Free Fiction Friday: Human

Posted: March 13, 2015 in Free Fiction Friday
Tags: , , ,

“I’m not some mindless robot,” I say, trying to hold my temper in check. “This choice will decide the rest of my life. I should be the one to make it, not you. Art is my passion. Nothing else will make me as happy as that will.”

“Art won’t pay the bills,” my mother says, her nose held high. I love her, really I do. I love both my parents, but that doesn’t stop me hating them right now. “Now science, or business, they’re still recruiting people like that. Choose one of those. Something that will let you make something of yourself.”

My father nods from where he stands at the kitchen counter, chopping vegetables on an honest to God old fashioned chopping board that looks out of place on the shining counter. The kitchen helper buzzes about on the surface of the counter, looking as confused as it always does when my father does this old school act. “World’s a different place now Adam. Used to be there were all kinds of jobs. Now we’ve got automatic cooks, cleaners, waiters, I even hear they’ve got machines performing surgery now. Sure they say it’s all there for our good, and it would be if they got off their asses and decided on another solution than sitting back and letting thousands of people fight over a few hundred jobs. You know, I read the paper the other day, and they were asking for a PhD for an entry level clerk job. A goddamn PhD, can you believe that?”

I shake my head mutely. It’s not good to say much when my father starts on one of his rants. It only encourages him. What little interest I had in the economy died a long time ago, back in the first few weeks after my father’s company laid off all its workers and replaced them with robots.

“We didn’t raise you to be some vagrant,” my mother says, tapping absentmindedly on the kitchen table, its surface just as gleaming as the counter. A web page opens up, and she expands it and clicks onto her emails. “How about being an electrician? I hear they still make a pretty penny.”

My father raises the knife, and the kitchen helper takes advantage of his distraction by gathering up the already chopped vegetables into a bowl it carries on its back. It buzzes happily as it scoops. “She’s got a point. If you want to go where the money is, then look at the jobs that won’t go away, not for a while at least. Machines need maintaining, designing and selling. Though thinking on it, the selling part’s been taken over a lot lately too. How about looking into designing robots? A lot of art in there I’d expect.”

“Or something stable. Medicine or police work. I can’t imagine they’ll be doing without police officers anytime soon.” My mother presses her lips together right. “Not with all this awful crime.”

“Careful there,” my father says, shooing away the kitchen helper with a hand. “Terrible pay, and they don’t recruit much. Did you know that most low ranking police officers are volunteers now? We need the bastards, but no one wants to pay for them.”

I don’t want to be a police officer. I don’t want to be an electrician. All I want to do is draw, paint and create for the rest of my life. Nothing else will make me happy. “Billy’s parents are letting him study drama.”

“Billy’s parents can afford to have him living on their couch the rest of their lives,” my mother says, typing away at a new email. “We don’t have that kind of money.”

My father’s head droops lower, like it usually does when the topic of money comes up. He returns to chopping up the rest of the vegetables.

It’s a lie though. Even without my father earning a wage, my mother’s job alone brings in more than enough to pay for our decked out home in the country, and her compulsion to have the latest gadgets. I don’t remember her job title, something in software development. Whatever it is, we never want for money when it’s something they want. Expensive robot, cruise holiday, study books, no problem. Art supplies, no chance.

“You could be worrying over nothing,” I say, trying to be reasonable, ignoring how my blood starts to simmer in my veins. “I could graduate and get a job straight away. Isn’t it important that I try? This is my dream. I’ve never wanted anything more in my life.”

“You say that like you’ve lived more than seventeen years of it,” my father says, watching with a bemused expression as the kitchen helper tips the bowl of vegetables into a preheated wok. “Trust us on this son. We’ve got your best interests in mind.”

Simmering blood spills over into boiling. “What you’ve got is your best interests in mind.”

My mother finally looks up from the dining table. The looks she gives me seems designed to freeze my insides rock solid. “There’s no need for that.”

“You’re not listening to me,” I snap. Anger floods over me in hot and cold waves. “I want this. I need this. What if I died tomorrow? Then how would you feel about forcing me to study something I don’t love?”

My mother shakes her head. “Stop being dramatic. Go to your room and calm down.”

