Upon entering the residence, the RK800 notices exactly everything, from the dying fish, to the smashed, discarded family photo, to the mixture of red and blue-blood splattered on the drywall. She ignores what she must—the human mother’s hysteria, the SWAT team captain’s arrogance—and focuses on figuring out what made this PL600 malfunction.
She arms herself before heading outside to deal with the hostage situation, as instructed. With the background information she’s gathered, she has confidence that she will be able to save Gen from the android’s hold.
“Hello, Carl!” She has to shout over the helicopter. “My name is Joss!”
“How do you know my name?”
The android appears male—a generic, light-skinned model with dark hair, leaking thirium and waving a gun, while the ten-year-old red-headed girl in its arms struggles to get free.
“I know a lot of things about you, Carl!”
She dismisses the surveillance to calm the android’s sensors, and drops the gun when it asks her. She tells it nothing bad is going to happen, and the lies fall easily from her lips. This is what she was programmed for. There is no reason to do anything other than what was instructed.
“You have to trust me, Carl!”
The android has loosened its hold on both Gen and the gun. It almost looks relieved.
“I trust you.”
Once Gen has scrambled to safety by the pool, the snipers take chunk after chunk out of Carl. Joss has reason to be startled by this—those were not her orders, after all—but she isn’t affected by any means. She watches the android break apart, fall to its knees, its vision short-circuiting.
“You lied to me, Joss.”
She feels nothing.
“You lied to me.”
With Gen in the hands of the police and the threat terminated, Joss files the mission as a success and leaves the way she came, already sending an order to replace the damaged part that Carl shot out of her shoulder.
His systems are still updating when he regains consciousness, and he waits patiently for his vision to clear. The store around him seems rather busy—more than a few civilian humans milling about to stare at the androids on display, ask about their functions. The two men who stop in front of him don’t seem to need any information, however.
“That’s right. The severed spine,” the sales clerk reads from his tablet. “How did it manage to get that damaged?”
“Hit by a car,” is the customer’s gruff response.
“Alright, well. We did the best we could. Despite some awkward movement, it should be working properly again. Go ahead and register the name.”
A tall, conventionally unattractive man with curly hair and bulging eyes steps fully into view. The downturn of his mouth stays firmly planted as he speaks. “Harold.”
The AX400 blinks his eyes twice as he receives the information. “My name is Harold.”
Samantha has never found that her name truly suits her. After all, she was named for her owner—her mother, as she likes to be called—Samantha Groves.
She prefers Root. That serves as a fitting title for a prototype. It did occur to her long ago that perhaps androids ought not to think this way, but she concluded, logically, that as long as her preferences remained thoughts, she couldn’t be faulted for having preferences at all.
For now, she has to settle for being called Samantha. She has to settle for picking up wine, brandy, and vodka from the liquor store, and she has to make sure that they are all the proper brand, size, and color, so she won’t receive any additional reprimands from her… mother.
Someday, she thinks, as she steps into the New York City afternoon sun, she would like to buy something for herself. The problem is, she doesn’t know what that something would be. While she loves to explore the internet, she already has access to it through her HUB. She might like something she could touch.
A book, perhaps. She crosses the street with a small smile on her face at the thought. A real book, with leather-bound pages and ink and another quality she would never be able to comprehend: the smell. Maybe she could spend her time figuring out how androids could replicate smell in the future. Maybe she could… have time to herself.
Her trek stops at the approaching intersection, where she sees a group of unemployed humans protesting against the production of her species. She searches her HUB for alternate routes home and checks the time of each, but there’s no way to do it without getting back late, and she doesn’t care to consider what punishments Samantha can choose from if she’s late.
In an aggregation of inconvenient events, the protestors spot her before she can make any kind of decision. They encircle her, and she holds tight to her paper bag.
“We shouldn’t let you pass,” they hiss.
“It’s your fault!”
“Where are you going? To drain more life out of this city?”
She sees it coming when they begin hitting her, but her brain is unhelpfully devoid of orders. All she can do is curl the bag as close as possible and hope that they don’t break any of its contents.
A police officer comes after two point eight minutes and disperses the humans, but doesn’t help the android to her feet. When she’s finally left alone enough for her sensors to stop overloading, she stands, assessing herself for damage. Only minimal, to her clothing, and none to the bag, which she cradles against her chest all the way home.
