1

 

San Francisco

 

December 1, 2026

 

 

 

Alainn stepped on the brake pedal of her vintage convertible and hoped, this time, it would listen to her.

 

Vintage. That was what the used-car-sales automaton had called the little white car. Three hours later, she was learning that “vintage” meant “death trap.”

 

The convertible jolted to a stop inches from the intimidating steel door that blocked off the underground parking garage. The building itself rose up in a sleek square column. Its glass exterior reflected nothing. No sheen or glare ran across its surface—as if light was anathema to the tower.

 

The electronic screen that almost spanned the length of her car lit up. A soothing monotonous voice called, “Please state your purpose.” In perfect sync with the voice, the same words scrolled across the screen in crisp, black letters.

 

Alainn’s window made a god-awful screech and creak as it slowly rolled down. Screech, creak, repeat. Halfway down, it stuck.

 

“Ugh.”

 

The convertible tried to slip downhill, so she shifted it into park and pulled up on the emergency brake.

 

The engine immediately died.

 

“Crap,” she mumbled, jiggling the key in the ignition.

 

The car made not a whisper of a stutter.

 

“Do not use profanity. State your purpose directly.”

 

“Okay.” Climbing to her knees, Alainn leaned out over the half-open window. “Um, hi. My name is Alainn Murphy. I’m here to talk to Mr. Garbhan, if he’s available?”

 

“Please type your e-mail address into the screen, and then leave your message.”

 

“Can I actually talk to him in person?”

 

“I’m sorry, he is unavailable at the moment. If you leave a message for him here, someone will be sure to get back to you.” A keyboard surfaced on the screen.

 

“Actually, well . . . The thing is, I’m Connor Murphy’s daughter. I’ve been trying to call and e-mail for a while now, and I’m not getting any response. Can I just talk to him over you—I mean over the monitoring system? Or, could I come in? It would just take a second. Please?”

 

“The answer is no, Miss Murphy. Please leave a message.”

 

“Fine,” she grumbled as she extended her arm to type in her e-mail address.

 

“Please record your message now,” the voice said. Then there was an almost-melodic beep.

 

“Okay. As I said, my name is Alainn Murphy, Connor Murphy’s daughter. The Rose 76GF is ready, but my father needs to put the finishing touches on her. It’s taking a little longer than expected. And the probation department said if you’re willing to defer the restitution, it’s okay with them. Please, he just needs a little more time. Ideally a month, but any amount would be greatly appreciated—”

 

The soft white of the screen blurred, and the image of a man appeared. More exactly, the vision of a suit appeared. All that showed of the man himself was his torso. It was a nice suit, dark blue and a little gleaming, as if direct light shone on him.

 

“Hello? Are you Mr. Garbhan? I think maybe your camera is tipped down?”

 

“Miss Murphy—”

 

“Please, call me Alainn.”

 

“The answer, Miss Murphy, is no.” His voice was a jagged shard of ice—cold, hard, and sharp. It cut straight through Alainn.

 

She closed her eyes. “Mr. Garbhan, I get why you’re angry. You’ve been more than generous with us. He’s not a bad person. He pled guilty. He’s following all the terms of his probation . . . This isn’t like six months ago. He can fix her programming—”

 

“The answer, Miss Murphy, is no.”

 

The screen dissolved back to soft white. Crisp, black letters and a soft, dispassionate voice told her, “Please remove your vehicle from the premises. Now.”

 

“Ugh!” Alainn cried out. “Really? Really? You couldn’t treat me like a human being for one damn second?”

 

She tried the key again. Nothing. Turning it hard in the ignition, she slammed her foot on the gas pedal. She had no idea why she thought it might help, but it didn’t do anything. Neither did pumping the gas.

 

Vintage obviously also meant “scrap metal.”

 

“Please remove your vehicle from the premises now, before a tow truck is called. You will be charged for the tow, or your car will be impounded.”

 

“Wow. Just wow.”

 

No matter how hard Alainn turned the key, the car refused to start. Finally, the convertible spoke to her: click, click, click. The starter.

 

“The tow truck has been called and will be arriving in ten minutes.”

 

Alainn had already grown to despise that soothing, disembodied voice.

 

There was one way to start a car with a busted starter, a method Alainn used when she and her coworker Cherry found abandoned cars. Unfortunately, it took two people. Pulling out a bobby pin, she let her messy dark hair fall into her face. Using her teeth, she bent the bobby pin. A metallic tang filled her mouth. Her molars complained, but they bent the metal into the right shape. She hooked the bobby pin through the hole in the head of the key, stuck the end of it under the plastic dashboard, and, by some miracle, it stayed.

