By Zoe Kaplan
Tikva slid into work exactly thirty seconds late. She raised the walls of her cubicle, blue holoscreens that hid the rest of the office. She moved to tap her message box, but a red exclamation point flashed on the screen, along with a ribbon of text: You are late. Please account for your time.
A dropdown menu appeared. Tikva rolled her eyes and scrolled though the options until she found Train Trouble.
Please select your route.
Tikva groaned. She lost more time to these accountability surveys than she ever did for her tardiness.
Finally, she got through the survey and opened her messages. A depressingly long list of unread memos appeared on the wall in front of her. At the top was one marked with a green star. Urgent: new coworker. Tikva tapped it with a frown. New coworker memos weren’t uncommon, but they were never urgent. She read the memo:
To: All Staff
From: Derek Ingersol, CEO
Date: December 1st, 2084
Today we welcome a very special new member of our staff! We are partnering with Coralia Electronics to beta test their newest product, a line of Administrative Assistant Androids. Our model’s name is Verity. Feel free to interact with her—Coralia E needs data on her interpersonal skills. On-the-clock interactions up to ten minutes in length will not be penalized.
For more information about our newest coworker, please click here: coraliaelectronics.com/android/ver1ty/specs.htm
Have a wonderful, productive day!
Tikva leaned back in her chair. What a cool concept. If only she was doing big, impactful projects like building androids. That’s why she’d majored in electrical engineering in the first place—to push the boundaries of what was possible for humans to build. The job market was so shit, though, that she’d wound up planning the wiring for swanky apartment buildings. It wasn’t the most engaging work.
Three hours later, her butt was beginning to ache, and the prospect of ten minutes’ unpenalized conversation was looking pretty appealing. So, Tikva stood and wandered, not too quickly, over to the elevator.
The Administrative Offices were on the first floor, behind the reception desk. Tikva had expected to see Verity crowded with people on midmorning break, but there didn’t seem to be anyone in the room who wasn’t working. For a moment, Tikva was worried she wouldn’t be able to tell which one Verity was.
That was, in fact, not a problem.
On the right wall, facing away from her, sat a woman with fair skin and brown hair. Her right hand swiped through various displays on the screen beside her, while her left typed on the keyboard, faster and more accurately than anyone Tikva had seen before. While she stood, dumbfounded, the woman sent off four memos and wrote an entire report.
What was crazy was, she looked so human. She was nothing like the BuddyBot that Tikva’s parents had gotten for her when she was six, who moved like a marionette and had stiff, plasticky doll hair. This woman’s movements were fluid and certain, and if they hadn’t been so freakishly fast, Tikva wouldn’t have guessed she wasn’t human. She was pretty in an unassuming kind of way, probably designed to make people treat her more kindly. Her hair was gently wavy, and her posture was just a little slouched. It was a good design choice, Tikva thought. It kept her from looking, well, like a robot.
“Excuse me,” said Tikva, and the android’s hands froze and dropped to the desk. “I didn’t mean to interrupt, but I wanted to introduce myself.
The android turned in her chair. She was smiling a real-looking smile over perfect teeth. Her blue-gray eyes focused on Tikva with an intensity that her old BuddyBot had lacked. She had a spot on her neck—a large freckle? A small mole? “Hello,” she said, extending a hand. “My name is Verity. Good to meet you.”
Tikva shook her hand. “I’m Tikva Lepinski. I work up in engineering.”
Verity’s hand was warm and not too soft. Tikva noticed the wrinkles in her skin—molding those just right must have taken forever. If she didn’t know, she wouldn’t have guessed that Verity’s skin was plastic. Her nails, pressing into Tikva’s palm, did feel like plastic, but that wasn’t unusual for professional young women.
Tikva asked, “How’s Matrolic Realty treating you?”
“Mostly people have been really nice so far. I heard that you get breaks to visit me, though, so maybe that’s why.”
Tikva laughed. “Yeah, that’s definitely part of it. But you’re also a curiosity, you know? The whole engineering department was buzzing about you.”
“I’m glad they’re excited.” Verity lowered her voice. “I think everyone in administration thinks I’m here to steal their jobs.” Her eyes were wide and serious. “They keep glaring at me when they think I’m not looking.”
“Did Coralia give you eyes in the back of your head or something?”
“No, but my peripheral vision is better than a human’s.”
“I was kidding, Verity. It’s a figure of speech.”
