Earth, 2135. For most, it's an era of progress and unity. For Chris Bowers, it's a time of uncertainty. He's about to propose to his girlfriend, but in the darkest corners of his imagination, he can't help but think she's hiding something from him. (4800 words)
“You tip too much,” Brianna says with a faint smile. The summer breeze flutters through her dark copper hair, which she promptly brushes away. Her eyes never leave my face.
“The service was good.” I shrug.
“I think you just like that she recognized your tattoo.”
My eyes flick down to the “Revelation 2:10” inked down the length of my thumb, just below the knuckle. One of several tattoos I carry. “It’s a rare thing nowadays. Can you blame me?”
She takes a sip of her drink with two hands and notices my furrowed brow. “It feels nice to have something in common with a total stranger, doesn’t it? Like you know them, even though you don’t.”
“Sure.” Except I feel like everyone besides Brianna is a stranger, even if I know plenty about them. “You sure you don’t want the rest of those wings?”
“They’re too spicy. I thought you said they were mild.”
I laugh. “They’re mild to me.” For a moment, the only sound is the dull chatter around us and the clink of silverware. A motorcycle’s engine rips through the air in the distance.
“Hey, so you remember my friend Gina?”
“Uh huh.” Is she the one from the gym, or her pottery class?
“She and her husband want to get some drinks this weekend. It’ll be their first night out since their baby was born. How’s that sound?”
“I don’t know…” I sigh. Why does she do this?
“Is it because she’s an Android?”
“No— Come on. It’s not like that. I just… You know.”
Brianna stares at me again with crystal blue eyes. She often looks at me like it’s the first time she’s seen me in years. Sometimes, I love it. Right now, it just makes me uneasy and lends credence to my suspicions. “You’re right. I just wish it was easier for you.”
“I’m sorry.” I don’t know what else to say.
“Don’t.” Her face twitches into a half smile, and then she sighs and stands. “I should get back to work, though.”
“Me too— Real busy day at the office.” I sling my camera back over my shoulder and hold open the patio gate for her as I squint against the sun.
Brianna laughs, soft and lilting. “My famous photographer.”
We step onto the sidewalk as cars drift past and hoverbikes zip overhead. The buildings downtown rear up into the cloud-dotted sky. They grow taller by the year, like creeping vines of concrete and steel; they’ll be a mile high by 2150. “Soon-to-be. Come here.” I slip my arms around her waist and give her a kiss.
She rears back for a second and smiles fully this time. “One more.” She plants her lips on mine again. “Don’t forget to water my plants. I love you.”
“Love you too.”
She departs for her office, where she works in engineering research. It’s a good thing one of us is smart. I watch her go, and for a moment, I forget why I’m here. I could just go home and continue my work. Part of me wants to, but the silver cross nestled against my heart gives me courage. This has been a long time coming. I need to know the truth about Brianna before I propose.
There’s this splinter digging at the deepest recesses of my psyche, telling me she’s not really human. Mounds of research say the Androids are identical to humans after creation, and their seamless integration into every aspect of our society seems convincing... But how can they truly be like us when they’re made, not born? As much as I care for her, I can’t marry a creature not of God’s creation. It’s why I’ve put it off for so long. When I go to Heaven, I want to be in paradise beside my wife. Unfortunately, as advanced as science is, only God can create life with a soul. I’ve suffered many sleepless nights, but I’m finally prepared to face the truth, no matter how much it hurts.
Finding out, though, is a task in and of itself. It’s offensive to ask anyone what they are; all you’ll get in reply is scathing dismissal. Even so, I’ve asked Brianna before. Of course, she’s human, she says. She even showed me her birth certificate, but everyone knows how easy they are to acquire. Some Androids pose as humans out of fear of the True Life Advocates, a hate group that has opposed Android rights for the better part of a century. Androids aren’t getting killed in the streets anymore, but some of the deep-seated hatred lingers beneath the polite fabric of civilized society. I don’t know why Brianna would lie to me, but it’s not unthinkable.
I want to believe her, but I can’t dismiss the possibility that none of this might be real. The notion that our entire life together was built on a lie hangs over me like a cloud, and I’ve walked in its shadow for far too long. That’s why I’m headed to Genesis Labs Corporation. They’re the worldwide leader in Android creation and, since they’ve produced over 90% of our current Android population, it’s highly likely they’ll have Brianna’s file. I recently did a project for an aspiring model who works as a clerk in their records department. Instead of charging my normal rate, I asked him to find me a creation file on Brianna Ellis. He was all too eager to save some money.
