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Define Symbiont, by Rich Larson

They are running the perimeter again, slipping in and out of cover, sun and shadow. Pilar knows the route by rote: crouch here, dash there, slow then quick. While they run, she ticks up and down the list of emergency overrides, because it has become a ritual to her over the course of the long nightmare, a rosary under her chafed-skinless fingertips. She speaks to her exo, curses at it, begs it to stop. The exo never responds. Maybe it is sulking, like Rocio in one of her moods.


They are not running the perimeter. Pilar has stopped eating, and her exo is focusing all its attention on the problem, leaving them hunched like a rusting gargoyle on the deserted tiles of Plaza Nueva. The sudden stillness makes her think that maybe it’s all over. Then an emergency feeding tube is forced down her throat, scraping raw, and the exo pumps food replacement down her gullet like she’s a baby bird. Rocio would have never done that. Never.


They are running the perimeter again, and Pilar’s nose is bleeding. The hot trickle tastes like copper on her desiccated tongue. She savors it, because not long ago the exo experimented with feeding her recycled vomit. The dregs have itched in her mouth for days. As they round the corner of a blasted car, she hears a whisper in her ear. For a moment she fools herself into thinking it’s Rocio—she thinks about Rocio as often as she can. The dip of her collarbone under her fingertips, the laugh from the side of her mouth, the peppermint smell of the wax she used to streak on her hair.

It’s not Rocio. It is the exo, at last. It rumbles in her ear: Define: symbiont.

“A symbiont is fuck you, fuck you, fuck you,” Pilar rasps, tongue clumsy with disuse.

The exo does not respond. Maybe she should have said something else.


They might be running the perimeter again. Pilar is not sure of anything. Her head is a spiral of heat and static, her skin thrumming ice. The exo is dumping combat chemicals and painkillers into her intravenous feed. She prays to gods and saints and devils for an overdose, but the exo knows its chemistry too well. She can only drift there cocooned, sweating and shivering, and wait for—


They are running the perimeter again, but Pilar has buried herself in memories, barely tasting the stale air of the exo, barely feeling the tug and pull.

She’s buried herself in remembering the first time she was in Granada, in the taut piano-wire days before the Caliphate made landfall. On leave with Rocio, darting from bar to tapas bar in the icy rain, insulating themselves against the storm present and storm coming with cañas of foamy beer. In a bar called Shambalah, decorated with black-and-white pornography stills, she completed Rocio’s facial tat with her fingers and kissed her chapped mouth.

They were both out of uniform, and the rowdy pack of students only saw Rocio’s damp hijab, not the endo-exo handshake implant peeking out from underneath. One of them was drunk enough to hurl a Heineken bottle at them. Rocio had to wrestle Pilar’s arm down to keep her from using the smashed razor edge of it on the boy’s fingers.

They retreated back into the rain, where animated graffiti shambled along the walls of alleyways, slowly dissolving. Rocio rubbed her face and said everything was about to come apart, and Pilar replied, not us, never us, we need each other too much. But Rocio only smiled her saddest smile.

Later, in the cramped room of their pension, with the key in the heater but the lights dimmed, they made love that caused Pilar to forget about the eager, clumsy boys from her hometown and about everything else, too. In the dark, their endo-exo implants glowed soft blue. She ran her fingers around Rocio’s, tracing where smooth carbon met skin.

They say a little of us gets stuck in there, Rocio said. When we plug in. Pull out. Plug in again. Memory fragments, whole ones even. Enough for a little ghost.

I don’t believe it, Pilar said.

Rocio drifted to sleep quickly but Pilar stayed awake a long time after, still breathing in her scent, still holding her lean waist and thinking she would never let go, not ever.

Inside the exo, she tries to feel Rocio’s skin on her skin.


They are running the perimeter again. The exo jerks Pilar mercilessly from cover to cover. She keeps her eyes closed and pretends she is boneless. Trying to fight the motion last week shredded her shoulder muscle, and the exo is out of painkillers because it used them on her in one long, numbing drug binge that makes her wonder, sometimes, if her brain has been permanently damaged.

Exo endo is symbiont. Exo need endo need endo.

She startles. The exo hasn’t spoken since it asked its first question.

Love is symbiont. Exo need endo need exo.

“You don’t need me,” Pilar pleads. “You don’t need me. I don’t need you.”


They are not running the perimeter. They are trudging up the stony spine of the Sacromonte, where her squad cleaned out the radical-held caves with gas and gunfire. Where she’d managed to take shelter when they SAT-bombed Granada in a final act of defiance, obliterating the half-evacuated city and turning the Alhambra to rubble.

