vN Short Story
Originally posted on this website as part of Angry Robot’s 12 Days of Christmas series, 2011.
The Education of Junior Number 12
By Madeline Ashby
“You’re a self-replicating humanoid. vN.”
Javier always spoke Spanish the first few days. It was his clade’s default setting. “You have polymer-doped memristors in your skin, transmitting signal to the aerogel in your muscles from the graphene coral inside your skeleton. That part’s titanium. You with me, so far?”
Junior nodded. He plucked curiously at the clothes Javier had stolen from the balcony of a nearby condo. It took Javier three jumps, but eventually his fingers and toes learned how to grip the grey water piping. He’d take Junior there for practise, after the kid ate more and grew into the clothes. He was only toddler-sized, today. They’d holed up in a swank bamboo tree house positioned over an infinity pool outside La Jolla, and its floor was now littered with the remnants of an old GPS device that Javier had stripped off its plastic. His son sucked on the chipset.
“Your name is Junior,” Javier said. “When you grow up, you can call yourself whatever you want. You can name your own iterations however you want.”
“Babies. It happens if we eat too much. Buggy self-repair cycle – like cancer.”
Not for the first time, Javier felt grateful that his children were all born with an extensive vocabulary.
“You’re gonna spend the next couple of weeks with me, and I’ll show you how to get what you need. I’ve done this with all your brothers.”
“How many brothers?”
“Where are they now?”
Javier shrugged. “Around. I started in Nicaragua.”
“They look like you?”
“Exactly like me. Exactly like you.”
“If I see someone like you but he isn’t you, he’s my brother?”
“Maybe.” Javier opened up the last foil packet of vN electrolytes and held it out for Junior. Dutifully, his son began slurping. “There are lots of vN shells, and we all use the same operating system, but the API was distributed differently for each clade. So you’ll meet other vN who look like you, but that doesn’t mean they’re family. They won’t have our clade’s arboreal plugin.”
“You mean the jumping trick?”
“I mean the jumping trick. And this trick, too.”
Javier stretched one arm outside the treehouse. His skin fizzed pleasantly. He nodded at Junior to try. Soon his son was grinning and stretching his whole torso out the window and into the light, sticking out his tongue like Javier had seen human kids do with snow during cartoon Christmas specials.
“It’s called photosynthesis,” Javier told him a moment later. “Only our clade can do it.”
Junior nodded. He slowly withdrew the chipset from between his tiny lips. Gold smeared across them; his digestive fluids had made short work of the hardware. Javier would have to find more, soon.
“Why are we here?”
“In this treehouse?”
Junior shook his head. “Here.” He frowned. He was only two days old, and finding the right words for more nuanced concepts was still hard. “Alive.”
“Why do we exist?”
Junior nodded emphatically.
“Well, our clade was developed to-”
“No!” His son looked surprised at the vehemence of his own voice. He pushed on anyway. “vN. Why do vN exist at all?”
This latest iteration was definitely an improvement on the others. His other boys usually didn’t get to that question until at least a week went by. Javier almost wished this boy were the same. He’d have more time to come up with a better answer. After twelve children, he should have crafted the perfect response. He could have told his son that it was his own job to figure that out. He could have said it was different for everybody. He could have talked about the church, or the lawsuits, or even the failsafe. But the real answer was that they existed for the same reasons all technologies existed. To be used.
“Some very sick people thought the world was going to end,” Javier said. “We were supposed to help the humans left behind.”
The next day, Javier took him to a park. It was a key part of the training: meeting humans of different shapes, sizes, and colours. Learning how to play with them. Practising English. The human kids liked watching his kid jump. He could make it to the top of the slide in one leap.
“Again!” they cried. “Again!”
When the shadows stretched long and, Junior jumped up into the tree where Javier waited, and said: “I think I’m in love.”
Javier nodded at the playground below. “Which one?”
Junior pointed to a redheaded organic girl whose face was an explosion of freckles. She was all by herself under a tree, rolling a scroll reader against her little knee. She kept adjusting her position to get better shade.
“You’ve got a good eye,” Javier said.
As they watched, three older girls wandered over her way. They stood over her and nodded down at the reader. She backed up against the tree and tucked her chin down toward her chest. Way back in Javier’s stem code, red flags rose. He shaded Junior’s eyes.
“Hey, give it back!”
“Don’t look, don’t look-” Javier saw one hand lash out, shut his eyes, curled himself around his struggling son. He heard a gasp for air. He heard crying. He felt sick. Any minute now the failsafe might engage, and his memory would begin to spontaneously self-corrupt. He had to stop their fight, before it killed him and his son.
Javier jumped. His body knew where to go; he landed on the grass to the sound of startled shrieks and fumbled curse words. Slowly, he opened his eyes. One of the older girls still held the scroll reader aloft. Her arm hung there, refusing to come down, even as she started to back away. She looked about ten.
“Do y-you know w-what I am?”
