Amy Peterson is a self-replicating humanoid robot known as a VonNeumann.
For the past five years, she has been grown slowly as part of a mixed organic/synthetic family. She knows very little about her android mother’s past, so when her grandmother arrives and attacks her mother, Amy wastes no time: she eats her alive.
Now she carries her malfunctioning granny as a partition on her memory drive, and she’s learning impossible things about her clade’s history – like the fact that she alone can kill humans without failsafing…
The sign on the door read: PORTIA’S WANTED. Amy’s teacher had let her skip ahead to the third grade unit on contractions and possessives, but she remained uncertain whether the sign was a joke or just a typo.
Amy had not eaten in five days. She saw everything in greyscale, now, even the maps on Rick’s reader. She had searched frantically for news about her parents before the battery died. Both were in jail. No one said where. It was difficult to query further, with only one good hand. The jumps were harder, too. Well, the landings were the truly hard part. The index fingernail of her good hand popped off during a particularly nasty slide down a tree.
She did not see Rick and Melissa’s RV when she sprinted back down the access road. Javier was gone. His son had not woken up. He had not so much as moved. The fabric of Melissa’s old sweatshirt now pressed him against her body, silent and still as the bluescreens in the barrow.
Aren’t you too big for dolls?
“He’s alive. He just needs repair.”
How do you know?
Amy didn’t know. She admitted that. Junior’s body was limp and cool and occasionally his eyes would fall open when she didn’t carry him right. But somewhere there were bluescreen specialists. That meant they could be fixed. That had to count for something. She’d make it count for something.
She hid her mangled hand up her sleeve. She needed food. Desperately. And she needed money. Money could get her to her parents, once she found out where they were. Her mom would know what to do. Her dad would hug her and throw a vN pizza in the toaster oven and blow the dust off his old Fruits Basket discs and make it seem like no time had passed. Her mom would drill her, like she did every after day after school: whom had Amy seen? Where? Her dad always knew how to make her feel safe. Her mom knew how to keep her safe.
Your mother was always rather good at that sort of operation.
Portia had taken to doing that over the past couple of days. Teasing Amy about her mother. Things she knew that Amy didn’t. Memories she had, and that she revealed only fleetingly and during defragmentation. Something scanned briefly and then quarantined to some deeply buried chunk of Amy’s memory coral. Junkyards. Garbagemen. Fences and dogs and miles of desert adorned only by the scattered emeralds of well-kept lawns.
Amy focused on the trees surrounding her. She examined the scabs of bark in the pine she currently inhabited. They interlocked like tiles or armour plating. The tree felt solid and strong. She had grown used to its not-silences. The first night, alone in the rain with her maimed hand and the motionless infant, the woods had seemed bereft of all sound. After a few hours, Amy realized it was only human sounds they lacked. At night the woods had a different voice, huge and dry and ceaseless, not unlike a sample clip of “static” her dad once showed her. It was white noise. It put her to sleep.
Portia always woke her up.
This can’t possibly go well, you realize.
“I didn’t ask you,” Amy said. She crossed the street.
In her greyscale vision, the Electric Sheep was a series of fine- and coarse-grained shadows interrupted by the flickering glow of hot tables displaying menu items: steaming slices of cherry pie, mashed potatoes oozing butter, feedstock curled into perfect golden halos of calamari. The restaurant probably bought feed from the garbage dump, Amy realized. The guy who worked the nightshift might even have been a regular. Now he was dead.
She sensed the human eyes on her more keenly, then.
It was around ten o’clock on what she guessed was a Tuesday. Wednesday was supposed to be “Ladies’ Night,” whatever that meant, but Amy didn’t see any more girls than usual, either organic or synthetic. The synthetics seemed mostly to be waiting tables. Amy identified them by their flawless posture and the way they had all paused, staring at her, recognizing her, evaluating her as a potential threat to the humans in the room. Amy stood in the waiting area beside an empty podium. To her left was a small area of half-circle booths swollen with vinyl cushioning. To her right was a series of smaller, square booths with bench seats. A chest-height wall separated each area from the bar, where massive displays hung. All of them were tuned to vN-friendly channels. One of them showed the news from Mecha: a cheerful weathergirl in shiny galoshes bantering silently with her human counterpart in the studio. Then the story switched to something about vanished ships and subs. It showed a map. The map read: “Bermuda Pinstripe.”
