I can’t escape my job. Everywhere I go I see ads for the company. On the subway, the sidewalks with our company logo engraved in concrete, the talking billboards which feature the intertwined bodies of flawless men and women in the downtown AdZones. I’m good at what I do. PlayMatez look and feel real: warm skin, a clean but undeniably human smell. Only “real” isn’t a word we’re supposed to use. Of course they feel real. They are real. What I mean is they feel the same as blood-and-guts people do. They walk, talk, and fuck the same.
Except for the damaged ones.
The damaged eat with their hands. They’ll eat whatever you give them — stale cornbread, powdered milk, reconstituted beef cutlets — and demand nothing more. They wear this far off expression whenever they’re addressed, as if they’re calculating the benefits of an answer. When the damaged speak, they speak in near riddles, riddles to which I have always suspected have no solutions.
I work in the building where they make PlayMatez, both the damaged and the ones that work right. It’s a fifty-story skyscraper on the edge of the industrial district, which looks like most every other district, shiny buildings packed tight as the pedestrians rushing down grimy sidewalks. Except in the industrial district, smog fills the streets from a ten-hour flow of traffic, the constant hum of machinery operating inside. Our factory is one in a long line of unidentifiable factories, all black. In the basement, human and robotic workers toil over the assemblies. I’ve been down there only twice. The workers’ bodies are all bone and bulk; our robots are constructed from bioengineered human muscle. That and Cyberskin, our own patented silicone/skin blend. The only way you could tell the humans from the robots would be to look at their insides. It’s my job to know what those look like. I build the internal networks, sculpt intestine from tubing. My work is replicated by the millions.
My workshop on the third floor is concrete and steel. Outside the door is a silver plaque with my name in bold letters: ROBIN KIRKLAND. The inside has a window on which I’ve hung purple curtains to make the place seem homey. In the hazy daylight, I carve muscle tissue with a sculpting knife. I bend microfilaments into circulatory shapes. I work alone, hunched over a table that lines the whole back wall of the workshop, and shape the parts I’m given until they look satisfactory. Then I ease them down into the plastic PlayMate mold to make sure they’re the right size.
Once I’ve got all the parts in there, save the upper muscle layer, I often stop and stare. Inside the mold, thin, green wires reach like a hand into the head, crisscross through the torso and down into the arms, the legs. They don’t carry blood through the body — our PlayMatez are bloodless — but they do carry heat. The handbook says when the wires have been activated, they glow blue like veins. Some of the organs we don’t bother with. The ones that filter waste are useless, as any food consumed travels through the pink intestinal tubing intact and exits as it would in a human, but whole. The ability to eat is just for show. Once I’m done gaping, I lay down the final muscle layer and weave the wires through it.
The table’s been organized into stations, a new station for each part, except the skin and bone. Another woman works the skin. The tech for these parts isn’t mine. It filters down from the fiftieth floor. All I do is figure out new ways to make it fit, new ways to make the robots more authentic. I also sculpt hearts.
But for every hundred PlayMatez that come out normal, one comes out wrong. It’s a glitch in the system, and like clockwork it occurs at the same intervals. The damaged have cold skin, a malfunction in the wires. And like I said, something weird in the expression, in the way they speak.
The damaged aren’t sold with the rest. They’re sold, the females and males alike, to specialty shops, bulk buyers. Management knows what those buyers do to them. We ignore their beckoning fingers when we pass them on street corners in less favorable parts of town, in which the majority of us factory workers live. I can’t be seen picking those damaged up. The ones I collect come from the subway, where they cower in corners and eat the skin off rats. Even though they don’t need to eat, they’ve been programmed to. There’s a switch in the control panel that lets you turn that off, but most people are scared to touch them, and in the subway it’s hard to tell the damaged from the homeless. I know them because I’m drawn to them.
The first, he was a Damien II. He carried the name on his inner thigh, and when I lifted the edge of his shorts in the half light of my apartment to find it, he slapped my hand away.
“What’s black and white and cheeky?” he said.
