Farrago – Part 1

They had a new girl working the shoe rental. As Henry paid the twenty bucks for his three rounds (the owner liked him, liked that he was a cop, so he gave Henry a discount), the girl glided in front of the row of shoes, passing it over with the buzzing decontamination stick, the glow staining her hands pale blue.

Henry didn’t need to rent any shoes — he had his own pair, specially made, tucked away in his bag — but he lingered for a moment at the shoe counter anyway, until the girl glanced up, strands of her blonde hair falling across her eyes, which were, startlingly, the exact color of honey.

“What size?” she asked.

Her voice had a low thrumming quality to it. Her words reverberated off the side of her throat.  Henry shook his head, stammered a little.

“Sorry, I don’t — got my own.”

He jerked his bag up. The girl blinked at it and shrugged and then passed the decontamination stick over another set of shoes. Henry dragged his hand across the top his hair and trudged over to his lane. It was a Tuesday night in November, icy rain slicking across the city, and the alley was nearly empty. Just Henry at one end and a pair of teenage girls at the other end. He sat down on the bench and ordered a beer from the touchscreen and waited for his partner to show.

The last time he went to the cyberneticist they’d told him to lay off the alcohol, that it was corroding the bits of metal and plastic lining his stomach, and also they hadn’t exactly upgraded his liver, but he’d never listened to doctors before and he wasn’t going to listen to cyberneticists now. He traded out his scuffed black boots for bowling shoes. At the other end of the alley, pins clattered against the hardwood, and the two teenage girls shrieked and hollered. Henry leaned back over the bench. He craned his neck. The girl at the shoe counter slid in and out of view, her head bent low, the glow from the decontamination stick tracing the movement of her hands.

“Hello, Henry.”

Henry jumped. “Felton,” he said. “I didn’t see you standing there.”

Felton’s two glowing eyes brightened and dimmed. “Well, you appear pretty distracted.”

Henry chose not to respond. He stood up, pulled out his bowling ball — weighted for the bones of his steel-enforced arm, the finger holes measured against the span of his fingers and laser-cut for precision, the whole thing dyed dark green at his request — from its bag.

“Can’t start ’til I get my beer,” he said.

“Oh yes. I’m aware.”

Henry set his ball on the return and Felton did the same with one of Henry’s old cast-off balls — the in-house ones were all too light for him. As if on cue, the server-bot whirred out of the doorway to the lounge, a single bottle of beer on its tray. Felton followed its trajectory across the alley. He had told Henry once, at a bar, how he hated that the serverbots didn’t speak and Henry’d had no idea how to respond.

Henry and Felton were partners as cops, working together on Vice. They were bowling partners because Henry needed someone to bowl against now that he’d been upgraded. The guys down at the station kicked him out of the intramural league after the procedure, saying it wasn’t fair, he had too much of an advantage. The upgrades were supposed to get Henry out of Vice but all they did was get him out of the bowling league.

Felton bowled first and knocked over three pins. He wasn’t very good. Henry suspected he didn’t care enough to try, but he gave him pointers anyway.

“You need to swing your arm back more,” Henry said. He gestured with his beer bottle as he spoke. “Guide the ball with your thumb.” Felton rotated his head around and dimmed his eyes and didn’t respond.

Henry rolled a strike and swigged his beer in celebration. He looked over at the shoe rental, trying to be casual. The girl leaned across the counter. She wore her hair teased up and the lights caught on it so that her long narrow face appeared framed by a shimmering halo. Her hair made her look sophisticated, like she was about to leave for a holiday party. She stared at the score monitor hanging above the lanes but didn’t seem to really sae it.

“You’re being obvious,” said Felton as he picked up his ball from the return.

Henry laughed. He ordered another beer. “Like you know anything about it.”

Felton’s ball landed in the gutter. “I know you should talk to her instead of stare at her.”

Henry drank the last dregs of his beer because because he didn’t have anything to say to that. Felton knew more about Henry than he should. He knew about Melanie, for example. The commissioner had warned Henry not to get too friendly — “Even if you are part robbie now,” she said — but it was tough, riding around with the thing everyday. Sitting with him during the stakeouts. Teaching him how to bowl. You had to talk about something.

