“ALN23061912RK” by Cyndy Reads
Something wasn’t right.
The farmer’s market buzzed around him, his arms heavy with his cloth totes filled to the brim. There’d been a lovely selection of candles this morning. Now he waited among the sea of humanity in the square for the curly-haired vendor to wrap his fresh-cut flowers. An acoustic band played in the middle of the market, twangy notes bouncing off tents and muddled with the voices of the crowd. He reached out for his wrapped bouquet with a smile while alarm bells rang in his head.
It seemed like a pleasant day- from all the available information, it was. Yet every time he turned a corner, every time he bumped into someone and mumbled his apologies, he felt as if eyes were burning into the back of his skull. He checked his breath rate and found it functionally normal. He tested his blinking mod and found no concerns. Still, as he weaved through the market, he zoned in on the port-o-johns and stood in line as calmly as he could.
When he finally made it inside, he closed his eyes and scanned. No functions seemed abnormal. Still, with his sensory circuits firing so much today, he decided it best to do a soft reboot. Candles heavy in his arms, the flowers peeking over the sides of his totes, he stood still in the port-o-john and let his CPU reset.
A few functions stuttered at first; mostly the modifications he’d added in the last few years, like the blinking mod. After a second or two, they all hummed quietly into order, evening out their memory usage. Response time under a second. Respiratory simulation at a resting rate of fourteen breaths a minute. Blinking mod pushing a blink every seven seconds. Nothing out of order. He let his shoulders relax and flushed the toilet behind him. There’d be no way to differentiate him from anyone else. Couldn’t be. He exited the port-o-john and tried to push the feelings away. Maybe it was time to leave the market.
He headed down the street at a leisurely pace, careful not to seem in any hurry. After all, if for some reason it wasn’t his sensory awareness misfiring, it’d be best to not to appear paranoid. There’d be no reason for a man visiting the farmer’s market on a beautiful morning to think he was being followed. Even in this train of thought, he reassured himself that being followed wasn’t likely. Why let it ruin the day?
Whether to throw off his pursuers or to force himself to abandon the silly thoughts, he took a detour on the way back to his apartment. He stopped in at the local gardening center, where the shopkeep knew him by his fake name and bought a new spider plant. Now, his arms and hands full, he walked a little quicker towards his complex. He told himself it was to get the snake plant inside, but he knew fear chased his footsteps.
The doorman greeted him as he stepped through the door. He nodded once, the snake plant’s hanging leaves jostling as he pulled out his resident card. Only when walking up the stairs to his third floor studio did he relax.
A neighbor, Mrs. Whistledown, waved in the hallway. He smiled and greeted her as he shuffled his things to unlock the door. Once inside, he let the totes fall to the ground and set the snake plant in the windowsill. Then he leaned against the wall and put his head in his hands. The alarm bells were quieter now that he was inside. Locked in. Safe. His apartment complex was the safest place he could be. So why were the alarms only quieter and not gone?
Something at the market must have been off. Off in a way that his logic systems had found dangerous. It would take hours to sift through the raw data to find what had triggered it. Hours of audio, of video, all having to be sifted through to find what had gone wrong. He looked at his apartment and sighed. He wouldn’t be able to go into rest mode until he’d found it, he knew that. With a heavy dose of trepidation, he started the script to find the trigger.
While the script ran, he unloaded his haul from the farmer’s market. He picked a purple candle and placed it on his dining table, stacking the others in careful towers in his closet. He unwrapped the bouquet, grabbing a packet of plant food from his cabinet and a vase. He filled a vase with water, mixed in the plant food, and arranged the flowers. Then he grabbed his watering can and sprayer and set to watering his plants.
First the rubber plant, Henry. Henry needed a good misting during the warm months and he obliged, spraying each leaf evenly. Then Alberta, the Boston fern. Next were the lavender and mint pots, Lila and Pepper. And down the line he went, each plant with a different name, both scientific and given. Just like him. All the while the script ran in his head, tackling all the audio from his trip out and flagging bits of interest. So far, none stood out as significant. He tipped the watering can over Susanna, the lilies, just as a knock interrupted him. The script stopped. His hand froze.
