by Iona Douglas
How much was a fake passport? More than the five grand stashed in her boot. Five thousand four hundred and thirty-six dollars, eighty-seven cents. The number had tattooed itself on Lola’s brain. The entire sum of her mom’s once vast fortune. Five thousand four hundred and thirty—. She lurched towards the bathroom, making it in time to puke in the shower cubicle.
Hot spit dribbled from her mouth. She spun the shower on, the cold water splashing into the hotel room as she peeled her clothes off. The temperature rose as she nudged chunks of vomit towards the drain with her toes. She spat, and then laughed. Spitting into shower drains was not something she had done when she lived in a palatial mansion, but it had become something she did in cheap hotel bathrooms when she was on the run.
Five thousand four hundred and thirty-six dollars was all of the cash in the mansion following the conversation with her mom’s estate lawyer.
“Lola, as CEO of the company, I’m afraid something like this falls under your purview.”
“It’s a freaking honorary title. You think anyone would let a music grad near a Fortune Five Hundred company? You think my mom—”
“You signed off on a lot of these deals, regardless—”
“I sign what I’m told to—”
“Regardless of your stance on the matter, the investors are pulling out; we don’t have the money and you’re acting boss. I think the sale of your mother’s private estate will cover most of the damage, but that’s the least of your worries.”
“What do you mean?”
“Lola, this is a Federal court; it’s no small fry.”
Her bald head felt good under the water. That was the only thing that felt good. She rubbed her scalp; her shaved head emboldened her. She was committed to this. Once she was in Mexico, she would be able to relax somewhat but, for now, she could take no chances.
She lurched forward again and allowed herself to vomit silently, her innards twirling down into the drain, larger chunks caught in the grate. Sunk, on the floor, she placed her head in her hands and began to cry. God.
She stopped and laughed again. Was she just about to pray? Her hand slipped on some sick. The absurdity of it drew the laugh higher until she clapped a hand over her mouth.
Solemnity descended, and Lola rose to her knees. Hands together, face down, she indulged in it for a moment. She had never been religious, and had always mocked those who turned to prayer in their most difficult times, but she felt she couldn’t ignore the moment and, if anything else, she needed some fortitude right now.
God. I don’t know what else to call you, the universe, whatever. Whoever. If there’s anything out there, now would be a really good time to let me know.
The water continued to fall.
I don’t know what to ask for. Money seems too far-fetched. Something smaller. The ability to avoid the feds? General piece of mind? Lola laughed. I know, right? Taking liberties. I just —. Her hands dropped. She sighed and pulled herself up.
Dry, she checked her boot for her worldly possessions for what felt like the thousandth time since yesterday. Five thousand four hundred and thirty-six dollars, eighty-seven cents. Sighing, and still wrapped in her towel, she sat on the bed and looked longingly at the violin case laid out there. She wanted to play; it was the only thing that could calm her. But she didn’t want to draw attention to herself, and a classically trained violinist in a twenty-dollar a night hostel would draw attention.
Instead of playing, she held an imaginary violin, picked up her real bow and began to play. Lola could play with her eyes closed, but closing them took her to places she didn’t want to go. She stared at the canvas of beach pebbles in front of her as she mimed the tune in her head.
Knock. Knock. Knock.
Her heart stopped and so did her mime. She didn’t dare to lower her arms lest the bed creak.
Knock. Knock. Knock.
She had put the “Do Not Disturb” sign on the knob, hadn’t she? She stood at the sound of a key in the door.
“What do you want?” She brandished her violin and bow as the man in the hotel staff uniform entered, raising his hands in apology.
“My apologies, Miss Smith.” Smith was the name she had given on the desk, and she groaned internally at her lack of originality.
“What do you want?”
“I was instructed to bring this up to you.” The man moved to the side to reveal a cart laden with silverware. An ornate silver plate cover hid something from her view.
“What is it?” she asked, bow erect. The man laughed.
“I really think I ought to bring it in.”
Lola didn’t see what other option was open to her. If he was here to arrest her, there would be others, and she couldn’t very well fight a cop. She nodded towards the bathroom; that way she could be closer to the door.
The man entered. He pulled the trolley behind him, expectant, confident.
“You can go now.”
The man smiled, with amusement or sympathy she couldn’t tell. “I kind of have to stay,” he said.
“Show me.” Lola pointed to the tray with her bow. The man bowed, one hand on his stomach, before removing the cover with a flourish to reveal... nothing.
Lola clutched her towel closer and set her jaw. The quiver of the bow betrayed her. “What do you want?” she asked.