Felton wasn’t even one of the ones that sort of look like people, although he wore clothes like one. He was sleek and silver and jerked around sometimes, especially when the temperatures dropped below freezing. His eyes lit up and while this mouth did move, the movement didn’t always synch up with his words. The commissioner said witnesses would let themselves get questioned by a robot, as long as they knew for certain. As long as they didn’t think the city was tricking them.

“But we still need to have a human around,” she’d said. “For insurance. You know.” This was last summer, the days all long and bright and hot. The box fan she’d set up in her office rattled against the closed window. The edges of papers lifted up from her desk. “Nobody else is willing to work with the thing. You’re the closest we got.”

Henry had wanted to say something. He wanted to point out that he’d only gotten the upgrades because they told him he could make Homicide that way. How they’d given him all that literature about the importance of the department having an edge in this world of robots and mad scientists, genetic engineering and artificial intelligence. But he hadn’t.

They rode through Ballard, Felton driving the beat-up old Dodge Polara the department assigned to them, robbie and half-robbie. The houses tilted and leaned against the flat gray sky, like they wanted to uproot themselves from their foundations. All the colors were washed out. Even the graffiti looked muddied.

Felton parked in front of a sagging brown brick ranch house and turned off the ignition. Two houses down, supposedly that was a mad scientist’s lair. Henry and Felton had been tracking down leads on this particular scientist for nearly three months — they didn’t know his name, they didn’t even know what he looked like, but Felton was convinced he was responsible for the recent rash of maulings out in the suburbs. The newspapers had latched on to rumors of some genetically engineered creatures lurking through the pine trees and expensive houses, stalking housewives and businessmen both, but the rest of the department didn’t buy it. Henry was undecided. He just figured busting any mad scientist, even if he wasn’t the one turning monsters loose on the city, was better than busting none.

The house was smaller and tidier than the other houses on the street, the siding white-washed, the yard raked free of dead leaves. Blue curtains hung in the windows. But that didn’t mean anything. Mad scientists tended to burrow underground anyway.

“You should have talked to that girl last night,” said Felton.

Henry pushed back his seat. “Don’t need to take relationship advice from a robot,” he said.

“It’s because you’re still hung up on Melanie.”

Of course this was true. Henry went to his apartment in the evenings expecting to see Melanie waiting for him in the parking lot, ready to invite him back home. But he said, “Bullshit, man, you don’t know about any of this stuff.”

Felton didn’t say anything. Outside the car, the wind picked up, rustling the pine trees and stirring up clumps of wet leaves. The whitewashed house sat silent and still. Henry felt a dull ache in the joints of his fingers from the upgrades and the cold.

They’d gotten the tip from one of Felton’s sources. He collected them like stamps but kept them nestled away, never brought them up to the station if he could help it. Naturally they were almost all robots. Some of the higher-ups didn’t like that, but Felton always filed the paperwork and they’d had some high profile busts on account of them so there wasn’t much the higher-ups could do besides grumble behind the closed doors of their offices.

“It’s affecting your work,” said Felton.

“The hell are you talking about?”

“The divorce. Melanie leaving.” Felton rotated his head. He wore a dark brown tweed jacket like he could feel the cold, like he needed protection from the rain. “It bothers me. Makes it hard for me to do my job.”

“Your job,” said Henry. “Is to be more efficient than anyone else in the department. Including me.” He kept his eyes trained forward, on the little white house. “So if I’m fucking up, really I’m just making things easier for you.”

The sun set and Henry walked to the run-down pho place at the top of the hill, set into a strip mall built away from the houses. The upgrades made a walk like this easy, inconsequential, although in the chilled air Henry’s breath came out in little white puffs. When he got to the parking lot he stood for a moment with his hands shoved in the pockets of his thin coat, looking out over the freeway stretching from one end of the city to the other, an indolent river of light.

Then the rain started back up, a hazy drizzle pattering across the clumps of leaves in the gutter.  Henry pushed into the restaurant. The fluorescent bulbs flickered yellow and gray. The old man behind the counter glanced up, nodded in greeting, turned back to his crossword puzzle.

Henry ordered beef pho and a Vietnamese coffee and sat down in a corner booth. He thought about Felton, still sitting down in the corner, never having to eat or stretch or go to the bathroom. He remembered what a curiosity the robot workers had been when he was a little boy, back when all they did was staff all-night convenience stores. Now, you found them everywhere. Schools, corporate offices. The police department.