My cell rings. “Hello?”
“Hey, Chris.” It’s him.
I quicken my pace, scanning the sidewalk ahead. I tried to give Brianna a solid start; her work is in the same direction as GLC. I don’t want to overtake her and have to explain why I’m not heading home. “Hey, I got held up at lunch, but I’m on my way right now. You got the file?”
“No need. It’s not here.”
My heart skips a beat and I stop dead. “Someone took it?”
“No, there’s no file whatsoever. I checked the electronic database and our hard copies down in archives. There’s nothing here.” His voice is steady.
I can’t help myself. “Did you chicken out on me or something? Change your mind?” My grip on the phone tightens.
“No, I’m telling you, man, there’s nothing here,” he says. “We didn’t make her, I guarantee it. What’s this about, anyways?”
I sigh. Whether he’s lying or not, I won’t get anything by badgering him over the phone. “Nothing, don’t worry about it. Thanks.”
There’s an awkward pause. “So… We’re good? I can still pay you, if you want. I wish I could be of more help.”
“No, we’re square. Good luck with the modeling.”
“Thanks, Chris. If I need any more shots, you’re my guy.”
“Sure.” I hang up and turn towards home. Brianna has a small office there; maybe that’s my next move. I wish it didn’t have to come to this, but I’m out of options. I had originally tried subtler methods. According to the conspiracy nuts on the internet, animals hate Androids, but other people’s dogs love Brianna. Apparently, they can’t taste spicy food, but that was a bust too. So, I dug even deeper.
Another website said Androids have a tiny kill switch at the base of their spine. I know every inch of Brianna’s body. There’s no button beneath her smooth, olive skin. I ended up concluding not that Brianna was human, but that these theories, at least, were bogus.
With simple observations getting me nowhere, I turned towards more concrete methods. I got a sample of her blood tested a week ago, but it came back as human. Synthetic DNA is so advanced now, though, I half expected to come up empty handed. That was when my unhelpful acquaintance had contacted me using his work email address, which had inspired my latest idea. Now, I’m back to square one, but I’m no less determined to find the truth.
* * *
The lock clicks; I withdraw the hairpin and breathe a sigh of relief. It looked much easier in the video. I wipe a bead of sweat from my brow with aching fingers and rest my hand on the doorknob for a moment. I can’t help but think about what I’m potentially ruining. We were only sixteen when we went on our first date. We got ice cream cones and went for a walk, somehow ending up by the town’s lake, glowing orange beneath a breathtaking sunset. That moment is meaningless if I shared it with a machine. I’ll have nobody to share it with when we’re gone. My fingers tighten around the knob. I can’t believe it’s come to this. Guilt pulls at my gut, but my paranoia wins.
I step into the office and scan the room. There must be something here, perhaps a creation file or a medical report... I know she’s one of them; I can tell she’s hiding something. After a decade with her, I know her better than I know myself. But where do I start looking? I need to be quick; I only have an hour and a half until she gets home.
There are stacks of papers everywhere, and a row of file cabinets along the back wall. Pictures of us line one of the wooden shelves, and a potted plant sits in the corner. I sift through the first stack of files and find only theoretical disseminations that I can hardly comprehend. How am I going to find anything in this mess? I consider abandoning this fool’s errand, but only for a second before I shake away the doubt.
I dig through the second stack and the third, feverishly scanning the papers for anything to alleviate my suspicions. The rustle of loose sheets becomes a deafening rattle in my ears as my eyes dart from page to page. I’m trying to keep some semblance of order to the piles, but I’m probably making it obvious that I’ve been here. I need to find the evidence this time around, since I won’t likely get another chance. I flip through the stacks faster.
After several minutes of fruitless searching, I abandon the mess on her desk and creep over to a file cabinet. It’s then that I hear the office door creak open. I whirl on the spot as my heart leaps into my throat.
“What are you doing?” Brianna asks, her eyes like simmering blue fire. Good. Maybe this is what it takes for her to reveal the truth.
“What are you doing home?” My mind races for a plausible explanation.
“I left early. Now what’s this about? Don’t tell me…”
I swallow hard. “I can’t let it go. I need to know.”
“Unbelievable!” She throws her hands up in the air and storms out of the office. I slam the file cabinet shut and chase her through the narrow hallway. Pictures of her family on the walls leer down at me in judgement. They’re probably Androids too.
“Brianna, wait!” She stops in the kitchen and pours herself a glass of water. Outside, the sky has filled with clouds, blotting away the blue. My eyes drift over a vase of wilting flowers on the windowsill next to the one birthday card I got last month. It was from her. The flowers are from… When did I even get her those?
