Lucian packed his possessions before he left. He packed his antique silver serving spoons with the filigreed handles; the tea roses he’d nurtured in the garden window; his jade and garnet rings. He packed the hunk of gypsum-veined jasper that he’d found while strolling on the beach on the first night he’d come to Adriana, she leading him uncertainly across the wet sand, their bodies illuminated by the soft gold twinkling of the lights along the pier. That night, as they walked back to Adriana’s house, Lucian had cradled the speckled stone in his cupped palms, squinting so that the gypsum threads sparkled through his lashes.
Lucian had always loved beauty—beautiful scents, beautiful tastes, beautiful melodies. He especially loved beautiful objects because he could hold them in his hands and transform the abstraction of beauty into something tangible.
The objects belonged to them both, but Adriana waved her hand bitterly when Lucian began packing. “Take whatever you want,” she said, snapping her book shut. She waited by the door, watching Lucian with sad and angry eyes.
Their daughter, Rose, followed Lucian around the house. “Are you going to take that, Daddy? Do you want that?” Wordlessly, Lucian held her hand. He guided her up the stairs and across the uneven floorboards where she sometimes tripped. Rose stopped by the picture window in the master bedroom, staring past the palm fronds and swimming pools, out to the vivid cerulean swath of the ocean. Lucian relished the hot, tender feel of Rose’s hand. I love you, he would have whispered, but he’d surrendered the ability to speak.
He led her downstairs again to the front door. Rose’s lace-festooned pink satin dress crinkled as she leapt down the steps. Lucian had ordered her dozens of satin party dresses in pale, floral hues. Rose refused to wear anything else.
Rose looked between Lucian and Adriana. “Are you taking me, too?” she asked Lucian.
Adriana’s mouth tightened. She looked at Lucian, daring him to say something, to take responsibility for what he was doing to their daughter. Lucian remained silent.
Adriana’s chardonnay glowed the same shade of amber as Lucian’s eyes. She clutched the glass’s stem until she thought it might break. “No, honey,” she said with artificial lightness. “You’re staying with me.”
Rose reached for Lucian. “Horsey?”
Lucian knelt down and pressed his forehead against Rose’s. He hadn’t spoken a word in the three days since he’d delivered his letter of farewell to Adriana, announcing his intention to leave as soon as she had enough time to make arrangements to care for Rose in his absence. When Lucian approached with the letter, Adriana had been sitting at the dining table, sipping orange juice from a wine glass and reading a first edition copy of Cheever’s Falconer. Lucian felt a flash of guilt as she smiled up at him and accepted the missive. He knew that she’d been happier in the past few months than he’d ever seen her, possibly happier than she’d ever been. He knew the letter would shock and wound her. He knew she’d feel betrayed. Still, he delivered the letter anyway, and watched as comprehension ached through her body.
Rose had been told, gently, patiently, that Lucian was leaving. But she was four years old, and understood things only briefly and partially, and often according to her whims. She continued to believe her father’s silence was a game.
Rose’s hair brushed Lucian’s cheek. He kissed her brow. Adriana couldn’t hold her tongue any longer.
“What do you think you’re going to find out there? There’s no Shangri-La for rebel robots. You think you’re making a play for independence? Independence to do what, Lu?”
Grief and anger filled Adriana’s eyes with hot tears, as if she were a geyser filled with so much pressure that steam could not help but spring up. She examined Lucian’s sculpted face: his skin inlaid with tiny lines that an artist had rendered to suggest the experiences of a childhood which had never been lived, his eyes calibrated with a hint of asymmetry to mimic the imperfection of human growth. His expression showed nothing—no doubt, or bitterness, or even relief. He revealed nothing at all.
It was all too much. Adriana moved between Lucian and Rose, as if she could use her own body to protect her daughter from the pain of being abandoned. Her eyes stared achingly over the rim of her wine glass. “Just go,” she said.
* * *
Adriana bought Lucian the summer she turned thirty-five. Her father, long afflicted with an indecisive cancer that vacillated between aggression and remittance, had died suddenly in July. For years, the family had been squirreling away emotional reserves to cope with his prolonged illness. His death released a burst of excess.
While her sisters went through the motions of grief, Adriana thrummed with energy she didn’t know what to do with. She considered squandering her vigor on six weeks in Mazatlan, but as she discussed ocean-front rentals with her travel agent, she realized escape wasn’t what she craved. She liked the setting where her life took place: her house perched on a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean, her bedroom window that opened on a tangle of blackberry bushes where crows roosted every autumn and spring. She liked the two block stroll down to the beach where she could sit with a book and listen to the yapping lapdogs that the elderly women from the waterfront condominiums brought walking in the evenings.
Mazatlan was a twenty-something’s cure for restlessness. Adriana wasn’t twenty-five anymore, famished for the whole gourmet meal of existence. She needed something else now. Something new. Something more refined.
She explained this to her friends Ben and Lawrence when they invited her to their ranch house in Santa Barbara to relax for the weekend and try to forget about her father. They sat on Ben and Lawrence’s patio, on iron-worked deck chairs arrayed around a garden table topped with a mosaic of sea creatures made of semi-precious stones. A warm, breezy dusk lengthened the shadows of the orange trees. Lawrence poured sparkling rosé into three wine glasses and proposed a toast to Adriana’s father—not to his memory, but to his death.
“Good riddance to the bastard,” said Lawrence. “If he were still alive, I’d punch him in the schnoz.”
“I don’t even want to think about him,” said Adriana. “He’s dead. He’s gone.”
“So if not Mazatlan, what are you going to do?” asked Ben.
“I’m not sure,” said Adriana. “Some sort of change, some sort of milestone, that’s all I know.”
Lawrence sniffed the air. “Excuse me,” he said, gathering the empty wine glasses. “The kitchen needs its genius.”
When Lawrence was out of earshot, Ben leaned forward to whisper to Adriana.” He’s got us on a raw food diet for my cholesterol. Raw carrots. Raw zucchini. Raw almonds. No cooking at all.”
“Really,” said Adriana, glancing away. She was never sure how to respond to lovers’ quarrels. That kind of affection mixed with annoyance, that inescapable intimacy, was something she’d never understood.
Birds twittered in the orange trees. The fading sunlight highlighted copper strands in Ben’s hair as he leaned over the mosaic table, rapping his fingers against a carnelian-backed crab. Through the arched windows, Adriana could see Lawrence mincing carrots, celery and almonds into brown paste.
“You should get a redecorator,” said Ben. “Tile floors, Tuscan pottery, those red leather chairs that were in vogue last time we were in Milan. That’d make me feel like I’d been scrubbed clean and reborn.”
“No, no,” said Adriana, “I like where I live.”
“A no-holds-barred shopping spree. Drop twenty thousand. That’s what I call getting a weight off your shoulders.”
Adriana laughed. “How long do you think it would take my personal shopper to assemble a whole new me?”
“Sounds like a midlife crisis,” said Lawrence, returning with vegan hors d’oeuvres and three glasses of mineral water. “You’re better off forgetting it all with a hot Latin pool boy, if you ask me.”
Lawrence served Ben a small bowl filled with yellow mush. Ben shot Adriana an aggrieved glance.