“You’re a robot…” She sounded like she was going to cry. That was fine; tears didn’t set off the failsafe.
“You’re damn right I’m a robot.” He pointed up into the tree. “And if I don’t intervene right now, my kid will die.”
“Is that what you want? You wanna kill my kid?”
She was really crying now. Her friends had tears in their eyes. She sniffled back a thick clot of snot. “No! We didn’t know! We didn’t see you!”
“That doesn’t matter. We’re everywhere, now. Our failsafes go off the moment we see one of you chimps start a fight. It’s called a social control mechanism. Look it up. And next time, keep your grubby little paws to yourself.”
One of her friends piped up: “You don’t have to be so mean-”
“Mean?” Javier watched her shrink under the weight of his gaze. “Mean is getting hit and not being able to fight back. And that’s something I’ve got in common with your little punching bag over here. So why don’t drag your knuckles somewhere else and give that some thought?”
The oldest girl threw the reader toward her victim with a weak underhand. “I don’t know why you’re acting so hurt,” she said, folding her arms and jiggling away. “You don’t even have real feelings.”
“Yeah, I don’t have real fat, either, tubby! Or real acne! Enjoy your teen years, querida!”
Behind him, he heard applause. When he turned, he saw a redhaired woman leaning against the tree. She wore business clothes with an incongruous pair of climbing slippers. The fabric of her tights had gone loose and wrinkled down around her ankles, like the skin of an old woman. Her applause died abruptly as the little freckled girl ran up and hugged her fiercely around the waist.
“I’m sorry I’m late,” the mother said. She nodded at Javier. “Thanks for looking after her.”
Javier gestured and Junior slid down out of his tree. Unlike the organic girl, Junior didn’t hug him; he jammed his little hands in the pockets of his stolen clothes and looked the older woman over from top to bottom. Her eyebrows rose.
“Well!” She bent down to Junior’s height. The kid’s eyes darted for the open buttons of her blouse and widened considerably; Javier smothered a smile. “What do you think, little man? Do I pass inspection?”
Junior grinned. “Eres humana.”
She straightened. Her eyes met Javier’s. “I suppose coming from a vN, that’s quite the compliment.”
“We aim to please,” he said.
Moments later, they were in her car.
It started with a meal. It usually did. From silent prison guards in Nicaragua to singing cruise directors in Panama, from American girls dancing in Mexico and now this grown American woman in her own car in her own country, they started it with eating. Humans enjoyed feeding vN. They liked the special wrappers with the cartoon robots on the front. (They folded them into origami unicorns, because they thought that was clever.) They liked asking about whether he could taste. (He could, but his tongue read texture better than flavour.) They liked calculating how much he’d need to iterate again. (A lot.) This time, the food came as a thank-you. But the importance of food in the relationship was almost universal among humans. It was important that Junior learn this, and the other subtleties of organic interaction. Javier’s last companion had called their relationship “one big HCI problem.” Javier had no idea what that meant, but he suspected that embedding Junior in a human household for a while would help him avoid it.
“We could get delivery,” Brigid said. That was her name. She pronounced it with a silent G. Breed. Her daughter was Abigail. “I’m not much for going out.”
He nodded. “That’s fine with us.”
He checked the rearview. The kid was doing all right; Abigail was showing him a game. Its glow diffused across their faces and made them, for the moment, the same colour. But Junior’s eyes weren’t on the game. They were on the little girl’s face.
“He’s adorable,” Brigid said. “How old is he?”
Javier checked the dashboard. “Three days.”
The house was a big, fake hacienda with the floors and walls and ceilings all the same vanilla ice cream colour. Javier felt as though he’d stepped into a giant, echoing egg. Light followed Brigid as she entered each room, and now Javier saw bare patches on the plaster and the scratch marks of heavy furniture dragged across pearly tile. Someone had moved out. Probably Abigail’s father. Javier’s life had just gotten enormously easier.
“I hope you don’t mind the Electric Sheep…”
Brigid handed him her compact. In it was a menu for a chain specializing in vN food. (“It’s the food you’ve been dreaming of!”) Actually, vN items were only half the Sheep’s menu; the place was a meat market for organics and synthetics. Javier had eaten there but only a handful of times, mostly at resorts, and mostly with people who wanted to know what he thought of it “from his perspective.” He chose a Toaster Party and a Hasta La Vista for himself and Junior. When the orders went through, a little lamb with an extension cord for a collar baa’d at him and bounded away across the compact.
“It’s good we ran into you,” Brigid said. “Abby hasn’t exactly been very social, lately. I think this is the longest conversation she’s had with, well, anybody in…” Brigid’s hand fluttered in the air briefly before falling.
Javier nodded like he understood. It was best to interrupt her now, while she still had some story to tell. Otherwise she’d get it out of her system too soon. “I’m sorry, but if you don’t mind…” He put a hand to his belly. “There’s a reason they call it labour, you know?”