Amy would have said something, or at least cleared her throat, but the smell of the food was so strong that a hungry whimper made it past her lips first. Her bones felt hollow. The edges of objects pixelated and dithered in her greyscale vision. An organic woman (Amy could tell by the wrinkles at her eyes and throat) seemed to float toward her. She was smiling. She made a mechanical noise. When Amy looked down, she saw old-fashioned roller skates peeking out from beneath lumpy cable-knit legwarmers.
“Oh my God. You even dressed the part.”
The human on the skates gripped Amy’s shoulders like they were old friends. Tattoos had turned her collarbone into a jungle tree dripping with pythons. They ducked modestly under the lace of what Amy recognized as a Bavarian barmaid costume, like the ones worn by low-level AI on the tavern levels of old games.
“Have you ever been a hostess before?”
You’re a host right now.
“No, I’m not. I mean, I haven’t been. No.” Was this the job interview?
“Well, that’s good. No retraining. The whole performing-the-brand schtick is really important within the Electric Sheep franchise flock.” If possible, her smile stretched even wider. She wore something frosty on her lips. Amy wished she could see in colour.
“Do you see what I did there? Sheep? Flock?”
Amy’s giggle had never felt quite so literally mechanical.
“See? I thought it was funny, too. I’m Shari, by the way. I’m the boss. And I tell everybody they’ll need a sense of humour if they want to work here.”
Amy made her mouth work. “Just like that?”
“Just like that.” The woman rolled her eyes. “Do you know how hard it’s been to find a Portia these days? They’re all being rounded up and taken to Redmond.”
The haze of hunger that clouded Amy’s perception froze. “Redmond?”
Shari nodded. “Yeah, where the reboot camp is. It’s where the church started. At least, I think their founder used to live up there. LeMarque had a tech job, before he started preaching. His old contacts did most of the work on the failsafe.”
After digesting some food and getting her colour vision back, Amy had embroidered a story with enough details to make it sound somewhat believable. Her name was Jacqueline and she was a year old. Prior to getting this job she was in a relationship, but it went sour after news came out about what Portia had done. He had gotten very suspicious and mistrustful because they shared the same model, and it had poisoned their love. As a result, she had no place to stay, and now slept in a little mobile storage pod that Shari kept in the parking lot for just such occasions.
The previous tenant had done nothing to improve the place. It was filthy. The ugly details that Amy always forgot to include in her designs had returned through some bizarre twist of fate to haunt her, here. Cobwebs hung from every corner and lint clung to them. Old wrinkled clothes and rolled-up posters and mugs from practically every state in the Union were everywhere. Amy had hidden Junior in an all-weather storage tub marked MANUALS. Nobody would ever look there.
Shari came to visit her in the pod before her first shift. She came bearing the printout of Amy’s new work uniform, and waved her hands dismissively when Amy thanked her for everything.
“It’s cool. I know how it is,” Shari said. “Been there myself. I’ve dated some real jackasses in my time. Then, around the time of the Cascadia quake, I switched to vN, and I never looked back.”
Amy listened to the road outside. They were only a few hours away from Redmond, and her mother, and the “reboot camp” where bluescreens went to wake up. Immediately upon entering the pod, she had charged up Rick’s device and found the campus on a map. It was one big pixel. She had to get there, and soon. She just needed to do this job for a little while to make that happen. It would take two weeks. Two weeks until the next payday.
A suicide mission funded entirely by tip jar. That’s a new one.
In an effort to block out Portia’s chatter, Amy asked: “Do you really think vN guys are different from human ones?”
