Deadhead

“Deadhead”

by Maggie Slater

 

Nothing bothered Alex anymore. The light on the palm-sized Guardian unit at the nape of his neck blinked steadily no matter what anyone said or did. Even when Shira dulled-out part way through their biweekly dinners together to send work memos via her internal tele-app, a habit he had always considered a mortal sin in others, he merely gave her an understanding smile and turned his attention to chewing each bite of lasagna exactly thirty times before swallowing.

Of course, he wasn’t really her brother anymore. Alex’s brain had been scraped out of his skull after the decompression accident on an out-ring freighter, and his body had been implanted with the permanent support device. The rest of the intracranial space was filled with weighted foam. The AI who took care of his body now called itself Devin. Nothing bothered Devin. Shira wished she could say the same.

She drank the wine Devin poured for her—he didn’t allow the body to drink—and skimmed her notes for the next day’s clinic appointments. Most were rote, but one caught her eye: a young man, comatose after a nasty motorcycle accident, seemed to be exhibiting signs of surfacing after a few months of Guardian care, but the device wasn’t responding properly. His mother was worried.

Across the table, Devin chewed silently, and Shira sighed and blinked off the app. Even if it didn’t bother him, she couldn’t shake the shame. In that small way, Alex lived on.

Ping, went the tele-text in the back of her mind, again. Can we talk?

Shira shivered and looped her cold fingers behind her neck. It was the second text from Scottie, Alex’s ex. Scottie, with her sleepy smile and pink hair disheveled like she’d just rolled out of someone’s bed. Scottie, with everything she owned stuffed in the backpack slung over her shoulder, a space drifter, a free spirit.

It might take weeks, or months, but Scottie always came back. When Shira finally decided to let Guardian Labs pay Alex’s crushing medical bills in exchange for donating his brain-dead body to their advanced AI development program, Scottie vanished. Shira had come home from that awful day of signing forms, emotionally exhausted and needing someone to hug her and tell her she’d made the right choice, but instead found Scottie had packed up and left, without so much as a goodbye text.

But ten months later, Scottie reappeared, wanting to meet Alex, or Devin, or whoever he’d become. A week after that, she asked permission to move in with him. By law, Devin’s license belonged to the next of kin. It was meant to protect a loved one’s body from inappropriate use, but it also meant anyone who wanted to have a conjugal relationship with Devin had to get permission from Shira.

Can we talk?

“You’re pretty quiet,” Devin said. His voice was Alex’s voice, but somehow he used it differently. “Everything all right at work?”

“It’s Scottie.”

“Ah.” He finished the last bite of his lasagna, teeth massaging it to mush.

Shira pushed her unfinished plate away and slumped back in the seat. “She wants to move back in. With you. Again.”

Devin rose and started to clear the table. “Are you sure you’re finished? You can have more. I made a double batch to freeze, so you can take some home, too.”

He cleared the dishes like an haut-cuisine waiter, plates balanced on an outstretched arm, cloth over one shoulder. He never let dirty dishes sit in the sink. He ate kale and jogged three times a week and read biographies. Shira couldn’t argue that Alex’s body was healthier now than it had ever been before, but there were no more big bear hugs, no scruffy beard, no sweatpants or fifth bowls of cereal or late-night board games.

“So?” Shira said.

Devin glanced up from scraping food into the compostable bag under the sink. “So?”

“How do you feel about that?”

He shrugged. “It’s your decision to make.”

Shira grit her teeth and tried not to snarl. “It’s your apartment. Your life.”

Alex had always been a laid back guy, a panic-heatsink, but Devin’s calm when it came to Scottie was cold and unfair. He retrieved tupperware from the cabinets and began to pack away the leftovers. “I don’t mind. Either way.”

Shira let out a gusting breath and poured the remaining wine into her glass. Cheeks tingling with static, she took another sip and moved to the couch to stare out the windows at the cityscape. The Nashua skyline had come up in recent years, with property running cheap compared to the Boston-New York Belt along the coast. Glittering skyscrapers flashed ads across their windows, targeted to her public demographics: 24-34, female, single. She hadn’t bothered to select hobby interests or identify sexual preference, so it stuck to generic ads: Martian liquor, matchmaking apps, even one for elective Guardian installation called Correctiv, promising to solve all your weight, drug, and convalescent needs by putting you in a medically-induced coma and sticking an AI in your head. Why suffer through withdrawal, difficult diets, or painful physical therapy when you could sleep through it and wake up a better, healthier, happier you?

