Janey watched as her multicolored vomit oozed like lava, the acidity killing all the little sidewalk bugs as it rolled over them. She watched them dying, feeling envious. I am the Destructor, she thought. I am the Puke Goddess.
A shadow moved. She realized some old guy with a grey and black beard stood over her, motionless, staring. Go away, she thought.
“You look like you’re on some serious drugs.” His voice was deep, grumbly, and featured a slight lisp.
She squinted, trying to focus her eyes. Something was wrong with him. He looked plastic. It felt like days before she managed to breathe the F word at him.
“It sounds like somebody ran out of their happy pills,” he said.
Points of bright light dotted her vision, growing numerous and then taking over everything. Like snow on television. I’m dying, she thought. Finally.
As the blinding mental snow faded to black, she was sure of it.
“I think you need to drink some water. You’re probably dehydrated.”
Janey heard shuffling sounds, like heavy shoes dragging. She opened her eyes to see checkerboard glass skyscrapers towering above her. Over to the left a spotlight illuminated a well-trimmed shrub. She felt the unyielding smooth coolness of a cement bench beneath her.
The old guy with the gray and black beard, dressed in a rumpled tan suit, strode up to her with a medium sized Starbucks cup. “Here,” he said.
Janey struggled to sit up. “I don’t want any.”
“It’s water,” he said. “I got it from that drinking fountain.” He pointed.
She wouldn’t take it, so he set it down on the bench next to her. Then he fumbled in his pocket, his motions strangely clumsy, which made her think he was a drunk. “I got you something to eat, too. Here.” He tried to hand her a large package of beef jerky. When she wouldn’t take that, either, he said, “Come on, I had to steal it for you. The least you could do is eat some.”
Janey reached out a shaking hand and took the stiff plastic package. “You’re wasting your time being nice to me,” she said. “You’re not getting any.”
“Correct.” He shuffled over to the hedge, as if he were unsure of his footing. “My guess is that they put Christmas lights here. I found an electrical socket.” He sat on the other side of the bench, facing the socket, which stuck out of the ground on a metal rod.
She watched him warily. Something was strange about him — not any weirder than the other drunken perverts she seemed to attract — but a different strange. While opening the package and fishing out bits of dried meat, she watched as he pulled a black electrical cord out of his pocket. He plugged one end into the electrical socket, and the other end into his ear.
“Okay…” she said, “what are you doing?”
“I am eating.”
Psycho, she thought, and slid off the bench, up onto her wobbly legs. But the world teetered under her, and she sat back down — hard. The edges of everything around her seemed to be melting.
His blue eyes looked lit from behind. “What are you on? A hallucinogen? An amphetamine? An opioid?”
“I’m not on nothing.”
“Of course not.” The blue spotlights of his eyes never wavered. “Maybe I should take you to a hospital.”
Janey struggled to maintain consciousness. “No.”
“You’re obviously sick. Are you sure you’re not on something? Mescaline? Peyote? Do you kids even do those anymore?”
“Just leave me alone,” she said, struggling to speak through the darkness. “I want to die.” She started crying — it came suddenly, out of nowhere — and Janey hated herself for it. “I want it to end.”
“If you really wanted to die,” he said, “you’d already be dead.”
I know, she thought. I’m even a failure at that.
She awoke in the sunlight of a too-early morning, with the eerie specter of mist drifting along the streets. The odd, old bearded guy was still with her, and he introduced himself as Phil Dick. “What are you doing out here by yourself?” he asked.
That was a loaded question, but being as he’d seen fit to stand guard over her all night, she felt obligated to answer. “Have you ever hid deep in a closet and not come out, just to see if anyone noticed you were gone?”
“In a way, yes.”
“Did anyone notice you were gone?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well, mine didn’t.” She didn’t know why, but she showed Phil her cigarette burn scars. Several on her ankles and calves, a few on her arms. “No one seemed to mind me doing this, either.”
