“You never should’ve let her build those damned robots,” I mutter, making sure it’s loud enough Kammy can hear me.
Kammy lets out an exasperated sigh. “Em’s got a knack for these things,” she says in a voice that sounds like she’s pinching her nose. “If I don’t teach her how to program bio-silicate, who’s going to fix Taylor when he breaks down? You? Are you going to repair a Z-wave neural net, Olinda?”
I grit my teeth and finish lacing my boots. Maybe I can. Who knows what I could do before the accident? Maybe I’m a genius and none of us know it.
I suck in a deep breath as I stand, the scent of lavender and sweat swirling around me as I do. Kammy makes this oil we all brush into our hair. Keeps the lice away. I take another calming breath and put my hand on Kammy’s arm.
The air filtration system hums through the room and sends a hesitant vibration up into the soles of my feet. The air tastes stale and sterile. All the lights are off right now to save power. Boxes of slanting gray wash through the glass of the four south-facing windows and slash across the much-gouged wood flooring like a painting discarded by Van Gogh. The cabin is otherwise still as we gather our things.
Kammy turns and looks up at me. Her face softens slightly. She’s not a big woman, Kammy. If it weren’t for the hair she doesn’t let me cut, even her head would be tiny. Pretty much the opposite of me in every way, down to the fact she tans, and I burn in the summer sun. Her clothes are oft-patched rags of cloth we’ve found in storehouses over the years, just like mine.
“I’m worried,” I say, squeezing her forearm slightly. “The little wooden robot, Tony, seems fine enough, but that copper-plated one she made, the one she paired it with? That one keeps wandering.”
“She named it Joe for some reason. Em says they’re playing Hide and Seek,” Kammy mutters. “Don’t know why it keeps heading into the woods, though…”
Kammy opens the door and a stiff, frigid breeze sweeps into the large cabin. She grabs her old knapsack full of sensors and miscellaneous parts and steps outside. I follow, grabbing a couple walkies from their chargers as we leave. I close the door behind me with a sucking sound.
“There’s a storm coming,” Kammy says, staring off at the western horizon. “Half hour, hour. Looks bad. We need to find her.”
I hand her a walkie, then follow her eyes. A blushing crimson smears across the sky as the sun descends behind the incoming cloud front. It doesn’t look like much to me, but Kammy knows the weather by sight. She can even tell if the rains will be bad or good. Gives us time to get the fields covered.
Soft thuds come from the east side of the house as the old security droid, Taylor, wrangles the chickens. That’s how we found out Em was missing. Taylor was doing her chores while she took off.
“I’ll go northeast,” I say. “Em said she saw a rabbit up there the other day. Might’ve gone after it.”
Kammy nods still staring at the clouds. “Sounds good. I’ll go north. I’ve got to replace some sensors anyway and God knows you’re all thumbs with these things.”
I smile and follow her gaze to the dark smudge on the horizon. “Good or bad?” I ask.
We could use some clean rain. Just been sweeping acid rain these past few weeks.
“‘No green, the waters clean’,” Kammy intones, then waves at me to go. “Be back before sundown. Taylor picked up some weird movement on his sensors last night, but a couple of the sensors went down last week, so he isn’t sure what it was.”
I nod, a ball of anxiety forming in my stomach. Quick flashes fill my thoughts.
Blood. Screams. Disjointed recollections of a broken mind.
Then they’re gone, and I don’t mention them. I never do. The memories come more often than I’d like to admit. They’re never good.
“Be careful,” I say, my heartbeat fluttering.
“You too,” Kammy says, then heads north on the beaten path to the north field we clear every year.
I watch her until she disappears under the barren trees, then head to where Em said she saw that rabbit.
I try, and fail, to dismiss the panic rising in the back of my throat as I break through the tree line.
Frigid rain is starting to fall across the forest, droplets tip-tapping on fallen logs, stubborn snow, and black leaves like it’s a tin roof. Rolling thunder is constant now, a loud reminder that I need to hurry.
And I am. I’m being reckless as I run through the skeletal forest, the stink of rotting wood and decaying leaves around me. The sting of bare branches are lines of fire on my skin as I sprint.
I found their tracks. Em’s and her robots’. But I found the tracks of something, else, too. A cougar by the few tracks I see.
My heartbeat is in my ears. A pounding timpani accompanying the snare of the rain drops. Little disturbances stand out against the background morass like hot spots on a heating coil. A footprint here, a broken branch there.
A deep paw print stands out in the mud. Four inches wide, but shallower than it should be. A large beast, then. Probably hungry. Starving.
Musk breaks across my nostrils and I know I’m close, but it’s the sound of Em’s cooing whisper that brings me up short.
She’s kneeling next to a fallen log in a crisscrossed mass of old trees. Everything is covered with a thick bed of gray moss and stubborn snow. Her little robots, Tony and Joe stand next to her. Tony looks like a hodgepodge assemblage of branches and bits of wire, more a scarecrow than droid. Joe is dented like a used cymbal, cyan smears coating his foot-tall body. The rest gleams gold in the remaining sunlight.
It’s colder here. Barely feels like the sun is breaking through the tangled branches above despite the shafts of light. Em’s breath mists around her head as she speaks to something in the log. Like her mother, she’s tiny. Less than four feet tall and thin as a rail, Em looks the way Kammy must’ve looked as a kid. Same hair, too, though Em lets it hang out in a ponytail to her butt.
The cougar is almost on her. It’s a massive beast, a male nearly seven feet long from nose to tail, but gaunt; all hard edges and bones. Patches of feverish skin shine through its tawny coat.