If she were deadheaded, she wouldn’t care if she saw Scottie or not. Shira closed her eyes, the ad’s pink logo burning turquoise against her eyelids. She turned the wine glass upside down and drained the last few drops just as Devin appeared beside her, holding out his hand to collect it.

“You’ve had almost a whole bottle.” She knew Devin couldn’t express moral judgement, but she swore she heard it anyway.

“Sometimes I think I should just sell your license to some out-ring corporation,” she said as he strolled back to the sink.

Devin looked over his shoulder with Alex’s face and Alex’s eyes. The glass squeaked as he soaped it. “I don’t mind. If that’s what you want.”

Nothing bothered Alex anymore.

Kyle Wu played dead all day, and when his mother went out to pick up a few things for dinner, he heaved a sigh and slumped down onto the sofa, fingering the plastic box at the nape of his shaven neck. He rubbed his face, stiff from smiling mildly the way the AI smiled. A headache throbbed under the bridge of his nose.

But it was worth it. Kyle reached over and picked up the old photo of him and his parents back some twenty years ago. The cow-licked kid he used to be beamed up at him, his mother smiling with her arm around him. She smiled now that he was essentially dead, too. It was like going back in time, before he got mixed up with the wrong crowd, before heroin and cosmo, before being kicked out for the sixth time, before slamming his motorcycle full-speed into a concrete median.

Thanks to Alvin, he was clean, and his mom could smile again. It was a fresh start.

Footfall on the gravel outside made him leap up and turn his back to the door just as the lock turned and his mother reentered.

“Forgot my gloves,” she said with a chuckle. “Are you sure you don’t want to come along?”

She’d almost caught him the day before, humming in the bathroom when he’d thought she was still at work, and she’d been worrying ever since. Alvin didn’t hum.

Kyle turned to face her, expression kind and serene. “No, thank you, Mrs. Wu.”

Her pleased smile faded at the edges as she noticed the picture he held. “Why are you looking at this old thing?” She came over and peered at the picture, face clouding with an uncertain frown.

“You look so happy here.” Kyle spoke slowly to keep the tremble from his voice. “I like seeing you happy.”

“Those were good days,” she said, taking the frame from him. “But it’s not healthy to linger in the past. What’s gone is gone, and what’s here is here.” She set the picture face down on the side table, but her fingers lingered on it.

He considered the AI’s conversational pattern, tried to remember Alvin’s timbre. “There’s nothing wrong with wanting to fill your home with happy thoughts, is there?”

His mother watched him a moment, then came over to him and gave him a warm hug. Kyle closed his eyes and relished the contact, trying to remember if she had ever hugged him with such vulnerability.

“You’re a good boy, Alvin.” She rubbed his back and pulled away. “How are you feeling today? Everything working properly?”

A chill crept under his skin, but he couldn’t frown, couldn’t even let his shoulders sag. “I’m fine, Mrs. Wu. I really don’t think tomorrow’s appointment is necessary.”

“Well, better safe than sorry, don’t you think?” She smiled, and his heart sank with dread. She hurried into the kitchen to grab her gloves, then came back out, heading for the door. “Won’t be more than half an hour,” she called behind her. “Could you start the laundry, Love?”

The door shut and Kyle stood in the dark living room. Kyle had never done the laundry before the crash, but he’d learned how watching Alvin in the weeks before he’d fully surfaced. Now he did laundry, and his mother called him Love.

When Shira returned home, her shoes crunched on dirt scattered across the entryway tiles. She frowned at the unexpected mess, and Scottie sat up from where she’d been curled up out of sight on the couch. She grinned, lip catching on her snaggletooth in a way that reminded Shira of some ancient glam rockstar.

“Hey Shi.” Her charm necklaces jingled like a pocketful of pennies. “You weren’t answering your messages, so I figured I should just let myself in.”

“Okay.” Shira dropped her bag on a box by the door.

There were boxes everywhere. Eight months moved, and so far, Shira had only unpacked dishes and vital necessities. Everything else—books, craft supplies, decorations, extra bedding, clothes—all remained stacked in boxes along the walls and corners. Alex’s new apartment was like a spread in an architecture magazine, but only because Shira still had all his old stuff, which Devin didn’t need or want. She slept on a mattress on the floor, a bare-bulbed light leaning against the wall beside it in a sad imitation of a life uncluttered by things. Seeing Scottie among the boxes, however, made Shira’s stomach twist on itself.