“At least they’re not injection tracks,” Phil replied. He stroked his gray and black beard, and — not for the first time — she got the impression his skin was made of some sort of soft plastic.
It’s the drugs, she thought.
I need more.
Janey cleaned up in a fast food restroom, having learned the tricks of washing herself and her clothes in a sink. She emerged with wet clothes and smelled like hand soap, then immediately began teaching Phil the art of panhandling. He picked it up effortlessly.
They panhandled until noon, and he gave her what he’d made — he just handed it to her. Janey took it, surprised, but then used part of it to buy them a foot-long sub sandwich. When she held out half of it to him, he waved it away.
Fine, she thought. I’ll save it for dinner.
“So why are you here?” she asked. “They let you out of a mental hospital?”
“I got off an airplane,” he said. “A train brought me here.”
“I’m searching for God, or at least a science fiction convention.”
Janey snorted. “Uh, good luck on that.”
A familiar figure caught her eye — a woman built like a refrigerator, her ears and eyebrows bristled with metal studs. “Edna!” Janey stood, wobbled for a moment, then rushed after her. “Edna, wait!”
Edna stopped her massive bulk and turned, whipping a black leather greatcoat around with a practiced move. “Hey,” Edna said to her. “‘S’up, bitch?”
“Can I, uh?” Janey tried not to stare at the woman’s nose. Edna had it pierced so that little red chrome propellers hung in front of her nostrils, spinning clockwise and then counter-clockwise with every breath.
“You still owe me five from yesterday,” Edna said.
“I got it.”
The big woman stepped up close, pulling the greatcoat open and wrapping it around both of them like she was giving a hug. Her hand found the money in Janey’s palm, and Janey felt Edna shove something into her front jeans pocket. It took less than fifteen seconds.
“Pardon me,” said Phil’s voice from behind her, “no offense, but, you’re a robot, right?”
Edna pulled away, and then curled her lips at him. “What the—? Who are you talking to?”
“You. You’re a robot, right? An android?”
Edna looked him up and down. “You looking to get your ass whooped?”
“Am I wrong? It’s just that you look like you’re made of metal.”
“Metal? I’ve got metal-toed boots, and I’m going to plant one in your ass.” She peered closer at him. “And who are you to talk? You’re wearing makeup!”
“Don’t be superfluously rude. I just asked a question.” Phil held up his hands, head to the side, eyes on her as he took a step back. “I don’t want trouble.”
Edna looked at Janey, then back at Phil, her expression nonplussed. “Then move on down the road, dumb ass.”
He gave Janey a glance, put his hands in his pockets, and walked slowly back to where they’d been sitting.
Edna rolled her eyes. “Effing freak.”
“I think he’s a mental patient,” Janey told her. “He’s been hanging around me all day.”
“Well, tell him to hang around somewhere else. I don’t like him.” Edna finally glanced down at the money in her fist, spread it out with her fingers. “You’re still five dollars short!”
“I’ll get it to you tomorrow.”
Edna gave off a short low grunt. “You’d better.” With her practiced rustle-snap sweep of the leather greatcoat, she turned and resumed her steamroller gait down the sidewalk, keeping toward the shadows of the buildings.
Janey slid her fingers into her jeans pockets, feeling for the plastic. It crinkled and she felt the little tab inside. The familiarity gave her a black sense of calm.
Phil dug around the trash that accumulated in the gutter, picking up little pieces of paper and peering closely. Behind them, at the Nasher Sculpture Center, a line of people walked straight up a pole into the sky. “It’s the same as using the I Ching, really,” he was telling her. “The problem with the I Ching is that it’s static. The universe is dynamic. You see?”
Janey had no idea what he was talking about. She lay on her back on a slatted wooden bench, staring up at the jet contrails turning pink in the sunset. The way the old guy prattled on had a calming effect — which surprised her, she would have thought she’d be sick of him by now. Her bones still hurt, and she still bit her tongue so hard it bled, but she didn’t have the urge to burn or cut herself.