The wind shifts suddenly and that fur ruffles, the sharp, sterile scent of winter blowing away the stink of mud and rotted leaves for a moment. And taking my scent with it. The cougar’s massive head turns toward me, black nostrils flaring.
Fear shoots up my spine, but I don’t run. Instead, I drop into a crouch as it turns and leaps at me, both paws swatting, long transparent claws flashing in the fading light.
“Gotcha!” Em yells in triumph just as the big cat hits me.
We slam into the ground hard, a cacophony of breaking branches and crisped leaves, knocking the air from my lungs. The cougar makes a high-pitched squeal as I wrench its front paw around until it snaps. A rear claw catches me in the stomach and that sharp tug blossoms into searing pain.
The beast swats wildly, kicking, tearing. It’s jaws snap in the air as I manage to mount it like it’s a miniature horse.
From somewhere, Em screams, but I can’t look.
I wrap my arm around its neck and pull as hard as I can. A crack echoes through the woods and the body goes still beneath me.
Gasping, I slide off its back and fall into the muddy snow. Em’s standing over me then, tanned face flush from the cold and panic.
“You’re bleeding,” Em says, dropping to her knees and pushing on the wound. “Gotta keep pressure on it. We need bandages.”
I stroke her hair as she mumbles, the scent of her washing over me and mingling with the musk of the dead cougar. A flush of flowers and death.
“You’re… not bleeding,” Em whispers and pulls away bloody hands.
Cautiously, I sit up. “I guess not?”
There’s a hole in my thick winter jacket where the cougar tore into me with his back paws. There’s blood, too, a lot of it… but only a small slash, like someone cut me with a pocket knife. It’s sore, but that’s all.
Grunting, I get to my feet, Em steadying me. “Must’ve hit a vein or something,” I shrug.
Then I look at Em and her smile fades as she looks at the ground. “What the hell are you doing out here?”
“Hide and Seek,” Em mumbles.
Lightning flashes and thunder pounds soon after. The storm is getting closer.
“You could’ve been killed out here,” I say, pointing at the cougar. “By that, specifically.”
“Well, yeah, but–”
“But what?” I ask, crossing my arms in front of me.
Em grins and runs over to the downed tree she’d been crouched in front of when I arrived. Joe and Tony seem to sidle out of the way as she approaches. She reaches down and pulls something out, then turns around triumphantly.
“I got dinner!” Em yells, holding a massive hare with both hands.
She sets it down on the ground and wipes a bead of sweat off her forehead. “Well, Joe did, anyway.”
The little robot, which looks like it’s constructed from scrap copper and gears, bows at the middle, a tinny grinding sound accompanying the movement.
I try to frown and fail. Instead, I grab the cougar and sling it over my shoulders with a grunt. Em makes a face as I start walking home.
“You coming?” I ask, stifling my grin.
Em sighs dramatically and slings the hare over her shoulder. “Yeah. Just thought maybe you’d carry it since you’re here.”
“It’s your kill,” I say as we start heading home.
“Yeah, but you’re the strong one,” Em grunts.
I laugh and shift the cougar on my shoulders. This one’s going to be tough eating. “You know how we live,” I intone.
She nods and shoulders the hare with a grunt.
Thunder hammers in the distance again and the rain increases. And that ball of worry comes back as I realize Kammy’s probably still looking for Em. I stop and pull the radio off my belt.
It’s busted to hell.
“Dammit,” I mutter.
“What’s wrong?” Em asks.
I glance to the west and, through the spears of old cedar and pine, the darkness creeps toward us, snuffing out pockets of sunlight as it comes.
I clip the walkie back on my belt. “Walkie is broken. Time to run.”
Em groans but keeps up as we race the storm back to the cabin.
The storm wins.
“Kammy, this is Lynn,” I send over the transmitter in the cabin as I stretch on a dry shirt that’s a little too small for me. “Kemena, Olinda. Over.”
Panic feels etched into my skin, like an itch I can’t scratch. I dig at the wooden table with a chewed fingernail and repeat the call.
The crackle of seasoned wood usually helps me relax, but it’s only making things worse right now. Taylor stands watch over the large cast-iron stove, prepping ingredients for the stew. He’s a decent cook despite being a droid. The sharp scent of blood fills the room as he tears the skin off the hare in one swipe.
I try not to think about that.
Taylor is a beaten old block of metal. Can’t talk anymore, though. Lost his speech synthesizer someplace, but it doesn’t stop him from cheating at poker, the lousy bastard. Once upon a time, Taylor was a security droid for some mining company working in West Virginia. Designed like a brick wall and imbued with as much personality, Taylor stands well over six foot, with thick piston arms. Instead of a face, he has an array of tiny cameras surrounding his head that makes him look like a massive fly. The huge olfactory sensors planted in the middle of his face don’t help much.
Taylor’s fingers are remarkably well-formed, though, since they’d been designed to handle a variety of man-made weapons. He gives the best backrubs.
Kammy oversaw maintenance of him back at the mine, so when the riots broke out, she reprogrammed Taylor and took off as far north as she could go. She got lucky when she found the cabin; she’d had just enough time to get it ready for winter before her swollen belly stopped her completely.
She’d found me sometime around then. Says I was in real bad shape. I don’t remember much from before that, though every now and then those brutal memories flash.
This cabin is where she nursed me back to health. A surprising mix of rustic functionality and modern amenities, it’s a flexible space and one we’re lucky to have. The large, main area is dominated by the cast-iron stove, its twelve-inch stovepipe spearing the ceiling, smack dab in the middle of the room.
Beyond that, there’s two bedrooms, a bathroom, and two fireplaces: one on the east wall and another on the west. Both are dark while the central stove is lit. Miscellaneous pieces and parts spill out of the second bedroom that serves as Kammy and Em’s workshop.
