How do you reclaim your humanity when it has been taken from you? Perhaps only when someone finds it and gives it back.
I didn’t give it much thought. She looked like Elizabeth, and the goons in this part of town don’t go easy on young girls when they think they can get away with it.
It was dark in the alley, but that’s not a problem for me.
They were bigger than I am, but that’s not an issue either.
When they were gone, one clutching his broken arm, the other his ribs, the girl was sobbing against the wall and I didn’t want to make a bad situation worse by scaring her, so I huddled opposite.
How do you react when a dirty vagrant saves you from two rich thugs in designer sportswear? I couldn’t even give her my jacket to help against the cold, given how it smelled.
“Thank you,” she said, before she ran away.
She found me a few days later. I hadn’t expected to see her again. I was caught unprepared.
Now it was my turn to be afraid.
Had she come alone? What did she want? What did she know?
In the end, she hadn’t pieced any of it together. She was just being kind, or overcoming some misplaced guilt at being saved by a vagrant, returning the favour.
She’d brought me food. A sandwich and cake. The sugar and protein were helpful.
Would she have been so kind if she had known?
I didn’t trust myself to speak to her, so I listened to her kindnesses and hid my eyes under the dirty cap that kept my greasy hair away from my face.
“I’ll come back tomorrow,” she said.
Did she think she was taming something feral? Did she see something worth saving? How relentless the naivete of the young.
I took the time to go to one of my better hiding spots that night. I hadn’t opened the small tin box in six months, but the nylon pouch was still there, its contents intact.
They were old, but the contacts still had a good few weeks in them. I used them only when I had to.
When she returned, I was able to look back at her. To meet her gaze. Show her I wasn’t as far lost as she thought.
She’d brought more food.
At least this time I managed to speak to her.
“I’m glad you’re talking to me,” she said.
“I’m grateful, but you shouldn’t come back. It’s not safe here.”
“I won’t, if you come with me.”
I couldn’t. Wanting at all costs not to lie to her, I couldn’t tell her why not.
I didn’t want her to come back to this neighborhood, but the sight of this girl, who treated me with such kindness, who looked so familiar, was a rare ray of sunshine in a washed-out world. A deeply selfish part of me hoped terribly she would ignore my suggestion and return anyway.
She came back. Several times.
Perhaps I had been feral. Perhaps she really was taming me. Slowly I came around to the idea of going somewhere safer with her.
I told myself it was because it was unsafe for her there, but our motivations are always selfish. Mine especially.
I gradually learned to forget about the risk of discovery and let her lead me away from the warehouses, towards the brick buildings of the outer residential belt.
Her apartment had its own entrance, around the side of a five-story building and through a simple wooden door that wasn’t so simple once you saw the thick armour plating built into it.
She had covered her bathroom in plastic sheeting. There was a paper disposal bag for my clothes and a set of standard grey and black sweatpants in my size. A razor, scissors, wire brush and soap. I hadn’t had a shower in a very long time.
Had she prepared this every time or had she known I would come with her today? Was I predictable?
Was this a debt to her? Charity? Kindness?
“You’re so much younger than I thought you were.”
My youthful features had stared back at me from the mirror in the bathroom, surprising me also. The lenses in my eyes hid my almost ageless nature. I had barely said a word and I felt the weight of my deceit like a heavy chain.
She sat on a chair opposite the low sofa on which I perched, my knees sticking out like the ungainly limbs of a stick insect.
“You don’t talk very much, do you? Can you tell me your name?”
I thought about what I could tell her. Keeping secrets is a burden that grows heavier with time, and faced with her kindness I didn’t think I could bear to hold the truth inside much longer.
“You look like someone I once knew,” I told her.
“Is that why you helped me?”
“Perhaps. I don’t know.”
“Who was she?”
“Elizabeth.” Speaking her name aloud made the walls close in and the light darken.
“Your girlfriend?” she hesitated, “Your wife?”
“No, but my blood.”
She fed me again, asking nothing in return. Not even asking the questions she must have had.
I slept on her sofa. Clean and satiated for the first time in a very long time.
“I cannot stay here,” I told her, two days later.
She looked at me for a long, long moment.
“Yes, you can.”
I looked about the same age as her, spoke well, helped around her home, fixing things that weren’t too far gone.