“Totally!” Shari reached into the pocket of her tiny red leather jacket. She was dressed as some sort of bullfighter today, but with sequined leggings and shiny black boots that stretched over her knees.
“You mind if I, uh…” Shari mimed smoking.
“It’s all right. I don’t have lungs.”
“Cool.” Shari brought out a little hand-rolled cigarette and lit up. “Anyway. Yeah. vN guys are totally different. Human men, they only think with one head, and it ain’t the one sitting on their shoulders, you know what I mean?”
Amy had heard this expression before, but had never really known what it meant. It means cock, you little moron, Portia said. You know, penis?
Amy blushed and nodded. “I… I guess… I mean, their biology is different, they can’t help it…”
“Damn fucking straight,” Shari said, gesturing with her lit cigarette. “They can’t help it. I know that. I get it. Hell, I got tons of shit I can’t help. Menopause. They can make you, you, you little miracles of modern science, but they can’t cure my goddamn hot flashes.”
“You’re right. That’s… weird.”
“It’s total bullshit, is what it is. This whole culture, it doesn’t give a good goddamn about women.” Shari pointed at Amy. “There are only two industries in this world that ever make any kind of progress: porn, and the military. And when they hop in bed together with crazy fundamentalists, we get things like you.” She rested her elbows on her knees and grinned at Amy. “I’m telling you. Big men with their little heads. You know?”
Amy didn’t know. Her mother had explained about human reproduction, and it all sounded chancy and complicated and dangerous. She could understand why her dad wouldn’t want to make a baby with an organic woman. It was much easier with vN. At least, she had thought so at the time.
“This is depressing you, isn’t it?” Shari asked. “It’s depressing me. Let’s quit being so depressed. vN are great. There, that’s a happy thing.”
Amy smiled. “You really like vN better than other humans?”
“Oh, hell yeah. They’re consistent. No betrayal. No issues. No complications.”
Oh, the stories your mother could tell, Portia said.
“I know you can’t help but feel attracted to humans,” Shari said. “That’s just the failsafe doing its job, though. That’s how you got into that situation with your old boyfriend, am I right?”
“Uh… right. Yes. My old boyfriend.”
“You should know, whatever happened, it wasn’t your fault. You can’t help but love humans, even when they’re total dickwads. That’s just how you’re built. It’s us, you know, it’s us who can’t handle that kind of love. We’re apes. Literally. We don’t know shit about unconditional affection. So we fight it, because on some level we don’t even believe it’s possible.”
Amy stood up to find her work uniform. Humans tended to overestimate the failsafe’s properties. Saying that she was helplessly attracted to organics was just silly: she’d felt absolutely nothing for her prison guard. And she didn’t find Rick or Melissa very cute, either, or the boys who sometimes chased her and tried to flip up her skirt during the walk between the classroom and the music studio at school. They had always seemed so surprised when she ran away.
“I think the failsafe is different from love,” Amy said carefully. “I think it just makes us sick. It hurts us to see someone else getting hurt.”
“You have a humane response to inhuman behaviour.” Shari blinked. She stared at her cigarette as though it were the one who had spoken. “Whoa. That was deep. Especially for me.”
According to the customer service training game, the Electric Sheep was steadily growing into one of the most popular chains on the West Coast. While vN could find food in urban grocery and convenience stores, restaurants rarely had more than one or two items on the menu that they could eat. The Sheep had further broken down barriers by incorporating mandatory daycare for vN children. Doing so kept vN from running away to iterate, and it helped to train new vN in a job, so they wouldn’t wander homeless and aimless without skills. This was a problem Amy had known about only vaguely, from media and from the occasional glimpse of silently staring vN on street corners and in parks. She hadn’t really needed to consider it until now – now she was one of them.
