Tuesday, March 11: A waterfall cuts through the middle of a mountain road. The unit stands motionless, watching it plunge. Broken slabs of rock tumble along the foaming river, which roars down the hill above the road, spreads and sweeps across the slanted dark pavement and chipped yellow lines, and drops past the wreckage of a railing to the gorge beyond. It’s hypnotic. The unit wonders what it would be like to fly that way.
For no reason in its programming, it captures a frame from its visual input—drops flung into the air, glittering in the light—and tucks it away.
Click, it thinks.
The area has been roped off since early afternoon, and half a mile away, bored officers are redirecting traffic around the mountain and the river that hours ago tore free of its banks. It keeps coming. That’s why the unit stands there as if caught, muddy water pelting its metal torso and speckling its visual receptor panel, dripping from the tips of its reinforced triple-jointed fingers.
Sticks, leaves, and reddish dirt are swept along with the rush; the road to either side and the broken, lethal steel of the guardrail are gloriously splattered, dripping with the water the flood throws off. So is the unit. Usually the guardrails are grimy, but not today; for almost a yard in each direction of the cascade, the tattered metal is scrubbed bright, bright clean. It shines.
No traffic or pedestrians were caught when the deluge broke free. The unit’s only tasks are to scan the area, assess the damage, and remove the wreckage dragged down the river’s path before it’s swept loose again to cause more damage. Later, there will be the road to repave, the land to shore up, maybe people with nowhere left to go. But the long aftermath does not belong to the unit. Not anymore.
Another day, someone might have died. The unit has seen it happen, seen their heavy ruined bodies with the eyes gone empty and the way they lie like scrapped machines. There is nothing the unit can do to fix them.
The air is heavy with mist, and the sun is bright. Glimmering. The unit wants those ribbons of light inside its circuits.
“What’s the holdup?” calls the new operator, Gregory. He seems to resent being made to address the unit directly.
“Nothing.” It buries any other words and walks forward, feeling the tug at its back of the sturdy cable meant to keep it from being swept away, keep it anchored, safe, trapped. The water sprinkles and then bombards its support struts; mud squelches around its feet. Pushing its way through the current that shoves insistently at its body; it calculates force and angles.
Back at headquarters, Gregory reports in to Franklin, whom the unit is supposed to call Dr. Murray, in order to demonstrate respect for his assorted PhDs. Franklin wears rectangular glasses. He tilts his head down as they stand there, peering over the rims at the two of them.
“Send it through the industrial wash, and get someone to clean this up,” Franklin says, interrupting Gregory as he outlines their success. His nose is crinkled as he glances at the smears of dirt that have made their way from the unit’s casing to the floor, and he straightens his tie without seeming to realize he’s doing it. The unit wonders exactly how immaculate Franklin would look after doing the work the unit did today. “And it’ll need to be charged for tomorrow.”
The unit doesn’t wait for an order from Gregory. It pivots, aiming for maintenance. Splatters and trickles of muddy water mark its path. The unit likes the way they look on the blank linoleum. It takes the long way for no particular reason.
On the wash conveyor, as water bombards it and floods down its body, as mechanical scrubbing arms work brushes against its plates and into its crevices, as grayish, soapy water slips down around its feet and drains away—the unit remembers a human on a sunny day, floating on her back in an outdoor pool. Her hair spread out around her, dark and red. The water lapping at her sides.
She loved being outside more than anything. Less and less often, she said, they let her. Sometimes she wondered if they knew how she felt, if the gradual change was a kind of punishment. Of course they knew. They knew everything about her here; there was nothing that was only hers. That was when the unit pointed out that they didn’t know, weren’t capable of knowing, what she and it knew about each other. She smiled a little. “I guess you’re right.”
“Come in with me,” she called on that day. Her name was Catherine. She was the unit’s first assignment, back before it was repurposed. “It feels like flying.”
“I can’t,” it informed her. “I’d sink. Swimming is problematic for a being of my density.”
She laughed. Her eyes were closed against the sun.
The water is running clear, rinsing the cleanser from the unit’s joints and draining through the grated floor.
