The story of a freed slave and a robot professor, trying to figure out what it means to be in love while they watch old anime from the 21st century.
August 2, 2145
They were in the back room making out. What else were they supposed to do on a slow afternoon when nobody came into the store? Michael had taken his goggles off and John was kissing the soft skin of his eyelids while simultaneously groping for some kind of access point into Michael’s extremely tight pants.
Out front, Bella was reading the music feeds in her goggles and not even remotely pretending to ignore them.
“You sound like rutting moosen!” She’d taken to using a fake plural form of “moose” for her own whimsical reasons. “Don’t get any fluids on the goddamn merchandise!”
For some reason, John could not stop laughing at the moose plural joke. Every time he caught his breath, another fit of giggling would rob him of it, until at last he sank dizzily to his knees. He steadied himself by hooking fingers into Michael’s waistband and looking up at his friend, also laughing, amused by John’s amusement.
Michael was studying paleontology at the University of Saskatchewan, and had been trying to grow authentic dinosaur feathers on his head for weeks. Thick red and white down stuck out of his pale blond hair on flexible quills, perfectly framing his wide blue eyes and the short puff of his beard. John thought the full effect made him look almost comically Western, like an English barbarian from the old anime feeds he liked to watch.
But it was also kind of sexy. And here he was, right in the perfect spot to unlock the grippers holding Michael’s tight pants in place. Even when Bella started making extremely realistic moose noises, John was undeterred in his quest to make Michael tremble with more than laughter.
Afterward they both slid to the floor, resting their slightly damp backs against the wall. A languid sense of goodwill spread from John’s extremities upward to his brain. He liked it back here beyond the Employees Only sign, staring at the dusty, half-biodegraded boxes of recent arrivals. Bella bought most of her merchandise from estate sales and warehouses on the prairies, but a lot came from customers in Saskatoon too. Tuesdays and Thursdays were buyer days, and there was always a boisterous line of what seemed to John a completely random assortment of people: aging hipsters with party clothes from the ’20s; college students wanting to trade armor for shreds or vice versa; grandmothers with unbelievable treasures like the ash pleather 2090s boots he was wearing right now; and people from far up north who’d heard the kids were obsessed with old all-weathers and wanted to make a few credits while their families loaded up on supplies at the farm co-op.
It made John think of times before he was born, long before his shit life, or at least the shitty parts of his relatively okay life. Last year at this time… he didn’t want to think about it. Every night he told himself he was safe now, gone legit with a name and a franchise. Nobody owned him anymore. He stared harder at a box overflowing with self-repairing scarves from indeterminate time periods. Maybe they were made yesterday. Maybe sixty years ago.
Michael was nuzzling his neck, dinofuzz tickling John’s ear. He tugged John’s collar down to get a better angle and made a murmuring noise when he saw the brand.
“I like your sexy scar. What do these numbers mean? Zed-nine-one-four-three-zed?”
John pulled away and felt every muscle in his body stiffen. The familiar numbness oozed down his neck into his torso, killing contentment as it spread.
“It’s nothing. Just from when I was young and stupid.”
“Is it a special date or something?”
“That was my identification number when I was a slave, sweetie. Didn’t you know?” John made his tone so sarcastic that Michael snorted out a chuckle. Sometimes the truth, told right, was the best lie.
Beyond the door, John heard the sound of customers—a big group, their voices merging into a wave of indistinct, excited sounds. Probably party shopping. Bella might need help. He stood up abruptly and left Michael lounging among piles of textiles that proved the world had existed long before John was in it.
August 3, 2145
Until this past year, John never had access control over his own room. He and the other boys lived in the indenture school dormitory, and bedtime was when the supervisor wiped his hand over the lock and let them in. If he let them in. Sometimes there was a just-in-time job on a batch of engines, and they worked for twenty-four hours straight. He still sometimes felt an ache in his fingers from doing post-production on each part as it came out of the extruder in the icy 3-D printer room. Still, when they were back in the dorms, John usually figured out how to escape again. He wanted access to the public net, and there was one particular admin who had a weakness for brown boys from down south. John spent a lot of nights writing in the admin’s cramped cubicle, mostly naked, focusing intently on comments in his journal feed so he could tune out his benefactor’s creepy gaze.
