The new and improved I HEART ROBOT is almost here! In fact, I’m delighted to announce that the new ebook and paperback versions will release September 26th. You’ll be able to see the brand new cover on August 29th, but until then, here are the new improved opening chapters to whet your appetite…
What they were doing was illegal.
Tyri huddled in her coat, cozying up with her grief and the knot of anxiety in her belly. Life spent as a juvenile delinquent behind bars flashed through her mind before dissipating with a cloudy exhalation. But it was worth the risk of arrest – after all Nana had done for Tyri, the least she deserved was a proper funeral. Besides, Tyri and Asrid would probably only receive a fine. The androids gathered at the grave site would be decommissioned on the spot by a single bullet to their artificial brains.
The wind howled in b-flat minor through the dying leaves of the oaks drooping over Svartkyrka cemetery. Cirrus clouds whisked across the sky, and the sun performed a watery attempt at daylight as afternoon shuffled into twilight. It was a perfect day for a funeral.
“Such a waste,” Asrid said.
Tyri wasn’t sure if her pink-clad friend meant a waste of the android’s life or a waste of spare parts. Technically, they were breaking the law by burying the robot, instead of tossing her in the scrap yard like nothing more than a broken toaster. Tyri glanced at the others, unaffected by the cold.
The androids stood in a neat semicircle, four adults and a child droid with synthetic curls. None of them wore the armbands they were supposed to. They all looked so human anyway; their grief real even if they weren’t. Two male droids – of the type produced as personal companions – lowered the cardboard coffin into the dirt. The child droid began to sing – his voice a shattered-crystal treble – and Tyri batted tears off her cheeks with grubby mittens.
“You okay, T?” Asrid asked.
“Nana was like a mom to me. I’m going to miss her.”
Asrid gave Tyri a hug. “I’m sorry, but we should get going.” Her face scrunched in a frown, marring her impeccable makeup. She scanned the grounds as if she expected to find lurking cops.
“Give me a minute,” Tyri said and kicked her scuffed boots through the fallen leaves, all copper and russet. They looked like scabs, like a carpet of dried blood spilling into the open grave. She twirled the yellow anemone in her hand. Sunshine on a stick, Nana had said.
“Hope there’s sunshine where you are now, Nana.” Tyri dropped the single flower onto the coffin and wiped away the tear snailing down her cheek. Why Nana had chosen to permanently shut down and scramble her acuitron core, Tyri could only guess. Perhaps living in a world controlled by groups like the People Against Robot Autonomy had simply become too much for the android hard-coded to love and nurture her human charges.
“Sorry for your loss,” one of the droids said, looking at her with far too human eyes.
“Thank you for letting me know,” Tyri said.
“She would’ve wanted you here.”
Stuffing her mitten-covered hands into the pockets of her trench coat, Tyri turned her back on the androids. She traipsed through the cemetery that had long been losing the battle to weeds. Human tombstones, from back when there was real estate for corpses, lay in crumbling ruin covered in pigeon poop. No human had been buried in coffins for decades on the decaying grounds; when people died these days they were interred in organic pods and planted in parks. Now there were entire forests growing out of dead people.
“Botspit, I’m hungry,” Asrid said when Tyri joined her at the gate. “Where’re we going to eat?”
“I think I’ll just go home.”
“Come on, T. You can’t practice on an empty stomach.”
Tyri cracked a smile and let Asrid lead her past the marble angels standing sentinel, stoic despite one missing a nose and the other most of a wing.
Asrid’s eco-friendly bug sat parked in the weed-inundated parking lot, a shock of neon pink that matched Asrid’s shoes, handbag, and the ribbons holding up her blond hair. Even the vehicle’s plush interior was unicorn puke pink. No matter what she wore, Tyri always felt like a scruffy crow next to the peacock splendor of her best friend.
“Waffles?” Asrid asked and the vehicle took to the air.
“You haven’t eaten a waffle since you were thirteen.”
“I think a day like today calls for carbs. I might even have whipped cream with mine.” She grinned.