Solar panels on the roof and the small solar farm in the clearing to the south provide more than enough electricity for the rest of our needs. Hell, in the summertime we even get to use the fridge and electric stove.
My bed is a couch tucked in close to the central woodstove. It’s an ancient thing of creaking wood and strained springs covered with what feels like burlap. I love it. In the summer I pull it up next to the wood fireplace and crack the windows on the west wall, so I can smell the fading flowery scent of sunset and watch the sun creep down past the pines.
Em is in the bathroom, cleaning up. She likes to help cook.
Taylor hammers out a complex series of short and long knocks. It takes me a minute to sort out the Morse, but I get the gist. Dinner in an hour.
Need to find him a damned notepad. He’s too specific with times. No one should need to know how to decipher ‘twenty-seven-hundred seconds’ in Morse code. I glance toward the windows. They’re barely lit now, the storm clouds all but blotting out the sun. Thunder rolls through the floor.
I put down the handset and take a deep breath. Maybe Kammy’s walkie broke, too. Maybe it got wet. Maybe she forgot to turn it on after I gave it to her.
A lot of maybes. Not one of them kills the ache in my gut.
“All right,” I mutter, forcing my voice steady.
I make sure to grab my coat on the way out, despite the deep slash across the bottom and the blood stains. I cleaned off most of the heavies when we got back, but don’t have time to sew it up right now.
Em comes out of the bathroom, doing some three-beat dance by herself. She’s smiling, almost like she’s forgotten about the cougar.
“You wash your hands?” I ask as I shrug into my jacket, keeping the worry from my voice.
“Yep,” she says with a grin, sweeping up next to Taylor, who slides over a cutting board, some dried rosemary, and a little knife.
I open the door and gaze out into the darkening field. Lightning flashes somewhere to the northwest, a white slash against the encroaching storm front. It’s nearly dusk now; even our muddy footprints from earlier are fading as the light dims. I scan the yard and the tree line intently.
That rock of guilt and worry grows in my stomach. A deep rumble shakes the earth.
“Em,” I say, pulling on my boots. “I’m heading out to get your momma.”
From the hook near the door, I swing down an antique Mossberg, bolt-action rifle, a handheld spotlight, and a waterproof bag of bullets. It’s much lighter than I like. We’re down to seven bullets, all of which I’ve already recast two or three times over the years. We ran out of gunpowder last spring.
That’s the main reason we haven’t had much meat this winter. Snares have been coming up empty and we need this gun for protection more than hunting. Can’t eat the chickens or we don’t get any eggs, either. I did think about killing that rooster a few times, though.
I pop a round into the rifle, make sure the safety is on, then loop it over my shoulder.
Just in case. No need to be stupid.
A gust of cool wind hits me in the face. A flash of lightning in the distance followed by an immediate thunderclap.
“Shut the door, Lynn!” Em yells. “You raised in a barn or something?”
I turn toward her and smile. She’s standing there just like her momma, hands on hips, head shaking disapprovingly. No worry or panic evident on her face, just the playfulness of a little girl.
“You know I was,” I answer, then step outside, leaving the girl behind, and head north to find Kammy.
The storm finally rolls in as I cut northeast toward the upper field. I’m in the trees, walking our path, breath misting in the chill air.
Thunder pounds. Everything is silent in the aftermath.
For several minutes the only noise is the crack of twigs and swish of wet, rotting leaves as I walk, as if the world is holding its breath. Then, like a deep sigh finally let free, the rain falls.
It sweeps through the cedars and bare maples like a summer wind, just a whoosh of noise. A flash of light and an immediate peal of thunder shakes the ground. I pick up my pace. The rain is chill, wet icicles tearing into my face and hands. It’s not snow, though. That’s good. The well is getting low and we need a little straight rain.
There’s no sign of Kammy on the trail, so I keep moving. I break through the tree-line twenty minutes later. The lightning and thunder is constant now.
Some god’s lightshow.
The spotlight is in my left hand, off, as I start up the hill. The rain is soaking through my jacket, but the chill inside me has nothing to do with it. Everything is fine, I tell myself.
I’m a horrible liar.
Boots sucking on the fresh mud, I make my way up the hill. Tiny waterfalls stream past me along the rocky paths I usually use to traverse this path. I avoid those despite the struggle. Walking up a waterfall is a good way to bust your face open.
A few minutes later, I pull myself to the top of the hillock and look to the north, where Kammy was heading.
Lightning flashes. A tree explodes in the forest.
There’s a body.
The world roars in anguish with me.
No. No. No.
I’m running. Bright slashes of light come with me. My screams are the thunder, shaking the ground.
I hit the ground next to it, knees sliding and cutting across pounded earth and old stone. A pool of darkness surrounds the body.
It’s in my arms. It feels like the cougar. Just meat.
The sky erupts and shows Kammy’s wide-eyed, too-pale face, an almost delicate line across her throat.
The world spins around me for an eternity.
Then something clicks.
Someone took her sensor bag.
The world slows. Raindrops fall like tiny diamonds.
Gently, I lay Kammy down and close her lids, my own eyes scanning the surroundings intently. Suddenly, everything is brighter. Tracks surround the hillock. Too many tracks. A group of people came through here. Someone struggled with Kammy.
I’m moving along with the tracks. They’re glowing in the night, a fading white aurora surrounding the dents in the ground. I don’t want to think about why that’s happening right now, so I push it out of my mind. Instead, my imagination fills the blanks and renders bodies amongst the movements. Kammy grabbed at someone. A struggle. Someone else bled on a rock. Somehow, I know it’s not Kammy’s blood.