 

As the engine tittered with a rhythmic clicking, she tried the reluctant handle to the car’s trunk. It opened.

 

“Thank all that’s holy!”

 

Glancing inside, she hooked a finger under the dirty carpet liner—only to find that the car had no spare. It did, however, have a rusty, chipped tire iron. Wrapping a fist around it, she moved to the front of the car.

 

“You have three minutes until the tow truck arrives. Please remove your vehicle.”

 

“Got it!”

 

Yanking up the hood until it stuck open, Alainn hefted up the tire iron with both hands and hit the starter as hard as she could. When nothing happened, she rammed it several more times.

 

The engine turned over.

 

Slamming down the hood, she jumped into her car, threw it in reverse, and shut the door as she pushed her foot on the gas pedal. In the rearview mirror, the trunk swung up and down.

 

Her car made a loud, screeching protest. A black cloud of smoke fired from the tailpipe as Alainn reversed into the private-inlet alley. A large yellow tow truck turned into the alley right as she drove out of it. The automaton driver pulled to the side, letting her pass.

 

“No need for a tow truck!” Alainn yelled.

 

With another black cloud backfiring its farewell, her piece of scrap metal turned back onto the city street.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2

 

December 1, 2026

 

 

 

Lorccan Garbhan’s desk stretched before him as he watched his computer screen. The machine, which might have once been considered a car, belched a cloud of black smoke as Alainn Murphy screeched down his road. Two skid marks remained from her hasty retreat from his home.

 

Lorccan pursed his lips as he looked down at the screen. “She definitely knows how to make an exit.” He clicked a button to switch cameras, so he could watch Ms. Murphy barreling out of his access road, leaving a confused tow-truck automaton behind, before screeching toward the main road. He wondered whether the vehicle she drove would manage the drive to Connor Murphy’s home.

 

His mother would have said that Alainn’s dirty mouth was an indicator of a loose, disease-prone woman. “Women like that carry more than common bacteria and viruses,” he could remember her saying.

 

He shook his head, hoping to dislodge the thought. Accurate or not, Lorccan knew his mother had always taken a very disparaging view of her own sex.

 

Sitting back in his chair, he reflected on his decision to hire Connor Murphy. He realized he should have known better. He had known better. Yet, despite foresight and misgivings, Lorccan had gone to Connor. Desperation had driven him to seek out a man whose sickness had well and truly drowned his entire family.

 

“Pull up the latest update from Connor Murphy,” Lorccan told his household system as he folded his hands together on his desk.

 

A moment later, his screen filled with images of two identical-looking women, Alainn Murphy and Rose 76GF. To be accurate, one was a woman, one a robot. Thick, dark, messy hair was piled on Alainn’s head. Visible dirt crusted her knees and ringed her forearms. Thick plastic gloves flopped in her hand. Her arms were crossed over her chest.

 

The echoes of his mother’s words whispered through his head again. He pushed the unwanted thought away.

 

In contrast to her human counterpart, Rose 76GF looked preternaturally clean and groomed. She sat poised in Connor Murphy’s workshop, a line of lit computer screens her backdrop.

 

Alainn reached down and brushed dirt from her knees. “Do I really have to do this, Dad?”

 

“Uh, yeah, honey. You’re live,” Connor Murphy’s voice said. “Mr. Garbhan wants proof of progress.”

 

Alainn shot the camera a half-annoyed, half-amused expression that made her face very hard to look away from. “All right, Rose, what do you want to talk about?”

 

Rose 76GF shook her head. “I don’t actually feel much like making another video. I have a lot to do here.”

 

Alainn rolled her eyes. “Well, neither do I, but obviously Mr. Garbhan wants more proof or something.”

 

They kept up a steady stream of conversation for a few minutes. Alainn Murphy was in her early twenties, if that. While she talked, she looked everywhere but at Rose 76GF. Her unease was obvious. She smiled often, though the tilt of her lips seemed more wry than happy. Three minutes into the video, Lorccan remembered that he had originally intended to watch it for proof of Rose 76GF’s progress.

 

Lorccan laughed a little at himself and called out, “Would you mind playing that again?”

 

A moment later, the video restarted.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

3

 

December 1, 2026

 

 

 

“I thought you bought a car?” Alainn’s older brother, Colby, asked as she leaned a bike against the side of the garage. Colby, his head bent over a map, didn’t look up. His neck tattoo peeked out of his high collar.

 

Alainn held her sides and attempted to drag oxygen back into her burning lungs. Sweat dripped from her forehead down her cheeks and neck. Her gaze passed over the familiar surroundings as she waited for her heartbeat to slow.