“Sassa, I don’t know. Maybe I should just –”
“No. Food first, then you can go home and make out with your violin.”
“You know how much I love the taste of rosin.”
Asrid’s grin broadened into a smile, and Tyri felt some of the tension drain out of her shoulders. She took a deep breath, and this time it didn’t ache as much to expand her lungs. The pain of losing her Nana was still there, a splinter in her heart. It was a mistake to love a robot. It was something her mother had said over and over again to Tyri as a child. No matter how complex an android’s AI, they could never love you back.
“Is Rurik coming or are we still pissed at him?” Asrid asked.
“It’s not his fault,” Tyri said. “His dad –”
“Is a corporate asshole and domestic dictator. But still. He shouldn’t have missed this.”
Just as Tyri was about to come, yet again, to her boyfriend’s defense, her phone rang, filling the bug with Massenet’s Meditation from Thaïs.
“Speak of the devil,” Asrid mumbled as Tyri answered.
“Where are you? Did I miss it?” Rurik asked, sounding out of breath.
“Yeah, we just left,” Tyri said, managing to keep some of the hurt she was feeling from seeping into her words.
“Botballs, I’m so sorry, T. Like, really sorry. How can I make it up to you?”
“Buy me waffles? Asrid refuses to let me go home without sustenance.”
“That funky place in the south,” Asrid shouted from the driver’s seat. “Täppgatan. We’ll be there in fifteen.”
“I’ll see you there,” Rurik said. “Promise. No excuses this time.” With that, he hung up and Tyri sighed.
“Can I invite Sara, since this is turning into a double date?” Asrid asked.
“Of course. And you know, Rik would’ve been there if it weren’t for his father,” Tyri added.
Asrid flicked loose hair off her face without comment before she gave the necessary voice commands to her cell phone to call Sara.
While Asrid chatted, Tyri stared out of the window at the lights of the city reflected in the frigid Baltic, at the painted walls of the old town, at the blurred faces of people and robots zipping past them in hovercraft of varying description.
Eventually, the bug slowed and Asrid cruised up and down the trendy south island streets, choked with people and ’craft since Friday ‘after works’ had begun. Having found a free tether, the girls alighted and headed into an even trendier waffle house that catered to all the latest dietary fads.
Rurik was already there, seated at a corner booth. He folded Tyri into an embrace before she’d even taken off her jacket. She closed her eyes, savoring his warmth and the familiar scent of his lemon-zest body-wash. Once again, all her precisely arranged verbal ordnance failed to fire in his presence.
“I’m sorry,” he said and kissed the tip of her nose. If Rurik were a song, he’d be in D major.
“Everything okay with your dad?” Tyri asked as she shucked her jacket before settling beside him at the table.
“Could be worse.”
“He being an ass again?” Asrid asked and Tyri gave her a pointed look across the table, willing Sassa to drop it.
“When is he not?” Rurik ran a hand through his dark curls, fine lines crinkling the corners of his hazel eyes as he attempted a lopsided grin.
“Still, it really sucked you missed the funeral,” Asrid added. Tyri tried to kick her in the shin but Asrid dodged. “You should’ve been there.”
“Yeah,” Rurik said. “I wanted to be, but instead I got to spend two hours being lectured by my father on all the ways I’m a fuck-up.”
“You are not.” Anger stirred in Tyri’s belly.
“Attending an illegal bot burial would definitely have been grounds for his disapproval.” Rurik’s acerbic laugh made Tyri’s insides sting. Asrid rolled her eyes.
“Does he think you’re going to get corrupted by some bot-loving hippies at school or something?” Asrid asked.
“Oh, they’d love that,” Rurik said, his lips twisting on the they. ‘They’ included his father and Gunnar, his older brother – the golden boy – and ring leader of the People Against Robot Autonomy.
“You should do it,” Asrid said. “Just to piss them off. Those PARA people are…” Asrid made a circle at her temple with her index finger. Again Tyri tried to kick Asrid and this time she hit her mark. Asrid stifled a yelp, but the damage was done.
