hand in his. “She didn’t. She was still little when she ate Portia.”

Amy paused. Her face remained blank. A stranger would have assumed she was simply staring into the island’s middle distance, surveying the black trees and listening to the thick hum of botflies. She caught him looking at her, and gave him a brittle smile over Xavier’s head. Then she rearranged her features, softened her smile, and knelt.

“Attacking Portia was a mistake. I did it because I was angry at her for hurting my mother, and because I was scared that she was really going to do permanent damage.”

“But she was doing permanent damage. I’ve seen the clip.”

Amy shut her eyes for a moment. When she opened them, her mouth was a thin, flat line. “I don’t want you watching that again.”

“I stopped when the failsafe warning came up–”

“Good. But I still don’t want you to watch it again. Ever.”

Xavier gesticulated. Javier sometimes wondered if his designers had worked from some stereotype about Latinos talking with their hands. He couldn’t seem to quit doing it, and neither could any of his iterations. “But you were so badass!”

“I was not–”

“Yeah, you were,” Javier said, quietly.

Their eyes met. Xavier glanced between them. He tracked the line of their gaze. Amy broke it first. She turned to Xavier and held his hands.

“Well, I certainly wasn’t very smart. I bit off way more than I could chew.”

His youngest son had the decency to hold in his giggles for approximately three seconds before snerking through his nose. Amy shut her eyes and pursed her lips.

“I just said that aloud, didn’t I?”

“Yup!” Xavier punctuated his sentence with a five-foot standing jump. The kid was good, probably better than his older brothers. He landed like a superhero, a classic three-point pose, one knee and one fist plunging down into the black earth below. It was his favourite pose. He looked up at them, grinning. “You’re wrong,” he said.

Amy stood up and crossed her arms. “Oh, really?”

“Yeah, really. It was a good thing you ate Portia. If you hadn’t, you’d never have met Dad.”

Oh, his son was very good. Amy looked a little stunned. Her mouth kept opening and closing. She obviously had no idea what to say. What a brilliant little tactician Javier had iterated. Thirteen was apparently his lucky number.

“And if you never met Dad, I’d have been born in prison.” Xavier blinked at him, all wide-eyed innocence. “Right, Dad?”

“Es verdad, mijo.”

“So it’s really good that you ate her. Otherwise I wouldn’t even be here.”

Q-E-motherfucking-D, Javier wanted to say, but didn’t. Instead he caught his son’s eye and winked. His son winked back.

“Thank you for reminding me,” Amy said. “And now, let me remind you of something: you’re not going near the boat, today.”

Xavier’s mouth fell open. “Oh, come on…”

“No humans. Period.”

“But–”

This isn’t a discussion. The island will tell me if you even come close, so don’t bother.

The boy looked at Javier. Javier shook his head softly. The boy rolled his eyes. “I’m gonna go work on my treehouse, now.” He peeled away from them and jogged his way into a jump.

“Be careful…” Amy trailed off. The boy was already gone, leap-frogging over other vN and sailing through swarms of botflies. They watched him grow smaller as he jumped further and further away.

“Do you think he remembers?” Amy asked. “When I tried to eat him?”

“When Portia tried to eat him.” Javier slid an arm around her waist. “And no, I don’t. He was already bluescreened by then. He took a few thousand volts on that fence before Portia even touched him. And it was a couple of chimps who put him there, not you. Not her, I mean.” He squeezed her to him and kissed her scalp. “Stop doing this. I mean it.”

“But what if he’s watched it?” Amy turned to him. “The clip is out there. Just like the one of me attacking her. If he was curious enough to look for one, he’s probably seen the other.”

“Then he’s seen you rescue him, too.”

Amy’s affect hardened. Her lips firmed. “They never show that part.”

“Hey. Querida.” Javier tilted her chin up so she had to look him in the eye. In the daylight her eyes were the colour of wreckage, of seaglass, hard and bright and old. “We’ve been over this. Even if he does remember it, he’s let it go. We’ve all let it go.”

Amy smiled ruefully. “The chimps haven’t.”