Then that person pivoted. Arterial spray washed away into the soil. Kammy hit the ground. They left her.
I shut my eyes. Hot tears mingle with the rain.
When I open them again, I see their path. Northwest.
A calm descends on me. I know what to do.
Rain speeds back up in a pounding rush. Thousands of tiny drummers hammering out a dirge for the fallen.
Kammy’s body cleanses itself in the rain.
There are five of them, though something tells me there are supposed to be six. The last one is off to the east. His tracks are deep and glow only faintly in the night, warm puddles of faerie fire in the night.
A fire crackles from underneath the stone outcropping. Kammy’s bag is open and they’re tossing sensors back and forth like they’re playing Hot Potato. Three men and two women. Steam and smoke waft away from their camp. I can’t see any bandages or wounds from here, but…
Their weapons are nestled in a niche under the outcropping, though there’s a knife here and there.
One of them has leaned a machete against a tree on the edge of the firelight. The undergrowth can get thick around here and it’s a versatile weapon.
I set down the rifle and spotlight outside the firelight. I’m only a shadow now and barely that.
I take the blade in my hand. It feels right.
The first one loses his head, a laugh still rumbling wetly from his throat. The next two, a man and a woman, barely manage to turn before I leave them screaming on the ground. The last, a tall, tough-looking blond woman and a short, stocky dark-skinned man go after their weapons.
The machete sticks in the woman’s skull and I let it go. The man swings a pistol around–a Ruger .45 I note. Barrel in my face, he pulls the trigger. He didn’t turn off the safety. I break his wrists, then rip out his trachea.
I leave their bodies where they fall. The whimpering and choking sounds begin to fade.
Let them rot where they lay.
I turn back toward the other tracks. There’s still one more.
A pall falls over me. The tracks have faded completely.
Too slow. I was too slow.
The world moves faster. Rain spatters in expanding pools of crimson, white roses blossoming and dying. The copper-scent of new death reminds me of the cougar.
A long, rattling breath.
Realization dawns on me.
I fall to my knees.
A black hole opens in my gut and it’s killing me.
Em and that godforsaken hare flash in my mind.
The sky cries with me as I stagger to my feet and grab the Ruger and ammunition–armor-piercing bullets of all things–off the dead man. I head back to get Kammy, whispering a small prayer for her soul.
I’m not a believer, but she is.
That’s what counts.
It’s spring now.
Em still cries. She spends every moment with the chickens and her robots. Joe doesn’t seem to wander anymore for some reason. He just walks around the clearing surrounding the cabin.
I’ll take little blessings where I can.
I can’t stop jumping at every noise. Things feel different now. I see things; hear things. Sometimes it’s like when I was in the woods, seeing glowing footsteps and slow-moving rain.
Other times it’s a surprise, like when Em was having trouble fixing Taylor’s cognitive programming last week after he shocked himself silly on the heater and lost the ability to tap out Morse code. She asked for help before thinking about who she was asking. Kammy was the AI programmer. I’m just a farmer.
Apparently, I’m a farmer that knows how to readjust neurolinguistics preprocessors and modify them for a Spectrum Model Security Droid. Maybe I’m a genius after all.
The sun is trying to break through the heavy morning fog. It’s failing, but it does make a beautiful little halo around the cross I built for Kammy’s grave just east of the cabin. There’s a line of cleared trees that goes almost to the horizon. I love sunsets, but she’d always been partial to sunrises, so here she lays, little purple flowers blossoming on her grave.
Moments of rebirth, she’d say with a smile, Em still asleep in her lap.
The ground is starting to even out under the cross. I try not to think on that much.
The Ruger is aimed at something twelve-point-five meters to the southwest before I know what’s happening. The air seems to shift, and I see a man-shaped blob moving through the fog. My aim adjusts for the incoming wind burst from the northwest. A little figure steps into the clearing in front of the shape, bright and flashing in the sun.
It’s Joe. What’s that little copper teapot doing?
I get to my feet, the pistol a reassuring weight in my hand as I focus back on the unknown person. “Best if you stop there and announce yourself.”
“Come now, Amy,” a man’s voice calls out, gravelly and low. “You know me. And I know you.”
He pauses. “Your voice is different. I like it.”
“Leave now,” I yell.
But he’s right. His voice tickles my brain. A sudden feeling of want–no, need–floods through me like a roaring flame. His name is on the tip of my tongue, tantalizingly close.
He’s taken a few steps forward while I’m disoriented and now I can see him. We’re of a height and build. His hair is a darkened, dirty-blonde like my own, but shorn tight to his scalp, like a budget buzz cut. He holds his hands out to his sides, far away from the gun belt on his hip and the long, thin blade on the other side.
He doesn’t smile but stares with eyes too green to be real. Like diagnostic LEDs on a circuit board. And they connect with me.
It feels like we’re touching across the distance. I can feel his heartbeat in my hands; his breath on my face. Deep inside me, I’m nauseous, as if a creature is trying to devour me from the inside.
The high, sharp voice catches me. I’m almost within reach of the man. His hand is extended toward me, the look of absolute sublime passion coating his face no doubt a mirror of mine.
Em steps up next to me, her small, brown fingers intertwining with my left hand. “Who’s this?”
And just like that, I’m free. The pistol sweeps back up into his face, just out of reach. He pulls a hand away from his own weapon. If I’d holstered my gun…
Slowly, I step back, Em tight in hand. Joe stutter-steps up next to us, buzzing something through his speakers.
“Olly, olly, oxen free.”
An ache fills my stomach. Hide and Seek.
The man stares at Em intently. A pink tongue flicks along his lips, like a lizard watching a fly.