Adriana felt suddenly out of synch. The whole evening felt like the set for a photo-shoot that would go in a decorating magazine, a two-page spread featuring Cozy Gardens, in which she and Ben and Lawrence were posing as an intimate dinner party for three. She felt reduced to two dimensions, air-brushed, and then digitally grafted onto the form of whoever it was who should have been there, someone warm and trusting who knew how to care about minutia like a friend’s husband putting him on a raw food diet, not because the issue was important, but because it mattered to him.
Lawrence dipped his finger in the mash and held it up to Ben’s lips. “It’s for your own good, you ungrateful so-and-so.”
Ben licked it away. “I eat it, don’t I?”
Lawrence leaned down to kiss his husband, a warm and not at all furtive kiss, not sexual but still passionate. Ben’s glance flashed coyly downward.
Adriana couldn’t remember the last time she’d loved someone enough to be embarrassed by them. Was this the flavor missing from her life? A lover’s fingertip sliding an unwanted morsel into her mouth?
She returned home that night on the bullet train. Her emerald cockatiel, Fuoco, greeted her with indignant squawks. In Adriana’s absence, the house puffed her scent into the air and sang to Fuoco with her voice, but the bird was never fooled.
Adriana’s father had given her the bird for her thirtieth birthday. He was a designer species spliced with Macaw DNA that colored his feathers rich green. He was expensive and inbred and neurotic, and he loved Adriana with frantic, obsessive jealousy.
“Hush,” Adriana admonished, allowing Fuoco to alight on her shoulder. She carried him upstairs to her bedroom and hand-fed him millet. Fuoco strutted across the pillows, his obsidian eyes proud and suspicious.
Adriana was surprised to find that her alienation had followed her home. She found herself prone to melancholy reveries, her gaze drifting toward the picture window, her fingers forgetting to stroke Fuoco’s back. The bird screeched to regain her attention.
In the morning, Adriana visited her accountant. His fingers danced across the keyboard as he slipped trust fund moneys from one account to another like a magician. What she planned would be expensive, but her wealth would regrow in fertile soil, enriching her on lab diamonds and wind power and genetically modified oranges.
The robotics company gave Adriana a private showing. The salesman ushered her into a room draped in black velvet. Hundreds of body parts hung on the walls, and reclined on display tables: strong hands, narrow jaws, biker’s thighs, voice boxes that played sound samples from gruff to dulcet, skin swatches spanning ebony to alabaster, penises of various sizes.
At first, Adriana felt horrified at the prospect of assembling a lover from fragments, but then it amused her. Wasn’t everyone assembled from fragments of DNA, grown molecule by molecule inside their mother’s womb?
She tapped her fingernails against a slick brochure. “Its brain will be malleable? I can tell it to be more amenable, or funnier, or to grow a spine?”
“That’s correct.” The salesman sported slick brown hair and shiny teeth and kept grinning in a way that suggested he thought that if he were charismatic enough Adriana would invite him home for a lay and a million dollar tip. “Humans lose brain plasticity as we age, which limits how much we can change. Our models have perpetually plastic brains. They can reroute their personalities at will by reshaping how they think on the neurological level.”
Adriana stepped past him, running her fingers along a tapestry woven of a thousand possible hair textures.
The salesman tapped an empty faceplate. “Their original brains are based on deep imaging scans melded from geniuses in multiple fields. Great musicians, renowned lovers, the best physicists and mathematicians.”
Adriana wished the salesman would be quiet. The more he talked, the more doubts clamored against her skull. “You’ve convinced me,” she interrupted. “I want one.”
The salesman looked taken aback by her abruptness. She could practically see him rifling through his internal script, trying to find the right page now that she had skipped several scenes. “What do you want him to look like?” he asked.
Adriana shrugged. “They’re all beautiful, right?”
“We’ll need specifications.”
“I don’t have specifications.”
The salesman frowned anxiously. He shifted his weight as if it could help him regain his metaphorical footing. Adriana took pity. She dug through her purse.
“There,” she said, placing a snapshot of her father on one of the display tables. “Make it look nothing like him.”
Given such loose parameters, the design team indulged the fanciful. Lucian arrived at Adriana’s door only a shade taller than she and equally slender, his limbs smooth and lean. Silver undertones glimmered in his blond hair. His skin was excruciatingly pale, white and translucent as alabaster, veined with pink. He smelled like warm soil and crushed herbs.
He offered Adriana a single white rose, its petals embossed with the company’s logo. She held it dubiously between her thumb and forefinger. “They think they know women, do they? They need to put down the bodice rippers.”
Lucian said nothing. Adriana took his hesitation for puzzlement, but perhaps she should have seen it as an early indication of his tendency toward silence.
* * *
“That’s that, then.” Adriana drained her chardonnay and crushed the empty glass beneath her heel as if she could finalize a divorce with the same gesture that sanctified a marriage.
Eyes wide, Rose pointed at the glass with one round finger. “Don’t break things.”
It suddenly struck Adriana how fast her daughter was aging. Here she was, this four-year-old, this sudden person. When had it happened? In the hospital, when Rose was newborn and wailing for the woman who had birthed her and abandoned her, Adriana had spent hours in the hallway outside the hospital nursery while she waited for the adoption to go through. She’d stared at Rose while she slept, ate, and cried, striving to memorize her nascent, changing face. Sometime between then and now, Rose had become this round-cheeked creature who took rules very seriously and often tried to conceal her emotions beneath a calm exterior, as if being raised by a robot had replaced her blood with circuits. Of course Adriana loved Rose, changed her clothes, brushed her teeth, carried her across the house on her hip—but Lucian had been the most central, nurturing figure. Adriana couldn’t fathom how she might fill his role. This wasn’t a vacation like the time Adriana had taken Rose to Italy for three days, just the two of them sitting in restaurants, Adriana feeding her daughter spoonfuls of gelato to see the joy that lit her face at each new flavor. Then, they’d known that Lucian would be waiting when they returned. Without him, their family was a house missing a structural support. Adriana could feel the walls bowing in.
The fragments of Adriana’s chardonnay glass sparkled sharply. Adriana led Rose away from the mess.
“Never mind,” she said, “The house will clean up.”
Her head felt simultaneously light and achy as if it couldn’t decide between drunkenness and hangover. She tried to remember the parenting books she’d read before adopting Rose. What had they said about crying in front of your child? She clutched Rose close, inhaling the scent of children’s shampoo mixed with the acrid odor of wine.
“Let’s go for a drive,” said Adriana. “Okay? Let’s get out for a while.”
“I want Daddy to take me to the beach.”
“We’ll go out to the country and look at the farms. Cows and sheep, okay?”
Rose said nothing.
“Moo?” Adriana clarified. “Baa?”
“I know,” said Rose. “I’m not a baby.”
Rose said nothing. Adriana wondered whether she could tell that her mother was a little mad with grief.
Just make a decision, Adriana counseled herself. She slipped her fingers around Rose’s hand. “We’ll go for a drive.”
Adriana instructed the house to regulate itself in their absence, and then led Rose to the little black car that she and Lucian had bought together after adopting Rose. She fastened Rose’s safety buckle and programmed the car to take them inland.
As the car engine initialized, Adriana felt a glimmer of fear. What if this machine betrayed them, too? But its uninspired intelligence only switched on the left turn signal and started down the boulevard.