“I don’t know. What?” I asked, but he just laughed. He was strange-looking, beautiful of course. They were all beautiful. But his beauty, unlike the other Damien IIs, was forced. He shouldn’t have been beautiful. He was too broken for beauty. I’d found him wandering the streets like a lost child. He couldn’t have been older than three, though of course he was built to resemble a twenty five year old. His model had been released five years previous, and it was still in production, though soon to be retired. The Damien II’s bulky body had light features, light skin and eyes and hair, and he was prone to fits of giddiness. In the damaged that giddiness manifested as an inability to be clever, his riddles repetitions of the same template.
“What’s white and purple and sunshine?” he said.
“Are you hungry, Damien? Would you like some pasta?”
He nodded. I fixed him pasta from a can. As he ate each string of spaghetti, picking it up with the tips of his fingernails and dropping it into his open mouth, he looked not at his plate but off into the darkened bedroom across the apartment.
I had little experience with the damaged then, one on one. I asked him if he saw something. He didn’t answer until his plate was empty, the pool of tomato sauce at the bottom untouched.
“If the blind can’t lead the blind, who will they turn to?” For a moment his lips were a narrow line. Then he broke into a blank grin. “What’s white and white and white all over?”
He was, white all over. When he took off his clothes, even his nipples were so light they glowed in the dark. I liked his whiteness. It kept me at a distance from memories I would have rather forgotten but which loomed in the brute thrust of every man, human or not: the memory of a dark and warm body beside me, the bitter smell of oil paint and turpentine heavy in black patches of body hair.
Instead of curses the Damien II moaned nonsense, words pulled from his language bank seemingly at random: stripes, dartboard, keel, burst. Any neighbors listening in wouldn’t have had a clue as to what we were doing. Though I wasn’t worried about people listening. They rarely did anymore, too absorbed in the constant hum of YouChannels.
As he slept, I imagined what his wires looked like, that blue glow inside him. I wondered what his breath looked like leaving the lungs I had made. How his skin would come apart to reveal my masterwork. I traced a line down his back and pretended my finger was a knife.
I kept Damien II for six days, until I began to worry that whoever owned him, and he was too clean to be abandoned, would come looking. It was theft, after all, of the highest class, as PlayMatez were valued not only monetarily but also emotionally, as precious companions. And he wasn’t what I was looking for, not really. I wanted one whose riddles made me shiver. Like the painter used to, when he sketched me with my clothes on and made me feel like he was painting the invisible pieces I could never show him. Words that would open me up and leave my insides exposed. Without that, I couldn’t be bothered to take care of someone. But when I found it, I told myself I would hold their hand and keep them safe even as they self-destructed. Which was inevitable with the damaged. They wore their riddles out until they could no longer form words or even master the complicated muscle movements of a smile. I’ll be honest; I wanted to watch. I wanted to be there for their destruction. It intrigued and repulsed me.
I wasn’t allowed to buy a PlayMate for myself. Conflict of interest: we signed a contract. If we were to grow attached to one of our own creations, it might affect our decisions. We would be tempted to change things we wanted to see changed, to create models we wanted, not models that the public wanted.
Instead we cared nothing for the models we worked on. Each worker was in charge of such a small portion of the product that it was easy to be detached.
Following my week with the Damien II, I took home as many damaged as I could find. None of them were what I was looking for. I brought back a Ken V, an original Matthew, even a Max II, trying to wrap my head around what it was I wanted. They were crazy, of course, but their riddles were often monotonous, the same old tricks of language. Uninspired. Random. The Max II even seemed to have a hold on where he was, what he was. His riddles were nothing like riddles.
“I’ll take care of you, my Clementine,” he said, leading me back, down, into my bed. “I’ll make the ceiling spin like roses.”
After I let them free, I watched them wander off into the world again, back to their subway stations or the homes where no one watched over them. I wasn’t sad to see them go. Some, I knew, had probably been shoved into closets, deemed broken, only to escape when their switches were turned on by some nosy kid. If I knew they had no one to go home to, I opened the control panel in the upper left side of their chest, passed over the red dials and the memory slot and switched off their hunger.