“I think it’s more about what you want. What was it? The ability to avoid the feds? General piece of mind?”
The words ‘get’ and ‘out’ had formed on Lola’s tongue, but now she found she couldn’t speak.
The man made his way to the door, still open. He bent to pick something from the floor, and replaced the “Do Not Disturb” sign on the handle before pulling the silverware into the room.
The dryness of her mouth glued it shut.
“From experience, I think it’s best if we just get right to it,” he began.
Lola’s knuckles flashed white. There were knives on the tray, she had seen them. She focused all of her effort on keeping her eyes away from the tray, lest she betray her safety net.
“Were you or were you not praying in the shower?”
Momentarily disregarding his presence, Lola marched into the bathroom to scour it for cameras.
“You sick, pervy... Where are they?” She returned, pleased to note that she was now closest to the tray and the knives. “Where’s the camera? Or the microphone?” Her eyes flicked towards the tray.
He noticed. He lunged, but she was closer. The knife cut, met resistance, and a spark shot up her arm.
“Oww!” She dropped the knife and staggered back, her eyes fixed on his wound. It didn’t look like a wound at all. His skin had fallen away where she had stabbed him, to reveal a blue matrix of metal. “What...” She observed him, afraid, but he was calm and held his uninjured right arm out before turning his back on her and gently sitting down in the armchair. A few moments passed, and a drop of sweat rolled its way down Lola’s back.
“Are you okay?” she asked.
“Oh yes,” the man smiled.
“Oh, crap,” Lola inhaled, and the air rushed in, the weight of it forcing her down onto the foot of the bed. What was happening to his arm? Was that some sort of armor? “I’m sorry. I’ve never stabbed anyone before.” She gulped. “You were going to attack me.”
The man shrugged. “I find that being a potential threat is usually the quickest route to getting you to understand. For some reason, stabbing me and seeing that I’m fine seems to convince you of something.”
“What do you mean? Are you wearing armor?” Who is this guy? Why does his arm look like something out of a video game, and why is he talking like we’ve met before?
“Not quite, but I’m fine. I suspected this would happen. It’s happened before. We’ve met before, every time you’ve prayed.”
“I’ve never prayed” — Lola stopped, rolled her eyes in acknowledgment — “before today.”
“There’s a lot you don’t remember.” She blinked at the blue sparks drifting from his... wound? Was that a wound?
“Why is your arm sparking?”
“Let’s imagine I’m from the future?”
“Sort of not. I think it’s best if I explain from the beginning, but it’s a long story.” The window banged as the wind forced a tree to drape its branches along the glass. Lola didn’t care for conspiracy theories, fantasies or bad weather at the best of times, least of all now.
“How do I know you’re not stalling me?” She had almost added “for the feds,” but if this was something entirely unrelated to her situation, she would give herself away.
The man shrugged. “There hasn’t been an official warrant announcement yet; it will come in two days. And what would be the point? You’re in a towel; they would have had the element of surprise.”
He at least knew about the company and her imminent arrest, but this was a good point. Lola didn’t want to leave the hotel just yet, with only a towel and the weather as it was.
“Who are you?” Lola asked, with a complimentary whisk of her bow.
“As for my name, you wouldn’t be able to pronounce it or remember it, for that matter.” The man chuckled. Lola shivered. “As for my role? I guess it’s for you to decide whether I’m a help or a hindrance.”
Lola could see the man wasn’t going anywhere, and he didn’t seem to mind that she had tried to stab him and damaged his... costume? That had to be a costume.
“You’ve got one hour,” she said. She was curious. What she would do when that hour was up would depend entirely on how this conversation progressed. “Go.”
“The beginning. In the future, which is also my past, we didn’t know much about humans. We knew bits and pieces. That’s some general context for you.”
“Let’s get to the crux of the matter, shall we?”
“I got a new job. A good salary, which was appealing, because I’d been meaning to replace some of my hardware anyway.”
“Never got around to it. This leg is loose.” The man lifted his right leg and, sure enough, Lola could hear a slight squeaking from the knee. “Can you hear?”
She nodded and gaped. “Yes.”
The man returned his leg to the floor. “I had archaeological experience, too. Worked on the excavation of the ancient city of Edinburgh.”
“Edinburgh, in the UK?”
Lola laughed. “Edinburgh is not ancient.”
The man laughed. Lola’s smile slid off her face.
