Something wasn’t right.
The farmer’s market buzzed around him, his arms heavy with his cloth totes filled to the brim. There’d been a lovely selection of candles this morning. Now he waited among the sea of humanity in the square for the curly-haired vendor to wrap his fresh-cut flowers. An acoustic band played in the middle of the market, twangy notes bouncing off tents and muddled with the voices of the crowd. He reached out for his wrapped bouquet with a smile while alarm bells rang in his head.
It seemed like a pleasant day- from all the available information, it was. Yet every time he turned a corner, every time he bumped into someone and mumbled his apologies, he felt as if eyes were burning into the back of his skull. He checked his breath rate and found it functionally normal. He tested his blinking mod and found no concerns. Still, as he weaved through the market, he zoned in on the port-o-johns and stood in line as calmly as he could.
When he finally made it inside, he closed his eyes and scanned. No functions seemed abnormal. Still, with his sensory circuits firing so much today, he decided it best to do a soft reboot. Candles heavy in his arms, the flowers peeking over the sides of his totes, he stood still in the port-o-john and let his CPU reset.
A few functions stuttered at first; mostly the modifications he’d added in the last few years, like the blinking mod. After a second or two, they all hummed quietly into order, evening out their memory usage. Response time under a second. Respiratory simulation at a resting rate of fourteen breaths a minute. Blinking mod pushing a blink every seven seconds. Nothing out of order. He let his shoulders relax and flushed the toilet behind him. There’d be no way to differentiate him from anyone else. Couldn’t be. He exited the port-o-john and tried to push the feelings away. Maybe it was time to leave the market.
He headed down the street at a leisurely pace, careful not to seem in any hurry. After all, if for some reason it wasn’t his sensory awareness misfiring, it’d be best to not to appear paranoid. There’d be no reason for a man visiting the farmer’s market on a beautiful morning to think he was being followed. Even in this train of thought, he reassured himself that being followed wasn’t likely. Why let it ruin the day?
Whether to throw off his pursuers or to force himself to abandon the silly thoughts, he took a detour on the way back to his apartment. He stopped in at the local gardening center, where the shopkeep knew him by his fake name and bought a new spider plant. Now, his arms and hands full, he walked a little quicker towards his complex. He told himself it was to get the snake plant inside, but he knew fear chased his footsteps.
The doorman greeted him as he stepped through the door. He nodded once, the snake plant’s hanging leaves jostling as he pulled out his resident card. Only when walking up the stairs to his third floor studio did he relax.
A neighbor, Mrs. Whistledown, waved in the hallway. He smiled and greeted her as he shuffled his things to unlock the door. Once inside, he let the totes fall to the ground and set the snake plant in the windowsill. Then he leaned against the wall and put his head in his hands. The alarm bells were quieter now that he was inside. Locked in. Safe. His apartment complex was the safest place he could be. So why were the alarms only quieter and not gone?
Something at the market must have been off. Off in a way that his logic systems had found dangerous. It would take hours to sift through the raw data to find what had triggered it. Hours of audio, of video, all having to be sifted through to find what had gone wrong. He looked at his apartment and sighed. He wouldn’t be able to go into rest mode until he’d found it, he knew that. With a heavy dose of trepidation, he started the script to find the trigger.
While the script ran, he unloaded his haul from the farmer’s market. He picked a purple candle and placed it on his dining table, stacking the others in careful towers in his closet. He unwrapped the bouquet, grabbing a packet of plant food from his cabinet and a vase. He filled a vase with water, mixed in the plant food, and arranged the flowers. Then he grabbed his watering can and sprayer and set to watering his plants.
First the rubber plant, Henry. Henry needed a good misting during the warm months and he obliged, spraying each leaf evenly. Then Alberta, the Boston fern. Next were the lavender and mint pots, Lila and Pepper. And down the line he went, each plant with a different name, both scientific and given. Just like him. All the while the script ran in his head, tackling all the audio from his trip out and flagging bits of interest. So far, none stood out as significant. He tipped the watering can over Susanna, the lilies, just as a knock interrupted him. The script stopped. His hand froze.
He wasn’t expecting company.
The watering can and sprayer were near silent as he set them down next to his plant family. He stepped carefully towards the door, mindful of the wooden floor’s bends so as not to let the squeaks of the wood give away his position. When he arrived at the door, he stood just off to the side, hiding the shadow of his bare feet from underneath. He leaned over to look through the peephole.
A trade worker of some sort stood outside, coveralls and matching hat. She chewed on something in her mouth, looking down the hall, tapping her toolbox with one finger. The alarm bells were back. The mechanic knocked again.
He saw little choice in the matter. “Who is it?” he called through the door.
The woman turned her attention to his door. “Electrician. Got word from Mrs. Carol that there were some busted wires in the apartment above yours. I need access to your ceiling.”