She should have gotten a haircut. She should have worn makeup this morning, but she’d felt lazy, and fuck makeup anyway. If she was smart, she’d get those cellular implants like Nicole at work, and instantly download a smoky-eye from the style databases. Maybe even go the whole hog and spend three months’ salary on silicon hair implants. Then it wouldn’t matter when Scottie came back, because she could just think: short bob, straightened, black with electric blue highlights, sexy eyes, and she’d look perfect.

Shira sighed and ran a hand through her grown-out pixie, too heavy on top and too long in the back. Had she combed it this morning? “Are you hungry? I haven’t ordered food recently. Um, I think I’ve got leftover pasta or something…”

“No worries,” Scottie said, following her into the kitchen. “I’ve been doing this injectable diet lately, so I wouldn’t eat anything by mouth anyway.”

“Injectable diet?”

“Yeah. I knew a bunch of people who did it out on Neone. I never realized how disgusting it is watching people chew. I mean, these meat and bone holes in our faces, mashing up other meat and stuff? Gross.”

Shira thought of Devin’s meticulous mastication routine and shuddered.

Scottie leaned against the narrow island, her charms—one on each link—glittering in the overhead lights. Charms for honesty. Transparency. Kindness. Bravery. One for confidence. One for peace. Maybe dozens for peace. World peace. Internal peace. Eternal peace. All together, they must have weighed five pounds, but Scottie didn’t seem to mind as she fingered a tiny crescent moon.

“What’s that one?” Shira asked, opening the fridge to peek at its barren shelves.

“Symbol of reflection.” Scottie turned it over and a smile crossed her lips. “Reminds me to reflect the world’s light, rather than always obsess about generating my own. It’s a gentler way of living.”

“What guru told you that?”

Scottie let the charm fall back among its sisters and clicked her tongue. “Oh, Shi, there’s a lot more to this world than we can see or touch. You have to grant me that.”

Shira rolled her eyes at the ketchup bottle in the fridge door. Pushing back on anything Scottie insisted be “granted” to her was a fruitless endeavor. The cool air spilling from the fridge thickened the silence between them.

Shira pulled out two beers. “Do you still take liquids by mouth, or do you inject those, too?”

Scottie gave her a cool glare, but took the can and popped it open. After a tentative sip and a grimace, she sighed. “So, have you thought about it? About Alex, I mean?”

“About Devin, you mean.”

Scottie fingered a tree charm that symbolized—Shira thought she recalled—the relevancy of the past. Because that’s a thing, according to Granda Europa Miros, or whoever she lived with last out in the system sticks, meditating and—as she described it—living through past lives via some internal-maternal connection. I lived my past mothers’ lives through their eyes, and every time I came back to my own body, I would collapse into Granda’s lap, sobbing like a child, because I was so, so grateful to be here, in this age, in this reality.

Even at the time Shira suspected that Granda was more than happy to cradle Scottie in his lap, though not for spiritual reasons. But she couldn’t say that to Scottie. Scottie believed. Granda taught me you can’t run away from the past: you have to take it so deeply into your truth of now that it becomes now.

What else Scottie had taken deeply into her truth, Shira didn’t let herself think about, but yet again these metaphysical rationales had convinced Scottie that she needed Alex. Alex. Who didn’t exist anymore, besides as a corpse for a computer, who didn’t mind, one way or the other.

Shira flipped through the cabinets as she sipped the core-chilling IPA. When had she last eaten at home? It was like she didn’t even live here. If she were deadheaded, the shelves would be stocked with healthy food, and nothing Scottie said would slice under her skin. How nice it must be, not caring if she came or went, or believed stupid things, or didn’t really love you.

“So? Are you going to let me be with Alex—Devin?” Scottie said, with a teasing smile.

Did she have any idea how much that smile made Shira ache? It made her ache from the first moment Scottie swept into the hospital a month after Alex’s accident, a fiery pink fury threatening to sue everybody—the doctors, the insurance company, the shipping firm—anyone who could be held responsible. But to Shira, she’d been warm, comforting, protective. Don’t you worry about a thing, she’d said, hugging her almost as hard as Alex. I’m Alex’s fiance. He’d want us to stick together.

I’m Alex’s fiance. It seemed so absurd, imagining stoic, burly Alex with this pint-sized pink pixie from the out-rings that it made sense, in a way.

“Earth to Shi.” Scottie’s charms tinkled as she tilted her head. “Everything okay? You doing work stuff?” The smirk was definitely mocking, now. “How you can deal with all that deadhead corporate bullshit all day, I sure as hell don’t know.”