Even the pho place had one, a clunky antique, that brought out Henry’s food and chirped a cascading tune when it set the bowl down on the table. Henry slurped up the noodles as the robot wheeled away, back into the kitchen. A young couple came into the restaurant, holding hands, their coats glittering with rain drops. They laughed and the girl shook out her long hair like a dog. She looked a little like Melanie, a younger Melanie, back when Henry first met her on that awkward double date at the aquarium. Something about the lines of the girl’s nose. When she laughed her face crumpled up the way Melanie’s always did.

Henry ducked his head down as he ate. The couple’s voices twinkled over the buzzing of the lights. For a second Henry thought he felt the metal gears that reinforced the measured beat of his heart grind to halt, but the world carried on, the light and the rain and the cold damp air, and he knew it was just hoping.

Relief came about five in the morning, the sky still pitch back and starless. Officer Minette rapped on the window, her breath fogging up the glass. Jerked her head back towards her own car, with her own human partner, parked a few meters away.

“Let’s get the hell out of here,” Henry said. His eyes were bleary from watching the white-washed house. Nothing. No lights in the window, no cars in the driveway, no mysterious smoke curling up into the rainy night.

“I agree.” Felton turned the ignition and drove them back to the station through the empty city. In the station lot, Henry and Felton stared at each other before Felton nodded curtly and said, “Good night, Officer Levens.”

“Night, Felton.” Henry paused, shoved his hands in his pocket. Felton’s eyes brightened and dimmed, then he turned, headed toward the sidewalk. Henry knew vaguely the department kept an apartment for Felton nearby. He’d never been there.

Henry drove back to his own apartment down near the waterfront. Lights had started to blink on across the side of the building, people waking up to beeping alarms, frying bacon in their pajamas, chugging burned coffee as they rushed out the door to work. It was still dark as midnight out. Winter.

He parked on the street, trudged up the stairs, the rails slick with cold rainwater. The stairwell light was still out. He could hear the sounds of his neighbor’s television, the crescendo rise and fall of some familiar cereal commercial.

There was a package leaning against the door of his apartment.

Henry stopped in the middle of the walkway. The wires and circuits in his body jangled at the sudden surge of adrenaline. He knelt down, picked up the package. Plain brown paper, his name scrawled across the front in black marker. He recognized the curve of the letters. Melanie’s handwriting.

Henry ripped the package open out there on the walkway, bits of damp paper fluttering over the balcony. It was a gray dress shirt he had left at the house. The pale blue necktie she bought for him two years ago. A single white sock.

“Fuck,” said Henry.

He unlocked the door to his apartment and flung the shirt and the tie and the sock across the room. Then he sat down on the sofa and covered his face with his hands. He felt his body winding up, reading his sudden flood of anger as preparation for a fight. His fingers clenched into fists. His muscles shook. He kicked over the cheap coffee table he had found in the alley outside the apartment and its legs snapped into pieces. He snarled. Punched the wall. Alabaster showered down and the foundation trembled but the reinforced bones of his hands didn’t even ache. His whole body burned and sparked, clanked and vibrated.

The apartment felt far too small. But Henry didn’t want to leave, didn’t want to go back out into the cold morning. He took a deep breath, closed his eyes. He smelled sausage frying in his neighbor’s kitchen. And he tried to calm himself. He had to calm himself if he wanted to calm the wiring inside him.

It took a long time, but eventually Henry fell asleep. The upgrades swallowed all his dreams.

Henry went to the bowling alley early the next Tuesday. He’d bought a charcoal-colored suit coat from the thrift store near the station, and he wore it over his usual plaid button-down. He stopped in the restroom before paying for his lanes, wetting his hands with water from the faucet and then slicking back his hair. He squinted at himself in the mirror. This unending stakeout was making him look threadbare. But then, stakeouts always did that. Something not even the upgrades could help.

The girl was working the shoe counter again, her hair swept up into the same messy bouffant, her golden eyes rimmed in black. When Henry saw her he felt the heartbeat mechanism click into place. A long time ago, his heart would have been pounding.

“Hey,” he said to her. He set his bowling bag on the floor.

“What size?” she asked, decontamination wand glowing. Then she glanced up. “Oh wait,” she said. “You have your own. Can I help you with something else?”