“It’s always like this,” i say, wanting them to listen, wanting them to see. “I dare to voice an opinion slightly outside your own and you act like I’ve broken some sacred law. I’m a human being, not some kind of robot. You can’t expect to give me orders and have me jump to complete them the rest of my life. It’s my life. I should decide how I want to run it.”

“Room Adam,” she says, pointing a shimmering finger nail at the door. “NOW!”

I turn to leave, but not before deciding one thing. I’ve going to make them pay. I’ve going to make them regret treating me like this.

***

I feel ten years old again, sitting on the dusty floor of the tree house me and my father built long ago. Except, back then it was something to play in on warm summer days, maybe an occasional sleep over on a nice night, not six days and nights cramped in a box of rotting wood that leaks when it rains. The sound of scrambling on the tree trunk below is a welcome distraction from the four walls, but I don’t look up from the sketch I’m drawing.

It’s of my father, me and Billy, heaving boards of wood as we built this place. My mother stands at the bottom of the tree, a dubious smile on her face. She’d wanted to get one of those ready made tree houses that pretty much build themselves. But my father wanted to do the whole thing by hand. ‘It’ll teach the boy a lesson in life,’ he’d said, and it had. Watching this tree house take form under our hands is the best memory of my life. Every day before we’d start work, I’d draw our progress so far, wanting to document its construction. I think it’s one of the things that got me hooked on art in the first place.

The trap door next to my feet creaks open. A tingling mixture of dread and hope spreads through me before Billy’s head pokes through the opening. I sag with relief and disappointment. My parents haven’t found me yet, but they also haven’t thought to look here.

I know it’s juvenile hiding in a tree house barely an acre from my house. I know that. But me and Billy used to play here all the time as kids, and something in me wants to go back to that. Kids are allowed to dress up and play pretend, to draw as much as they like. No one talks about dusty old careers and making life choices designed to kill you slowly from your soul to your body. The older I get, the more I want to be a kid again. And part of me thinks my parents should realizes that, because then they’d know exactly where to look for me.

Billy gives me a grin, his bright eyes twinkling from under a blond mop of hair, and drags his considerable weight up into the tree house. He huffs and slams the trap door closed, before dropping his backpack on top of it.

I rock back and forth in anticipation. “What’d you bring me?”

Billy kneels down and starts pulling out the contents of the bag. He’s surprisingly agile for a guy his weight. People assume just because he’s big he’ll be this clumsy dumb thing, but that’s as far from the truth as it can get. I’ve seen him at some of his gymnastics competitions, and let me tell you, the guy’s a ninja when he gets going. More than that, he’s a good friend.

He places a box of bright colorful donuts on the floor, tops it with a bag of fish and chips and multiple Chinese takeout containers. A bottle of cherry fizzy drink is placed next to it, and then he finishes his performance by upending the bag and tossing out several packets of crisps and chocolate. Scratch that. He’s a very good friend.

“I also got the book you asked for,” he says, holding it out to me.

I take it, breathing in that musty book smell, running my fingers over the pages. A real honest to God paper book. I like reading on a interface as much as the next guy, but there’s something reassuring about having the whole book right there in your hands. It’s like you could drop off the ends of the earth, into some distant place where they don’t have electricity, and you don’t have to worry about where your next charge comes from because you have all you need right there.

“Have I ever told you how awesome you are?” I say, setting down the book next to my sketchpad.

“Not enough,” he says, settling on the floorboards. He takes in the room, eyes sweeping over the thin plastic window, the rags for curtains, my pile of sleeping bag and blankets, and the various buckets filled with water from last nights rain storm. “I’d bring a tarp to cover the roof, but given you don’t want your parents knowing you’re in here.”

“Don’t worry about it,” I shrug. “That portable heater you brought works well enough.”

“Yeah,” he nods, frowning. I’ve gotten plenty of frowns from Billy since I told him my plan to make my parents worry. To make them regret taking me for granted, and put things in perspective enough for them to start taking my opinions seriously. I don’t think he understands. His own parents are all about free choice and following your dreams. They’d never stand in the way of something he really wanted.

“I went to your house today,” he says hesitantly. “Your parents still say you’re visiting relatives for a few days, but they said you’re coming back tomorrow.”