But now he was here, sharing an apartment in Saskatoon with the only person on Earth who knew his old names: Threezed and Slaveboy. When he met Med last year, he confessed that he’d been writing a journal on Memeland under the name Slaveboy. It turned out she was a fan. He’d never actually met one of his followers in person, and decided impulsively that they would be friends forever. It turned out to be the best decision he’d ever made in his roughly twenty years on Earth.
The door clicked open as he arrived and whistled its “hello” tune. He and Med were supremely lazy about programming the place beyond the basics, so he kicked the wall to turn on the lights and start the kitchen. The warm indoor air smelled faintly of fish sauce and frying garlic from somewhere else in the building.
Maybe one day he’d get tired of the contours of this apartment with its minimal furnishings. But it was hard to imagine ever getting enough of its safe shape, the kitchen booting up alongside him and a slice of his bed visible beyond a mostly closed curtain. It was only when he was alone like this, in complete silence, that John allowed himself to believe he was still alive. The quiet was like one of those silver emergency blankets he’d seen in twentieth-century American movies. It was the way the fantastically kind police wrapped you up after they’d rescued everybody from the monsters, the fire, the tidal waves, the buildings falling from space, the evil robots, the shadow animals, and the ghosts of every dead person wronged by the living.
A memory invaded him, unbidden, like a hiccup of pain.
Last year, he’d found sanctuary in Saskatoon. John’s new master wasn’t like the other ones, at least in some ways. She was a scientist, and she was working on some kind of secret project with Med. He didn’t understand everything about what they were doing, but he knew they were trying to help people who’d gotten addicted to corporate pharma. After the project went live, his master went into hiding. She left him behind with Med—but not before buying him a franchise that granted him full rights in the city. That night, he kept activating the readout from his chip on the mobile’s login screen: Enfranchised. The English word morphed in his mind as he tried to feel its reality. Enfranchised, enchanted, ineluctable, incredulous…
Maybe the warm feeling in his back was actually a lack of feeling. A lack of fear. He had a vivid recollection of how the lab smelled in that moment of unburdening, a mixture of crushed grass and coffee.
That’s when Med sat up rigidly, hands flat on the lab bench. She turned to him, her eyes blank. “Get out of here, now!” And then she stood, grabbed him with a shocking strength, and dragged him to the back exit. “Go!”
He glanced back to see what Med had sensed wirelessly: agents arriving, the ones who’d been chasing his old master. A man and a huge, armored bot from the property police. He turned back just once before he fled, and thought he saw Med transform into an avenging angel. Only she was better than an angel. She was real, made of carbon alloy and flesh, not feathers and faith. She’d saved him. Possibly she’d even saved the world.
John breathed shallowly, trying to make himself as soundless as the room. Nobody could hear him. He was safe. It wasn’t like last time; the agents were long gone. He held his breath for five serene seconds before the Yummy Pan made an irritated noise and he knew he should start making dinner.
He was scooping protein-flecked porridge into a bowl when Med opened the door. She looked like a textbook example of the absent-minded professor, blond hair perfectly pinned back and lab coat perfectly rumpled.
“How nice that you’re eating tissue from extinct amphibians.” Med could identify almost anything by smell, though she rarely mentioned it around humans. It made them too self-conscious, especially when they realized her abilities extended to smelling where they had been—and sometimes even their emotional states.
Still, for all her robot superpowers, Med couldn’t really master the art of sarcasm. Partly that was because she wasn’t a very sarcastic person, and partly because John always did something silly to undermine her deadpan cool.
“I love fake frog.” He took an exaggeratedly large bite. “Mmmm, the taste of synthetic biology.” He posed with the spoon and bowl next to his face, like the preternaturally cheerful kid in the ads for Yummy Pan. For some reason, it never failed to make Med grin. Her goofy expression hovered briefly over his memory of that long-ago divine fury, and John had to pull himself back sharply from giving a name to what she made him feel.