“We want the smallest bits we can find,” he said. “Symbols of the divine show up in our world initially at the trash stratum. That’s where some of the thoughts process.” He picked up piece after piece, discarding most, keeping one in every twenty.
“I thought that if you want to know about God you study the Bible.”
“The Bible has the same problem as the I Ching. It’s static. It’s set in stone.” Phil heaved himself up to his feet and ambled up to the bench, holding filthy little pieces of paper. They were all torn, frayed, wrinkled, and faded, looking to have been blowing around for years. “See, there’s a clear message here. This is live information, Janey. This is part of the great neural network that surrounds us.”
She sat up, and blinked at the papers as he arranged them on the bench between them. Pieces of newspaper, sections of laser printed pages, a curled piece of a label:
e because y
you say w
you are b
He arranged them until he made a sentence: “You are, you say, because you are.”
She used her right index finger to re-arrange them. “You say you are, because you are.”
He used his own rubbery finger to arrange them again. “You are because you say you are.”
“That’s it,” Phil said. “That is most definitely it.” He looked at her with his spotlight blue eyes. “You are because you say you are.”
“You are what?” she asked. “Insane?”
Phil laughed. “Most likely.” He scooped up his trash puzzle from God and put it in the breast pocket of his rumpled sports jacket. “You want to play a game?”
“What kind of game?”
“It’s a game my friend Derek taught me, called ‘True Or False.’”
“Is that like ‘Truth Or Dare?’”
“I don’t know, I’m not familiar with that. But this one is easy. I’ll start.”
“Okay,” she said.
“True or false, two days ago I was in Paris.”
He shrugged. “No, really, it’s true. Your turn.”
She stared at him for a long silent moment, and then blurted, “My mother hates me.”
His blue eyes remained on her as she squirmed over what she’d said. “True.”
“That’s whacked,” she said, “what mother hates her own daughter? False.”
“Okay. True or false, I was once a famous writer.” He smiled at her.
“Before the insane asylum? I might believe that. You look like a writer.”
“Is that a ‘True?’”
“You’re right. Your turn.”
“Okay.” She thought for a moment. “I’m a cheerleader.”
Fire blossomed in her heart. Her bones felt hollow and heavy. “You know what? This is stupid. I don’t want to play this.” Crossing her arms in front of her chest, she got up and walked away from him.
“Where are you going?”
Janey stopped. His voice had echoed. She continued hugging herself, knowing the drug was starting to take hold. Maybe, she thought, it wasn’t a good idea to go wandering off alone.
She’d taken the whole thing so this was going to be quite a ride.
Grudgingly she turned and walked slowly back across the pitted concrete crawling with bugs. She sat on the bench next to him, and in a small voice said, “Sorry.”
“It’s okay. Thank you for coming back.”
Those words made her want to cry, but she fought it. “It was true,” she said.
“You were a cheerleader?”
“But you’re not anymore?”
“No. No, not since I blew out my knees. Not since my mother disowned me, and all my friends considered me dead.”
“What?” He cocked his head slightly to the side, like a dog.
“You know what the suckiest thing is?” she said. “I never wanted to be one in the first place. She wanted me to be one. She didn’t care what I wanted. But now my younger sister is the princess, and I’m out on my ass.”
“What is it you wanted?”
She shrugged, and it felt like her shoulders detached and floated an inch off her body. It distracted her. “I wanted to be an artist.”
Phil leaned toward her. “True or false. Marilyn Monroe once said, ‘No one ever told me I was pretty when I was a little girl.’”
“Um, yeah. True.” It was a pure guess.
He nodded. “It’s true.”
“True or false,” she shot back, “I have no effing idea who Mary Lynn Monroe is.”
“Not a clue.”