“How many times is this going to come up?”
“I just— I can't know for sure, and it bothers me sometimes!”
“I thought we were past this.” She sighs and sets the glass down deliberately. “What’s it going to take? You want to cut me open, check for a spark?”
“Stop being so… dramatic.” That's human enough, but all behavior can be learned. She stares at me, not the usual loving gaze, but a penetrating glare. I shiver. It's like she's studying me to observe actual human behavior.
“Dramatic?” She crosses her arms and leans back against the granite countertop. “You’ve been fixated on this for far too long. Can’t you just let it go? And even if I was an Android, so what? They’re no different from us.”
Her lips form a pout I know too well. When we’re not arguing about something serious, I find it rather alluring. “They’re missing something— It matters to me.”
“You know, Chris, you're a great person in a lot of ways, it's a real shame you're such a bioist.”
I can't believe she called me that. “Bioist? Really? You act like I'm out there throwing firebombs at the manufacturing facilities, screaming ‘Sparkdogs have no place amongst us,’ like the rest of those nutjobs!”
“If you did, you wouldn’t be here anymore,” she retorts with uncharacteristic sharpness.
I bristle. She thinks she can just kick me out of our house? “Are you that self-righteous or is this personal because you are one of them?” I stomp into the living room and grab a photo off an end table, from when we had gone snowboarding two years back. She hadn’t enjoyed the cold, but there was something peaceful up there in the mountains. I wanted to go back the second we left. The room is full of pictures and assorted trinkets from over the years, but that photograph is the only one I really care about. I take a deep breath and try to calm myself down.
I think back to our first kiss, the homecoming dance. I had been a nervous wreck all evening, nearly tripping over myself a dozen times on the dance floor. The embarrassment had been worth it at the end of the night, though. I dropped her off, walked her to her door, and instead of the nervousness, the flutters everyone gets, there was only quiet confidence. I leaned right in and kissed her. The way she looked at me afterwards, the way she ran her pink fingernails through my hair… And then she had smiled, said goodnight, and entered her house without another word. I had found it charming at the time, but now those words ring hollow.
The sound of her voice, muted by an effort to hold back tears, jolts me back into the present. “I don't know what else I can do to prove it to you.”
“If you were just honest with me, we wouldn't—”
“I have been! I'm human, Christ, how many times have I got to say it?”
“You know I don’t like it when you use His name in vain.” My pulse rises in my temples.
“Sorry. Can I ask you something?” Her voice is calm and curious.
“Why did you stop going to therapy?”
“I fucking hate it! She talks to me like she’s so smart, like she knows me better than I know myself!”
“Maybe she does. It's her job to know.”
Why does she keep trying to change the subject? “I just feel like I’m being manipulated to feel a certain way every time I go in there. Anyways, what’s this got to do with us?”
“You were doing better when you were in therapy.”
“I’m like this because I know you’re hiding something!” I snarl.
“I— Please, why don’t you believe me?” Tears well in her eyes. “All this suspicion, this animosity towards Androids— I hardly recognize you sometimes. Please, just let this go.”
I knew it. My stomach clenches, but I push forward through trembling breaths. I need to know. “Then tell me what you’re hiding! You think I don’t want a release from this? I pray every night that you tell me the truth, but I’m still waiting!”
She drops her forehead into her hand. “This needs to stop, Chris.”
Silence presses in on us, like it wants to suffocate the truth. I won’t let it.
“I agree. I’m sick of feeling this way, and it’s only getting worse. It hurts, Brianna. It’s like my blood itches, and I can’t take it anymore. Tell me the truth, or I’m gone. I may not like the outside world much, but at this point I’ll take my chances.” The words are out before I can stop them. They tear a hole in the room through which all the familiarity is sucked. We stare across the void, eyes hazel and blue, like we’re meeting as strangers. She’s wrestling with something; I can see it plain on her face.
She disappears into her office. Several moments pass; my heart palpitates irregularly. There's a vague sense of dread I can't put my finger on, like it's behind a curtain. My mouth dries up like it’s been stuffed full of cotton. Maybe I shouldn’t have done this.
She enters the living room and holds out a large envelope. “This is your file. I'm sorry. I never meant for this to happen.”
“File? What, are you joking?”
“Open it.” Her tone leaves no room for protest. The first page stops my heart.
