It was the bright red of her dress that caught his eye. A shock of scarlet in the midden heap grey. He thought, She must have fallen. And then he thought, She was thrown.
He climbed down, spaceman slow. Respirator, rubber boots, thick gloves, tool belt, goggles, hood. The slope was composed of plastic and glass and composites and shining metal. Nothing that rots, here. Nothing that breaks down, nothing that can be returned to the earth.
She was lying surface level on the e-trash. Another day out here, she'd be buried. After checking that she was intact, he took her by one flopping arm, hauled her over his shoulder, and began the climb back upwards.
The first time she woke up, it was because she was summoned by the combination of his voice saying her name. Her name was a passcode that began a cascade of electricity through her synthetic synapses and made her eyes open and focus, pupils shrinking. She had been calibrating for the better part of three hours. She didn't remember it, having lacked cognizant ability until that very moment, but she knew it. She knew a lot of things, suddenly.
Like she knew it was 6:35 pm, which meant it was time for dinner, and that she would make glazed tofu and seaweed salad, and that he would want to drink beer when he ate it. A cold bottle, presented with an empty glass. He would eat at the table, and she would sit across from him with nothing in front of her.
He would tell her about his day, and she would sympathise, or congratulate, or disagree if he started to be too hard on himself. When he had finished eating, she would stand, and collect his dishes to bring them to the kitchen. Unless he stopped her, which she knew he might.
He was sitting in front of her now, gripping her hands, waiting for her to do something. So, she smiled.
He cleaned her, first. He peeled away her outer platinum-cure silicone layers and hosed them down with water, and then distilled spirits. He washed her hair—still attached to a removable cap, black silken threads of acrylic, sewn in spirals—in a bucket with some of his own shampoo and hung it to dry. Later, he worked through its knots with a comb, before reaffixing the mesh base to the endoskull. He removed her inserts, her eyes, and cleaned them too. He opened the panel compartments within and spent much time on the machinery beneath. He hooked her powerpack to his generator until it was warm.
He threw away her dress, which smelled of the landfill. Like water damage, burnt electronics, corroded plastic.
Then he put her back together. He didn't know her name and she would not be registered to his voice, so he had to find other ways to turn her on. He ran cables from his generator and slipped the metal rod through the ports he exposed in the centre of her back.
He threw the switch. The lights went out, and when she began to convulse, he caught her before she fell.
She was capable of attending to her own needs, but sometimes he liked to do it for her. He would select the dress she would wear that evening and stand at her back while she faced the mirror, and slowly draw the zipper up along her spine to encase her in a finely sewn shell of silk and chiffon. He would wrap strings of diamond and pearl around her neck. He would gently comb her hair and apply touches of perfume behind her ears. He would kneel and slide her feet into shoes, holding onto her ankle. He would paint her face in makeup, slower than she would be able to do on her own, but with care, and with skill, of having done this before.
Sometimes that was all they did, and he would leave her in the penthouse like that, and she would not see him again until morning. She would find things to do. She would dust off the shelves or organise his office or make the bed, leaving the imprints of stiletto heels in the plush carpeting as she went.
She sat across from him dressed in an old t-shirt, pajama pants that swamped her feet, which were bare. Looking out the window. Or at the window.
He had run out of questions, and they'd all gone unanswered, unacknowledged. What was her name, her serial code, her memory of the time before she powered down? Nothing. By now, it seemed she was capable of voice activation, having responded and complied with simple instructions—sit, put this on, don't touch that—but her speech centres could be damaged. Or there could be some kind of internal system protocol that prevented her from interaction without proper licensing.
He hadn't seen any damage. He hadn't detected any system errors in her programming.
Which did not mean there wasn't something wrong, underlying. He was fallible, and she was complicated.
She had a lot of information about the ways he liked to have sex.
Normally it should end with her on top and him laying down, in the bed, but she knew he sometimes liked it when sitting on the couch and watching pornography on the television, or for her to bend herself over on the kitchen counter and wait for him to come to her. Just as frequently, he might just want her hands or her mouth, or he would attend to himself while she posed. All of this data was compiled from his use of previous assets, loaded into her, and recalled like false memories.