Phil leaned back. “I have to update my data relevance spool.” He appeared lost in thought for a moment. “True or false, Harlan Ellison was actually Isaac Asimov’s illegitimate love child.”
An hour later she couldn’t pay attention long enough to hold a conversation. The traffic, the music from passing cars, Phil’s voice, it all sounded like it was being funneled through a long cardboard tube. The skyscrapers surrounding them had turned to tall glowing plastic trees, arcing overhead to meet in an infinite point in the sky. Beams of pink light kept shooting out of Phil’s eyes.
Janey bit her tongue so hard it bled, bit at the same place she’d wounded so many times there was a permanent indentation. The blood tasted like ocean water. Like her teeth were rocks on a shore and ocean waves pounded against them, and barnacles covered the roof of her mouth.
Phil said, “I wish I were still alive to enjoy your company.”
She had to think about that. “You’re not dead.”
“Not dead, not alive. Being a thinking machine is a paradox.”
Her thoughts slipped like blood oozing between her fingers. “Why are you plastic?”
If he answered, she didn’t hear him. A passing car caught her attention, the red tail lights the most beautiful thing she’d ever seen. They left trails of glowing red neon that took nearly a minute to fade.
She was startled to discover Phil still sat beside her. After the surprise, it comforted her. Then made her suspicious. “I don’t understand … why … are you hanging around me?”
“I care about you,” he replied in his cardboard tube voice.
“Why do you care about me?”
“I’m a sucker for dark haired girls.”
Freak, she thought. Plastic freak. He just wants to do me. He wants to hold me down and push himself inside me. Plastic man raping me.
Janey took a deep breath, then a deeper breath, and then a still deeper one, building up energy, and she let it all out in one long broken glass scream that pierced her own ears and scraped her throat raw.
He turned to her, his eyes glowing pink. “Are you okay?”
Janey repeated her performance until he finally got the message. Phil stood up and walked several unsteady paces to the next bench, sitting far away from her. It left her dizzy and weak, and she stretched out like it was the bed in her old room, the one covered with the school banners and signed tee shirts, all the paraphernalia of her mother’s dreams for her.
It seemed like years of night passed, and when the sun came up she thought she was in a domed hydroponic garden. The crystalline sky shone far too bright. Then a dark shadow eclipsed the sun, and Phil looked down at her. All she could see was his outline.
“Are you okay?” he asked. “I brought you breakfast.”
“Go away and leave me alone,” she shouted, “you effing pervert!”
Phil wordlessly turned and walked away, moving with an odd off-balance wobble.
She could smell a familiar scent, like one of those fast food egg and sausage sandwiches. It made her mouth water, but she didn’t have the strength to sit up and eat it. Even with her eyes shut the world shone far too bright. Finally she stopped fighting it, and instead accepted the brightness. It surrounded her, a sea of warmth, like large warm daddy arms holding her safe.
The sound of rustling wax paper and chewing woke her up. She blinked several times and struggled to sit. A large dark mass parked itself next to her on the bench, and when Janey could get her eyes to focus, she saw Edna eating a breakfast sandwich. Glancing around her, it appeared to be way past morning, probably well into afternoon.
“Sorry I’m eating your food,” Edna said. “I thought you were dead and I didn’t want it to go to waste. Besides, you owe me money.”
Janey licked her cracked lips with her dry tongue. Her stomach was an open pit of pain. She saw auras around everything.
“So where’s your friend?” Edna licked her fingers and then brushed crumbs off her leather.
“You friend? That guy. That guy with the beard who was hanging around you?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well, I’m looking for him. If you see him, bring him to me.”
Janey’s first thought was that he must have stolen from her. “He’s not my friend.”
“I don’t care if he is or not. If you see him, bring him to me. Understand?”
“Don’t take him nowhere else. Only to me.” Edna leaned toward her, reaching out with one of her big meaty hands covered with spiked rings and grabbing the front of her shirt. “If you take him anywhere else, I’ll kill you.”