The truth is I don’t know where they went when I let them go and I don’t know where they came from before I picked them up off the ground or carried them from the dumpsters. I cleaned them. Always I ran water in the bath and let them soak, wiped the grime from their faces, from their bruised bodies, not like a mother but a cold stranger doing them a cold favor. I gave them clean clothes, clothes that once belonged to the painter; he had left them. In his clothes, the damaged seemed as if they could walk into our factory and earn their own keep. The regular ones could do that, of course. That’s what happened to most of them after they were no longer wanted. They could earn their price back and be given a life of their own. But not the damaged. They can never work.
That’s what I told myself when I finally did cut one open, that he would be helpless and alone in the world. I tried not to look at his name when I did it. I just wanted to see inside. My fingers itched for it. So when he was fast asleep, naked, on his stomach in my bed, I took a knife from the kitchen and ran it down his back, right where I knew the seam had been. I peeled the skin back as little as I could manage while still being able to see inside. I figured it would hurt less, opening the old seam wound. Because these PlayMatez, they feel pain. They feel it at smaller doses, but they feel it nonetheless. That is part of what makes them so believable.
Inside, the wires I crafted gleamed blue in the light that crept through my window from the streetlights outside. It is never dark in the city. I could see the wires embedded in the thick red muscle tissue.
I opened the flap wider so I could take in all of the upper back. I wanted to know if my handiwork was what had made him damaged, but everything else looked as I’d seen it before. I moved the muscles aside so I could see the deeper organs. He was a newer model, though not the newest, so his wires were a little thick, his lungs the color of vomit. I’d since fixed both of these problems, though peering in at the heart I noticed something I hadn’t yet changed, something I had yet to even know needed changing: the heart pulsed on its own, a movement independent of its beats. I watched the red tissue bump bump, then pulse, bump bump, then pulse, bump bump, then pulse. It was expending more energy than it should with those extra pulses, pointless energy. The pulses weren’t affecting his body in any way.
I touched the heart. It felt like a wet sponge beneath my finger. It was partly made of sponge. From far away it would have resembled a human heart, though it was a simpler design, a pear-shaped lump with a single opening at the top where the wires connected for the energy to feed through. Suddenly he moaned, and his insides shuddered. I panicked. Pulled my hands out of him and tried to shut his skin back, but I didn’t have the tools. I backed away. He moved on the bed. I couldn’t watch him stand. If he stood, parts of him might have bulged out the back; the spine, attached to the skin with the rest of his bones, wouldn’t keep him from collapsing. I hesitated, stepped forward, then reached back inside and grabbed a handful of wires, tugging them. They sparked in my hands, then faded. His heart slowed, stopped, its final pulse even and sure.
I heard the sound of his machinery dying and then he lay unmoving on my bed. I removed the wires and spread them over the blanket and looked down into them. That was how I knew them best. Free of skin.
His body I tossed into the dumpster outside wrapped in a black trash bag. It felt like a dirty cliche, and even though I knew there’s no crime against disabling them, I felt like I would get caught. That night I didn’t sleep. Instead I thought of that damaged I would watch destroy himself. I wondered if I really wanted to see someone else doing what I’d done to myself when I let the painter leave. But the idea felt too perceptive, and so I shook it off.
The heart troubled me. I didn’t understand why it should be working overtime. When my shift was over, I went to the subway station. I found a young man cowed into a corner with several of the females, sleeping, dirt streaked across his face. A brand new model. So new the ads hadn’t even gone up yet, and I marveled at how quickly he’d wound up here. I shook him awake, took his hand. The strangers in the station probably thought I was a shelter woman, so I tried to act like one. I patted his hand while we walked.
“Oh, dearie,” I said. “We’ll have you fixed up in no time. Get that hunger switch turned off. Clean you up. Make sure you have a nice bed, yes sir.”
Nobody looked me in the eye. What those ladies at the shelters do isn’t thought of as a charity but a burden, one people didn’t want to share. But of course, I reminded myself, I don’t work at the shelter. I work for the company that put him here.
Back at home, once the Christopher had stripped to his skin, I ran the bath water and led him to it. I scrubbed all signs of dirt away, wondering how he could have gathered so much in so little time. It’d only been one month since we produced his prototype. He must’ve been one of three hundred models, tops.