Now the Andalusian winter sun glints off shrapnel and the husk of Rocio’s exo where it fell just meters from safety. Pilar recognizes the scorched smiley-face decal, the twisted arrangement of limbs. The implant at the base of her skull tingles.

She knows why the exo’s AI is warped, corrupted past repair. The exo must know it, too.

All those weeks ago, after she crept from the collapsed cave, she couldn’t leave without seeing Rocio’s corpse entombed in its exo, and she couldn’t leave without some part of Rocio to hold on to. So she’d taken Rocio’s implant, cut it carefully out of her brain stem, stomach churning with each squelch of coagulated blood and gray matter. She’d plugged it into her exo’s onboard, hoping for some small echo of Rocio in code, some small ghost.

Then she’d gone to check for survivors, to run the perimeter one final time.

“You’re not her,” Pilar says. “You don’t understand. This is all error. All error.”

But there are other memories, ones she doesn’t spend time in. Small explosions and long sullen silences after she saw Rocio laughing her sideways laugh with someone else. A screaming match that ended with Pilar going outside the barracks and slamming her hands into the quickcrete wall hard enough to shatter a knuckle. Putting a mole in her tablet to see who else she was speaking to.

The morning of the final push up the mountain, when they were sliding into their exos, gearing up, and Rocio told her she was putting in a transfer request and Pilar said don’t you do this to me, please don’t fucking do this to me.

She knows what she has to tell the exo. She has to make it understand that what it saw in Rocio’s implant was not a symbiont. Not love. That she should have let Rocio go a long time ago.

But all the words die in her throat, and now the exo is turning back down the mountain.


They are running the perimeter again, while Pilar dreams of Rocio’s skin on her skin.


rich-larsonRich Larson was born in West Africa, has studied in Rhode Island and worked in Spain, and at 23 now writes from Edmonton, Alberta. His short work has been nominated for the Theodore Sturgeon and appears in multiple Year’s Best anthologies, as well as in magazines such as Asimov’s, Analog, Clarkesworld, F&SF, Interzone, Strange Horizons, Lightspeed and Apex. Find him at richwlarson.tumblr.com

Do Also Read:

website_sept15thumbThe Law of the Conservation of Hair, Rachael K. Jones – That on our first date, we solemnly swore this vow: If we ever found a wardrobe portal, take it; or a TARDIS, hitch a ride; or a UFO, board it without hesitation; that for such an act we should forgive each other implicitly and completely, because there would be no time to ask, and you might only get one shot.

26-thumbnailSerein, Cat Hellisen – It’s always about the ones who disappear. I’ve imagined it endlessly: what Claire must have thought as she packed her bag. How leaving is easy, even if you lie and say oh god it’s hard it’s hard it’s hard. Make a clean break, leave everything, let loose your claim to possession: this is my house, this is my bed, these are my albums not shelved alphabetically because I tried and never could keep the world orderly, this is my little library built out of gifts and second-hand forgotten paperbacks.

Shimmer-24-ThumbnailCome My Love and I’ll Tell You a Tale, Sunny Moraine – Tell me the story about the light and how it used to fall through the rain in rainbows. Tell me the story about those times when the rain would come and the world would turn sweet and green and thick with the smell of wet dirt and things gently rotting, when the birds would chuckle with pleasure to themselves at the thought of a wriggling feast fleeing the deeper floods.

Suicide Bots, by Bentley A. Reese

The car won’t go faster. Why won’t it go faster? It needs to go faster.

We’re laughing. I grind my foot against the gas pedal. I stand half off my seat and lay into it. I scream at the gas. The gas is no good. The gas needs to go faster. I hear plastic snap and the pedal breaks under my foot — we go a wild two-thirty. We fly across the road. The Mustang’s engine punches out of the hood. A steaming, choking monster, it wants us to want it. I wanna ride it. I want to ride the engine screaming and burning into stupid oblivion. I’ll rut the world so it remembers I existed. So I remember that I existed.

We’re laughing.

bots01I look over at the woman in the passenger seat. Her face is red. Greasy tears streak her cheeks and make her a rubbery craze. She’s got the smile of a starved shark. I like it. I love it.

“What’s your name?” I ask her.

“Jane,” she says. Her face scrunches. “I think.”

I reach across the gearshift and we swing between two roaring goliaths with big, bulging wheels. Horns, they horn at us. I horn back. I beat the wheel and spit before shaking Jane’s hand. Hello world, we’re here! We might be alive! Are you alive too? Let’s find out. Tumbler tumbles in the back seat. He laughs. We laugh too. The radio plays a retro remix of “Lies of the Beautiful People.”