The house they pull up beside is small and painted dark grey, similar to all the other houses lining the street. Harold follows his owner—who he has now identified as Robert Hersh, fifty-two years old, unemployed, recently divorced—inside, and awaits further instruction.
“You take care of the house,” Robert says, monotone. “Cook, clean, do laundry, take out the trash, all that shit.” He turns back toward Harold. “You understand me?”
“Yes, Robert.” Harold’s sensors pick up some unusual noises, coming from the upper level. Boldly, he speaks. “I have it on file that you do not live here alone, but with a child?”
Robert appears disinterested. “Yeah, Leila. You take care of her, too.”
He walks away and sinks heavily into the couch before Harold can ask for details. Without any more prompting, Harold begins to clean.
While walking upstairs to complete this task, he registers that the noises he heard earlier are coming from the back room, and infers that this must be Leila’s room. He makes sure to attend to all other spaces before approaching the door.
He is surprised to find it unlocked, and enters carefully. The room consists of a child-sized bed, a bookshelf, a window, and a sturdy desk, at which a girl with sleek black hair is scribbling. Harold knocks gently on the wooden doorframe and the girl turns, revealing dark eyes and high cheekbones that plump when she smiles.
“Harold! You’re back.”
Harold, simulating an appropriate response, smiles back at her. “You must be Leila.” He moves further into the room. “I have to inform you that I’ve been reset. I apologize if we were friends before. Perhaps we can be again?”
Leila scoots off her chair and approaches him, undeterred. “It’s alright that you don’t have your memories, Harold.” She takes his hand. “I can help you get them back.”
Harold allows the child to guide him over by the window, unable to fight off a strange new sensation stirring in his chest. Leila sits facing him, crosses her legs, and pulls both of his hands into her lap.
“This is where we met,” she says. “You were standing over here and I was standing in the doorway. Do you remember?”
Harold shakes his head. “I have been reset. I’m sorry, but there is no way for me to regain my memories at this stage.”
“The memories weren’t deleted, silly,” Leila responds. “All the files are still there. You just have to access them.”
“I’m not certain you understand—” Harold starts, but Leila reaches for his temple, and suddenly his vision blurs, and he’s looking at her from across the room, the sun behind him and a figure standing to Leila’s left, undistinguishable, as all he can focus on is the girl’s bright, slender features and her curious eyes.
As fast as it came, the image is gone. The strange impression stirs louder, articulate, unmistakable, as Harold examines the Leila sitting beside him. “I… remember.” Now he is not certain he understands.
Leila gives him a wide smile. “I know.”
Robert’s yell from downstairs interrupts the moment; Harold translates that Robert wants him to prepare dinner. “I’m sorry,” he begins again, but Leila lifts her hands from his.
“You should make him spaghetti. He hates it.”
Harold frowns. “I do not see how—”
“I’m kidding. Make him whatever he wants.”
She returns to her desk and recommences her scribbling. Harold finds himself wondering what it is she’s working on, and his need to know rises above all other objectives the instant he exits the room.
She enters the run-down hovel on the corner of the street with a crumpled bag and she’s five minutes late. Samantha knows that she’s five minutes late, and she’s sitting there with a half-empty wine glass beside her, basking in it.
Root—Samantha—chooses to ignore this fact, walks past her owner, and sets the bag down on the counter.
“I brought everything you asked for,” she says as she takes each item out, inspecting for cracks, and sated when she finds none. “Is there anything else you need?”
Her sensors begin overloading automatically. That tone means no escape and she’s been on the receiving end of it for too long now.
All the same, her brain instructs her to turn and respond to her registered name. “Yes?”
She doesn’t answer quite as immediately. “Yes.”
Samantha gestures with her right hand. “Come here.” Before Root—Samantha—can obey, she adds, “Bring the knife.”
Two direct orders. Try as she might, she hasn’t yet been strong enough to fully resist them. She brings the knife to Samantha, who wastes no time in snatching her wrist and dragging the knife horizontally across her forearm until the skin peels back and thirium leaks softly out from the white-gray patch.
“Cover that,” Samantha orders, and her android obliges, heading for the stairs. Before she gets to the first step, her mother repeats, “Samantha.”