Which meant there were roughly two more like him, damaged, out there already.
“I’m sweet sugar in my beginning, a rose in my middle, a sweetheart in my end. What am I?” he said as I helped him out of the bath. His flaccid penis slapped against his inner thigh.
“Oh God,” I said, laughing. “They sure gave you something to brag about.”
There had been a push for a sensitive model. I imagined that was where his riddle came from, some combination of all the love words they programmed into him. It bored me. I wanted something that made a garbled kind of profound sense, something I might read in a poem, if I read poems.
I didn’t let him dress. I put him into bed. Beside him my real heart raced. When I heard his sleep breath, deep and rattled, I cut him down the back.
He was so new his wires glistened. The heart, the newest model, pulsed the same as the other. I reached in and wrapped my hand around it. I ignored the movement of his body. I ripped the heart out. Ripped the wires. Piled them in a bunch on the bed. The body was silent, still. I hid the heart in the drawer of my bedside table. I sat and stared at the confusion of veins. My handiwork. I never could’ve imagined it would look so beautiful. Still it glowed blue with life.
I did this again and again, the next night and the next. It began to feel like part of a routine. Without it, without the dying embers of artificial life beside me, I found I couldn’t sleep.
Then I noticed something different. He was an older model, one of the oldest, and when I pulled out his heart, it had begun to crack. I could see inside the complicated mess something I didn’t make: a barely perceptible flesh-colored box. I removed it, and between my fingers the box squished. It was a tiny rectangle, like a coffin for a cockroach, made of some material I’d never seen before, nearly transparent and near the same consistency of the silicone skin. There was something hard inside.
I dug my nails into the box, and the flesh stuff came away easily enough. I imagined that with a few more years of energy pumping around it, the box would have worn away on its own. I couldn’t imagine how it had already held up for so long. Once I had peeled that part off, I held in my hands a hard metal screw, no bigger than my pinkie and rusted brown. I turned it over in my fingers. It smelled like wet copper. I lifted it to my mouth and stuck out my tongue. It tasted like blood – definitely copper.
I didn’t understand. Why was it there?
I tore through my apartment, collecting all the hearts I’d saved from the bedside drawer, from my cupboard, from the bottom of the fridge. I tore each one open, and inside all of them I found the box. In some it was less worn, harder to tear, and in others it was more so. I collected the screws in a pile and stared at them, wondering. I wondered until my eyes ached. And then I slept.
I dreamt about wires wrapping around me. The wires crept up and over me from beneath the bed. I couldn’t breathe they wrapped so tight, like a lover’s desperate embrace. I woke up choking.
I took one of the screws to work with me, and every ten minutes reached into my pocket to touch it, just to make sure it was still there. I wanted to know more. But there was no way to figure it out on my own. I would have had to give myself away. Tell them what I’d been doing. I would have to come clean. I could’ve lost my job. Without my job, I’d have nothing.
I went home. But not before I found another PlayMate to take with me.
His name, his thigh told me, was Lachlan 1.0. He was a middle-aged model, made back when the company was attempting to modernize its image. That soon went the wayside when they realized people wanted to be taken out of this world, put into a classic world they had only read about. Lachlan 1.0 didn’t test well. He was updated to the Lance I not long after his design. They’d released the ones they’d already manufactured, but he sold poorly.
It wasn’t just the name. The Lachlan was modern all over. He had metallic hair, cut into a Sidehawk. The hair on the one I found was greasy, flecked with dirt. All Lachlan models had an X molded into one of the front teeth, and a gauge in the ear so big you could fit a teacup in it, though the one I brought home had removed his piercing, leaving the shriveled hole. His model was thin, lanky, unlike the rest of the PlayMatez. Because of that, he fit in better with the young people. He could, the company had hoped, attract the large base of alternative youth, the only base we’d yet to conquer. As it turned out, the company didn’t have a clue. They programmed him to say stupid things in an attempt at hip language. They programmed him to be impassioned about resistance to authority. They trained him to be everything people didn’t want to see in a robot.
He did make a nice change to look at though. Across his upper torso his living tattoo danced; comprised of microscopic LEDs, the ink ocean roared over his ribcage. His skin stretched tight over him like a canvas. When I gave him a towel, I was sorry to see him cover up.