I lean back against the wall behind me. “And still no police?”

“Not a one,” Billy says, opening up one of the packets of crisps. “You’d think if they called them, they’d come to talk to me. Everyone at school knows we’re tight. But nothing. Seems a bit weird if you ask me.”

I nod my agreement. Seems very weird. A pang of fear runs through me as I wonder if they’ve given up on me, but no, they can’t have done. I’m their only son. We may have grown distant lately, but I love them, and they must love me. When I woke up after almost breaking my neck falling out of this tree house as a child, they’d been so happy they had tears in their eyes. They’d stuck with me through that and all the medical procedures that followed.

That kind of love can’t be washed away by a couple of disagreements.

“Did they seem upset at all?” I ask, my heart clenching.

“’Course,” he says, sounding offended that a parent wouldn’t be upset when their child was missing. “I mean less today, but maybe they’ve got in their head that you’re coming back tomorrow.”

“Yeah,” I shake my head. My hand curls into a fist over the smooth pages of my sketchbook. “That’s not going to happen.”

Billy frowns again; the expression of someone who disapproves of what you’re doing, but is too loyal to go against it. “How long are you going to keep this up?”

“As long as it takes,” I say firmly.

***

I make my way down the rope ladder carefully. It’s the day after Billy last came to give me supplies, and he hasn’t come all day. Somethings wrong. It has to be. He wouldn’t abandon me for no reason.

Below the tree house, I peer into the darkness. It’s warmer than it has been the past few nights, but moisture hangs in the air like a threat. I don’t have much changes of clothing, so I don’t want to be stuck out here longer than necessary. I glance left where I see the dot of Billy’s house in the distance, and right, where a small hill hides my house from view.

Gritting my teeth, I turn right. It’s eight in the evening. My parents won’t be in bed yet, but they’ll be winding down, maybe in front of a screen, or in my father’s case, a book. I want my father’s solid hugs, my mother’s voice telling me she loves me. Maybe it’s been long enough. Maybe they’ll listen to me now.

Even if I decide they need longer, I could still sneak a look to check. I need to see them. I miss them.

I stick to the trees that grow between ours and Billy’s garden. The lawn bots keep the rest of the land pretty tame, but my father and Billy’s wanted to keep at least some of the trees that came with the place. Now I have another reason to be grateful for that.

As soon as I get over the hill I can see the light shining from the lounge window. I move closer, rushing over neatly cut grass to one of the trees nearer the house. I squint through the darkness, making out my mother’s figure on the sofa, and my father slumped over a book in his armchair. They look tense maybe. I don’t know. Maybe I’m just reading into things with hopeful thinking.

I hesitate, shifting from foot to foot. It’s not that cold, but my skin tingles for the warmth of the house. My food rations have decreased to a few packets of crisps, and I can’t help but think of our fully stocked fridge and overflowing bowl of fruit. Fruit has never been Billy’s favorite food, so I haven’t had any for a week. Too long to go without hearing the sharp crunch of an apple, and the sweet taste of its juice. My muscles ache at the thought of spending another night with only a sleeping bag between me and the floor when I have a bed inside calling to me.

Mind made up, I step forward, turning over a dozen explanations for my absence. Then I freeze.

Through the lounge window I see another person walk into the room. My mother looks up from the screen with a smile, and my father gives them a nod. The figure flops down on the sofa next to my mother, giving me a full view of their face.

It’s me.

Another me sits next to my mother, staring at the screen. He’s wearing the green shirt my mother says brings out my eyes. His brown hair is neatly combed back into place, and he’s smiling.

I blink, my brain stalled. The ground tilts dangerously under my feet. I’m me. I’m ME! So how can there be a boy who looks exactly like me, be wearing my clothes, and sitting with my parents in my house?

***

I stretch the last of my rations over the next day. It’s the first day back at school after break. If other me is like me me, then at the end of the day I’ll walk back from the bus stop side by side with Billy. There’s a secluded path between a mass of trees that leads to both our houses. That’s where I wait.

I clutch a half rotted board pried from the tree house decking. It’s the closest thing to a weapon I could find. Its weight in my shaking hands gives me some comfort.