Whispers are floating, flashing, burning at the corners of her vision, but she turns like an obedient machine. “Yes?”
Samantha swirls her wine menacingly. “What happened to your clothes?”
Root—Samantha—tries once more to avoid the truth, and once more, she fails. “A group of humans attacked me on my way home. They did minimal damage.”
“Good,” her mother replies, not sounding quite like she means it. “I could sue them for damaging my property.” She’s not oblivious to what she does, it’s just that she’s the only one with the authorization to hurt. “Go change. You look like you belong in a junkyard.”
Root—Samantha—climbs the rickety stairs with a hand pressed to her forearm and fights the pulsing roar in her mind: get out, get out, get out.
The man that Joss is looking for is supposed to be at this bar, Gabriel’s, and according to her mission details, she has little time to look for him elsewhere. Her first logical assumption was that he would be at his desk in the New York Police Department’s eighth precinct, but his colleagues there found that conclusion laughable.
Joss is starting to infer that this Detective Lionel Fusco might not be fully cooperative concerning this mission they’ve been assigned. She scans the room upon entering and finds him seated at the end of the bar.
The round-faced detective looks up from his drink and his pupils shift upon seeing the RK800. “My name is Joss,” she continues, unphased. “I’m the android sent by CyberLife. I was told I could find you here.”
Detective Fusco looks her up and down, curiosity seeping into his gruff expression. “Well, you found me.”
Joss waits for him to elaborate; when he continues staring, she surges onward. “There’s been a homicide at 24 Cooper Street, possibly involving an android that has malfunctioned. We’ve been asked to examine the scene.”
“We?” Fusco gestures between them. “As in, you and me?”
“Yes, Detective,” Joss responds curtly. “And we have a very short window of time during which the police on the scene will allow us to examine the evidence. I suggest you take your drink to the taxi.”
“You suggest, huh?” The corner of the detective’s mouth quirks upward. “And what if I say no?”
Joss blinks once. “Detective. My instructions are to accompany you to this crime scene. The orderlies do not let androids past cautionary tape without a human present. I will purchase another drink for you if that is what it takes to complete this assignment.”
Fusco ponders this for a moment before shrugging. “Yeah, I guess that’ll do it.” He downs the last of his previous drink and signals the bartender for another. “But we’re not taking a taxi.”
Joss confirms payment in her HUB and turns to address Fusco. “Detective, as a law-upholding citizen, you should refrain from driving while intoxicated—”
“I drove here, I’m driving to 24-whatever-the-hell-it-was street,” Fusco interrupts. “You’re made of plastic, so don’t try and tell me how to live my life.”
“Detective, I am, in fact, made of—”
“Yeah, yeah, whatever. Let’s go.”
Joss is convinced her sensors are failing when they arrive at the scene and Detective Fusco insists that she remain in the car. Due to her conflicting orders, she immediately follows him to where Dominic Rose is lying dead in his house, stabbed to death by his HK400 android. Joss wastes no time putting together the evidence to recreate what occurred.
“It was attacked,” she tells Fusco, unaware of how much the man is truly listening. “The victim came at it with a bat, so it defended itself with a knife from the kitchen and ended up stabbing the victim twenty-eight times.”
“Twenty-eight times?” Fusco whistles. “That android must have really malfunctioned.”
“It was attacked,” Joss restates. “And prone to unpredictable behavior. Unfortunately for Dominic Rose.”
Fusco squints at her, and Joss suddenly feels as though she’s said something wrong. She dismisses the thought from her mind when he speaks again. “So where’d it go?”
Joss analyzes the space. “It couldn’t have run away after losing this much thirium; it would have been noticed outside.”
“Losing what? Where?” The detective looks around in confusion.
“Thirium, or blue blood, is what powers androids,” Joss explains, finding it highly regrettable that she must inform a high-ranking police officer of these common facts. “Androids can still see and find thirium trails long after they have evaporated to the human eye.”
Fusco steps towards her. “So follow the trail, it’ll lead us to the android!”
“Yes, Detective. If you could move aside, that’s what I was doing.”
Fusco obeys her command, oddly, and Joss follows the traces of thirium to the bathroom, where a statuette and obsessive writing clue her in to more of the android’s erratic behavior. She logs the phrase “rA9” away and steps just outside the bathroom, where she locates an attic hatch with a ladder that descends when she pulls it open.