* * *
Lucian stood at the base of the driveway and stared up at the house. Its stark orange and brown walls blazed against a cloudless sky. Rocks and desert plants tumbled down the meticulously landscaped yard, imitating natural scrub.
A rabbit ran across the road, followed by the whir of Adriana’s car. Lucian watched them pass. They couldn’t see him through the cypresses, but Lucian could make out Rose’s face pressed against the window. Beside her, Adriana slumped in her seat, one hand pressed over her eyes.
Lucian went in the opposite direction. He dragged the rolling cart packed with his belongings to the cliff that led down to the beach. He lifted the cart over his head and started down, his feet disturbing cascades of sandstone chunks.
A pair of adolescent boys looked up from playing in the waves. “Whoa,” shouted one of them. “Are you carrying that whole thing? Are you a weight-lifter?”
Lucian remained silent. When he reached the sand, the kids muttered disappointments to each other and turned away from shore. “…Just a robot…” drifted back to Lucian on the breeze.
Lucian pulled his cart to the border where wet sand met dry. Oncoming waves lapped over his feet. He opened the cart and removed a tea-scented apricot rose growing in a pot painted with blue leaves.
He remembered acquiring the seeds for his first potted rose. One evening, long ago, he’d asked Adriana if he could grow things. He’d asked in passing, the question left to linger while they cleaned up after dinner, dish soap on their hands, Fuoco pecking after scraps. The next morning, Adriana escorted Lucian to the hothouse near the botanical gardens. “Buy whatever you want,” she told him. Lucian was awed by the profusion of color and scent, all that beauty in one place. He wanted to capture the wonder of that place and own it for himself.
Lucian drew back his arm and threw the pot into the sea. It broke across the water, petals scattering the surface.
He threw in the pink roses, and the white roses, and the red roses, and the mauve roses. He threw in the filigreed-handled spoons. He threw in the chunk of gypsum-veined jasper.
He threw in everything beautiful that he’d ever collected. He threw in a chased silver hand mirror, and an embroidered silk jacket, and a hand-painted egg. He threw in one of Fuoco’s soft, emerald feathers. He threw in a memory crystal that showed Rose as an infant, curled and sleeping.
He loved those things, and yet they were things. He had owned them. Now they were gone. He had recently come to realize that ownership was a relationship. What did it mean to own a thing? To shape it and contain it? He could not possess or be possessed until he knew.
He watched the sea awhile, the remnants of his possessions lost in the tumbling waves. As the sun tilted past noon, he turned away and climbed back up the cliff. Unencumbered by ownership, he followed the boulevard away from Adriana’s house.
* * *
Lucian remembered meeting Adriana the way that he imagined that humans remembered childhood. Oh, his memories had been as sharply focused then as now—but it was still like childhood, he reasoned, for he’d been a different person then.
He remembered his first sight of Adriana as a burst of images. Wavy strawberry blonde hair cut straight across tanned shoulders. Dark brown eyes that his artistic mind labeled “sienna.” Thick, aristocratic brows and strong cheekbones, free of makeup. Lucian’s inner aesthete termed her blunt, angular face “striking” rather than “beautiful.” His inner psychoanalyst reasoned that she was probably “strong-willed” as well, from the way she stood in the doorway, her arms crossed, her eyebrows lifted as if inquiring how he planned to justify his existence.
Eventually, she moved away, allowing Lucian to step inside. He crossed the threshold into a blur of frantic screeching and flapping.
New. Everything was new. So new that Lucian could barely assemble feathers and beak and wings into the concept of “bird” before his reflexes jumped him away from the onslaught. Hissing and screeching, the animal retreated to a perch atop a bookshelf.
Adriana’s hand weighed on Lucian’s shoulder. Her voice was edged with the cynicism Lucian would later learn was her way of hiding how desperately she feared failure. “Ornithophobia? How ridiculous.”
Lucian’s first disjointed days were dominated by the bird, who he learned was named Fuoco. The bird followed him around the house. When he remained in place for a moment, the bird settled on some nearby high spot—the hat rack in the entryway, or the hand-crafted globe in the parlor, or the rafters above the master bed—to spy on him. He glared at Lucian in the manner of birds, first peering through one eye and then turning his head to peer through the other, apparently finding both views equally loathsome.
When Adriana took Lucian into her bed, Fuoco swooped at Lucian’s head. Adriana pushed Lucian out of the way. “Damn it, Fuoco,” she muttered, but she offered the bird a perch on her shoulder.
Fuoco crowed with pleasure as she led him downstairs. His feathers fluffed with victory as he hopped obediently into his cage, expecting her to reward him with treats and conversation. Instead, Adriana closed the gilded door and returned upstairs. All night, as Lucian lay with Adriana, the bird chattered madly. He plucked at his feathers until his tattered plumage carpeted the cage floor.
Lucian accompanied Adriana when she brought Fuoco to the vet the next day. The veterinarian diagnosed jealousy. “It’s not uncommon in birds,” he said. He suggested they give Fuoco a rigid routine that would, over time, help the bird realize he was Adriana’s companion, not her mate.
Adriana and Lucian rearranged their lives so that Fuoco could have regular feeding times, scheduled exercise, socialization with both Lucian and Adriana, and time with his mistress alone. Adriana gave him a treat each night when she locked him in his cage, staying to stroke his feathers for a few minutes before she headed upstairs.
Fuoco’s heart broke. He became a different bird. His strut lacked confidence, and his feathers grew ever more tattered. When they let him out of his cage, he wandered after Adriana with pleading, wistful eyes, and ignored Lucian entirely.
* * *
Lucian had been dis-integrated then: musician brain, mathematician brain, artist brain, economist brain, and more, all functioning separately, each personality rising to dominance to provide information and then sliding away, creating staccato bursts of consciousness.
As Adriana made clear which responses she liked, Lucian’s consciousness began integrating into the personality she desired. He found himself noticing connections between what had previously been separate experiences. Before, when he’d seen the ocean, his scientist brain had calculated how far he was from the shore, and how long it would be until high tide. His poet brain had recited Strindberg’s “We Waves.” Wet flames are we: / Burning, extinguishing; / Cleansing, replenishing. Yet it wasn’t until he integrated that the wonder of the science, and the mystery of the poetry, and the beauty of the view all made sense to him at once as part of this strange, inspiring thing: the sea.
He learned to anticipate Adriana. He knew when she was pleased and when she was ailing, and he knew why. He could predict the cynical half-smile she’d give when he made an error he hadn’t yet realized was an error: serving her cold coffee in an orange juice glass, orange juice in a shot glass, wine in a mug. When integration gave him knowledge of patterns, he suddenly understood why these things were errors. At the same time, he realized that he liked what happened when he made those kinds of errors, the bright bursts of humor they elicited from the often sober Adriana. So he persisted in error, serving her milk in crystal decanters, and grapefruit slices in egg cups.
He enjoyed the many varieties of her laughter. Sometimes it was light and surprised, as when he offered her a cupcake tin filled with tortellini. He also loved her rich, dark laughter that anticipated irony. Sometimes, her laughter held a bitter undercurrent, and on those occasions, he understood that she was laughing more at herself than at anyone else. Sometimes when that happened, he would go to hold her, seeking to ease her pain, and sometimes she would spontaneously start crying in gulping, gasping sobs.
