By Adrian Simmons
At 247 Black Oak Lane stands a perfectly un-unusual house. One story, fireplace, a wooden fence around the backyard, and a chain-link one around the front. The front fence, which most of the other houses on the street do not have, is about the only reason anyone would give it a second look. That, and maybe they’d give my plumber’s van a quick glance.
It’s a plumber’s van today, anyway. For an unscheduled house call to Marcella Metzer.
Mr. Metzer doesn’t lock the gate anymore and I walk up to the house, the toolbox heavy in my hands. This is always the trickiest part. At the door I ring the bell, wait a moment, then project a quick holo of Marcella into the glass. To any passersby it would look like she’s standing just inside and we’re chatting. I have lots of footage of Ms. Metzer. I have footage of their house, of the wooden front door behind the glass and of the sliding patio door around back. Mr. Metzer may not lock the fence gate but he locks the doors.
Marcella’s image waves and seems to talk with me while I, casually as I can, use my copy of their key to unlock the knob, then the deadbolt. After all these break-ins I still get a twinge of excitement at this part, of fear that something could still go wrong before I get into the house.
The door opens and Marcella motions me in, then does an impressive fade-back into the interior. I pick up the toolbox and follow.
It’s always weird being in some strange man’s house. He’s got a lot less junk piled up than I would have thought. The décor is out of sync with the prim exterior. Secondhand stuff mostly, at least in the living room. A riot of media is stacked, stored, and spilled out all over the room. He’s got some pictures out on the shelves, in front of two generations worth of X-Men. Why is it that they always have so many fucking comic books?
Still, they make a nice enough couple, Anthony and Marcella. It’s hard to believe she ever had her hair that short.
Anthony. You can see him relaxing more and more in each successive photo. He’s tall and ramrod straight in the first two—like a teenager on the way to the prom, except he’s 34 years old. He’s relaxing a bit in the next three, smiling a little more naturally. Marcella looks pretty much the same in each one: happy, easy-going, nerdy.
She’s in the basement. Halfway through the kitchen I can hear her, struggling. The door is open and the smell of solvents and mold mix with this morning’s remains of breakfast still on the table.
A few steps down the stairs and I can see her, trapped under the debris. It couldn’t have been a worse situation—a corner lined with utility shelves. One fell on her, the other on top of the first. Her right leg’s pinned. Blood pools under it all and she’s moaning and gulping in pain, struggling weakly to lift the bookshelf enough to escape.
“Oh thank goodness you’re finally here!” she says, craning her head around to look at me.
She looks awful, pale from blood loss. Her eyes glance out from puffy flesh, stained with this morning’s mascara and tears.
Man, they’ve come a long way. You can almost see the light of hope in her eyes when she recognizes me.
“Seven, seven, five, blue, violet.” I say.
“Th-th-that’s not it,” she says, dragging one bloodstained hand across her eyes.
“Shit!” I drop the toolbox and dig out my PalmComm to check. “Seven, seven, three, blue, violet.”
Her face goes blank, but not before she lets out a heavy sigh—the kind of a sigh that would break your heart. Which is just what she’s after.
“And the body lingo, Ms. Metzer. Deactivate that, too.”
“How did I do?” she asks. They always want the feedback. I always have to remind myself that they don’t feel any pain. She doesn’t care. “She” really isn’t human, even “real.”
“You did fine. As good as the real thing,” I say, checking out the situation. I put on my gloves, move some of the easy debris, and lift off the top shelf. More debris falls out, paint mixes with the sorta-blood on the floor. More debris and I can lift up the shelf and check out the damage.
It’s bad. Her shin is bent almost ninety degrees and the exoskin is split, so deep that even the endo-holo function isn’t enough to cover it. It looks incredibly painful.
“You can see the metal, can’t you?” Marcella says. “You’re thinking this whole thing is going to be harder than you first thought.”
I must have made a face. “Yes, it’s broken. I think it’s even split vertically.”