Brigid blushed. “Oh my God, of course! Let’s get you laid, uh, down somewhere.” Her eyes squeezed shut. “I mean, um, that didn’t quite come out right-”
Oh, she was so cute.
“It’s been a long day-”
She was practically glowing.
“And I normally don’t bring strays home, but you were so nice-”
He knew songs that went this way.
“Anyway, we normally use the guest room for storage, I mean I was sleeping in it for a while before everything… But if it’s just a nap…”
He followed her upstairs to the master bedroom. It was silent and cool, and the sheets smelled like new plastic and discount shopping. He woke there hours later, when the food was cold and her body was warm, and both were within easy reach.
The next morning Brigid kept looking at him and giggling. It was like she’d gotten away with something, like she’d spent the night in a club and not in her own bed, like she wasn’t the one making the rules she’d apparently just broken. The laughter took ten years off her face. She had creams for the rest, and applied them
Downstairs, Abigail sat at the kitchen bar with her orange juice and cereal. Her legs swung under her barstool, back and forth, back and forth. She seemed to be rehearsing for a later role as a bored girl in a coffee shop: reading something on her scroll, her chin cradled in the pit of her left hand as she paged through with her right index finger, utterly oblivious to the noise of the display mounted behind her or Junior’s enthusiastic responses to the educational show playing there. It was funny – he’d just seen the mother lose ten years, but now he saw the daughter gaining them back. She looked so old this morning, so tired.
“My daddy is going out with a vN, too,” Abigail said, not looking up from her reader.
Javier yanked open the fridge. “That so?”
“Yup. He was going out with her and my mom for a while, but not any more.”
Well, that explained some things. Javier pushed aside the milk and orange juice cartons and found the remainder of the vN food. Best to be as nonchalant with the girl as she’d been with him. “What kind of model? This other vN, I mean.”
“I don’t know about the clade, but the model was used for nursing in Japan.”
He nodded. “They had a problem with old people, there.”
“Did you know that Japan has a whole city just for robots? It’s called Mecha. Like that place that Muslim people go to sometimes, but with an H instead of a C.”
Javier set about preparing a plate for Junior. He made sure the kid got the biggest chunks of rofu. “I know about Mecha,” he said. “It’s in Nagasaki Harbour. It’s the same spot they put the white folks a long time ago. Bigger now, though.”
Abigail nodded. “My daddy sent me pictures. He’s on a trip there right now. That’s why I’m here all week.” She quickly sketched a command into her reader with her finger, then shoved the scroll his way. Floating on its soft surface, Javier saw a Japanese-style vN standing beside a curvy white reception-bot with a happy LCD smile and braids sculpted from plastic and enamel. They were both in old-fashioned clothes, the smart robot and the stupid one: the vN wore a lavender kimono with a pink sash, and the receptionist wore “wooden” clogs.
“Don’t you think she’s pretty?” Abigail asked. “Everybody always says how pretty she is, when I show them the pictures.”
“She’s all right. She’s a vN.”
Abigail smiled. “You think my mom is prettier?”
“Your mom is human. Of course I do.”
“So you like humans the best?”
She said it like he had a choice. Like he could just shut it off, if he wanted. Which he couldn’t. Ever.
“Yeah, I like humans the best.”
Abigail’s feet stopped swinging. She sipped her orange juice delicately through a curlicued kiddie straw until only bubbles came. “Maybe my daddy should try being a robot.”
It wasn’t until Brigid and Abigail were gone that Javier decided to debrief his son on what had happened in the park. He had felt sick, he explained, because they were designed to respond quickly to violence against humans. The longer they avoided responding, the worse they felt. It was like an allergy, he said, to human suffering.
Javier made sure to explain this while they watched a channel meant for adult humans. A little clockwork eye kept popping up in the top right corner of the screen just before the violent parts, warning them not to look. “But it’s not real,” Junior said, in English. “Can’t our brains tell the difference?”
“Most of the time. But better safe than sorry.”
“So I can’t watch TV for grown-ups?”
“Sometimes. You can watch all the cartoon violence you want. It doesn’t fall in the Valley at all; there was no human response to simulate when they coded our stems.” He slugged electrolytes. While on her lunch break, Brigid had ordered a special delivery of vN groceries. She clearly intended him to stay awhile. “You can still watch porn, though. I mean, they’d never have built us in the first if we couldn’t pass that little test.”
“Well. Vanilla porn. Not the rough stuff. No blood. Not unless it’s a vN getting roughed up. Then you can go to town.”
“How will I know the difference?”
“How will I know?”
“If it’s a human getting hurt, your cognition will start to jag. You’ll stutter.”
“Like when somebody tried to hurt Abigail?”
“Like that, yeah.”
Junior blinked. “I need to see an example.”
Javier nodded. “Sure thing. Hand me that remote.”