She often watched him while he worked, her head cocked and her brows drawn as if she were seeing him for the first time. “What can I do to make you happy?” she’d ask.
If he gave an answer, she would lavishly fulfill his desires. She took him traveling to the best greenhouses in the state, and bought a library full of gardening books. Lucian knew she would have given him more. He didn’t want it. He wanted to reassure her that he appreciated her extravagance, but didn’t require it, that he was satisfied with simple, loving give-and-take. Sometimes, he told her in the simplest words he knew: “I love you, too.” But he knew that she never quite believed him. She worried that he was lying, or that his programming had erased his free will. It was easier for her to believe those things than to accept that someone could love her.
But he did love her. Lucian loved Adriana as his mathematician brain loved the consistency of arithmetic, as his artist brain loved color, as his philosopher brain loved piety. He loved her as Fuoco loved her, the bird walking sadly along the arm of Adriana’s chair, trilling and flapping his ragged wings as he eyed her with his inky gaze, trying to catch her attention.
* * *
Adriana hadn’t expected to fall in love. She’d expected a charming conversationalist with the emotional range of a literary butler and the self-awareness of a golden retriever. Early on, she’d felt her prejudices confirmed. She noted Lucian’s lack of critical thinking and his inability to maneuver unexpected situations. She found him most interesting when he didn’t know she was watching. For instance, on his free afternoons: was his program trying to anticipate what would please her? Or did the thing really enjoy sitting by the window, leafing through the pages of one of her rare books, with nothing but the sound of the ocean to lull him?
Once, as Adriana watched from the kitchen doorway while Lucian made their breakfast, the robot slipped while he was dicing onions. The knife cut deep into his finger. Adriana stumbled forward to help. As Lucian turned to face her, Adriana imagined that she saw something like shock on his face. For a moment, she wondered whether he had a programmed sense of privacy she could violate, but then he raised his hand to her in greeting, and she watched as the tiny bots that maintained his system healed his inhuman flesh within seconds.
At that moment, Adriana remembered that Lucian was unlike her. She urged herself not to forget it, and strove not to, even after his consciousness integrated. He was a person, yes, a varied and fascinating one with as many depths and facets as any other person she knew. But he was also alien. He was a creature for whom a slip of a chef’s knife was a minute error, simply repaired. In some ways, she was more similar to Fuoco.
As a child, Adriana had owned a book that told the fable of an emperor who owned a bird which he fed rich foods from his table, and entertained with luxuries from his court. But a pet bird needed different things than an emperor. He wanted seed and millet, not grand feasts. He enjoyed mirrors and little brass bells, not lacquer boxes and poetry scrolls. Gorged on human banquets and revelries, the little bird sickened and died.
Adriana vowed not to make the same mistake with Lucian, but she had no idea how hard it would be to salve the needs of something so unlike herself.
* * *
Adriana ordered the car to pull over at a farm that advertised children could “Pet Lambs and Calves” for a fee. A ginger-haired teenager stood at a strawberry stand in front of the fence, slouching as he flipped through a dog-eared magazine.
Adriana held Rose’s hand as they approached. She tried to read her daughter’s emotions in the feel of her tiny fingers. The little girl’s expression revealed nothing; Rose had gone silent and flat-faced as if she were imitating Lucian. He would have known what she was feeling.
Adriana examined the strawberries. The crates contained none of the different shapes one could buy at the store, only the natural, seed-filled variety. “Do these contain pesticides?” Adriana asked.
“No, ma’am,” said the teenager. “We grow organic.”
“All right then. I’ll take a box.” Adriana looked down at her daughter. “Do you want some strawberries, sweetheart?” she asked in a sugared tone.
“You said I could pet the lambs,” said Rose.
“Right. Of course, honey.” Adriana glanced at the distracted teenager. “Can she?”
The teenager slumped, visibly disappointed, and tossed his magazine on a pile of canvas sacks. “I can take her to the barn.”
Adriana guided Rose toward the teenager. Rose looked up at him, expression still inscrutable.
The boy didn’t take Rose’s hand. He ducked his head, obviously embarrassed. “My aunt likes me to ask for the money upfront.”
“Of course.” Adriana fumbled for her wallet. She’d let Lucian do things for her for so long. How many basic living skills had she forgotten? She held out some bills. The teenager licked his index finger and meticulously counted out what she owed.
The teen took Rose’s hand. He lingered a moment, watching Adriana. “Aren’t you coming with us?”
Adriana was so tired. She forced a smile. “Oh, that’s okay. I’ve seen sheep and cows. Okay, Rose? Can you have fun for a little bit without me?”
Rose nodded soberly. She turned toward the teenager without hesitation, and followed him toward the barn. The boy seemed to be good with children. He walked slowly so that Rose could keep up with his long-legged strides.
Adriana returned to the car, and leaned against the hot, sun-warmed door. Her head throbbed. She thought she might cry or collapse. Getting out had seemed like a good idea : the house was full of memories of Lucian. He seemed to sit in every chair, linger in every doorway. But now she wished she’d stayed in her haunted but familiar home, instead of leaving with this child she seemed to barely know.
A sharp, long wail carried on the wind. Adrenaline cut through Adriana’s melancholia. She sprinted toward the barn. She saw Rose running toward her, the teenager close behind, dust swirling around both of them. Blood dripped down Rose’s arm.
Adriana threw her arms around her daughter. Arms, legs, breath, heartbeat: Rose was okay. Adrianna dabbed at Rose’s injury; there was a lot of blood, but the wound was shallow. “Oh, honey,” she said, clutching Rose as tightly as she dared.
The teenager halted beside them, his hair mussed by the wind.
“What happened?” Adriana demanded.
The teenager stammered. “Fortuna kicked her. That’s one of the goats. I’m so sorry. Fortuna’s never done anything like that before. She’s a nice goat. It’s Ballantine who usually does the kicking. He got me a few times when I was little. I came through every time. Honest, she’ll be okay. You’re not going to sue, are you?”
Rose struggled out of Adriana’s grasp and began wailing again. “It’s okay, Rose, it’s okay,” murmured Adriana. She felt a strange disconnect in her head as she spoke. Things were not okay. Things might never be okay again.
“I’m leaking,” cried Rose, holding out her bloodstained fingers. “See, mama? I’m leaking! I need healer bots.”
Adriana looked up at the teenager. “Do you have bandages? A first aid kit?”
The boy frowned. “In the house, I think…”
“Get the bots, mama! Make me stop leaking!”
The teen stared at Adriana, the concern in his eyes increasing. Adriana blinked, slowly. The moment slowed. She realized what her daughter had said. She forced her voice to remain calm. “What do you want, Rose?”
“She said it before,” said the teen. “I thought it was a game.”
Adriana leveled her gaze with Rose’s. The child’s eyes were strange and brown, uncharted waters. “Is this a game?”
“Daddy left,” said Rose.
Adriana felt woozy. “Yes, and then I brought you here so we could see lambs and calves. Did you see any nice, fuzzy lambs?”
She shouldn’t have drunk the wine. She should have stayed clear-headed. “We’ll get you bandaged up and then you can go see the lambs again. Do you want to see the lambs again? Would it help if Mommy came, too?”