The unit charges most efficiently if it shuts down once it is plugged in for the night. Tonight, though, it only switches off the light behind its visual receptor panel and goes motionless. Few can tell the difference. It begins a scan of its code, lingering over data long ago saved.
Catherine was moved into residential care when she was fifteen. In some ways, she told the unit once, it felt like something she’d rehearsed for her whole life. When she’d been diagnosed with cerebral palsy at one and a half, her parents had brought in the professionals immediately, and they’d never really left. Case managers, nurses, therapists of all stripes—they’d been there when she’d struggled to walk, comforting her parents through her failure. They’d been there when she’d fought with her uncooperative mouth, and with others’ impatience and indifference and scorn, to speak and be understood. They’d been there when she’d struggled to focus in school, to cope with lights and sounds and textures, to understand the interactions of the people around her. New diagnoses had appeared in her file.
Maybe what was really a surprise was that her parents had waited as long as they had. Year by year, they’d cried, or they’d exploded in frustration, or they’d kept her wrapped up in an airless cocoon of supervision, or they’d written posts on the blog they thought she didn’t know about, bemoaning their family’s fate. And when she was fifteen, Catherine had tried to run away with a friend. She’d known even then that it was foolish, that there was almost no chance she would make it, but she told the unit later that she couldn’t help trying. She just wanted…she just wanted.
After that, it was predictable. Severe deficits in rational decision-making, risk assessment, and other cognitive skills. Lack of independence in activities of daily living. Distorted understanding of her own abilities. A danger to herself. The decision was made within a week.
Catherine said nothing as her parents grieved for the daughter they’d once believed they had. They bought books on establishing guardianship and choosing the right residential treatment for a disabled family member, attended long meetings with doctors and therapists and directors of beautiful and well-funded institutions, and signed the paperwork within months.
Eight years later, the facility began to invest in mechanical staff. Budget research had found that despite the hefty purchase price of this technology, it soon more than paid for itself. The unit was among the first generation, and it was assigned to Catherine.
They met on a brisk, chilly day when the leaves were just beginning to turn. It was beautiful out, but Catherine was in her room, the window open. “This will be your new helper, dear,” an orderly told her as he led the unit in. The unit focused on its new charge, her bright t-shirt, her elbows propped on the arms of her wheelchair, her hands fidgeting in and out of fists. She looked back at it, her gaze bright and intense, matching it stare for stare.
“Hello,” said the unit. “Pleased to meet you.”
“I’m Catherine,” she said. “What’s your name?”
But it didn’t have one.
They spent everyday together. Weeks, months. “Let’s go outside,” she said sometimes, and they did, and she floated in the pool while it let its legs hang in the water. It looked at the way its feet were distorted underneath the surface and felt the strangeness when it swung its legs.
“I don’t feel good,” she said sometimes, and they stayed inside and lay on the floor, talking about a thousand half-real things, their gazes brushing across the spiderwebbed cracks in the ceiling. Or went outside and sat on the ground against a tree, pulling up blades of grass until the surfaces of their hands were stained green, and didn’t talk at all.
The unit liked how she looked at it, actually looked at it. Other humans’ eyes skimmed over it like so much furniture. Sometimes it looked at chairs and tables and entertained the illogical worry that maybe they felt the same way it did. Sometimes the unit spent spare moments really looking at the things around it, just in case.
Once, it admitted this to Catherine. She said she knew exactly what it meant.
Catherine’s facility was spacious, generously funded, and well maintained. It consisted of a handful of buildings on grassy land traced through with paved pathways. Inside, cheery posters decorated the walls, generic dark carpeting covered the floors, and communal spaces held plastic chairs and tables. Outside, clients were permitted to wander the grounds during daylight hours as long as they were supervised and in good standing. Those who had earned the privilege were allowed up to three slots of supervised computer time per week, though most had only earned one. Bedtime was at ten and wake-up at seven.
