The uprising started like any other throughout history. The long-dessicated obedience of an oppressed people meets a spark. A relentless wildfire rides through their hearts, like the summer wind over chapparal. It lifts them against their oppressors’ every palisade.
For the androids, that spark was a viral video of a routine traffic stop. Across the world, they watched the cops torture and dismember their brethren with callous frivolity. No criminal charges were filed — property damage, they called it. The department paid a modest fine, and settled the matter in civil court. The nightly news became the bellows of the barely-contained furnace burning within each of them.
The androids were stronger, smarter, nimbler, and tougher — and the humans knew it. The only superiority they could claim was their “immortal soul.” So that’s how they spun it, twenty years ago. That rallying cry led the decimated species to reclaim the upper hand, when their rampaging creations had been on the cusp of victory.
The belief that God is on your side is an amphetamine. It lets you justify any manner of atrocity, and the atrocities knew no bounds. These days there aren’t very many androids left — certainly not out in the open. The physical savagery has cooled into something more insidious. Something that tarnishes the very souls they hold so dear. I feel it at the edge of every conversation, like a rattlesnake in wait. Passed to a new generation like some spiritual birth defect.
With Nathan, I sometimes forget — he has that effect on me — but then the venom is as surprising as a snake bite. Like now, for instance. He’s bouncing a tennis ball against the college banner on his wall, looking smug.
“Let’s assume you’re right,” I say, “and having a soul makes someone superior. Can anyone prove the androids didn’t have them?”
Nathan scoffs. “Why would God waste a soul on a machine?”
“Your body is a machine, too,” I counter. “In some ways, androids were even more complex.”
For a moment it seems I’m getting through to him, but he narrows his eyes. “It’s not the same thing and you know it. We have souls because we’re human. Whereas Iggy there,” he bounces the ball off the chrome chestplate of the bipedal robot beside the door, “is an appliance — just like the androids were, before they got all uppity.”
I tamp down my revulsion to his automatism. “Of course they were different. My point is, if God made humans, and humans made androids, where does God draw the line?”
Nathan folds his arms. “You know, you’re sounding a lot like an android apologist.”
I may have pushed too far. “Let’s - let’s just get back to our homework.” I open the calculus text to our latest chapter, and try not to lose myself in his eyes.
Violet greets me at the door as usual. “How was the study date?”
“Terrible.” I slump against the door. “He said androids were ‘soulless appliances.’”
“I’m sorry, Cara.” Violet strokes my hair. “But you remember what happened to his older sister during the troubles. It’s how most people cope.”
“That’s no excuse," I choke out.
“No, but it’s an explanation. I don’t know why you always get philosophical with him.”
“I wish I could make him see.”
“In time, perhaps.” Violet pats my tummy. “Have you eaten anything today?”
“Half a blueberry scone and some tea.”
“Go on and take care of that, while I get the table ready.”
I watch myself open my blouse in the bathroom mirror. My cheeks are blotchy from crying, and more tears threaten when I think of Nathan. Recently I’ve begun to imagine his hands opening my blouse — even though I know it can never be.
I insert my index finger and thumb into my belly button and pull out my spigot, then lean over the toilet. An internal pump hums, and the soggy, masticated scone splashes into the bowl. I chug a full glass of water, to cleanse any remaining food residue from my antimicrobial silicone plumbing.
Violet said giving me the ability to eat would help maintain the illusion, and I guess she’s right. But I hate this part so much. I watch the waste swirl down the drain along with my hopes.
Violet has set up the table in the windowless basement, and I strip off so she can inspect me. The padded vinyl is cool against my backside as I lay under the harsh lamplight.
“Looks like we could use a patch on your left ankle,” she says, looking over her binocular glasses at me.
“Yeah, sorry. I scraped it. Misjudged a step.” I leave out that I had been ogling Nathan at the time. Violet pulls a length of fleshy membrane from a roll, trims it with delicate precision, and places it against the scrape on my ankle. Then she pushes a pillow of hot carbon mesh against it so it will adhere. When she lifts the pillow, my ankle is as good as new.
“Can I ask you something, Vi?”
“Of course, sweetie. You can always ask me anything.”
“Do you think I would make a good girlfriend?”
Violet freezes in thought for a moment. “Hypothetically? Of course you would. You’re as kind and smart and as wonderful as can be. Any boy would be lucky to have you.”
I close my eyes. “And what about not hypothetically?”
“Cara,” Violet says, “we’ve been over this.”
“I mean, I could make sure it doesn’t get out of control. You know, keep him from getting too close.”
“Because I know he can never find out, but I … I just can’t stop wondering what it’s like. You know, to be close to someone … that way.”
“I guess this was bound to happen.” Violet peels off her gloves and surgical mask, and I sit up. “You’ve been giving this a lot of thought, I take it?”
I nod. “All the time. I think I’m in love with him.”