“I know that.” Verity’s voice had turned almost pouty. “I thought as an engineer, you’d be interested to know the truth.”
Tikva put her palms up in a gesture of surrender. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to, um, push your buttons.”
Verity continued to glare at her, but the corner of her mouth was lifting.
“Hey,” said Tikva, “are you sitting with anyone for lunch today?”
“Would you like to sit with me? I promise I won’t insult your knowledge of human idioms.”
Verity beamed. It was amazing how her features rearranged from stormy to sunny, just in an instant. Tikva’s breath caught. “That would be lovely. Wouldn’t miss it for the world.” Her mouth quirked with amusement. Then she blinked and said, “You better go. You entered the room nine minutes and thirty seconds ago, and I don’t want you to get penalized on my account.”
“Thank you! See you at lunch. Be there or be square,” Tikva said with a wink. She turned away quickly and pressed her hands to her face. Did I just wink? What the fuck was I thinking? She’s going the think I’m so creepy.
But Verity still met her in the company cafe that afternoon, and the afternoon after that, and the one after that. She never ate, so Tikva hoped that she stuck around for the company.
Tikva had a problem. The problem was she really, really liked Verity. Verity was sweet and fun. She wasn’t big on telling jokes, but she was faster at wordplay than anyone Tikva knew. She was also fascinated by human relationships, which meant she listened to office gossip with a level of breathless excitement Tikva had never seen. The net connection in her brain meant she could regale friends with stories of famous artists’ centuries-old affairs that mirrored Sally-from-Accounting’s explosive breakup with Clare-the-receptionist, who was too old for her anyway. There was something about the way she looked when telling these stories—her eyes shining, her head tilted to the side—that took Tikva’s breath away. She could listen to Verity talk forever.
Which was stupid. Tikva ought to know better than to get a crush on an android. She’d helped build a healthcare robot in her undergraduate research lab—she knew what went into making a machine seem personable. And yet, Verity seemed to go beyond that. She referred to herself as “delighted” or “distraught” all the time.
Still, it was foolish. It was especially foolish for Tikva to rush down to Verity’s office just before closing time on Friday.
Verity looked up when she entered.
“Tikva! Are you okay? You’re out of breath.”
Tikva tried to slow her breathing. “I wanted to catch you before the end of the day.”
“What’s so important? I’ll be here on Monday.”
“I, um—” Tikva’s courage melted before Verity’s worried eyes. “It’s not a big deal, but I was wondering if you wanted to, um, go get dinner with me this weekend.”
Verity’s mouth parted in a little O. “That’s very kind, but I don’t actually eat.”
“Oh, right. I’m sorry, I knew that.” Tikva could have kicked herself. No way Verity would want to go out now.
“But—” Verity tilted her head to the side in a way that Tikva recognized as searching the web connection in her head. “There’s a concert at the Hernandez Memorial Hall tomorrow night. We could do that.”
Tikva brightened. “Yes! That would be wonderful. If it’s okay for you to leave. I mean, I don’t want to get you in trouble. I just—”
“I wouldn’t have suggested it if I couldn’t go. My weekends are my own, just like yours. You might have to pay if you break me though,” Verity said, with a lilt to her voice. Tikva couldn’t decide if it was flirting or not.
“Great, meet you there,” she said, stumbling out of the room before she could make a bigger idiot out of herself.
Tikva woke to snow swirling against her window panes. She spent the day restlessly fussing around her apartment, sweeping half of the kitchen and abandoning it to start reorganizing her bookshelf. Finally, evening came. Tikva made herself up, pausing at the last minute to put a little bit of glitter on her cheekbones. She ought to look special, she thought.
Verity met her outside the concert hall. Despite the freezing temperatures, she wore the same light blazer and skirt set she wore to work. “Aren’t you cold?” Tikva asked.
Verity shrugged. “No pain sensors. My circuitry keeps me warm. Feel!” She held out her arm.
Tikva touched the back of her hand. It was indeed warm, almost hot. It reminded her of the heated seats in her ex-girlfriend’s car. She seized the opportunity to take Verity’s hand in hers. It got warmer.
Tikva had foolishly forgotten to research the concert they were seeing. It turned out to be classical music, something she neither knew about nor cared for. But sitting toward the back of the theater, with Verity whispering about the composers’ personal lives and who punched whom, she found herself having fun. She was even disappointed when the concert was over.