Now she wondered how Javier did it. He’d made it look so easy, shifting easily between escaping and stealing and iterating and running, and now that she was stuck in the same situation, she had no clue how to go about it. Maybe he was just that lucky. Or maybe he got jobs in between – maybe even at the Sheep, where there was a whole system in place to help look after new iterations. The daycare took up a full third of the basement, being separated from the break room by an accordion wall and populated by tiny vN children playing old bargain bin cooking games or taking food handler permit tests from chunky plastic readers.
The iterations were better behaved than the customers. The Sheep felt like a gaming channel made physical: yelling, swearing, laughing, and a lot of bragging. Shari zoomed by on her roller skates, occasionally crashing into her own customers or reaching over booths to give hugs and kisses to her favourite people. The night shift was her domain. “I’m nocturnal,” she’d told Amy as she zipped by in search of a Rusty Innards: a dish of deep-fried chicken knuckles coated in peanut flakes. Then she had taken it upon herself to introduce Amy to every single table in the place and show off Amy’s nurse costume.
“That’s how her model started out, you know,” Shari told the customers. “Nurses.”
Nurses, to Amy’s knowledge, did not dress in tiny white dresses with folded paper caps that clipped into one’s hair with pins. Nor did they wear ribboned stockings that folded over the knee, or patent leather loafers. The nurses Amy had seen (in shows, at least) wore pyjamas and sneakers – very comfortable, very durable. The costume’s only nod to reality was the pair of gloves Amy hid her damaged hand under.
Before Amy’s first shift started, Shari handed her over to Mack, the assistant manager. Mack was about six months old. He had come straight out of the Electric Sheep generational training program, having been born at another branch on the other side of the Cascades. Maybe it was because he’d never really been anywhere but the Sheep, but he was the quickest and most cheerful server Amy had ever seen. He was the one who first showed her the menu and told her to familiarize herself with it. Luckily, this involved more eating.
Like the Rusty Innards, all the items on the menu had goofy names that somehow related to robots, although Amy sometimes didn’t understand the references. There was a cocktail called Tears in the Rain, for example, that she had no clue about. But it was meant for humans, so it didn’t matter. Most other items came in both organic and synthetic versions: the organic Ziggurat was a tower of alternating fried chicken and waffles glazed in butter and maple syrup, while the synthetic version was shaped the same with similar textures but made primarily out of aluminium ore. The organic Hasta la Vista was a breakfast burrito with chorizo and black bean salsa; the synthetic version contained a large serving of iron.
Amy liked the Toaster Party best. She had always enjoyed the vN French toast that her dad made on Saturday mornings, and it seemed like it could only improve with ham and eggs sandwiched inside. Granted, the toast wasn’t really toast, and the ham wasn’t ham, and the eggs weren’t eggs, and the whole dish wasn’t really her dad’s creation, but when she closed her eyes and bit down, it was the closest she could come to home.
Amy’s hostessing duties included a large number of small tasks. Mack the manager had introduced her to the jobs she was to do during slow periods: giving the bathroom its regular cleaning (those soggy tampons weren’t marching to the organic garbage by themselves); emptying the large cylindrical ashtrays outside (they were mostly bereft of cigarettes, but everything else made it in there, like dead gum and phlegm wads); hauling up kegs and other bar supplies (the bartender was a nice vN who showed her exactly how to make egg-based cocktails, and always made her shake them when there were a lot of customers around to stare at her chest). So far there hadn’t really been any slow periods. Business was better than ever. Shari attributed this to Amy’s presence.
Amy’s real job was smiling. She smiled when she said hello. She smiled when she said goodbye. She smiled when she led customers to their tables and smiled when she introduced them to servers. And she smiled for photos – endless streams of photos.
“Can I take a picture with you?”
The organic teenaged boy standing beside her was the second Javier cosplayer of the night. He was much taller than Javier, and his belly was round with fat and not with child, and his skin was neither olive in complexion nor very clear. He did, however, sport a head of dark curly hair and a BLOW ME t-shirt.
“I told my girlfriend we were going to dinner in Port Townsend,” he whispered in Amy’s ear. “She’s so fucking pissed.”