I stand back up. “You’re right, this is going to be harder than I thought.”
“Can it be fixed?”
I look to make sure I can get the stuff off her and move her without it looking too suspicious. “We’ll need a replacement from the knee down. The parts I brought aren’t going to cut it.”
We can get the parts made. Zadi, back at the facility, can get them made. He’s waiting for the call. Takes an hour for fabrication. We’ve got all the specs and it’s all automated anyway. An hour to drive it here and then an hour to get it re-seared, and another two hours to install.
“Five hours,” I say.
Her blank face watches me, as intently as she can with zero facial expression. The swelling under her eyes is going down. “Anthony will be home at 5:40 or so. That’s average. If he’s late, 6:30. Odds are he’ll be back early. Two percent variance, based on past experience. And he’ll call. Eighty percent odds on that.”
I’m glad that, among Anthony’s many faults, he doesn’t have a lot of romantic paranoia. “I’ll call it in.”
“Are you sure you don’t want to fake it? Let him find me dead?”
The thought has crossed my mind. “We could do that, but he’s got another four years.”
“Four years and twenty-five days before my aneurysm.”
“Okay. Yes.” They’re machines. Only one thing matters: their progress with their subject. They know their own termination dates right out of the box. Just another parameter to factor in.
But they don’t have any real feelings, any real empathy. They usually slip up by not realizing the intensity of their subject’s emotions.
“You think Anthony would bounce back?” I ask.
“More than that. I really believe it’s what he needs to get to the next level.”
I consult my PalmComm again. “You’re scheduled to do the ‘big move’ next year. Anthony’s fresh start to see if the new social skills will take hold. A training round before you drop out.”
“I have high confidence he will come back from my unexpected early death. He’s made friends at work and finally stopped hanging around with Tommy.”
We’ve got a file on Tommy, too. Since I’ve shut her body language down I shudder for her.
“How about the intimate companionship? Can he replace you?” That is, of course, the key. How many Gavrilo Princips, John Wilkes Booths, Mohammad Attas and Jeremy Shantos could have been prevented from committing their various heinous/stupid crimes if they had just gotten laid?
Well, it was more complicated than that, but not by much. Still, the whole mission of the Agency and the Companions was to get to these (almost exclusively) guys and teach them some of the basic social/life skills they had missed the first time around. Get ’em a friend, get ’em socialized, get ’em laid, and—as in Anthony’s case—untangle the rich snarl of paranoia, denial and misplaced blame that he had built up in his head over a decade of loneliness and despair. Get it all untangled before he decided to prove his love to some woman who barely knew his name by shooting at a government figure.
That kind of thing fit Anthony’s profile, from what I had gathered from his file. He wasn’t the type to get even with the world by generally shooting up his office. Still, you never knew.
“He may make a move on Tiffany, or Sondrah,” Marcella said, extrapolating Anthony’s possible love interests.
“Making a move is one thing, do you believe he can successfully compete for their attention?”
“He’s done admirably on the first eighteen romantic tribulations.”
“Most normal people go through ten romantic tribulations before breakfast. You’re a lot more forgiving than they will be.”
She processes for a moment. “Maybe you should consult with Soon. See what she thinks.”
“She’s on vacation,” I say, thinking. I check my PalmComm. No, she still hasn’t called back.
Technically, Soon is in charge of the Anthony/Marcella case. I’m backup. I can play plumber, electrician and air conditioner repairman. I’m built for it. Gets me a lot of fieldwork.
After a while the android asks, “Have the new buddy systems come out yet?”
“First round of tests is going on now.”
Miss Soon is not built for fieldwork. And, as she is technically in charge of the Metzer case, she’ll be pissed if I do a shutdown.
“Anthony really could have done with some friends growing up.”
She’s playing for my sympathies. And very well. Loneliness—for people who don’t want to be alone—can do horrible things to people. According to his file, Anthony Metzer didn’t have a single real friend until well after high school. And even that was nothing much.