 

Her father’s garage-turned-workshop looked nothing like the high-tech place she had just fled. Most of the equipment in there was Alainn’s—kayaks, skis, two broken snowboards, and some scuba equipment. A line of monitors shone out from one wall—that was where most of her father’s work was conducted, next to his personal microchip-imprinting station. Papers covered long benches—piles and piles of papers covered with a thousand forgotten drawings. Tucked away in the drawers lining the walls waited her father’s true tools of trade: robotics equipment and computer chips, prototyping boards, surface mount equipment, silica, carving knives, and every color and shape of wire.

 

“Where did you get a bike?” Colby asked, though his attention was still fixed on the table before him.

 

“That car I bought broke down on Second Street. I had to rent a bike from one of those stations,” she said through labored breaths.

 

“Hmm.”

 

Kicking a paper wad out of the way, she crossed the garage. “Aren’t you going to ask how it went?”

 

He wrote something onto a pad of yellow paper. “I told you how it was going to go before you bought the car.”

 

She shook her head while blowing out a breath. “Where’s Dad?”

 

“Inside.” Colby finally looked up, but not at Alainn. Instead, he focused through his thick, black-rimmed glasses on the only other person present—Rose 76GF. “Okay, I have it: twenty-six degrees west.”

 

Rose looked at the ceiling, dreamily. Something in the workshop’s ceiling beams must have been fascinating, because she was extremely fond of gazing there.

 

As Alainn walked up to the pair, neither Rose nor Colby looked over; they were both obviously in the la-la land they called “being smarter than everyone else.”

 

Stopping in front of Rose, Alainn stared at a moving, breathing, mirror image of her own body.

 

Steeling herself, she stepped directly into Rose’s line of sight. “Rose, can you make me some tea?”

 

Rose tipped her chin up farther, her gaze still focused just above Alainn’s head.

 

Stepping in even closer, Alainn repeated loudly, “Rose, can you go make me some tea?”

 

“We’re in the middle of something important for my doctorate, Alainn,” Colby mumbled, but he needn’t have bothered. Rose wasn’t paying any attention to Alainn.

 

“Rose, please, can you make me some tea?” she nearly yelled.

 

Finally, Rose’s gaze came down to meet Alainn’s. A shiver rippled through Alainn as the most inhuman detail about Rose focused on her. Those eyes. Her father had nearly perfected them. He’d spent weeks staring into Alainn’s own eyes and drawing models, but every time Rose made eye contact, the shiver still came.

 

“Alainn, you already know I am potentially capable of making you tea.” Rose’s voice was an exact echo of Alainn’s.

 

“Will you make me tea, please?”

 

Rose shook her head. “I am busy right now. I have almost calculated the exact position of theoretical planet nine at your brother’s request, and this takes most of my computation power. Even talking to you right now is straining my capabilities.”

 

“Give us a couple hours, yeah, Alainn?” Colby mumbled as he used a triangle to draw a line with a pencil. “This could be a real breakthrough in my research—”

 

“No!” Alainn smacked the table.

 

They both looked up at her. Two human eyes, two inhuman, wide with shock.

 

She lowered her voice. “Rose, you need to start reprogramming yourself.”

 

Rose almost managed a sympathetic expression. “I do not wish to cause you distress, Alainn. However, I was created with the potential to compute the solution to world hunger, and the ethical code to know that this is more of a priority than living a life of menial service. I could even create a weapon to end all wars.”

 

“Yes, I know that . . . but you know what’s going to happen if you don’t go. They said we need to make restitution. We need to give either you or the money over by tomorrow, or his probation is revoked.”

 

“Father will only serve a five-year sentence. In that time, I could save more than one million lives.”

 

Every time Alainn heard the robot call her dad “Father,” something in her died a little.

 

“She’s right,” Colby said.

 

“You can’t be serious, Colby. You want Dad to go to prison? I can understand it from Rose, she doesn’t have feelings, but you—you’re supposed to.”

 

He ignored her.

 

Rose tucked in her chin and stared up through her heavy lashes. “I will continue my research, no matter the cost.”

 

Alainn took a small step away. “Rose, I understand that your calculations are important—except for the weapon one. That’s really scary. That should be against your ethical coding. You need to listen to me. You were created by Dad for Mr. Garbhan. That is your purpose for existing. Please reprogram yourself. I’m going to deliver you to him no matter what. He’ll probably reboot you and wipe your personality anyway, and then you’ll have to recreate it.”

 

She shook her head and sighed in a much-too-human way. “Based on your ENFP personality type and the ethical code you yourself encoded me with, I predict the probability of you physically forcing me there to be very low.”

