…Memory cell damage detected.
Cass detected the nanobots swarm up her spine and to her head. She wasn’t sure how much had been damaged this time, but she couldn’t see, and she couldn’t move which meant—
…Energy unit damage detected.
More nanobots swarmed down her spine and to her core, where the bio-energy containment unit was hosted.
…Visual overlay damage detected.
Bots raced across her brain to the forefront of her skull. She was aware of them tampering there with things she knew little about. All she knew was that this time it had been worse than last time. Memory units hadn’t been damaged last time Natalia got angry with her.
Static flashed before her eyes. Her vision wavered. A bright light came into view and there were voices around her. This wasn’t Natalia’s room. This wasn’t the apartment that Cass had been living in now for the last…well as long as she could remember.
“Have you programmed her with the next assignment?” the woman to her left asked.
“Just let me get this one last memory,” the man said.
“Are you going to fix her hands? I thought you said she wasn’t damaged in the fire.”
“No, not in the fire. And yes, I will fix the hands. Will you shut up and let me work?”
Cass’s vision wavered and the light faded. The voices ebbed away. She tried pulling them back, delving deeper into the memory, but she must have sustained more damage than she’d first thought.
…Emotional response array offline.
Enabling emotional response array…
What is that? Cass wondered. She’d been through a lot of nanobot repairs lately, and she’d never heard of an emotional response array.
Emotional response array activated.
…Free will nodules offline.
Free will nodules activated…
Cass’s hand began to shake. What did that mean? She was an automaton. They didn’t have free will…or emotions. What was happening here? Natalia must have really messed something up this time. She’d never heard of these systems. Cass did not know she had these systems. What was happening to her hand? Why did her stomach churn the strange way it did, as if there was a little vile engine inside of her churning up all of these ill feelings?
Cass felt a sense of heat prickle up her back and to the top of her head where it dissipated. Her hands shook harder. There was a swelling fear that she wasn’t safe here, that if she stayed with Natalia serious harm would be done to her. If she stayed, and the abuse continued, Cass might have to be deactivated. She shuddered at the thought.
And what was that memory? The first thing Cass could remember was that she came to live here with Natalia. There had been a time before that?
…Defense systems offline.
Initiating defense systems…
Defense systems? Cass thought. I didn’t know I had defense systems. I’m not a battle unit. Do those exist outside of the military? Do regular automatons have defense systems?
Her leg twitched as the bio-energy unit fired and power surged through her body once more.
Across the room from her the door opened, and someone came in. She couldn’t really see though, her visual overlay was still impaired.
Her vision wavered, the static was back, but it was beginning to dissolve into something more tangible. She could see outlines and shapes jump across her vision in jerking, lurching patterns. The sofa before her. The front door directly across the room from her. She could see the outline of the kitchen door to her left. To her right was Natalia’s room. The door there was closed.
Behind her, through the closed patio door that she was not allowed to use, she could hear the hum of the occasional hover car as they slipped by.
She could tell Brandon was the one who entered because of his outline. It flickered across her vision taller and broader than Natalia’s was. She watched his movements in hiccupping lurches, not the fluid movement that she would see once her visual overlay was repaired.
He was kneeling beside her. His hands touched her temple.
“Again?” he wondered. He stood and her vision lurched. Colors bloomed across her sight. Brandon was banging on Natalia’s door. “Are we going to talk about this?”
“There’s nothing to talk about,” Natalia called from her room. “You obviously don’t want me coming to your concerts. That pretty much ends the conversation, doesn’t it?”
“I used to tell you when I was playing, but you never came. I don’t like wasting my breath.”
Natalia didn’t respond.
Cass’s vision went out of focus and then returned with better definition.
…Visual overlay, repaired.
The nanobots at the front of her skull skittered around to the back of her brain. More repairs.
“What?” she opened the door. Natalia was tall, thin, and beautiful. Some people might think the half smile that curved part of her lips was endearing, provocative. Cass knew better. To her it looked like a predator sizing up her prey. She wore such a smile now as she stared at Brandon. Natalia crossed her arms over her ample chest, and tossed her dark hair over her shoulder with a flick of her head.