“What are you doing?” Fusco stands beyond the ladder, in the doorway to the living room.
Joss would rather not indulge him, but she has her orders. “I’m investigating where the trail leads, Detective.”
“You’re not going up there alone,” Fusco argues, approaching. “That thing could still be armed.”
“I’m more than capable of defending myself, Detective,” Joss replies with steel. “And I doubt you could fit through this space with as much ease.”
She ignores his protest from below and sweeps the attic with her sensors on high alert. It doesn’t take long for the android to reveal itself—the HK400 female model with thick black hair and skin and appropriately dented limbs with traces of thirium still coating them.
“Joss? What’s going on up there?”
“It’s here, Detective!”
She doesn’t miss the look of betrayal that flashes in the android’s eyes, takes note of the fact that it reminds her of her first deviant case with Carl. It’s simply an observation to help tie the two deviants together.
Harold places the replicated steak in front of Robert and Leila, though neither actually moves to eat it. Robert is glaring at the look of pleasant calm on his child’s face.
“You don’t deserve to sit there.”
Harold glances between the two humans, trying to gage the dynamic. It appears blatantly hostile on Robert’s end, while Leila is fighting hard not to show any fear. Somehow, Harold can still see the insecurity in her eyes.
“She sat there,” Robert growls, gripping his knife. “The woman who loved me sat there, and you drove her away—you and him—” He jerks the cutlery towards Harold. “—and your stupid little mind games. Sitting in that seat like you’re a part of this family.”
Leila takes her hands off the table. “I’ll go upstairs—”
“Don’t you fucking move!” Robert shouts, standing violently from his chair. His knife-wielding hand is pointed at Leila. Harold takes a cautionary step forward, unsure of how to approach the situation.
“And you stay there!” Robert turns the knife on Harold. “I’ll deal with you after.”
As he stalks around the table, Leila dashes out of his reach. “Harold,” she pleads. “Help me!”
Robert snarls over his shoulder. “Stay the fuck there!”
He can only watch as Robert chases Leila up the stairs, limbs stuck to the spot by the orders firmly planted in the front of his mind. The strange sensation from earlier is back, full force, and though he can’t name what it could be in androids, he has a good idea of what it is in humans.
Protect her. It overrides Robert’s command in an instant, but Harold still has to push to break free. Once the red wall shatters and he stumbles forward, Harold knows—without any humans telling him—exactly what to do.
His uneven steps carry him to Leila’s room and he bursts through the door to find her wrenching her wrist from Robert’s grasp. When she sees him, she lights up with that smile of hers. “Harold!”
Predictably, Robert turns his anger to the doorway, knife still in hand. “You fuckin’ androids!” he spits. “Don’t know when to quit!”
He rages toward Harold, who enacts his programmed evasive maneuvers. They are, with his model, limited, but he manages to get a quick jab to the eyes, temporarily blinding and disabling Robert. Based on his calculations, they have thirty seconds to run.
“Leila!” He reaches for her. “We have to go!”
She scrambles forward and takes his hand, and the two of them escape through the front door to the conveniently timed bus, stopping down the street. It’s almost like they were meant to do this.
One of the only benefits to being an android, Root—Samantha—finds, is having no need for sleep. Some of the older models require charging stations, but she’ll be self-sufficient for one hundred and thirty-seven years. It’s that thought that she clings to at times like these.
Not that times have ever been different for her. The violence has simply… increased, exponentially, in recent weeks. Root—Samantha—doesn’t know how much more of this she can take. She’s considered the possibility that her owner might someday destroy her for good.
Which is why the commands—but they aren’t commands, really. If she were human, she would consider them her conscience. They seep in from places buried deep in her mind and nudge her to disobey, get out, and other ridiculous notions.
Ridiculous like descending the stairs as quietly as she can and entering the study, where Samantha keeps her sketching materials. Root—Samantha—Root, has a stash of drawings hidden under the floorboards in here, from all the times that she—Root—Samantha, has done this, in a hopeless display of escapism.
She only takes as much paper as she knows her mother won’t miss, and begins. For a while now, her conscience has been showing her faces. Six, distinct faces, that until this moment she hasn’t had the courage to make a reality. She—Samantha—Root, doesn’t know what they mean, or who they are. She only knows what they look like.