They were getting more numerous, too. The horribly adjusted angry ones. There’s no proven correlation, but I blame the internet. Everyone at the Agency does.
Marcella’s waiting for me, curious about the new model, the one that will possibly replace her kind.
“Kids are a lot harder than adults,” I say. “Nobody at the Agency has that much confidence the Buddy System units will work. It may even cause more damage.”
“Really? That’s a shame. It would have really helped Anthony when he was younger. I still think my early termination is the best way to get him to grow as a person. It would be a lot easier for you, too. You can get home to your family early.”
She does have a point, at least about getting me home early. But that’s the thing. She might very well assume that my desire to leave early is just to get back to my family. I’m really much more worried about nosy neighbors or that two percent chance that Anthony will come home early and unannounced.
I check my PalmComm. Still no word from Soon. I hope she’s enjoying her fucking vacation. She’d better be listening to some Spanish guitar for me.
I think back to the pictures upstairs. Anthony really has come a long way. I’ve met him. We do that as part of the job. Me and Soon both, and some of the others from our branch of the Agency. None of us hang around with him. That’s the Companion’s job. Thank God.
He looks normal enough, even handsome. Tall, black hair—I thought he looked better with it long and thought cutting it was a big mistake. He has a respect for physical boundaries now, and can tell when the conversation has wandered into weird territory. And he’s learned to wander the conversation back out of it. He’ll still gesticulate and pace like a street-preacher when he gets excited about something. It’s kind of endearing now as opposed to skin-crawlingly creepy.
That progress took three years, and Marcella had lived with him for the last two.
But was it enough time, enough progress to untether him from the Companion? Evidence said maybe, my gut said no.
“You’re in charge,” she reminds me. “Make a decision.”
Now she’s trying to make me mad. But technically she’s right. It’s my call. Soon will just have to live with it. Anthony, too. And all his long-suffering coworkers and acquaintances. And a handful of bloggers, minor bureaucrats, and the governor of this state. All the people on Anthony’s list. And me, should he take a shot at any of them.
“Zadi,” I say into my PalmComm.
“How fast can we get a dead-crew at Rockport Regional Hospital?”
There are some clicks and that teeth-sucking sound Zadi makes when he’s working.
“Plenty of time,” Marcella says.
“Right.” I think and tap on the PalmComm. Zadi hates that. “But the plumbing truck is right outside. The coincidence is a bit much. There will be questions.”
“Logical steps, not coincidence,” she says.
“Yes,” Zadi adds, “maybe you move some stuff to get to the plumbing problem, then she moves it back and that leads to her accident.”
“Totally plausible,” Marcella says.
“Zadi, get us a dead-unit prepped.”
“You got it.”
I hang up. Marcella looks like she’s sitting up a little straighter, happy in her victory. Happy that she’s partially responsible for manipulating me into what she feels is the best course for her mark.
I go to the truck and get some more supplies. Blood, mostly, enough to match the inevitable coroner’s report. Then some heavy lifting while I get everything set up for her to have her fatal accident. Then, of course, I have to do some real plumbing, for appearances.
“Am I going to be reactivated?”
“Maybe. That’s not going to be my decision.” The femme 086 unit—Marcella’s unit—has had a really good track record. We’ll get her memory core for analysis, of course.
She’s waiting back under the debris. Thirty minutes after I leave she’ll crawl up the steps, bleeding horribly, make an emergency call to 911, then deactivate. The Agency will take care of the rest.
“If I do get reinstalled, I think Tommy would be a good mark for me.”
I shouldn’t have shuddered.
She looks awful again, fully expressive. Her speech is steady, but not the expressionless monotone from before. She must be working on her I’m-in-a-state-of-shock voice.
“We’ll see what we can do. You did as good a job as the real thing. Better.”
I leave her in the basement and begin thinking about getting out of the house and away.