They found some content. A nice sampler, Javier thought. Javier paused the feed frequently. There was some slang to learn and explain, and some anatomy. He was always careful to give his boys a little lesson on how to find the clitoris. The mega-church whose members had tithed to fund the development of their OS didn’t want them hurting any of the sinners left behind to endure God’s wrath after the Rapture. Fucking them was still okay.
He had just finished explaining this little feat of theology when Brigid came home early. She shrieked and covered her daughter’s eyes. Then she hit Javier. He lay on the couch, unfazed, as she slapped him and called him names. He wondered, briefly, what it would be like to be able to defend himself.
“He’s a child!”
“Yeah, he’s my child,” Javier said. “And that makes it my decision, not yours.”
Brigid folded her arms and paced across the bedroom to retrieve her drink. She’d had the scotch locked up way high in the kitchen and he’d watched her stand on tiptoes on a slender little dining room chair just to get it, her calves doing all sorts of interesting things as she stretched.
“I suppose you show all your children pornography?” She tipped back more of her drink.
“Every last one.”
“How many is that?”
“This Junior is the twelfth.”
“Twelve? Rapid iteration is like a felony in this state!”
This was news to him. Then again, it made a certain kind of sense – humans worked very hard to avoid having children, because theirs were so expensive and annoying and otherwise burdensome. Naturally they had assumed that vN kids were the same.
“I’ll be sure to let this Junior know about that.”
“This Junior? Don’t you even name them?”
He shrugged. “What’s the point? We don’t see each other. Let them choose their own name.”
“Oh, so in addition to being a pervert, you’re an uncaring felonious bastard. That’s just great.”
Javier had no idea where “caring” came into the equation, but decided to let that slide. “You’ve been with me. Did I ask you to do anything weird?”
“Did I make you feel bad?” He stepped forward. She had very plush carpet, the kind that dug into his toes if he walked slowly enough.
They were close; he could see where one of her earrings was a little tangled and he reached under her hair to fix it. “Did I make you feel good?”
She sighed through her nose to hide the quirk in her lip. “That’s not the point. The point is that it’s wrong to show that kind of stuff to kids!”
He rubbed her arms. “Human kids, yeah. They tend to run a little slow. They get confused. Junior knows that the vids were just a lesson on the failsafe.” He stepped back. “What, do you think I was trying to turn him on, or something? Jesus! And you think I’m sick?”
“Well, how should I know? I come home and you’re just sitting there like it’s no big deal…” She swallowed the last of the drink. “Do you have any idea what kinds of ads I’m going to get, now? What kind of commercials I’m going to have to flick past, before Abigail sees them? I don’t want that kind of thing attached to my profile, Javier!”
“Give me a break,” Javier said. “I’m only three years old.”
That stopped her in her tracks. Her mouth hung open. Human women got so uptight about his age. The men handled it much better – they laughed and ruffled his hair and asked if he’d had enough to eat.
He smiled. “What, you’ve never been with a younger man?”
“That’s not funny.”
He lay back on the bed, propped up on his elbows. “Of course it’s funny. It’s hysterical. You’re railing at me for teaching my kid how to recognize the smutvids that won’t fry his brain, and all the while you’ve been riding a three-year-old.”
“And very eagerly, I might add.”
Now she looked genuinely angry. “You’re a total asshole, you know that? Are you training Junior to be a total asshole, too?”
“He can be whatever he wants to be.”
“Well, I’m sure he’s finding plenty of good role models in the adult entertainment industry, Javier.”
“Lots of vN get rich doing porn. They can do the seriously hardcore stuff.” He stretched. “They have to pay a licensing fee to the studio that coded the crying plugin, though. Designers won a lawsuit.”
Brigid sank slowly to the very edge of the bed. Her spine folded over her hips. She held her face in her hands. For a moment she became her daughter: shoulders hunched, cowering. She seemed at once very fragile and very heavy. Brigid did not think of herself as beautiful. He knew that from the menagerie of creams in her bathroom. She would never understand the reassurance a vN could find in the solidity of her flesh, or the charm of her unique smiles, or the hundred different sneezes her species seemed to have. She would only know that they melted for humans.
As though sensing his gaze, she peered at him through the spaces between her fingers. “Why did you bother bringing a child into this world, Javier?”
He’d felt this same confusion when Junior asked him about the existence of all vN. He had no real answer. Sometimes, he wondered if his desire to iterate was a holdover from the clade’s initial programming as ecological engineers, and he was nothing more than a Johnny Appleseed planting his boys hither and yon. After all, they did sink a lot of carbon.
But nobody ever seemed to ask the humans this question. Their breeding was messy and organic and therefore special, and everybody treated it like some divine right no matter what the consequences were for the planet or the psyche or the body. They’d had the technology to prevent unwanted children for decades, but Javier still met them every day, still listened to them as they talked themselves to sleep about accidents and cycles and late-night family confessions during holiday visits. He thought about Abigail, lonely and defenceless under her tree. Brigid had no right to ask him why he’d bred.