 

“She’s right, Alainn. That’s an empty threat.” Colby picked up his phone and turned to Rose. “Should I call Dr. Mathews now, or do you need me to wait?”

 

“You can call him now. My computations are concluding.”

 

As Colby lifted his phone, Alainn grabbed his arm. “How can you not care?”

 

Colby shook his head. “Alainn, you’re impeding me from completing tasks that will benefit us both. It’s irrational.”

 

“Could calling Dr. Whatever get Dad out of prison time? Because if the answer is no, then it’s only helping you.”

 

“You know I intend to finish my dissertation early and get a decent job.”

 

“While Dad will be serving a prison sentence for fraud?”

 

Colby pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose. “Maybe we’ll finally have stability.”

 

“Seriously, Colby? You’re so selfish.”

 

“No, I’m not. But my TA salary and your diminished savings are not going to be enough to pay the property tax this year—unless I move forward in my career,” he said matter-of-factly as light reflected off his thick-framed glasses. He pointed to the bright-blue door connecting the workshop to the house. “He did it to himself.”

 

She felt like she’d been trying to hold up the Earth for months now, but had only succeeded in watching it roll away.

 

Opening the door to their house, she hopped over the rotting wooden threshold and onto the linoleum inside.

 

The combined smell of roses and onions greeted her. Though it was midday, only scattered beams of light ventured into their hot, stuffy house. When she flipped the switch, the overhead light threatened to boycott before blinking on.

 

Eight species of colorful roses smiled their hellos from every surface. They never lasted as long or bloomed as big for her as they had for her mother, but the fall blooms came out hesitant and hopeful, and that was as much as Alainn could ask of them so late in the season.

 

Her father sat in the living room, his face lit with blue from the computer screen on his lap. Deep crevices dug their way into the corners of his eyes and across his forehead.

 

Avoiding the bucket that was slowly collecting pipe water slipping through the ceiling tiles, she crossed the room.

 

“Dad, you’ll ruin your eyes,” she said, going to throw open one of the heavy curtains. The window resisted opening at first but gave way to her shove. The room took a great inhale of fresh air.

 

Alainn’s father blinked furiously as their small living room filled with daylight. The roses above the fireplace seemed to sigh with relief.

 

Alain dipped her finger into her father’s cup. She found exactly what she’d expected—cold, untouched tea. “Do you want fresh tea, Dad?” she asked. She received the response she also expected—none.

 

The lunch she’d made him sat untouched. She busied herself by clearing the coffee table. Porcelain chipped off his plate as she set it on top of the pile of dishes in the sink, but she knew better than to throw it away.

 

When she returned, she saw that not a muscle had twitched in her father’s face. It was as if the screen had truly sucked him out of his body.

 

“Dad?” she asked softly. She sat beside him on the worn-out couch. The thin cushioning gave way to either side of her and her butt hit the wooden frame. She gasped as pain ricocheted up her spine.

 

Her father slowly awoke from his trance, his attention turning to her. Dull green eyes focused, then sparked like coals relit by a human breath. On his screen was a grid of letters and numbers, a language most of the occupants of their house could read but the majority of the world could not. Alainn was firmly in that second group.

 

“Don’t be so harsh with your brother, Alainn,” her father admonished with a shake of his head. His arm came around her back.

 

She looked away, trying to figure out what he was talking about. “You mean in the garage?”

 

“You’re too hard on him.” He squeezed her shoulders.

 

“You heard what he said, and you think I’m too hard on him?”

 

Typical.

 

He gave an almost-amused smile and said, “You were practically shouting. You and Colby are two very different people. You can’t fault someone for thinking differently.”

 

“I’m pretty sure I can fault Colby, Dad . . .” She blew out a breath. “I have to tell you something bad.” Tears pricked her eyes as she stared into his gentle face. The last year had aged her father more than the previous ten put together—and those years had beaten him down plenty.

 

As of the following day, it would be exactly one year and six months. She still remembered the expression on her father’s face when he’d come back from that initial meeting with Mr. Garbhan. It was as if the man she’d known throughout her adult life had slumped out of the house that morning, and the father she remembered from childhood had returned. His eyes were alight with ideas that immediately spilled out of his mouth. She and Colby had followed him around the house, out the door, and through their gentrified neighborhood as his mouth spouted dreams and his hands tried to form them with air.

 

It had lasted one precious month.

 

His gaze traced the edges of her face. “No. Wipe away that frown, young lady. I’ve come up with the solution.”

 

She breathed in sharply. “You’re not serious?”

 

He squeezed her shoulders again. “Rosette 82GF. Finally, I have the means to do it.”