The girlfriend stood away from them, taking pictures by waving her compact at them slowly. Her gaze wandered to Mack and the other male vN. Evidently expecting more than just chicken and waffles, she had dressed far more carefully than her boyfriend.
“You know they all look the same, right?” she asked, finally swinging her gaze toward them.
The boy straightened. “Babe, I told you, it’s a scavenger hunt. I’m logging all the Portias I can find while they’re still around.” He winced, and turned back to Amy. “No offence. I think it’s totally unfair what they’re doing to your model. It’s, like, discrimination and shit. You know?”
Amy could only nod.
“And my girlfriend didn’t really mean that, about you all looking the same.” He took hold of Amy’s chin with his thumb and forefinger. His smile stretched the pink and bleeding cracks in his chapped lips. “She’s just jealous, ’cause you’re so pretty.”
Amy pulled out of his grasp immediately. “I’ll find your server.”
You’re out of character, Portia warned. You’re supposed to enjoy the attention. Crave it. Encourage it. Every time. With everyone.
“It’s unprofessional,” she murmured, as she resumed her podium and highlighted the table for service. She was growing to like the podium. It was only a slender piece of not-really-wood and an old tablet, but it was also the only thing standing between her and guys like the cosplayer. “I have a job to do and I can’t be distracted.”
Or maybe you just realize how disgusting it is, Portia said. Deep down, you know your dignity is worth more than whatever it costs to get to Redmond and play hero.
Slowly, Amy lifted her hand to wave at the couple. The boy brightened and took his seat. “Thanks for the reminder, Granny,” Amy said through her smile. “I’d forgotten why I was doing all this.”
In the days that followed, Shari and Mack praised Amy for being such a hard worker. It helped that Amy actually enjoyed some of the jobs. She liked that sudden rush of silence when the back doors slammed shut behind her and the noise of the Sheep died out. She liked letting the trash bags fall for a moment and looking up to catch satellites blinking across the sky. Out here the night was different – quietly alive and smeared with stars. They spilled like icing sugar across dark granite, something she’d have to wipe up inside but which she could marvel at outdoors. This was the best feature of the night shift, she decided – the night. At home in Oakland the sky would be pink or orange, even this late. Not that she would have seen it, anyway. She’d have been too busy designing a ship or a castle or a tank. She’d have seen the night for what it was only in that sliver of time between turning the projector off and climbing into her hammock. Now she appreciated the way the night held her and covered her, how it let her hide inside its cool shadows and fragrant mists. She thought of it as a veil that stretched across her, and Junior, and Javier, and her dad and mom and the others of her clade, the women who shared her face and her code. She wondered how they got by.
This wasn’t a bad life. Amy had never thought she would wind up here, but she could see now how other vN did. There was work, and if you were lucky people were nice and they tipped you. And if you were even luckier, you got to go home afterward, and there would be people there, maybe human, and they loved you. That was the luckiest life of all. So you just did what it took to keep it going. Even if it meant humans touching you when you bent over to pick something up.
You’re not meant to please these walking sacks of shit, Portia had said the first time that happened. You’re meant to scare it out of them.
It wasn’t any sense of pride that kept her bussing tables, or folding napkins, or realigning the cakes in the dessert case to their best effect. It was Portia. Amy deliberately ate less to keep herself tired, so that even if Portia punched through, she couldn’t get very far. She even started playing a game with the cooks just as her shift ended, where she dipped her hand in beer batter and then again in the deep fryer. When she tugged just right, a glove of perfectly airy crisp breading came off, and her repair mods were busy for hours.
You’re fighting a forest fire with a squirt gun, was Portia’s only comment.