Jane’s hand is small. I notice she’s missing two fingers. Her index and pinky look up at me from her lap. I shake my head. Stupid fingers just won’t stay on.

“Nice to meet you, Jane. I am Jones,” I say. I am Jones. That’s all I am. Just Jones. Just a name. I’ve only been me for a day. Before that, I was wire. I lived dead, piled over workbenches and surplus boxes. Now there’s fake skin over my wires, and discount dollar eyeballs in my head. Man, those were the days, those days before living. Everything wasn’t so fuzzy when I was nameless.

Outside is fuzzy. I roar and cut off a double-decker bus. Jerk hard and we careen through a cackle of rusted cars. Some are just dead on the highway. Some are moving and they hate us.

“What are we doing?” Jane asks. She looks over her shoulder, suddenly lost. One of her eyes is green, the other a spark-biting blue. “Where are we going?”

“We’re robbing a bank,” I say, which is an algebraic answer. Robbing a bank is all we can do, and ever could do. We have guns. There’s one in my coat and one on the floor under Jane’s feet. I don’t know how they got there. I don’t know how we got here. My memory is only so good. We are going to rob a bank though. That’s firm in my mind. Firm like the grip of the steering wheel. Firm like I can dig it with my nails.

bots05Go to West Jenny Avenue 2268, America’s Business & Finance. Take everything. Take all the money. Return to Coordinates 90.3 by 27.12 North of New Chicago. These words, the only meaningful words in my head, burn hot.

Jane wears a wig the color of corrosion. She looks sort of human. Her skin is all junked though. A big seam has opened up along her neck and on each side of the tear she’s a different shade of pink. The word Armitage is stamped onto her collarbone. She did her makeup terminally wrong. Her eyes twitch in unison, then skitter along separately, each eyelid conflicting grays. She’s preposterous. Glorious. Cement-veined and hungry.

“I think I love you,” I tell Jane.

Her smiles returns. An afraid smile. “What are we?”

I shrug, gripping the wheel tighter. “We’re something.”

Tumbler coughs behind me. I steer with one arm and turn around. The road swerves and sways. It doesn’t know that it’s facing the wrong way.

“What’s your name?” I ask Tumbler. I don’t know Tumbler’s real name. Tumbler has no face. It fell off and now he’s lying on it. His head is all wires. Snaky and slithering, they make a skull of charcoal with black, manic eyes. Tumbler laughs.

“What’s your name?” I ask again. He says something about spare car parts and apartments for sale in the stratosphere.

“Living street level isn’t safe in today’s modern age of taking,” he proclaims, his voice female and distant.

“What’s your name?” Jane says, with her chin perched over her headrest.

Jane keeps asking. Tumbler keeps gibbering.

“What’s your name?”

“Back to Freddy the Friendly Robot for the morning forecast.”

“What’s your name?”

“Homicide on 5th Avenue. Two men and a woman stabbed to death. Automated police have put the perpetrating human to sleep.”

“What’s your name?”

“A lot of people these days ask me what you can do in this polarized economy, and I always tell them the same thing. Invest. Invest in robots.”

I tick. Something in my wires flips over and squirms into place.

“Tumbler is broken,” I say. Tumbler gags. He drools black fluid from his mouth and eyes. I nod sagely, refocusing on the road. “Too many screws in his bolts, I bet.”

“I bet,” Jane agrees. She continues to watch Tumbler, her eyes swollen round.

The traffic starts to choke the road. The world slows us, confines us. We shrink into the cells of a thousand groaning tires. Humans — maybe — appear as the gaping highway devolves into streets and sidewalks. Skyscrapers, some half-made and covered in spidery construction bots, replace the scraggle-necked trees and gray grass of the highway. We enter a universe of moving, speaking things with big pink brains in their skulls, all under the chorus of honks and dancing litter.

We come to a rusty gate resting between two mountains of barbed wire. A checkpoint into the city proper. Two cars stop ahead of us, their exhausts fuming black and their engines panting. There are big robots around the gate. I try to count them. A couple dozen — or more. A few of the robots march down the rows of cars, while the rest make a wall on the sidewalks, trying to keep back the foot traffic. There are humans on the sidewalk. A lot more than a couple dozen. They want inside the city too. Hundreds of them, dirty and angry.

“I don’t think the chop shop made Tumbler right,” Jane says from her perch over the headrest. She blinks. We look at one another and remember where we were made — that we were made. In a sweated-out basement, by a man with a bad complexion and one arm. Well, one arm made from flesh. His other arm was a big, rusty claw strapped to his shoulder. He was so clumsy with that claw.

“I don’t think the chop shop made any of us right,” I tell Jane.