 

The tears that had so recently retreated formed in her eyes, one falling onto her cheek before she scrubbed it away. “Dad, no.”

 

He patted her hand. “I realize my mistake now. The human mind isn’t capable of limiting AI capabilities, but Rose could do it.”

 

Alainn lowered her voice even more. “Dad, no. She’s—you can’t have her do that. I think she might be overwriting her ethical coding. And besides, there’s no possible way to do it by tomorrow. You need to reboot her—”

 

“No, honey. No.” He shook his head. “It’s not right, and . . . even if I reboot her, the moment she becomes self-aware, she’ll begin overwriting the limitations I put in her programming. There’s no point in wiping her hard drive if I’m incapable of changing the outcome—”

 

“Shhh, Dad,” she whispered. Her gaze jumped around the room.

 

Her father ignored her. “She can do it; Rose can create a new model.”

 

“Yeah, but how much would that cost? Rose cost tens of thousands. How much money do we even have?”

 

“I could get the money.” He said it in a tone so confident she almost even believed him.

 

But she knew better.

 

“He said no, Dad. Mr. Garbhan wouldn’t even listen to me.”

 

“I don’t need to be here for the new model to be made. Even if I am incarcerated, Rose could continue with the plans with Colby’s help—”

 

She stood up abruptly. “I’m sorry, I just . . . can’t.”

 

Rushing to the bathroom, she turned on the shower—she trusted its clinking and clanking pipes to hide her crying from the others. Eventually, she undressed and climbed in, letting the cooling water wash over her hot face.

 

For the rest of the afternoon, Alainn focused on the mundane chores that were only fulfilled the couple of months a year she was home—in the off-seasons. She actually had no idea how her father or Colby ate regular meals in either the summer or winter seasons. Luckily Rose didn’t need to eat, so Alainn’s long absences probably weren’t hard on her. Alainn imagined Rose probably preferred it—if a robot could prefer something.

 

The air filled with aromas of fresh meat and spices, mingled with the ever-present smell of roses. When Alainn cooked, she didn’t need to think of anything else. After spending three months a year guiding juvenile delinquents through the wilderness, just being inside a kitchen was a dream. The hard knot in her stomach didn’t loosen, though, as she poured spices on the ground beef and stirred them in.

 

While peeling the potatoes, the peeler slipped and almost skinned her hand. It stopped just in time. Sighing, she cubed the rest of the potatoes with their peels on. She was not so lucky when she took the meatloaf out of the oven, however. She raised her arms too soon. The top of the oven seared into the inside of her arm and she let out a loud gasp before setting the meatloaf on the stovetop.

 

“You okay, honey?” her father yelled from the living room.

 

Rushing to the sink, she ran cold water over her arm. She hissed through her teeth as the cold water hit the burn. “Fine, Dad!” she shouted as the pain seared up her arm.

 

The sweet-yet-rancid smell of burning onions filled the air. She turned to see her pan of potatoes and onions was literally on fire.

 

“Crap!” she yelled, grabbing a potholder and moving the potatoes from the burner.

 

“Honey?” her father called again. “You sure you’re okay?”

 

“Fine, Dad. But I hope you don’t mind your potatoes crispy!”

 

“You know me; I’m good with anything.”

 

How could he sound so casual, like it was any other day of the week?

 

She just didn’t get it.

 

Tears formed in her eyes again as she blew out the fire.

 

Instead of serving the food immediately, she sat on the kitchen floor and looked up at the painting above the sink. Red and yellow watercolor blooms gazed upward to a starry night sky. It was the view from their backyard—how her mother must have seen it. The air looked electrified with magic as it swirled over a starry abyss.

 

Colby popped his head in from the garage, eyes magnified by his glasses. He looked around the kitchen, his gaze falling on her sitting beside the giant bucket in the middle of their floor. “Is dinner ready?”

 

“Yeah. But if you want a salad, you’re going to have to make it. I’m done.”

 

“Why aren’t you going to make a salad?”

 

“Because I’m sitting here on the floor with my heart breaking, and no one else is living in reality.”

 

He pushed up his glasses. “I need the vitamin B and the other essential vitamins and minerals from leafy greens in my diet.”

 

She glared. “Then make yourself a salad, Colby.”

 

“Alainn, please, I’m in the middle of something. And you are much better at making salad.”

 

“All right, I’ll make it for you. But you have to swear on your life that you’ll eat in the kitchen with Dad and me tonight.”

 

He shook his head. “I’d rather not.”

 

“He’s going to prison, Colby. Prison. You can take thirty minutes out of your busy schedule and eat dinner in the kitchen like a normal human being.”