 

The chimps were the real reason the island was so popular. Many of the youngest islanders had never met a human being. Their parents came here to iterate and either stayed on or left to rejoin the outside world. Another shipment was coming today.

“Do you think we’ll see any of yours?”

They were surveying the portion of the island Amy called “The Veldt.” Javier had no idea what a “veldt” was. He assumed it was a fancy word for “orphanage.” It comprised two of the island’s arteries. It looked like a forest out of fairy tales: the trees were thick and tall, with broad leaves and boughs like curled fingers. The waters were shallow; you could actually touch bottom. As Javier watched, a shimmering exoskeletal crab scuttled its way out of the water, blinked once at him with a series of red LEDs, and went along its way. It was not alone. A series of non-networked camel-bots and prototype service ani-mechs ranged the area, ready to play fetch or give the kids a ride or just lie down with them at night. It was safe enough for the little ones to wander freely. At least, Javier assumed so. He rarely saw them, underneath the fogbank.

“You know, it doesn’t have to be this thick. You could thin it out, a little bit.”

Amy shook her head. “It’s the easiest way to keep the flies blind. Plus it’s flammable. Extra secure. All I have to do is raise the temperature.”

“It’s flammable?

Amy nodded. “The acetonitrile component is.” She waved a hand through the fog. “This stuff used to be a stabilizing agent in nuclear warheads. A version of it, anyway. It took a while for me to train the trees to pump it out, but less time than it took the humans at Los Alamos.”

He frowned. “So if you raise the temperature, you’ll lose this part of the island?”

She nodded, then appeared to reconsider. “We’d lose anything organic,” she said. “The mist only burns for a few seconds. And the kids wouldn’t feel anything. Plus, their skin would grow back.”

He didn’t like the way she wouldn’t meet his eye. “But it would totally fuck up a human being, right?”

She straightened and met his gaze head-on. “Humans aren’t allowed here. They have no business, here. All that lives on this part of the island is a bunch of little kids.” She folded her arms. “If any humans do show up, they’re trespassing. The fogbank is no different from an electric fence. And it’s a whole lot prettier.”

Javier looked at the trees wreathed in weapons-grade mist. He had helped her with those trees. Sketched them out with his finger on her back, describing the best surfaces for gripping. His clade was originally intended for work in rainforests. He knew trees. He just had no idea how Amy was really planning to use them. She hadn’t really mentioned that part.

“Javier?”

He rewound. “Oh. Yeah. The shipment. I think Matteo and Ricci stopped looking, once the munchkin came along.” He cupped both hands around his mouth. “José!”

Giggles drifted through the fog. Javier could just make out shapes moving in the trees. “José! ¡Viene acquí!”

His grandson dropped out of a tree and onto his back. His grip was true and flawless, but Javier grabbed him under the knees anyway just to be sure. 

“Who’s there?” He twisted and turned, trying to see the child on his back. “Who’s got me? Is it a monkey?”

His grandson giggled and hugged him around the neck.

“It’s a big spider, isn’t it? Help! Help!

The laughs grew bigger. His iterations all had the same laugh; as it turned out, they’d succeeded in passing it down.

“I guess I’d better crush it! If I flop down on the ground and roll around, it’ll go squish!” He knelt on the ground. “Okay, I’m rolling around! I’m killing this bug!”

“¡Abuelito, no!”

“Who’s that? Who’s talking?”

“It’s me!” José hugged him hard.

“Oh, good, it’s you. You scared me.” Javier let his grandson back down to the ground. “You’ve gotten bigger.”

José nodded emphatically. “I eat four times a day, now. Not just three.”

“Good for you. And your father?”

“Which one?”

Javier shrugged. “Both. How are they?”

His grandson returned the shrug. “They told me to play in here today. All day.”

“Because of the shipment?”

“Yeah.” José turned to Amy. “You get to go on the boat, right?”

Amy crouched on the ground. “Yes, I do.”

“Can I come?”

Amy shook her head. “Nope.”

“How come?”