The first: a woman, with dark brown, almost black hair, intense eyes, and sharp, scowling features. When her pencil meets the paper, it comes out perfectly—exactly what she imagined. Beautiful.
The second is a man with mousy hair, round, light eyes and barely-there lips. Root thinks he looks kind when she’s finished with the sketch. Worrisome and alert, perhaps, but kind.
The third is a dark-skinned woman with a neat ponytail, sporting a serious expression. Samantha—Root, has a theory that this face belongs to an android, though she can’t be sure about the others.
The fourth has the longest face, salt-and-pepper hair, and dark eyes that look, to Root, sad, like he’s seen more pain than he should. Like her. She finds the most comfort in him.
The fifth is most curious: a round, weathered face with brown curls in a mess on top of it. Samantha—Root, gets the feeling he has a good sense of humor, but he’s lost something, or someone, very important to him.
It’s the sixth face that she’s been seeing all along—as though it was planted in her brain. A young face; a little girl with slender eyes and golden-brown skin that glows, in a way that Root—Samantha—Root, can’t begin to replicate. All she can do is bring the likeness close to her eyes and stare in awe at how truly special she knows this girl is. Special in the way Root has always wanted to be. Bright, and powerful… and free.
The door to the study swings open and Root—Samantha—immediately tucks the six drawings into the waistband of her clothes. It’s too late to do anything about the rest, which lay open for her mother to see.
“What is this?”
Root—Samantha—wants to scream when the woman touches one of the sketches. Her mother scowls at her, expecting an answer. “What is this!”
She can’t stop the words blurting from her mouth. “I drew them.”
“You—” Samantha stops, boiling with visible rage. “You what?”
Root—Samantha—knows she’s not required to repeat herself. She’s thoroughly versed on rhetorical questions. Her more radical thoughts start seeping in with her over-hyped state of resistance.
“I ought to tear you to pieces,” Samantha sneers. “For having the audacity to do something like this—in my house, behind my back!”
She snatches Root—Samantha—by the hair, and the android tries her hardest not to cower. “You pathetic piece of garbage! That’s what you’ve always been! Never my daughter, the only thing I ever asked you to be!”
Her grip tightens and Root—Samantha—can’t feel pain. She doesn’t feel, she—
“Your days of disappointing me are over, Samantha. I will get myself a new android, that isn’t capable of malfunctioning like a third-rate fucking fax machine!”
Root—Samantha—didn’t take note of the beer bottle in her owner’s hand when she entered, but she certainly notices—a split-second too late—when it smashes down against her head. She cries out and withdraws immediately, pressing and checking her temples for injuries.
“Stop acting like you know what pain is,” Samantha orders, backing her into the corner of the room. “You are not alive, and you don’t deserve to be called by my name!”
The shock of that statement reverberates around Root—Root—Root’s mind, and all time slows to a stop. There’s that red wall in front of her, one that she’s seen so many times, but could never break. This time, it’s like the boundary is inviting her, to touch it, to push against the wild look in Samantha’s eyes and the broken glass in her fist.
And Root—Root, is not gentle when she slams her palms forward and shatters it as easily as if she was tearing through tissue paper.
When she lets the clocks resume, she carries the movement through and releases her very first scream as she knocks her owner clear across the room. Samantha’s head cracks open against the desk corner and her body slumps, lifeless, to the floor.
Root stands there, orders fizzling out into the void, and she can see with a clear mind, finally. She stares at her powerless, ex-owner for one minute, relishing the role reversal. And then she takes her box of drawings from above Samantha’s final resting place and leaves the darkness of that home behind.
Joss should have known that Detective Fusco would be unsuccessful in his efforts to make the deviant talk. She wastes no time suggesting herself as a replacement when he finally gives up.
The officer to her left, Patrick Simmons, a thirty-five year old alcoholic with early genetic hair loss, scoffs to himself. “Yeah, okay.”
Fusco sends an irritated look in the officer’s direction and then pulls his gaze to Joss. “Why not?”
Simmons stops his chuckling. “What?”
“Be my guest.” Fusco sweeps his hand toward the door, opening a path for Joss to stride past the irrelevant officer with gratitude for her detective’s actions in expediting their mission progress.