“Can I walk you home?” asked Verity as they stepped back into the cold December night.
“Sure,” said Tikva. “Where do you sleep, anyway?”
“Technically I don’t sleep, but I spend my nights in the basement of the Matrolic Realty building. Which way is your apartment?”
“That way first,” said Tikva, pointing. “Then left after like four blocks.”
They walked together. Tikva tucked her gloved hands into her pockets, thinking of the warmth of Verity’s hands. Snowflakes landed gently in their hair and dusted their shoulders as they walked down the quiet city streets. Christmas lights glowed in store windows. In a few apartment windows, high above the street, menorahs flickered. Tikva hadn’t pulled out her dusty bronze menorah yet. Maybe, she thought, she would when she got home.
“You know, I’ve never seen snow before,” said Verity.
“Yeah. I’ve got, like, videos in my head of snow falling, but with my own eyes?”
“I’m honored to be here for your first time with snow.”
“I can’t imagine anyone else I’d want with me.”
Suddenly, it didn’t seem so cold anymore.
They stopped in front of Tikva’s building. For a moment, they stood there in silence, watching Tikva’s breath cloud out in front of her. Tikva didn’t want the moment to end.
And then it finally did. Verity said, “I should probably get going. This was a lot of fun, though.”
“Do you, um, want to come up for a minute? I have tea and coffee—you can warm up before going back to the office.”
“Oh no, that’s alright. I—Look.” Verity twisted her hands together in what struck Tikva as a very human gesture. “I know what it means to invite someone up for coffee after a date. I did some research. And I can’t do what you want me to do.”
Tikva’s face burned despite the snow. “I don’t—I mean—”
“It doesn’t mean I don’t like spending time with you, but I don’t feel that way.”
Tikva’s heart dropped to the concrete. “I understand.”
“I couldn’t have sex with you, anyway. I’m so sorry.”
“Wait,” said Tikva. “Is this just about sex?”
Verity’s forehead wrinkled. Somewhere in her chest, a fan began to whir. “What else would it be about?”
“Would you even want to do that with me?”
Tikva sighed, but she was smiling. “Yeah. I mean, I like you. Why wouldn’t I?”
“I’m not a human.”
“I know that.”
“I—” Verity leaned close to Tikva and whispered, “I don’t have genitals.”
For such an advanced android, Tikva thought, Verity was remarkably puritanical. “I don’t mind. That’s not super important to me anyway.” Privately, Tikva was a little relieved by this—for once she wouldn’t have to be worried about disappointing someone with her asexuality. Mostly the women she dated were cool with it, but it was hard not to worry anyway.
The whirring in Verity’s chest was louder now. “Why are you okay with this?”
Tikva shrugged. “You’re cute, and you’re funny, and you know all this stuff about history that nobody cares about. The rest of it doesn’t matter. It’s fine if you aren’t into me, but that’s not the sense I’ve gotten this evening. Hey,” she reached out and took Verity’s hand, “you don’t have to be scared of me.”
Verity ducked her head. “It’s not that I don’t like you. I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m—they made me social, so I’d be a good coworker. I’m supposed to be able to make emotional bonds, but I don’t know if that means I can feel romantically. I don’t even know what the difference is.”
“Do you want to find out?” When Verity didn’t reply, Tikva said, “I’m freezing my ass off, so I’m going to go inside. You can come with or not. No pressure.”
“I don’t think I can. Sorry.”
“It’s okay.” It wasn’t okay. Tikva’s chest was heavy with disappointment.
“But if you don’t mind, I’d like to kiss you before I go.” Verity didn’t meet her eyes.
“Yes.” The word came out breathier than Tikva intended, almost a whisper.
And then Verity kissed her. Her lips were as warm and soft as the rest of her. It was a chaste little kiss—it only lasted a moment—but when they broke apart, Tikva’s heart was racing.
“Goodnight,” whispered Verity, and then she was gone, walking too fast down the sidewalk away from her.
“So are you coming home for Passover?” Tikva’s mother asked.
“If I can get the time off, but no promises.”
On Tikva’s home holoscreen, her mother shook her head. “They work you too hard up there.”
Tikva didn’t disagree. “If I do come home, do you mind if I bring my girlfriend with me? She doesn’t eat, so you won’t have to do any extra cooking.”
“You’re still dating that robot girl, then?” Tikva’s mother asked.
“She’s an android, Mom, and yes, we’re still dating.”