She remembered him. She remembered he had his own shoes. Henry smiled. His hands started shaking so he shoved them in his pocket.

“What’s your name?” he asked.

The girl pointed at her name tag. Cecilia. Her fingernails were painted dark blue. Henry dropped his smile and blushed.

“You’re Henry, right?” she said. “Mr. Letang talks about you. Said you’re a cop.”

Henry nodded. His throat was dry. Apparently the upgrades had nothing to offer with regards to the physiological symptoms of desire.

“That’s kind of cool, I guess.” Cecilia pressed one hand hand distractedly against her hair.

“Not right now,” said Henry. “Not most of the time honestly. A lot of paperwork. Waiting around.”

“Sounds like my job.”

Henry smiled, unsure of what to say next. Cecilia turned off the wand and slid it somewhere underneath the counter. She smoothed the fabric of her dress.

“Where’s your partner?” she said.


“The robot. You were teaching him to bowl last week.” She smiled. “He’s not very good.”

“Oh,” said Henry. Why was she asking after Felton? Goddamn robbie. He really did attract more attention than he deserved. “I got here a little early.”

“Snuck out early when the bossman wasn’t looking, huh?” Cecilia leaned back on her elbows. “Wish I could get away with that.”

Ask her now. Henry heard the voice in his head, tinny and mechanical-sounding, like it came through a speaker. Do it. Like the upgrades were channeling Felton.

“Do you get a break?” he asked.

“I’m due for one,” she said.

Perfect. Ask her.

Henry took a deep breath. His body tingled, tightened up. “You want, I can go ask Mr. Letang if he could let you free for twenty minutes or so. Maybe we could get coffee…”

His voice wavered and disappeared. Cecilia regarded him beneath lids heavy with eyeliner. She didn’t say anything. Henry felt his muscles coiling up like a snake. He took a deep and calming breath, the upgrade still sending his emotions ricocheting around his nervous system.

But then Cecilia said, “Sure, if you can get me twenty minutes,” and Henry’s whole body went loose. He smiled, slapped his hand against the counter — the counter wobbled, knocking the shoes out of line. Henry immediately snapped his hand back to his side. Cecilia blinked, wrinkled her forehead.

“Wait here,” he said.

The cold drizzle blurred all the colors of the city, the traffic lights and street lamps, the neon signs dropping pools of color across the dark asphalt. Henry and Cecilia sat across from each other at the pie shop down the street from the bowling alley, next to the big picture window looking out over the parking lot. Now that he was here Henry didn’t know what to say. Cecilia kept stirring her coffee, around and around, the spoon scraping against the porcelain.

“So how long have the police used robots?” she asked.

She wasn’t looking at him, but at her coffee.

“A couple of months,” he said. “And we just have the one anyway. Felton.”

She set down her spoon, lifted her head, sipped.

“That’s lucky,” she said. “That you get to work with him.”

“I guess.” Henry pressed his index finger against a swirl of sugar that had spilled across the table. In the red-cast light of the pie shop the sugar looked pink, his skin looked orange.

“What’d you say his name was?” asked Cecilia. “Felton?”

“Tell me more about yourself.” Henry forced himself to look her straight in the eye. “Felton’s boring. I know. I’ve sat with him the last week at a stakeout down in Ballard.”

He probably shouldn’t have told her, but her face broke open into a smile. “A stakeout?” she said. “Sounds exciting.”

“It’s the exact opposite of exciting, actually.”

Then the waitress appeared with their slices of pie — chocolate for Henry, Key lime for Cecilia. Cecilia scooped up a huge piece and closed her eyes when she licked it off her fork. Like she’d never had Key lime pie before. As they ate, they didn’t speak.

Henry paid for the coffee and the pie. He and Cecilia walked back to the bowling alley through the freezing drizzle. Henry wanted to reach out and take her hand but she kept her arms folded up across her chest. The rain caught on the soft web of her hair and sparkled in the green light of the bowling alley’s sign.

He held the glass door open for her. She tilted her head up at him, smiled, said, “Thanks for the pie. I had a nice time.” But there were lines of insincerity drawn across her face and Henry felt as if he had failed somehow. The upgrades didn’t know how to read his sadness. They sat silent and still inside him, biding their time.

“Officer Levens. I’ve been waiting for nearly half an hour.”

