Rene brushed a few cherry blossoms from Akia’s head and then quickly stuffed her hands back in her jacket. The snow had come exceptionally early this year. They had been sitting in the institute’s garden for some time together, Rene on the park bench, and Akia simply lying in the snow. Around them were the tall buildings of the institute—several sky scrapers and the conspicuous “lab”, a twin building connected in the middle by the Skybridge. Rene liked to think of it as the place where Akia and Banji were born. Watching the blossoms slowly fall to the ground, she had told Akia of how the Japanese had a word for the sound of cherry blossom falling on snow. Akia has simply noted that they also had a word for the sound of the blush of a young man with an untimely erection. Not for the first time, Rene shook her head over the influence Jeremy was having on the young machine.
“He really is going to get in trouble one of these days.”
The viewing lens on the top of Akia’s head swivelled away from the falling blossom to look at Rene. Her hair was still long and blonde, which she understood made many other women jealous. At the moment it was all thrown over her right shoulder. Akia had learned that Rene was considered quite attractive, though she did not have a firm understanding of physical beauty.
“Would you really tell him off?”
Rene shot her an accusing look.
“What precisely do you mean by that?”
Akia was good. Rene had to admit that. She took complete advantage of the fact she had no facial features to read. If Rene hadn’t possessed an extra thirty-odd-years, she would have easily fallen for Akia’s act… Although the fact she had such acts at three years of age was very impressive.
“Please, I know three-year-olds who can lie better than you. Now, what precisely were you trying to imply?”
If Akia had possessed a human body, she would have been looking abashed; however, instead she just remained where she was, the metal shutter on her eye blinking once to remove a single petal that had landed there.
“It’s just… You’re both of a similar age… And as far as I can tell you’re both attractive… And…”
“And?” A smile was beginning to spread across Rene’s face; it was difficult to keep it under control.
“… and you both seem to get along so well.”
“Dear God, girl, it’s as if you got the idea of love out of a second-hand romance novel.” As soon as she had said it, she wished she could take it back. Akia was cynical, but Rene was coming to realise that this was just a shell protect herself. It was strange, for all his devil-may-care attitude, Jeremy seemed to be the only one who had appreciated just how human Akia was from the beginning. It was about the only reason they’d kept him on after the Egypt Incident.
Even though it must have been little more than a second, the silence seemed to draw on for eternity. It was Akia who eventually filled it.
“No,” Rene shook her head, “It’s me who should be apologising.”
Akia hadn’t moved, it seemed as if she were sinking into the snow. The fact that her immense weight had already pressed her body downwards completed the illusion.
“It’s just tough. You’re so very close to human, an adult human I mean, that I often forget there are some things you’ve had no experience of.”
She reached down and brushed the back of Akia’s head. Jeremy continued to do this after al these years, even though Akia still hadn’t been fitted with pressure sensors there, and following his example had generally proven to be a good idea.
“It’s alright,” said Akia after a pause, “Jeremy would say that it’s an excellent sign. That it would show that I’m really growing up to be mistaken for an adult.”
He would too. Rene wasn’t sure if Akia had realised it herself, but she was entirely correct in her statement: Jeremy would talk about her as if she were a child growing up; it would never enter his mind to talk about her as if she were a robot. Christ! To him she is a human, just in an odd shape.
“Well, he’s due to come off duty with Banji soon, and I’m sure he won’t head off home without saying goodbye to you. You can tell him then.”
“Yes…” Akia’s voice sounded distant, as if she were thinking about something else.
“What is it? What are you thinking about?”
“Well…” Akia’s eye swivelled away to look at the cherry blossom again.
“You never actually… You know… Said ‘no’…”
Rene chuckled aloud. “Christ! You are a suspicious one, aren’t you?”
“Well, no. It’s just-”
“Don’t worry.” Rene looked straight down at Akia’s viewing lens. “But there’s nothing like that between us. We catch up outside of the institute, but we’re not involved.”Rene looked back at the cherry blossom. “Besides, I’ve got a fiancé.” She pulled the glove off her hand to show Akia the thin gold band around her finger.
“Congratulations! When did this happen?”
“Just the other day. Stephen asked me at a very fancy restaurant, quite romantic.”
“Really? That’s lovely.”
It was one of the curious things about Akia. She sounded so genuine, and yet surely she couldn’t have an understanding about romance? Obviously Jeremy had been getting to Rene, the very fact the last thought had been a question was a testament to that.