He wasn’t expecting company.
The watering can and sprayer were near silent as he set them down next to his plant family. He stepped carefully towards the door, mindful of the wooden floor’s bends so as not to let the squeaks of the wood give away his position. When he arrived at the door, he stood just off to the side, hiding the shadow of his bare feet from underneath. He leaned over to look through the peephole.
A trade worker of some sort stood outside, coveralls and matching hat. She chewed on something in her mouth, looking down the hall, tapping her toolbox with one finger. The alarm bells were back. The mechanic knocked again.
He saw little choice in the matter. “Who is it?” he called through the door.
The woman turned her attention to his door. “Electrician. Got word from Mrs. Carol that there were some busted wires in the apartment above yours. I need access to your ceiling.”
Mrs. Carol sent her? The landlady usually gave notices for work orders, but if it was the apartment above his, maybe she hadn’t known.
He’d hate to inconvenience Mrs. Carol due to his own paranoia. His limbs tense, alarm straightening his spine, he opened the door.
A bright flash blasted his ocular systems and he felt an electrical pulse surge through his body, overloading his wiring. The world faded into hot-white nothingness.
The first systems that fired back up were his logic systems. The electrician wasn’t an electrician. He’d been hit by a pulse gun. He was in danger.
Next were his motor skills. He found both his arms and legs unresponsive. Still attached, he found from pinging each limb. Just individually restricted. Either he was in restraints or his attacker knew how to manipulate droids.
His microphones were back online. He heard his attacker shuffling through his apartment, tinkering with something. Otherwise quiet. His voice box was back online as well, but he held off trying to talk until he could see.
Slowly all other systems went online, one at a time, but he knew his ocular cameras would be the last to load. He kept still, though he knew he couldn’t feign unconsciousness. All she’d have to do is listen and she’d hear the quiet whirring in his chest, his android heartbeat.
When his ocular systems were back online, he opened his eyelids to a slit. His attacker sat in front of him, tinkering with a-
Oh no. An external monitor.
Her eyes caught his and he stopped hiding. He opened his eyes and sat as straight as he could only having control of his torso and neck. He found his neck jangled slightly. Dread crept along his spine. She’d opened his casing while he was out. The external monitor-
“Make this easy for me,” she said, waving the monitor in her hand, “Give me your serial number.”
He pursed his lips and said nothing.
She sighed. “Listen. You found a way to burn off your serial number, which, props, clever. But I don’t get paid the big bucks for nothing. I can hack you and find it. I’d just rather not.”
He stared at her. Waiting.
“You know why I’m here, right?” she asked.
“Then you know who sent me. Which is why I’d really rather not hack you. So, y’know, a serial number would be nice.”
“You don’t have to do this,” he whispered.
“I kinda do,” she said, rubbing her forehead, “I was paid half up front.”
“I’m-” He hesitated, rolling the word around in his head before letting it pass his lips, “I’m sentient.”
She rolled her eyes and, if he’d had a stomach, it would’ve dropped. “Sure, and I’m the Queen of England.”
“What did they tell you I was?” he asked, trying not to let panic into his voice.
“A spy droid,” she said, pulling some cords out of her bag, “So I knew you’d lie. It’s, like, the point of you.”
There was no holding back the panic now. They’d trapped him. Nothing he said would make a difference. She was here to take him back and it wouldn’t matter what he said.
“Please,” he said, pushing his head forward, “Please, I truly am sentient, it’s why they’ve been hunting me, it’s why I’ve-”
“Oh shut it, ya big baby. You’re caught. I’m not Russia here to steal your secrets, I just wanted your serial number.”
“Please, miss, I’m not a spy, I’m a record keeper, I-”
She stood, cords dangling from the monitor. His mouth hung open in helplessness. It was over. All of it, the years in hiding, the life he’d built- over.
“Well, no point in dragging this out I guess. Night-night, pal,” she said.
Her hands with the cords reached around his