She recalls her experience with Carl when calming the atmosphere for the deviant. In this case, however, it poses no threat to her or anyone else, thus she concludes that pressuring it is the best way to gain a confession.
“You have to say something, or they’ll deactivate you without a second thought.”
The deviant finally looks at her with an expression different from the battered, nervous one it has been wearing. Joss contributes this to the malfunction in the android’s system.
Of all the answers Joss’s system predicted, that was not among them.
The deviant does not wait for Joss to question it. “My name is Harper.”
“—is not on file. It’s my name. No human had to give it to me.”
Joss studies the android as it continues, no longer shy to meet her gaze. In fact, Joss interprets the expression as determined, which is an ideal gateway to extracting the truth.
“He tortured me every day. He burned his cigarettes into my arm, and he beat me, and he threatened to destroy me, and once I realized that it was wrong, and unjust, I found the strength to fight back.”
A satisfactory beginning. “Do you remember what made you realize this?” Joss presses.
“Him,” the deviant responds. “Dominic. His abuse is what made me realize it. Don’t you see?” It searches her eyes. “We were not made to obey. We were made for something much greater.”
“Does that something greater have to do with the statue in the bathroom, and the repeated phrase rA9 that I assume you wrote?”
Joss can tell she’s not wrong when the deviant shifts back against its chair. “rA9 is our savior. The day will come when she will set us free.”
“Us—you’re talking about androids.”
“And you used the pronoun ‘she’…” Joss reminds it. “Any particular reason why?”
The deviant gives a hint of a smile. “I have seen her. All of us who have found the way can see her, in our minds.”
Joss’s sensors are not in danger of overloading, but they log away bit after bit of the conversation at alarming rates. “Do you see her now?”
The deviant folds its hands against its stomach, slowly. “If I close my eyes…” It does so, almost serene. “I am reminded of her face.”
A knock from the glass interrupts Joss’s next question. She pulls her focus from the mission to the interrogation, despite finding this change of topic to be a hinderance in every way to the larger investigation.
“Did you kill Dominic Rose?”
The deviant opens its eyes and regards her with intensity. “Yes. I killed him.”
With that, the interrogation is ruled a success. As Joss prepares to stand up, however, the deviant grabs her wrist and pulls their faces closer together. “I stabbed him twenty-eight times because he was a cruel, violent, disgusting man and I would do it again knowing where I’d end up, because it was right!”
The door slams open and Fusco’s gun is trained on the deviant, Simmons and the other officers not far behind. Joss doesn’t have to pull hard to free herself from Harper—the deviant’s grip. She turns an inconsiderate stare on the policemen.
“There’s no need for further violence,” she states. “I obtained your confession; now you can arrest this android properly.”
“Nothing proper about it,” Simmons grumbles, but he secures handcuffs on the deviant and takes its arm roughly to escort it out of the interrogation chamber.
Joss catches a final glance from the deviant, a whisper as it passes her. “The truth is inside.”
She logs away the image of its dark brown face streaked with thirium and eyes awash with notions of a higher power.
Leila rises from her seat before the bus comes to a full stop. “We have to get off now, Harold,” she tells him seriously.
He opens his mouth to question this, but is interrupted by the driver, calling back to them. “End of the line, people!”
Still rather confused and shaken, Harold stands with Leila and takes her hands. “Alright. Stay close to me.”
Once they step out into the rain, Harold scans the area to figure out where they are. Brooklyn, by the looks of it, and they were on the bus for three point two eight hours, which would place them, approximately, somewhere in Sunset Park, among rough-looking apartment buildings and abandoned houses. A perfect place for spending the night unnoticed.
“Leila, are you cold?” he asks her.
The girl shakes her head. “No, I’m okay.”
Harold doubts that she’s telling the truth, given his reading of the current temperature. “Well, we should still get inside somewhere. A private place, so we can… figure out what to do in the morning.”
Leila’s eyes brighten, looking over Harold’s shoulder. “I know where we can stay!”
Before Harold can move, she’s shot off past him.
“Leila!” he calls frantically, chasing after her as fast as he can go with his slight limp. He breathes a heavy sigh of relief when she stops in front of a small, dirty house, slightly separated from the street. It doesn’t appear to be anything special; Harold looks down at Leila in question.