“Hmm? Yes?” Her train of thought broken, Rene tried to return to the real world.
“What about Jeremy?”
Rene frowned. “What about— Oh, good God! He’s terrible!” Although the smile on her face betrayed the secret that she didn’t really think he was that bad. “He changes women faster than he changes his clothes.”
Rene laughed. “Yes, I think the current one is called Samantha; although it’s been about two weeks, so it’s probably about half-over. Quite frankly, you’re probably the most stable woman in his life.”“Really?”
That single word brought Rene to a complete stop, a concrete wall thrown in the middle of the conversation. This wasn’t Akia’s standard sarcastic response. It was genuine and almost carried a hint of… Hope? Unfortunately, Rene would never get an answer, for at that second an amazing roar ripped across the garden. Snow that had been slowly stacking up on the limbs of trees was abruptly shaken loose and sent plummeting to ground. Rene looked around for where the sound had come from. Roughly halfway up the “lab” a ribbon of smoke was slowly rising from the Skybridge. But before she had the chance to think about what it meant, Akia was already rising. Rene leapt up in response.
“No! You can’t! It’s not safe!”
Akia didn’t even respond. Turning around with six legs was slightly ponderous, but once she was facing the right way she took off. Her mechanical legs launched her to full speed almost instantly. Rene cursed under her breath, already starting to run. She knew she was going to have a hard time keeping up. With six legs, Akia had an unusual gait—long leaps where nothing was touching the ground, interspersed with thunderous impacts when each pair of legs would strike the ground in rapid succession. Whilst it was strange, it was also fast. Banji hadn’t really perfected it, but Akia could nearly run as fast as a person in full stride.
Rene swore. The snow, combined with her general lack of fitness, meant she’d never catch Akia. Even then, how was she supposed to stop a half-ton machine? She slowed to a jog and thought about what she should do. Akia would of course be heading for the explosion. It seemed to be coming from the lab. That was it! She could simply beat Akia to it. Unless she simply punched her way through walls, something that wasn’t entirely out of the realm of possibility at the moment, Akia would have to detour through only those corridors that could physically fit her frame. With a new burst of energy, Rene made for the base of the main lab building.
After making it indoors, she soon began to heat up. Frightened and confused faces started at her from doorways as she passed, a few brave souls calling out to ask what was going on. One man from another department even jogged beside her for a bit and exchanged a few words. All Alana could tell him was that there’d been an explosion at the lab and she was frightened for Akia’s safety. Needless to say, he hadn’t been too thrilled with the idea of going to the site of the blast for the sake of a machine.
By the time she’d reached the lift, Rene was bright red, overheating from running in the thick winter clothes. She slammed the small green up arrow, only to be informed by a polite female voice that the lift was not working due to technical difficulties and that she should try the service elevator. A large set of doors with ‘fire escape’ written on them stood beside the lift. Whilst trying to get her breath back, Rene stripped off her jacket and jumper, and threw them on the ground. She pushed open the heavy double-doors, taking a moment to contemplate the staircase in front of her. She wondered how many she’d have to run up. They went up the entire sixty stories of the building, but the smoke only appeared to have come from the skybridge—halfway up. A sudden image of the World Trade Centre flashed into Rene’s mind, the twin towers slowly descending in that deceptive manner of truly giant objects.
Shaking the image from her head, Rene began to ascend the steps, two at a time. Thinking of excuses as to how dangerous it was would only lead to excuses of why Akia probably wasn’t there. And whilst it was technically true that she shouldn’t be able to get to the stricken floors without the lifts being in service, Rene didn’t doubt that Akia would be resourceful enough to find her own way there. To take her mind off the ache developing in her legs, Rene began to think of how Akia would get into the labs. The service elevator was definitely out. If the personal ones weren’t working, there was no way they would allow the big service brutes to function. Akia could probably take the fire escape, just as Rene was doing, for whilst her body would make squeezing up the staircase difficult, Akia was capable of surprising acts of dexterity when required. It would just be hard to get past the press of people coming down the other way, that would hopefully give Rene a bit more—
Then it struck her. Rene had long since stopped taking the stairs two at a time, and could barely be considered to be jogging. But she was still ascending. Being Sunday, there wouldn’t be too many people in the towers, but even so, across the whole building there should have been enough to make it difficult to climb the stairs. Instead, since starting on the stairwell, she had not come across a single person. No alarms! Dozens of safety drills had been run by the institute while Rene had been there, from fire to lone gunman; but here there was some sort of emergency and no alarms had been sounded. That should mean that whatever was going on was local enough not to warrant an evacuation. Yet the explosion had been felt all the way out in the courtyard.
