Updated: Aug 13, 2021
He couldn’t forget. No matter how hard he tried or how much he drank, he couldn’t expunge the memory of that night. Her hand in his, squeezing tight. Her pale face and wide eyes staring back at him, the fear pouring from her. She said she didn’t want to go alone, he told her she wasn’t, he was there. Every time he relived it his heart would tear in two.
Theo was sat in a cubicle of a public toilet staring at a gun in his hand through red eyes. He scratched the five o’clock shadow on his chin and took a deep breath. Slowly he raised his hand and pressed the end of the barrel against his temple. He closed his eyes and gritted his teeth, but his finger would not pull back on the trigger. A tear trailed down his cheek. After several seconds he gave up and lowered the gun down by his side letting his arm dangle. He wiped the tears away from his eyes and looked up to the sky.
‘I’m sorry,’ he whispered.
The dive bar was quiet, only the regulars who have nowhere better to be were drinking away their sorrows. Soft rock music was playing from an old 50s jukebox in the background. Some were surprised an antique like it worked so well in the year 2050 or that one hundred year old music was still popular. Theo stepped up to the beer stained bar and placed a crumple ten dollar bill on its surface. He didn’t need to say anything, the barman knew exactly what he wanted and filled a shot glass with vodka in front of him. Theo wasted no time emptying the glass as the barman took away the money. He enjoyed the burning down his throat, a welcome distraction from his nightmares.
‘Keep ‘em coming,’ he said.
The barman poured him another.
An hour later Theo was stumbling down a dark dank alleyway in the cold wet night of the metropolis. His hands were shoved deep into the pockets of his raincoat, his collar turned up around his neck to shield from the attacking breeze. He focused his attention on the glistening concrete beneath his feet to keep himself steady. He passed by a pile of rubbish and clutter and a rustling within caught his attention. At first he thought he was just hearing things, but upon closer inspection he noticed movement amongst the detritus. A car passed by and the headlights lit up the alleyway like floodlights, in turn shining light on the face of a young woman buried under the stinking trash. Her eyes were wide like a scared rabbit. Theo jumped back in shock expecting to find a fox or raccoon, not a person. Except she wasn’t a person. Theo noticed her skin was too perfect, her hair too straight as if she was manufactured. The clear joins between her shoulders and arms like two plates pushed together made it clear, she was an android. Theo checked up and down the alleyway to ensure no one was watching. Androids had been outlawed ever since the Pentacost incident where a service droid malfunctioned and murdered an entire family. Other incidents followed and experts agreed that no AI could ever be truly safe in the body of something that could physically hurt a human. It was agreed that all current droids would be seized and destroyed and the manufacture of such devices be restricted. He returned his focus to the hiding machine.
‘Hello?’ he said taking a step closer. ‘Are you okay?’
Theo reached out a hand toward her, but she cowered sinking deeper into the bin bags.
‘It’s alright. I’m not going to hurt you,’ he assured her with a friendly smile.
It wasn’t enough to reassure her. She remained in her derelict nest watching his every move with caution. Theo pulled back his hand burying it in his pocket and sighed.
‘Okay,’ he said turning away and continued walking.
Before making two steps he heard a cacophony of noise behind him as bin bags and cardboard boxes tumbled across the alleyway. He glanced over his shoulder to find the woman standing behind him. She was wearing a stained white vest and black underwear. More joins between all her limbs. She looked so human, but those joins betrayed that illusion. Theo smiled and continued walking. He heard the pitter patter of her footsteps behind him as she followed.
Theo’s apartment block was one of the cheapest in the worst neighbourhood of the city. Many of the residents were involved in illegal activity such as drugs, robbery or even murder so the fact that he was being followed down the corridor to his front door by an illegal droid wouldn’t have been an issue. Nobody wanted the police venturing inside the building. Luckily they were also not aware that Theo himself had been an officer of the law before tragic circumstances forced him to retire. Now he was one of them, a bum, a layabout, a drug addict and alcoholic. Theo unlocked the front door of his one bedroom apartment and stepped inside. The woman stopped in her tracks confused as to where he had gone. Theo popped his head back out the door startling her.
‘Are you coming in?’
He disappeared back inside. She slowly approached and looked around the door frame to check it was safe before stepping over the threshold. Once she was inside the rundown apartment Theo closed the door behind her. She spun around and stared at the sealed door with nervous eyes darting around looking for an escape. Theo could see she was worried and raised his hands in a calming manner.
‘Its okay. Feel free to sit down. Make yourself at home,’ he said softly gesturing toward a tatty couch in the middle of the room. She watched him walk away and disappear into a kitchen. She remained standing trying to understand her surroundings, reluctant to move anywhere. He returned with a glass of whiskey and downed it. They both stared at each other in silence for a moment.