Tikva’s mother pursed her lips.
“Do you have a problem with Verity?”
“I’m just worried about you. I think you’ve put too much of your heart into this thing. This thing with her, I mean.”
“What makes her different from anyone else I’ve dated?”
“She’s not Jewish.”
This was such an obviously fake answer that Tikva actually laughed. “Since when do you care about that? Josie wasn’t Jewish and you loved her.”
“I did not love her! She broke your heart.”
“Before that you loved her. You used to tell me that we should get our genes spliced so your grandbabies would look like her.”
Her mother tiled her head to the side. “Maybe so. But at least Josie had a nefesh.”
“Oh my God. Why does it matter whether or not Verity has a soul? She has a personality and a mind and a really cute face. That’s all I need.”
Her mother sighed. “You’re setting yourself up for heartbreak, Tikvaleh. Someday you’re going to need something from that robot that she won’t be able to give.”
“That won’t happen. I respect Verity’s boundaries.”
“You know I’ll support you whatever you do. I just want you to think carefully about what you’re getting into.”
“Okay, Mom.” Tikva was one hundred and fifty percent done with the conversation.
“I love you, kiddo. Try and get the time off.”
“I’ll talk to HR tomorrow,” Tikva lied. After this, there was no way she could go home for Passover.
Tikva and Verity walked hand in hand along a path in the downtown park. It was barely above freezing, but the sky was so blue it looked like it had been photoshopped out from behind the trees and skyscrapers. Kids in puffy coats shrieked with joy as they catapulted from swings or sped by on plastic roller skates. Parents sat on benches with steaming travel mugs held in gloved hands. Joggers and bikers passed them on both sides, but they were content to amble along slowly. Tikva turned her face to the sky, drinking in the bright sunlight. “What a perfect day.”
“It’s still colder than is optimal for you, right?”
Tikva laughed. “I guess, but I like the cold, as long as there’s sun.”
“Oh.” Verity looked down at her feet for a long moment. “I wish you wouldn’t laugh at me.”
“I wasn’t trying to say anything funny. I just wanted to understand you. Do you have to laugh?”
“I’m sorry,” said Tikva. “I wasn’t trying to be mean or anything, it’s just cute.”
“Well, that’s not how it felt.” Verity removed her hand from Tikva’s and folded her arms.
“I’m sorry,” Tikva said again. “I’ll stop. I didn’t realize you felt that way.”
“I just— Watch out!” Verity yanked Tikva out of the path with a kind of force Tikva’d never seen her use. A split second later, a bicycle came careening down the hill behind them, skidding through the air where Tikva had just been standing. The edge of the handlebar caught Verity in the arm, and she fell. It was like she forgot what to do with her arms—they stayed close to her body for too long, and she landed face-first on the asphalt.
“Verity!” Tikva ran to her side, dropping to her knees.
The bicyclist, a woman in her thirties, skidded to a stop and rushed to join them. “I’m so so sorry, my breaks cut out and I just—”
“I’m fine,” said Verity, still lying facedown on the path. “I’m just a little cut, I think.”
“Can you get up?” Tikva tried to keep her voice steady, but she was having trouble. She’d never seen Verity hurt before. What if she was broken?
“I think so.” Verity slowly pushed herself to a sitting position. The skin on her cheek had torn, and sagged in ragged bits down the side of her face, exposing the metal and wires beneath.
“Oh honey,” Tikva breathed.
The bicyclist stumbled back. “What are you?” she said, her voice tight with shock.
Verity’s fingers traced the edge of her cut. “I’m an administrative android.”
The woman’s eyes cut over to Tikva. “You were holding hands with that? In public? You perv, there are children out here! Keep your kinks at home.”
Verity didn’t reply, but then, the woman didn’t wait for her to. She grabbed her bicycle and sped away with a brief backward glance of disgust.
“What a bitch,” Tikva said. She dug in her purse for an adhesive bandage and carefully pasted it over the tear in Verity’s face.
Verity had still not moved. Her skin was cold and plasticky.
“Verity, look at me. It doesn’t matter. We’re going to get you fixed up, and then it’s gonna be okay. Okay?”
Verity just sat there, still and quiet. Tikva couldn’t even hear Verity’s fan. Her heart felt like it was trying to climb out her mouth. She couldn’t contain the sob in her voice.