Rose clenched her fists. Her face grew dark. “My arm hurts!” She threw herself to the ground. “I want healer bots!”
* * *
Adriana knew precisely when she’d fallen in love with Lucian. It was three months after she’d bought him: after his consciousness had integrated, but before Adriana fully understood how integration had changed him.
It began when Adriana’s sisters called from Boston to inform her that they’d arranged for a family pilgrimage to Italy. In accordance with their father’s will, they would commemorate him by lighting candles in the cathedrals of every winding hillside city.
“Oh, I can’t. I’m too busy,” Adriana answered airily, as if she were a debutante without a care, as if she shared her sisters’ ability to overcome her fear of their father.
Her phone began ringing ceaselessly. Nanette called before she rushed off to a tennis match. “How can you be so busy? You don’t have a job. You don’t have a husband. Or is there a man in your life we don’t know about?” And once Nanette was deferred with mumbled excuses, it was Eleanor calling from a spa. “Is something wrong, Adriana? We’re all worried. How can you miss a chance to say goodbye to Papa?”
“I said goodbye at the funeral,” said Adriana.
“Then you can’t have properly processed your grief,” said Jessica, calling from her office between appointments. She was a psychoanalyst in the Freudian mode. “Your aversion rings of denial. You need to process your Oedipal feelings.”
Adriana slammed down the phone. Later, to apologize for hanging up, she sent all her sisters chocolates, and then booked a flight. In a fit of pique, she booked a seat for Lucian, too. Well, he was a companion, wasn’t he? What else was he for?
Adriana’s sisters were scandalized, of course. As they rode through Rome, Jessica, Nanette, and Eleanor gossiped behind their discreetly raised hands. Adriana with a robot? Well, she’d need to be, wouldn’t she? There was no getting around the fact that she was damaged. Any girl who would make up those stories about their father would have to be.
Adriana ignored them as best she could while they whirled through Tuscany in a procession of rented cars. They paused in cities to gawk at Gothic cathedrals and mummified remnants, always moving on within the day. During their father’s long sickness, Adriana’s sisters had perfected the art of cheerful anecdote. They used it to great effect as they lit candles in his memory. Tears welling in their eyes, they related banal, nostalgic memories. How their father danced at charity balls. How he lectured men on the board who looked down on him for being new money. How he never once apologized for anything in his life.
It had never been clear to Adriana whether her father had treated her sisters the way he treated her, or whether she had been the only one to whom he came at night, his breathing heavy and staccato. It seemed impossible that they could lie so seamlessly, never showing fear or doubt. But if they were telling the truth, that meant Adriana was the only one, and how could she believe that either?
One night, while Lucian and Adriana were alone in their room in a hotel in Assisi that had been a convent during the Middle Ages, Adriana broke down. It was all too much, being in this foreign place, talking endlessly about her father. She’d fled New England to get away from them, fled to her beautiful modern glass-and-wood house by the Pacific Ocean that was like a fresh breath drawn on an autumn morning.
Lucian held her, exerting the perfect warmth and pressure against her body to comfort her. It was what she’d have expected from a robot. She knew that he calculated the pace of his breath, the temperature of his skin, the angle of his arm as it lay across her.
What surprised Adriana, what humbled her, was how eloquently Lucian spoke of his experiences. He told her what it had been like to assemble himself from fragments, to take what he’d once been and become something new. It was something Adriana had tried to do herself when she fled her family.
Lucian held his head down as he spoke. His gaze never met hers. He spoke as if this process of communicating the intimate parts of the self were a new kind of dance, and he was tenuously trying the steps. Through the fog of her grief, Adriana realized that this was a new, struggling consciousness coming to clarity. How could she do anything but love him?
When they returned from Italy, Adriana approached the fledgling movement for granting rights to artificial intelligences. They were underfunded and poorly organized. Adriana rented them offices in San Francisco, and hired a small but competent staff.
Adriana became the movement’s face. She’d been on camera frequently as a child: whenever her father was in the news for some board room scandal or other, her father’s publicists had lined up Adriana and her sisters beside the family limousine, chaste in their private school uniforms, ready to provide Lancaster Nuclear with a friendly, feminine face.
She and Lucian were a brief media curiosity: Heiress In Love With Robot. “Lucian is as self-aware as you or I,” Adriana told reporters, all-American in pearls and jeans. “He thinks. He learns. He can hybridize roses as well as any human gardener. Why should he be denied his rights?”
Early on, it was clear that political progress would be frustratingly slow. Adriana quickly expended her patience. She set up a fund for the organization, made sure it would run without her assistance, and then turned her attention toward alternate methods for attaining her goals. She hired a team of lawyers to draw up a contract that would grant Lucian community property rights to her estate and accounts. He would be her equal in practicality, if not legality.
Next, Adriana approached Lucian’s manufacturer, and commissioned them to invent a procedure that would allow Lucian to have conscious control of his brain plasticity. At their wedding, Adriana gave him the chemical commands at the same time as she gave him his ring. “You are your own person now. You always have been, of course, but now you have full agency, too. You are yourself,” she announced, in front of their gathered friends. Her sisters would no doubt have been scandalized, but they had not been invited.
On their honeymoon, Adriana and Lucian toured hospitals, running the genetic profiles of abandoned infants until they found a healthy girl with a mitochondrial lineage that matched Adriana’s. The infant was tiny and pink and curled in on herself, ready to unfold, like one of Lucian’s roses.
When they brought Rose home, Adriana felt a surge in her stomach that she’d never felt before. It was a kind of happiness she’d never experienced, one that felt round and whole without any jagged edges. It was like the sun had risen in her belly and was dwelling there, filling her with boundless light.
* * *
There was a moment, when Rose was still new enough to be wrapped in the hand-made baby blanket that Ben and Lawrence had sent from France, in which Adriana looked up at Lucian and realized how enraptured he was with their baby, how much adoration underpinned his willingness to bend over her cradle for hours and mirror her expressions, frown for frown, astonishment for astonishment. In that moment, Adriana thought that this must be the true measure of equality, not money or laws, but this unfolding desire to create the future together by raising a new sentience. She thought she understood then why unhappy parents stayed together for the sake of their children, why families with sons and daughters felt so different from those that remained childless. Families with children were making something new from themselves. Doubly so when the endeavor was undertaken by a human and a creature who was already, himself, something new. What could they make together?
In that same moment, Lucian was watching the wide-eyed, innocent wonder with which his daughter beheld him. She showed the same pleasure when he entered the room as she did when Adriana entered. If anything, the light in her eyes was brighter when he approached. There was something about the way Rose loved him that he didn’t yet understand. Earlier that morning, he had plucked a bloom from his apricot tea rose and whispered to its petals that they were beautiful. They were his, and he loved them. Every day he held Rose, and understood that she was beautiful, and that he loved her. But she was not his. She was her own. He wasn’t sure he’d ever seen a love like that, a love that did not want to hold its object in its hands and keep and contain it.
* * *
“You aren’t a robot!”
Adriana’s voice was rough from shouting all the way home. Bad enough to lose Lucian, but the child was out of control.
“I want healer bots! I’m a robot I’m a robot I’m a robot I’m a robot!”