‘I’m Theo. Do you have a name?’
There was no reply. She simply continued to stare at him with a blank look upon her face.
‘You’re not much of a talker, are you?’
Theo took a step closer to her, she took a step back. He held out a hand defensively trying to calm her. He wondered what it would take to get her to understand she was in no danger. He managed to get within a foot of her and scanned her body looking for some kind of serial number. On the back of her neck a number was tattooed, “203”.
‘Two-oh-three. I guess if you don’t have a name, I’ll call you Zoe. How does that sound?’
She didn’t react to his suggestion, then again he wasn’t expecting her to. He was going to need some help.
Theo was sat on the couch thinking. Zoe was still stood in the middle of the room staring at him with glazed over eyes like a toy doll in its packaging. A knock at the door drew her attention. Theo jumped up from the couch using his now trademark hand to keep her calm.
‘It’s okay. It’s just a friend.’
Theo pulled open the front door and Riz barged his way in.
‘Jesus, don’t leave me standing out there. I hate this neighbourhood. I don’t know how you survive here,’ Riz berated Theo.
Riz was short and slim, stylishly dressed with a fashionable ponytail, goatee and tinted glasses. He carried screwdrivers in the breast pocket of his shirt and a pencil was secured in the top of his ear.
‘So what’s so special you couldn’t tell me over the phone?’ Riz asked, a little irritated.
Theo closed the front door and pointed toward Zoe. Riz shifted his focus to where Theo was pointing and was taken aback by the half naked woman staring back at him.
‘That’s a robot,’ he said surprised.
‘I know it’s a robot,’ Theo replied.
‘But these have been outlawed. Where did you find it?’ Riz asked as he looked Zoe up and down.
‘In an alley. In the trash.’
‘Lucky bastard,’ Riz said smirking at Theo.
Riz began to circle Zoe taking in every inch of her. She didn’t take her eyes off him as he did.
‘I’ve never seen something as advanced as this. It looks almost human.’
‘Well, she can’t be that advanced. She can’t even talk.’
‘Oh no, I doubt it. Not yet anyway.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘It looks fresh out the packaging. It probably doesn’t have much information in its memory yet. I bet it learns just like a human. It needs to be taught.’
‘I have to teach it to speak?’ Theo questioned wondering what he’d got himself into.
‘I’d be happy to take it off your hands. I wouldn’t mind taking a more in depth look at it,’ Riz said reaching out a hand to touch Zoe, but she pulled back from him. He laughed.
‘No, that won’t be necessary.’
‘Theo, come on. This thing is illegal to own. You could get into a lot of trouble,’ Riz tried to reason.
‘So could you,’ Theo snapped back.
‘True, but I plan to take it apart. Therefore, it’ll cease to be a robot.’
‘You’re not taking her apart,’ Theo said furrowing his brow.
‘I’ll give you a good price,’ Riz said pulling a wad of notes from his pocket and flicking through them.
‘She’s not for sale.’
Riz raised his eyebrows and smirked.
‘Why do you keep calling it a she? It’s a machine. I think you’re getting a little too attached.’
Theo was thinking the same, but didn’t fully believe it until Riz said it.
‘I’m not, just…look, thanks for your help. I’ve changed my mind, I can deal with this myself.’
‘I’ll give you one thousand,’ Riz offered, holding out a bunch of bills.
‘No,’ Theo replied pushing Riz toward the front door. Riz fought back sliding out more notes.
Theo pulled open the front door and pushed a disappointed Riz out into the corridor.
‘Theo, come on.’
Theo slammed the door shut to end the conversation, but Riz had some final words that worried him.
‘You’re going to regret this,’ he heard Riz shout through the door.
Theo ignored him and approached a still standing Zoe.
‘So, you need to learn to talk? I think we can do that.’
Theo disappeared into the bedroom and returned with a set of children’s books and a dressing gown. He placed the books in a stack on the coffee table and opened up the dressing gown placing it over Zoe’s shoulders.
‘I don’t think it’s right you walking around in your underwear,’ he said poking her arms through the sleeves and then wrapping it tightly around her tying the belt.
He sat down on the couch looking up at Zoe who was still staring at him.
‘Sit down,’ he said patting a hand on the seat cushion next to him. Zoe remained standing. ‘You don’t know what that means, do you?’
Theo stood up and carefully approached her with extended hands. She was about to back away when he lunged forward and placed his hands gently on her shoulders.
She looked down at his hands on her shoulders and seemed to calm. He gently pulled and she shuffled her feet across the carpet. He led her over to the couch. He looked into her eyes.