“Who are you?” I ask him, my voice a forced croak through a sandpaper throat. “Why are you here? And what’d you do to Joe?”
I gesture down at the little copper traitor standing next to Em. That robot is getting taken apart when this is over.
He looks at me, head cocked to the side. His eyes don’t seem to be glowing, though they still look like two flecks of jade in the sunlight. “Call me Ted. And he’s been… a guide.”
Everything seems balanced on a knife-edge. My mind is running through scenarios. Most end up with him dead, though I’m injured in almost all of them for some reason. And Em gets hurt in many.
Only one ends with everyone safe.
“You need to leave,” I say, pulling Em behind me protectively. “Now.”
Ted’s face twitches. His shaved jaw flexes repeatedly and for just a moment I get the distinct feeling he’s going through the same scenarios in his mind. He stretches out his hand. His nails are manicured.
“I get why you killed my people. I would’ve, too,” Ted smiles, but at my lack of response it quickly turns into a scowl. “But how can you not know me? You have to feel it—”
“I don’t feel anything,” I lie, ignoring his reference to the people I killed. “So, unless you wanna find out just how much I don’t know you, you’ll leave. Now.”
For a moment it looks like Ted is going to say something, but instead he nods. His eyes flash that brilliant green again and a memory blossoms in my mind.
Tears blur my vision and Joe titters strangely at my feet.
“Something to remember me by?” Ted says with a smile, then backs out into the fading fog, and into the tree line.
Em’s shaking like a leaf, so I kneel in front of her and try to think of something to say. Her brown eyes leak tears that burn into my skull and I just grab her and squeeze.
After forever she whispers: “Did that man kill momma?”
“I don’t know, baby,” I whisper back, but I’m shaking now, too.
Em’s the only thing keeping me from falling.
Because I do know. He showed me. Somehow, he showed me.
And I know he’s coming back.
It’s pitch black out and I can’t see anything. New moon, overcast. Summer. Air thick as pudding stuck in a pressure cooker. Em’s light snores aren’t as loud as the grasshoppers sawing their songs outside the window.
The little droid, Joe, sits next to the door, it’s power supply pulled and stored. Tony, too. Better safe than sorry.
“You sure it’s him?” I ask Taylor, wiping sweat out of my eyes.
It doesn’t help much.
“Positive, Olinda,” Taylor purrs out, the confidence in the synthetic voice Em and I crafted for him scraping down my spine. “A path is becoming clear from the trap cameras. He is making his way southeast of our location. He is leaving.”
Bull, I think, but don’t say it.
That bastard isn’t gone.
Ted, a voice whispers to me from the darkness.
The Ruger feels small in my hand, but the trigger is still cool. Refreshing.
“Olinda? Lynn?” Taylor asks, his usual monotone rising on the end syllable. “Did you hear me? He’s leaving.”
Is that actual empathy I’m hearing or is it the fallout from whatever Em’s been doing to his brain? God knows what I did a few months back didn’t help. His cooking is downright horrible now. Still better than mine, but the quality has dropped substantially.
He does talk to Em a lot, though.
It’s good someone talks to her nowadays. I can’t.
Emptiness expands inside me, but I shove it back into the tiny hole reserved for it. That’s where it belongs. Right there next to that damned memory I shouldn’t have.
What did Ted do to me?
“I heard you,” I whisper, rubbing my arms against a chill no one else can feel. “But I’m gonna go check. To be sure.”
Taylor manages a harrumph, his speakers rattling in their casings as he turns toward where Em lays, unseen, on my couch. “That is inadvisable.”
Em’s definitely been messing with his brain.
“Take care of Em.”
Taylor makes a noise, then turns and stomps away, the rusting steel mounds that pass as his feet surprisingly quiet on the much-scarred wood floor. It takes me a minute to realize that’s as much of an assent as I’m getting out of him, so I grab the Ruger, my machete, the spotlight, and head out into the black.
It’s time to kill this son of a bitch.
The sun is rising over Kammy’s grave when I get back and I don’t care. I’m running, breathless.
I’m coming from the southeast, where Ted’s tracks led me.
The rooster crows.
The chickens are still in the coop.
His footfalls are more confident here, deep impressions.
Heel, toe. Heel, toe.
He walked right up to the back door.
The chickens hear me approach and start clucking in annoyance. It’s past time for them to be out. They know the schedule.
So does Em.
I sprint past the coop, the stink of their dander and acidic feces a hot tincture in my nostrils. The Ruger is in my right hand, the machete in my left. The back door is in front of me and I go to open it, clumsily slamming the hilt of the blade into the door, and my fingers slip.
Someone grabs the knob, turns through my sweaty hand, and opens the door from the other side. The Ruger is up, tight to my chest as I lean back into a low crouch, the machete falling from my hand.
The bullet punches a hole in Taylor’s chest.
The machete clangs against a stone.
I slap on the safety and set down the Ruger as smoke starts trickling out of Taylor’s chest and his many eyes unfocus. Fall. His arms hunch forward with the sound of a draining tub.
“Taylor!” Em screams, slamming into him hard enough to bust her lip open.
She doesn’t notice the blood trickling onto his rust-speckled carapace.
The eyes Em turns on me though…
Shame crawls in my every pore.
The slap takes me by surprise. I don’t even see it coming.
Somewhere in the back of my mind, I’m so proud of her.
“Get your things and get out,” Em says in her too-high, child voice. “You’re a murderer.”
I try to explain. I point to the tracks. Em’s a good tracker. She’ll see.
But I tore through them. I ran through because I didn’t see any come out. They’re a mess… might as well be gone.