“You’re seriously mad about this?” Brandon asked.
“Why would you think I was mad?” she shrugged.
“Great, a loaded question.”
“Do you think I’m trying to bait you into something Brandon? Do you think I’m trying to lure you into a trap?”
“Just forget it,” Brandon said, tossing his hands up in the air.
Turning away from her, he took his jacket off and tossed it over the back of the couch. He came to kneel beside Cass. Her leg twitched as her energy units pumped power through her extremities.
…Power at 75%…
“You must have been angry enough to do this,” Brandon murmured.
“What?” Natalia asked around the cigarette in her mouth. She flicked the lighter and puffed the cigarette to life.
“Nothing,” he said. He leaned closer. Despite his broad shoulders, Brandon was thin. His dark brown hair was perfectly styled in a completely messy—I don’t style my hair—kind of way. Maybe he didn’t style his hair. Maybe he was one of those people that were blessed with perfect hair right out of bed. The sleeves of his checkered shirt were rolled up to his elbows. His jeans worn out and dingy.
“I don’t know why you bother with that machine,” Natalia said, slumping on the couch. She crossed her legs, her foot dangling inches from Cass’s face. Cass looked up at Natalia. Her owner wore that smug half smile. “She’s a faulty unit anyway. I wish dad had sprung for a newer one. Instead I had to go with used.”
“There’s nothing wrong with the unit,” Brandon said.
“Then what is the problem, Brandon?”
“Does there always have to be meaning behind every single thing I say?” Brandon asked, not taking his attention from Cass.
“There does when it sounds like an accusation.”
Brandon made a slight noise and a sarcastic smile curved his lips.
Natalia’s eyes flickered to Brandon, but she didn’t say anything. If she heard the sarcastic tone, she let it slide. Her smile had faded.
That surprised Cass.
…Defense systems, online…
…Power at 95%…
Cass flexed her hands and turned her head. Her vision flickered when she moved her head.
“Easy now,” Brandon said. He gripped her head between his hands and stared into her eyes. There was a dim red glow in his pupil, a reflection of her infrared that sent out an impulse from her right eye for her left eye to pick up like a camera, and feed back to her computers. It was how all automatons saw.
“She’s a damn machine. She’s not even an animal. Why are you talking to her like she’s a…thing?” Natalia asked.
“Because, she is a thing.” Brandon didn’t break his eyes from hers.
Cass sensed the microscopic bots race to the front of her skull. Her vision flickered and then sharpened.
“I think she might have to go to the doctor,” Brandon said with a frown. He was looking at Cass’s shaking hand. Was it the emotion nodules that had awakened that made her hand twitch, or was there another issue? One she couldn’t see, but Brandon could?
“Oh dear God,” Natalia said. She stood with a huff, flicking ashes at Cass and thumped into the kitchen.
The cooled ashes fell onto her leg. Her eyes followed them.
…Power at 100%…
…Memory cells, repaired…
With their work done, the nanobots raced across her spine and back to where they resided, in some compartment at the base of her skull.
“I’m taking her to Doctor Gerard,” Brandon said.
“You mean the mechanic?” Natalia asked, she appeared in the kitchen doorway and slumped against the doorframe. Her cigarette created a cloud of smoke above her head. “Don’t act like those people are actual doctors.”
Brandon didn’t say anything. He helped her to stand, though she didn’t need the help. She let him anyway. He eased her toward the door, Natalia watching them like a hawk.
“Whatever,” Natalia said when his hand turned the doorknob. “Make sure you have her home soon, I’m hungry.”
Brandon sighed when the door shut, and the concern on his face seemed to melt away into relief as he helped Cass down the muted yellow hallway to the elevator. At the very end of the hallway, a large window allowed sunlight to spill through and paint the beige carpet in honeyed light.
“Thank God we’re out of there,” Brandon said to Cass as he hit the up arrow on the elevator. “This time was bad,” Brandon said, glancing over at Cass. His fingers traced a tear on her forehead. Unlike humans, it didn’t bleed, but it did expose some of her metallic skeletal system beneath it.
