by Sarah Cooley
It was six in the morning and Adrian was getting up for the day. She didn’t want to get up, but there were credits to make and they never had enough of those in the first place, so up she got. The sky outside her small window was overcast and dark. In an hour or so it would start tinging purple as the sun came up. The weather had been worse than usual for weeks now, mirroring the insidious gloom hanging over her and her friends, as of late. She pulled the shutters down. While quickly going through the motions of getting dressed—pants, shirt, comb through the hair—she checked for any alerts on her handheld. None yet. Not since the one she’d received the week before that had turned out to be a scam artist. She had made sure that he wouldn’t be able to pull any more tricks without a new hard drive.
Unlocking her bedroom door, she stepped out into the hallway cautiously. Quiet darkness. The guys were still asleep then, but no need to wake them up yet. She walked down the hallway and around the corner, into the little nook they called a kitchen, and dug through the cupboards until she found a can of peaches. She opened it and grabbed a bent fork, taking her meal downstairs to the workshop. Max liked to call the basement their “Fortress of Awesome”, but neither she nor Franklin thought it very accurate. Downstairs, she unlocked the door with her copy of the key and reached around the frame, flicking a light switch. Squinting her eyes against the sudden brightness, Adrian propped the door open with a cinder block kept there for that purpose and went to the different monitors around the room, powering each one up methodically in the same order she did every day. She plunked down into a hard-backed chair and forked a peach halve in her mouth, waiting for the electronics to warm up.
The place was quite a dump, but it was home. In all honesty, she’d been lucky to get ahold of the place at all with the way living space was getting harder to find in a plebian price range. She paid just-on-the-cusp-of-being-unfair rent to a faceless slumlord whom she’d never met, and had no desire to meet. She was left well enough alone here though, and that suited her and her partners in crime just fine. She sat nibbling her peaches and contemplating the day ahead, making a mental to-do list. There were a couple of hard drives that need scrubbing-out and an antique vacuum cleaner that someone had requested be detailed, for whatever reason. Besides that there wasn’t anything important to do, so maybe they could all go out and search again.
Adrian heard a loud thump from upstairs, followed by even louder cursing. Max was awake. She finished eating her peaches quickly and drank the syrup so she couldn’t be prompted to share. Tossing the can aside into a trash bin, she turned back over to one of the glowing monitors and typed in a password.
Adrian had met Max a few years ago at a 24-hour liquor store, and they had gotten into a fight over which Doctor was better—the 21st or 23rd. They’d been friends ever since. He knew how to program well and had some basic mechanical knowledge, so he ended up being an asset in Adrian’s homegrown business. He was a bit wild but could always be counted on to offer help if it was needed. After spending a few minutes checking the information-net she’d sent out, and working on a message for a bastard contact that hadn’t yet delivered the circuit boards she’d already paid for, she heard Max’s feet plodding heavily down the stairs, accompanied by some oldies song.
“Rah-rah-ah-ah-ah-ah! Roma-roma-mamaa! Ga-ga-ooh-la-la! Want your bad romance!”
“Frank, will you shut the damn Aural-Cast off? It’s driving me up the fricking wall.”
A staticy voice replied back without missing a beat.
“Up the stairs, more like. Ha!” the voice chuckled to itself, “You know, back in my day, we just called it radio, didn’t always stick the word ‘cast’ onto the end of everything.”
“We’re going down the stairs. And back in your day, you also had legs.”
There was an offended grunt, and the music cut off.
“You don’t know real music.”