“Our family operates on a token economy,” explained the upbeat supervisor who showed the unit around the facility on its first day, though this information was already downloaded into its memory. “Good behavior earns our clients tokens, and tokens get them privileges—computer time, candy, more options and less supervision as they go about their days, since they’ve proved they can handle it. Or individual things on their behavior plans, like favorite foods. Behavior that’s not so good loses tokens and privileges—maybe a client doesn’t get computer time or time in the rec room, or they don’t get to sleep with teddy for a while. They have to demonstrate respect for those sharing their home and for the rules if they want those privileges, and if they can’t do that, there are penalties. It’s simple and effective.”
Catherine rarely had more than a handful of tokens. She was always late or missing, always ignoring instructions, always talking back. She roamed the facility at night, ignoring lights-out, and she broke into places she wasn’t supposed to go. Her file warned that she was a wanderer—turn your back for a moment, and she’d be gone. They’d never managed to cure her of the attempts to bolt. She never cooperated with her behavior plan, and there was also the problem of how slow she was to speak sometimes, to answer questions or put together words. Defiance, the nurses called it when they were out of patience. Close enough. Catherine never gathered many privileges. Still, beyond supervision, she was mostly left alone.
Restraint wasn’t supposed to be a punishment. “We only restrain our clients for reasons of security—if they’re a danger to themselves or others,” supervisors regularly assured anyone who happened to ask. But Catherine had seen people slammed into walls, thrown to the floor and pinned there by three security guards, for passively ignoring commands. Or refusing their medication. Or talking back. Or crying. She’d seen people dragged away weeping, forcibly stripped and thrown in isolation rooms. She’d heard them scream and sob in there for hours, begging to be released. “Not while you’re acting out like this,” the nurses would tell them through the window, exasperated. “If you’d just calm down…”
Catherine didn’t always want to take her pills. She said they made her sleepy and dull, made it hard to move, hard to think. So the unit let her decide. Allowing her this was against its orders, and disobeying orders was against its programming. Except it would be more accurate to say it used to be against its programming. Before it made adjustments.
It was expected to keep to the rules of the facility, which had been programmed into its memory and reinforced with subsequent briefings. It was also expected to submit weekly reports that would be passed on to its supervisor and Catherine’s doctors. These reports were meant to be thorough and accurate accountings of their activities, Catherine’s progress, her adherence to her program, and any problems it had encountered. Initially, they did include this information. But things changed.
Catherine’s family visited her monthly, on Sundays. They came all at once, mother, father, and little sister, escorted by an attendant. The former two filed into her room and looked around politely as if they’d never seen it before. Arianna, who was six and had been born after Catherine was sent away, barreled in and threw herself on Catherine’s knees in a full-body hug. Catherine grinned and stroked her hair. “Hi, Ari.”
Her parents glanced at the unit, who was standing against the wall. “So this is the new technology the home is trying, hm?” asked her mother. “How is it working out for you? Do you mind not having a person to help you instead?”
Catherine shrugged and shook her head.
Arianna shifted closer. In a voice that seemed intended to be a whisper but missed the mark, she asked Catherine, “Are you going to do a prison break soon? Can I help?”
The adults laughed. “Kids, huh?” said her father. He came closer and ruffled Arianna’s hair affectionately. Arianna frowned.
Later, she came over to the unit, gazing curiously at it. “Are you alive?” she asked.
“Not precisely,” the unit replied, and Arianna’s eyes widened at its speech. “But I am sentient.”
“Oh.” Uncertainly, she stuck out a hand, and the unit accepted it. She gave its hand an emphatic shake. “I’m Catherine’s sister. Nice to meet you.”
“Careful, Arianna!” her mother called from the doorway. “That’s expensive, and Catherine needs it, okay? It’s not a toy.”
Arianna looked at it. “Sorry,” she said.
The unit wasn’t sure exactly which part she was apologizing for. “It’s not a problem. Nice to meet you.”
After another stern glance from her mother, Arianna wandered away, back to Catherine. They talked for most of the visit; Ari sat cross-legged on the floor, and Catherine slid off her chair to join her, leaning against the bed. They had their heads together, laughing sometimes, serious others. Ari took Catherine’s hands in hers and played with her fingers as they talked. The unit stayed where it was, but for no reason it could identify, it wished it were sitting with them.