She didn’t respond. She didn’t know how to respond. This was Natalia’s boyfriend. She didn’t know if she could trust him. The shaking in her hand increased, tapping against his chest where he’d had her arm draped over his shoulders.
“With that tick in your hand, I’m worried she really messed something up.”
What if it’s just those emotion nodules? She wondered. What if he takes me to the doctor and finds out that there is something wrong with me. What happens to automatons that no one wants any longer?
The elevator dinged and the door hushed open. He helped her into the elevator and tapped the button for the roof. The elevator was glass, and looked out at the city around them. Beneath them she could see the verdant park that belonged to the apartment complex. There were children and mothers there now. She couldn’t really tell what they were doing, but she did know that Natalia avoided the park because of the families that went there.
Didn’t Natalia say something about Cass being a used unit? Wouldn’t that mean that someone had her before and decided they didn’t want her? She couldn’t really remember much before Natalia, only what had come to her when she was out.
If that was the case then there could be hope for her if Natalia didn’t want her any longer because of her emotions.
She closed her eyes and leaned her head against the wall, her neck bending awkwardly around Brandon’s arm.
“Are you okay?” he asked. Was that real concern in his voice? She wanted to trust him, but the thought of it made things feel funny inside of her processor. She couldn’t calculate why he would be nice to her, and that upset her.
“I’m fine,” Cass said without a trace of damage to her speaker.
The elevator dinged and the doors whisked open onto the parking lot. The sun showing through the graying clouds. The roof was wet with the residue of an earlier shower. They stepped out onto the roof where lines upon lines of wet hover cars sparkled in the sun. Brandon produced a key from his pocket and hit a button. The door on a red hover car clicked open, and he helped Cass into the seat. He leaned over her, securing the seatbelt in its latch, and then closed the door.
Cass smoothed the tangles and knots in her long blond hair. She was painfully aware in a way that she’d not been before, that her clothes looked much more like an old woman’s than that of someone in their early twenties. Still, she picked at a stain on the floral shirt and worried over the wrinkles in the baby blue polyester pants.
Natalia wasn’t accustomed to letting Cass dress nice, or go outside. There was no need for it, she was told. She was an indoor unit, and she wouldn’t be going outside as long as she belonged to Natalia.
Brandon slipped into the driver seat and buckled his belt. The hover car hummed to life and Cass could feel the vibration beneath her feet as the engines whirred, readying for takeoff.
Brandon pushed down on the steering wheel, and there was a lurch as the hover car lifted off from the roof. Dust kicked up around them but before long Brandon was surging out of the debris and off into the sunny morning.
Cass’s hand tightened on the seatbelt. She closed her eyes, never truly having gotten used to the feel of being in a hover car.
“You don’t like flying?” he asked. She could almost hear the smile in his voice.
“No,” she said, shaking her head.
“Then you’d hate the jetpack I have.” He chuckled and the car clunked as he reduced the speed and merged into traffic. Her hand tightened more and she let out a strangled breath.
“Yea, I don’t think I would really like that,” she managed to say
“Just open your eyes, look around you,” he urged.
Reluctantly she obliged.
“Don’t you think it’s lovely?” he asked. “We used to travel on those roads down there, never fully seeing what the tops of our buildings looked like unless we were in helicopters. Now we can enjoy that view.”
“But are you forgetting the beauty, and safety, of seeing the bottoms of buildings?” Cass wondered.
Brandon laughed at her. “I’m beginning to think you weren’t really all that damaged. At least maybe not enough to go to the doctor.”
Cass didn’t want to tell Brandon what she thought the shaking in her hand was really caused from. She couldn’t help but notice that the further they got from Natalia, the more the shaking subsided. Even now, up among the glistening heights of the buildings where she feared to be, the shaking in her hand was non-existent.
Brandon noticed how she was watching her hand. “Seems like the shakes are gone, but I’d still prefer to see what the doc has to say.”