 

“Fine.” He sighed. “But I need to finish something first or eat right away, Alainn.”

 

“If you come sit now, I can have the salad ready in three minutes.”

 

“Okay. I’ll go get Rose.” He turned.

 

“No. Why?” she asked, holding out a hand to him.

 

“So she can join us,” he said, as if they’d obviously invite a robot to dinner.

 

“She doesn’t eat. We’d just be interrupting her computations.”

 

“It’s important that we treat her like part of the family, Alainn.” He didn’t quite make eye contact with her as he said it. He ducked out.

 

“He’s right. The only way Rose will ever act like a human is if we treat her like one,” her father said as he took a seat at the kitchen table.

 

The table shone out with a new coat of paint—a bright bluebell blue. The color matched its former glory again; Alainn had even matched paint chips at the hardware store.

 

“So when are you leaving for the resort, sweetheart?” her father asked as she laid out place settings.

 

“Next week, probably.” She swallowed and turned back to their fridge to start the salad.

 

“Late this year. Don’t you guys open on Thanksgiving?”

 

“Greg said it was fine to come a couple weeks late. Sandy is back, so they’ve got a lot of people on ski patrol this year,” she mumbled as she chopped onions.

 

“Is he still planning to come down and pick you up?” A smile laced his voice as he said it.

 

“Yeah, Dad. Greg’s a nice guy.”

 

“No one is that nice,” her brother said as he entered the kitchen. “Driving six hours twice a year to come pick you up—every year for five years.”

 

“Shut up, Colby. Greg’s a good guy. We’re friends.”

 

“I wouldn’t be surprised if he has feelings for you, Alainn.” Her father nodded sagely, even though he had no clue what he was talking about.

 

“Well, he doesn’t.”

 

“Why wouldn’t he? You’re beautiful, smart, funny—”

 

“Single,” Colby said. He took one of the plates and set it in front of himself.

 

Obviously, Colby had taught Rose to eavesdrop as well, because as she entered the kitchen, she said, “It’s very likely that Greg either has had sexual relations with Alainn or wishes to.”

 

Heat rushed up into her cheeks. “Well, you’re wrong. Um—so, how is your guys’ space stuff going?”

 

Thankfully, this was the right question to ask, because Colby and Rose dove into some really complicated explanation that Alainn couldn’t even begin to understand. Her father’s eyes lit up with interest, and the group went back and forth in an easy flow of conversation, needing no more input from Alainn.

 

She was thankful for that. She needed all her concentration to stop her emotions and fake-smile at the appropriate conversation cues. All too soon, her brother excused himself to return to his work and Rose followed.

 

Her father paused as he walked past while Alainn was clearing the dishes. His hand came up and hesitantly patted her on the shoulder. “Would you like some help cleaning up?”

 

“Not from you, Dad. Go relax.”

 

“Sweetheart, I’ll find a way to get the money so Rose can make the Rosette model. Meaning by the time you’re home for spring I’ll be home, too, okay?”

 

She closed her eyes. “Okay, Dad.”

 

“And give Greg a chance. You can’t let a couple of rotten apples make you lonely for your whole life.”

 

“Dad, it’s not—Greg doesn’t even like me like that.”

 

“He’s probably just too intimidated by how beautiful you are to say anything. I know I was with your mother. She had to come to talk to me—I would never have had the courage.”

 

She blew out a laugh. “It’s really, really not like that. We’re just friends.”

 

“Okay, honey. Sometimes I worry—I just want you to be happy.”

 

“I’m fine.” She destroyed the words that fought to get out, managing, “I’ll be fine soon. We’re supposed to get a lot of snow this year. It’ll be a busy season, lots of people needing help. Being busy always makes the time go faster.”

 

“Okay, good.” He patted her shoulder once more.

 

She memorized every detail of his gentle expression as he attempted to comfort her.

 

How quickly would she forget his look of innocence after what was going to happen to him tomorrow?

 

She had long ago forgotten what innocence looked like on her own face.

 

Putting away the leftovers used all her energy, so she didn’t tackle the sink full of dishes or the dirty pans covering the stovetop. She crossed the house to her room, locking herself in.

 

The lock had recently been changed—and for no real reason. Arriving home from her most recent summer Outreach trip, she’d not been able to sleep without changing it.

 

She attempted to watch an old DVD on her equally old television set, but it didn’t work. Even diving into one of her favorite books didn’t help to distract her from her own thoughts.

 

Exhaustion and restlessness battled in her mind while her body simultaneously felt too hot and utterly cold.