I suggested we go to the bedroom, where I wanted to see his uniqueness prove artificial. On the inside, he’d look the same as all the others. He would have one of those screws in a box in his heart.
“Got any Pips?” he asked. He walked through the bathroom door and across the living area — my apartment was all open space in the common areas, no doors — into the kitchen. He searched through the cabinets which lined one wall. He opened the fridge and studied the contents. “I dig a bowl of cereal in the night as well, if you don’t mind.”
Suddenly I was nervous. He was speaking like normal. But he had that damaged look, he did, and his voice sounded like an echo of what it should be, deep and lilting. He hadn’t said a thing to me the whole way over, aside from some weird remark: “How does a train transfer someone from the underworld?” Now he was asking for Pips and cereal, neither of which I had.
And he had just let me bathe him like that. If he wasn’t damaged, he should have objected. He should have made small talk, asked me my name.
“I have some whiskey,” I said. “Old stuff. Just a bit left, but you can have it.”
I pointed to the cabinet. He poured two glasses and handed one to me.
“Right well you do,” he said as he took a sip. “This is rude stuff here.”
I drank mine in a gulp. He refilled my glass.
“Lachlan, right?” I asked. “How are you feeling this evening?”
He still hadn’t looked me in the eye. He peered into his glass, then across the cabinets.
“Better now, all cleaned off and all.”
“Did you enjoy the bath?”
Then he did it, looked me straight on. “Right well I did.” He winked.
I sunk into my dining chair. My hands trembled. I put my glass down.
“Didn’t you?” he asked. “I thought that was the factual point.” He stared back at the same spot on the cabinet.
“Are you looking for something?” I asked.
“You know I’ve been wondering, what’s a rude woman like you doing, picking people off the streets? Honestly, I thought you were taking me to one of those safeties. Thought I was in for a feast. What you’ve got here is potato flakes and pastry cakes. Do you mind?” He took the box of pastry cakes from the cabinet, unwrapped one, shoved it in his mouth in one bite. “You’re not exactly one of those women, are you?” he said, mouth full.
“I’m not,” I said, picking at my nails. “Are you a cop? A representative of the company? Were you sent to make sure I’m not, you know, engaging myself with your lot?”
“Am I a cop?” He laughed. “Why, have you been unruly?”
“Of course not.” I drained the second glass. “So, a representative?”
“You work for the company then? Right well. Methinks what you’re doing here is unruly indeed, am I right?”
“All I’ve done is give you a bath, a bit of drink.” I looked at the towel wrapped around his middle. “Would you like some clothes?”
He shrugged. “I imagine I’ll be getting naked round here sometime. If I know your make.”
“I didn’t ask you here to get naked. Honestly, I was trying to help you. I thought you were damaged.”
He grinned. His tooth was chipped below the X.
“I could be, if you wanted.” He looked at me again. “What do women want?” He laughed. “That’s riddle enough for the world. What is the square root of a woman?” He lifted the whiskey bottle and poured some down his throat. “What burns going down and sings coming up?”
“Stop it,” I said. I looked at the door, then back at him. I crossed and uncrossed my legs, wrung my hands. “I was trying to help you. I didn’t bring you here to mock me.”
“I need your help,” he said. “I’ve got all this energy. I need to know what makes a human hum.”
When he moved toward me, I didn’t try to turn away. He wasn’t damaged, I could see that, not the way the others were. But there was something in him that was gone, and I wanted more than anything to find what it was. I wanted to cut him open anyway. I wanted to know what was going on in there. I wanted that body on my bed.
He pushed me past the dining table, through the door into the bedroom, onto the bed. Until, effortlessly, he was naked, and my skirt lay discarded on the floor. The warmth of his body startled me. I closed my eyes and imagined the painter. His skin the color of twilight. His sad brown eyes. But the painter had always been silent and steady when we made love, and Lachlan moaned and thrashed. Then came the awkward moment when I was done and told him, which set off his own spasm. They’d been made to trigger when we said so. He quivered under me.