Putting the thought out of her mind, Rene let loose with a new burst of speed, not taking the stairs in twos, but still climbing at a steady pace. Even without the jacket, Rene was boiling; she could feel how flushed her cheeks were. It was a good thing she’d been a bit of a slob this morning and left her sneakers on, or else her feet would have been killing her by now. It was on the thirty-second floor that she decided to exit the stairwell. Water was running out from under the fire door, she assumed from the fire-extinguisher program, although it appeared to have ceased. From behind the door she could hear the automatic emergency address program. She put her ear against the door to try and hear what it was saying.
“… please remain calm, this is only a minor incident and all personnel should remain in their offices, repeat: all personnel should remain in their offices.”
To Rene’s paranoid mind, it sounded like comforting words directed to someone on their deathbed. Slowly opening the door, Rene peered through the widening crack. The corridor on the other side appeared normal, if somewhat damp, with the only remarkable feature the fact that all the doors were closed and windows opaqued. Stepping forward into the corridor, Rene found her confidence moderately renewed. After all, this was not the flaming disaster zone that had been plaguing Rene’s imagination. In fact, the squelching sound Rene’s shoes made on the saturated carpet was positively comical. Not entirely sure where she was headed, she set off in the general direction of the lab. If anywhere was going to explode, that would be it.
As she walked, the carpet of the offices gave way to the sterile laminate of the more functional parts of the building. Rene’s footfalls changed from a squelch to more of a resounding splat, each step sounding like that of a child playing in a puddle. Instead of the smell of smoke she had been expecting, the first real sign of the disaster was a breath of fresh air, very fresh air. She’d been cooling off rapidly since she’d stopped running, but it was only now that Rene considered just how cold it had become. Then she saw the first signs of the damage done by the blast. Rounding a corner, Rene saw two large holes punched in the walls in front of her, one on either side. They were about chest height and about four centimetres in diameter. Rene was by nature a curious person, and couldn’t resist peering through one. On the other side she could see and office with its contents strewn everywhere and a corresponding hole in the opposite wall. Through that, Rene thought she could make out a wall with something embedded in it. Turning around, she looked through the hole on the opposite side of the corridor. Again, an office, this one in an even worse state than the previous one, but through the hole in the far side of the wall all she could see was white. It took a moment for Rene to realise what she was seeing.
Too amazed to be afraid, Rene began to walk down the corridor, running her hand upon the corresponding wall. She simply looked forward dumbly as it felt the occasional pockmark, where a piece of rubble had burst through the two remaining walls, more, if one included those that had been demolished in the blast. Continuing to move forward, Rene could really begin to feel the chill of the air; although this registered as a mere fact, not an emotion. Ahead, she could see the corridor that would turn towards where she assumed the blast-site was. She could really feel the wind tug at her hair and clothes. But even so, her hand continued to trace along the wall, just like a small child’s. Upon reaching the corner, it dropped to her side. She didn’t even turn to look. The sight of the cold white sky over her left shoulder was enough. It had begun to snow again. On the rubble that had been the end of the corridor, Rene could see a few patches where the white powder had begun to settle.
And that was it.
What more was there to do? It’s Akia wasn’t there after all.
Rene spotted blood.It was at the opposite end of the t-intersection, away from the gaping hole. Some had been sprayed against the wall, the rest sat in a pool on the floor. Stretching away from it was a trail where someone had obviously dragged themselves. Her reverie shattered. This was no longer the inhuman disaster of destroyed property, now someone was hurt. Rene started forward, running and trying to remember what little first aid she’d been taught over the years. As she neared the corner, Rene pieced together what must have happened. The thought of someone just standing there and having a piece of steel shoot through them was strange. You were used to the idea of someone being ‘blown up’ in an explosion. But the idea of death stretching so far and in such a random manner was unnerving. Banishing these thoughts from her mind with memories of bandages and applied pressure, Rene rounded the corner.
And that was when it all went wrong.
If it had been a movie, Jeremy would have been lying there, or leaning against the wall, coughing up his last breath. Instead, he just lay there on his stomach, right arm outstretched, in the middle of clawing for another step. Blood had pooled around his body, washing out a long way in the water that covered the floor. It had leaked out from the holes on either side of his body—one slightly to the back, the other hidden from sight underneath him. The one visible was just below his armpit.