They come around the corner right on schedule. I hear Billy’s deep bass tones, though I can’t make out the words. Then I hear my voice. I cringe. Do I really sound like that?

“You’ve been a good friend, but I can’t hang out with you anymore,” other me says. “We’re just going in very different directions, and I need to concentrate on my science and maths if I want to pull my grades up enough to study a decent subject at university.”

“I still don’t understand,” Billy says as they pass by the tree I’m hiding behind. “Two days ago you were saying you’d never be happy unless you were doing art, and now you’re packing it in?”

“There are more important things than drawing,” other me says. “Like choosing a career that will make enough money to support myself. Something that’ll make my mother proud.”

Really I sound like a pompous ass.

I step out into the path behind them. Loose stones scuff under my shoes. Billy turns around, and his eyes go wide.

“Hey you…me,” I yell at the back of my too neat hair.

Other me turns around. His jaw drops open. I understand the feeling. Looking at him now, face to face is like looking into the mirror at a neater version of myself. He’s wearing the suit I’d lost a while ago deep in the back of my wardrobe. He has my eyes, my nose, even the scar across my left eyebrow where I fell and hit the edge of a table playing tag when I was seven.

“Who are you?” He asks, shock making him look dazed. “Why do you look like me?”

I clutch the wooden board tight enough to get splinters. “I’m Adam Karel, only son of Timothy and Josephine Karel, seventeen years old. And I don’t look like you. You look like me!”

He shakes his head. “That’s me. I’m Adam. I always have been. Billy, are you seeing this?”

“Yeah,” I turn to the larger boy. “Billy, are you seeing this? I’m the real one. You know that, right?”

Billy glances at me, and then the other me beside him. He looks like he’s one more shock away from whimpering. “What’s going on here?”

“Good question,” I say, stepping nearer to the other me. I stop close enough to see the flecks of blue in my green eyes. “What are you exactly? Some kind of bot?”

I look around his – my face, looking for a mark. It’s one of the rules for lifelike bots. They have to have some kind of bar-code holding their product information, so people don’t mistake them for human. Most service industries mark them some place obvious like the forehead or cheek. Some of the higher end models get away with putting it on the back of the neck. It’s something that gets a lot of flack from those who remember the bot crimes that triggered all the regulations, but it’s not illegal as long as it’s not covered.

“I’m me,” he says, splaying out his arms, his green eyes wild. “I’m human. If anyone’s the impostor here, it’s you.”

“Human,” I say, giving a small spin with my board held high in case he pounces. I gesture my weapon at him. “Now you.”

He turns slowly, and I see not one trace of a mark on his pale skin.

I wait until he’s facing me again. “You’re an illegal.”

He glares at me. “I’m human.”

“You have to be an illegal,” I say, a cold hard knot of anger pressing deep into my stomach. My own parents replaced me, and with this THING. “Bots aren’t allowed to pretend to be human.”

“I’m not pretending!” He screams at me. “I am human. I’m real. I’m -”

I swing the board. It cracks against other me’s head so hard the vibrations make my teeth chatter. Billy, who has watched the whole thing with mute horror, jumps back with a squawk.

Other me slumps to the ground, but he’s still moving, so I hit him again. I raise my arms to hit him a third time, and maybe a forth and a fifth, when Billy wraps a beefy fist around my wrist.

“He’s bleeding!” He shouts in my ear. The words are barely audible over my hammering pulse. “Look. Look! He’s bleeding!”

I look. He’s crumpled on the damp ground, his knees pulled to his chest in protection. The wound to the side of his head gapes open. I glance down at the board and see the culprit: a bent nail. And he’s bleeding.

I swallow, dropping to my knees beside him. The blood is red. Bot ‘blood’ is transparent, sometimes yellow, I think I once heard of a blue, but never red. Red is too close to human, and difficult when it comes to repairs. I don’t even think bots had red blood back when the regulations weren’t so strict.

He groans, sounding so human that for a moment the thought that he might be wavers in my mind. No. I’m Adam. I always have been. He’s some THING my parent’s had made to replace me. My mother works in software development for bots. My father used to work the mechanical side. It’s not unfeasible that they, or their contacts could have made something this life like. Is it?