August 4, 2145
The library’s Media Experience Lab was the result of some big grant the university got back in the 2120s, and it hadn’t been updated since. The signs were all done in those old animated fonts that switched back and forth between puffy rainbow letters and classical serif typefaces. Foam chairs, once luxuriously padded and tricked out with knobs for adjusting everything to ergonomic perfection, were mashed into submission, stuck in awkward positions that only worked for really tall people or really short ones who wanted to sit bolt upright. Somebody had made the streaming cubicles out of fake recycled materials, so you could watch twenty-first century immersives while surrounded by biofibers imitating plastic imitating wood. John thought the saddest part of the whole retro setup—but also possibly the most adorable—was the dusty Innerfire cube, installed when everybody thought full-body experience implants were right around the corner. In all his months coming here, he had never seen anyone go inside.
John slid into his favorite booth next to the back wall. He could watch everyone coming in while also keeping an eye on his monitor, currently streaming a century-old comedy anime called Ouran High School Host Club. He liked the story, about a girl named Haruhi pretending to be a boy, learning all the bizarre things boys do to make themselves seem more attractive. Haruhi was so charming in her suit and tie that all the girls requested “him” at the host club. She had no choice but to keep up the charade, because she was a poor scholarship student at an elite high school, and she owed the other hosts money. John swept a few of the episodes onto his mobile, stashing them to show Med later as yet another example of weird human culture.
After two quarters auditing classes, John was going to matriculate as a freshman. It still didn’t feel real. The city franchise got you more than he ever imagined he’d have, back when he was slaved to the factory. Free education, free medical, free net connection, and freedom to live and work anywhere in the Saskatoon metropolitan area. A new implant that broadcast his new identity: John Chen, normal free boy from an exurb called Lucky Lake. No indenture record. No record at all, other than a secure enclave bioprocessor that verified his identity to the city co-op.
Out of the blankness of his digital past he’d made an entire imaginary history for himself, in case anyone asked. Homeschooled, he would say. Mostly worked on agricultural bot repair, keeping the sensors, planters, and harvesters updated with the latest patches and hardware tweaks. At twenty-one, he was older than average for a student, but he fit the profile of a farm kid whose family needed a little extra time to raise the credits for his Saskatoon franchise.
So far, nobody had questioned this story. In fact, the most awkward moment he’d had was when Michael wondered about the brand that contained his slave name: Threezed, for the last two numbers in the sequence.
John should have gotten the scars smoothed out a long time ago. But he wasn’t ready to lose the familiar sting of seeing those numbers in the mirror when everything else was so different. Nothing had been normal for three years, after the factory sent the whole indenture class across the Pacific. Supposedly they had maintenance positions waiting for them on the Vancouver docks. The motors they’d been assembling back in the Nine Cities Delta were used in all kinds of industrial bots, so it made sense. But when they arrived, it turned out the contracts had fallen through in a way that only made sense to bureaucrats. John and his classmates were confiscated by the Free Trade Zone Port Authority, then confiscated again by Vancouver’s child welfare agency. In practice, this meant they spent a few months sleeping in familiar-looking dormitories where they tried to perfect their northern Free Trade Zone English accents.
For probably the fiftieth time, one of the hosts in Ouran High School Host Club was reminding Haruhi that she was low class. She’d brought instant coffee to their elite party, and the rich kids were physically repulsed. They’d never had anything but whole beans ground by indentured servants. John loved the exaggerated faces they made, their features growing bulbous and abstract as they squealed in dismay. Haruhi shrugged it off, but John thought the audience was supposed to understand that her feelings were hurt too.
A new librarian came in and sat behind the help desk. Her presence activated a sign overhead in that absurdly morphing font: “Yes, I’m an actual human! Ask me anything!” John imagined what Med would say to that. Just a little anti-bot sentiment, brought to you by some designer in the 2120s. Not the librarian’s fault. John noticed that she had two thick black braids and her eyes were slightly distorted by a pair of goggles made to look like twenty-first century glasses. Something about her looked familiar. Maybe she’d been in one of his classes?
He kept watching the stream in his cubicle until it was almost closing time.
“Do you want to check that out?” The librarian peeked over the top of his cubicle. “I have to start shutting the workstations down.” Then she glanced at him again. “Weren’t you in Social Media History with me?”
“Yeah. What did you think of that class?”
“I loved it. I’m actually doing a research project with that professor about anti-robot representations in the late twenty-first century. So much video from that time was basically anti-automation propaganda, designed to make humans fear bots. It’s so weird to look back on all this old media and see how it’s still affecting us now.”