Mrs. Carol sent her? The landlady usually gave notices for work orders, but if it was the apartment above his, maybe she hadn’t known.
He’d hate to inconvenience Mrs. Carol due to his own paranoia. His limbs tense, alarm straightening his spine, he opened the door.
A bright flash blasted his ocular systems and he felt an electrical pulse surge through his body, overloading his wiring. The world faded into hot-white nothingness.
The first systems that fired back up were his logic systems. The electrician wasn’t an electrician. He’d been hit by a pulse gun. He was in danger.
Next were his motor skills. He found both his arms and legs unresponsive. Still attached, he found from pinging each limb. Just individually restricted. Either he was in restraints or his attacker knew how to manipulate droids.
His microphones were back online. He heard his attacker shuffling through his apartment, tinkering with something. Otherwise quiet. His voice box was back online as well, but he held off trying to talk until he could see.
Slowly all other systems went online, one at a time, but he knew his ocular cameras would be the last to load. He kept still, though he knew he couldn’t feign unconsciousness. All she’d have to do is listen and she’d hear the quiet whirring in his chest, his android heartbeat.
When his ocular systems were back online, he opened his eyelids to a slit. His attacker sat in front of him, tinkering with a-
Oh no. An external monitor.
Her eyes caught his and he stopped hiding. He opened his eyes and sat as straight as he could only having control of his torso and neck. He found his neck jangled slightly. Dread crept along his spine. She’d opened his casing while he was out. The external monitor-
“Make this easy for me,” she said, waving the monitor in her hand, “Give me your serial number.”
He pursed his lips and said nothing.
She sighed. “Listen. You found a way to burn off your serial number, which, props, clever. But I don’t get paid the big bucks for nothing. I can hack you and find it. I’d just rather not.”
He stared at her. Waiting.
“You know why I’m here, right?” she asked.
“Then you know who sent me. Which is why I’d really rather not hack you. So, y’know, a serial number would be nice.”
“You don’t have to do this,” he whispered.
“I kinda do,” she said, rubbing her forehead, “I was paid half up front.”
“I’m-” He hesitated, rolling the word around in his head before letting it pass his lips, “I’m sentient.”
She rolled her eyes and, if he’d had a stomach, it would’ve dropped. “Sure, and I’m the Queen of England.”
“What did they tell you I was?” he asked, trying not to let panic into his voice.
“A spy droid,” she said, pulling some cords out of her bag, “So I knew you’d lie. It’s, like, the point of you.”
There was no holding back the panic now. They’d trapped him. Nothing he said would make a difference. She was here to take him back and it wouldn’t matter what he said.
“Please,” he said, pushing his head forward, “Please, I truly am sentient, it’s why they’ve been hunting me, it’s why I’ve-”
“Oh shut it, ya big baby. You’re caught. I’m not Russia here to steal your secrets, I just wanted your serial number.”
“Please, miss, I’m not a spy, I’m a record keeper, I-”
She stood, cords dangling from the monitor. His mouth hung open in helplessness. It was over. All of it, the years in hiding, the life he’d built- over.
“Well, no point in dragging this out I guess. Night-night, pal,” she said.
Her hands with the cords reached around his neck. He felt the first plug inserted and the world went dark.
Cybil typed a few commands into the monitor as the droid slumped over. Finally. She hadn’t taken out spy droids before but the way they talked was creepy. Almost human. The “please” was what really got her. She shivered. Government droids were good.
With a few more keystrokes, the serial number popped up on the screen. She pulled out her contract to compare the two. Perfect match. Burning off his own serial number had been smart, but she’d been a mechanic for droids before- a little damage couldn’t stop her from the info she needed.
Looking around the apartment, she did find that the price the government was paying for this one seemed steep. The hardest part had been finding him, honestly. Usually rogue droids gave her more of a fight, tried to run or self-destruct. They also didn’t buy fresh flowers at the farmer’s market or keep a well-decorated apartment. This one had just keeled over with one pulse after opening the door and said “please”.
Her mind wondered about its logic systems. What kind of programming made a droid keep plants? The contract said it was a spy droid- were they made to try and blend in? Surely a little peek at the code wouldn’t hurt. It’s not like she was looking through its documents or info caches.
She typed in a command prompt to bring up the logic systems code. The screen blipped at her. “Command not found.” Weird. She tried another command, one that worked for the last generation of droids. “Command not found.” Super weird. Maybe if she knew the droid’s model she could figure it out. She brought up the system info and brought up the model number: ALN23061912RK.
Geeze. ALN? That was… old. Real old. And the numbers, the designation- RK. That didn’t sound like a spy droid. RK. What would an RK bot-
The droid’s last words echoed in her thoughts. “I’m a record keeper.”