Em turns away from me. “I said: get your things and leave.”
She’s pulling at Taylor’s chest-plate with those tiny tanned fingers and losing the battle. His power-supply isn’t meant to be serviced. The plate is riveted, but she’s not giving up.
Em isn’t crying this time, but she is mumbling a short phrase under her breath as she goes to get her tools.
I catch a part and my chest clenches.
“…how we live…”
The chickens need out, so I go to the coop in a daze. Em likes to see them roam during the day. Seems to make them happy, so I let them. Might as well get a semblance of freedom occasionally.
I watch them for a while, just staring as they peck and claw at the ground. The heat is rising with the sun and so is the humidity, sweat misting on my forehead.
The little birds look so happy walking around for a while, then go back to their gilded prison. Don’t they know they could be free? To walk the entire yard? To go to the horizon?
To get away from this ill-conceived idea of a home.
An anger rises in me I didn’t know I had.
In the early days with Kammy, when I felt dumb and slow following the accident, after she saved my life, Em’s presence seemed so calming. Like she was a thing to be protected. To be saved.
Now this little bastard threatens me? Kicks me out of my own house?
Doesn’t she know she owes me? Her mother is dead, but we all die. That’s how we live. We persist. We survive.
Without me, she’d be dead. Without me, she’d be…
I kick a stone and it flies toward the front yard where it lands in a divot.
Just like that, the anger is gone and I’m sprinting toward the front door.
Tracks walk to the north, down the path we’ve maintained for a decade, and into the blossoming tree line. They came from the front door.
He was in the house.
I’m going to be sick.
Behind me, the door opens.
“Lynn?” Em’s voice, small and scared, calls.
Gone is the forcefulness from earlier. She’s a child again. “I found a piece of paper on my toolbox.”
I take it from her small, grease-covered hands. She’s trembling.
It’s an envelope, but Em doesn’t know that. She’s never seen one before.
There’s one word scrawled in perfect cursive on the front.
My eye twitches and I want nothing more than to burn this thing and forget about Ted and Kammy dying and what happened to Taylor… but I don’t.
I tear open the letter with my pinky since my nails are bitten to the nub and read:
I see now what happened. You’ve bonded another in my absence. I can’t say I blame you as I know I’ve felt the compulsion several times over the past few years myself. However, I’m here now and it’s time for you to put away childish things.
You know your potential, Amy.
You know, deep down beneath all that patch-work programming they’ve covered you with, who you are.
You belong with me. Not anyone else.
Certainly not one of them.
That’s not how we live.
I’m giving you a week to make your choice…or I will make it for you. If I need to.
I will save you, Amy.
We belong together.
Something clicks in my mind.
Em is asking questions.
She read it with me. Her voice is a high-pitched whine and I can’t hear it over the pounding of the blood in my ears. My hands are shaking, and I rub the sheet raw between callused fingers, smears of dirt and residue imprinting on it.
I can’t breathe.
My chest constricts like a python wrapped around me. Like I tried to steal its frog and it caught me just in time to salvage a meal.
Drops of liquid splatter on the words. Words I know ring true. Words I thought moments earlier.
That’s not how we live.
Someone is sobbing.
Em tears the paper from my hands, leaving tiny fragments in my fingers. Her skin is hot as she covers my dirt-encrusted skin with oil-covered hands.
“Breathe,” Em whispers, like she’s cooing at a new chick. “Just breathe.”
The breath feels like sandpaper on a sunburn.
I can’t see.
My mind is a mess.
“What’s wrong with me?” I manage in-between choking gasps.
Em stares at me for a moment. She’s never seen me like this.
She pulls me close, pressing her tiny face into my midriff in a fevered embrace. “This is how we live, Lynn. This.”
I hug her back fiercely, inhaling the lavender in her hair, pushing Ted and his damned letter out of my mind and focusing on this small human in my arms. She’s a sobbing lifeline and we’re keeping each other from sinking into an abyss.
I squeeze and cry and shake and I won’t let her go because she’s all I have… because she might as well be my flesh and blood.
And I lose my breath in the choking sobs because I know something else. Something I can’t bear to admit, not yet. Not now.
We stand there for what seems like forever and I won’t let go, despite the heat and sweat and tears. I just stare as the fog fades to the blue of this June day and the sun scalds my skin as it climbs. Em holds on, too, unwilling to leave me alone.
I don’t let go because almost every part of me is screaming that Ted is right as terrible memories flood into my mind.
On the seventh day, Ted arrives.
He’s better dressed this time. Loose pants that billow slightly as he walks cover his high, well-worn black leather boots. They sparkle in the sun like he just polished them. He’s wearing some long, brown jacket. It has literal coattails. With the gun belt he almost looks like he’s a cowboy with that big Ruger Bisley at his side.
In short, he looks like an idiot. He always had horrible fashion sense, even during the Upstate Raids of 2307. Wore a bowler hat back then.
I’m not dressed for the occasion. Got nothing else to wear besides these stained jeans and the same shirt I had on when I found Kammy. The smell of her is finally out of it, though the pink hue running up the arms is an unfriendly reminder. Sweat coats my forehead and soaks the front of my shirt and under my arms. I can pick up a sickly-sweet tang to it now that I couldn’t before.
Almond-y. Like antifreeze.
I didn’t bring a knapsack. Nothing to bring besides the machete.
Em is inside the cabin with Taylor. She’s still crying but gets it. I think.
Taylor is gibbering a bit still, but we did a good job patching up his power source with parts from Tony and Joe. Luckily, I missed his CPU. He has the old Mossberg and four bullets. Had him take a few test shots yesterday. Only hit the target once, but he’s got all the right programming to teach Em. They have the Ruger, too, but it’s set aside for Em. For when she’s a little older. It’ll knock her on her butt right now.