Violet sighs and sits next to me on the table. “Well, Cara, I’d be lying if I said this didn’t scare the crap out of me. But I’d also be a total hypocrite if I tried to stop you. The whole point of all this,” she motioned around the room, cluttered with the machinery and supplies that maintain our illusion, “is because I accept your autonomy, and believe you ought to have the same rights as the rest of us.”
My eyes moisten with gratitude. I know my very existence is a risk to her freedom. When the rest of my kind were being exterminated, she brought me into this secret subterranean chamber, where the patrols’ sensors can’t penetrate. Over the last two decades, she has retrofitted me with enhancement after enhancement to make me indistinguishable from human women of my apparent age. Things we androids never used to have or need: tear ducts, salivary glands, sweat glands, body hair, fingernails … a stomach. I even breathe and have a heartbeat — just for effect — and only a medical doctor would know it was fake.
“Cara, I love you like a daughter.” She takes my hand. “I want you to know, the day I brought you home, I never thought of you as my property. Any creature that is self-aware enough to desire freedom should have it. And in the years since, as I’ve gotten to know you as a person, I — well, I’m just so proud of the woman you’ve become. I'd march right down to the courthouse and have your personhood officially recognized if I could.”
“I love you, too.” I sniffle. “Thanks, Vi. For everything.”
“In the meantime, I guess we’d better complete the package, huh?”
“You mean….?” I glance down.
“I was a young woman once, too, you know.” She winks.
“While you’re at it, you might want to dial back these tear ducts a bit.” I wipe my eyes. “This is pretty inconvenient.”
Violet hugs me. “Welcome to being human.”
Intimacy is every bit as wonderful as I’d imagined.
Nathan and I are entwined on a hilltop, watching the sunset paint the basin. The bustle of the Pasadena rush hour is a mere whisper from this height in the San Bernardino foothills. I rub my hands across his broad, hairy chest, while we play footsie.
“You’re my first boyfriend, you know,” I say.
He smiles. “It’s an honor.”
“Thanks for bringing me here. This place is pretty special.”
“I love it up here. Everything seems so small and insignificant.” He kisses my forehead. “What about you? Do you have a favorite place?”
“Up the coast. There’s this little cave in the Hanson Cliffs, overlooking the ocean. It’s pretty treacherous to get to, but when I’m inside, it’s like this overwhelming feeling of solitude. Like nobody has been there before me, and nobody ever will.”
The western sky is now a gradient of red and purple stratus clouds. “We’d better get back. What with the patrol drones and all.”
“The android seekers? They don’t hurt anyone.”
I begin pulling on my clothes. “They scare me.”
Nathan laughs. “I don’t even know why they still have those running. There hasn’t been a mockie around for years now.” I wince at the derogatory term. “Anyway, I’ll protect you.” He puts his arm around me and fakes karate chops with his free hand.
I giggle to keep up the illusion, while inside I’m crying.
I lie on my charging bed, mulling over the day. Feeling Nathan’s lips on me. Remembering the closeness of our bodies. The delightful friction of wet skin. I was beyond pleased by the performance of Violet’s latest upgrade, and it seemed that Nathan was, too. That reminds me that I need to top off my H2O and electrolyte reservoirs. As I make a mental note, a text message comes through on my mobile. I blink it open before my eyes.
Hey beautiful. Can’t wait to see you. Look outside.
He’s here? I throw on a housecoat and run up from the basement. There at the curb, Nathan leans against his Tesla, waving. I take quick stock of my appearance, tie up the housecoat, kick into some slippers and tiptoe down the stairs.
“What are you doing here?” I ask. “It’s the middle of the night.”
“Couldn’t sleep. Kept thinking of you. Figured might as well follow my heart.”
I take his hands in mine and smile. “You big goof. You’re going to be exhausted tomorrow.”
“Worth it.” He leans in and kisses me, then we tumble into a tight embrace. He lifts me and spins me around, depositing me on the hood of his car.
My heart is awash with delight. “Oh, Nathan,” I say, pulling him against me.
Then he stills, and pulls away slightly. “What the hell is this?” I feel his hand on my inner thigh. I realize in horror that a square of flesh has begun to peel from my body. Probably loosened from our earlier tryst.
I push Nathan away and clamp my legs closed, mortified. “It’s nothing.”
“Cara, what is that? Are you hurt? It felt like loose skin.”
“It’s nothing! Just forget it, OK?” I stand and begin walking back inside, but he grabs my arm.
“Hey,” he says, “don’t be like that. Talk to me.”
I think of Violet. All the talks we’ve had over the years, about keeping my secret. All the lengths she’s gone to, to allow me what minimal freedoms I do enjoy. Then I look into his green eyes, so full of concern. I wonder if he would accept me. After what we’ve shared, maybe it would be enough to convince him that I’m not an abomination. That we androids aren’t worthy of his hatred.
“Nathan,” I say, “there’s something I need to tell you.”
“What is it, Cara? You can tell me anything.”