He nodded at her empty glass. “Why did you have yours? Were you drunk?”
Javier spent that night on a futon in the storage room. He lay surrounded by the remnants of Brigid’s old life: t-shirts from dive bars that she insisted on keeping; smart lease agreements and test results that she’d carefully organized in Faraday boxes. It was no different from the mounds of clutter he’d found in other homes. Humans seemed to have a thing about holding on to stuff. Things held a special meaning for them. That was lucky for him. Javier was a thing, too.
He had moved on to the books when Junior came in to see him. The boy shuffled toward him uncertainly. He had eaten half a box of vN groceries that day. The new inches messed with his posture and gait; he didn’t know where to put his newly-enlarged feet.
“Dad, I’ve got a problem.” Junior flopped onto the futon. He hugged his shins. “Are you having a problem, too?”
Junior nodded at the bedroom.
“Oh, that. Don’t worry about that. Humans are like that. They freak out.”
“Is she gonna kick us out?” Junior stared directly at Javier. “I know it’s my fault and I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to mess things up-”
His son closed his mouth. Junior looked so small just then, all curled in on himself. It was hard to remember that he’d been even tinier only a short time ago. His black curls overshadowed his head, as though the programming for hair had momentarily taken greater priority than the chassis itself. Javier gently pulled the hair away so he could see his son’s eyes a little better.
“It’s not your fault.”
Junior didn’t look convinced. “…It’s not?”
“No. It’s not. You can’t control how they act. They have systems that we don’t – hormones and glands and nerves and who knows what – controlling what they do. You’re not responsible for that.”
“But, if I hadn’t asked to see-”
“Brigid reacted the way she did because she’s meat,” Javier said. “She couldn’t help it. I chose to show you those vids because I thought it was the right thing to do. When you’re bigger, you can make those kinds of choices for your own iterations. Until then, I’m running the show. Got it?”
Junior nodded. “Got it.”
“Good.” Javier stood, stretched, and found a book for them to read. It was thick and old, with a statue on the cover. He settled down on the futon beside Junior. “You said you had a problem?”
Junior nodded. “Abigail doesn’t like me. Not the way I want. She wouldn’t let me hold hands when we made a fort in her room.”
Javier smiled. “That’s normal. She won’t like you until you’re an older boy. That’s what they like best, if they like boys. Give it a day or two.” He tickled his son’s ribs. “We’ll make a bad boy of you yet, just you watch.”
Javier kept tickling. “Oh yeah. Show me your broody face. Show me angst. They love that.”
Junior twisted away and folded his arms. He threw himself against the futon in a very good approximation of huffy irritation. “You’re not helping-”
“No, seriously, try to look like a badass. A badass who gets all weepy about girls.”
Finally, his son laughed. Then Javier told him it was time to learn about how paper books worked, and he rested an arm across his son’s shoulders and read aloud until the boy grew bored and sleepy. And when the lights were all out and the house was quiet and they lay wrapped up in an old quilt, his son said: “Dad, I grew three inches today.”
Javier smiled in the dark. He smoothed the curls away from his son’s face. “I saw that.”
“Did my brothers grow as fast as me?”
And Javier answered as he always did: “No, you’re the fastest yet.”
It was not a lie. Each time, they seemed to grow just a little bit faster.
Brigid called him the next day from work. “I’m sorry I didn’t say goodbye before I left this morning.”
“I just… This is sort of new for me, you know? I’ve met other vN, but not ones Junior’s age. I’ve never seen them in this phase, and-”
He heard people chattering in the background. Vaguely, he wondered what Brigid did for a living. It was probably boring, and she probably didn’t want to think about work while she was with him. Doing so tended to mess with human responses.
“-you’re trying to train him for everything, and I get them, but have you ever considered slowing things down?”
“And delay the joys of adulthood?”
“Speaking of which,” she said, her voice now lowered to a conspiratorial whisper, “what are you doing tonight?”
“What would you like me to do?”
She giggled. He laughed, too. How Brigid could be so shy and so nervous was beyond him. For all their little failings humans were very strong; they felt pain and endured it, and had the types of feelings he would never have. Their faces flushed and their eyes burned and their hearts sometimes skipped a few beats. Or so he had heard. He wondered what having organs would feel like. Would he be constantly conscious of them? Would he notice the slow degradation and deterioration of his neurons, blinking brightly and frantically before dying, like old filament bulbs?
“Have a bath ready for me when I get home,” she said.
Brigid liked a lot of bubbles in her bath. She also liked not to be disturbed. “I let Abigail stay at a friend’s house tonight.” She stretched backward against Javier. “I wish Junior had friends he could stay with.”
Javier raised his eyebrows. “You plan on getting loud?”
She laughed a little. He felt the reverberation all through him. “I think that depends on you.”
“Then I hope you have plenty of lozenges,” he said. “Your throat’s gonna hurt, tomorrow.”
“I thought you couldn’t hurt me.” She grabbed his arms and folded them around herself like the sleeves of an oversized sweater.