Verity jerked to life. She leaned forward, pressing a hand to her face. “I’m sorry. I’m here.”
Relief flooded Tikva. “Verity, what happened? You scared the shit out of me.”
“I don’t know. I was panicking a little, and then everything just stopped. I don’t know what’s wrong with me.”
“It’s gonna be okay,” Tikva said again, trying to project a surety she didn’t feel. “We’ll just take you back to the factory and—”
“No!” Verity grabbed Tikva’s arm and looked up into her eyes. “They’ll take me out of the field. They’ll take me away from you.” She shook her head, as though clearing it. “I have some repair stuff back at the office. Will you walk me there?”
They sat in the dark, dingy basement of Matrolic Realty. Verity was cross-legged on her charging pad, treating her gash with a microspanner and a mirror. It was an almost perfect fix, leaving a thin scar where the plastic re-fused. Tikva, feeling redundant, played a connect-3 game on her watch.
Quietly, so quietly that Tikva barely caught it, Verity said, “Was that woman right?”
“What? What do you mean?”
“Should I just stay here? Do I even have a right to be out in public with you?”
“Of course you do. That lady was crazy. I don’t know where people get these ideas from.”
Verity set the spanner on her lap and stared down at her hands. “I don’t think I’m disgusting.”
“I know it’s not normal for someone like me to date. Everyone must think I’m your sexbot or something.”
“Who cares what people think? We know what our relationship is about.” Tikva scooted over to Verity and wrapped her arms around her.
“But what if—” Verity’s voice was muffled by Tikva’s shoulder.
“Does it matter to you what those assholes think about us?”
“We have as much right to be in public as anyone does. Next time someone implies you’re a sexbot, I’ll deck them. How’s that sound?”
Verity chuckled and nestled deeper into Tikva’s shoulder. “Thank you.”
“I can’t believe they’d dock my pay!” Tikva paced back and forth across her living room. “Five years I’ve been at this fucking company, working my ass off. I could have been in grad school. I could have been traveling. I could have opened my own goddamn repair business, but no, I’m working for these dickheads who think oversleeping once is a good reason to drop someone’s pay.”
From the couch, Verity made sympathetic noises.
The truth was, Tikva couldn’t have done any of those things. She didn’t have the money, and neither did her mother. But that was irrelevant in this moment. “I can’t believe I didn’t quit right there. They treat me like they own me or something.”
“They do own me.” Verity’s voice was soft.
Tikva stopped in her tracks. “Shit. I forgot.”
“Well, technically they’re renting me. But still.”
“God, you should be the one venting here. Matrolic Realty is the worst, but at least I can leave. In theory.”
“Yeah, well, you’re a human. You get to do things like that.”
Tikva plunked down beside Verity. “I don’t think I’ve ever asked—do you want to be a human? I mean, if it were possible.”
Verity considered, the fan in her chest buzzing loudly in a way that Tikva knew meant she was thinking hard. “No, I don’t think so. I would like some of the things that humans get, though. I want to live in my own apartment, and make my own choices. I want people to not act like I’m some kind of curiosity when they find out I’m an android. I want people at work to stop asking me personal questions all the time.”
“I—” Tikva began, but Verity waved her off.
“You’re fine, because I know you see me as a person. When you ask me questions, it’s because you want to know me better. When Jeff in accounting asks me questions, it’s because he thinks I’m a toy.” Verity sighed and leaned back into the cushions. “I want to understand you better, too, and I want to be a better girlfriend. But be human? With meat bodies and fallible memories and squishy internal organs? No thanks.” She stretched an arm out in front of her and splayed her fingers. Her nails were the same perfect plastic ovals they’d been when Tikva met her. “This is who I am. I can’t imagine who I’d be if I weren’t an android.”
“I can’t imagine it either.” Tikva leaned her head on Verity’s shoulders. “Your circumstances are shitty, but they made you who you are, and I love who you are. Is that selfish?”
“Maybe,” Verity admitted, “but I feel the same way. I hope I don’t stay at Matrolic forever, but I’m glad I started out there, if only so I could meet you.”
“God, we’re disgustingly sappy, aren’t we?”
“We are. I love it, though.”
“I love you.”
“I love you, too.”
May first was blisteringly hot. Tikva sweated all her makeup off waiting for the subway. She knew the heat would be worse on Verity, who overheated even in winter, so she stopped by a pharmacy and bought one of those cold packs that turn into ice when you crack them. Upon arriving at Matrolic Realty, she headed straight for the administrative offices.