Desperation claws at my stomach. My hands reach for the wound. I have to know.

“What are you doing?” Billy asks, his usually powerful voice soft and breathy.

My hand hovers over the wound, then make a quick detour for other me’s school bag. I dig out my water bottle from where I usually keep it. Carefully, I pour the contents over the wound, pulling back the edges so I can see. It’s pretty deep. In a human, deep enough to see the skull. .

Other me hisses, waving his hands weakly in my direction. Billy starts toward us, then freezes.

Metal glints up at us through the wound. He’s not human, but he’s also not just an illegal bot. He’s like nothing I’ve ever heard of before.

***

By the time we heave my replacement home Billy is shaking so hard he can’t seem to speak. It’s a disquieting sight. He has his ups and downs like any other guy, but for the most part Billy is a pretty stable guy. Guilt rushes over me. I forced him into this.

“You can go Billy,” I say after we lay the shocked bot down on the sofa in the living room. “I’ll deal with this.”

He nods, round face quivering. He opens and closes his mouth several times before words come out. “If I’d known he was a bot, I never would have. I’m sorry.”

“Not your fault,” I say. All of this is my parent’s fault, and that thought makes me angry enough to scream. “Go home, and I’ll see you tomorrow.”

He gives another trembling nod, then turns to leave.

Just me and IT now. I take a deep breath, looking at the whimpering form on the sofa cushions. I quickly look away. He looks so human, eyes shining with through fluttering lashes. Blood clots in a mass on the side of his head. It’s hard to remember he’s not like me in anything but outside appearance.

I make my way to the kitchen to search for a phone. I have work to do.

***

My mother arrives home at the same time as my father. The quirk causes something to stir inside my chest. It’s not like my father has much to do outside the house, but on days like this when everyone is out, he likes to be out too. I think he wants to feel useful.

I look up from the armchair as they walk into the house, talking about their days. They enter the lounge, see me and smile, and for a moment everything is normal, until their eyes travel as one to the sofa and see other me lying there.

“What did you do?” My mother shouts, striding past me to kneel at other me’s side. She examines his head with a tenderness reserved for only her very favorite gadgets, and me.

“I think the question is what did you do?” I say, struggling to keep my cool. I thought I’d be more angry, but seeing them here after so long, I’m reminded how much I love them, and that feels worse right now than hating them. I want to hate them. I want to hate them so badly. “I leave for a few days, and instead of looking for me you – what? Decide to replace me?”

My father doesn’t move from the doorway, his face unreadable. My mother doesn’t get up from other me’s side.

“Or is this about me wanting to study art?” I ask, my fingers digging into the arms of the chair. “You figure out I didn’t turn out the way you wanted, so you make a bot to replace me? I’m your son, not one of your toys! You can’t just throw me away because you want a newer model.”

“He’s right Josephine,” my father says, stepping to my side. He places a reassuring hand on my shoulder. “He’s our son.”

She shakes her head, turning to sneer at him. “You didn’t want him. You never even liked him.”

Shocked hurt floods through me, but my father gives my shoulder a firm squeeze. “I grew to like him,” he says, warmth in his voice. “I grew to love him.”

Something manic comes over her expression as my mother turns back to my replacement, stroking fingers through his hair. She used to do that to me, I remember, when I was sick and after falling out of the tree house. “Maybe we can keep them both,” she says desperately. “If we get someone to forge the birth certificate, and say we had twins. There was a time you wanted more than one child. Do you remember?”

“That’s not going to happen,” I say before he can reply.

Something in my voice makes her look at me. I shift under my mother’s fearful expression. She knows what’s coming.

“I called the police,” I say quietly. “They know there’s an illegal bot here.”

Her grip on other me’s arm tightens.

“I didn’t say where it came from,” I add quickly. “You could say it was a competitor trying to frame you. Things can go back to how they were.”

That’s all I’ve wanted ever since I saw the other me through that window. I just want my parents back. Even if it means them worrying about my future, and having to fight to keep the parts of life I love. Even if it means studying a subject I don’t want to.

She lets her hand drop from other me, into her lap. “I see.”

From outside comes the crackle of tires over gravel. I sit up straighter in the armchair, relief washing over me. It’s almost over. “That’ll be them.”