But he did none of these things. The one time her biometric readings of him suggested that she should initiate intimacy, he had pushed her away.
It made him unpredictable.
She walked around his apartment, silently. She inspected the contents of his fridge. She pressed her hands to the windows he hadn't ever cleaned since moving in. She picked things up with careful fingers and set them down. She moved around him, as if he was not really there, embodied, but a cold patch of air, a shadow, a superstition.
On a piece of paper, he wrote, You are safe, and left it for her to find.
When she did, she held it for a long time.
Opening the front door was not a behaviour written into her routines, and so when the person on the other side of it beat their fist against it incessantly, she ignored the noise. When the person on the other side of it keyed in a code that released the door’s locking mechanism and opened it, she didn't stop them.
When he invited guests over, she was instructed to stay in his study, and remain there no matter the circumstances. The woman walking into the apartment might be a guest, and so she turned to excuse herself to the study.
Come back here, said the woman, but her voice had no power over her, and she didn't. I said stop.
She closed the door to the study and watched as the woman opened it again.
What is this? she asked. What is this?
She went to stand at the window as the woman yelled more commands at her, and she watched the city. The traffic had thinned for the evening. The woman gave up trying to speak to her. The clouds shifted over the moon, and weather updates indicated that tomorrow they would expect rain. She should select one of his coats and place it by the door, knowing he wouldn't think to, otherwise. She heard the door open.
He'd come home, but she remained in the study rather than go to greet him with the routine kiss to the cheek, the taking his briefcase, the offering him a glass of whiskey. So long as he had guests over, her primary imperative was to stay in the study, and so she continued to do so.
“I need you to explain to me,” said the woman, “that thing in there.”
“I don't need to explain anything,” he said.
He was distressed. They both were. Their biometrics read very excited, angry, but she had no information on this woman, and no information on what she could do for her. For him, she would normally offer a massage, a beer, a sexual service. She stayed where she was.
“It's sick,” the woman was saying. “It's disgusting. You're disgusting.”
The woman left but only after yelling at him to get his hands off her. The door slammed, thunderously, and she pivoted for the open study door. She walked out, and she went to him.
He found a vocaliser at the third pawn shop he visited. It was an older part, still operable. Still expensive. He was able to pay for it, but only barely, with both money and parts for trade. Hopefully it would interact with her core systems, as he was certain by now that her speech centres had been fried. What that would mean, he thought, was that maybe she had something to say.
But when he returned home, the front door was hanging open. She was gone.
No, not quite gone. Serene and perfect, her face plate had been removed and left on the table. The eyes were half closed, and the lips were half parted, showing the table through them. Without a semblance of life peeking through those eyes, without micro-animation pulling tension at the corners of her mouth, without acrylic hair framing this face, it appeared to him false, mask-like, not even lifeless, but having never possessed any life to begin with.
Finding her was not difficult, but it was time-consuming. Equipment like her tended to have tracking capability, and after driving around for a few hours, he picked up on her signal.
It was a populated area of town, where there was still a functional power grid, and so people congregated, and the more the crowd thickened, he wondered if that meant she would be harder to find, or too easy.
Finally, he saw it. A trail of people, most of them young, none of them sober, following the lurching shape of her as she marched on. She was still in his clothes, but her feet were bare, as he had never gotten her shoes. Her hair was windswept, fluttering freely. Her face was raw machine, silver and black and multicoloured wiring. Two rows of bare human teeth. Two exposed eyeballs, unblinking, and staring.
He got out of his car and ran over just as he saw one of the people, a young woman, break from the crowd to shove her in the back. She collapsed to her knees, and the crowd was a mix of laughter, discomfort, but all of them interested to see what she would do.
Which was nothing, save to slowly get up. One of her legs, shaking.
He pushed through the crowd to get to her and helped her the rest of the way.