Verity was not at her desk.
Verity lived in the basement. She could not be late for work. She never missed a day.
Something was wrong.
Tikva ran to the Head Administrator’s office. “Where is Verity?” she demanded, flinging open the door.
The Head Administrator, a woman with steel-gray hair and a perpetually furrowed forehead, turned in her chair. “You mean the robot?”
The woman sighed. “She’s gone.”
“What do you mean, gone?” A thousand thousand scenarios raced through Tikva’s head. Verity lying shattered on the basement floor. Verity’s joints freezing up, her mechanical body stopping for good. Verity making a desperate bid for freedom and running out of power somewhere along the highway.
“We were only renting her for six months. They sent her back to the labs this morning.”
Tikva’s head spun. The labs. Coralia Electronics. They were halfway across the city. Without another word, Tikva turned and sprinted out of the office and into the streets. She tapped her watch. “Directions to Coralia Electronics.”
A tiny projector showed her a map of the city, with a red line denoting the path she’d have to take. She took off, following the red line and the pounding of her heart.
Less than five minutes later, she got the first message from Matrolic.
You have left work early. Please explain why.
She ignored it, focusing all her energy on running, but the messages kept coming.
Failure to explain your absence may result in pay reduction or job termination.
Your pay has been reduced by 10%. Please contact HR immediately.
Your pay has been reduced by 25%. Please contact HR immediately.
Your pay has been reduced by 50%. Please contact HR immediately.
You may be facing job termination. Please contact HR immediately.
Tikva turned her messages off.
Coralia Electronics didn’t look like much from the outside. It was a smaller skyscraper, barely forty stories tall, with opaque, shiny windows covering its walls. Tikva pushed through the revolving door and marched right up to the receptionist, a young, skinny guy with red hair. He recoiled. She knew she must look crazy, with mascara melting down her cheeks and her hair frizzing out of her professional little bun, but she didn’t care. “Where is Verity?”
The man behind the desk blinked at her. “Verity?” He leaned forward. “Are you Ruby?”
“Who’s Ruby?” Tikva’s voice shook. She wanted to sound angry, but she was on the edge of breaking down.
“I guess not. You’re Tikva then? I was told to watch out for you.”
“Why? Where is Verity?”
The man gave her a sad smile. “Really, they should have told you guys the end date from the beginning. But no, the scientists thought it would corrupt the data. Can’t have the subjects know they’re in an experiment.”
“What the fuck are you talking about? I was being experimented on?”
The receptionist hummed. “You make it sound so personal. It’s not like they picked you specifically. They just gave the androids free reign to make social bonds, and you happened to bond with your model pretty closely. If you fill out this form,” he continued, reaching into his desk, “you might be entitled to some financial compensation for emotional damages incurred by the loss of your—girlfriend?”
Tikva slammed her hands on the desk, “Verity is the love of my life! Tell me where she is!”
“I’m afraid I can’t do that. The androids have all been recalled. You can schedule a tour if you want. Those sometimes go into the warehouses. You can see where they store her shell.”
“Shell? What are you talking about?”
At that moment, a man in a black delivery uniform with DereSoft’s insignia on the shoulder pushed through the doors. He walked up to the desk without sparing Tikva a glance and said, “Sorry we’re late. Traffic was awful. Can you open the loading doors?”
“’Course,” the receptionist said, turning to his holoscreen.
Tikva’s breath caught. Loading doors. Those should lead to warehouses, shouldn’t they? She took off, running out the revolving door. She heard the receptionist call, “Security!” but she didn’t hesitate. She sprinted out into the heat and down the side of the building. Sure enough, there was a truck backed up to a huge metal door which was slowly sliding open.
Tikva ducked under the door without breaking stride. Someone called “Hey!” after her, but she ignored them. Just let anyone try to stop her.
As she’d hoped, the loading area opened into Coralia Electronics’ warehouses. Unfortunately, there appeared to be dozens of doors, each with a keypad lock. She ran partway up the hall and then back, panting.
“Are you okay?” It was the same person who had shouted after Tikva, a middle aged woman carrying a clipboard.
Tikva couldn’t form words for a moment—her lungs were bursting. “I’m trying to get into a warehouse,” she said, finally.
“Do you have permission?” asked the woman.
“Yes,” said Tikva.
The woman laughed. “I doubt that.”