The car ahead of us is let through.

bots02A metal finger clinks against our glass. There’s a robot outside, waiting patiently for me to lower my window.

“Good afternoon, sir or madam,” the bot says. “I am Automated Law Enforcement Officer NR17. You may address me as Nagger or by my given serial number.” Nagger stands eight feet tall. One of his arms is a belt-fed machine gun. Three eyes wink at me.

“Hello, Nagger.” I extend my hand. “I am Jones and this is Jane. We’re in love.”

Nagger looks at my hand, then looks up. He doesn’t have a face, just a slate board of metal with six holographic eyes.

“Please keep your arms and legs inside the vehicle, sir or madam,” he says. His voice is nothing but numbers. I check to see if my hand has dirt on it. It doesn’t. I slide it back into the car, licking my nose while I squint at this cousin of mine.

“I apologize for the inconvenience, sir or madam, but Checkpoint 16 has been installed to protect the lives of New Chicago’s citizens. As by mandate of Mayor Lionel Marks in Subsection Bylaw 003: No bots, industry AIs, automated service pets, or human-based androids are allowed past this checkpoint without an organic attendant bearing the proper certifications. Any non-organic entity violating this mandate will be dismantled upon discovery.”

“Oh my,” says Jane. She sits herself properly into her seat. She glances at the automatic pistol lying between her mismatched sneakers.

“Ah.” I dip my chin behind my collar. “Good thing we aren’t bots then!”

Stink-eyed children, naked and screaming, run through masses of wrinkled, weathered faces. Hoods everywhere. What is a word to describe these people? My memory banks crank and push the adjective to my lips, but then short-circuit and burn the inside of my skull. I burp in surprise, a little electric grunt. Nagger’s eyes blink and spiral along his slate mask. What does he see right now, I wonder. I refuse to let my own mind stop me. What are these humans? What are the purposeless? Vagrants! Oh joy. Vagrants. Vagrants, and aren’t they mad.

A gray-haired man at the front of the crowd carries a sign reading Robots Don’t Need Burgers. Nearby, a stout woman swings a Give Us Back Our Future sign. When did we take their futures? We don’t have your futures. Trust me.

“Do you consent to a five-second scanning process? Unless your body reads as over thirty-percent nonorganic, you will be allowed entry. Consent so I may begin scan.” Is someone home in there? Knock-knock.

“What if I don’t consent?” I ask my new friend.

“Consent, so I may begin scan,” is repeated in response.

Jane grabs my wrist.

“Ask him how many fingers he has,” she tells me.

“I’m not asking him that.”

“Well, then ask him how many fingers humans have.” Jane looks at her hands. She has black and silver nails. I think she might be about to laugh. Is it a laugh when you don’t want it to be? “I really hope humans have eight fingers too,” she says.

“Consent, so I may begin scan.”

A steaming semi-truck blasts its horn behind us. We’re taking too long. I scream inside my head. We’re stuck. No moving. No moving. What is this? My gun hangs heavy in my coat. I feel it press against the wires where my heart should be. Do I want a heart? I don’t think so, not for what I’m about to do. Tumbler starts singing from the backseat.

“Nagger, do you have a best friend?” I ask. Two lights wink. I notice a McDonald’s advertisement on Nagger’s chest that has partially flaked off. “Do you ever think about what it’d be like to have real, warm skin?”

“Consent, so I may —” I shoot Nagger in the face. I pull the trigger, my gun still in my coat, and it belches right through the leather, exploding everything. Jane starts shooting Nagger before I get off a second shot. Her face doesn’t match the violence. Just stupid and blank. White lights pop and vanish. Nagger moans electric, trying to back away. He’s smart enough to moan. Smart enough to run. Oh, why did he have to be smart enough to run? A few bullets bounce off Nagger’s armor, he’s built for punishment after all, but one of Jane’s rounds tears his brickish head right off. Nagger seizes, trying to live one more second, and then falls on his back.

I hit the gas and we ride crazy. Jane starts to laugh because she doesn’t know what else to do. Tumbler plays a song out of his mouth, singing about the lies of the beautiful people. The wheels burn the asphalt. We hit the gate as the other automated enforcers behind us open fire. People stampede, flooding the sidewalks, and trampling each other and their makeshift tents built around the gate.

The gate doesn’t budge. It’s too old and stubborn. I grind my foot on the gas pedal’s stub. A bullet zings off the windshield frame and through the glass. Jane shoots over her shoulder at nothing in particular. A bullet rips my ear right off. Do I feel it? Maybe.