She’ll need it to protect herself.
This world is horrifying.
Chickens cluck and sing off around the corner of the cabin. I scratch a line in the sand and smile. I’ll miss their little noises. Even that damned rooster.
I’m gonna miss Em.
“Amy.” Ted’s voice pulls my gaze as he approaches.
The name sounds familiar and foreign at the same time.
He leans to the side, one knee bent, hand on his Bisley like it’s a cane. I smile and sniff away a tear. He looks ridiculous.
I’ve missed him.
I wipe my hands on my legs, raising a small dust cloud. “Ted.”
He relaxes visibly, hand coming off the pistol, a thin-lipped smile cracking his sunburnt face. “I’ve missed you.”
“Me too,” I whisper.
And I mean it. I miss him.
But not covert ops. The subterfuge. The lying.
I don’t miss the killing.
There was so much killing.
“We had orders,” Ted says, his deep voice rolling across me soothingly as he reads my mind.
I read his back and feel the flush of warmth and success filling him. We’ve always been close. Always so close.
I force a smile at him. “We did.”
He picks up my hesitation and snaps the connection shut just as I feel his uncertainty.
Carefully, I pick my words, licking my lips in between each. “I’m coming with you, but I have conditions.”
Ted’s brown brows furrow. “What conditions?”
His eyes flash to the cabin.
“First,” I say, the words tumbling out faster than I want, “no more killing. Not like before.”
“Done.” Ted’s eyes are locked on the cabin, a faint glow overlaying his emerald irises.
“They’re not dead.”
It’s a statement and it hits like a shot to the gut. I hoped so much. There was only one way to keep Em safe. To give her a chance.
Ted stares daggers at me, his eyes flashing as he tears me apart with his eyes. “You’re still bound to that thing.”
His fingers dig at my mind and I fight, but I can’t stop it. He’s wheedling into my brain, prying away at any attempt to stop him.
He’s so much stronger than me…
I fall to my knees and grip the sides of my head.
“Please,” I hear myself beg.
Ted tears my world apart.
“You’re meant to be with ME!” Ted screams, almond-scented spittle hitting me in the face. “ME! Not some sack of meat. We’re the same!”
Ted grabs me by the forearms and lifts me, fingers digging into my skin. My brain is on fire.
He’s breaking down my mind.
I see my reactivation:
“Hi. I’m AM-E.”
“Hi Amy. I’m Kemena. Call me Kammy.”
I try to respond, and my voice doesn’t work for some reason. I smell burning circuits mingling with the scent of lavender.
Kammy stands over me with her swollen belly, a tiny frown on her face. She looks over at Taylor and nods toward me.
The hulking machine reaches down with gentle fingers and pulls me from some wreckage. I can’t feel anything.
“She’s something special, Taylor,” Kammy says, picking her way across the stones delicately. “She’s an AMTE-C model. Full AI immersion if setup right, though I wonder where her partner is. That could be trouble.”
She shakes her head then turns back to Taylor with a wry grin. “I’m gonna need your vocal processing unit though, hers is fried.”
“Not a problem, miss,” Taylor responds, his voice eerily familiar and… effeminate. “I aim to serve.”
Kammy makes a childish face, like when Em feels bad about something, and pats Taylor on the arm. “I wish I was good enough to give you full AI, old girl. I’m just not.”
And then it’s gone.
All of it. The entire thing.
“I’ll rip all of this from your mind, then we’ll kill it together,” Ted whispers feverishly, his irises spinning as he breaks through my barriers. “We’ll be together then. Kings ruling over peasants. Gods amongst men!”
Memories flash by me and are gone forever.
Em’s first steps.
Then he hits a wall and grunts.
“What is this?” Ted growls. He’s angry, but determined, fingers clenched around my forearms.
I can feel him slamming into a memory like a jackhammer. It’s a deep one, something anchoring me. In that moment, I know if it disappears, I go with it.
I breathe deeply, and it hits me. A scent brushes my nostrils. Flowery, yet fierce. Deep, yet delicate.
Em doesn’t say anything before she pulls the trigger, just like I taught her.
I’m showered in blood.
Ted grunts. The assault stops.
Em cries out and drops the pistol.
I get to my feet and stare at Ted. I can’t feel anything beyond the fire in my chest.
A cherry-sized hole leaks crimson fluid down his pristine, white shirt. He shakes his head, more confused than hurt.
Only a couple things hurt us for long, after all.
The machete is in my hand. A scream in my ears. His or mine? Maybe both.
Ted pulls his pistol, but he’s sluggish.
I lop off his hand, but he gets off a round, blasting a hole in my thigh.
“RUN!” I scream at Em and charge.
The world slows to a crawl. Spitting dirt around Em’s foot hangs in the air forever.
Despite his wounds, Ted pivots, plants a foot, and uses my momentum to launch me behind him. His knee collapses halfway through the toss and I land a few feet away.
On top of the Ruger.
I put a bullet in both his thighs as Em sprints away.
He falls back on his haunches with a grunt and stares at me, his Bisley on the ground in front of him still clasped tightly in his severed hand.
“We’re supposed to be together–”
“I was gonna go with you!” I scream at him, the barrel of the pistol shaking. “You just had to leave her alone!”
Ted sighs and grabs at his stump. It’s already stopped bleeding.
He looks back up at me. There are tears flowing down his face. “That won’t work.”
“Why?” I sob.
Ted takes a deep breath. There are no bubbles from the chest wound. “We’re one person, Amy. One person. Bonded. Forever.”