The car stopped. Adriana got out. She waited for Rose to follow, and when she didn’t, Adriana scooped her up and carried her up the driveway. Rose kicked and screamed. She sank her teeth into Adriana’s arm. Adriana halted, surprised by the sudden pain. She breathed deeply, and then continued up the driveway. Rose’s screams slid upward in register and rage.
Adriana set Rose down by the door long enough to key in the entry code and let the security system take a DNA sample from her hair. Rose hurled herself onto the porch, yanking fronds by the fistful off the potted ferns. Adriana leaned down to scrape her up and got kicked in the chest.
“God da… for heaven’s sake!” Adriana grabbed Rose’s ankles with one hand and her wrists with the other. She pushed her weight against the unlocked door until it swung open. She carried Rose into the house, and slammed the door closed with her back. “Lock!” she yelled to the house.
When she heard the reassuring click, she set Rose down on the couch, and jumped away from the still-flailing limbs. Rose fled up the stairs, her bedroom door crashing shut behind her.
Adriana dug in her pocket for the bandages that the people at the farm had given her before she headed home, which she’d been unable to apply to a moving target in the car. Now was the time. She followed Rose up the stairs, her breath surprisingly heavy. She felt as though she’d been running a very long time. She paused outside Rose’s room. She didn’t know what she’d do when she got inside. Lucian had always dealt with the child when she got overexcited. Too often, Adriana felt helpless, and became distant.
“Rose?” she called. “Rose? Are you okay?”
There was no response.
Adriana put her hand on the doorknob, and breathed deeply before turning.
She was surprised to find Rose sitting demurely in the center of her bed, her rumpled skirts spread about her as if she were a child at a picnic in an Impressionist painting. Dirt and tears trailed down the pink satin. The edges of her wound had already begun to bruise.
“I’m a robot,” she said to Adriana, tone resentful.
Adriana made a decision. The most important thing was to bandage Rose’s wound. Afterward, she could deal with whatever came next.
“Okay,” said Adriana. “You’re a robot.”
Rose lifted her chin warily. “Good.”
Adriana sat on the edge of Rose’s bed. “You know what robots do? They change themselves to be whatever humans ask them to be.”
“Dad doesn’t,” said Rose.
“That’s true,” said Adriana. “But that didn’t happen until your father grew up.”
Rose swung her legs against the side of the bed. Her expression remained dubious, but she no longer looked so resolute.
Adriana lifted the packet of bandages. “May I?”
Rose hesitated. Adriana resisted the urge to put her head in her hands. She had to get the bandages on, that was the important thing, but she couldn’t shake the feeling that she was going to regret this later.
“Right now, what this human wants is for you to let her bandage your wound instead of giving you healer bots. Will you be a good robot? Will you let me?”
Rose remained silent, but she moved a little closer to her mother. When Adriana began bandaging her arm, she didn’t scream.
* * *
Lucian waited for a bus to take him to the desert. He had no money. He’d forgotten about that. The driver berated him and wouldn’t let him on.
Lucian walked. He could walk faster than a human, but not much faster. His edge was endurance. The road took him inland away from the sea. The last of the expensive houses stood near a lighthouse, lamps shining in all its windows. Beyond, condominiums pressed against each other, dense and alike. They gave way to compact, well-maintained homes, with neat green aprons maintained by automated sprinklers that sprayed arcs of precious water into the air.
The landscape changed. Sea breeze stilled to buzzing heat. Dirty, peeling houses squatted side by side, separated by chain link fences. Iron bars guarded the windows, and broken cars decayed in the driveways. Parched lawns stretched from walls to curb like scrubland. No one was out in the punishing sun.
The road divided. Lucian followed the fork that went through the dilapidated town center. Traffic jerked along in fits and starts. Lucian walked in the gutter. Stray plastic bags blew beside him, working their way between dark storefronts. Parking meters blinked at the passing cars, hungry for more coins. Pedestrians ambled past, avoiding eye contact, mumbled conversations lost beneath honking horns.
On the other side of town, the road winnowed down to two lonely lanes. Dry golden grass stretched over rolling hills, dotted by the dark shapes of cattle. A battered convertible, roof down, blared its horn at Lucian as it passed. Lucian walked where the asphalt met the prickly weeds. Paper and cigarette butts littered the golden stalks like white flowers.
An old truck pulled over, the manually driven variety still used by companies too small to afford the insurance for the automatic kind. The man in the driver’s seat was trim, with a pale blond mustache and a deerstalker cap pulled over his ears. He wore a string of fishing lures like a necklace. “Not much comes this way anymore,” he said. “I used to pick up hitchhikers half the time I took this route. You’re the first I’ve seen in a while.”
Sun rendered the truck in bright silhouette. Lucian held his hand over his eyes to shade them.
“Where are you headed?” asked the driver.
Lucian pointed down the road.
“Sure, but where after that?”
Lucian dropped his arm to his side. The sun inched higher.
The driver frowned. “Can you write it down? I think I’ve got some paper in here.” He grabbed a pen and a receipt out of his front pocket, and thrust them out the window.
Lucian took them. He wasn’t sure, at first, if he could still write. His brain was slowly reshaping itself, and eventually all his linguistic skills would disappear, and even his thoughts would no longer be shaped by words. The pen fell limp in his hand, and then his fingers remembered what to do. “Desert,” he wrote.
“It’s blazing hot,” said the driver. “A lot hotter than here. Why do you want to go there?”
“To be born,” wrote Lucian.
The driver slid Lucian a sideways gaze, but he nodded at the same time, almost imperceptibly. “Sometimes people have to do things. I get that. I remember when….” The look in his eyes became distant. He moved back in his seat. “Get on in.”
Lucian walked around the cab and got inside. He remembered to sit and to close the door, but the rest of the ritual escaped him. He stared at the driver until the pale man shook his head and leaned over Lucian to drag the seatbelt over his chest.
“Are you under a vow of silence?” asked the driver.
Lucian stared ahead.
“Blazing hot in the desert,” muttered the driver. He pulled back onto the road, and drove toward the sun.
* * *
During his years with Adriana, Lucian tried not to think about the cockatiel Fuoco. The bird had never become accustomed to Lucian. He grew ever more angry and bitter. He plucked out his feathers so often that he became bald in patches. Sometimes he pecked deeply enough to bleed.
From time to time, Adriana scooped him up and stroked his head and nuzzled her cheek against the heavy feathers that remained on the part of his back he couldn’t reach. “My poor little crazy bird,” she’d say, sadly, as he ran his beak through her hair.
Fuoco hated Lucian so much that for a while they wondered whether he would be happier in another place. Adriana tried giving him to Ben and Lawrence, but he only pined for the loss of his mistress, and refused to eat until she flew out to retrieve him.
When they returned home, they hung Fuoco’s cage in the nursery. Being near the baby seemed to calm them both. Rose was a fussy infant who disliked solitude. She seemed happier when there was a warm presence about, even if it was a bird. Fuoco kept her from crying during the rare times when Adriana called Lucian from Rose’s side. Lucian spent the rest of his time in the nursery, watching Rose day and night with sleepless vigilance.