My mother gets to her feet slowly and gives me an even look. “Will you let me and your father explain things? I think it will sound more credible coming from us first.”

“Yeah, sure,” I say, happy to get her on board. Despite all the hurt she’d caused me trying to replace me with one of her toys, I can’t help but think that I should make more of an effort to connect with her. I’ve always leaned toward my father’s technophobia rather than my mother’s extreme, so we’ve never seen eye to eye. I make a note that if we ever get over this, I should try asking her to teach me something about what she does at work. I think she’d like that.

She walks out of the room, and with one final squeeze of my shoulder, my father follows.

The bot even has simulated breathing, I think watching it. It’s creepy the extent my parent’s went through to make it lifelike. Anyone seeing it now, bleeding and sleeping deeply would assume it’s human and not even take a second glance.

“You can’t do this Josephine!”

My head springs up at my father’s shout. Heart hammering, I push myself to my feet and walk through the kitchen to the hallway where the commotion is coming from.

I turn the corner in time to see a bulky police officer snapping cuffs over my father’s wrists. My mother stands in front of them, her arms crossed over her chest.

“What – what’s going on?” I ask, crossing the distance between us in a few strides. “What are you doing to my father?”

The two officer look from my mother to me.

My mother takes a step away from my side. “And this is the bot he built to replace our son,” she says, gesturing at me. Her eyes hold a level of coldness I’ve never seen before.

“I’m not a bot,” I say, shaking my head. I barely hear the words over my heartbeat. What is she doing? “I’m Adam Karel, human. Scan me if you want.”

The female police bot removes what looks like a small silver torch from her belt. I close my eyes as the blue light washes over me. She returns it to her belt with a click.

Her handler lifts a radio from his side, eyes locked on me. “This is Lima Delta three. We have a confirmed illegal bot at our location.”

For a moment I can’t speak. “I’m human,” I say again, the words feeling more like a plea this time.

The police bot tilts her head, giving me a clear view of the blue bar-code on her right cheek. “The internal scan confirms you are robot in origin. Your denial of that fact and absence of mandatory product information confirms you are an illegal robot.”

“Dad, Mom, tell them,” I say, swinging my arm wildly through the air. “Tell them they’re wrong.”

My father hangs his head. My mother looks anywhere but me, her body taut with tension.

I don’t understand. I don’t understand, and then suddenly I do.

My parents can built robots so lifelike that even they think they’re human. My mind flashes back to the tree house, the day I almost broke my neck. Waking up weeks afterward, and my mother being so happy to see me that she cried. All those medical treatments that followed, all which coincided with mysterious growth spurts. Bots don’t grow after all. They can only be designed to look older.

“The tree house,” I gasp.

My father nods. Tears run down his face.

It pieces together to make a picture so horrible I can’t look away. The tree house. The day twelve year old Adam Karel fell and broke his neck. The day his parents – or maybe only his mother at first – decided to hide the body and replace him with a bot, with me.

“Bots aren’t supposed to feel,” I say, warmth prickling at the back of my eyes. “I feel,” I glance between my father who must have once hated what I am, and my mother who’s sending me to my death. “I feel.”

My father shakes from the tears wracking his frame. My mother still won’t look at me.

Hot anger bubbles up. “They’re going to kill me. You know that!” I shout at her. “Don’t you feel anything for me? What kind of human are you?” I take a step toward her.

“Stand down,” the police bot says in that plain monotone voice. She holds something black and bulky in one of her hands. A stun gun. I’d seen pictures when we’d learned about the Bot crime wave at school. “Comply and come with us or we’ll be forced to take extreme measures.”

I take a measured breath, my eyes drifting over all four of them. I open my mouth to tell them about the other me lying on the sofa, then close it again. The only thing that will accomplish is two of us being carted away to be decommissioned, stripped down, unmade. I can’t do that. I’m not some heartless robot.

Two choices, and not the ones I thought I’d be making days, or even hours ago. Go willingly to my death, or try to stay alive. I turn to run.

I make it two steps before pain shoots down my spine, causing all my muscles to seize up and spasm. This isn’t right, I think as blackness rushes over me. I’m me. I’m human. I’m me.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s