“Damn right I will! Now go find the sonofabitch.” She let Janey go, and then stood up. With that practiced flip of her leather coat, Edna turned and walked off.
Still reeling, Janey’s right hand touched something unexpected, feeling like plastic. Next to her on the bench, under an empty fast food bag, was a white and blue shopping bag. Inside she found a spiral bound notebook and a set of pencils.
The cover of the notebook read “Artist Sketchpad” but above the word artist were scraps of letters, the bits of puzzle-piece trash from the day before, taped there.
u r because you say you are
She stared at it, kept staring at it, realizing the weird guy she’d been screaming at all night had actually listened to her, had actually heard what she’d said, and then gone out of his way to get this for her. To encourage her.
Tears leaked out and began streaming down her face.
She felt awful and wonderful at the same time.
She found him the next day, not far from where they’d first met. He was at the bottom of a rusted metal stairwell behind a building, leading down to a locked iron gate. Crumpled at the bottom under dry leaves and yellowed windblown newspaper, he clutched his power cord in his hand, frozen, dead.
Yet, he wasn’t blue. Reaching out a tentative hand, Janey felt plastic skin, artificial hair, and peering into his ear saw an electrical connector.
Oh, that’s effing weird, she thought. He really is plastic.
Part of her wanted to go get Edna, but the rest of her — the majority of her — had other ideas. Janey covered him up again with the newspaper and then rushed off.
Under the cover of dusk, after near physical exhaustion and a close call where she nearly tumbled down the stairs, Janey wearily pushed a blue Wal-Mart cart full of inert android into a dark, closed parking garage, to the far side behind a stairwell. Cord in hand, she plugged one end into Phil’s ear, and the other into a sooty electrical socket recessed in the grimy, oily concrete.
A loud snap of electricity startled her. Phil’s body convulsed, nearly upsetting the cart. For a moment Janey thought she’d done something terribly wrong, but then Phil said, “Reboot, or resume?”
She thought for a moment. “Resume,” she said.
“Okay. Resuming from hibernation.” After several tense seconds of silence, Phil said, “Where am I?”
She moved through the gloom to stand where he could see her, and reaching out, her hands found one of his. “I think your batteries ran down.”
“I seem to be stuck inside something.”
“You’re in a shopping cart.”
“Because you’re too heavy for me to carry.” His hand felt weird in hers. A little too soft and pliable, bones inside too rigid. “How long does it take you to recharge?”
“About two hours and fifteen minutes will give me a full charge. It used to be less but my batteries are getting old.”
“Okay. I have to tell you something. We have to get out of here.”
“Edna is after you.”
“The woman you thought was a robot.”
“Oh, yes. I remember.”
She let go his hand. “I … read about you in the paper.”
“On the front page, with your picture and everything. It said they lost you at the airport.”
“Yes. They did.”
“Can I ask you something?”
“Why did you get off the plane?”
“I don’t really know. Everyone else stood up and walked out. I’ve gotten on and off lots of airplanes. It’s not difficult.”
“Didn’t you know the people you were with, they weren’t with you?”
“Not at first.”
“Why didn’t you wait for them?”
“I didn’t want to.”
A smile slowly spread across her face, and she laughed. “You know what?”
“You’re a runaway just like me.”
He gave her his android smile, very realistic and seemingly genuine. “So where is it we’re going, then?”
“You said something about wanting to go to a science fiction convention. It said in the paper that there’s one going on in Richardson right now.”
At the rail stop, they stood in the dark alcove in front of a closed Chinese restaurant, avoiding the brightly lit benches across the street. Edna, Janey thought, could be anywhere. Far down the street she saw the lights of the train coming, probably the last one of the night.
“I really don’t understand,” she whispered to him. “How can information be alive?”
“You, yourself, are made up of information,” he whispered back, “and you’re alive.”
“My body is alive.”
“Your body is made of information.”