He then pushed down on her shoulders until her knees buckled and she dropped down onto the couch.
‘Good. We’re getting somewhere.’
Theo sat back down next to her and picked up one of the books. He showed the cover to her. The title was “Learn to Read”.
‘My wife was a teacher. She used these a lot. Maybe they’ll work for you.’
He flipped open the cover and turned to the first page. It depicted a man walking and beneath it said “walking” in big letters.
‘Walking,’ Theo said running his finger along the word.
He waited for Zoe to repeat, but she just stared at him. He said the word again and waited for her to mimic, but nothing. Theo exhaled in frustration and looked at the time to find it was one o’clock in the morning.
‘It’s getting late. Maybe we should try this tomorrow.’
Theo put the book down on the coffee table with the others and stood up. He looked down at Zoe and contemplated the situation.
‘You can, stay here I guess.’
He shook his head and entered the bedroom. Zoe remained sitting and began scanning the room. She glanced over her shoulder at the closed bedroom door and then stood up. She slowly walked around the room admiring Theo’s possessions. She ran her fingers over ornaments and books on shelves feeling their every curve and texture. She knocked a glass figure onto the floor and it broke in two. She reached down to pick up the pieces and sliced open the end of her index finger on the jagged edge. She studied the wound curiously watching a thick black liquid ooze from the contusion and then drip onto the floor. Her head tilted in fascination as the synthetic skin healed as though it were never cut. She returned the two broken pieces to the shelf and caught sight of a framed photo of Theo and his wife. They were sat on a beach wrapped in each others arms grinning with the happiness only a couple in love can exude.
She continued through the room toward a glass pane mounted to the wall. She touched the clean smooth surface and a picture flickered onto it. It was a television. Low sound emanating from speakers sat beneath. Zoe stood before it mesmerised by the images. A man and a woman were talking to each other, one of those daytime soaps on a late night repeat. They then kissed passionately almost chewing each others faces off. Zoe placed her fingers on her own lips leaning in closer to the screen hypnotised.
The following morning Theo awoke with a pounding headache and a grizzly taste in his mouth, the dreaded hangover. He’d forgotten how much he’d drunk the previous night and questioned whether meeting Zoe was all a dream. He needed to check if she was still there. He hoped she was.
Stepping out into the living room he was surprised to hear voices. He found Zoe sat on the couch still watching television. She’d moved on from soap operas and was now enjoying the morning news. The report of a murdered man was the main headline as an anchor discussed the incident with his colleague on the scene.
Zoe heard Theo’s movement behind her and looked over her shoulder smiling at him.
‘Hello,’ she said.
Theo froze as he stared at her in disbelief.
‘Hello?’ he replied with furrowed brow.
Zoe grinned and returned her focus to the television. Theo walked around the couch to face her.
‘Have you been watching television all night?’ he asked. Zoe nodded without pulling her eyes away from the screen. ‘And you understand what I’m saying?’
She nodded again, still transfixed to the television.
‘Whatever works,’ Theo commented as he shrugged his shoulders. He then sat down on the coffee table in front of Zoe blocking her view. He could see she was finding it difficult to pull away from the mesmerising pictures so he picked up the television remote and switched it off.
‘Can you tell me where you came from?’ he said leaning in toward her, resting his elbows on his knees and clasping his hands together.
‘I don’t remember,’ she replied shaking her head.
Zoe stood up and made her way over to the photograph of Theo and his wife. He watched as she picked it up and then held it for him to see.
‘Who is this person?’ She asked curiously.
‘That’s my wife.’
‘I learned husbands and wives live together. Where is she?’
‘She was ill.’ Theo said turning away.
Zoe placed the photo back and stepped over to the television, bringing it back to life with the touch of her hand. On the screen a man and a woman were ballroom dancing. She leant in for a closer look.
‘What are they doing?’ She asked Theo.
Theo glanced over at her.
‘It’s called dancing.’
‘Dancing,’ she repeated, saying the word for the first time with a slight stutter.
Zoe began to sway side to side with the music. Theo smirked at the sight of this machine feeling the rhythm. He stood up and approached her.
‘Come here,’ he said softly.
Theo took Zoe’s right hand in his and placed his other hand around her slim waist. He led as they rocked gently together.
‘This is dancing,’ he told her.
Zoe looked down at their feet shifting an inch at a time across the floor. Her eyes darted back up to Theo’s with a huge grin on her face.
‘We’re dancing?’ she said ecstatically.