Scottie hated that Shira had gone into the Guardian Tech training program after Alex, like working for them was a betrayal. In truth, Shira had hoped understanding the tech would prove she’d made the right choice for him, but it only made her realize how gone he was. Still, the paycheck allowed her to get her own place. Unlike Scottie, she couldn’t bear living with Devin, even for just a few months.

Shira blinked and slapped the nearest cabinet shut. “Sorry. Just a colleague checking in.”

“So…Alex? I mean, no rush, I don’t want to push, but—” Scottie grinned, the tip of her tongue between her teeth. It made the blood rush to Shira’s face. “—you know.”

Shira forced her jaw to unclench, anger flaring. Before she could bite it back, she said, “Why do you even want him? He hasn’t changed since last time. You haven’t changed.”

Scottie scoffed. “I knew it.”

Heart skipping a beat, Shira swallowed. “Knew what?”

“You don’t want me in his life anymore. Is that it?” Scottie said, blinking furiously as she sneered. “What, you think I’m a bitch? A mooch? A whore?”

Shira shuddered as the anger sloughed off, and the kitchen’s cool air rushed into the vacuum to fill her. It wasn’t fair to be angry at Scottie for being Scottie. Deflated, drained, she said quietly, “No, of course not.”

Scottie picked at a few blacked out pixels on her artificial thumbnail. The others pulsed turquoise. “Yeah, you do.”

“I don’t.” Shira said it firmly, with conviction, but Scottie just smirked sadly.

“You do. You may not admit it, but you do.”

The anger swept back, crashing through her teeth. “No, I don’t. I think you’re flaky and selfish, but not a mooch, not a whore, or a bitch.”

Scottie’s eyes widened. She straightened, necklaces jangling. “Yeah, okay. Whatever. Lie to yourself if you have to, but I get it, okay? Just say you don’t want me to be with Alex, and I’ll go. Shit, I’m not asking for charity here, Shira.”

Shira. The formality slapped her. Shira took a swig of beer, staring at the wall to keep from getting abhorrently teary.

“I’m going to go,” Scottie said with a sniff. She started for the door, but then swept back to the counter and slapped her palms on the surface, eyes watering. “I love him. I don’t care if you think I don’t, or can’t, but you don’t know how I feel. He’s the only one I’ve ever wanted, all right? Maybe that doesn’t mean anything to you, but damn it, me and him? We’re the real deal, okay? We need to be together. It’s where I belong.”

She didn’t wait for a response, but rushed to the door and slammed it behind her. Shira waited until her footsteps faded, and then, after setting the empty beer can in the sink, after trying to be as calm as an AI for three excruciating heartbeats, finally sank to the kitchen floor and burst into tears.

“He should be cognizant.” The tech assistant looked young enough to have just graduated from vocational school, but she had high-end silicon hair implants programmed to cascade in bright red curls with blonde tips over her shoulders. It looked like fire out of the corner of Kyle’s eye as he lay on his back, head turned away from her. She tapped the device with a fingernail. “The readout says the AI’s switched off.”

His mother stood at the foot of the bed. She kept resting her hand on the footboard and snatching it away as if the plastic rungs burned her. “Then why… Shouldn’t he be awake, then?”

The tech assistant tilted Kyle’s head back to face her, his nose just inches from her chest. He tried not to notice how her breasts swelled against her scrub top. He hadn’t had sex in almost a year.

Go to the zen place, he reminded himself, the dead place. Alvin doesn’t get hard-ons. Kind and serene. Be a monastic eunuch.

Her fingers touched the nape of his neck, pushed back the hair, standing it on end in a way that made him shiver internally. Think of nothing. Think of linoleum. Think of concrete walls, cobwebs, cat food.

“I’ve never seen anything quite like this.” The assistant shook her head. “Let me go get my supervisor. Maybe she can figure out what’s going on.”

His mother sighed, and the bed jiggled as she leaned her weight against it again. “All right. Thank you.”

After she left, Kyle turned back to face the ceiling. He blinked and breathed. His mother came to stand beside him, took his fingers in hers.

“Kyle?” Her voice trembled.

She studied his face with a worried frown, and squeezed his fingers. “Alvin?”

“Yes, Mrs. Wu?” Kyle replied. Kind and serene.

His mother watched him closely. “How are you feeling?”

“I feel fine. I’m sorry to worry you.”

The tension around her eyes melted. She clasped his hand and patted his knuckles. “It’s quite all right, dear. I just want you to be well.” She hesitated. “Both of you, of course.”

Kyle felt his face slip, an involuntary wince crossing his brow, but the door to the exam room opened and his mother turned away. By the time she looked back, he was serene.