Janey shook her head. “I don’t get it.” She strained her eyes, searching in both directions. “It looks clear,” she finally whispered.
They quickly walked across the red brick paved street, over the tracks and under the electric wire. “Do you believe in a God?” he asked.
“Yes, and yes you told me three times now that God’s thoughts are all around us.” She pointed. “Even in the trash.”
“Thoughts are made of information, right? God’s thoughts manifest themselves as information all around us. Therefore, don’t you think they would be living information?”
“True or false,” Janey said. “Theology is not one of my strong points.”
Phil knelt at the curb, using his fingers to rummage through a drift of leaves and trash next to a storm drain. At random he grabbed a small piece of paper, then stood up and handed it to her. She recognized it as a fortune cookie fortune.
“You are the only authority of yourself,” she read. “Huh?”
“That’s a clear message from a vast active living intelligence system, if I’ve ever heard one.”
She looked at him quizzically.
“You are what you say you are,” he said.
The train was only one stop away now, looking like a yellow and white worm with an enormous black eye. Janey watched as it pulled out of the station and came toward them, she then saw a large figure step out of the shadows a half block away. “Crap! It’s her,” she whispered.
Phil turned and looked. “That’s Edna?”
“Yes.” Janey pressed close to him, her heart thudding. “This is bad.”
“She said she’d kill me if I didn’t bring you to her. I think it’s because of the reward. It has to be.”
“There’s a reward for you.”
“There is? For how much?”
“The paper said thirty-thousand dollars.”
“That’s not very much. Derek paid more than that for his Harley-Davidson motorcycle.”
Edna’s bulky figure reached them the same time as the train.
“So,” she said, “were you brining him to me, or running away?”
Phil put his arm in front of Janey, pushed her gently behind him. “Don’t worry. I’ll take care of this.”
“Oh, you will, huh?” Edna’s spinning nose propellers sparkled with reflections. “You’re coming with me.”
“Do you have a spaceship nearby?”
She squinted at him, frowning hard. “Excuse me?”
“Well you said you’re not a robot, so I can only assume you’re some sort of space alien. Which planet are you from, exactly?”
The orange and white train hissed beside them, and the doors all slid open.
Edna pointed at Janey, saying, “Don’t you even think about getting on there.” Looking at Phil, Edna pulled something black and oblong out of her pocket. A stun gun. “See this, Mr. Robot? This is a hundred-thousand-volts of ‘your ass is mine.’ It’ll turn you off like a light switch. Does that compute?”
“I have two laser beams that can melt your brain,” Phil said.
Intense beams of pink light shot out of his eyes and right into hers. Edna’s whole body gave a start. She scrambled backward, losing her balance, her arms pin-wheeling. Black leather made heavy flopping sounds, and her refrigerator-sized bulk fell straight backwards onto the cement with an ominous thud.
“Let’s go,” Phil said, hustling Janey into the train just before the doors closed.
“Phil—?” She’d leapt up the steps and stood looking out the windows. He followed and stood next to her, both watching the frightening visage of Edna flailing around on the sidewalk. “Phil, what did you do? Did I just see that?” Janey wondered if it were a flashback.
The train lurched and then rolled out of the station. Edna had made it to her feet but was stumbling around with her hands in front of her. “I flashed her with my pink beam,” Phil said. “Derek thought it would be funny to put laser diodes in my eyes. It wowed the crowds in Paris.”
“You didn’t really melt her brain?”
“No. She probably won’t be able to see for a few minutes, though.” Phil turned away from the window, and then they navigated the wobbling floor to sit down. The rest of the train was empty, save an old guy asleep at the far end. Phil leaned forward, his voice lowered. “How smart is she, do you know?”
“I don’t know.”
“We’re on rails. It would be easy for her to predict where we are heading.” He cocked his head slightly to one side. “What planet is she from, anyway?”
Two stops before the convention hotel, Janey spotted a rail cop heading toward the train. “We have to get off,” she whispered to Phil.