Feeding me was no significant drain on her resources. She earned a modest but sufficient income working from a small counter in a corner of her living room, standing at a desk and editing architectural diagrams, taking the vision of her betters and transforming it into something that could be built, could be made into homes, or offices.
She was still taming me. By her presence. Or her patience. Parts of me were still wild but they were cornered, already planning a last stand I was determined to lose.
Other parts of me were neither wild nor tame, but I couldn’t bring myself to explain that, and the secret began to consume what little was left of me.
If I waited too long, I wouldn’t be able to leave, and then she would never forgive me, this girl I hardly knew.
They were clumsy. When they first came to scout her building, they turned off their smart devices and walked around the perimeter, examining windows.
Six quasi-dormant smart tablets circling the building in pairs. They couldn’t have been more conspicuous if they’d set themselves on fire and run around shouting my name.
By then I’d been with her eight days, and she had made me hers in most ways that count. With a few small kindnesses and her generosity and her soothing calm.
I used the most distant usable network I could reach, in an apartment on the south-eastern corner of the building on the third floor. From there I made a few weak-willed attempts to crack the encryption on the tablet nearest the network.
They wasted no time converging on the third floor, smashing the door to splinters and terrifying the unlucky retired widow who lived there before retreating in confusion.
They wouldn’t be so easy to fool the second time.
“I have to go,” I told her again.
“No, you don’t,” she replied, calm as always.
“I’m not who you think.”
“You don’t know what I think.”
“Tell me what you think.”
“I think you’re a good man.”
“Then I’m not who you think.”
She would not be moved.
“I’m talking about who you are, not who you might have been.”
I wanted to tell her.
“Not who, what I was. Or am.”
“Tell me,” she countered, “about Elizabeth.”
“She was my daughter.”
“I’m sorry,” her eyes were downcast. “How did she die?”
How could she not yet understand?
When she raised her eyes to mine, they were full of tears.
“How do you bear it?”
She knew. I felt my hackles rise in anticipation of her disgust.
“Bear what? The tech?”
She shook her head. “The time.”
“I…” Words failed me as she punched a hole in the dam that held it all in check. When she took me in her arms, the rest of my defenses collapsed and I was swept away by a tide of emotions.
I didn’t howl or scream, although I thought I would. Instead I folded like wet origami, sobbing like a child in her arms, shaking like an epileptic and not knowing how I would ever stop or if I would ever bring the pain back under control.
I awoke the next morning in her arms, in her bed. I still had my clothes and my memory of the night was of waking up screaming, only to be brought back to sanity by her presence. Her head was resting on my chest, blond hair falling over my shoulder, smelling of the soap she had in her shower.
I didn’t deny it, “How can you tell?”
“Your heartbeat. You’re not all machine you know, only a little bit.”
“The bits that count, according to the law.”
She sat up, turning to me in the morning light that came in through the window.
“The eyes. Show me your eyes.”
I didn’t want to, but at this point I could deny her nothing.
The contacts felt gritty, reaching the end of their usefulness. Once they were out I wouldn’t be able to put them back in.
The fleshy membranes stuck to my thumb and forefinger, coming cleanly off the surface of the eyeballs and revealing the blueness of the outer eye and the thick metallic band that encircled the iris, unmistakable in any light.
“It’s beautiful,” she said.
“It’s a death sentence. For both of us if they figure out that you knew.”
“You’ll think of something.”
As easy as that. The risk and the fear dismissed out of hand. How long since someone had trusted me like this? Did I still have it in me to handle these things?
“I won’t really miss it,” she said.
“The Earth, once we leave. We like the idea of it so much more than the reality.”
I felt a surge of guilt at how far ahead she was in reasoning through the consequences of what I was, how committed she was to being with me. How fearful and yet relieved I was that she had put her safety in my hands.
As she fell asleep, I caught up. My eyes stared sightlessly at the ceiling as I brought back to life the systems I had sworn never to use again. I had wanted so badly to be human-normal once more, but to move forward from here I had to embrace what I was.
As my skin prickled with nanotech and my perception grew beyond the walls of the apartment, and as I began to hack my way through the various systems that would allow us to find our way off-planet, I stayed conscious of her head on my chest and her hair in the nape of my neck. I would no longer do this for my makers, who had forsaken me and all of my kind. But I could do it for her.