The tech who entered looked almost his own age, and he relaxed a little. She looked like she hadn’t slept all night. Her hair was a mess, her eyes red-rimmed. Maybe she’d be just as befuddled as her assistant, who hovered close at hand.

She pulled up a rolling stool. “I’m Shira Jen, one of the chief techs. Nicole tells me the unit’s saying the AI is off, but your son’s mental status hasn’t changed, is that correct?”

His mother dropped his hand. “That’s what I’m being told, yes.”

“Interesting.” Shira snapped on some gloves and drew herself up beside the bed to tilt his head and examine the unit. “Did you run a diagnostic?”

“Twice,” Nicole said quickly. “Both said the AI is switched off.”

The tech’s eyes went dull, logging into the clinic’s internals. “JQ34115, please respond with operational code.”

Kyle took a breath. “JQ34115, operational code: Victor-X-ray-Bravo-Echo-Romeo 33212.”

The tech’s eyebrows jogged. Had he said something wrong? He was sure that was right. He had to stay calm. Be the machine.

“Function name?” she asked.

“Alvin.”

“Installation month?”

“November.”

“Medical assignment?”

“Diffuse axonal damage rendering patient Kyle Wu unresponsive. Assigned to provide basic life support and auxiliary body maintenance.”

The tech blinked and her eyes came back to life. “Okay, so, Nicole?” She turned to her assistant. “I’m going to need you to start a support code. We’re going to remove the device and intubate Kyle and switch him over to regular machine support, and I’ve ordered an MRI and an EEG. Mrs. Wu, why don’t you go out to the waiting room while we do the icky bits, and I’ll have Nicole come find you when Kyle’s all settled. Will that be all right?”

His mother murmured an agreement, and slipped from the room, clutching her purse. Nicole followed, and when the door shut behind them, Kyle sat up.

The tech rolled her stool back a foot, but didn’t look surprised.

“I don’t need intubation. I’m fine. I can breathe, I’m here. I’m fine.”

“Kyle?”

Kyle nodded, heart pounding. “Please don’t hook me up to anything.”

“Your device isn’t malfunctioning.”

“No, look,” he swung his legs off the bed. The tech remained seated, stiffly. “It switched off a while ago.”

“How long?”

He shifted and shrugged. “I dunno. A few weeks?”

The tech stared at him, horrified. “Weeks?”

Kyle leaned forward, hands pressed together. “Please, don’t tell my mom I’m back. Not yet. I’ll tell her soon, I swear, but just…not here. Not like this.”

“We haven’t tested the long-term effects of leaving a support device wired in after a patient resurfaces. It could be dangerous. You could have lasting nerve damage.”

Kyle rubbed his face with clammy hands. His jaw ached from fighting expression. He imagined his mother’s face if these people told her he’d been faking, faking for weeks…No, he needed more time, time to make his surfacing seem realistic. “I don’t care. I’ll—I’ll sign a waiver or something. Just, please. Don’t remove it yet.”

The tech watched him with an unreadable expression. “I can’t just pretend—”

“Please, please, if you could just…Look, I’ve been a shitty son, okay? I know that. But my mother loves me, now. I’m the son she always wanted, you know? As Alvin, we talk. She smiles. She doesn’t hold anything against me, and it’s like—it’s like I died and I got a fresh start, you know? I got my old mom back, the one I remember. The one I haven’t let down yet. I’ve already detoxed. My past is dead.”

The tech watched him like an AI: blank, calm, dead. Did they employ AI to service AI?

“Please,” Kyle begged, his eyes growing watery. Shit, when was the last time he’d cried? Alvin didn’t cry, but Alvin didn’t suffer, either. “Please, don’t tell her. Give me just…two, three more days, then I’ll let you remove it. Just give me a little more time? Please? She’ll be so embarrassed, so angry if you tell her now. And I feel fine. A couple more days can’t hurt, can it? Please, just give me a chance to get out of this without hurting her again. I just…I need her in my life. ”

The tech looked down at her gloved hands. The air conditioner’s sterilized rumbling filled the long pause until she looked up. “Okay. Two days.” She sighed. “I could get fired for this, okay? Thursday, you come right in and get it taken off. I’m serious.”

“Thank you thank you thank you,” Kyle said, easing onto his back. “I swear. Cross my heart, all that. Thank you. Seriously, thank you.”

The tech didn’t say another word, but someone knocked on the door and she went to it. For a few minutes, they held a hushed conversation through the cracked door, and he focused on getting his pulse back down. He’d been sweating, and his armpits were soaked. Would his mother notice? Alvin sweated, though, didn’t he?