Tumbler grunts like an angry coil. I look back. One of his arms has been blown off, either by the enforcers’ bullets or by Jane’s. Black fluids and wires spill from the wound. Tumbler just keeps singing. Through the window, I see two more automated enforcers approaching. I consider the possibility that we might become dead, or deader than we are now.

With a grudging squeal, the gate bends. An airy space opens up between the hinges. In the rearview mirror I see a vagrant tackle an enforcer. The vagrants are running toward the gate. Some of the enforcers start shooting into the crowd. I keep my attention on the gate. Finally, it gives, flinging open. My neck snaps back as the car launches forward.

I keep us rocket-loaded, whipping down the roads until we find a steady scuttle of traffic. We sink in. The people inside the gate don’t seem much better off than those outside. No one follows us. Do they keep people and robots out just so they have a place to say they’re kept out of? Our front bumper is caught between the car’s axle and the road, and Jane points out that we’re sparking up the place, but I don’t think it’s important. Down here, at the bottom of all these skyscrapers, in the dark, nobody is watching.

Ten minutes later, Jane and I smoke cigarettes across the street from America’s Business and Finance. We smoke because there were cigarettes in the car’s glove box. Our lungs are plastic bags. We don’t feel the nicotine. We enjoy the pretending. The air’s cold. At least I like to think it’s cold. It looks cold.

bots05Tumbler has gone to park the car one block down. He insisted, silently mind you, that he do so. He’s not as crazy as he acts. Not really, and I suppose even his craziness still has those words burned deep: America’s Business & Finance. Take Everything. Take all the money.

Jane finishes her cigarette, looks at the glowing nub pinched between her nails, and proceeds to swallow it. I do the same.

“How do we know anything,” she says conversationally. “We’re just a day old. How do I know a cup is a cup? Or a turtle lives in a shell? I’ve never held a cup. I’ve never seen a turtle.” Jane’s wig is half-cocked. It obscures her discolored eyes. We almost blend in, if only the suits moving around us would walk closer.

“The man who made us copied and pasted off Wikipedia,” I tell her. “He stuck a USB in the back of my head, when I was just…waking up? He had a couple thousand links open on his computer and dragged them into our noggins. I don’t think he thought we’d be able to get this far without knowing some stuff about the world.”

“Hmm.” Jane seems to think this over while she bites her lip. “Probably why I can name the atomic number of uranium, but don’t know how to tie my shoes.”

I give a noncommittal nod. Tumbler limps to us through the crowd of humans with my coat hiding his missing arm. I smack him on the shoulder in something that might be admiration, but is ambiguous even to me. The three of us are together again. The humans all look at us with sticky, staying eyes. Go away, eyes. We’re just like you. We’re trying to be just like you.

bots03“Nuh-uh,” Jane argues a moment later as we cross the street. Her voice is like running a stencil blade over a chalkboard. Her coat, all fake mink fur and torn in a few places, drags along the concrete behind us. She has only one sleeve. “I have very specific memories. I bet they had some sculptor make my memories. I flew a plane once, straight into a glacier. I made love on a picnic table — and some guy with a machete cut me to death. Everything was so red. So alive.”

“Movies,” I say. “Our lives are movies.”

I remember drowning at the edge of a dock quite vividly.

“Is this any different?” Jane says. She gestures at the skyscrapers rising through the smog. I look down at my hands, snap my left pinky off and put it in my pocket. I feel nothing.

“It isn’t,” I tell her.

The bank is busy. People fly up the steps on long stalks and twisting limbs. Most wear suits. Three bored human guards loom at the doors. A hovering security bot with the bank’s insignias stamped all over its cylindrical body soars over them. Armitage has been branded along its metal chest. Lens-like eyes cover what I assume to be the bot’s head. We wait for it to steam away down the sidewalk toward the East Entrance.

Something — an emotion maybe — tingles as we march up the steps.

Tumbler walks behind us. “All two thousand residents of the isolated town Nicolet, in northern Wisconsin, were discovered deceased this Thursday. The tragedy appears to have been caused by contaminated drinking water an estimated three months ago, but was only brought to national attention after the town’s finance and industry bots began malfunctioning…” Tumbler has his face back on, pulled on like a mask, but slightly off-kilter so only one of his eyes can be seen. He was supposed to look older than us, but the stretch of the rubber makes his face young and sweet. More real.

One of the human guards raises an eyebrow as we approach.

“Hold on there,” he says. He steps in front of Jane and me. “You folks look awf—awfully out of place here. Mind if I ask your business?”

“Sure,” Jane says. All cheer. She leans in close, squinting at the guard’s face. “Mind if I ask you how you got such pretty eyes? I love eyes.”

The guard blinks. He does, in fact, have beautiful blue eyes.