Rurik’s eyes narrowed, a frown gathering like storm clouds on his forehead. “Those people are what? Crazy for trying to preserve the future of humanity?”
Tyri wished Asrid could’ve kept her damn mouth shut; she was so tired of hearing Rik echo his father’s political sentiments.
“No, just the way PARA goes about it,” Asrid said.
“They have real concerns about robots rights, you know, concerns –”
“I’m starving,” Tyri interjected. “Let’s eat.” She nudged Rik’s shoulder and, thankfully, he turned his attention to the menu. Asrid raised her eyebrow at Tyri, and Tyri mouthed an apology, which Asrid graciously accepted by pulling her tongue.
With the topic dropped, Tyri laid her fingers over Rurik’s beneath the table. He squeezed her hand and pushed his knee against hers. In that moment, she could almost forgive him for missing the funeral. Rik had spent his entire life trying to live up to his father’s expectations while drowning in his brother’s shadow. She could cut him a little slack. And the Engelberger opinion of robots was one shared by many across the country.
The waitron arrived to take their orders. Tyri and Rurik selected the most traditional, least fad-addled option while Asrid did the opposite, making sure to add whipped cream to hers.
“You heard anything yet?” Asrid asked once their drinks had arrived.
“No, but I should soon,” Tyri said. “I’m trying not to think about why it’s taking so long.”
“It’s been less than a month,” Rurik added.
“They promised to let us know in two weeks.” Tyri slurped on a bubble tea the waitron had recommended. “Urgh, this smells like gym socks and tastes like it too.”
“That’s what you get for trusting a robot,” Rurik said. Asrid glared, but Rik seemed oblivious to the bullets she was shooting him across the table.
“You’ll get in, T,” Asrid said. “I’m sure of it. You’re brilliant,” she added before Sara arrived in a swirl of frothy skirts. She bestowed on Asrid the kind of affection Tyri hadn’t received in months from Rurik. He was still keen to get naked whenever he was home from university, but the pressure his father so generously dolloped on his shoulders was clearly starting to get to him. She could see the tension in his body even as he sat hunched over his food.
Tyri sliced into her waffle, enjoying the destruction of artistic confectionery, while Sara and Asrid gossiped about their dance studio and upcoming recital. Rurik ate despondently, spreading puddles of syrup around his plate with a half-eaten strawberry.
“Hey, you okay?” Tyri asked quietly between bites.
“Of course.” Rurik straightened his shoulders and slipped a smile onto his face before joining the conversation. But his eyes were still guarded and his laughter was too forced. His waffle remained mostly untouched.
Tyri had yet to annihilate the last of the lingonberries on her plate when her phone trilled.
Asrid and Sara stared at her across the table, faces expectant.
“You going to check it?” Rurik asked.
“It could be anything.”
“Won’t know ’til you look,” Asrid said.
With the waffle turning to concrete in her belly, Tyri pulled out her phone. One unread email sent from the Baldur Philharmonic Orchestra.
“I can’t.” She put down her phone before looking to Rurik or Asrid for help. “Until I open it, everything is possible. I don’t want to know.”
“Want me to read it?” Asrid asked, and Tyri nodded. She held her breath while Asrid swiped open the mail. She frowned a little, and Tyri swallowed hard, trying her best to keep the artistic confectionery in her belly though it seemed determined to claw its way back up her throat.
“Aw, T. That’s too bad.” Asrid showed Sara the phone, and they shared a pout.
“Guess you’ll have to miss our matinée this weekend,” Sara said. “Because you’ll be at rehearsal.”
“What?” Tyri’s heart stopped beating.
“Rehearsal. Royal Opera House. One sharp.” Asrid slid the phone back toward Tyri, her faux sad-face crumbling into a smile.
“I – what?” Tyri sucked in a breath, and it kick-started her heart.
“You got in!” Asrid pirouetted out of her seat and scooped Tyri into a hug. Sara joined the crush and Tyri couldn’t breathe again thanks to the arms wrapped around her chest.
“You got in! You got in!” Asrid squealed on repeat. “Told you so.” She high-fived Sara behind Tyri’s back.