Franklin was harder to explain. Max had been with Franklin for a while before they met Adrian, so there was a special rapport between them that mainly consisted of insulting and one-upping each other. All they could ascertain for certain was that Franklin had been an early recipient of a brain upload, but it apparently didn’t work out right, seeing as he didn’t have one of the android bodies that was usually given to patients who received that procedure. Max said he found Franklin in an abandoned hovel somewhere, and assuming the little black brain box was a data-drive of some kind, had taken him home with him. It later became evident that the box was a container for the uploaded brain of a man, and not a piece of computer hardware. When Max realized what the not-hardware was, he did his best to make a better container for the consciousness trapped inside. Max used what he could—a camera, speakers, a microphone, and even some recently added wheels. It wasn’t a work of art, by any means, but it sufficed. Though his new body was very rudimentary, Franklin was forever thankful to Max—to a man that hadn’t had a corporeal body with actual senses in decades, it felt more than fantastic. Adrian liked Franklin well enough; for a half-senile man-brain in a two foot tall robot body, he was rather endearing. Max walked through the workshop door and immediately set the pseudo-robot down as gingerly as he could.
“Watch it there! I’m delicate!”
“I built you, doofus, I know that.”
Once he touched the ground, Franklin zipped off, his small motors buzzing.
“Whee!” The wheels were new enough that Franklin still acted like an excited kid when he got to use them. He wove in and out between boxes of spare parts and coils of wire, humming a cheery tune to himself. Almost as an afterthought, he called out “Morning, Adrian.”
“Yes, that it is, buddy.” She smiled halfheartedly at him, then Max, who walked over and pulled her into a short hug.
“Hey there, you alright?”
He’d been acting more sober than usual because of what had happened, and for that she was thankful.
“Super duper, dude.”
“Anything new? Anything good?”
She shook her head.
He sighed and sat down next to her, watching Franklin spin across the concrete floor.
One member of their rag-tag bunch had been missing for a couple of weeks, and it wasn’t looking promising.
Adrian had been with Birdie for as long as she could remember, since they were just kids in a Reeducation Home, growing up together and trying desperately to overthrow any authority available to them. After they’d gotten out of that sorry excuse for an orphanage they had stuck together, working when they could, eventually getting the dingy apartment together and starting a “fix whatever the hell we can fix” shop, as Birdie had christened it. Even when things were rougher than normal, she never failed to bring a smile to Adrian’s face. They had been friends, partners, and confidants. Inseparable from one another, until Birdie disappeared. One night, a few weeks earlier she had said she had a contact to go meet. Alone.
“I’m coming too,” Adrian had immediately declared.
“It’s fine babe, I’ll be safe.” Birdie had smiled at her.
Adrian didn’t doubt that Birdie believed in her own words, but it was always dangerous going out by yourself. It didn’t matter if you were a man, woman, child, or artificial lifeform. You could get attacked or taken by over a dozen different groups—some of them legally sanctioned.
“I’ll be fine,” she said again, giving Adrian a peck on the cheek, “he’s expecting me, and he knows I’m with you guys in this. Trust me, everything’s shiny. I’ll be back with those tri-beam inductors in no time.”
She had walked out the door, and hadn’t come back.
Adrian looked over at Max and pulled on his earlobe.
“We should probably get started on that old vacuum. Maybe if we get caught up today we can do more investigating?”
“Sure thing, boss.”
Max swung himself out of his chair, patting her shoulder on his way across the room. He looked around a moment.
“Adrian, where is the vacuum?”
Rolling her eyes and turning back to the computer, she laughed.
“It’s under that thing over there.”
“The flat and dark thing.”
“But there are lots of those.”
Adrian didn’t say anything. She was staring at the monitor in apprehension.
“Adrian? You okay?”
Franklin rolled over and knocked into her shins, still humming his song. She didn’t chastise him.
On the screen in front of her, in her inbox, was a message with the subject line, “Do you miss her?”
She opened it. It contained only a picture. A picture of Birdie.
A picture of Birdie tied to a chair, cloth in her mouth, battered and bruised. Terrified.
Adrian stood up. “Come see this.”
He rushed back over to the row of monitors, and blanched.
“No, oh god no…”
“Forget the vacuum. We’re gonna plan a rescue mission.”
Sarah Cooley is a sophomore at Alaska Pacific University, hoping to earn her bachelor’s in Psychology. When not completing her assignments at the last possible minute, she can usually be found reading or writing escapist fantasies.