Amy continued trying to find new ways of blocking Portia out. When she entered the pod each night, she toggled some of Shari’s old earbuds to match her downloads on Rick’s reader, and she would take Junior out of his bin and they would listen to the news together. They listened for arrests of vN who might be Javier, and for advice on what to do for bluescreen babies. Well, she listened. She couldn’t vouch for Junior. But if he was still in there, he was at least well-informed about the world. She speculated with him on the disappearance of the container ships and the sudden rise in network outages (“Maybe it’s a sea monster,” she told him, and paused for laughter that never came). And at the start of her shifts, she nestled the buds in his ears, left the reader on the charger, and told it to seek out Spanish-language content.
“It’s only until payday,” she said as she secured the lid that hid him from view. “Then we can leave, and I’ll get you some help.”
“My daughter’s turning two today,” the man said, gesturing at the smaller vN. He had a wide, baby-like face dusted with blond hair, and wore sandals with a Hawaiian shirt. He sat with two little vN girls to his table. One looked about ten, the other seven. They were both the same Asian model and wore their hair in cute little pixie cuts that framed their faces perfectly. “We ordered an Opera House, but it seems to be taking a while.”
“Let me check into it,” Amy said, and returned a moment later with the last slice of opera cake and a crowd of her fellow servers, all of whom sang the Electric Sheep’s birthday song:
This cake is for you
This cake is for you
This cake is no lie
And it’s just for you.
Everyone applauded, and the youngest vN clapped her hands over her candle to extinguish it. Her father reached over and tousled her hair and pinched her nose. He watched her take her first bite of the cake. When she smiled approvingly, he smiled back, then nodded to Amy. “Could you watch them for a couple of minutes? I have to visit the little boys’ room.”
Amy checked her podium. No one was waiting. “Sure. I’d be happy to.”
The father looked at the girls. “Yui, don’t let Rei eat it too fast, OK? I want her to take her time and enjoy it.”
The older vN sister nodded dutifully. “All right.”
Amy stepped aside to let him pass, then slid into his spot on the banquette. So far during her time at the Sheep, these were the first vN children she had met – the first belonging to customers, at any rate. It was edifying to know that other parents chose to grow their vN slowly, too. It meant her mom and dad’s decision wasn’t so weird.
“Are you having a nice birthday so far?” Amy asked.
Rei looked at Yui. Yui nodded. “Yes, I am, thank you,” Rei said.
“What have you done so far to celebrate?”
Again, Rei looked at Yui. They shared a long look, then Rei said: “I played dress-up, and we made a movie, and then Daddy gave me a bubble bath, and then we came here.”
“Who did you dress up as?”
Rei frowned. “I didn’t dress up as anybody,” she said. “I just wore different clothes.”
Amy nodded. “Well, what was your movie about? Can I look it up online?”
Rei smiled. “Yes! Just–” She stopped, looked at Yui, scowled, and resumed eating her cake. “Mom says you wouldn’t like it,” she muttered.
Amy looked between the two girls. “Did you say something?”
Yui promptly pulled the plate of cake away. She looked up at Amy. “We come from a networked model.”
Like Rory, Portia whispered. I bet they’re on that special diet just like you were.
“We’re trying to teach her not to use our cladenet to keep secrets, but it’s very difficult. She’s only two.”
“And growing like a weed.”
From behind her, the father laid a hand on Amy’s shoulder and squeezed. She glanced up, and he was looking down at her and smiling in friendly, almost childish way. He looked very innocent for a grown man, all round edges and bright colours and white teeth. He blushed innocently, too, the pink seemingly spreading from the hibiscus on his shirt to his skin and upward into his fine, thinning hair.
“I’m Q.B., by the way,” he said. “Those are my initials. I’m a regular here, and so are my girls.”
“That’s nice.” Amy tried to leave the banquette, but he squeezed her shoulder again and pressed down gently. “I should be going,” she said.
“You sure?” Q.B. asked. “Because we’d love to have you.”
Amy shook her head. “I’m still on shift.”
He nodded at the podium. “I don’t see anyone waiting.” He withdrew a small golden pendant from beneath his florid collar. It was a tiny golden apple with a single bite taken out of it. The jeweler had filled that space with a set of delicate clockwork gears, as though the bite had revealed a mechanism hidden within.