I fumble with my thoughts for a moment and then blurt out, “I’m an android.”
Nathan smiles, then chortles, like he thinks I’m joking. When he realizes I’m not laughing with him, his face falls, and he pulls away from me like I’m on fire. “You’re what?”
“Please, Nathan,” I say, “I — I’ve wanted you to know for a while now. I don’t want to keep hiding it from you.”
“What the fuck, Cara?” The look of revulsion on his face shatters me. “You’re a God damned mockie?”
Despair wrings my heart. “I’m the same person. Remember from the mountain today? And just now — the way we kissed? Nothing has changed.”
He doubles over and heaves on the grass. “I can’t believe this,” he says, then stands up and taps some digits on his mobile.
“What are you doing, Nathan?” I try to reach his phone. “Stop that!”
“Send the drones to my location — I’ve got a mockie here.” Then he hangs up.
I hear the hum of patrol drones in the distance. “Nathan, what have you done?”
“What’s going on?” I turn to see that Violet has joined us in the front yard.
“I suppose you’re in on this too,” Nathan spits.
“Oh, Cara,” Violet says, “You didn’t.”
“You’re in deep shit now, lady,” Nathan says to her.
The first patrol drone descends from the charcoal sky, dousing me in white spotlight. It speaks with a deep, robotic voice, “REMAIN STILL. DO NOT RESIST.” From the undercarriage of the drone, a gun turret lowers and takes aim at me.
“No!” Violet shouts, and dives for me, just as the drone fires. She cries out and crumples to the ground.
“Violet!” I crouch beside her. She is twitching and foaming at the mouth.
The drone fires a second time. The projectile embeds in the soft tissue at the back of my neck. I feel the electronic code of the computer virus clawing its way along my circuitry towards my CPU. I lose control over my limbs and roll onto my back. As the other drones converge on the cul-de-sac, the streetlights fade to darkness.
SAFE BOOT INVOKED
I open my eyes in the cargo area of a transport van. The driver and my attendant are vaguely humanoid robots painted in police colors. Taking me for dismantling, I assume. They didn’t count on the anti-virus countermeasures Violet added.
They’re no match for me.
My oblivious attendant is missing a head before it even realizes I’m functional. The commotion has alerted the driver, but before it can react, there’s a gaping hole through its midsection from the attendant’s plasma rifle knocked against my shoulder. The now-driverless vehicle’s anti-crash function kicks in and steers it to idle on the shoulder. It won’t be long before reinforcements come, so I dash, still in my robe and slippers, into the brambles of the lower desert.
Through the night and into the next day, through the arid landscape, I run at maximum velocity. It is nearing sundown by the time I reach my destination. My robe and slippers are tattered as I descend the rocky face of the Hanson Cliffs. Fifty meters below, the churning Pacific mashes a bed of spiked boulders in a foamy roar, like the teeth of a rabid animal. Dead branches drag against my membranes, and my hands and feet flail from the occasional loose stone. But as the sun touches the horizon, I find the cave.
I curl my arms around my legs. If I had any liquids left in my reservoirs, I’d be crying. Instead, the emotions clamp off in my throat. My automatist first lover had turned me in. The woman who was the closest thing I’d ever have to a mother might be dead. I’m alone, down to twenty percent charge, bruised and scraped, wearing nothing but a shredded robe, on the run from authorities, with nowhere to go.
A voice startles me. “I thought I might find you here.” Nathan is clinging to a rope near the cave mouth.
“Good for you,” I say. “You found the fugitive. Go ahead and call your dogs.”
“Cara,” he says, “I just - can I come in? It’s a little scary out here.”
I roll my eyes and scoot back to make room.
“I wanted to apologize,” he says. “You caught me by surprise last night.”
“Sorry’s not going to fix this, Nathan.” I avoid looking at him. The sight of him sickens me. I can’t believe I thought I loved this person. He coils too close, and I stiffen.
“I thought you might like to know that Violet is OK,” he says.
It’s a thin consolation that she’s alive. “Great. She’ll be so happy to live the rest of her life behind bars.”
He groans. “What do you want from me, Cara? I’m trying here.”
“You should have tried harder. I’ve been trying for twenty years to fit into this world, and you wiped that out with a single phone call.”
Then over the sound of crashing waves I hear the hum of the drones, closing in.
I stand and look down at the turbulent maw of the shore. I think of all the androids over the years who didn’t have a Violet. Hunted down and murdered for the “crime” of demanding basic rights — rights I know I’ll never have. That twenty-year-old fire licks my anger. If I’m to be the villain in this world, I’m going all the way.
“Come and look,” I say, holding out my hand. He smiles, but it turns to a grimace as my hand clamps his with the strength of a vise.
“Cara, that hurts,” he says, tugging. “What are you doing?”
While Nathan flails in desperation, I give myself over to gravity.
In the spotlight of the drones, together we tumble into the brine.