“Anyway,” he continued, “that was my first job. Worked it when I was first commissioned to earn my autonomy. I came with a pretty nifty set of tools. See here.” Before Lola had realized what he was doing, the man peeled back a square of his purple hotel issued shirt, to reveal not skin, but a compartment in his chest where his heart should have been, made of the same blue lattice as his arm. “If I lift back my chest carapace, there’s a little compartment for brushes, compressed air. I can even store small artifacts in here.”
Lola blinked. How was he doing that? It looked cool, but she had seen some pretty impressive cosplay attempts in her time. The man looked at an indeterminate point past her, and she spun, expecting someone, but he had slipped into a reverie.
“We found a lot of strange things on that dig. You humans took so much upkeep; hospitals seemed too inefficient. I’m glad I’m not biological.” Despite whatever visual trickery he was employing, this person looked very much like a man to her.
“You’re not biological?” Lola looked again at the hole in his chest and sparking blue arm.
“No, I’m a robot.”
“I don’t look anything like this. I showed you once, you didn’t like it. Said I looked like a spider.” Lola shivered. She hated spiders. “Anyway, maybe it was my suitable physicality that made me want to take that job over something in BotCity, but I like to think I came to it of my own volition. I wanted to know where I came from.” The man smiled. It was not unpleasant.
“What do you mean?” she asked.
“Botcity is where I’m from... in the real world.”
“You’ve said ‘the real world’.” Lola shook her head. “What do you mean?”
“Out there. It’ll become clear, I promise.” The man smiled again. “I knew I was built in BotCity. We all are. I knew where to find the ThinkBots who had designed me, and they knew where to find their ThinkBots; and them, their ThinkBots and so on and so on. But we knew so little about who had made the first ThinkBot, about the humans that had designed us.”
“Up until yesterday, pal, I had the best technology money could buy. Hovercraft, holographs, industrial 3d-printers, shares in a rocket factory, you name it. Humans did not make you.”
“I’m from the future, remember?”
Lola rolled her eyes. “Sorry, forgot about that.”
“And in the future, like I said — we didn’t know much about you. The planet is littered with our mechanical cousins. Not to mention the mess you made of the atmosphere. We knew you were biological because of all the tech. Strange microwave-emitting box things we guessed were some form of therapy.”
“Yes, now I know that you used them to prepare food but, back then, we didn’t. We also had a lot of fridges with remains of food in them, so we knew you had a shorter expiration date, which is probably why you made so many of us, to help with your lack-of-time problem.”
“When exactly did we start making you?”
“I... we don’t know. That is one of our questions. I knew what they claimed the job was. It was all over the public servers within an hour, two minutes, forty seconds and thirty-nine milliseconds of its being posted to the proper channels. We didn’t think it really existed.
“We are logical beings, for the most part. What is more likely? That thousands of years after your species died out there remained, somewhere in the Northern Hemisphere, a buried cryogenics lab full of fresh, live humans waiting for us to revive them or that this was a hope, a myth of our kind?”
“I thought you said your kind were logical. Isn’t that kind of your thing?”
“I said logical ‘for the most part’. Until this job advert, the idea was about as unlikely as our theory that you’d managed to colonize Mars.”
“Yeah, yeah. Get a move on, buddy. What has your CV got to do with me?”
“The dig was boring. We knew the excitement would come later, when we reached you. We’d scanned the land, knew where the site was, and we’d flown in every specialized body from around the globe. We each had our roles. I was to come in later when they’d shifted the majority of the permafrost and needed more delicate tools to excavate. We didn’t expect anyone to be alive. Again, what’s the likeliest situation? But there you were, all two thousand of you, frozen in your pods.”
Lola was completely lost by now. The man could weave a good story, that much was certain, but what on earth did it have to do with her?
“I’m sorry, what?”
“Cryogenics lab, California.”
Lola had heard of cryogenics. It was mainly seen as a fad science now, though she remembered a lady on an old TV programme — Oprah, was it? — who had had her husband frozen and swore she would commit to the procedure before she turned forty, so they could wake up in the future, the same age.
The man continued. “It took months before the Federation came to a decision about what to do with you, so we had a lot of time to work. We were able to salvage a lot of hardware information. You were fans of writing things down on paper back then. We’d never dream of doing something like that now, but everything digital down there was gone, the hard drives had corroded centuries ago.”
“I bet that was a bummer.”
“Our xenosystems in South Africa were able to inform us that the lettering on your notes and manuals adhered to the semantics of the ancient language ‘English’.”
“English is a pretty current language, dude.”
“I’m from the future, remember?”
“Yeah, yeah.” Lola didn’t know how, but her earlier fear had turned to amusement.
Copyright © 2018 by Iona Douglas