Amy brushed imaginary dust from the child’s hair. He looked about three years old, but was really about four or five months. Unlike most of the other children, he wore a complete set of clothes: shorts, t-shirt, even a little belt with a logo Javier didn’t recognize. Matteo and Ricci scored a lot of free toys and playwear, these days. They’d sold their lives to a content development agency that made the story of twin robots raising an exact replica of themselves available in the US, Canada, Mexico, Japan, and Korea. Women loved it. At least, organic women did. Javier had always encouraged his boys to get by on their looks whenever possible, but his twins had perfected the practise. They didn’t even have to fuck the humans, anymore, and they still made money.

“Every grown-up here has a job,” Amy said. “And dealing with humans is mine.”

“Nobody else can do it?”

“Nobody else can do it.”

José blinked. “Papi said it’s because they’re scared of you.”

For a picot-second, Javier saw Portia flicker across Amy’s face. Her smirk rose to the surface like a shark’s dorsal fin and then submerged again, replaced by Amy’s far softer and more reassuring smile. Javier blinked. No. It wasn’t Portia. It was just an expression. Portia – whatever was left of her – was in quarantine. Deep beneath the waves, the old bitch lay dreaming.

“Maybe,” Amy said. “But that doesn’t matter. What matters is whether or not you’re getting new uncles, today. Have your dads said anything about that?”

José shook his head. “No. I don’t think they’re looking for my uncles, any more.”  He looped an arm around Javier’s leg. “Can abuelito come play?”

Amy stood. “Of course!” She glanced at Javier. “I’ll see you later.”

He watched her vanish into the fog. His grandson hugged his leg as tightly as if it were the trunk of a tree. Javier tousled his hair.

“What’s wrong?” he asked.

José looked up at him. “Is she going to eat me?”

“Of course not. Your abuelita loves you.” He gestured. “That’s why she built all of this for you.”

His grandson leaned away from his leg and wobbled from right to left like a drunk dancing with a lamppost. “Did she make the animals, too?”

“Some of them. The others were gifts. Test models, for us to report back on.”

“For money?”

“For money.” Javier lifted his grandson into his arms. “Why all the questions?”

“I don’t think the animals like us anymore,” José said.

Javier frowned. “What do you mean? Don’t they play with you like they used to?”

“They play just fine,” the boy said. “But at night, they talk to each other.”

“That’s normal. They’re de-fragging, just like you.”

José shook his head. “No. They come together and they sit down and blink their eyes at each other. The ones Amy made, I mean. Not the other kind. The storebought kind.”

“I’m sure that’s normal,” Javier lied. He hitched the boy higher on his hip. “Which ones, though? Abuelita has made a lot of animals for you to play with.”

“The cats,” José said. “The big ones. At night they sit in a circle and blink.”

“That’s not so different from organic cats,” Javier said. “Abuelita did a good job copying the real thing.”

The boy looked doubtful. “How would you know?”

“Well…”

Javier considered. Matteo and Ricci had asked him to avoid discussing his own past – too sordid, too dirty, parental discretion advised – but his father’s wasn’t off-limits.

“Your great grandfather, my father, he saw big jungle cats all the time.”

“Real ones?”

“Real ones. One of them took his hand clean off once.”

The boy brightened. All traces of fear vanished from his face. “Did it grow back?”

“It grew back. It took a while, but it grew back.” Javier decided that now was not the time to tell his grandson that Amy had once bitten off his thumb. That grew back, too. “They were able to stop the smoking. He was working on a big crew, then. In the rainforest.”

“With his brothers?”

“Yes. Our clade.”

José hugged him. “We used to be together, once,” he whispered.

“Yes,” Javier whispered back. “Once upon a time.”

 

 

The other vN busied themselves preparing for the shipment. They darted across the thoroughfare, trading clothes and gossip, mugging for their botflies. They wove around Javier as he proceeded toward his own little bud. It floated freely, separated from any arterial by exactly ten feet at all times. He focused on the green arbour marking the entry to his garden, and leapt. Glittering water vanished beneath his outstretched feet. Seconds later, he landed in the fragrant arms of a mango tree. Wrapping his legs around the trunk more completely, he stretched out and plucked one. It was perfectly red and soft. He decided to charge more, then dropped into the cool green shadows below.