And if it had been a TV mini-series, Rene would have gone swooping in, ignoring the blood to hold him in her arms and cry out his name; or at least check his pulse. But then, in such series, they would have been in love. In the real world, Rene just stood there, looking down on Jeremy, wondering what she should do. He was dead. There was no doubt, no one could lose that much blood and be alive, certainly not with a gaping hole in them.
Rene acknowledged she was in shock. After all, she was the kind of person who felt guilty on the rare occasion she had gone fishing with her Dad. Seeing one of her colleagues, and a good friend at that, lying dead on the floor should have left her in hysterics. Instead, she just stood there, wondering what to do. On the one hand, she should probably look around to see if anyone else was injured; but on the other hand, the alarms hadn’t sounded for the whole building, and that was clearly wrong. The decision was snatched from her hands by two men who walked around the corner at the far end of the corridor. One had a backpack and each carried a large gun. Rene didn’t know much about guns, but they certainly looked deadly. They were also both saturated.
Without thinking, Rene put her hands in the air. It’s what you did.
“Where’s the other machine?” the man with the backpack’s voice was harsh, and a large cloud of fog raced out with his words. Like Rene, neither was wearing clothes for the cold.
“I don’t know.” The calmness of her words surprised her, as did the small cloud that went with them; it really was getting cold up here.
“Bullshit! It’s not here for the memory read and you people wouldn’t let it out of your sight for a minute.”
The man doing the talking held his gun steady, but the young man beside him was starting to shake. He clearly wasn’t holding up well in the cold.
“I don’t know. She wanted to go outside. We do indulge her on occasion.”
“Frank!” The young man put an arm on his partner. “She’s telling the truth, she doesn’t know where the thing is.”
“Shut up!” Frank didn’t even turn to look, his eyes never left Rene’s. “Can you see how composed she is? It’s an act, I’m willing to bet my life on it.”
Rene’s face remained impassive.
Then her eyes widened a fraction.
The young man didn’t notice, but Frank looked over his shoulder. Coming into the end of the corridor was Akia. She froze mid-step, three viewing lenses swivelling to face the scene at the end of the corridor.
“There it is!” The words had hardly left Frank’s mouth when he started down the corridor. He tried to unsling the backpack from this back, but fumbled. The younger man was just beginning to bring his gun to bear when Akia’s viewing lenses refocused on something on the ground, just by Rene’s feet. She looked down only to find Jeremy’s corpse. Rene cracked.
The young man was already swinging his gun back around to Rene when Akia screamed.
For Rene, who had earlier been contemplating Akia’s humanity, it was a slap in the face, a reminder of the earliest days when all had thought she had been a failure. All except Jeremy. As at the moment of her birth, it was inhuman, a screech that no biological throat could produce, a single tone consisting of almost every frequency Akia’s voice box could produce. It slammed outward in an assault on the senses. Everyone in the corridor covered their ears. It lacked the modulation of a ‘real’ voice and did not diminish, even when Akia came barrelling down the corridor towards the biological humans.
Seeing half a ton of machine bearing down on them went a long way to focussing the two men’s minds. Frank stopped worrying about the backpack and simply shouldered his weapon. The young man had already trained his weapon on Akia and the sound of gunfire was soon layered over the top of Akia’s battle cry. She didn’t stop, didn’t even hesitate when the two viewing lenses on the underside of her head were shot out. When Akia passed Frank, one of her legs lashed out, faster than Rene had ever seen Akia move before. His head flew back, bringing the body with it, to crash against the wall, leaving a dent. By this stage, Akia was already passed him and bearing down on the young man.The sound of gunfire ceased abruptly, leaving only Akia’s scream. Fumbling, the young man tried to reload his gun. Trying to pull another clip from his pocket, his fingers slipped and it fell to the floor. He didn’t even bother to try and pick it up. Instead, he turned to run. But it was too late, Akia was right behind him. The “hands” mounted under Akia’s head were designed for rapid, dexterous movement, although in this context, Rene couldn’t help but think of them as claws. One lashed out and grabbed the young man by the head, pulling him back and throwing him to the ground. He landed on his tailbone, wincing at the pain. Before he had time to react, one of Akia’s legs was pressing down on him. Being slightly to the side of the corridor, Rene could see his expression as Akia slowly put more weight down, his eyes opening almost as wide as his mouth, beginning to bulge. He screamed, but it couldn’t be heard over the single tone that was still emanating from Akia’s voice box.