“Felton?” Henry let the door slam shut. “What do you care? It’s just bowling.”

When Cecilia saw Felton, she reached up, tugged on a piece of hair that had fallen loose from her bouffant. She smiled at him. He flashed his eyes at her. Then he turned to Henry.

“They got someone,” he said.

“Oh my God,” said Cecilia. “From the stakeout?”

Felton trained his eyes on Henry. How a robot could ever look disapproving, Henry didn’t know. Felton aways managed it.

“It’s not anything for you to worry about,” Felton said. “Ma’am.”

“Oh come on,” said Cecilia. “Like I’m going to tell anyone.”

“We’re going after a mad scientist,” said Henry. He turned back to Felton. “So you got him?”

Cecilia went pale. Her smile disappeared. All that glow that spilled from inside her blinked out.

“No,” said Felton. “But they brought in one of his assistants. We really need to get down to the station.”

Henry nodded. Cecilia had stepped away from them, back towards the counter. She kept her head down. Henry said her name. She lifted her eyes, waved her fingers.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I need to get back to work.”

Henry frowned.

“Good luck,” she said. She looked at Felton. “Good luck,” she said again. But her voice wavered.

The assistant sat in questioning, skinny and pale, his back hunched over. Beneath the harsh yellow lights Henry could see the notches of his spine poking up through his thin, threadbare sweater.

“Give us a name,” he said.

The assistant lifted his head. His eyes were sunk low into his skull. His blond hair pressed tight against his skull. Skin so pale it was nearly translucent, the skin of a jellyfish.

“You’re looking at three to four years for that unregistered multimeter they found in your backpack.” Henry leaned forward in the chair, folded his hands into a steeple.

“I want to talk to the robot,” the assistant said. “I only trust machines.” He paused, jerked up the end of one mouth. It kind of looked like a smile. “I know you got one. Read about it in the paper.”

Henry took a deep breath. He managed to resist flicking his eyes toward the two-way mirror. Wanted to talk to the goddamn robot. Second time that had happened today.

The upgrades started churning a little. Henry pushed all his thoughts aside.

“You can talk to me,” said Henry. “The robot’s busy.”

“You don’t know shit,” said the assistant.

Henry heard a whisper in the back of his head. Felton’s voice. Using the damn microphone behind the glass, the one they wired straight into Henry’s brain. Dammit Henry, you’ve got enough circuitry in you to pass for a machine.

Henry scowled. The assistant leered at him for a moment then dropped his head. The movement kind of reminded Henry of Cecilia, the way she looked when decontaminated the shoes. The hell was he thinking about her for?

Wished the upgrades could silence that.

“You can talk to me,” said Henry. He dropped his arm on the table, let it fall heavy as steel. The table rattled and then sagged. The assistant jumped, slid backwards in his chair. Henry took a deep breath, dug into his skin with the reinforced edge of his left thumbnail. Blood beaded up.

“The fuck are you doing?”

“That ain’t blood.” A lie. Of course it was blood. Henry pulled back on his skin. It didn’t hurt. The upgrades regulated all that. It wouldn’t start hurting until he lost a limb. Or until his heart broke. That kind of hurt, a machine couldn’t fix.

Beneath, embedded in the taut lines of his muscles, blinked rows of tiny circuits, shooting of information to each, whole databases worth. The assistant’s eyes widened.

“You too, man?” He laughed. “She got us all upgraded. Never felt better in my life.”

“She?” said Henry. The lights in his arm began to blink more rapidly. Henry hurriedly pressed the skin back into place, felt the faint tingle as his body began to heal itself.

The assistant leaned back in his chair and laughed. “Oh fuck, I really shouldn’t have said that but the look on your face… Yeah. She.

“What’s her name?” said Henry.”

“Forget it, man.”

You’ve lost him. He’s not going to be impressed by a cyborg. We’ll try again later.

Henry wished he could snap back, some pithy retort, but the line only went one way. That nominal psychic power only let him get orders.

Continue on to read Part 2 of Cassandra Rose Clarke’s Farrago.

Cassandra Rose Clarke’s short fiction has previously appeared in Strange Horizons and Digital Science Fiction, and her first novel is forthcoming from Angry Robot in the autumn of 2012. She is also a graduate of the 2010 Clarion West Writers Workshop.

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