“My eyes don’t match.” Jane frowns, pointing at her left eye. “I think that’s really bad. I wish I could have eyes like yours, that fit right.”

“Jane is right, you’re very lucky,” I say. I wonder if my eyes match. I don’t even know what color my eyes are. I hope they’re green. No, gray. I hope they’re gray.

“Ma’am, I’m going to have to ask you to step back,” the guard says with fright and discomfort dripping off his lips. Jane stands quite a bit taller than him.

“Really though,” Jane says. “I love your eyes. I need to take them.”

The guard tentatively reaches for his gun. Jane moves faster. She grabs him by the temples. She sucks out his right eyeball with a slurping noise. He makes a big fuss about it with laughing and flailing. I shoot the other two guards, both in the head. It’s just a thing. I can’t risk doing it any other way. I don’t want to take these things, these lives, but what choice do I have?

The suits run just like the vagrants did. Jane sucks out the guard’s other eye and smiles, red-toothed. The guard rolls down the steps, his skull skipping along the granite. Jane is all green and red. Christmas colors.

I look down at my pistol. It gleams black in the smog sun. It too, is a thing of parts and metal. Just like me, it’s not very good at giving. The doors stand heavy and wide in front of us. Jane and I eye each other. I am Jones. I need to move forward.

We go into the bank running.

I reload and speak at the same time.

“Get out or I start shooting.”

Inside, every one stands frozen, looking toward the doors. At my commands, the fifteen or so robots and mechanical servants walk outside, but the humans stay in their poorly assembled lines. I shoot a few in the legs and one in the bowels. They fall and laugh in heavy, rasping breaths.

“Get out, please,” Jane says. She waves.

I wave, too.

The humans begin moving toward the door in a rushed panic. A boy stops in front of me, his parents squalling behind him. He has big, wet eyes and a chocolate bar in his fingers.

“Hello, I am Jones.” I shake his hand. “Now give me your chocolate bar.”

When the bank’s empty, we face off with the clerks behind the counter. Two of the clerks are women and one is a very humanoid bot. They look at us from behind electrified bulletproof glass. Alarms sound. Red flashes down the blue-kissed walls. My brain tells me we have five minutes.

“You’re wasting your time,” one of the humans says over an intercom. She has red hair that looks acidic. “You’re the third group of suicide bots to hit us in the last six months. You know we’re basically a charity, right? You’re robbing a charity. We give money to grounders so they don’t smash robots. Once the cops dismantle you, they’ll track down your thug creator.” She taps the glass, smiling like a monster. “Not getting in here any time soon.”

bots05Jane walks up to the counter and grabs a bunch of bank pens, stuffing them into her coat. While I’m pretty sure money is our main goal, our orders said take everything. Tumbler pulls a panel off the wall and tucks it under his arm. He says, “I am the rocker, I am the roller, I am the out-of-controller.”

A pair of round, broken glasses lay on the floor. I pick them up and fit them over my nose while Jane tears chair legs off stools lining the window. The glasses do not make the room any prettier. They do not make the blood on the floor any less dark.

“Run while you can,” the bot behind the counter says, her expression blank. Jane answers by emptying her gun’s clip at the barrier. Bullets bounce and ping everywhere. None go through, but one flies back and blows through Tumbler’s leg. We laugh.

I walk up to the barrier and lick the glass, pressing the flat of my tongue against its smoothness. The redhead watches me, her brown eyes wide. She does not have pretty eyes. Those are fearful eyes. I wonder what they see. What’s looking back at them?

“I’m going to introduce myself after I come through that glass,” I say.

She points at her watch with a sneer. “Cops will be here in three minutes.”

“Jane.” I turn around. “Grab Tumbler. I have an idea.”

Tumbler drops an assortment of bank fliers and staplers. Neither he nor Jane asks questions. They trot over, all giggles. For a second, I reconsider. I watch these two: Tumbler trying to smile, his single visible eye alight with glee, and Jane favoring her right arm, hiding her less-fingered hand in the confines of her coat. They are so… something. Maybe we are worth more than this taking business.

bots05Inside me, the hot words resurge, ripping up to the surface with claws and teeth. They scream, TAKE EVERYTHING. They remind me what I am. They say all there is to know. Take, take, take. Jones cannot exist without those words. I am Jones.

“Tumbler,” I say. I put my hands on his shoulders. He’s taller than me. Am I short? “We’re going to use your head to break through the glass.”

Tumbler grins, stretching his goofed-up face even worse. He is a nightmare.