Comprehension dawned slowly. She was in. Three seats had been available in the violin section of the Baldur JPO. She’d auditioned because her mom had forbidden it. She’d auditioned because ever since she was four years old and snuggled a violin against her jaw, she’d known that playing music was all she ever wanted to do.
Asrid and Sara released her, and Rurik took their place.
“I knew you’d get in,” he whispered in her ear before kissing her. He tasted of syrup and strawberry and everything good in life.
Light-headed, Tyri let Rurik guide her back to her seat. She read the email. The words blurred together and ran like wet ink across the screen.
“Codes! I got in.” Tyri repeated it to herself until she was sure she believed it.
“We need to celebrate,” Asrid said.
“We already are.” Tyri tucked away the phone, her smile starting to hurt her cheeks.
“Round two then?” Sara asked.
“Maybe just a cappuccino, with caramel syrup.”
“Make it four,” Rurik said. “On me, of course.” He wrapped his arm around her shoulders and she snuggled into his side.
They ordered and basked in their ebullience until the drinks arrived.
“You know you’re going to have to tell your mom,” Rurik said, shattering Tyri’s joy.
“Do you think she’s right?” Tyri frowned at the milky fern frond on her coffee. “Do you think I’m being selfish wanting the ‘Bohemian non-existence’ when I could have a ‘sensible and society-assisting’ career in robotics?”
“No,” Sara said. “Life is too short not to be true to yourself. Happiness comes first. Your mom will just have to deal.” Her words were steeped in eighteen-year-old wisdom.
“Be your authentic self,” Asrid agreed. “Your mom will get it. Eventually.”
“Or she won’t,” Rurik said and met Tyri’s gaze. “But I know you won’t let that stop you.” His lopsided grin was back in place, but Tyri wasn’t sure she could trust it.
“So, do we know how we’re gonna tell her yet?” Asrid asked.
“I’ve got a week until the first rehearsal,” Tyri said. “That gives us some time to figure it out.”
“We’ve got this, T.” Asrid gave Tyri’s hand a squeeze across the table. “You’re gonna be famous. I can see it now. One day they’ll read about the greatest violinists ever and there’ll be Tyri Matzen alongside Joshua what’s-his-face and that girl something-Mae. Am I right?”
“Thanks, Sassa. It means a lot.” Tyri let Asrid’s words warm her without paying any attention to the well of silence from Rurik. She’d been waiting all her life for this opportunity, to prove to her mom that music had meaning, that it was a worthy pursuit and more than just a hobby. Tyri was ready to make her mark on the music world; she only hoped she wouldn’t leave a stain.
A red exclamation mark blinked in Quinn’s peripheral vision. Tank almost empty. At his current rate of fuel consumption, he had less than three hours until his system went into energy-saving mode, another thirty minutes before his processor shut down completely. He checked his stats, painfully aware that he hadn’t been for a service in almost a year. Most androids could last a month on a single tank of H; Quinn barely lasted two weeks.
With a sigh that was all shoulders and rolled eyes since he possessed neither lungs nor breath, he refreshed his inbox one last time. Nothing.
Grudgingly, he exited the park, home only to vagrants, squirrels, and the concrete bench besmeared with graffiti that had become his preferred location for android introspection. Now, driven by the need for fuel, he flipped up his hoodie against the chill and headed downtown.
The few people out on the windy street cast him sideways glances and nothing more. To most he seemed just another teenager, fashionably disheveled. No one bothered to look closer. If they had, they might’ve noticed his shiny eyes, then they might’ve noticed his arm devoid of the government stipulated orange patch declaring make, model, and owners that had to be worn by all androids. At that they might’ve panicked and called the authorities, who were only too happy to decommission first, question never.