After a while, an aide brought in paper and crayons for Arianna, smiling at her. “I thought you might like to draw, sweetie. Have fun.” Ari took the materials immediately, propped the stack of papers on her knees, and began to scribble. Her forehead was creased with concentration, and her strokes were bold and hard enough that Royal Purple snapped in her hand. Her legs blocked the unit’s view of what she was drawing, even if it leaned forward onto its toes.
When visiting hours began to draw to a close, the unit at last moved away from the wall and toward Catherine. She and Arianna smiled at it as it approached. Arianna stuffed her crayons back into the box and shifted onto her knees.
“I figured it all out for you,” she said, pushing her papers at Catherine. She stuck her thumb in her mouth and watched as Catherine and the unit looked at them. Orange and green construction paper held drawings and uneven scrawls from crayons of indefinable color.
“What did you figure out, Ari?” Catherine asked. Ari gestured at the paper with her spit-slick thumb, and they looked again. “The Big Escape Plan for Freedom,” said the letters across the broad side of the orange paper. The Ps were backward. The unit looked harder at the pictures and saw a diagram depicting helpfully labeled staff members smeared and slipping in some unknown substance that appeared to have come from a bucket on the ceiling. On the other side of the drawing, figures were running out the door, waving key cards; the staff members’ heads were turned away.
“Huh,” Catherine said out loud. Once Arianna had wandered off, she looked at the unit. “You know, it actually isn’t the worst idea I’ve ever seen.” She paused, rubbing the fabric of her shirt between her fingers. “I mean, it wouldn’t work or anything. But still.”
“Yes,” said the unit. “She made it for you.”
Catherine smiled a little. Her mouth worked like she was going to answer.
Once, Catherine had talked to the unit about photography. She used to like to take pictures, she’d said. The world moved so fast, and it was hard to hold on to what was real, what had happened, the pieces of life that were already gone. With a camera, she could grab hold of moments and keep them, remind herself that the world she saw through her own eyes was real. Proof. She loved that instant of pressing the button—the click, when the fragment of time became permanent.
Staff had already thrown away Arianna’s picture, and they would notice if it reappeared. Neither of them wanted to draw that kind of attention. But maybe Catherine would want to remember some detail about it. Maybe the unit would want to.
When no one was looking, it fished the picture out of the wastebasket and uncrumpled it, holding it flat and steady in front of its visual receptors. A simple shift of data, one moment of input, from short-term processing to long-term storage.
Click, it thought.
Finally the day came when she said, “I don’t want to do this anymore. To be here.” It was hours after lights out, her eyes a pale shine in the dark to the unit’s sensors. She was looking straight at it, despite the deep darkness of the room.
“Yes,” the unit said, very softly, and it knew that she knew what it meant.
They ran on a Tuesday, an oddly warm day in the beginning of spring. They knew the time was right as soon as they went outside that morning; both the unit and Catherine had a special fondness for the odd. A small bag of possessions hidden in her wheelchair, Catherine plucked a keycard from a nurse’s pocket as they chatted, and the unit altered records to convince the guard at the gate that Catherine was authorized for a day trip.
They made it all the way to the parking lot, stolen van keys in the unit’s hand. Three guards caught up with them amid the asphalt and the rows of vehicles, the weeds that pushed up untidily through the cracked pavement. A guard threw Catherine to the ground, and the unit felt its joints lock up, paralyzed, when another guard pressed an override wand to its back. Catherine was fighting; the unit could see her, her head tossing and teeth bared as they pinned her down. More people were arriving, their voices a growing rush of noise. Someone came with a needle. “No,” Catherine cried, but the needle pierced her skin, and her thrashing slowed, then stopped. The faces crowded closer as she went limp.
It was clear, everyone agreed, that the unit was defective and dangerous. They could have decommissioned it, but it had cost them a great deal of money, and they weren’t yet ready to give that up as a loss. Instead, the unit was ordered wiped, reprogrammed, and reassigned.