“Like that sign.” He pointed over her desk.
“Exactly!” She grinned.
He liked the way she described struggles in the past as if they were still happening, unfolding at some layer of reality just beyond conscious perception. They started talking about what classes they’d be taking next term.
He was about to escalate into flirtation when a man raced into the library, out of breath. He ignored John and put a hand on the librarian’s arm. “Can you find me some videos of people playing games in the twentieth century? I really need them for tomorrow.”
She stiffened and pulled back from his touch. “Do you have a catalog number?”
After he’d made a big show of sighing and pulling out his mobile and searching, the student flicked a number to her tablet.
The librarian walked back to her desk to look up the videos and the man leaned heavily on John’s cubicle, still catching his breath. Finally, he seemed to notice that he wasn’t alone in the universe.
“Oh, hi, sorry to interrupt.” His voice betrayed no hint of apology.
“No worries.” John started to pack up.
The man looked at him more closely, his pale blue eyes like flecks of aluminum-doped glass. “Where you from?”
“Farm outside Lucky Lake.”
The man gave a big-throated laugh that vacuumed geniality out of the air. “No. I mean, where are you from originally?”
It was a menacing question. John grabbed some videos with a cupping gesture, dumped them onto his mobile, and left without a word.
When he’d first arrived in the Zone, people were constantly asking him where he was from. John and his classmates tried to explain, but nobody could hear anything after the words “Asian Union.” Their words bounced off an invisible, soundproof barrier of sympathy and disgust. Worried-looking officials kept telling the boys that it was illegal for children to be indentured. They never should have found themselves in this situation, sold by their school into contract at the docks. They could rest assured that Vancouver would sponsor them into foster care, with limited franchises that would allow them to work for the city. The Zone would never mistreat them the way the Asian Union had.
Then a caseworker “discovered” that they were over 18. John thought that was pretty amazing detective work, considering that none of the kids actually knew how old they were, and all their identity records were missing. Still, it was probably close enough, give or take a couple of years. Now it was obvious what Vancouver should do with them. They were shipped down to Vegas for auction. Profits would go to pay off the debt of some corporate entity whose name John would never know.
He was definitely going to convince Med to watch Ouran High School Host Club when she got back from the lab. Bots never slept, so she was pretty much always up for binge watching on their apartment projection wall.
After he kicked the lights on, John saved the videos to their home server with a tossing motion and collapsed on the springy sofa that dominated the room. He couldn’t decide whether to activate the Yummy Pan or spark some 420 or run around screaming. That guy in the library had really pissed him off—not so much as an individual, but as the representative of an entire genre of dickbags who had never once been asked to produce an origin story for someone else’s amusement. It reminded him uncomfortably of Michael’s questions the other day. Obviously Michael had asked out of friendly curiosity, but the sentiment was the same. Where you come from is who you are.
The chime of the door interrupted his increasingly tight rage spiral. Med flopped on the sofa next to him and sighed. “That was a very long day of department meetings.”
Med had been begging the administration for money to cover an update to the lab’s protein library. John sat up to face her. “Did you get that funding you needed?”
“Ugh. No. They don’t understand why we need new protein data when we already have a library from five years ago. Plus some bullshit from the dean about how I should make the students discover new folds themselves, and not just copy from a database like a bot would.” Med rolled her eyes but John knew she was genuinely upset. The dean never missed a chance to make insulting comments about bots around Med. She was the only bot professor at the university, and the dean liked to remind her where she came from. Or maybe where she didn’t.
“Well, I have some good distraction for you.” John flicked the air and the wall opposite them displayed a menu of recent downloads. “It’s this crazy anime from the 2000s about an indentured student who has to earn her way out of contract by pretending to be a hot boy at a café for high school girls. You have to watch it. It’s so incredibly weird.”
“You’re lucky that the media library gets more useful the more out-of-date it gets.”
“That’s not exactly true. But yeah, I know what you mean.” He decided not to tell her about the librarian sign. “Want to watch the first episode?”
Fifteen minutes in, and he could tell Med was feeling better. He watched her watch the screen, smiling faintly, her hand resting on the charger in the sofa arm. He wondered whether she was smiling for his benefit or if she really thought it was funny. Then he started obsessing about whether the subtitles really did justice to what was happening. Were they missing something? Maybe Med could help.