Genesis Labs Corporation Site #043
C Wing, Laboratory 09
Project Manager: Sam Danson
Lead designer: Brianna Ellis
Head programmer: John Alvarez
Senior analyst: Brianna Ellis
Creation date: 11/17/2135
Subject # 00-18522-210
Name: Christopher Bowers
Below are several photographs of my naked body in various stages of construction, lifeless as the cold, metal table beneath it. I see that body every day, and yet it looks foreign to me. The most disturbing image shows only my face affixed to a synthetic skeleton, the same one all Androids are made from. At the center is an electrical heart, like a complex battery. The spark. I reach down and touch the center of my chest. It’s in there. I can almost feel it. My blood, my fake, manmade blood, drains from my face. The face created, apparently, by my intended fiancé. “What is this?” My voice is a dead croak. Hardly human.
“It’s you. It's…” The corners of her lips pull tight to resist the tremor that runs through them, and her red-rimmed eyes are wide as she awaits my full reaction. There's pain behind the clinical detachment she's so desperately trying to maintain.
“Why is my face on one of those machines, Brianna?” I want to deny it, but I know the sick truth that's coming. The evidence is clutched in my trembling hand. Does this mean I’m condemned to Hell? Or oblivion? God, please...
“You know why.”
“You're a researcher. You work for an engineering—”
“I had to lie to you,” she says. “I’ve always worked for GLC’s analytics lab.”
“Then why does it say you're my designer? The creation date is three years ago! We’ve been together for over a decade, we’re thirty years old! What the fuck is going on here?” I shake the envelope vigorously in a white-knuckled fist.
“We made you.” Her words are a whisper and a weapon. She might as well cut me open and leave me bleeding on the floor.
Denial rushes in again, sweeping through me. This must be a nightmare. I’ll wake up any moment, I know it. “How? How is this— I'm human! I can't be one of these… things!”
She swallows hard and scrubs at her eyes with her sleeve. “I know this is a shock to you, I'm sorry. It's always hard on you.”
My gut clenches. “Always? What?”
“We've had this conversation four times now, counting today. I've had to excise portions of your memory files three times in the past.” The guilt in her eyes looks real enough.
“You couldn’t handle it. You tried to kill yourself the first time, tried to kill me the second. You succeeded in killing yourself last time, and they wanted to call the project a failure. I convinced them to rebuild you, to give it one last chance. That was six weeks ago. This is it, Christopher.”
I gesture wildly with my hands at the surrounding room. It feels like someone else’s house. “Give what one last chance? Why do I exist? Nobody makes adult Androids!”
“Not yet— We wanted to know if we could create them as adults. If we can create specific people… Doctors, astronauts, politicians, scientists… The possibilities—”
“And I was the answer to that question.” The realization hits me like a train; my breath comes in shallow rasps.
“So that's it? I'm just a pawn? I'm just an experiment to you? I thought…”
She sees the question in my eyes before I can say it. “I do love you,” she says.
“How? How could you?” I feel like I should be furious. Instead, I just feel numb, like there’s a wet cloth smothering the embers of my worst instincts.
Brianna sighs and drops onto the couch next to me. “I had a fiancé before you were created. Five years ago, he was killed in a car crash, just when I was beginning my career in the lab. We had met in high school…”
My stomach drops further; I know where this is going. I want to vomit, which strikes me as an oddly human response. “Just say it.”
“His name was Chris Bowers.”
I swallow a rock of truth. “Why him?”
“We needed to have a human point of reference for your behavior. It’s one thing to program the ability to feel emotion, learn, and develop, like we do with the Android infants, but it’s another to program a lifetime of experiences. We needed to test our accuracy. Despite all the ethical concerns, Chris was the obvious choice. You couldn't know you were an Android, for the sake of the experiment. We needed to be able to observe you around the clock and see how your behavior compared to his, to see if our code worked like we had hoped.”
“So, you got your experiment and your life back,” I mutter.
“It not just about me! You could be the start of something incredible, the—”
“I thought I was a failure.”
She takes a deep breath. “I've come to believe that your antisocial tendencies, the intense distrust you experience, the bioism, all of it, is a result of the programming we put in place as your base code. We had to write in a reason for you to not have any other important relationships like friends or parents.”
“Because I don’t actually have any. It’d be too difficult to...” I blow a sigh as the source of my loneliness is fully revealed. Maybe that’s why I’ve always felt closer to God than people, except for Brianna. But was that even real, either? Was it His voice I heard in my darkest moments, or just some lines of code?