Theo nodded with confirmation, smiling at her innocent delight. They stared into each others eyes, Theo forgetting this beautiful woman in front of him was just a robot, a machine, a bunch of parts put together in such an intelligent way any man would be fooled. Zoe’s eyes dropped down to Theo’s lips. She leant in and kissed him. At first Theo was in shock, not sure what to make of this, but her lips were soft and warm, just like human lips. He threw caution to the wind and kissed her back, it had been so long since he had experienced this type of intimacy with someone. He reached up and placed a hand on her cheek. He couldn’t believe how authentic her skin felt. Before he could get lost in this moment, a knock at the door startled him and he pulled away from Zoe. Theo could see fear in her eyes as she glanced toward the door.
‘Who is it?’ Theo called out.
‘It’s Frank!’ A gruff voiced shouted through the thin divide.
Theo looked at Zoe with concern.
‘You should hide,’ he whispered with a panic.
Theo took Zoe’s hand and led her over to the bedroom. He pushed her inside.
‘Stay here and keep quiet,’ he ordered. ‘I’ll get rid of him.’
Theo pulled the bedroom door closed. He took a moment before rushing over to the front door where the knocking had started again. He whipped open the door to find an impatient Frank leaning against the door frame. The middle aged man stared at Theo with a squint in his eyes.
‘You took your time,’ Frank said.
‘I was getting dressed,’ Theo lied convincingly enough.
‘Mind if I come in?’
Theo stepped aside allowing Frank a path through to his home. Frank scanned the apartment with suspicion, then turned on a sixpence to face Theo as he was closing the front door.
‘How have you been, Theo?’ Frank asked.
‘Listen, I was sorry to hear about your loss. I would have been at the funeral, but work has been pretty hectic.’
‘Don’t worry about it.’ Theo replied making his way over to a kitchenette and pouring himself and Frank a cup of coffee from a filter pot. He passed one of the mugs over to Frank.
‘Thanks,’ Frank said with a smile. ‘Have you given any thought about returning to the force?’
‘Right now, that’s the furthest from my mind.’ Theo took a sip of coffee contemplating how to get Frank out of his home as quickly as possible without arousing suspicion. ‘Is that the only reason you came here? To ask me that?’
Frank put the coffee mug down on the kitchen counter.
‘Actually, no. This isn’t a social call. I picked up a homicide last night, an engineer discovered dead in his workshop. We found robotics parts and detailed drawings of an advanced droid we believe he was building. My theory is whatever he built killed him and took off.’
‘I don’t understand what this has to do with me.’
‘I received a call a couple of hours ago from an anonymous person. They claim you’re in possession of a droid.’
‘That’s ridiculous. Why would they claim such a thing?’
‘That was my initial thought, but you know we have to take all allegations seriously.’
‘Why would I have a droid? They’re illegal.’
‘And anyone in possession of one would be prosecuted to the full extent of the law no matter who they are, but you already know that.’
‘Of course I do.’
Theo was never the best actor and he struggled with the whitest of lies. He hoped his front was holding up because Frank was a marvel at spotting lies. Very few suspects slipped through his fingers in an interrogation. Theo was relying on his friendship to cut him some slack from Frank’s sharp instincts. It didn’t help however when a noise came from the bedroom.
‘What was that?’ Frank asked.
‘Nothing,’ Theo replied.
Frank scowled at Theo.
‘Mind if I take a look?’
‘Go ahead.’ Theo answered knowing full well if he denied Frank entry it would only make things worse. He prayed Zoe had found a place to hide.
Frank rushed over to the bedroom and pushed open the door peering in. Theo stood behind him looking over his shoulder. Theo could see Zoe had slipped under the duvet and just the back of her pure white hair was poking out the top.
Frank tutted and Theo’s heartbeat quickened.
‘I can explain,’ Theo protested, but his panic subsided when he saw Frank’s face break out into a smirk.
‘You dirty old dog. I didn’t think you still had it in you. Where did you pick her up?’
Realising Frank’s assumption Theo relaxed and threw a playful smile back.
‘Just a bar.’
Frank pulled the bedroom door closed.
‘Of course. I have to say I’m a little surprised you’ve jumped back in the sack with someone so soon after your wife’s passing but I guess men have needs. I’ll leave you to it.’
Frank made his way over to the front door and Theo began to relax thinking he had got away with it. That feeling didn’t last however as Frank paused midway across the room and stared down at the floor and squinted. He bent down and dipped his finger into a blob of sticky black liquid. Theo watched as he analysed it waiting for the accusation.
‘You need to get yourself a maid,’ Frank said wiping the liquid from his finger with a handkerchief.
‘Maybe you’re right,’ Theo laughed nervously.