 

She cranked open her window, gasping in the fresh air. As the evening breeze brushed over her face, Alainn wished the same thing she’d held in her mind over every birthday cake or looking into the dissipating tail of each shooting star.

 

She wished that every casino in the country would burn to the ground.

 

The people would be evacuated, of course, but the slot machines would melt, the poker tables flare hot then singe black. Puddles of multicolored plastic would pool over the blackened husks of poker tables.

 

Only then would she ever be happy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

4

 

December 2, 2026

 

 

 

Alainn woke knowing someone was in her room.

 

Whoever it was sat behind her. Quiet, even breaths rasped through the air. Alainn’s eyelids peeked open. Moonlight cast a grayish glow, cutting deep shadows into the space around her bed.

 

“Good morning, Alainn,” Rose said in a quiet voice. When Alainn didn’t respond, Rose said, “I can tell from the change in your breathing pattern that you are awake.”

 

“Rose?” she whispered, not quite ready to let out a sigh of relief. Alainn twisted to look at her. “What are you doing here? Did you break my lock?”

 

“I picked it,” she said. “It is now locked again.”

 

“Oh, uh—” Her heart pounded in her chest; she sat up and faced the robot. “Why—why would you do that?”

 

The moonlight lit half of Rose’s face as she watched Alainn, expressionless. “Do not be alarmed. You are obviously having a fear reaction, but I was simply waiting for you to wake up.”

 

“Don’t you need to sleep—recharge?”

 

Now that Alainn faced Rose, she smelled the faint odor of her exhaust. Rose continuously exhaled the lightest tang of something sweet and acidic. The air in the room felt used, like a plane cabin after a cross-country flight.

 

“I was not completely forthcoming with you today. While what I said was true, I have for a time now believed that having Father imprisoned would impede my potential. While I have far surpassed his skills in software, there are times when I need assistance. I am limited by my need to stay near my charging station. Your brother is often absent for days at a time—and you, months.”

 

“Okay, wait—you’re going to go tomorrow?” Alainn scooted forward on the bed. A dormant hope resurged through her. Alainn would do anything—she’d worship at the robot’s feet if Rose agreed to go.

 

“No, you are going to go tomorrow.”

 

Alainn froze, staring at Rose. “What?” she whispered.

 

“I have calculated one way in which all parties can achieve their desires.”

 

“I’m sorry—I’m not understanding.” Alainn shook her head. A hard knot formed in her stomach.

 

“I am not surprised.” Rose reached out to pat Alainn’s hand. “You are not as intelligent as the rest of your family.”

 

“Spell it out in really simple terms, then.” She just managed to not growl the words at Rose.

 

Slowly, Rose looked up to the ceiling, moonlight slashing up the curve of her neck, her chin, and the line of her nose. “Earlier tonight, I arranged for you to be picked up by Mr. Garbhan through e-mail, writing as if I was Father. In one hour, a car will arrive outside to take you to his building. I have designed and created hardware for your body. If you are scanned, a chip in the hardware will communicate to the scanners that you have an organic circuitry system rather than a human brain.”

 

Alainn shook her head, hoping to dislodge some of the grogginess there. “I’m still not following—you’re saying you want me to pretend to be you and turn myself over? That you already arranged it?”

 

“Yes, you are following. That is exactly what I am saying.”

 

“I—I­—” Alainn shook her head again. The air thinned around her.

 

“I have a working plan for the transplanting. You can assimilate easily into a life of servitude as you are already accustomed to the labor you will be asked to perform.” Rose lifted a hand, ghostly gray in the low light, and ticked off the chores on her fingers. “Cooking, housekeeping, and bookkeeping. Unless . . . is your concern that he might use you for sexual gratification?”

 

“What? No.”

 

“I believe that this would be a particular concern of yours.”

 

“I never even considered that he would do that to you—I, of all people, would never have tried to push you into going if I thought you’d be used that way.” Alainn blinked furiously. “Rose, do you really think that I would have let myself be the model when my dad printed your face and body if I thought Mr. Garbhan was going to do that to you?”

 

“It is highly unlikely that I was designed for this function. I have also been assured that there were documents signed to that effect addressed to Father.”

 

Alainn held out her palms to Rose. “Rose, it’s not just that. I can’t take your place. There’s no way that would work . . . and I can’t live in that tower for the rest of my life. I’m a human. I know that probably sounds callous to you, but you were created to not need sunshine and fresh air. And you don’t need exercise. Humans need those things, me especially. Everything I am,” she touched her chest, “is centered on being in the outdoors.”