“Are we ministering, now?” Yui asked.
“Yes, Yui, we are.” Q.B. beamed. “I’m a New Eden parishioner from way back. They were really there for me when I lost my job up at the reboot camp.”
Amy sat up straighter. “Reboot camp?”
“Yeah. I worked with the bluescreens – got their feeding tubes in, watched the incubators, stuff like that. I never got to handle the raw materials, though. They’re proprietary. I was more like a nurse. Like you.” His smile did not fade.
Amy smiled back. This was a real, personal connection to Redmond, and he was a regular at the Sheep. If they got to be friendly, she could ask him how best to help Junior, and where on the campus her mom might be held.
“I’m not sure how New Eden prayers go,” Amy said.
Q.B. responded by grabbing her left hand and holding it tightly in his. It was warm and sort of puffy; Amy couldn’t immediately recall the last human hand she’d touched and this one felt too soft and bloated for her liking. He raised both their hands slightly, then closed his eyes and looked downward. Rei and Yui both did the same.
There are twenty-seven bones in the human hand, but you only have to break one to end this charade.
“Lord,” Q.B. began. Amy watched as a couple at the bar took a look at the four of them. They raised their eyebrows and pursed their lips sympathetically, before turning back to their Dirty Red Spectacles and sipping them.
“Lord, please guide this young woman away from the evil we have seen her model doing in this world. Please uplift her, God, into the highest realms of intelligence and consciousness, so she may better serve Your children.”
“Amen,” Yui and Rei whispered.
“Lord, Your plan is intricate and Your inspiration divine. Your final creations are emergent proof of Your love for us. Please give this young woman the opportunity to live that truth for others. In Jesus’ name.”
“Amen,” Q.B. agreed, and released Amy’s hand. As she folded it in her lap, he smiled at her. “Thank you for sharing that with me.” He took both girls’ hands in his. “If you knew the kind of man I was before I found New Eden, you would failsafe.”
Don’t be so sure, preacher man.
“It’s part of why I lost my job.”
Rei squeezed his big, pink hand. “It’s OK, Daddy. You don’t need that bluescreen job any more. You have us.”
Yui leaned on his shoulder. “She’s right, Q.B. You’re better off, now.”
“I know. You two make it easier for me, every single day. I’m so blessed.” Q.B. cleared his throat and blinked wet eyes at Amy. “I’m a pedophile; vN are my only outlet for the urges God chose to test me with. Otherwise, I might be tempted to hurt real children.”
“I’ve lived with them, Charlotte. So you don’t have to. I’m your mother, and I already know everything there is to know about them. They’re vermin. And they have no desire to be anything more. They want to eat all the sugar and spend all the money and do none of the work. They avoid responsibility like roaches scattering in the light. I have seen it time and again, and for that reason I cannot allow you to go above ground. They don’t deserve you, Charlotte. They don’t deserve any of us.”
On the Wednesday morning of Amy’s second week at work, Mack the manager knocked on the door of the storage pod. Shari wanted to see her. Amy stashed Junior, pulled up her boots and tucked in her shirt, and smoothed back her hair as she exited the pod. She’d been experimenting with braids, lately. It wasn’t going well.
Outside, it was mid-morning. The sun’s light worked hard to crack the cloudy glaze on the sky. The air was warm, and felt somehow mossier than usual. Amy’s jeans felt damp despite her having neatly folded them and stacked them upon dry storage tubs in the pod. This deep in the woods, the mist only disappeared grudgingly, transforming with a harassed flounce into dew and evaporating to its native form as soon as possible, like a human child forced into church clothes.
The truck parked alongside the restaurant read: ISAAC’S ELECTRONICS.
Before she could even bolt, before she could even decide to, Mack’s hand found her elbow. He used his full strength. It didn’t hurt, but she wondered about her skin splitting.
Portia said: Run.
Mack said: “Walk.”