On the hunt for hydrogen, Quinn jogged past sleeping nightclubs and comatose bars to the dilapidated warehouse district. Here rogue robots had systematically hacked the CCTV network, making the area a little safer for their own kind. Quinn slowed and studied the fuel station. Its yellow-and-green paint peeled away in thin ribbons, the building sinking into decrepitude. A new sign in crisp red letters had been erected beneath the company logo:
Strictly No Unauthorized Robots
Quinn watched and waited. Waiting – the human condition. Humans were always waiting: for something better, something different, something that made them feel more alive. Quinn was starting to feel even more human than usual. He’d been waiting twenty-five days, seven hours, and twenty-three minutes for just one thing, one word, eight letters: accepted.
A tingle threaded through his circuits, a simultaneous dread and thrill that made every passing second both an agony and a pleasure. Paradox – the other human condition. Quinn didn’t like to admit it, but robots were simpler. Binary. On or off. Even the most convoluted androids could be reduced to ones and zeros. He gritted his coral-polymer molars against the depressing thought. He didn’t want his entire existence reduced to a string of single digits.
He’d waited long enough. During the past fifteen minutes, no humans had approached the station. In stealth mode, he sneaked toward the pumps and thumbed through his wallet for the fake credit card.
Shucking his hoodie, Quinn lifted his shirt and depressed his fourth rib. The haptic sensor unsealed a slab of skin revealing the valve to the fuel tank where a human’s intercostal muscles would’ve been. He wrenched the hose from its docking bay and jammed the nozzle into his side. It took a full minute to fill up the tank. A full minute of vulnerability.
Done, he disengaged the pump and waited once more as his body made the necessary recalibration. The red light at the corner of his vision blinked green then disappeared. Quinn turned to leave, relieved that the thieving expedition was almost over. A heavy object connected with his head. Constellations of black dots clotted his vision and Cruor dripped from the gash above his eye. His knees hit asphalt. Nanytes raced to repair the damage done to his skull and pain ignited along every synthetic nerve ending.
Three droids dressed in ratty sweaters and faded jeans leered at Quinn, their faces split with too-wide smiles.
He didn’t resist when they snatched the card from his fingers nor when they continued to rifle through his pockets. Their cold hands slid beneath his shirt and Quinn tensed. They had a canister and an improvised apparatus, no doubt scrounged from a medical bin somewhere, to drain him of Cruor. They might not stop there though, and that thought commanded Quinn into action.
He rolled and struggled to his feet, knocking one of the androids onto their back in the process. The other still wielded a pipe, hitting Quinn repeatedly across the shoulders until they’d driven him to the ground again, his cheek sheering against tar.
A fourth pair of footsteps smacked across the asphalt. He squirmed to get a look at the new assailant and smiled as the android’s titanium-reinforced fist connected with one of the hydrogen-thieving robots.
“Kit, behind you,” Quinn shouted.
Kit delivered a kick to the robot, displaying what a Quasar android built for amorous activities could do given martial arts patches.
The email pinged behind Quinn’s eyes before a scrawl of text blurred his vision. Chaos reigned as android beat up android. He wouldn’t be able to help Kit and would likely only get in the way if he were to try, so he lay pressed into the cold asphalt and let the pinprick letters scan across his cybernetic eyeballs.
“Time to go, Quinny.” Kit grabbed his arm and dragged him to his feet. Together they sprinted down narrow alleys heading further away from the city center, following the jagged shore. They slowed to a jog when they reached the train depot turned haven for the disenfranchised – human and robot alike.
“Thanks, Kit, for saving my bionic ass. What a happy coincidence you just happened to go in search of some H yourself.”
Kit grinned and Quinn shook his head, needing another moment to process both the rescue and the contents of the latest mail.
Accepted. The word he’d been waiting for. Complex code packages unraveled emotions in his core and ‘joy’ unspooled through his circuits. Joy along with relief as well as fear. The last was tricky for Quinn to parse.
“Thank you, Kit,” Quinn said.
“What are friends for?” He slung an arm over Quinn’s shoulder before traipsing across the tracks into the squatter camp rogue robots called home. Fragholmen. The settlement lay in a sprawl of re-purposed metal and barbed wire.
“You all right?” Kit brushed his thumb across the healing graze on Quinn’s cheek.
“Told you, you need to install a martial arts module.”