He couldn’t remember. Maybe it was good that the charade was ending. His mother already had doubts, but if he did wake up during the next twenty-four hours, maybe she’d think any odd behavior over the past few weeks was just part of his gradual surfacing.

That would work. He relaxed into his own mind, finding his zen place. Kind and serene. Eyes open, he waited, watching the ceiling passively.

The back of Shira’s mind itched with unread messages from Scottie as she rode in the autocar to Alex’s apartment. Each subconscious notification made her squirm. She couldn’t talk to her yet, not before she knew exactly what to say. Instead, she put her mind to the case she’d seen in the clinic.

It had been a mistake to let Kyle go, but his words lingered in her thoughts as she rested her forehead against the autocar’s cold window. I need her in my life. She knew the feeling, but she shouldn’t have risked his health and her job for it. What had she been thinking? Eventually, he’d have to deal with his mother. There were no shortcuts, no quick resets for human feelings. Sometimes you just had to do the hard thing, even if it ended badly.

When the autocar pulled up in front of Alex’s building, Scottie was at the curb wearing an egg-white helmet, visor raised, and straddling a rented moped. Her charms glinted in the streetlights. Shira’s heart sank as she climbed out. I need her in my life.

“Sorry about yesterday,” she said as Shira shut the door. The autocar locked itself and pulled away from the curb. No retreat. “But you were being kind of harsh. I mean, I come to you, because you know me, because you know Alex, and what he’d want, and—”

“I don’t want to do this anymore.” It came out sharper than Shira intended, but the moment she spoke, it was as if she’d broken a seal on herself and all the carbonated feelings she’d kept locked inside rushed out with a hiss. “You don’t know what Alex wants.”

Scottie leaned back into her hip. “Wow, okay.”

“Sorry, I just mean…” Shira gritted her teeth and sucked air through her nostrils. “I don’t know what Alex would want either.”

Alex had never mentioned Scottie. Shira didn’t even know he was seeing anyone seriously. He’d leave on barge assignments to the out-ring colonies, and bring back much needed funds when he returned. If he loved someone, if he’d ever thought about settling down, he’d never said anything to Shira.

Then after the decompression accident, after Shira spent every night for weeks at his bedside, pleading with him to pull through, to come back, because the thought of losing him and being alone terrified her, Scottie appeared. For eight months, she stuck around, squatting in Shira’s apartment, working odd jobs to help keep the rent paid while they fought to get a more favorable opinion of Alex’s condition, to find some doctor—any doctor—who would declare the odds of his recovery better than none. But they failed.

She’d always believed she’d kept Alex’s license because it was the right thing to do, but deep down, she knew that wasn’t the whole truth. Keeping Alex’s license meant keeping Scottie. So long as she had his license, Scottie would always come back. Shira could see the fallacy in Kyle’s desperate attempts to maintain a relationship with his mother through the AI, but standing before Scottie now, Shira realized she’d been doing the exact same thing for years.

If she let go of Alex, would Scottie ever come back, just for her?

It was time to find out. Shira swallowed, heart pounding in her ears. “I’m selling his license.”

Scottie stiffened. Her eyebrows tightened under the helmet, and she tore at the clasp, fumbling to wrench it from her head. At first, Shira thought Scottie might come right over and punch her, but Scottie remained frozen. “You can’t do that,” she said, voice breaking. “He belongs here. With us.”

Shira took a breath. “Do you remember the months after Alex died?”

“Alex didn’t die—Shi. Look. I know you think a lot of what I believe is stupid, but he’s in there. I mean, his DNA is in every cell, still, which means a part of him—”Scottie’s voice trailed off as her watering eyes searched Shira’s face. “Shi…I need him.”

I need him. Scottie looked so small, slouching inward on herself. Shira fought the urge to move closer, to hold her and comfort her. Instead, Scottie’s words echoed over and over in her mind. I need him. I need him.

“Do you remember?” Shira said quietly. “When we lived like rats, you and me in the old crappy apartment, just the two of us? How we spent every waking minute we weren’t at the hospital agonizing over what to do?”

“Yeah,” Scottie whispered. A tear trickled down her cheek.

Shira looked at the ground, digging her hands into her pockets. “You remember how we used to come home, and just…crash on my bed because we were so tired? We wouldn’t even take our clothes off. We’d just curl up and hold each other.”

Scottie shrugged. “Sort of.”