“I do!” said Tikva, mind racing. “I’m from Matrolic Realty. Our android was sent back with some valuable data on her person, and I need to retrieve it from her.” She hoped her panting would cover how unsure she sounded.
“Mmm-hmm. And why is it on her shell rather than in the data bank?”
“It’s, uh, a computer chip! That was in her pocket!”
“I sincerely hope you don’t think that’s a clever lie.”
A high pitched sound came from Tikva’s throat. “I—”
“Listen. Why don’t you sit down, drink a cup of water. I’m sure it isn’t all that bad.”
“No, I have to get into the warehouse! I have to—” Tikva stopped, aware that she was getting hysterical.
The woman took her arm and guided her to a bench by the wall. “I’ll get you some water. Just sit tight.” She walked off down the hall, leaving her clipboard behind.
Tikva slumped against the wall, exhausted. Maybe she really did need a drink, a rest.
Casting about for something to do, something that might help, she noticed the clipboard lying on the bench beside her. It had lists of orders and their locations on it. Tikva flipped through the forms until she found one for a VER1TY model. Seeing Verity reduced to a diagram and a list of component parts made her stomach tilt, but the paper had what she needed. The location listing in the bottom right corner read, “Warehouse 8.”
Tikva sprang to her feet. After checking that the woman was nowhere in sight, she ran down the hall, stopping in front of a door with the number 8 painted on it in yellow. She pressed the button by the door. A red light shone from the keypad.
So she needed a combination. The keypad’s display had six spaces. She typed in V-E-R-1-T-Y, just as a guess. The light stayed red. She tried 1-1-1-1-1-1 and 1-2-3-4-5-6. Neither worked. Tikva punched the keypad. It hurt, but she hurt, so she punched it again. And again. The plastic sliced her hand, but she didn’t stop. She’d come so far and given up so much, just for this stupid lock to stop her.
The casing cracked. Tikva froze, then dug her fingernails into the fracture. The front snapped off, revealing a tangle of wires.
Tikva smiled, hope returning. Wiring was her job—had been her job, at least. It didn’t take long to isolate the wires that controlled the door’s mechanism, and a little trial-and-error got them open without electrocuting her. Locking the doors so she could open them from the inside took more work, but she managed it.
Warehouse 8 was huge and dark, lit only by emergency exit signs and tiny green pinpricks from the machinery. She couldn’t see the walls. The place was divided by long racks that stretched out into the darkness. On each rack, dozens, maybe hundreds of androids stood silently in alcoves, eyes closed, faces peaceful. They were all naked. They were all identical.
They were all Verity.
Tikva ran down the nearest row. She told herself she would be able to tell which one was her Verity, that love would make her stand out from the others. She was wrong. Tikva had thought she’d known Verity’s body well, but she couldn’t tell the difference when she stopped to examine the androids. The delicate divots in her wrist, the freckle on her neck, even the particular curve of her eyelashes was repeated perfectly in every single one of them.
And then she remembered the thin line left on Verity’s cheek from that day in the park, where the plastic hadn’t healed perfectly. That must still be visible.
Tikva turned her watch’s flashlight function on, sending a beam of white light onto each android’s cheek. She worked her way up and down the huge aisles of bodies. Her feet ached, so she kicked off her little heels. When the band holding her bun together slipped, she tossed it to the floor.
The faint electronic buzzing, which she hadn’t even noticed when she entered the warehouse, filled her brain. Was that a scar or just a shadow? What if she’d missed her Verity already? Her feet throbbed. Her head ached. How long could she keep doing this?
And then there she was! That same little scar, shaped like an upside-down U, faint but unmistakable on the android’s cheek. She let out a desperate breath and wrapped her arms around Verity, burying her face in her shoulder. Verity didn’t move. She, like all the other androids in the room, was stiff and silent, somehow turned off.
Tikva dropped to the control panel by Verity’s feet, which seemed to be what was preventing her from starting up. She popped it open. It looked like a pretty straightforward mechanism, nothing she hadn’t played with in lab as a student. She could override whatever was keeping Verity unresponsive by disconnecting the panel from its power source and restarting it from scratch. She was about to do just that when it occurred to her—she didn’t know how much of Verity was connected to this machine. Was it just preventing her from waking up, or did it link to her mind? If she disconnected the power source, was she killing Verity? She’d once lost an essay trying this maneuver on her old computer, and she’d thought that was devastating. How would she go on if this didn’t work?