“My processor’s overloaded as is.”
“Because you insist on installing those stupid emotion patches,” Kit said. “What are you going to do? Feel your way out of fights?”
“I need them,” Quinn said.
“Like you need cinnamon buns and coffee at an afternoon fika.” Kit might’ve made that throaty sound of disapproval unique to human physiology had he the breath to harrumph.
Quinn bit his tongue. It was no use arguing. Kit failed to grasp the importance of emotion in music. If Quinn was ever going to not only pass for human, but actually be human, emotion – not martial arts – modules were required.
In silence, they headed for Sal’s hut. She at least tried to understand what Kit refused to. Since escaping his owners, Quinn had been eking out an existence among the other unwanted robotic detritus in Fragholmen. Survival of the most fuel efficient, which Quinn was not. Playing with Baldur’s Junior Philharmonic Orchestra was going to change his life.
They weaved their way through the geometry of their scrap-metal sanctuary, past kidbots scraping out Sudoku puzzles in the dirt and androids gathered around salvaged furniture discussing mathematics and quantum theory. Some discussed economy and politics too, berating the government that saw fit to bring them into being, mass-produce them, and then abandon them.
Simulated voices rose in anger; titanium fists shook in the air.
“The Robot Revolution.” A Saga-droid stabbed a finger at his companion.
“Don’t think it’s not going to happen. We’re on a precipice here. If the government doesn’t pass this amendment –”
“You think the amendment is our problem?” Lex, a Quasar like Quinn and Kit, interjected. “If this intel about a virus is true, we’ve got much bigger problems.”
“What virus?” Quinn asked.
“Tune into the Botnet once in a while and maybe you’d know,” Kit said with an eye-roll.
Quinn hadn’t checked the newsfeeds in twelve days, six hours and thirty-six minutes. It was always the same anyway: the People Against Robot Autonomy arguing why robots should never be granted rights and robots arguing even more aggressively why they should. The last time he’d been active online, he’d seen nothing about a virus, though. And he told Kit as much.
“Some Saga hackers got wind of an AI virus apparently being developed by M-Tech,” Kit said.
“What kind of virus?”
“Don’t know.” He shrugged. “But Lex figures it’s probably designed to hurt us.”
“Of course he does.”
“It’s time for revolution,” Lex continued. “Look at human history! They want us to wear armbands like Hitler made the Jews wear yellow stars. And you all know what came next.” His words sank into Quinn’s core. He didn’t want to believe humans would go so far as to exterminate their own creations, but part of him knew the real question was what had taken the humans so long to do it.
Having heard enough, Quinn cut a track through the mire to Sal’s.
“Lex has a point,” Kit said.
“That the humans are about to commit robotic genocide? I doubt it.”
“Why? Fragholmen might as well be a Gulag camp.”
“We’re not prisoners here.”
“Aren’t we?” Kit glared, and Quinn struggled to come up with an adequate response.
“There must be better ways to get what we want,” Quinn said eventually.
“Like pretending you’re human?” Kit asked.
Quinn ignored the jibe and strode to the hut at the end of the path. It was a questionable union between corrugated iron and duct tape, but felt more like home than his own hut did. Sal dangled in a canvas hammock reading, the text running across her jade irises.
“Any good?” Quinn moved her legs to sit beside her. Kit loomed in the precarious doorway, leaning on an even more precarious wall.
“Not bad.” She blinked. “I think Alfred Jarry drank too much absinthe, but his ’pataphysics are … amusing.”
Only a Saga-class android, manufactured for intelligence operations during the wars, would find ’pataphysics entertaining.
“So.” She ran her hand across her tattooed scalp. “To what do I owe the pleasure of your company, boys?”
“I got in!” Quinn said. Kit mumbled something indiscernible while Sal took a moment to absorb the information before crushing Quinn to her organosilicone chest.
“This is fantastic. I knew you’d get in,” she said. “You’ve got top-notch music software.”