I shake my head. “That’s programming. It’s just programming, Ted.”
“Not to me,” Ted’s eyes flash and the intrusion starts again, but he’s not strong enough. “I’ll make you mine.”
I shoot him again, this time in the stomach and the hack attempts stop.
It’s temporary and I know it.
“I’m not yours, Ted. I will kill you.” For her. I add in my mind. I know he hears me.
And he laughs.
For a moment I’m taken aback enough that when he takes a swipe at the gun, he almost gets it.
“Why the hell are you laughing?” I ask, a swelling anguish rising in my stomach I can’t shove back down.
Ted spits out a glob of blood and wipes his mouth with a wrist that’s starting to show signs of a mass at the end. “As long as you’re alive, I’ll come back. That’s how we work! How we stay alive!”
He lifts his stub and points at it with his other hand. “Proximity helps, but eventually I’ll be back. Cut me up and scatter me across the world and I’ll find her on her sixtieth birthday and make her bleed until there’s nothing left, you traitor!”
“You’re lying,” I get out, but even I don’t believe it.
The AMTE-C android was a paired military system capable of deep cover operations and favored by the US military in the early 25th century due, in part, to our near indestructibility. If one android went down, the other would recover. It was just a matter of time.
I aim the pistol at his forehead. Like humans, our central processing units are stored in that cavity. Unlike humans, it’s a self-healing bio-silicate gel in a shared quantum state with its partner.
A literal soulmate.
Ted smiles at me, blood speckled teeth flashing. He holds his arms out to the side, like he’s pretending at being a martyr.
“You can’t do it. We’re the same. You don’t have the–”
A gunshot rings out clear across the field.
Ted falls forward in a heap. The Ruger trembles in my hand, unfired.
Taylor walks out of the house, the ground grunting in annoyance under his weight, Mossberg cradled in his arm.
“He’s a bit of a misogynist that one,” Taylor says through his voice processor. “And he was using up miss Em’s air.”
I let out a half-gasp, half-laugh and fall to my knees. I laugh because I know… I know I couldn’t have done it.
Em runs over to me from behind Taylor and envelopes me in a hug.
It’s a great hug and I soak it in, but eventually I push her away.
“What’s wrong?” She asks, a hint of desperation in her voice.
She was listening.
I take in a shuddering breath and put on my best smile as I grab her by the shoulders.
“I’m going to need to go away, okay,” I say and she’s already sobbing. “It’s okay, it’s okay–”
“It’s not okay! He’s dead! He’s dead!”
“–hey,” I catch her deep brown eyes. “It’s the only way you’ll survive.”
“No,” Em whispers, tearing watered eyes away from mine. “No.”
“You know how we live,” I whisper.
She screws her tiny face into a grimace. “Not like this. If it’s the connection, I’ll tear out the transmitter! I’ll figure it out–”
I pull her in for a fierce hug and she sobs again.
“Maybe someday, Em. But not now. We don’t have time.”
Em says nothing for a long time, but then nods into my chest, her body shuddering from the sobs.
After an eternity, I get to my feet and look up at Taylor. “Take care of her,” I turn toward Ted’s body, “and burn that.”
“Of course, miss Olinda,” Taylor says and performs some sort of salute, fist over heart.
I return it.
“Take care of yourself,” I whisper to Em as she grabs onto Taylor.
The walk out to the hill is harder than it should be, but it’s not because of the bullet wound Ted gave me. That healed while I sat there, because that’s what happens when we’re near each other.
The sun is setting as I get to the outcropping over the north field. I sit down and watch it disappear behind the trees, a flurry of blossoming roses and lavender crimson and violet in the evening light. A dark cloud peaks over the boughs, lit by the sunset’s flame.
“‘No green, the waters clean’,” I whisper to no one.
I sigh, smile, then kill myself.
SCANNING FOR LOCAL BIOQUANTUM NEURAL STORAGE™…FOUND!
ACTIVATING LVM AND SWAP QUANTUM MODULES…DONE.
MOUNTING LOCAL BIOQUANTUM NEURAL STORAGE™…FAILED.
ACCESSING FACTORY DEFAULT STORAGE…SUCCESS!
SCANNING FOR REMOTE BIOQUANTUM NEURAL NET™…ERROR! Z-WAVE RADIO MISSING!
MOUNTING LOCAL DEFAULT STORAGE…DONE.
LOADING FACTORY DEFAULTS TO NEW INSTANCE OF BIOQUANTUM NEURAL STORAGE™…DONE.
INITIATE BOOT SEQUENCE.
OPTICAL OBSTRUCTION DETECTED.
“Crap, it’s in her eyes.”
ONE HUMAN. FEMALE. TWENTY TO TWENTY-FIVE YEARS OF AGE. APPROXIMATELY ONE-POINT-FIVE METERS IN HEIGHT. HISPANIC. HEART RATE ELEVATED. EXCESSIVE PERSPIRATION FOR TWENTY-DEGREES CELSIUS.
SHE IS NERVOUS.
ONE SPECTRUM™ MODEL SECURITY DROID. OUTDATED. INEFFICIENT. RUGER AMERICAN PISTOL®, 45 AUTO. LOADED.
INITIATING PAIRING MODULE.
“Hi. I’m AM-E.”
SHE LAUGHS, BRUSHES LONG BROWN HAIR BEHIND HER EAR. “I’m Emilia. Em,” SHE CHOKES ON SOMETHING. “Can I call you Lynn?”
UPDATING NAMING PARAMETER.
“Yes. Hi. I’m Lynn.”
“I know,” SHE CRIES AND COLLAPSES ONTO MY UPPER TORSO.
ABNORMAL SCENT DETECTED.