Afterward I waited for him to fall asleep, but as the clock clicked past three in the morning he kept singing beside me, a vile drinking song.
“Don’t you sleep?” I asked.
“Not much,” he said. “Not if someone’s eyeing me like that.”
I tried to fake it, but the second my eyes shut, I was out.
When I woke, he hovered over me, a tangle of wires in his hands.
“I see why you were wigged,” he said. “About me being a cop. You know, I don’t think there’s a law against this, though.” He dropped the wires onto my bare stomach. “Except, of course, you work for the company. Can’t own your own PlayMate. That makes this theft. And, to top that off, taking ’em apart like this makes it destruction of stolen property. The highest degree of destruction, methinks — artificial intelligence.”
I sat up. Below him, covering the floor of my bedroom, were the rest of the wires I’d been saving, pulled from beneath the bed and strewn from the bed to the door. The drawers of my bedside table and dresser were open, wires spilling from them as well.
“No, you see, it’s what I do. I sculpt those wires,” I said, light-headed, heart stuttering.
“Right well. If you did, Ms. Robin Kirkland, you’d know, wouldn’t you, that the only way they color blue like this is from use.”
“Of course,” I said. “Of course I know that. They were given to me, quite obviously, after they were dismantled. So I could look over my work.”
“What I can’t figure is, decent, rude woman like you, what are you doing snatching our insides out? What do you find in there?” he said, his voice hard.
“Are you going to go to the company? Are you going to tell them?” I could feel the sweat beads on my forehead. The room was hot. I tried to sit up, but I was too dizzy.
“I should. Save my own skin, right well?” Then, no warning, the blank look passed back over his face, like he’d never seen this room before. “But it wouldn’t be like that. I would be wires and dirt, I would. Sure, they might fire you, but me — what to silence me but dirt?”
It sounded like poetry.
“No, I won’t tell the company. Not if you tell me what you’ve lit on.”
The words came easy. I wanted to explain, so he wouldn’t tell, so he wouldn’t think poorly of me, so he would understand, even just a little bit. So I told him all of it, from the first uncertain reasons I brought the damaged PlayMatez home — that I liked the way my work looked alive and throbbing underneath me, and I needed something cold to hold onto, because a warm body would remind me of the painter, as his had — to my unbearable urge to look inside, to discover where a body’s coldness came from. I told him of the discovery of the hearts’ extraneous pulses, how I found the flesh-colored boxes with the screws inside. When I came to the end of my account, he looked at me as if I had told him I was dying.
“I feel myself running down, you know,” he said. “Scares me right well. You know I’m not one of them, the damaged. But I’ve seen my make go that way. Most of the time, it doesn’t happen soon enough. We’re abandoned in closets and tossed in dumpsters.” He gave me a look that, for a moment, made me question whether he hadn’t been watching me all along, seen the trash bags I’d carried out. “But for those of us still switched on, most of us go damaged.” He shrugged. “”Two to five years, if we’re used proper.”
“My work should last longer than that. It’s designed to last longer.”
“What of those screw boxes? How long they rigged to last?”
“I don’t make those,” I said. “I don’t know where those come from.”
“Methinks we’re not rigged to last. Methinks permanent companionship, it fizzles out in five years tops.”
“How old are you?”
“Five. And a half.”
“You look good, for your age.”
Up close, his eyes were as grey as the smog outside, his eyelashes long and beautiful. The dark must’ve kept me from noticing. Or maybe I kept me from noticing, unwilling to grow attached.
“I don’t know about you,” he said. “But I want to know what’s inside me.”
I shook my head. “I couldn’t.”
“Not that, you wacked woman. I want to go to work.”
We rode the subway over once the building closed. I had a key, for those late nights working, that would get us through the front door, but it would only get us as far as my workshop. Lachlan told me not to worry, and though I didn’t know if I could trust him I didn’t care. I was tired; what we were doing made my stomach spin as it hadn’t since the painter and I made silent love on the kitchen floor. So I led Lachlan through the lobby, sneaking past the camera’s gaze. We rode the elevator to the fiftieth floor. We exited. These were the doors that belonged to the people who did nothing with their hands. They watched and decided, but they’d never touched one of them, not in any professional sense.
