A love story, this time, and taking the theme completely literally this time. I really enjoyed writing this one and it's something I'm sure I'll return to. I know a lot of things have been set on Mars but I tried for a slightly different idea here.
Edit: My wife (who has an excellent blog over here) has suggested I make a sequel to this, continue the story. It's swilled around in my head for a couple of weeks and I think I have a solution. It's going to be a bit of an homage but I think I can pull it off.
035 – Hold my hand
“Here, hold this for a second, will ya?” James called. He tossed something out of the duct he had crawled into. It was his hand, frozen into a claw; I hooked one of the fingers onto my belt and peered in. It was surprisingly well-lit and I had a marvellous view of the seat of his red dungarees. There was a sudden burst of light and the actinic smell of laser cutting wafted out towards me as James began to cut.
“Damn, this is a mess,” he shouted over the high-pitched whine. “Main line’s shot, having to cut right through to take it out.” He started to whistle, something tuneless, and then the laser cut out. He started to wiggle out of the duct and I stepped back to give him room.
Back on his feet, James dusted himself down. “Thanks, mate,” he said, and held out his hand. I unhooked the hand on my belt and handed it back to him, watching with slight ill unease as he fitted it over the laser attachment on the stump of his arm. It locked into place and, with a slight clicking sound, he flexed the fingers.
“Good as new, eh?” he said, admiring it.
“It’s… great,” I muttered. The whole thing was kind of creepy, really. S-Corp were all into their experimental technology, and it was a perk of working for them that they were able to solve most problems. James’ android body, cutting-edge research technology though it was, unnerved a lot of the crew.
“I keep finding things it can do,” James said as he swung his toolbag over one shoulder and began to move back down the maintenance tunnel. “Yesterday, I was having a shower and the soap ran out. Before I knew it, I was sweating shower gel. Best shower ever, John, don’t mind tellin’ ya.” He didn’t wait for a reply but started whistling again.
To be honest, it was like someone who’d recently found religion, or started dieting; he just couldn’t shut up about it.
Life on Mars was hard; red dust got in everywhere, even through the supposedly-foolproof filters, and the machinery was always failing. It meant more work for us, though I didn’t really mind it. The Devil makes work for idle hands, and all that. James took up a lot of the slack now, though. He didn’t need sleep and appeared to be taking full advantage of it.
The whistling stopped, thankfully. Then:
“You seeing that girl again tonight? What was her name, Sharon, Sheila…”
“Shania. And yeah, might do. What about you, got any plans?” I suddenly regretted saying it; James had only been back with us for a few days and I wasn’t even sure he felt those sorts of urges any more.
“I might come to the bar. I can’t drink, you know, but I can come and be social.” His back seemed suddenly a bit defensive, shoulders slightly raised. Damn.
“I’m sure Shania would love to meet you.”
“Mmm,” he said, and we walked on in silence. Kevin passed us in the corridor, nodded to me and eyed James a little suspiciously. We continued on and entered Maintenance. It had been our last job of the day and Marn, the receptionist, already had her hand out for our flimscroll job chit. I reached into my back pocket and pulled out the chit. It was rolled up, a material like a piece of thin plastic, a tough and durable smartscreen that seemed set to replace paper within the next decade. She swiped it, wiped the data and dropped it into the slot. We nodded our thanks, signed out and left.
The bar was quiet when we got there. No-one bothered to dress up on Mars; the mining business was anything but glamorous. Shania wasn’t there, so we sat at a table, drink in hand. I had a beer. James had an empty glass.
“So,” I said, more to break the silence. We were the only ones there.
“Mm,” he replied, pretending to drink.
“How’s it been?”
I concentrated on my beer so I didn’t have to look him in the eye.
“Being dead? So far, pretty damn good. I’ve got this great body, no worries and my life expectancy is another hundred years at least.” He paused, took an empty swig and then said “How’s being alive going for you?”
A couple of people wandered in, ordered, sat down. I watched them as an alternative to answering James’ question, buying thinking space.
I suppose the accident had been inevitable. A fixture had blown out while fixing the plumbing at 7-G, routine stuff. There wasn’t even supposed to be anything capable of producing a blast there, but blast it had, right into James’ face. Two days later, he’d been back among us, not quite dead but nowhere near alive either. The report said they’d pulled his body out without a face, but his personality had still been alive and kicking in the Chipple implant on the back of his neck. Upload that to the android’s brain and voila, zombie James was back in action, looking like he’d never left.
The atmosphere got thicker between us. My beer was almost gone but I hadn’t tasted any of it. I’d grieved for James when I heard the news, drunk a glass to his memory and moved on. Now it was like he haunted me.
“I’m still me, y’know.” His voice was quiet, barely carrying over the sound of the few people that had joined us.
“It’s…” I began, not sure how to explain, but he carried on.