In the car, they were silent, driving home. He wanted to ask her where she'd been going, why she had left. Hadn't he tried to tell her she was safe where she was? Away from humans? Why had she sought them out again? But it was useless; he hadn't had a chance to install her new vocaliser.
He passed her face, which she then simply held in her hands. Eventually, without prompt, she pressed it back into place.
He disabled the motor function in her knees, and then peeled back the access panel at her neck and overloaded the wiring until the vocaliser was dead and heavy in her throat. She lived, then, on the floor of his office, wracked with unrealised instinct.
She had to clean the bathroom floors. She had to prepare his belongings before work. She had to order the grocery delivery. There were so many things she had to do that crawling across the floor could not allow, and after a time, her body stopped responding, even as these commands never left her system.
He still dressed her up, and she was willing to comply, but slow to do so. He handled her like a doll when she did not act fast enough.
He wanted sex, now, but none of the data she had compiled on his preferences seemed to matter. It was always on the floor, and it was always quick, and he always pushed her hands away, and it was never gentle.
She stopped reaching for him. She stopped moving. After a while, she stopped processing.
The vocaliser has a honeycomb-like exterior, with dragging wires, copper and plastic. She held it while he explained how it worked, that it would still sound just like herself, however that sounded once it had been installed and integrated.
She did not express much, but the slackness of her fingers and her bowed head compelled him to add, “You don't have to tell me anything. But I’d like to learn your name.”
And this time she looked right at him, instead of through him. Like a closing flower, her fingers tensed around the small piece of equipment. Then, she offered it back to him and nodded once before he could interpret that in some other way.
He had been drinking. His biometrics told her he was intoxicated, which normally meant that he would soon sleep, and that she should be ready for him to wake up and give him his painkillers and soda water. If she could walk.
He instead picked her up. He dressed her in something shining and red, clumsily doing the small buttons at her back. He did not brush her hair, but did run his hand through it, fingers catching on slippery knots, but still, she thought he was being tender, or trying to be. He didn't paint her face.
He picked her up and put her in his car. They left the city. They left the clean roads and clear air. They drove out and out and out until the only light source came from the interior of the car, the headlights out front. But her vision was advanced enough that she could see the distant shapes that looked like mountains, at first, but eventually became rolling hills of machinery, waste, and forgotten things.
They broke open his door. Not police, not anyone in uniform, just two men who seemed to know what they were doing. “Oh,” said one, when they saw him getting to his feet. “There's a guy in here.”
“Hey, guy,” said the other. “Where's the asset? She belongs to someone.”
“I fixed her myself,” he said. One of them blocked his movement with his body, while the other found her in the next room, and directed her out with rough hands circling her arms. Her legs ambulated obediently beneath her, her expression perfectly neutral, but her spine was stiff. Her hands in little knots. “I found her. She's mine.”
“Can you shut that up?” said the one who was moving her.
“They don't exactly come with a mute button,” said the other.
He made a move, he launched himself towards her, and the man blocking his way grabbed him by the arm and shoved him hard into the wall. He heard his shoulder socket crack, sensed wires tearing from terminals, and his arm went limp. He was kicked, thrown down, and from the floor, he watched boots and her bare feet disappear behind his closing door.
After he had left, and she lay unmoving in place, her red silk dress and her black hair fluttering in the cold wind that cut through the manmade valley, she could still sense him for some time. Her range was long, and she could sense his inebriation fading. She could sense his anger diminishing. Or perhaps that was the distance, as he drove away from her, but her processing was still not fully operable, and she had to make conjectures about what that absence of feeling meant.What it could mean.
Eventually, she could not sense him at all.
Touching his bed, it was as though she hadn't been there at all. In the hours after she’d been removed from his apartment, from the bedroom he’d surrendered to her, he’d left it too late and now couldn’t even detect her mechanical warmth on the sheets, in that space where she’d rested through her nightly recharge cycles.
It was only by chance that he found it, the clip of paper. It had been folded two ways into a small square, and tucked safely beneath the pillow, like a tooth, like a wish. He unfolded it carefully, reading the words he had attempted to make her believe: You are safe.