Lachlan led the way. As it turned out, he’d been there before. He was, he admitted in a whisper, hired by the company. They’d seen me, didn’t I think they would see me? In the subway, lifting the damaged from the ground, dragging them with me on the train.
He knew where they would keep the files.
I wanted this adventure. I wanted to run back home. I wanted to push Lachlan against the wall and take him. My breath shook. But I knew what we were going to find. Really this trip was just for show. I knew I’d lose my job, sooner or later, and Lachlan knew he’d lose himself. Of course the company programmed our robots to fail. Of course the boxes were meant to biodegrade, the screw to be let loose into the heart, where it would puncture and damage the tissue irreparably. Companies had been manufacturing products that would run down eventually for years. It started with refrigerators and now here we were.
But why were some of them made damaged? If the company created them on purpose, was it for people like me, too broken to keep unbroken things around? I half hoped this was the case. It would mean there were enough people like me to warrant a market for them.
Once we were by the office door, Lachlan wedged his fingernail into the skin on the right side of his chest and pried his control panel open. He pushed his finger into the panel and pulled out a square chip as small as a tooth. At first I thought it was his memory card, but it wasn’t. There was a slot in a similar panel next to the door, and he pushed the chip into it. The door clicked open. We went inside.
“How did you do that?” I asked.
“I saw them do this when we met here before, to complete my paperwork a few years ago. I recognized the tech. Rigged one up myself,” he whispered, though we were alone. “Spiked the cameras, too.”
The file cabinet was locked — the company kept their files stored on discs outside the computer, for fear of hackers, competitors, and free rights organizations. Lachlan picked it with a hair pin. I wanted to laugh, but I couldn’t bring myself to make the noise. Inside he found several spherical discs, the size and shape of gold balls, labeled from the start of the company, twelve years ago. He dropped them into the bag he’d brought. We left the way we came in.
Afterward, as we ran through the streets, clutching the bag, I felt the air on my face, and it felt like it used to, when I was a kid, when I was a young woman in love with a flesh-and-blood man whose clothes were covering the body of the robot running before me. I had to stop several times to catch a breath. Lachlan ran ahead on thin legs.
The painter’s legs had also been thin. Always he moved like a shadow through my apartment. He too was broken. “Depressed feels like such a thin word,” he had said to me often in that dark, “and it’s such a thin feeling.” He passed that brokenness down to me. He had dreams of another country, of walking on green instead of grey. When he got his chance, he went.
“Come with me.” We had been in bed. Outside we could hear the muffled roar of the billboards going in the AdZone four blocks down. A sound you got used to. He claimed he had never been used to it, never would be. “You need to get out of here.”
“I can’t,” I said, rolling away. How could I go with no guarantee we would make it, no guarantee that life was better on the other side? His darkness was beautiful, but he would drown me in it in a world where I was nothing but his. After all, a place is just a place. There would be nothing there that could sculpt me into a different kind of person.
I didn’t go with him. He left me behind.
At my apartment, Lachlan went through the files, plugging the discs into his panel. When he found what we were looking for, I brought it up on my computer. I was right and wrong; the damaged weren’t a mistake. Or, they weren’t as big a mistake as the company would like people to think. They were, the files said, an unfortunate consequence of the built-in obsolescence, the biodegradable flesh-colored box, the screw that the company placed in the PlayMatez’ hearts so they would wear down within five years or so, causing the customer to purchase replacements. Without the built-in obsolescence, the company’s base of satisfied consumers would remain satisfied — there would be no reason for them to buy another PlayMate if their first continued to function — and the company would cease to turn a profit. Ten dollars extra it cost them, per model, to install the screw. Only in some models, the damaged, the body rejected the foreign object. It hadn’t been programmed in, and therefore wasn’t part of the system as the electronics knew it. They were unable to function properly even the five years it would take for the screw to come loose.
Some might say, I thought as I read over the text, that the damaged are the smart ones. They know something’s the matter with their parts, and they won’t pretend it isn’t.
“Robin, how could they know?” Lachlan asked, popping the disc out of the computer’s drive. “How possibly?” He downed another Pips. The empty bottle clinked on the concrete floor where we sat, the discs strewn about us like marbles.