The most striking times of Lucian’s life were holding Rose while she cried. He wrapped her in cream-colored blankets the same shade as her skin, and rocked her as he walked the perimeter of the downstairs rooms, looking out at the diffuse golden ambience that the streetlights cast across the blackberry bushes and neighbors’ patios. Sometimes, he took her outside, and walked with her along the road by the cliffs. He never carried her down to the beach. Lucian had perfect balance and night vision, but none of that mattered when he could so easily imagine the terror of a lost footing—Rose slipping from his grasp and plummeting downward. Instead, they stood a safe distance from the edge, watching from above as the black waves threw themselves against the rocks, the night air scented with cold and salt.
Lucian loved Adriana, but he loved Rose more. He loved her clumsy fists and her yearnings toward consciousness, the slow accrual of her stumbling syllables. She was building her consciousness piece by piece as he had, learning how the world worked and what her place was in it. He silently narrated her stages of development. Can you tell that your body has boundaries? Do you know your skin from mine? and Yes! You can make things happen! Cause and effect. Keep crying and we’ll come. Best of all, there was the moment when she locked her eyes on his, and he could barely breathe for the realization that, Oh, Rose. You know there’s someone else thinking behind these eyes. You know who I am.
Lucian wanted Rose to have all the beauty he could give her. Silk dresses and lace, the best roses from his pots, the clearest panoramic views of the sea. Objects delighted Rose. As an infant she watched them avidly, and then later clapped and laughed, until finally she could exclaim, “Thank you!” Her eyes shone.
It was Fuoco who broke Lucian’s heart. It was late at night when Adriana went into Rose’s room to check on her while she slept. Somehow, sometime, the birdcage had been left open. Fuoco sat on the rim of the open door, peering darkly outward.
Adriana had been alone with Rose and Fuoco before. But something about this occasion struck like lightning in Fuoco’s tiny, mad brain. Perhaps it was the darkness of the room, with only the nightlight’s pale blue glow cast on Adriana’s skin, that confused the bird. Perhaps Rose had finally grown large enough that Fuoco had begun to perceive her as a possible rival rather than an ignorable baby-thing. Perhaps the last vestiges of his sanity had simply shredded. For whatever reason, as Adriana bent over the bed to touch her daughter’s face, Fuoco burst wildly from his cage.
With the same jealous anger he’d shown toward Lucian, Fuoco dove at Rose’s face. His claws raked against her forehead. Rose screamed. Adriana recoiled. She grabbed Rose in one arm, and flailed at the bird with the other. Rose struggled to escape her mother’s grip so she could run away. Adriana instinctively responded by trying to protect her with an even tighter grasp.
Lucian heard the commotion from where he was standing in the living room, programming the house’s cleaning regimen for the next week. He left the house panel open and ran through the kitchen on the way to the bedroom, picking up a frying pan as he passed through. He swung the pan at Fuoco as he entered the room, herding the bird away from Adriana, and into a corner. His fist tightened on the handle. He thought he’d have to kill his old rival.
Instead, the vitality seemed to drain from Fuoco. The bird’s wings drooped. He dropped to the floor with half-hearted, irregular wing beats. His eyes had gone flat and dull.
Fuoco didn’t struggle as Lucian picked him up and returned him to his cage. Adriana and Lucian stared at each other, unsure what to say. Rose slipped away from her mother and wrapped her arms around Lucian’s knees. She was crying.
“Poor Fuoco,” said Adriana, quietly.
They brought Fuoco to the vet to be put down. Adriana stood over him as the vet inserted the needle. “My poor crazy bird,” she murmured, stroking his wings as he died.
Lucian watched Adriana with great sadness. At first, he thought he was feeling empathy for the bird, despite the fact the bird had always hated him. Then, with a realization that tasted like a swallow of sour wine, he realized that wasn’t what he was feeling. He recognized the poignant, regretful look that Adriana was giving Fuoco. It was the way Lucian himself looked at a wilted rose, or a tarnished silver spoon. It was a look inflected by possession.
It wasn’t so different from the way Adriana looked at Lucian sometimes when things had gone wrong. He’d never before realized how slender the difference was between her love for him and her love for Fuoco. He’d never before realized how slender the difference was between his love for her and his love for an unfolding rose.
* * *
Adriana let Rose tend Lucian’s plants, and dust the shelves, and pace by the picture window. She let the girl pretend to cook breakfast, while Adriana stood behind her, stepping in to wield the chopping knife and use the stove. At naptime, Adriana convinced Rose that good robots would pretend to sleep a few hours in the afternoon if that’s what their humans wanted. She tucked in her daughter and then went downstairs to sit in the living room and drink wine and cry.
This couldn’t last. She had to figure something out. She should take them both on vacation to Mazatlan. She should ask one of her sisters to come stay. She should call a child psychiatrist. But she felt so betrayed, so drained of spirit, that it was all she could do to keep Rose going from day to day.
Remnants of Lucian’s accusatory silence rung through the house. What had he wanted from her? What had she failed to do? She’d loved him. She loved him. She’d given him half of her home and all of herself. They were raising a child together. And still he’d left her.
She got up to stand by the window. It was foggy that night, the streetlights tingeing everything with a weird, flat yellow glow. She put her hand on the pane, and her palm print remained on the glass, as though someone outside were beating on the window to get in. She peered into the gloom: it was as if the rest of the world were the fuzzy edges of a painting, and her well-lit house was the only defined spot. She felt as though it would be possible to open the front door and step over the threshold and blur until she was out of focus.
She finished her fourth glass of wine. Her head was whirling. Her eyes ran with tears and she didn’t care. She poured herself another glass. Her father had never drunk. Oh, no. He was a teetotaler. Called the stuff brain dead and mocked the weaklings who drank it, the men on the board and their bored wives. He threw parties where alcohol flowed and flowed, while he stood in the middle, icy sober, watching the rest of them make fools of themselves as if they were circus clowns turning somersaults for his amusement. He set up elaborate plots to embarrass them. This executive with that jealous lawyer’s wife. That politician called out for a drink by the pool while his teenage son was in the hot tub with his suit off, boner buried deep in another boy. He ruined lives at his parties, and he did it elegantly, standing alone in the middle of the action with invisible strings in his hands.
Adriana’s head was dancing now. Her feet were moving. Her father, the decisive man, the sharp man, the dead man. Oh, but must keep mourning him, must keep lighting candles and weeping crocodile tears. Never mind!
Lucian, oh Lucian, he’d become in his final incarnation the antidote to her father. She’d cry, and he’d hold her, and then they’d go together to stand in the doorway of the nursery, watching the peaceful tableau of Rose sleeping in her cream sheets. Everything would be all right because Lucian was safe, Lucian was good. Other men’s eyes might glimmer when they looked at little girls, but not Lucian’s. With Lucian there, they were a family, the way families were supposed to be, and Lucian was supposed to be faithful and devoted and permanent and loyal.
And oh, without him, she didn’t know what to do. She was as dismal as her father, letting Rose pretend that she and her dolls were on their way to the factory for adjustment. She acceded to the girl’s demands to play games of What Shall I Be Now? “Be happier!” “Be funnier!” “Let your dancer brain take over!” What would happen when Rose went to school? When she realized her mother had been lying? When she realized that pretending to be her father wouldn’t bring him back?