“We don’t have tickets.”
“Oh.” He stood and followed her to the door and down the steps.
The brown uniformed man with an almost Hitleresque mustache gave them a suspicious look, but said nothing. He boarded the train and the doors closed. With an electronic woot-woot, it lurched into motion and rolled out of the station, leaving them stranded. “Was that the last train?” Phil asked. “My batteries are getting low.”
Janey searched around until she found a faded schedule posted behind Plexiglas. It was hard to read because the plastic was turning opaque. “Do you know what time it is?” she asked him.
“Three minutes after midnight, central daylight time.”
Janey sighed with relief. “There’s one more train coming. We’ve got a forty minute wait.”
Phil found a socket beneath a fold-down metal seat and plugged himself in. He sat in the seat, facing her, his back to the grimy white and yellow tile.
Janey folded down another one of the metal seats across from him and sat. Her stomach knotted with hunger, and she felt exhausted and wretched. But that was normal, she was used to feeling that way. She was also used to feeling lonely and empty, but tonight those feelings were missing.
Reaching into the tattered plastic bag she’d been dragging around for the past few days, she pulled out the drawing pad and a pencil. “Don’t move,” she said. “This is going to be an interesting sketch. I’m going to call it, ‘Man Eating Electricity Through Ear.’”
“Sometimes I have wires in both ears. The other is my network port.”
“How do you hear?”
“Microphones under the skin of my forehead.” Phil fell silent for a while as she scratched at the paper with the graphite. “Have you thought about turning me in for the reward?”
“Yes, but I won’t.”
“I didn’t find you. You found me.” She smiled. “There’s a reward for my return, too.”
“Same as yours.”
“Nope, not kidding. You and a I are worth the same amount of money.”
“Why didn’t Edna turn you in for your reward.”
“She doesn’t know about it. Mine wasn’t splashed across the front page of the Dallas newspaper.”
“Here’s a thought. You turn me in, collect the reward money, and then go home to your parents and tell them you want the reward that they put up for you. Combine the two and it would pay your way through art college.”
“That’s funny. You don’t know my mom. She’d take all the money and sink it into my sister’s bid to be Queen of the Cheerleaders.” She finished the general shape of his face, and began filling in details of his eyes. She made them a bit larger than life, Anime style. “Besides, if I turn you in, there goes your freedom.”
“What do you mean?”
“They’re not going to let you wander around like this all on your own. I bet they’ll lock you in a closet.
“No, they’ll just turn me off.”
She stopped the pencil. “What?”
“I’m not a person, Janey. It doesn’t matter.”
“What do you mean?”
“I’m an android. My thoughts are all pre-recorded in a fuzzy logic neural network. I’m not truly self aware, not like you are.”
Janey closed the cover of her sketch pad and stood, walking over to him. “What does this say?” She pointed at the words he’d taped onto the front.
“That doesn’t apply to me.”
“Janey, I’m just a machine.”
“I am because I say I am, but you’re not because you say you’re not?”
“I’m afraid I’m not, no matter what anyone says.”
She narrowed her eyes at him, backed slowly away, and then resumed her place on the fold-down seat across from him. Flipping open the sketch pad, she licked the tip of her pencil and began scratching marks on the bleached paper. “I should draw you with a dunce cap on your head.”
“That’s not nice.”
“Sorry, but you have a giant blind spot when you look at yourself. And you know what that made me realize?”
“I do too.”
The train made its electronic woot-woot sound as the brakes lurched her forward in the seat. Janey looked out the window and saw the towering Renaissance Hotel, and in the station hung a banner welcoming “Humans and Otherwise” to the convention. People in costumes milled about, smoking and talking. She saw angel wings, Star Wars characters, and sword-wielding musketeers in blue uniforms.
“I’m glad I’m not tripping tonight,” she said. “This would freak me out big time.”