His was the only space on the island entirely devoted to organic life. Real trees. Real blossoms. Real dirt. Real mould and real insects and real food. It took him a long time to coax a good permaculture out of the island’s synthetic flesh, but between the deep sea minerals and the algae and the bio-waste he traded interviews for, he’d made fertile soil: dark and damp and loamy. It worked so well, Amy had once asked him if the failsafe would allow him to grow drugs there. He told her it wasn’t worth the headache. Literally.

Instead, he grew food he could neither taste nor consume. There was a big call for exotic things out on the seasteads and pirate ships and barges. Mangos were big. And avocados. Little red bird’s eye chillis and saw-toothed shiso and tingly Sichuan peppercorns. Vanilla: a key ingredient in pirate hooch. Hen-of-the-woods: a luxury for vegans. The stuff Americans used to get shipped up from Mexico or Chile or Thailand or Japan. The things they used to traffic via container ships, before the thing that became the island started eating container ships. Now he grew those things on the skin of the island itself.

He bounced from tree to tree, collecting produce. It was a strange thing, having a job. He used to earn his keep on his knees, not his feet. This was the first time since prison he’d had dirt under his nails.

“Do you need any help?”

Amy waited for him in the next tree. She’d changed into a white cotton dress and an elaborate torque fashioned of press-plastic harvested from the Pacific patch. Artisanal plastic, the seasteader told Javier, when he bought it for her. Eternal. Undying. He’d bought a ring to match it. He had yet to give it to her. She’d probably think it was silly.

“Sure,” Javier brought a mesh string-bag from his back pocket. “Go for it.”

They jumped between the trees, squeezing and plucking. Javier took longer leaps than Amy; she tended to look longer and examine the trees before jumping.

“Are you afraid of hurting them?” he asked.

“Who?”

“The trees.”

She gestured at the greenery surrounding them. “Well, they are fairly fragile,” she said. “Besides, it’s your work. I don’t want to ruin your work.”

“You’re not going to ruin anything,” he said, swinging between branches. They bent and swayed under his grip, but they didn’t snap and he didn’t slip. “See? They’re tough. Flexible.”

She smiled down at him. “You’re a good gardener.”

“Well thank you kindly, ma’am.”

“No, really. You’ve done so much here, in so little time. It’s really impressive.”

He let his momentum rock him gently on the bough. He was going to ask about the cats in the Veldt. Really, he was. Just not right now. Now he had other things on his mind. “Are you trying to get in my pants? Because that can be arranged.”

Amy shook her head. “Do you think about sex all the time?”

“The longer you hold out, the more I think about it.”

He levered himself up, catching the bough with his feet and rising to stand when its bounce calmed some. He proceeded along the length of it, one foot in front of the other. He caught her staring at his feet and smiled. Maybe Amy was a foot person. How delightfully human of her. He jumped for her, pinning her against her own tree – a kallu, the liquor of which fermented in the lifespan of a mayfly – by slipping his arms and legs around it and her.

“So,” he said. “Where were we?”

Amy shut her eyes. She always got so embarrassed. It was charming, in its own way. “I’m sorry about this morning. I didn’t mean to yell at you.”

“You didn’t yell. I’ve heard yelling, and that was not yelling.”

“You know what I mean.” Her eyes opened. “I’m sorry I’m not more like… what you want.”

“You’re exactly what I want. That’s what I keep trying to tell you.”

Amy shook her head. “You’ve been with a lot of humans. They had sex with you all the time.”

“You don’t take that as a ringing endorsement of my skills?”

She pressed back against the tree. Shadows glanced across her skin. “I just know you must miss it. And I’m not sure I could even keep up.”

Javier made a show of looking her up and down. “You could keep up.”

“But would you even enjoy it?”

He gave his best smile. She didn’t know how it worked, really. She didn’t know that his own enjoyment was comfortably algorithmic, that it relied entirely on external inputs from the other person’s affect. Indrawn breath. Blushing. Moaning. His orgasms were one big Voight-Kampff test.