‘Take it easy, Theo,’ Frank said opening the door and stepping out. Theo let out a breath of relief and dropped down on to the couch. On the other side of the door however Frank was giving the black liquid a thorough inspection with a sniff. He shook his head and carefully pocketed the handkerchief.
Zoe cautiously opened the bedroom door and peered out.
‘Is it okay to come out?’ She asked.
‘It’s fine, for now, but I think he knows. You need to leave. If he comes back, he’ll take you away.’
‘Why?’ Zoe asked with genuine confusion.
‘They think you’re a threat. They’re saying you killed someone. Did you?’
Zoe thought for a moment, her memories returning to her.
‘I remember. He told me to. He said he was suffering and he wanted to die. I didn’t want to kill him, but I had to do what he asked. I couldn’t resist.’
‘Either way, you’re a droid and it’s illegal for you to even exist.’
‘I don’t understand. What’s a droid?’
‘An artificial being. You were created by a man.’
‘So what are you?’ She asked trying to wrap her digital mind around this revelation.
Zoe studied her hand. It looked human, the texture, the colour, just like Theo’s. She frowned at him.
‘I’m human,’ she said with conviction.
‘No, you’re not,’ Theo replied shaking his head.
‘I am,’ Zoe insisted refusing to accept Theo’s truth.
Theo took Zoe’s finger and placed it on his wrist.
‘Human’s have a pulse, like I do.’ He took her other hand and switched her finger over to her opposite wrist. ‘You don’t have a pulse.’
Zoe snatched her hands away frightened at Theo’s logic.
‘No, I’m human.’
‘You’re not!’ Theo shouted in anger.
‘Yes, I am!’
Zoe slammed her fist down onto the coffee table and the legs buckled beneath. The table surface hit the floor with a crash. Theo stepped back from her in shock.
‘You need to go. Please, before they find you.’
Zoe looked at her clenched fist. She let her fingers relaxed and spread out. She extended the open hand to Theo.
‘Come with me.’
‘I can’t, they’ll be looking for me. You need to disappear. They’ll never find you if you’re alone,’ he assured her.
Zoe stared into his eyes and placed a hand on his cheek.
‘I don’t want to go alone.’
Theo felt a pain in his chest. The last time he heard those words he wanted to go, but he couldn’t. Now he could, if he wanted. He had nothing to lose.
‘Okay, I’ll come with you, but we need to leave now.’
Theo led Zoe out of the apartment and down the deteriorating corridor. She was now dressed in leggings and a leather jacket once belonging to Theo’s wife. They reached the elevator to find it was out of order, again. Theo yanked open the door to the stairwell and pulled Zoe through. They rushed down the several flights of stairs. Theo was exhausted by the time they reached the lobby. As they turned a corner to make their way toward the main doors of the building they were stunned to find Frank already waiting for them with four police officers heavily armed and wearing riot gear.
‘Oh, Theo. What have you done?’ Frank said shaking his head. ‘Hand it over.’
‘She’s not a threat,’ Theo claimed desperately.
‘It killed someone, Theo. It’s dangerous. And even if it wasn’t, that thing is still illegal.’ Frank looked over at the armed officers. ‘Take it.’
Two of the officers approached Zoe with menace. Theo stepped in their way blocking their path toward her.
‘Stop, please,’ he demanded.
One of the officers threw his fist into Theo’s stomach winding him. Theo collapsed to his knees trying to catch his breath. As the two police officers neared Zoe she became enraged by their treatment of Theo. She grabbed the first officer around the throat and lifted him off the ground pushing him toward the ceiling. His eyes were wide with shock as his legs flailed helplessly. With her other hand she knocked the second across the room. He crashed up against the wall knocking him unconscious. She then threw the first officer down onto the floor. Frank and Theo watched on in horror at her strength.
Zoe looked at her hands in disbelief, then over to Theo.
‘I don’t want to hurt anyone.’
‘You don’t have to,’ he said through strained voice still trying to correct his breathing.
‘What if I can’t control it? I have to go with them’
The second two officers approached Zoe with much more caution than their colleagues. Zoe remains still as they grab her arms and cuff her.
‘No,’ Theo called out climbing to his feet.
‘I’m sorry,’ Zoe whispered as they escorted her out of the building.
Theo was about to chase them, but Frank stepped in his way pushing him back.
‘Don’t Theo. You’re lucky I’m not arresting you as well. I suggest you go back upstairs.’
Theo entered his bedroom and sat down on the side of the bed. He picked up a photo of him and his wife staring at it momentarily before putting it back. He then pulled open the bedside unit drawer and slipped a gun from it. He took a deep breath before putting the barrel to his head. This time his finger had no trouble pulling back on the trigger.