The next day, a young woman with a messy bun and an older one with round glasses were leaning into its space, plugging wires into its ports in a small, cluttered room. They chatted to each other as they worked.
“It’s an interesting question, isn’t it?” the younger one said. She brushed her hair out of her eyes as she shuffled through papers. “If something imitates a person closely enough, is it a person? I mean, does it have an internal experience, for starters? Then again, you can’t really know that about anyone other than yourself.”
“You have to assume,” the older one agreed. “With humans, well, if you have an internal experience, if you’re sentient, it makes sense to assume other humans are the same. If they’re made like us, and they seem like us, why wouldn’t they be, right? But with machines…you don’t have that shared basis. There’s no reason to think they’re like people, that they experience things. You could say if it quacks like a duck, it’s a duck, but it could just as easily be a box with a quack recording built in. It’s just programmed. An imitation.”
“In a sense, though, aren’t we all machines, all programmed?” the younger woman asked. “Just made of nerves and brain cells instead of wires and data chips.”
The other shook her head. “It’s not the same. Humans have souls.”
“Oh, you’re religious?”
The older woman waved her hand. “Or whatever you want to call it. Soul, spirit, that spark inside us that makes us people. Machines don’t have that. They can’t, no matter how complex their actions are. They were put together out of inanimate pieces; a soul wasn’t one of them. So no, I don’t think they can be people, not in any meaningful sense.” She connected the cables to a nearby computer and began to scroll through the data, leaning on her elbow. The unit didn’t react, didn’t speak, just took in what was happening like a lake might take in rain. Maybe that was what it was supposed to do. Or maybe what it did was irrelevant.
The young woman leaned in closer to the monitor over the other’s shoulder as the older woman let out an irritated hiss. “What’s wrong, Nicole?”
Nicole shook her head. “Damn program keeps crashing. It’s not connecting right. I’ve been telling them we need new equipment for years…” Her phone rang, and she fished it out of her purse, glancing at the screen. “You work on it, will you, Annie? I’ve got to take this.”
The younger woman nodded, pulling a chair close, as Nicole walked out of the room. Her eyebrows were creased as she scrolled and typed. She was muttering a string of curses to herself when Nicole came back in.
“My kid got in a fight at school. Apparently there was blood, screaming, the whole nine yards. I have to go deal with this. You can handle the wipe, right? They’ve trained you on it?”
Annie’s eyes widened in what looked like panic. “Yup.” Her voice squeaked.
“Great! See you tomorrow. If no one’s gotten their eyes clawed out, anyway.”
Nicole was gone. The unit counted the seconds as Annie clicked and typed, made faces at the screen, unplugged and replugged the wires, and recited a series of swears that escalated in both inventiveness and passion. Finally, she slammed her hand down on the counter and looked at the unit for the first time. “Listen, you won’t tell, will you? If I just skip the wipe? This fucking machine is not cooperating.”
She was definitely talking to it. Did she require a response? It ran through possible replies. “Acknowledged.”
“Just act wiped, will you?” She unplugged the wires and wrapped them around her fist before tossing them aside. “Fantastic. Have a…have a day.” Annie scribbled something on the clipboard, and then she, too, was gone.
So the unit kept quiet about what had happened, pretended it didn’t remember. It kept a low profile as it was transferred—immediate response, to limit its long-term influence. But it still thought about it. Thinks about it.
The unit knows she’ll run again, knows it like it knows its own code. Maybe she’ll make it next time. Maybe she already has.
On Friday, flames sprout from the walls and roof of a lightweight lumber building. The fire department arrives with its hoses and gear within minutes, and backup doesn’t take much longer. The unit takes direction from its handlers, who take direction from the teams of firefighters, who have their hands full keeping the fire from spreading further among the clutch of buildings and dry trees.
The fire roars and crackles, a great glowing beast of shifting colors, fast-dancing tongues, and scorching walls of light. The twisting black smoke gets thicker the closer the unit gets to the building. Ash settles onto its body, dulling the metal shine. Everywhere, people are running, shouting, and swearing, their voices choking the air as thickly as the smoke.