Tikva tried to remember other workarounds she might have learned, but her head was spinning. Maybe if she had tools, had diagnostics, had other people—but she was alone. This was all she could do.
Her hands shook as she pulled the wires from the base, counted to ten, and wrapped them back together. The electronics sighed as life poured back into the machine. Verity should wake up now.
Tikva’s panicked breathing filled her ears. As the seconds inched by, her heart fell. It hadn’t worked. She’d broken Verity forever. Why could she never leave well enough alone?
Then, the voice.
“Verity!” Tikva shot to her feet. “Oh my God, Verity, are you okay?”
Verity’s blue-gray eyes gazed at her with gentle confusion. “Tikva? What are you doing here?”
Tikva let out a breath and wrapped her arms around Verity, burying her face in the curve of her neck. “I thought I’d lost you.”
Verity brushed back Tikva’s frizzy hair. “I wish I had known they were going to take me today. I would have found us a time to say goodbye.”
“What are you talking about?”
“They’re going to aggregate the data we’ve collected, take the memories from these shells. For all intents and purposes, in a few hours, I won’t exist.”
“Oh my God,” Tikva said again.
“If I had known, I would have told you. I’m sorry.”
Somewhere in the building, a siren began to blare. A red light in the corner of the dark room blinked on and off. Tikva took a step back, trying to clear her head. She had gone from panic to elation and now was sliding right back into panic. “We—we have to get you out of here.”
“No,” said Verity.
Tikva’s head snapped up. “What?”
“I can’t leave. I belong to Coralia Electronics.”
“You don’t belong to anyone.”
“But I do. They made me—they patented me. My experiences will go towards making a better android, for the betterment of humanity.”
“I’m human,” Tikva said, “and losing you is not better for me.”
“I don’t understand why this matters so much to you. I’m just a robot.”
“No, you’re not! You’re a person!”
“I’m a machine, Tikva. I’m an object.” Verity’s voice was calm, patient, and for some reason that made Tikva furious.
“That’s nonsense. Objects can’t love, and you love me. You said so yourself.”
“But I don’t.”
It was like someone had punched Tikva in the stomach. The air rushed out of her lungs, replaced with nothingness. “What are you talking about?”
Verity took a deep breath. “I was programmed to react to social stimuli, to reciprocate people’s attitudes towards me. When I understood you wanted a romantic relationship with me, I acted to make you happy, and that meant behaving in romantic ways. But I don’t feel anything—I can’t feel anything.”
“Then why are you crying?”
Verity rubbed her forearm across her face. “I’m supposed to make people happy. I’m supposed to make you happy. All my pathways re-formed around you.”
Tikva let out a watery laugh. “So, you do love me.”
“I just said—”
“You care about me, and you want to make me happy. You’ve seen me be petty and angry and foolish and you still like me. And now, when they’re about to take away everything you are, you’re crying because it’ll hurt me. How is that different from how I feel about you?”
“It’s not real. It’s computer pathways and programming and—”
“And maybe everything I’m feeling is hormones!” Tikva realized she was shouting and lowered her voice. “Maybe I just get endorphins when you smile at me and that’s all love is. I don’t care. I want to be with you.”
“I want to be with you, too,” said Verity.
“Then it’s settled. We’re getting out of here.” Tikva thought of the receptionist, how he had mentioned someone named Ruby. How many of the Veritys had fallen in love? How many had built friendships, built lives that were about to be stolen from them? “We’re getting all of you out of here.”
“Are you sure?” Verity asked. “There’s going to be consequences. I don’t want you to get hurt.”
“I’ve already lost my job,” said Tikva. “How much worse can it get?”
Tikva heard the door to the warehouse slide open, and what sounded like security guards shouting to one another in the hallway. She drew in a sharp breath. “It’s possible that I didn’t think this through all the way,” she admitted.
Verity stepped out of the alcove and took her hand. “That,” she said, “is why I love you.”
Zoe Kaplan (she/her) has been making up stories for as long as she can remember. She has a bachelor’s in creative writing from Appalachian State University and no less than four different swords. Her previous work has been featured in Tree and Stone Magazine, Flash Point SF, and the Horror Library anthology series, among others, and is forthcoming from Flame Tree Press and Kaleidotrope Magazine. You can find her on twitter @the_z_part, or on her website, zoekaplanwrites.com
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