Those two little words, two uncertain little words, sliced right through her. “I fell in love with you, Scottie,” she said, and Scottie’s eye whipped back to stare at her. Shira’s stomach clenched, but the momentum of her own words drove her onward. “You keep coming back to Alex, even though he’s gone. But I’m still here. And I keep saying, yes, come back, not because he cares, but because I do. When I ask Devin what he wants, you know what he says? Either way. Because he has no feelings for you. But I love you, Scottie. I need you.”

Scottie stared at her, and Shira looked away. It would be so easy to say, Forget it. Never mind. I’m sorry, like somehow she’d said something wrong, even though she’d only spoken the truth. The urge to backpedal gripped her, and she almost blurted out: Stay with Alex. It’s fine. I’m just being silly. She wanted to abdicate, to hold on, to keep pretending life hadn’t changed all that much since his death. But this time, she bit her tongue and waited.

After an excruciatingly long silence, Scottie’s sneakers squeaked on the gravel. Shira’s heart leapt with hope, but the steps retreated. Scottie climbed back on the moped, clipped on her helmet, and kicked the engine to life with a snapping snarl.

Peeling out, tires grinding on the gravel, Scottie rode off without a backward glance, and this time Shira knew she wouldn’t be coming back.

For how long?” his mother repeated slowly. She sat at the dinner table, and Kyle stood partway between the table and the sink, dirty dishes piled in his hands. It was a trap, and he knew it, could sense the bait in the tone of her voice, the suggestion that she might not be that angry if he spoke the truth, but it was a trap. She was already angry.

He hadn’t started the wake-up ruse yet, hadn’t even decided if he should start before or after they’d watched another episode of Bespoke. He’d been looking forward to the handmade suits episode, and didn’t want to keep pausing to argue or explain himself, but if he waited until after, his mother would start her bedtime routine, and she’d be too busy to notice any strange behavioral changes in him. He’d been trying to remember waking up in the middle of the night, able to move his hands and lift his own head. He hadn’t noticed the AI shut off. It had all happened so quickly, he didn’t have any reference points to lean on.

But then she guessed. He didn’t know what he’d done, what slip he’d made, but she knew.

“How long has Alvin been gone? Days? Weeks?” She lifted her flat gaze and it pinned him against the wall. “Months?”

Kyle swallowed, and remembering the plates, set them aside. He leaned back against the full sink. It wasn’t supposed to happen like this. “Not…months.”

His mother nodded slowly, lips tight. “I see.”

She was angry, but maybe he could still fix this. “I’m sorry, Mom. I wanted to tell you—”

“But you didn’t.”

What would Alvin say? He searched his memory, but Alvin never lied. Kyle pressed his fingers  against his eyes and tried to find a way to defuse her anger.  “I love you, Mom,” Kyle said quickly. “I love you, and it just seemed like, it seemed like—as Alvin, we kind of—”

His mother kept nodding as her lips and brow twisted. “I knew it.” She stood up, eyes swimming. The chair squeaked against the linoleum floor. “At the clinic? Did they know?”

Kyle shifted, armpits suddenly swampy. “Sort of, I mean, not clearly—but Mom, Mom, that’s beside the point, because—”

“That’s malpractice,” she said. “I’m getting a lawyer.”

“Mom, it’s not—I told them not to tell you.”

His mother looked up at the ceiling, a surrendering, pleading glance, and two tears broke free as she blinked. She started to say something, but then stopped, stilling herself. “You should go.”

Kyle’s stomach lurched. “Doesn’t it mean anything? Doesn’t it show how we could be, how things could go back—?”

When she met his eye, he shriveled inside. “The moment you woke up, and Alvin switched off, you started lying. There’s nothing different about you. You’re the same boy who’s been breaking my heart for years.”

After she left the kitchen, Kyle willed himself to wash the dishes despite his shaking hands and burning face. She didn’t get it. For weeks, he’d been his best self, as good as the AI or better, and still she didn’t care. She’d never care, and he’d relapse and prove her right, over and over and over. He was worthless. He was nothing.

A glass slipped and shattered against the sink, shards splashing into the milky water. He tried to pick out the big pieces, invisible amongst the suds, and cut himself. Blood tinted the water. Kyle stepped back, trying to suck air into his lungs, trying to soothe his shaking. He sat down at the table, clutching his hand as his finger dripped blood onto the linoleum.

It would stain, he thought. If I were Alvin, I would clean and dress the wound. I would wipe up the blood with a dish cloth and then wash the dishcloth in hot soapy water until the stain came out, or bleach it with the next laundry load of whites.