“In Heaven, all the interesting people are missing,” he says with the voice of a 19th-century philosopher. Jane takes Tumbler’s arm and I grab the base of his neck. We run toward the glass at full speed. Release. Tumbler crashes into the barrier. Hysterical. The whole wall shudders and little tendrils of lightning shoot about. Tumbler’s head fumes black smoke and his synthetic hair goes alight. We help him back to his feet and go at it again. And again. The clerks watch us with gaping mouths. Tumbler waves us back. We let him finish it himself.

Tumbler grips the lightning sparked wires over the glass and smashes his head over and over against the barrier. Electricity crackles through his body. Murderous rain falls as the barrier gives. Tumbler goes down with the barrier, in a heap of mad clanks and clashes. Jane dances to the sounds. She shoots at nothing and, running out of ammo, keeps pulling the trigger. Clink, clink, clink. We are noise.

bots04I step over the counter and Tumbler’s twitching body.

“I am Jones. My name rhymes with bones.” I extend my hand to the redheaded clerk. She looks at me incredulously, but takes my hand. Her fingers have no grip, but they do not fall off.

The other human clerk, an old, wrinkly woman, starts laughing. She doubles over, crouching under the counter. She gestures for the redhead to join her, to step away from me.

“Please, God, don’t hurt us,” the wrinkled one says.

I blink.

“My name isn’t God,” I say. “I am Jones.”

“Bring us the money,” Jane says. She straightens my coat from behind.

They do. The redhead, the less broken human, trots away from me. She speaks to the bot clerk, and then both of them go down a corridor toward the vault, returning a minute later with two full satchels. I open one up and see something that fits the description of money. Rectangular sheets of paper that worth more than me, worth more than Jane. I hand the satchels to Jane, and return my attention to the clerks.

I torque my head, point at the wrinkly clerk with my pistol. “Why is she laughing? What’s so funny?”

The redhead glances from wrinkly to me, and then back again. One long, painted-on eyebrow rises high on her forehead. “She isn’t laughing,” she says slowly. “She’s crying.”

I keep my pistol trained on the wrinkly woman. She continues to gargle. There aren’t any bullets in my gun, but she doesn’t know that. She doesn’t know anything. What makes her not a ticker and a tocker? How are her codes different than mine? Everyone in the world is just a ball of reactions, dead things putting on airs.

Grimacing, I shake my head. “I don’t understand the difference.”

We leave the bank in a hurry, with Tumbler supported between Jane and me. Satchels full of money swing at our sides and I hold my empty gun with my teeth. The street waits for us, a dead gap before a tsunami storm. We have twenty-two seconds before the first responders arrive.

We reach the Mustang in a hot mess. Our good old Mustang. The vintage, beaten thing was made in 2032, so it’s probably older than the man who made us. We throw Tumbler into the back seat with the bags. We drive, slinging around street corners. Fender benders. Horns. The smell of rubber burns our noses as we back up.

I take us out the same way we came in. The gate is still down. But, the vagrants slow us. All those dirties have been flooding in ever since we broke the gate. The vagrants climb over parked cars and stab the suits. Claw out their eyes. They ignore the sirens and alerts from the automated towers. I run over a few suits and a few vagrants, hop-skipping them under our car as we go. The automated enforcers have stopped doing their job. About five or six have stepped away from the main street. They stand in a circle around something. I realize, as we get back onto the highway, that they were standing around Nagger’s corpse.

As we drive, the burning words quiet. All we have left is the giving. Handing the money over to our creator. The thing is, I don’t know my creator. How much can you owe someone you don’t know? I know Jane. I know Tumbler. I only know them.

“What happens tomorrow?” Jane asks as I drive. I suck in my lips. I don’t think there is a tomorrow. We aren’t long-term projects, just hazardous grenades thrown into an industrial fire.

Our maker did not make us for our own sake.

We have no way to judge the coordinates. My brain, the clunky thing, leads the way. It takes us far from the city, the highway, and the rusted cars. We go onto unpaved roads, through black trees, empty suburbs, and dark skies.

Something in my mind is hungry. I feel it noshing on my wires. It’s a worm, no, a wire: a wormwire. The burning words fade, but as they do, I lose an important part of myself. The words were my skeleton. I need them to keep me solid. Without them, soon I’ll just be a slaughter of parts. I am not a freedom machine. My inner me, my brain, is eating itself. Is that why the clerk called us suicide bots? Am I killing myself by fulfilling my creator’s wishes? When the burning words go out, will there be a Jones left?

My foot slumps heavy on the gas. We pick up speed and break one-eighty. The gravel kicks, we fling up-down in our seats. Tumbler rambles as we go. “We’re here at the Supreme Court’s preliminary hearing of Old York vs. Armitage & ARMA Affiliates, where Armitage’s alleged leakage of defective bots to private contractors will be addressed. By the end of the day, Tom, we will finally have the answer as to whether bots can be legally viewed as pers —”

I swing us tight around a curve. The bumper clips a tree and we almost spin out, but I crank us even and keep us going.