“Could you learn Japanese if you wanted to? Like just download it or something? Then we’d know if these subs were good.”
“It’s not like I would instantly know Japanese. I could get all the rules and vocabulary—enough to do a really basic translation. But I’d still have to learn how to use it. And some things just can’t be translated with words at all.” She gestured at the wall and the action froze on an image of light bulbs turning on. “Look at that. What does that mean? You only know from context that those light bulbs represent members of the host club, and each time one of them turns on it’s the guy figuring out that Haruhi is a girl. I couldn’t ever figure that out from a translation program.”
John thought about that as the action started again and Haruhi tried on the fancy school uniform that made her look like a beautiful boy. There was a lot of confused swooning.
August 5, 2145
After three more episodes, John paused the action for a bathroom break. When he got back, Med was flipping through movies on the server idly. An urgent message blinked at the corner of the projection: “Streaming to unknown device.” That meant Med was streaming previews straight to her mind. The humans who made the streamer hadn’t thought about how robots might use their machines, so Med remained an “unknown device” on the network.
“How’s job going?” Med divided her attention between John and whatever she was previewing.
“Pretty good. I keep hooking up with Michael, but he’s starting to annoy me.”
“I can’t even keep track of your hookups. Which one is Michael, again?”
“Dinosaur hair guy.”
“Oh yeah!” Med stopped streaming and took her hand off the charging pad. “He sounded nice?”
“He’s nice but he’s just… I dunno. He asks too many boring questions.”
John tried to come up with a good way to explain it. “He asked about my brand. Which—why would you ask somebody about that after fucking them? So rude.”
Med didn’t pick up on his sarcasm, or she chose to ignore it. “I can see why he might be curious. Why do you keep it if you don’t want to talk about it?”
“Why do you tell people that you’re a bot if you don’t want them to make snotty comments about it?” His voice rose in anger he hadn’t intended to express.
“You know why. Because fuck those fuckers.” Delivered utterly without sarcasm. John had to laugh. She put a hand on his arm, and he felt an unexpected, shocking surge of love for her. Her skin felt just as soft and warm as a human’s, but beneath the biological tissues were metal actuators and processors. He liked knowing that she wasn’t human all the way through. Looking into her face, he never flashed back to the faces of his masters.
Yet he was still terrified. She was going to disappear. He’d wake up from this dream of student life in Saskatoon to find himself adrift with that psycho who bought him in Vegas, starving in the cargo hold of a boat whose engines were always on the verge of death. Tied up if he refused to go quietly to his master’s bedroom. Or maybe he’d awaken to discover that Med hadn’t made it out of the lab alive after shoving him out the door.
He needed to banish those thoughts. His skin was prickling. Med still had her hand on his arm, and a badass snarky look on her face.
“Med, why don’t you ever hook up with anybody?”
The bot shrugged. “I haven’t installed any programs related to sexual desire.”
“Just not interested. A lot of my siblings installed them, and they seem happy. But it never caught my attention.”
“So you could install them now and start wanting to have sex?” John was fascinated.
Med looked a little annoyed. “As I said before about learning Japanese, it’s not like a bot can just instantly know something or feel something. You have to interact to get context.”
This was starting to sound kind of sexy. John wrapped his hand around Med’s arm, so that they gently gripped each other’s wrists. “You should do it. We should do it.”
“I just said I wasn’t interested.”
“How can you know you’re not interested if you’ve never tried it?”
She removed her hand and scooted back a few centimeters. “Can you explain why you don’t like that series Evolution’s Dark Road but you do like Ouran High School Host Club? It’s a matter of taste. Sexual desire just isn’t my taste. It doesn’t mean I don’t love you.”
“You love me?” John’s heart was pounding all of a sudden, in a way that was both amazing and terrifying.
“I wasn’t planning on blurting it out like that, but yes. Yes.”
He thought he was going to cry, and then he thought maybe he wasn’t going to be able to stop himself from kissing her. “I’m pretty sure I love you too.”
Illuminated by dim, white light from the text menu on the wall, they looked like artificial versions of themselves. John crumpled his hands into fists and jammed them against his thighs uncomfortably. He wasn’t sure what to do next.