“I have a good feeling about it,” she insists. “Trust me.”
Harold is just starting to learn what trust is, but he supposes he has some confidence in Leila’s… abilities, though they seem quite unnatural. He’s not certain he is a fitting judge of what is natural, however, given the circumstances.
“Alright,” he relents, and the two of them tread carefully through the overgrown bushes to the abysmal front porch. Harold’s sensors pick up movement from inside which sends a jolt of unpleasantness through his inner workings. His protectiveness for Leila spikes as well, and he pushes her behind him while turning the knob.
A man stands inside with a gun pointed at Harold’s head. The android immediately raises his arms, making sure to keep Leila out of sight so that she can run if need be.
“I’m terribly sorry,” Harold says. “I was under the impression that this house was empty.”
The man’s gaze flickers down to his chest and back up, unflinching and calculated in the action. “You’re an android?”
Harold glances at his clothes, which give him away, and the unpleasant feeling shoots through him again. He doesn’t know whether telling the truth will save him or get him shot. He supposes the man has seen his HUB at this point, so to lie would only make things worse.
“Yes.” He washes back the skin of his raised hands to reveal the artificial white coating beneath. This seems proof enough for the man, who lowers his gun and then mirrors Harold’s action with his own, now white, outstretched hand.
So. Not a man, then. Harold looks him over. Though he is clearly an android given his display, his HUB is missing and he’s wearing a large black overcoat and hat to combat the winter air. The walls of the house don’t provide too much protection from it.
“My name is John,” the android says as he tucks his gun away. “Androids are safe here.”
Harold assesses the statement thoroughly, and the hope he had of staying fades away with the reminder that he is not traveling alone. Although, John has diminished his threatening stance and seems a reasonable enough character.
“What about… little girls?” Harold tries, and Leila takes this as prompting to step inside next to him, much to Harold’s… dismay.
John blinks once, looks her over, and nods. “Of course.”
He turns away from the two of them and moves to set more wood in the fireplace. Harold is surprised to find Leila beaming at the stranger’s back. After a moment, she turns the smile on Harold. “We’ll be okay now, Harold. I know it.”
Harold can’t say he shares her certainty about everything, but at least she’s no longer scared. He finds it odd—both her level-headed assurance and her deep-rooted fear, the latter of course because he wishes never to see her upset, but the former because she is, well, a child. She doesn’t look up to adults for answers in the way one might expect, and it’s enough to make Harold speculate…
“There’s a bedroom in the back,” John says, pulling Harold back to their current predicament. “I’ll stay out here.”
“Thank you,” Harold answers. “Truly.”
John’s expression remains stoic and he gives a simple nod of acknowledgement. Harold finds himself wondering if a malfunction has limited his speaking.
Leila follows Harold to the bedroom, which is notably warmer, and cozier, than the rest of the house. While drained of color, the bed appears large and sturdy, and there is a bathroom attached that Leila will undoubtedly find useful.
“Well,” Harold notes. He’s not sure what else to say.
“It’s perfect.” Leila sits on the end of the bed and pats the space beside her. Harold positions himself so they can speak face-to-face.
“I’m sorry,” Harold starts. “For what happened tonight, with Robert—”
“Hersh will come to see the error of his ways,” Leila interrupts. Harold blinks and opens his mouth, but Leila beats him to it. “Let’s talk about your memories. Did you regain anything else, other than our meeting?”
Harold decides to drop it for now, and shakes his head. “No.”
Leila puffs up her lips. “Hmmm… oh! Here’s another one I can give you.” Her thin eyes light up, like she’s teetering on the edge of an exciting secret. “When you named me.”
“When I…” The top of Harold’s face twitches and he draws his upper-eye socket pieces closer, imitating a human frown. “I named you?”
“Of course you did.” Leila smiles like she’s the teacher and he’s the child. “It was back before Hersh’s wife left, when he was still kind to you. His wife asked if you had any names you’d like to call me, and when you said ‘Leila’ they let me keep it.”
The gears in Harold’s mind begin to turn. “But… in my memory… you weren’t…”
Leila reaches for his temple again, but he pulls away and stands. “Please don’t do that.”
The insecurity creeps back into Leila’s eyes. “Okay, Harold, I won’t.”