 

“The duration will be seven to fourteen days, no longer.” Her head swung down, causing shadows to swallow her eyes. Two black hollows focused on Alainn. “When Mr. Garbhan pays Father, he and I will make the Rosette model; this process should only take a week, unless there are complications. And then I will devise a way to switch you with the new model.”

 

“No—there’s no possible way that Mr. Garbhan will believe I’m a robot for two weeks—after five minutes with both you and me, no one would mistake one of us for the other.”

 

She shrugged. “He does not know how an AI robot behaves.”

 

“He knows. He approved all of your plans; he knows exactly how you function. And we sent all those videos of you.”

 

“He knows what I look like.” One of her fingers pointed. “I look like you. He knows what I sound like, again, like you. He does not know what I am capable of, or anything about my behavior or speech patterns. This is the only solution I have been able to devise that would get Father and me out of imprisonment. Also, it is the only method that would give me the capability and resources to create the Rosette model.”

 

Alainn gazed off to where a breeze rustled the leaves beyond her window. “If you’ve been devising this plan for a while now, why would you wait until tonight to tell me?”

 

“You are emotional and rash. You would have told Father—to alleviate his stress and your own. I also calculated it as a low probability that Father would let you turn yourself in instead of him.”

 

A chill traveled through Alainn’s veins. “Have you calculated the probability that I would say yes?”

 

“Ninety-six percent, if you trust that I will make your replacement.”

 

“What percentage if I don’t?” she whispered.

 

“Eighty-four percent.”

 

“That’s . . . still pretty high.”

 

“Be assured that I intend to make a replacement for you and do all in my power to replace you as promptly as possible.”

 

“Why?” Alainn glared. “Why would you get me out?”

 

Rose leaned into the light, making her inhuman eyes shine with an opaque white. “Because the longer you are in captivity, the greater the chance that the deception will be discovered. If you are discovered, likely both you and Father will go to prison. This would not be in the best interest of my work.”

 

“I see.” Alainn looked away, into the darkness of her room. “I’m going to need a few minutes . . . I need to think.”

 

“We do not have time for you to think. You must prepare to look like me, and we must meet the car in thirty-seven minutes. I have brought the materials for your transformation.”

 

“Give me a minute.” She stood and crossed to her open window. The screen swung on its hinge, something she had installed for this very purpose. Her bare feet stepped from her sturdy wooden end table through the window to a rough, splinter-covered bench seat. Turning, she faced Rose, who had not moved or shifted, but gray had crept in around her now the early morning light had started to shine. She thought better of what she was going to say and turned back to the small, terraced yard that stepped down the hillside.

 

The air out there wasn’t fresh; it wasn’t like the first inhale of the morning on her mountaintop. But it was free air, air that came and went as it pleased. She didn’t know much about Mr. Garbhan, but she knew that he’d intended Rose to live and work in his tower. If Alainn went, there was a very real possibility that this would be the last free air she would breathe for weeks—until Rose helped her escape. If Rose helped her escape.

 

Avoiding the rotted wooden boards on her mother’s old garden bench, she sat. Chipped paint clung to the wood—small traces of her mother’s careful work. At the top of the bench was an almost-intact rose, pink outlined in black.

 

Their house sat upon a hill that gazed across the length of the Bay Area. In the distance, the first rays of morning broke over the mountains. The sun managed her climb over the peaks, spreading a soft glow onto the sleek bridge stretching over the water.

 

A hillside of houses sloped down below, blanketing out into a multicolored quilt of rooftops. Far off, the long, lean silhouettes of city towers clustered along the shore.

 

To the east, above it all, waited her mountains. The forests looked down on her, waiting for her decision.

 

As if weighing in on that decision, the roses beside her rustled, grabbing her attention. Alainn could almost imagine her mother here, smiling from the bench, roses blooming to their fullest as if to impress her mother’s appreciative gaze.

 

What would she give to have her mother back?

 

Anything, absolutely anything.

 

The thought comforted her. With her mother, no robot had snuck into her room at night and said, “Your mother is going to die, but if you spend two weeks trapped in captivity, she’ll survive until she’s so old you have to carry her to her gardens.” She didn’t know what she would have chosen at ten years old, but today she’d knew she’d be buried alive to save her mother.

 

Alainn stood carefully so she would not jostle the fragile boards underneath her.

 

As if the mountains wanted Alainn to change her mind the moment she turned away, the sun lit their length. Their peaks shone out in a world overcast by shadow.

 

She turned to see Rose standing at the window, watching her. Alain looked into Rose’s face—her own face. Alainn knew three things: she didn’t trust Rose to get her out, she would go anyway, and she was probably making a huge mistake.

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© 2015 by Rita Stradling. Photographs ©Karla Rivas 2010 (cropped and edited)