“It’s not a contest. You just have to focus on nailing me, not nailing it.

Amy stuck her tongue out at him. Javier wasted no time. He darted and kissed her.

When they first started out, she’d kissed like the women she’d watched on dramas in her old life: all demure stillness, letting him lead. Now she kissed more like herself: direct, to the point, sucking his lower lip like his designers had sculpted it specifically for her use. That was the real Amy, not the nervous girl trying to spare him from something she’d never understood. He smiled and moved to her neck.

“This tree is incredibly uncomfortable,” he said, between kisses. “Let’s go home.”

She said nothing. She’d gone completely still.

“Come on, the shipment can–”

Amy reached up and covered his mouth with her fingers. Her eyes had defocused. “It’s not the shipment.”

She slid off the bough, skidded down the tree, and pressed one hand to the ground. Her hand sank beneath the island’s surface. Then her forearm, up to her elbow. She grimaced. It looked as though she were freeing a clog in the island’s plumbing.

He joined her. “What is it?”

Her expression rippled into surprise and delight. “It’s a submarine.” She withdrew her hand. Streams of black oil coursed down her fingers and rejoined the earth. “The chimps are trying to look up my skirt.”

 

Together, they closed the distance between his garden and the nearest arterial in a single leap. They didn’t even bother running. They bounded. Three feet, five feet, until the dark trees became one black blur. As they ran, the trees grew. Javier heard their leaves rustle as they expanded, thinning, creating cover. They jumped, and Javier saw the diamond tree straight ahead, far at the other end of the thoroughfare. They were running straight for home. All over the island, a mist began to rise.

“Hey, is this shit explosive, too?”

Amy didn’t answer. She pounded down the thoroughfare, running faster and faster, her hands like blades, her knees at a perfect right angle to her hips. She tucked them into her stomach as they sailed over the heads of the other vN. As they cleared the canopy of mist, two other figures joined them.

“Go back to your treehouse, Xavier,” Amy said.

“Sorry, lady,” his oldest, Ignacio, said, “but you’re not our mother and you don’t tell us what to do.”

They dropped into the mist. They jumped again, and Ricci was there, with Gabriel and Léon.

“Hi, Dad,” Léon said.

“You shouldn’t be here,” he said. “You’re iterating.”

“Never stopped you, did it?”

Léon took to the air. Javier followed. Beneath his feet, beneath the mist, the island was changing shape. The arteries folded down onto each other, forming a single black arrowhead. It was the basic defensive posture the island assumed whenever it or Amy perceived a possible threat. The diamond tree loomed large in his vision. Amy sprinted forward. He and the boys stopped short at the beach, but she ran straight across the water. Her feet barely disturbed its surface. She leapt into the tree and landed in its fork, arms raised. Her skin was full of rainbows.

Beneath his feet, the island shuddered.

“You sure know how to pick ’em,” Ignacio said.

Javier bolted for home. He jumped from the beach and landed awkwardly in the water. The membrane caught him and he waded the rest of the way. The water was frustratingly heavy; he felt more tired than he should have by the time he made it to their little island. Amy had slid down the tree by then, and she stood with her back to him. Her fingers twitched angrily at her sides. She and the island were deep in damage control mode.

“What’s going on?” Javier asked.

She answered him with a question: “Above or below?”

“Huh?”

“Above, or below. Pick one. We can go down, or we can bring it up. Where would you like to go?”

His mind simulated several outcomes to both choices. He thought of a hole opening in the island’s flesh and himself sliding down into it. He thought of the weakness of human flesh, and the pressure, and the bends. “How far below was it?”

“Not that far.”

He insinuated himself into her field of vision. “Are there humans on that sub?”

She blinked. “I’m not sure.”

“You could kill them, if you bring them up too fast. If they’ve been too deep for too long. The p-pressure c-could–”

Now it was her turn to kiss him. It was very light and very quick, but it shut him and the failsafe down completely. When his eyes opened, Amy’s smile was all too bright. Her eyes were all too sad. He recognized the expression. She wore it when all the other vN on the island manifested their failsafe. It was pity.