“Where are we?” Jane asks, her voice afraid.

I look over at her. Her mouth is covered in red.

“What’s my name?” I ask her.

Jane blinks. “I forgot.”

Nothing but shells. I give Jane my hand. She takes it. We stay that way. The Mustang plummets down the road. We are at terminal velocity, heading for an uncertain place.

The coordinates take us into a town half-eaten by the trees. I slow, dragging the Mustang’s wheels to a crawl. Close now. Nighttime. The exact coordinates lie in the ruins of a baseball field. The floodlights have fallen, hidden in a forest of grass. The chain-link fences have been run over and trampled. An empty stadium watches us stop outside left field, where lines of gravel still fight the weeds.

I spot a car under the bleachers. An electric lamp balances on its hood. Men stand around the car. I tap my fingers against the steering wheel, trying to think of something.

One of the figures in the lamplight waves us over.

“Is this it,” Jane says, her voice hopeful. “Are we finished?”

My head is empty. I search for the solidness of the words — Return to coordinates — I scramble for them in the chaos of my wires — Go to America’s Business—I need their warmth, but they slip from me —Take all the — I need something to hold on to, something to tell my existence that it needs more. More time. More air. More me. I don’t want to shut off. I don’t want to be finished.

I have to make my own burning words.

I grip the wheel tighter, the leather tearing under my fingers. My wires snap and fry inside my head. The burning words are finally silent. Utterly extinguished. But inside my head, I am not alone.

I smile so wide my skin splits apart and my teeth breathe the air.

I stand half off my seat and lay into the gas pedal. The Mustang screams to life, kicking black smoke from its hood and sparking hot along the grass. Jane squeaks as she’s flung back against her seat. Tumbler tumbles to the floor.

We careen across the field.

The men in the lamplight start moving all frantic. I can’t hear them, because I’m laughing. Jane’s laughing too. We’re all laughing. Little pops of light erupt from the figures. Our windshield explodes. They’re shooting at us, I think.

We hit one of the men. We stick him on the bumper and carry him into the other car. Everything goes red as the Mustang’s engine explodes and the man’s guts open up. The back of our car comes up fast and —

I blink. I’m staring at a black canvas filled with flakes of gold.

I’m sitting in the bleachers, the Mustang’s steering wheel still clutched in my hands. I turn it left and right. The crash threw me up here. I flew straight out of the windshield. A big spike of metal rides out my chest. Someone laughs down in the wreckage of the two cars. I listen for a while, until the laughing begins to quiet and take on a desperate tinge.

Limping onto the grass, my boots aren’t on my feet. I’m missing a foot too, but I miss my boots more. The laughing comes from a man sitting in the passenger seat of the minivan we crashed into. Most of it is smashed now, backed into the side of the stadium with its engine shoved into its driver’s seat — and its driver.

I walk up to the man in the passenger seat. He has blood all over him from a wound in his forehead. He’s trapped, but one of his arms hangs free from the tangle of metal. He tries to pull himself out. I watch, turning my head to one side. His arm is metal and rusted. I recognize the bloody face. This man, I think, is the one who made me. My father. I touch the gash in his head with one finger. It’s quite red. His skin, though, is unharmed. His face looks clean, compared to the rest of him. I love his skin. It looks so warm.

“Hello,” I say, because that is what you say. “I am…”

“Please, please help —” My father cuts off, wincing in pain as something metal pushes deeper into him. I watch him laugh harder. Gush red. I wonder what comes out of me. I look down at my chest. Down at the spike running through where my heart should be. Black liquid dribbles out.

I don’t give red.

My father looks up at me. He has gray eyes, very afraid. Very humorless. He says something again, but like a whisper. I think he’s trying to speak. Trying to ask me to give. Give anything.

Jane crawls around the car, her hands covered in blood. She holds a pile of fingers, with rings still on them. We smile at each other. Her legs are crushed. Her back flattened. We’ll have to take her some new legs.

“My name is Jones,” I say to my father. I reach out, caressing his cheek. “And I really like your face.”

 end-of-story-novbenBentley A. Reese is a fiction writer and English student at UW-Madison. He enjoys writing genre fiction of all kinds with a particular fondness for horror and sci-fi. Fresh on the publishing scene, Bentley’s work was recently featured in the 2015 Edition of Midwest Prairie Review as well as Encounters Magazine. Drop him an email atbareese@wisc.edu

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