“I still remember those nights, staying up until the morning shift, drinking at Denny’s. That time we switched all the codes on the lockers. Spiking Bob’s drink with laxative.”
“It was Sam’s drink we spiked.”
“See? I even make mistakes, just like the real… just like normal.” It was impossible to ignore the fact that he seemed to be contrived. A made-up man, making up proof for himself. My beer was empty.
“I need to piss,” I muttered, getting up. He nodded.
“Shall I get them in?”
“Whatever,” I said, already halfway to the door. It swung open as I approached, a waft of the smell that fills all men’s toilets everywhere reaching me. Did James need to do this anymore? Did he drain his pump reservoir or something equally inhuman? Was he even equipped to perform this most basic function?
When I got back to the table, James wasn’t there. The beer was on the table, beads of condensation forming on the side. I looked around, picking up the glass and taking a sip, before sitting down. More people had come in and the bar was getting noisier. Suddenly he came from behind me and slumped down in the seat again, frowning.
“Can’t do it,” he said, the frown turning into a scowl.
“Can’t do what?”
“Chat that girl up. It’s,” he said, then his mouth worked as if he was trying to spit out something clinging to his tongue. “Can’t do it,” he finished lamely.
“Why were you trying to?” I asked, taking a mouthful of beer.
“Because, well, look at her!” I did. The woman in question was tall, leggy, large breasts, that expression on her face that said she’d already had a few beers and wouldn’t mind you buying her a few more. She was, indeed, worth a try.
“Well, what happened?”
“I don’t know,” James said, looking mournful. “I went up to speak to her and she just kind of looked at me. And then I didn’t know what to say.”
“You sure they programmed you right? I mean, you’re banned from three bars over in Dome 9 still, right? What was it,” I said, trying to break the tension, “Soliciting underage miners?”
His expression killed my humour where it sat. “I’m serious, John. No response whatsoever. And I don’t just mean from her. If you get me.”
Ah. So they couldn’t program quite everything in. Suddenly I felt sorry for James. The finest of things in life were forever barred from him, exchanging sex and food for a body with detachable limbs that sweated shower gel.
Shania chose that moment to arrive, adding another layer to the already-thick tension. She kissed me on the cheek and sat down.
“Hi, John. It’s great to see you,” she said, smiling warmly. Then she frowned. “Who’s this?”
“Ah, this is James. He’s-“ an android. Dead. Programmable. Just leaving. “-a friend. We worked the same shift today.”
“Oh, cool. So, James, what’s your software version number?”
Mars could have broken in two at that point and we’d have been less surprised. More dead, but less surprised. Finally James licked his lips, not that he needed to.
“Erm, 3.4. I’m version 3.4.”
“Ah, so they haven’t sent out the newest update yet. Plug in some time after midnight and you’ll get the new stuff,” Shania said, apparently unaware of the effect she was having. “It’s pretty cool, we’ve been working on… but I can’t really talk about it here.” She took a sip of my beer and sat forward in the formfoam chair. “I’d love to have a closer look, if you don’t mind.” She held out a hand.
“How did you know I was… like this?” James asked. Shania put her head to one side, the gesture I’d found so cute a week ago. It was slightly worrying now.
“I work in R&D, James. Toes, mostly. Replacement, prosthetic. You’d be surprised how many toes we go through. You guys are always dropping things on them, slicing through them, breaking them… in fact, take off your shoes and socks.
Slightly mechanically, James reached down and unlaced his heavy work shoe. The black sock came off next, and he lifted his leg up so that Shania could see it. She gripped the foot tightly with both hands and twisted, pulling it away from his leg.
“Hey!” he said, grabbing for it, but she was already peering closely at the toes.
“The fourth one’s one of mine, and the big toe, of course. I sign them, y’know? The toe-print, look.” She brought the foot out into the light and pointed to the underside of his big toe. Sure enough, in the whorls of his toe-print were tiny letters SK. “Shania Knowles. It’s vanity, I know, but hey. Who wouldn’t?”
I suddenly remembered I had beer, and, feeling the need, drained the glass. “It’s my round,” I muttered, standing up. I suddenly needed to be away from Shania, away from James. I felt vaguely disgusted, watching my girlfriend – had we been going out long enough for that? – peering so closely at my friend’s dismembered foot while he looked on, empty glass in hand, looking slightly ill. And, underneath, there was jealousy. He couldn’t even get it up, felt no urge to reproduce, and yet there he was, captivating my date, just like always. I stumbled to the bar and caught the barobo’s photoreceptor.
“A double vodka, two beers, one glass of white wine,” I said, then remembered myself. “Make that one beer.” When the vodka arrived, I downed it in one, the hard taste biting at the back of my throat. I looked over at the table; Shania had convinced him to pull his shirt up, and was rummaging in his back under a flesh-coloured panel. When the beer arrived, I drank it in a long draught, then picked up the wine. Reality was suddenly not a place I wished to be.