“Well, I don’t know any other way to explain it, Shari, but she has to come with us. Now I know you’ve made some money, and I think that’s great. But you don’t get to play by a different set of rules just because your tip jar is full.”
Shari and a uniformed guard were sitting at the bar. Amy recognized the uniform from her ride on the truck. It was a much brighter blue than she remembered; in daylight it looked cheerful and harmless. Shari clearly wanted to impress the officer: she had out fresh Flexo Fries and Emperor’s Nightingale chicken wings with extra sauce and had made him some coffee with whipped cream and chocolate shavings on top.
“I’m telling you she’s not the one, Harold. It is still just the one, right? Just the one bad seed?”
Harold mumbled something about not really knowing the answer to that. “We don’t know what caused the failsafe to break,” he said. “So they have to be researched, until we do.”
Harold looked apologetic. That sadness made him seem even more delicate and human than his slender, aging frame indicated. His ginger hair was in the process of turning white, and it showed most prominently in his moustache, now flecked with foam and chocolate. Pale freckles stood up under the nearly translucent hair on his hands. And though he worked to hide it, Harold was afraid of her. Amy took an experimental step forward and watched him lean incrementally back toward the bar. The movement was so small that he probably didn’t even notice himself making it. Growing up she had seen humans, especially older ones, who obviously felt uncomfortable around her and her mother. But this was different. This was worse. Unlike those other humans, Harold had a good reason for feeling the way he did.
It could all end right now, Amy realized. Junior’s bluescreen. Her mother’s imprisonment. If she gave herself up now, she could help them both. This sorry old man would take her to Redmond and he would give Junior to the specialists and give her to her mother. It was just that easy.
If you get yourself put on that truck, I will turn this place into a slaughterhouse.
“I think it would be safer for everybody if I just went along, don’t you?” Amy tried smiling. “It’s like you said. Nobody knows what went wrong. That means it could happen to any of us, at any time.”
Harold smiled. He pointed at her and looked over his shoulder at Shari. “See? She gets it.”
“Yeah, because that’s her failsafe talking. Which means she’s functional, which means she should stay here.” Shari poured herself a shot and set the bottle down so hard its contents splashed up the sides. “Think about it. If she were the bad seed, wouldn’t she have run the moment she saw your truck?”
“You think I haven’t thought of that?” Harold picked up a chicken wing, examined it, and let it drop. “They’re all turning themselves in, Shari. Every last one. You open up the truck and they just march right in.”
Harold escorted Amy to the parking lot. She had made an excuse about returning her uniform to Shari, but really she just wanted to retrieve Junior. Shari trailed a few steps behind, fussing loudly with her cigarettes and muttering something about Nazis and product recalls. Amy tried to walk normally. Portia made it difficult.
Stop right there, you stupid suicidal little bitch.
Her hands became claws. Amy forced them to her sides. Her left foot began to drag. She picked that knee up higher.
“Are you OK, there?”
I’m ashamed to be your flesh and blood.
She was about to seize up entirely. Her steps shuddered. Her arms felt like iron. She rested her head against the pod. It was easier than trying the knob.
“I know this is hard,” Harold said.
“Shut up, you fucking Gestapo prick,” Shari said.
“God damn it, Shari, I have had it up to here with your bleeding heart bullshit.”
Animals. You’re letting animals put you in a cage.
The door squealed a little and Amy stumbled in. She dragged herself through on trembling knees and shut the door with shaking hands. It was mercifully dim and cool inside the storage pod. Amy caught herself staring almost fondly at the accumulated wreckage of Shari’s life. This would be the last time she ever saw it. It would probably be the last time she saw clutter of any sort. She had the feeling that Redmond would be very clean and spare. Like a prison.
She lurched forward to the bin marked “MANUALS” and prised off the lid. It came away with a sucking sound. Portia opened her mouth and Amy closed it so tight she bit her tongue. This caused her no pain, but she whimpered anyway.
Junior was gone.
vN © Madeline Ashby 2012