“It’s probably automated,” she was saying. “It’s navigating by algorithm. That’s why I didn’t catch it, sooner.”

He couldn’t help himself. He had to ask. “You’re sure?”

He watched her pity turn to frustration. It displayed as a slight crinkling at the corners of her eyes, an almost imperceptible line between her brows that, unlike those of human women, would never become permanent.

“I would never show you something that might trigger you. You know that.”

Beyond them, the ocean bubbled and foamed. Her expression changed again: anticipation. Whatever Amy had trapped down there, it was coming up. She raised one hand, waved slightly, and a murmuration of botflies swarmed above them.

“I’ll prove it,” she said. “I’m hacking the flies. That way, everybody can watch.”

She hopped out of the tree, and he followed. The flies shadowed them high above as they crossed the island. The bubbling had turned to an active churn. Whatever was coming was big. Big enough, he suspected, to sustain human life.

“Put it back,” he said.

“I know what I’m doing.” She looked over her shoulder at him. Then she looked up at the botflies. Her gaze rested on him again, and she spoke loudly and clearly enough for the flies to hear. “It came here, not the other way around. It’s an intruder. We have every right to investigate.”

“There are people in there–”

“You don’t know that, Javier.” She turned back to the sea, and the thing she’d raised from its depths.

It had a shape: long and tubular, but not rigid, not a perfect cylinder. Jointed. Serpentine. Organic. And as Amy raised her hands and lifted it from the water, it twitched and thrashed like a living thing. Something pallid and glistening dimpled and puckered across its surface as it writhed. Skin. Maybe even vN skin, Javier thought. They could use it like leather, these days. Rigid lines of scaffold beneath its surface popped into relief as it twisted, creating a series of random triangles under the skin. A dazzle pattern, Javier realized. Anti-sonar.

“Oh, that’s brilliant,” Amy murmured.

“What in the fucking fuck?”

Javier turned. Ignacio and his brothers were there, lips pulled back in identical expressions of disgust.

“Que bicho feo,” Xavier said, and jumped five feet high to get a better view. His brothers followed, and Javier joined them. From the air, the thing did look a bit like an uncut dick, or maybe like a fifty-foot dick-shaped toy from some enterprising silicone fabber. The dazzle pattern reminded him of something else, though. Old wireframe animation, he realized upon landing. How quaint.

Then one of its frames popped open. A wet, stale smell permeated the beach. vN started pouring out. He could tell by the way they moved: smooth and perfect and uniform. They wore wetsuits. They carried guns. Javier smelled puke rounds.

“¡Levántate!” His boys followed him into the air at maximum leap. Amy stood her ground, head cocked, staring at the invaders. “Amy! Move!”

She leapt, but her gaze never left the other vN. They were an Asian-styled male model, probably all clademates, a pretty bishounen-type with long hands and long hair and the same full lips all vN had no matter their other characteristics. DSL, a prison warden had once told Javier. Dick Sucking Lips.

Those same lips squished back pleasantly when Javier’s feet landed on them from ten feet up. It was satisfying, being able to hit back for once.

The vN dropped his gun, covered his ruined face, and crumpled to the ground. Javier grabbed the gun, primed it, and shot him between the shoulder blades. Glittering black smoke rose from the widening hole in his back. His hands left his face and he rushed Javier. Javier swung the gun like a baton, but the other vN caught it and then they were wrestling for it, pushing and pulling across the cool, wet sand. Javier dug his toes in and jumped. He slammed the other vN up against the bicho. Behind him, he heard Xavier yelp with surprise. He wanted to turn and look, but didn’t.

“Who sent you?” Javier asked.

The other vN tried baring his teeth, but some of them were gone. He pushed hard against the gun like an old guy struggling with a chest press. The hole inside him was growing. Stinging smoke rose between them.

“Aw, fuck it,” the other vN spat, and dropped his grip on the gun. Javier fell forward, landing square on the other guy’s fist. He slumped into the sea monster, briefly tasting iron and fat as he slid down its warm, twitching surface. Jesus. It really was organic.

Then he heard a click behind his head. Then there was nothing.

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