“I wouldn’t know,” I said. I felt like I should apologize to him. But I also felt as if he too must have known that this was what we would find, and so part of me thought he’d been searching for it all along.
“The factual question is, how do I get it out of me?”
There’s no way, I wanted to say. Once the skin is open, there’s no way back.
“We could broadcast this. Maybe, once people see…” he said.
“Maybe,” I said.
His eyes narrowed. “You think they already know.”
My hand rested on his shoulder. His eyes lacked the lively dart of human eyes. When he spoke, people knew that the number of things he said was exhaustible; he had only so many possible combinations of letters and numerals, only so many inflections. His wires would burn out, and there would be no grave for him. There would be no graves for any of them. Their graves would be the junkyard, and when the record of our time was lost and all that remained was our bones, the damaged would have no names because they had no bones. Their parts would be melted down to make more things that people use to fill the empty spaces in their beds, their workrooms. I realized that Lachlan’s skin was cold in my palm.
“We should tell them. We should try, at least.”
There was a grin that I’d never seen on his face, wide-eyed and stupid. This, it seemed to say, was an entirely new kind of adventure. This could get us killed.
But I knew the truth: that he had watched too many movies on the YouChannels, too many thrillers where the consequences of corruption are always disastrous. I humored him, because I loved the grin. It reminded me of a grin I used to know. My own.
When we went to bed, he talked like he was on upper. As the night passed, his words warmed the room. I entered the space between dreams. His words made less sense.
“And then, of course, I said, why else would a door be like a cockatiel? And the chief said, cockatiels only take wing north in the evening. And I knew then of course, how could I not have, that the cockatiel was like a door in that it was also like a desk.”
In my sleep I muttered, “What’s a cockatiel?” It was a word I didn’t know, and I was surprised he knew any word I didn’t.
I waited for his answer, but all that came was silence. When I opened my eyes, he was gone. I wondered for a moment if I’d imagined him. Then I heard the noise in the bathroom, a clink, as if someone had dropped a pair of nail clippers into the sink.
I went to him. There was a window in the bathroom, and the street light shone across his naked body. I saw him barely lit in the mirror. His tattoo was glitching, the ocean seizing up. He stood at the sink, hands close to his face, and he appeared to be scraping something off the inner palm of his hand where his life line was. I was seized with the urge to know if his life line was truly as short as five years, tops, or if it stretched on, an illusion, if someone in the company thought of that; whether they made the line reflect the way things really were or the way customers think they would like them to be.
I stepped up close to him, so close I could smell his clean skin, the slight musk of his underarms. They did a good job with the smell. I wanted to see his lifeline. I wanted to help him wash away whatever mark had found its way to mar that line. But when I was close enough to touch him I was close enough to see: a pair of scissors in the sink, a jagged hole the size of a button in his palm, and Lachlan tearing at the skin, pulling the wound bigger, until the whole of his palm was open.
I wanted to stop him, but I was caught by the beauty of that glowing blue wire in the dark, in the mirror. In his reflection, the light generated a shadow of his silhouette, but I couldn’t focus on anything but how the beads of light blinked back at us in crisscrossing lines. They looked like elongated strands of the double helix.
“Am I a cockatiel?” he said. “Am I beautiful? Am I factual? Am I broken?”
These were riddles to which I had an answer.
“Am I beautiful?” he asked again. He looked into his damaged hand as the other hand grasped the wires inside. He tugged, and a wire snapped. His eyes in the mirror grew distant, colder than I’d seen them. I wrapped my arms around his chest and helped him pull the blue from his body. As we pulled, he wilted, until he was no more than synthetic skin and muscle on the floor. I peeled the skin away. I held his heart in my hands. The screw’s pointed edge stuck out from the muscle, having finally worked its way through.
I never answered his riddles. The information I kept to myself, the discs I returned in a sealed baggie. I got out of that place, went to another city of grey where I got another job that followed me everywhere. I tried to avoid the cold. I left the damaged behind.
“The Damaged” originally appeared in the January 2014 issue of Interzone.