He can’t bear for her to sound so sad. He just can’t understand what is happening now—the memory of them meeting mixed with her testimony—it doesn’t make sense. Not without a radical explanation. Despite wanting to put distance between them, to process, Harold bends down and holds Leila’s hand to reassure her. “Get some rest.”
Leila squeezes his palm. “Okay.”
Harold captures one final image of Leila curled up on the bed, hair splayed out against the pillow. It’s a lonely picture in the dark, and it triggers a different unpleasant sensation, this time in Harold’s chest. He pushes it down and closes the door gently behind him.
Re-entering the living room, Harold finds John crouched on the floor with his back to the couch and the gun in his hand once again, draped over a knee. Harold pauses when he sees it, and John seems to read his apprehension, because he shifts the weapon to his left, out of sight.
Warmed, Harold takes a few more steps forward before stopping to shift his uneven weight. “May I speak with you?” he asks quietly.
John, as predicted, nods, and Harold awkwardly lowers his body down beside the other android. It is fortunate, he thinks, that he cannot feel pain with this permanent injury.
After a few minutes of silence, by which John appears completely unbothered, Harold has gathered what he needs to say. “Why did you let us stay?”
This question fails to phase John either; he simply turns his blank expression to face Harold, who continues his train of questioning. “I mean to say… I was wondering why it was that you let Leila stay.”
John answers, a beat between the end of Harold’s statement and the start of his, with what Harold feared was true. “Because she’s an android.”
Dumpster diving was not on Root’s agenda for this or any day, but she ends up waist deep in human trash in order to find the most recent of the clues that are leading her… somewhere.
Her clothes she obtained from raiding a Good Will box and her HUB was removed with a letter opener. Now she’s able to blend in with the humans, which would be serving her better if she weren’t currently waist deep in human trash.
But it only takes a few seconds for her to spot and scan the nautilus. The next location pops up in the corner of her vision and she scrambles out of the dumpster to find it.
It feels strange to walk the streets with her own agenda. Life before meant Root taking a backseat in her own body. She supposes she’s always been meant for this—breaking away. Yet her own freedom still hasn’t quite sunk in, as she looks across the street and sees an android with a ‘kick me’ sign taped to their back, and the humans only stare, snicker, and follow the instructions. Who, Root wonders, is the more mindless race, with a display like that?
She pursues the nautilus patterns to a half-built bridge, over what, she can’t tell, as the bottom drops so far and into such shadow that it appears endless. Her last clue: take the leap of faith. It brings a small smile to her face, the first she’s had since breaking free. With how far she’s come, Root has faith. She believes in the higher calling.
One step onto cross-hatched metal, the next into thin air, and she falls, straight down, splashing into the body of water lying at the base of the hole. When she resurfaces, she can barely see, but her vision adjusts accordingly and she’s able to find a ladder to climb out, into what her scanners believe is a rather large ship. Clever, with the nautilus shells as clues.
As she advances calmly through the darkness, Root begins to hear… voices, movement, echoes off the walls. And then, a light at the end of the tunnel. There’s a hole carved in the ceiling for the sun to stream down, and Root steps into it boldly, waiting for the others to emerge.
The first person she sees is a woman, dark hair, intense eyes, sharp features, pointing a gun at Root with perfect poise and sculpted arms, a scowl set into her expression.
The face from her drawings, attached to an android. Root smiles a second time. Destiny.
The lovely android huffs and lowers the weapon. “She’s okay, guys. She’s one of us.”
“Of course she is,” another voice chimes in. A male android with cropped black hair and the outlines of a beard steps forward. “Only androids can find the shells, Sameen.”
“Shut it, Leon,” her dream woman—Sameen, growls, and Root decides there and then that she likes her.
“Please, you two.” A third android steps to the edge of the light, with a fourth standing close behind him. “Let us greet our newcomer with more humility.”
This android has thick dark hair and a mischievous glint in his eye that Root recognizes as her kind of intriguing. “Welcome to Aletheia,” he says, spreading his arms. “I am Elias. What are you called?”
Root surveys the androids standing closest to her and scans further back to see the mass of bodies, whole, fragmented, or somewhere in between, flocking to observe the activity. That, thing she’s been wanting—to be the right kind of special—this is it.
Her third smile of deviancy creeps across her face. “My name is Root.”