“I can’t. Not in the moment. But I’m not responsible for any lingering side-effects.”
“Hmm. So no spanking, then?”
“Tragically, no. Why? You been bad?”
She stilled. Slowly, she turned around. She had lit candles, and they illuminated only her silhouette. Her face remained shadowed, unreadable. “In the past,” she said. “Sometimes I think I’m a really bad person, Javier.”
“Just… I’m selfish. And I know it. But I can’t stop.”
“Well…” She walked two fingers down his chest. “I’m terrible at sharing.”
He looked down. “Seems there’s plenty to go around…”
The candles fizzed out when she splashed bubbles in his face.
Later that night, she burrowed up into his chest and said: “You’re staying for a while, right?”
“Why wouldn’t I? You spoil me.”
She flipped over and faced away from him. “You do this a lot, don’t you? Hooking up with humans, I mean.”
He hated having this conversation. No matter how hard he tried to avoid it, it always popped up sometime. It was like they were programmed to ask the question. “I’ve had my share of relationships with humans.”
“How many others have there been like me?”
“Bullshit.” She turned over to her back. “Tell me. I want to know. How many others?”
He rolled over, too. In the dark, he had a hard time telling where the ceiling was. It was a shadowy void far above him that made his voice echo strangely. He hated the largeness of this house, he realized. It was huge and empty and wasteful. He wanted something small. He wanted the treehouse back.
“I never counted.”
“Of course you did. You’re a computer. You’re telling me you don’t index the humans you sleep with? You don’t categorize us somewhere? You don’t chart us by height and weight and income?”
Javier frowned. “No. I don’t.”
Brigid sighed. “What happened with the others? Did you leave them or did they leave you?”
“Why? Why would they leave you?”
He slapped his belly. It produced a flat sound in the quiet room. “I get fat. Then they stop wanting me.”
Brigid snorted. “If you don’t want to tell me, that’s fine. But at least make up a better lie, okay?”
“No, really! I get very fat. Obese, even.”
“You do not.”
“I do. And then they die below the waist.” He folded his hands behind his head. “You humans, you’re very shallow.”
“Oh, and I suppose you don’t give a damn what we look like, right?”
“Of course. I love all humans equally. It’s priority programmed.”
She scrambled up and sat on him. “So I’m just like the others, huh?”
Her hipbones stuck out just enough to provide good grips for his thumbs. “I said I love you all equally, not that I love you all for the same reasons.”
She grabbed his hands and pinned them over his head. “So why’d you hook up with me, huh? Why me, out of all the other meatsacks out there?”
“That’s easy.” He grinned. “My kid has a crush on yours.”
The next day were Junior’s jumping lessons. They started in the backyard. It was a nice backyard, mostly slate with very little lawn, the sort of low-maintenance thing that suited Brigid perfectly. He worried a little about damaging the surface, though, so he insisted that Junior jump from the lawn to the roof. It was a forty-five degree jump, and it required confident legs, firm feet, and a sharp eye. Luckily, the sun beating down on them gave them plenty of energy for the task.
“Don’t worry,” he shouted. “Your body knows how!”
“No buts! Jump!”
“I don’t want to hit the windows!”
His son gave him the finger. He laughed. Then he watched as the boy took two steps backward, ran, and launched himself skyward. His slender body sailed up, arms and legs flailing uselessly, and he landed clumsily against the eaves. Red ceramic tiles fell down to the patio, disturbed by his questing fingers.
“Dad, I’m slipping!”
“Use your arms. Haul yourself up.” The boy had to learn this. It was crucial.
Abigail was home from school. He heard the patio door close. He watched another group of tiles slide free of the roof. Something in him switched over. He jumped down and saw Abigail’s frightened face before ushering her backward, out of the way of falling tiles. Behind him, he heard a mighty crash. He turned, and his son was lying on his side surrounded by broken tiles. His left leg had bent completely backward.
Abigail dashed toward Junior’s prone body. She knelt beside him, her face all concern, her hands busy at his sides. His son cast a long look between him and her. She had run to help Junior. She was asking him if it hurt. Javier knew already that it didn’t. It couldn’t. They didn’t suffer, physically. But his son was staring at him like he was actually feeling pain.
He turned. Brigid was standing there in her office clothes, minus the shoes. She must have come home early. “I’m sorry about the tiles,” Javier said.
But Brigid wasn’t looking at the tiles. She was looking at Junior and Abigail. The girl kept fussing over him. She pulled his left arm across her little shoulders and stood up so that he could ease his leg back into place. She didn’t let go when his stance was secure. Her stubborn fingers remained tangled in his. “You’ve gotten bigger,” Abigail said quietly. Her ears had turned red.
“Junior kissed me.”
It was Saturday. They were at the playground. Brigid had asked for Junior’s help washing the car while Javier took Abigail to play, and now he thought he understood why. He watched Abigail’s legs swinging above the ground. She took a contemplative sip from her juicebox.