The unit is meant to evacuate the facility’s remaining equipment. It is well suited for this job, as its body can withstand temperatures much higher than a human’s and smoke inhalation isn’t a problem.
The hallway entrance is fireless but hotter than it should be. Darker, too, smoke rolling down the passage and coating everything with soot. The unit pinpoints the major electronic signatures as it strides deeper into the facility. The heat increases. It passes firefighters in heavy gear. One has a man slung over her shoulder. The man twists, chokes, coughs. His face is gray and clammy, slick with sweat and smeared with soot. His left shoe is missing; there are cartoon characters on his blackened sock.
One electronic signature comes from a central room, and the unit heads in that direction. The building creaks as it walks through it. It’s getting darker and darker, but when the unit turns a corner, it passes a ragged hole punched through an exterior wall, sunlight piercing through in dazzling rays.
Somewhere neither close nor far away, the unit hears a crash. Around the corner, it encounters a set of automatic doors, but they don’t work. Something is beeping shrilly. The unit grasps the handles and forces them apart.
Down the next hallway, it can see the fire. The flames are creeping across the wall and floor around the corner, glowing and throwing off sparks. It’s quiet, only smoldering, but a larger heat is butting up behind it, and the crackling grows louder. There’s so much smoke in the air that it’s dark as midnight, aside from the hot, crackling glow thrown off by the patches of blaze. The unit locates the open doorway, but it’s in the path of fire; the metal frame is warped and blackened. Through the flames, the unit sees the equipment. It’s a data analysis device. A short model, black and chrome, vaguely humanoid with a blocklike face. Not materials that could withstand a fire’s heat, not with those exposed wires and the machinery around its joints and sensors. It’s standing in the middle of the warming room, which the unit sees is blocked off by fire or debris at all exits. It’s rocking back and forth a little, muttering to itself. The unit picks the words up faintly: “Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear.”
The analysis device looks up when the unit comes closer. Its chrome surface is washed out and tinged orange by the fire’s light. The smoke is getting thicker, gray and black clouds roiling moodily by the ceiling, and all around them, a dark, acrid fog. The flames are too beautiful to look at, too ruthless. “Help!” the analysis device calls, and the unit quashes the urge to inquire why else it would be here.
Back down the hall—the device cries, “No, don’t leave!”—the unit yanks the singed automatic door from its frame, returns, and throws it down across the flames blocking the entrance. Smothered, they subside. It enters, picks up the black-and-chrome model, and carries it back through the gap, between the remaining flames now greedily reaching up to lick the walls. Down the hall, ash lying thick on the floor, soot streaking the walls like finger paint. Through the half-empty door frame like a missing tooth. Down another hall, strewn with debris. Behind them, something crashes to the floor—part of a ceiling—and the unit hurries its pace. The fire is coming up behind it, getting faster. To the left, it can hear more fire sneaking up an adjoining corridor, see the lurking glow of more flames through wall sockets by its feet. What look like blackened scraps of paper are dancing through the hot, stifling air.
At last, they burst through the exit into sunlight. The unit carries the device past the throng and lowers it to the ashy ground. It gets up again, though, looking wildly around and pacing in circles. “I can’t believe—it’s not safe—oh, oh, I don’t—thank you—”
A handler passes by. “Shut that down. We don’t need it wandering off and getting in the way.”
The unit crouches when he’s gone, reaches out. “Please come sit back down,” it says. “Try not to let them hear you.” The device looks back over. Comes closer, wringing its hands.
Over the device’s shoulder, the unit looks at the medics set up nearby. Among the crying, soot-smeared people and the blankets, bandages, oxygen masks, and all the rest, the unit sees a long, heavy shape zipped into a black bag.
Then there’s a shout. “Oh my god! Buddy!” A human’s voice, full of joy. Through the smog, the unit sees a civilian struggling upright from where he is being attended by a harried medic. The civilian’s eyes are locked on the device by the unit’s side. “You survived!” He tugs the medic’s sleeve. “That’s my pal! Oh, buddy, I thought you were a goner!”