“Thanks,” Quinn said, feeling a little deflated. It was about so much more than that. It was about more than being able to read the music or bowing the perfect tremolo. It was about feeling something beyond what any emotion patch could offer. For Quinn, playing music was about believing in something beyond his silicon self. That’s what Quinn really wanted to say, but he’d never managed to put into words what he could pour into music.
“When do you start?” Sal asked.
“Saturday. First rehearsal.”
“It’s a bad idea,” Kit said.
“Nonsense. We should celebrate.” Sal leaped off the hammock.
“It’s not that big a deal,” Quinn said.
“Yes it is. First, we celebrate and then we fix you up.”
“That’s what I’ve been talking about,” Kit added with a gleam in his black eyes.
“I need fixing?”
“We could rough you up a bit,” Sal said. “Humans aren’t this perfect.”
“Some droids already did the roughing up.” Kit gestured to the still-healing impact on Quinn’s skull.
“You both get jumped?”
“Filling up. They took my card,” Quinn said. “Kit came to the rescue, as always.”
“Good thing he was around,” Sal said.
“Next time I might not be,” Kit said. “Next time maybe I’ll just watch.” For an android determined to be nothing more than plastic and metal, Kit could be as passive-aggressive as any human.
“Hm, let’s hope not,” Sal said. “As you are, you’ll pass for human, long as no one looks too closely. Those eyes are a problem.”
“No one suspected anything at auditions.” Mostly because he’d kept to himself, his gaze lowered.
“And what about this?” Sal grabbed Quinn’s wrist.
The tag. Sometimes Quinn could forget that under the layers of synthetic flesh, he was just a snarl of electronics, but then the bold, black lettering of the ID code printed on his wrist would always remind him. The tag wasn’t superficial decoration like the ink smears on Sal’s bald head, but hard-coded into his cells, uniquely patterned to be read by various scanners and sensors, all identifying him as Q-I-99.
“We can grind it out,” Sal said.
“Are you that desperate to pass for an ape?” Kit glowered.
“It’ll just come back anyway. What’s the point?” Quinn asked, ignoring Kit.
“The point is you’ll be unmarked for a few weeks between sessions and unidentifiable as a robot,” Sal said.
“Also, it’ll hurt,” Kit said softly.
“As if that’s ever been a problem,” Quinn said. “Pain is part of being human. How do you think all those composers wrote their music?”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” Kit said. “I didn’t realize you were so keen to take a beating. Should I call back those bots?”
“Enough,” Sal said. “This is Quinn’s chance at doing something better with his life. Kit, you should support him.”
“Better? How is trying to fool the humans better than standing up for your own kind?”
“And what?” Quinn’s tone turned bitter. “Violently demand rights from a government that might never grant them?”
“Go and join the apes then.” Kit threw his hands in the air, his own tag a blur of white against his black skin. He kicked Sal’s wall, denting the metal and causing the entire structure to ominously vibrate, before striding away.
“He cares about you,” Sal said with a smile.
“Funny way of showing it.”
“Don’t let him spill water on your circuits. This is your chance to show the humans that we aren’t just machines, that they gave us minds. We think, we feel, we create.” Sal looked ferocious, all sharp angles with an aquiline nose halving her face. She’d look gentler with hair, with bangs to hide her bulbous forehead. Unlike Quasars, Saga-droids could never pass for human, and unlike Quinn, Sal didn’t want to.
“So, are we going to get Mik to grind it out?” she asked.
“I think I’ll take my chances and wear long sleeves.”
“It’s your fuel-cell on the line.”
“I’ll be careful.”
“In that case…” Sal grabbed Quinn’s hand. “I do believe it’s time to celebrate.”
Grudgingly, Quinn acquiesced, unsure of his own feelings about spending so much time among the humans. The audition had seemed like a good idea. He’d dreamed – no, robots didn’t dream – he’d longed to play with others, in an orchestra and on stage. But now, the reality was he’d be spending inordinate amounts of time sitting beside someone who might notice he didn’t draw breath, might notice his too-shiny eyes or the smell of metal and Cruor emanating from his skin. If they reported him, he could end up dead, or worse. Still, it was worth the risk. It had to be.
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