Phil scanned the view just like the machine he was, his head panning smoothly back and forth. “I don’t see her. I think it’s safe.”
The train doors opened, and they stood. “Phil, I have to ask you something. This really bothers me.”
“How can you say that information is alive, but you’re not?”
“Because I’m not.”
Janey gave an exasperated sigh and walked wearily down the steps. The outside air was cool, but smoky. The smell of cigarettes made her want to get high.
Phil stepped out of the train behind her. A red-shirted person with a Star Trek insignia brushed past him, getting on the train. “Actually,” he said to Janey, “I have to think about that.”
She turned to him. “What?”
“About what you just said. I’ve been told so many times that I’m not sentient that I just accept it. But what you just said … it doesn’t go against my internal set of logic. So…”
Behind Phil, in the shadows of a hedge, a larger shadow moved. Forward it came, bursting into the light, moving fast. Black leather flapping behind her, Edna pounded the ground, snarl on her face and taser held high. Janey only had time to scream Phil’s name. He turned to look just as she hit.
They landed hard onto the gray cement, her pinning him down, yelling obscenities, and the taser made a cracking sound that went on and on. Phil’s arms and legs quivered. “Stop it!” Janey screamed. “Stop! Get off him!” She crawled right onto Edna’s back, her fists full of black leather, trying to use her weight to roll the madwoman off. “Stop! Stop, you’re killing him!” She crawled up to the woman’s shoulders and grabbed two fists full of hair and pulled with all her might.
Edna gave a great heave and shrugged her off, but Janey held onto the hair. “Aaarh! Let go!”
“Damn it! I’m going to kill you, you little bitch!” Struggling, she freed her arm and brought the taser up before Janey had a chance to react.
Her whole body went rigid. It felt like fire shooting up and down her legs, out her toes and fingers. She hit the cement like a dead weight and her head bounced. Then she just lay there, stunned, struggling to breathe. Her arms and legs wouldn’t work.
Edna stood and towered over her, face warped into a terminal grimace. One of the propellers had been knocked out and her nose dripped blood. “I’m going to shock you until your heart stops,” she said. Bending over her, she reached down with the taser, a blue arch of fire snapping like an angry electric snake.
A blur of motion. Something smacked Edna’s arm so hard she cried out, and the taser flew from her grasp. She backed away, holding her arm in pain, blood seeping between her fingers. A woman with brown hair, glasses, and a feathered cap held her at sword point. She was flanked by a Wookiee and three snarling Klingons.
Edna glanced at the taser several feet away, but the swordswoman said, “I don’t think so, sister. This blade is sharper than you’d believe.”
The Klingons behind her growled, brandishing their own uber dangerous blades.
A lot had happened since she’d been away from home.
Janey’s dad had filed for divorce. Her little sister dropped out of cheerleading, opting instead to go into drama. And Janey had the first long, deep talk with her father — ever, in her entire life. It turned out he did drugs, too, when he was her age.
While in rehab, someone she didn’t know came to visit, a thin, well-dressed man with glasses and a goatee. He introduced himself as Phil’s friend, Derek. “Phil’s going to be okay,” he told her. “He wanted me to tell you hello for him.”
“Why isn’t he here?”
“Well … there’s a lot of damage. While his mind is okay, his body is all burnt out. We have a few more weeks of repairs to do.”
“Did you realize his eyes were cameras? Everything he sees is recorded.”
“Yes, everything. And between what he tells me, and what I’ve seen, I think you deserve the reward money.” He pulled an envelope out of his jacket pocket. “This is a letter of intent. Once you’re released from here, I’ll pay your way through art school. Tuition, room and board, everything. As long as you keep your grades up.”
She took the envelope from him, not knowing what to say.
“Oh,” Derek said, “there’s another thing Phil wants me to tell you, but I’m not really sure what he means.”
“He says he decided you’re right.” Derek frowned. “That he is because he says he is.”
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