“What kind of kiss?” he asked.
“Nothing fancy,” Abigail answered, as though she were a regular judge of kisses. “It was only right here, not on the lips.” She pointed at her cheek.
“Did that scare you?”
She frowned and folded her arms. “My daddy kisses me there all the time.”
“Ah.” Now he understood his son’s mistake.
“Junior’s grown up really fast,” Abigail said. “Now he looks like he’s in middle school.”
Javier had heard of middle school from organic people’s stories. It sounded like a horrible place. “Do you ever wish you could grow up that fast?”
Abigail nodded. “Sometimes. But then I couldn’t live with Mom, or my daddy. I’d have to live somewhere else, and get a job, and do everything by myself. I’m not sure it’s worth it.” She crumpled up her juicebox. “Did you grow up really fast, like Junior?”
“Yeah. Pretty fast.”
“Did your daddy teach you the things you’re teaching Junior?”
Javier rested his elbows on his knees. “Some of it. And some of it I learned on my own.”
It was funny, he normally only ever had this conversation with adults. “Well, he taught me how to jump really high. And how to climb trees. Do you know how to climb trees?”
Abigail shook her head. “Mom says it’s dangerous. And it’s harder with palm trees, anyway.”
“That’s true, it is.” At least, he imagined it would be for her. The bark on those trees could cut her skin open. It could cut his open, too, but he wouldn’t feel the pain. “Anyway, Dad taught me lots of things: how to talk to people; how to use things like the bus and money and phones and email; how stores work.”
“How stores work?”
“Like, how to buy things. How to shop.”
“How to shoplift?”
He pretended to examine her face. “Hey, you sure you’re organic? You sure seem awful smart…”
She giggled. “Can you teach me how to shoplift?”
“No way!” He stood. “You’d get caught, and they’d haul you off to jail.”
Abigail hopped off the bench. “They wouldn’t haul a kid off to jail, Javier.”
“Not an organic one, maybe. But a vN, sure.” He turned to leave the playground.
“Have you ever been to jail?”
They were about to cross a street. Her hand found his. He was careful not to squeeze too hard. “When I was smaller,” he said simply. “A long time ago.”
“Was it hard?”
“But you can’t feel it if somebody beats you up, right? It doesn’t hurt?”
“No, it doesn’t hurt.”
In jail they had asked him, at various times, if it hurt yet. And he had blinked and said No, not yet, not ever. Throughout, he had believed that his dad might come to help him. It was his dad who had been training him. His dad had seen the policia take him in. And Javier had thought that there was a plan, that he would be rescued, that it would end. But there was no plan. It did not end. His dad never showed. And then the humans had turned on each other, in an effort to trigger his failsafe.
“Junior didn’t feel any pain, either,” Abigail said. “When you let him fall.”
The signal changed. They walked forward. The failsafe swam under the waters of his mind, and whispered to him about the presence of cars and the priority of human life.
“What do you mean, he’s not here?”
Abigail kept looking from her mother to Javier and back again. “Did Junior go away?”
Brigid looked down at her. “Are you all packed up? Your dad is coming today to get you.”
“And Momo, Mom. Daddy and Momo. They’re both coming straight from the airport.”
“Yes. I know that. Your dad and Momo. Now can you please check upstairs?”
Abigail didn’t budge. “Will Junior be here when I come back next Friday?”
“I don’t know, Abigail. Maybe not. He’s not just some toy you can leave somewhere.”
Abigail’s face hardened. “You’re mean and I hate you,” she said, before marching up the stairs with heavy, decisive stomps.
Javier waited until he heard a door slam before asking: “Where is he, really?”
“I really don’t know, Javier. He’s your son.”
Javier frowned. “Well, did he say anything-”
“No. He didn’t. I told him that Abigail would be going back with her dad, and he just up and left.”
Javier made for the door. “I should go look for him.”
“No!” Brigid slid herself between his body and the door. “I mean, please don’t. At least, not until my ex leaves. Okay?”
“Your ex? Why? Are you afraid of him or something?” Javier tipped her chin up with one finger. “He can’t hurt you while his girlfriend’s watching. You know that, right?”
She hunched her shoulders. “I know. And I’m not afraid of him hurting me. God. You always leap to the worst possible conclusion. It’s just, you know, the way he gloats. About how great his life is now. It hurts.”
He deflated. “Fine. I’ll wait.”
In the end, he didn’t have long to wait. They showed up only fifteen minutes later – a little earlier than they were supposed to, which surprised Brigid and made her even angrier for some reason. “He was never on time when we were together,” she sniffed, as she watched them exit their car. “I guess dating a robot is easier than buying a fucking watch.”
“That’s a bad word, Mom,” Abigail said. “I’m gonna debit your account.”
Brigid sighed. She forced a smile. “You’re right, honey. I’m sorry. Let’s go say hi to your dad.”