“So you can be in love but you don’t want to try having sex?”
She chuckled. “I’m not a media history major, but even I have watched enough media to know that love and sex aren’t the same thing.”
Of course that was true, and he’d had plenty of sex that didn’t involve love. But how could she be feeling the same way he was, if she didn’t want to grab him hard and throw him down and just… take him? A feeling this strong had to be translated into something physical. It begged for literalization.
“I just don’t understand. Do you mean the kind of love you would have for a brother? Or for a super good friend?”
“I do love my siblings, but this is not that kind of love. I mean, I can’t be sure it’s exactly the same thing you would call love, but it’s a feeling of…” She paused for a moment and went still, as if she were streaming data. Then she spoke slowly. “It’s like there’s some part of you that fits perfectly inside my consciousness. It’s a feeling that goes beyond trust or friendship. Some kind of emotional infrastructure. Even if I were to isolate every single utility and program I use to think about you, I don’t think I could explain all the ways you occupy my mind. It’s… an emergent and ongoing process. Does that make sense?”
John wiped his eyes and looked at her openly, following the lines of her neck and cheeks, the perfect lab-grown pink of her lips. But she’d given him permission to look beyond that.
“Is there something we could do together… something you’ve always wanted to do with somebody who loves you? Not sex, obviously, but something like that? Or not like that? I don’t know…” He trailed off and Med looked bemused. “Please don’t say watch videos.” They both laughed.
Med put a hand on top of one of his fists, and he laced his fingers into hers.
“Actually there is something.”
“No, although that’s nice too.” She let out a nervous titter. “I’ve always wanted to try sleeping.” She dropped her eyes and shifted uncomfortably, as if she’d just revealed some secret, transgressive kink.
“I didn’t know you could sleep.”
“I mean, I can go into sleep mode, or I can shut down. I can crash. There are a lot of sleep levels, but you’re not really supposed to go into them unless it’s an emergency or you need maintenance.”
“Why aren’t you supposed to do it?”
“Well sometimes it can damage memory to crash unexpectedly, but honestly I think the sleep taboo is mostly about security. Humans might steal a sleeping bot.”
John understood that fear all the way down to the most inaccessible parts of his consciousness. “Nobody can get you here. Not in our apartment. It’s completely safe.” His words came out hot and intense, the same way they sounded in his mind.
“Do you want to try it?”
He said yes and let her lead him to the bedroom.
They lay down on their sides facing each other, giggling as they found comfortable positions in the awkwardly small space. “Okay, so I’m going to try. I should wake up in four hours so I can get to work in the morning. Are you ready?”
She looked so beautiful that John thought his heart would crack open like the space eggs in a kaiju movie, full of lava and lightning and life forms that had never walked the Earth. He took one of her hands. “I’m ready.”
Her eyes closed, and she shuddered slightly. Then her hand relaxed in his. He listened to her breathe. He looked at the shape of her skin over the carbon alloy of her bones. He wondered if she was dreaming. He thought of all the questions he wanted to ask her about everything. He almost started to cry again when he remembered what they’d been through last year, after they’d escaped. After they’d almost died. If he were ever going to talk about all that shit, Med would be the only person he’d want listening.
Watching her sleep for a while made him sleepy too. She never shifted around or made noises like a human, and it was deeply comforting.
John rolled onto his back and closed his eyes. He was still kind of horny, partly from the emotional overload with Med, and partly just from life. At least he was working in the shop tomorrow, so there would definitely be an interlude or two with Michael in the back room. Also, maybe he would ask out that librarian from his Social Media History class. He wasn’t sure he could love anyone else, but there were definitely a lot of people he liked in a sexual way. That wasn’t a bad thing.
As he drifted off, his thoughts began to buzz pleasantly with half-feelings and fragments of the day’s noise. Just before he joined Med in full sleep mode, he saw a flickering image of Haruhi in her host boy clothes, the subject of a desire that existed only in the lacy cracks that form at the edge of what we’re taught is acceptable. Even after a century of storage on media devices whose sophistication far outstripped the technologies that hosted her birth, she was still radiating beauty into the world.
Old Media, copyright © 2019 by Annalee Newitz
Art copyright © 2019 by Soufiane Mengad