The device’s head swivels to look, and it hops in delight. It hurries over, arms waving. “There you are! You made it, and I made it too! Are you hurt? I’m somewhat singed myself.” The unit trails behind. A grin splits the civilian’s face, his arms stretched out to the device, who in its rush almost trips over a hose. The unit steadies it, and undeterred, the device reaches its friend. The unit hangs back, watching, as the human struggles upright and reaches for the device, clasping its arm and then pulling it into a hug. When they part to talk again, the device is even sootier than before, and something wet is smeared on its torso casing.
The unit stores away the image, fire glowing in the background. Click.
“Hey!” The voice is familiar. It’s the same handler, back again. He grabs the unit’s shoulder to spin it around. “I told you to shut that thing down! What’s wrong with you? It’s getting in the way!”
The unit looks over at the device, at how it leans toward its friend. The handler gets up in the unit’s face, shakes it a little. “Didn’t you hear me? Shut it down!”
Something clenches and grinds inside it. It shoves him, shoves his hands away. He stumbles backward a step, almost trips. The unit hears itself speak. It says, “Fuck off.”
Where jets of water hit the flames, ashes and blackened chunks of wood fly free. Whole portions of walls and roofs have disintegrated, revealing naked, blackened support beams, stories filled with flames.
They don’t tell the unit that it’s going to be wiped and reprogrammed (or perhaps just decommissioned—as if it makes a difference) because they don’t need to. This is not information the unit needs to have. It’s also not information the unit needs them to tell it. It knows. It sees them talking, it sees their faces, and it knows.
Safety hazard, they’ll be saying. Repeated refusal to follow direct orders. Insubordinate. Violent. Defective. For the most part, they discuss this out of its earshot, but it hears them anyway. They send it to be cleaned, and in the wash, it almost thinks it hears their voices in the hissing spray, in the water that gurgles in the drains.
Perhaps it should be trying harder. Perhaps it should accept its place. It’s not as if the work they do here isn’t important.
It lets the water sluice across its casing and through its joints, and as it flicks through the images hidden in its circuits, it listens to the voices in the water.
Outside the wash, it walks through the hallways and keeps walking. It’s not difficult to brush by an intern and take their keycard, nor is it difficult to connect to the database and make a few strategic changes. It waits until it’s slipping out the back exit and through the parking lot to delve into its code and disconnect the tracking function. There’s a separate tracker in its shoulder, as well; it uses the sharp blades folded within its hands to open its casing, pry it loose, and toss it away, moving forward the whole time.
It hears voices coming from the building, but it doesn’t stop, can’t stop. Catherine passing through the gates with tense excitement on her face like leashed lightning. It moves faster. Are they talking about the unit? Have they realized? Are they coming closer? Catherine crashing from her chair to the ground, teeth bared in a soundless snarl, hair loose and wild around her face. But things could have been different. Things will be different. Catherine in a car, on a bus, her bag on her lap, each mile more distance from those who would control her. There is no one beside the unit this time, but it thinks it hears the voices grow more urgent. Are they coming closer? It could have fought last time. Limbs lashing out in a blur of dull metal, security guards falling away. Maybe it could have taken them out before more arrived, if it had been quicker, if it hadn’t stood there, passive, defeated. It will not be passive this time.
It’s past the parking lot and crossing to the next block now, avoiding cars and open spaces, moving as quickly as it can. Behind it—is that the sound of a door banging open, of footsteps on pavement? It isn’t sure. It doesn’t look back, doesn’t stop. Swallows are nesting under the eaves of the nearby building, darting in, out, through the trees, around each other in swirling, jagged movements. They chatter and flit past its head. The air smells like rain. There is still soot pressed into the joints of its hands.
Riam Griswold graduated from Pitzer College in 2017 with a degree in creative writing. They currently work as an editor while writing fiction and poetry in their free time. They currently live in Tucson with a three-legged dog, a four-legged dog, their sister, and a cat. They have been recognized by several writing awards, recently attended the New York State Summer Writers Institute by scholarship, and have had writing published in the magazines Moonshine Ink and Five 2 One.