At the door, Kevin was a round guy with thinning hair and very flashy-looking augmented lenses – the kind usually marketed at much younger humans. He stood on the steps with one arm around a Japanese-model vN wearing an elaborate Restoration costume complete with velvet jacket and perfect black corkscrew curls. They both stepped back a little when Javier greeted them at the door.
“You must be Javier,” Kevin said, extending his hand and smiling a dentist smile. “Abigail’s told me lots about you.”
“You did?” Brigid frowned at her daughter.
“Yeah.” Abigail’s expression clouded. “Was it supposed to be a surprise?”
Brigid’s mouth opened, then closed, then opened again. “Of course not.”
The thing about the failsafe was that it made sure his perceptual systems caught every moment of hesitation in voices or faces or movements. Sometimes humans could defeat it, if they believed their own bullshit. But outright lies, especially about the things that hurt — he had reefs of graphene coral devoted to filtering those. Brigid was lying. She had meant for this moment to be a surprise. He could simulate it, now: she would open the door and he would be there and he would make her look good because he looked good, he was way prettier by human standards than she or her ex had any hope of ever being, and for some reason that mattered. Not that he couldn’t understand; his own systems were regularly hijacked by his perceptions. He responded to pain; they responded to proportion. He couldn’t actually hurt the human man standing in front of him – not with his fists. But his flat stomach and his thick hair and his clear, near-poreless skin: they were doing the job just fine. Javier saw that, now, in the way Kevin kept sizing him up, even when his own daughter danced into his arms. His jetlagged eyes barely spared a second for her. They remained trained on Javier. Beside him, Brigid stood a little taller.
God, Brigid was such a bitch.
“I like your dress, Momo,” Abigail said.
This shook Kevin out of his mate-competition trance. “Well that’s good news, baby, ‘cause we bought a version in your size, too!”
“That’s cute,” Brigid said. “Now you can both play dress-up.”
Kevin shot her a look that was pure hate. Javier was glad suddenly that he’d never asked about why the two of them had split. He didn’t want to know. It was clearly too deep and organic and weird for him to understand, much less deal with.
“Well, it was nice meeting you,” he said. “I’m sure you’re pretty tired after the flight. You probably want to get home and go to sleep, right?”
“Yes, that’s right,” Momo said. Thank Christ for other robots; they knew how to take a cue.
Kevin pinked considerably. “Uh, right.” He reached down, picked up Abigail’s bag, and nodded at them. “Call you later, Brigid.”
Abigail waved at Javier. She blew him a kiss. He blew one back as the door closed.
“Well, thank goodness that’s over.” Brigid sagged against the door, her palms flat against its surface, her face lit with a new glow. “We have the house to ourselves.”
She was so pathetically obvious. He’d met high-schoolers with more grace. He folded his arms. “Where’s my son?”
Brigid frowned. “I don’t know, but I’m sure he’s fine. You’ve been training him, haven’t you? He has all your skills.” Her fingers played with his shiny new belt buckle, the one she had bought for him especially. “Well, most of them. I’m sure there are some things he’ll just have to learn on his own.”
She knew. She knew exactly where his son was. And when her eyes rose, she knew that he knew. And she smiled.
Javier did not feel fear in any organic way. The math reflected a certain organic sensibility, perhaps, the way his simulation and prediction engines suddenly spun to life, their fractal computations igniting and processing as he calculated what could go wrong and when and how and with whom. How long had it been since he’d last seen Junior? How much did Junior know? Was his English good enough? Were his jumps strong enough? Did he understand the failsafe completely? These were the questions Javier had, instead of a cold sweat. If he were a different kind of man, a man like Kevin or any of the other human men he’d met and enjoyed in his time, he might have felt a desire to grab Brigid or hit her the way she’d hit him earlier, when she thought he was endangering her offspring in some vague, indirect way. They had subroutines for that. They had their own failsafes, the infamous triple-F cascades of adrenaline that gave them bursts of energy for dealing with problems like the one facing him now. They were built to protect their own, and he was not.
So he shrugged and said: “You’re right. There are some things you just can’t teach.”
They went to the bedroom. And he was so good, he’d learned so much in his short years, that Brigid rewarded his technique with knowledge. She told him about taking Junior to the grocery store with her. She told him about the man who had followed them into the parking lot. She told him how, when she had asked Junior what he thought, he had given Javier’s exact same shrug.
“He said you’d be fine with it,” she said. “He said your dad did something similar. He said it made you stronger. More independent.”
Javier shut his eyes. “Independent. Sure.”
“He looked so much like you as he said it.” Brigid was already half asleep. “I wonder what I’ll pass down to my daughter, sometimes. Maybe she’ll fall in love with a robot, just like her mommy and daddy.”
“Maybe,” Javier said. “Maybe her whole generation will. Maybe they won’t even bother reproducing.”
“Maybe we’ll go extinct,” Brigid said. “But then who would you have left to love?”