“Yes. Other Androids develop meaningful connections, relationships, and experiences just as any human would, naturally, throughout their lifespan. You had to be primed for the world only with the code we gave you and no true learning or socialization. I believe your flaws are a direct result of that code. If we were able to alter it somehow, to not give you such an isolated and lonely background, perhaps…”
“Perhaps I wouldn't be so screwed up.” The words taste as bitter as they sound.
“You’re not screwed up. You’re just… It’s my fault. We wrote everything I knew about Chris into you, and only changed what we had to for logistical reasons, like the group home instead of Chris’s actual family. You are simultaneously someone I know so well and an entirely different person. It's like witnessing him in another life. Like if one thing had gone differently…”
“This is all just nostalgic bullshit for you, isn't it? You're just clinging to memories, to a shadow of a man. You used me like a bandage to cover up an old wound that never healed. I'm just some… thing… that reminds you of someone else.”
“This isn’t about the old Chris, this is about us. Remember the candid shots you did? That was you. You captured a part of me I hadn’t known existed. You saw me in a different light than anyone else ever has. I may have loved him, but now I’m in love with you.”
“Is this just another tactic to get me to comply with your project?”
“Does this look like a tactic?” She stares at me. There’s a profound mixture of pain and hope etched on her face. “They told me to stay detached, to stay clinical. I couldn't. What we have is real, Chris. Look at your memories.” She's staring at me with those big, blue eyes again, full of desperation.
“How do I know my memories are even real?”
“You saw your creation date. Everything since then actually happened.”
“But you doctored memories of mine, you admitted it!”
“I only erased memories of these conversations, to continue this. To continue our life together!” She grabs my hands, but I jerk back. “Please, I’m risking everything by doing this! This is our last chance— They’ll scrap you if this is deemed a failure!”
“How can I trust you?”
“You know it was real, Chris. It still can be. I'm not authorized to wipe your memories or order a reprogramming anymore, but we can move forward from here.”
“After each critical incident, your programming was altered to lower self-harming impulses, and then violent behavior after you tried to kill me.”
“That explains a lot. I’m not even angry, I’m just… I don’t know.”
“That's good. Your therapy is helping, too.”
“Does she know?”
Brianna nods. My head spins. “This can work, Christopher. This can be what it was.”
I think back to the first date. The first kiss. They happened before I was created; those memories were real, but not mine. I see them differently now, but it makes perfect sense. Something about them had always felt off.
I think back to the first time she told me she loved me. Not the first time she told the other Chris, back in fall of 2121, but the first time she said the words “I love you” to me after November 16, 2135. It was in March. I remember it being a tough winter for us, but of course it’s crystal clear now. She was getting used to what I am. What she made. She was realizing I wasn’t Chris after all.
I remember that day better than anything else. I showed her a project I had been working on, a collection of candid photographs I had taken of her over the past few months. “My God, I really do love you.” She said it in a whisper as her eyes nailed me to the wall. The memory is even more poignant with my newfound knowledge.
I know she meant every word. “Why?” I ask. “Why did you tell me?”
“I couldn’t keep changing your code and lying to you. It wasn’t working, and I wasn’t going to let this fall to pieces again. We don’t get another chance.” She grabs my hands once more. I don't pull away this time. The touch anchors me in a world that's become pure chaos. “We can move forward now.”
“Where's that?” My voice cracks. “I don't even know what I am anymore.” Does God hear the prayers of those not made in His image? Will He still guide me?
Her hands move to my face, cradling my cheeks as she stares through me. “You know who you are. So do I, and I refuse to give up on you.” She kisses me. Despite everything that’s happened, it feels just like before.
We pull apart, the silence between us deafening. She bites her lip, looking at me the way she always does. I see it differently now, but it’s comforting. I run my hand over my head and sigh. “So, what happens now?” Despite my existence having been turned inside out, I still want her. She’s the only thing that makes sense anymore.
“Nobody can ever find out that you know, and we need the experiment to succeed,” Brianna says.
“I won’t be able to save you. You need to live. Really live, like everyone else.”
“How? I don’t know where to start.”
“Just trust me. And promise me you won’t ever give up.”
“I…” I look at my hands, at the black ink. I rub my knuckles against the stubble on my chin and look outside at the cloud-streaked sky that bleeds sunlight through the tangled wisps with machine-made eyes. I cross the room and slide open the glass door. Purple and yellow flowers bloom in the tiny garden next to our porch, dancing in the faint breeze that tickles my skin. Goosebumps pop up across my arms. God made this world, and this world made me. Maybe this can be real. Maybe I still have a place here.
I turn back to Brianna. “I promise.”