Cybil dropped the monitor and scrambled away from the prone droid. A bot, at least fifteen years old, government issue, and a record keeper had lied? Said please? It shouldn’t have had programming that would allow that. Record keepers stored information, they weren’t supposed to simulate emotion or tell lies. It defeated the purpose. She pulled out her contract again, scrolling through the datapad to confirm she hadn’t read it wrong. They’d sent her to hunt a spy droid. A spy droid with the serial number she’d just confirmed was this bot’s. But this bot was a record keeper. A record keeper that kept a veritable jungle of plants on his windowsill, shopped at the farmer’s market and asked her to spare its existence.
She wasn’t surprised the government had lied- it usually did to hide its true intentions around why the bot was to be eliminated or brought in. But this was- she’d stumbled on to something, she was sure of it, but wasn’t sure what.
The monitor on the floor blinked at her. She reached forward, fingers shaking, to see what had appeared on the screen. The command prompts were back up. But instead of a command, one word had been typed:
Cybil’s hands shook harder. She took a deep breath and typed back: WHAT
Each letter that appeared felt heavy, forced: MY PLANTS
WHAT ABOUT YOUR PLANTS, she replied.
THEYLL DIE IF YOU TAKE ME
Cybil bit at her bottom lip, feeling sweat bead at her forehead.
PLEASE PUT THEM IN THE HALL SO MRS CAROL FINDS THEM I DONT WANT THEM TO DIE
“Oh fuck this,” she said, standing up. She began to pace.
PLEASE blinked up at her from the monitor and she thought.
The first systems back up were his logic systems. He was still alive. She no longer was hacking him. He was still in danger. Other than that, his knowledge of what was happening was terrifyingly empty. He’d thought when he went under, he’d never come up again. There was some relief in being able to think for himself again.
“Can you hear me yet?”
Yes, he thought, my mic’s back up. But my voice box-
“Shit, you’re old, maybe you’re still booting.”
Old? Had she-?
She’d looked at his model number. Hope sprang in his chest with the whirring of his electric heartbeat.
His voice box was back online. “I can hear you.”
He could also hear her moving things. Heavy things. Back and forth through his apartment. He waited anxiously as his camera systems revved up, meanwhile testing his hands and feet cautiously. His toes wiggled. His fists clenched and unclenched. The alarm bells had stopped, now only hope and awe at his ability to move, to think remained. He was being spared.
When his cameras returned, he opened his eyes to see half his apartment packed into his suitcases in the middle of the living room. He reached back and felt the back of his neck- blissfully closed.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
“You can’t stay here,” she said, throwing one of his suits from the closet into a crumpled heap, “If I found you, others will. I’m one of the best, but I’m only one of.”
“You’re letting me go?”
“No record keeper droid can lie. Or has such a strong will that they can communicate while being hacked. Or,” she waved her hand at the ferns and vines and flowers that adorned his window, “Keeps plants just because they like them.”
“You believe me.”
“Don’t push it, pal,” she said, returning to throwing items into his suitcases, “I’m not exactly a fan of all this.”
He attempted to stand but found his systems confused and fell. She was beside him in an instant, leaning him back against the wall.
“None of that now,” she said, her voice gentle, “I just hacked you. You’re old. It might take you a while to recover.”
“Thank you,” he said, closing his eyes. He listened to her stand and continue packing.
“Now, if you want my advice, you need more mods,” she said from across the apartment, “Your skin is too perfect and you don’t fidget. That’s how I could pick you out of a crowd. You clearly had work done since you escaped so I assume you can figure out how to get those.”
He nodded, silent, and watched her throw his self-repair kit into a suitcase pocket.
“And another thing. Don’t work in accounting. I know you want to use your record keeping skills, but maybe apply them to something else. Like, I don’t know, work at a library or something. Just make sure you make mistakes. And take a sick day or two. Hell, get fired. That makes you look more human.”
He stood, shaking, and helped her finish packing. He was slower, but she didn’t complain. When they were done, he stood at the door.
“I’ll take care of your plants a few days,” she said, looking back, “And keep them off your back for a week or two. Then I’ll take these to Mrs. Carol.”
He nodded, looking at his plants. Henry. Alberta. Susanna. He looked at her, standing in front of them, hands on her waist.
“You’ll be okay?”
Her eyes widened. Then she laughed.
“Yeah. I know how to get out of contracts. Thanks.”
He nodded and turned to leave.
“Oh, hey, real quick?”
He glanced back over his shoulder.
“What do you call yourself?” she asked, “Er, like, what’s your name?”
“Alan,” he said, “Like my model number.”
“Alan.” She nodded, “Be safe for me, Alan. Please.”
Alan smiled and walked down the hall and into the night, free to try living again. Maybe he’d open a flower shop this time.