If I were Alvin, he thought, Mom would forgive me for the broken glass. She’d forgive me for the blood. She’d forgive me even if I ruined a dishcloth.

If I were Alvin, he thought, I would be the son she wanted.

He took an autocar to the bridge off Exit 5. At midnight, only a few cars passed heading downtown or home to the suburbs. He’d thought he didn’t want to be seen, but as the autocar pulled away, and he went to the railing, he wondered if that was a mistake. Far below, the water rushed underneath, whipping through rocks and dead stumps and rusted shopping carts from days long gone. Even from up here, a cold mist drifted across his face. The bridge smelled like old pennies.

When he first left the house, he stuck around the neighborhood, drinking at the sticky dive bar at the end of the street before circling back, thinking—in his drunken state—he had figured out how to tell his mom what he needed to say. But when he got back, the house was dark, the door locked and her car gone. He wasn’t sure where she’d go, if she even had anywhere to go. Maybe just knowing he’d come back made her leave town for a night. She knew him too well, and the arguments in his head dissolved. Alvin would have said the right thing. Alvin would have made everything right.

It was a long way down to the black water, and he couldn’t tell how deep it was. He figured maybe, if he landed just right, if he drowned just enough, the AI would kick back in and take over. That was Alvin’s job, wasn’t it? To keep his body from dying?

An autocar drove by, but slowed, and he turned as it pulled up to the curb. At first, he thought maybe his mother had cut off his account and the fare had bounced, but then the back door opened, and the tech supervisor from the clinic climbed out. She came over to him as the car pulled away and without a word, settled herself on the railing beside him.

She stared down at the water with red, puffy eyes. After a long, weird silence, she said, “I called your mom and got quite an earful.”

Kyle frowned. “Why…why’d you do that?”

She looked at him for a long, submerged moment, then blinked and looked back down at the river. “I shouldn’t have let you leave the clinic today. Not with that thing attached. I thought I might have you come in tomorrow to get it removed, but after talking with her, I probably won’t have a job in this field for much longer.”

“Shit,” Kyle said. Overhead, the skies had grown thick with waterlogged clouds, the city lights dyeing their woolen bellies orange. “I fucked up everything, didn’t I?”

Beside him, the tech scoffed. “We all fuck shit up once in a while, don’t we?” She shifted, looking down at her hands, clenched tight. “I just signed over my brother’s license to an out-ring complex. Satellite servicing or something. I didn’t even read the fine print.”

“Didn’t know your brother was a deadhead.”

She looked so sad, just now. Bedraggled and exhausted. When a flicker of a shuttle liftoff over the river caught his attention, he heard her catch her breath. She watched it with wide, frowning eyes, as if willing herself not to burst into tears.

He looked back down at the water far, far below. “How’d you find me?”

“Your device has GPS.”

He almost laughed. Of course, it did. The device was worth something. Him? Not so much.

“I came here to drown myself,” he said, “just enough to let the AI switch back into support mode. It’ll do that, won’t it? If the host drops out again?”

The tech glanced at him. “I don’t know.”

Kyle chuckled, but it came out as a choked cough. “She wants the AI for her son. I was going to give that to her. Kind of a parting gift.”

The tech shifted, twisting against the rail to look at him. “Don’t. Who cares if she likes the AI better? They can’t feel anything. We pretend they do, but it’s all a lie. It’s still just a machine wearing a corpse.”

Kyle clenched his hands and eyes shut, fighting back a shudder as he remembered all those weeks of being locked in behind his own eyes, watching Alvin take care of every aspect of his life with ease.

“Hey,” the tech said, putting a hand on his arm, squeezing. “Crash with me tonight. You can have the couch, and tomorrow, I’ll take you to the clinic. I may get fired, but let’s at least get that fucking thing off your neck.”

Kyle stared at her. The flat gaze from the clinic was gone, and she looked at him with a kindness that touched him. He clasped the hand she’d put on his arm, and then hugged her, burying his face in her shoulder. She held him for a moment, then disentangled herself.

“Come on,” she said. “Tomorrow can be a fresh start.”

Then taking his hand like a sister might, she led him back towards the city, leaving the dead day behind them.

______________

Maggie Slater’s speculative fiction has appeared in Apex Magazine, Daily Science Fiction, and Zombies: More Recent Dead from Prime Books, among other venues. When not writing, she enjoys Haruki Murakami novels, sampling craft beer, and hoarding cheap notebooks. For more information about her and her current projects, visit her blog at maggieslater.com.

 

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