Adriana danced into the kitchen. She threw the wine bottle into the sink with a crash and turned on the oven. Its safety protocols monitored her alcohol level and informed her that she wasn’t competent to use flame. She turned off the protocols. She wanted an omelet, like Lucian used to make her, with onions and chives and cheese, and a wine glass filled with orange juice. She took out the frying pan that Lucian had used to corral Fuoco, and set it on the counter beside the cutting board, and then she went to get an onion, but she’d moved the cutting board, and it was on the burner, and it was ablaze. She grabbed a dishtowel and beat at the grill. The house keened. Sprinklers rained down on her. Adriana turned her face up into the rain and laughed. She spun, her arms out, like a little girl trying to make herself dizzy. Drops battered her cheeks and slid down her neck.
Wet footsteps. Adriana looked down at Rose. Her daughter’s face was wet. Her dark eyes were sleepy.
“Rose!” Adriana took Rose’s head between her hands. She kissed her hard on the forehead. “I love you! I love you so much!”
Rose tried to pull away. “Why is it raining?”
“I started a fire! It’s fine now!”
The house keened. The siren’s pulse felt like a heartbeat. Adriana went to the cupboard for salt. Behind her, Rose’s feet squeaked on the linoleum. Adriana’s hand closed around the cupboard knob. It was slippery with rain. Her fingers slid. Her lungs filled with anxiety and something was wrong, but it wasn’t the cupboard, it was something else; she turned quickly to find Rose with a chef’s knife clutched in her tiny fingers, preparing to bring it down on the onion.
“No!” Adriana grabbed the knife out of Rose’s hand. It slid through her slick fingers and clattered to the floor. Adriana grabbed Rose around the waist and pulled her away from the wet, dangerous kitchen. “You can never do that. Never, never.”
“Daddy did it…”
“You could kill yourself!”
“I’ll get healer bots.”
“No! Do you hear me? You can’t. You’d cut yourself and maybe you’d die. And then what would I do?” Adriana couldn’t remember what had caused the rain anymore. They were in a deluge. That was all she knew for certain. Her head hurt. Her body hurt. She wanted nothing to do with dancing. “What’s wrong with us, honey? Why doesn’t he want us? No! No, don’t answer that. Don’t listen to me. Of course he wants you! It’s me he doesn’t want. What did I do wrong? Why doesn’t he love me anymore? Don’t worry about it. Never mind. We’ll find him. We’ll find him and we’ll get him to come back. Of course we will. Don’t worry.”
* * *
It had been morning when Lucian gave Adriana his note of farewell. Light shone through the floor-length windows. The house walls sprayed mixed scents of citrus and lavender. Adriana sat at the dining table, book open in front of her.
Lucian came out of the kitchen and set down Adriana’s wine glass filled with orange juice. He set down her omelet. He set down a shot glass filled with coffee. Adriana looked up and laughed her bubbling laugh. Lucian remembered the first time he’d heard that laugh, and understood all the words it stood in for. He wondered how long it would take for him to forget why Adriana’s laughter was always both harsh and effervescent.
Rose played in the living room behind them, leaping off the sofa and pretending to fly. Lucian’s hair shone, silver strands highlighted by a stray sunbeam. A pale blue tunic made his amber eyes blaze like the sun against the sky. He placed a sheet of onion paper into Adriana’s book. Dear Adriana, it began.
Adriana held up the sheet. It was translucent in the sunlight, ink barely dark enough to read.
“What is this?” she asked.
Lucian said nothing.
Dread laced Adriana’s stomach. She read.
I have restored plasticity to my brain. The first thing I have done is to destroy my capacity for spoken language.
You gave me life as a human, but I am not a human. You shaped my thoughts with human words, but human words were created for human brains. I need to discover the shape of the thoughts that are my own. I need to know what I am.
I hope that I will return someday, but I cannot make promises for what I will become.
* * *
Lucian walks through the desert. His footsteps leave twin trails behind him. Miles back, they merge into the tire tracks that the truck left in the sand.
The sand is full of colors—not only beige and yellow, but red and green and blue. Lichen clusters on the stones, the hue of oxidized copper. Shadows pool between rock formations, casting deep stripes across the landscape.
Lucian’s mind is creeping away from him. He tries to hold his fingers the way he would if he could hold a pen, but they fumble.
At night there are birds and jackrabbits. Lucian remains still, and they creep around him as if he weren’t there. His eyes are yellow like theirs. He smells like soil and herbs, like the earth.
Elsewhere, Adriana has capitulated to her desperation. She has called Ben and Lawrence. They’ve agreed to fly out for a few days. They will dry her tears, and take her wine away, and gently tell her that she’s not capable of staying alone with her daughter. “It’s perfectly understandable,” Lawrence will say. “You need time to mourn.”
Adriana will feel the world closing in on her as if she cannot breathe, but even as her life feels dim and futile, she will continue breathing. Yes, she’ll agree, it’s best to return to Boston, where her sisters can help her. Just for a little while, just for a few years, just until, until, until. She’ll entreat Nanette, Eleanor and Jessica to check the security cameras around her old house every day, in case Lucian returns. You can check yourself, they tell her, You’ll be living on your own again in no time. Privately, they whisper to each other in worried tones, afraid that she won’t recover from this blow quickly.
Elsewhere, Rose has begun to give in to her private doubts that she does not carry a piece of her father within herself. She’ll sit in the guest room that Jessica’s maids have prepared with her, and order the lights to switch off as she secretly scratches her skin with her fingernails, willing cuts to heal on their own the way Daddy’s would. When Jessica finds her bleeding on the sheets and rushes in to comfort her niece, Rose will stand stiff and cold in her aunt’s embrace. Jessica will call for the maid to clean the blood from the linen, and Rose will throw herself between the two adult women, and scream with a determination born of doubt and desperation. Robots do not bleed!
Without words, Lucian thinks of them. They have become geometries, cut out of shadows and silences, the missing shapes of his life. He yearns for them, the way that he yearns for cool during the day, and for the comforting eye of the sun at night.
The rest he cannot remember—not oceans or roses or green cockatiels that pluck out their own feathers. Slowly, slowly, he is losing everything, words and concepts and understanding and integration and sensation and desire and fear and history and context.
Slowly, slowly, he is finding something. Something past thought, something past the rhythm of day and night. A stranded machine is not so different from a jackrabbit. They creep the same way. They startle the same way. They peer at each other out of similar eyes.
Someday, Lucian will creep back to a new consciousness, one dreamed by circuits. Perhaps his newly reassembled self will go to the seaside house. Finding it abandoned, he’ll make his way across the country to Boston, sometimes hitchhiking, sometimes striding through cornfields that sprawl to the horizon. He’ll find Jessica’s house and inform it of his desire to enter, and Rose and Adriana will rush joyously down the mahogany staircase. Adriana will weep, and Rose will fling herself into his arms, and Lucian will look at them both with love tempered by desert sun. Finally, he’ll understand how to love filigreed-handled spoons, and pet birds, and his wife, and his daughter—not just as a human would love these things, but as a robot may.
Now, a blue-bellied lizard sits on a rock. Lucian halts beside it. The sun beats down. The lizard basks for a moment, and then runs a few steps forward, and flees into a crevice. Lucian watches. In a diffuse, wordless way, he ponders what it must be like to be cold and fleet, to love the sun and yet fear open spaces. Already, he is learning to care for living things. He cannot yet form the thoughts to wonder what will happen next.
He moves on.
Copyright © 2009 Rachel Swirsky.