The last song and dance number that Izzie Valdes performs in the Elegance Retreat Resort and Spa's Weekly Michael Jackson Tribute Spectacular is "Thriller," copyright 1982 MJJ Records.
Usually, this works out well. "Thriller" is Izzie's favorite Michael Jackson number, and by this point in the show she's usually pretty cranky and exhausted, so it's nice to close out with something she enjoys. Plus, the zombie makeup is pretty sweet. It's possible that, at twenty-eight years old, Izzie should not find zombie makeup quite so exciting, especially after eleven years of doing the same routine. But at twenty-eight years old, Izzie has better things to worry about. Things like patellar-femoral syndrome, resulting in iliotibial band tightness and weakness along the medial quadriceps.
Izzie's thigh seizes up on a jump early in the routine. It's been sore the whole night (the past three weeks), but the landing cinches it, and the brutal stinging behind her knee nearly takes her down. Through gritted teeth and sheer force of will she stays upright, but the rest of the routine is a stilted, limping mess.
The dance number ends with Izzie at center stage, feet planted wide apart and arms flung out to the sides. The signature evil laugh plays at the end of the track, and Izzie throws her head back in an expression of lip-synced merriment that's more than half involuntary grimace. Pyrotechnics flare, and she escapes the stage, hiding her limp amid smoke and showers of sparkles.
George Menson, who plays the second Michael Jackson of the evening, "Bad"-era and onwards, is waiting in the wings for his cue as Izzie stumbles offstage. He eyes her as she fumbles for a bottle of water.
"You okay?" George asks.
Izzie knows that George is a good guy, that he's asking out of concern. But he's also a strong-bodied kid in the prime of his career and right now, she just can't deal with him. She gurgles a response through a swallow of water and doesn't make eye contact, tries not to show how much she's favoring her left leg.
The heavy bass line of "Bad" starts and George rushes on stage to join the backup dancers, who melt in unison out of their staggered freeze-frame. Izzie hovers in the wings, sucking down the water, feeling rivulets of sweat cut deep crevasses in her pancake makeup.
One of the stagehand robots floats up to her, blinks its spherical eye-body in consternation. "Come on, honey," it says. The timbre of its pre-recorded voice and mismatched intonation always makes her think of sucking on pennies. "The backup dancers will be coming through here any minute."
Izzie nods, hands over the now-empty bottle to the mechanical claw that extends from the stagebot, and stumbles her way through the catacombs of backstage until she reaches the dressing rooms.
A swarm of tiny flying devices descends on her the second she enters, and she has to fight her way through them in order to be able to collapse onto one of the decaying chairs. Once she is immobile, they attack her again, scraping pigment off her face, combing oil from her short curls. This time she sits still and lets them, allowing her muscles to go slack, letting the adrenaline of performance drain from her fingertips.
It's a long bus ride home, from the glittering band of resorts and getaways that line the coast of the island, to the crowded, shabby residential areas just shy of downtown. By the time she reaches her apartment, all she wants to do is collapse into bed. She makes herself put together an icepack instead, wrapping a wet washcloth around an ice-filled plastic bag. As she gets settled at her computer desk, she props her leg up on the desktop and settles the icepack on top of her knee before pulling her keyboard into her lap and logging into her email.
There's a video from Omar waiting in her inbox, amid all the junk mail and missives from work. Clacking her nails on the edge of the desk in annoyance, she opens the file. Her brother's face fills the screen, with its usual nondescript backdrop (this time, a damp concrete wall). There are no other identifying objects in the shot—no cups of coffee or cell phones lying about—and the video cuts Omar off at the neck, so she can't even see what he's wearing. It's been several months since he last sent her a message, and he looks older already. He has a new scar, just bisecting the right corner of his mouth, and it makes his lips pull funny when he smiles at her.
"Hey, Iz," he says. "We have a bit of downtime so I thought I'd send you another video, even though I bet they freak you out."
"However did you guess," she asks the screen.
Video Omar barrels on, oblivious to the interruption. "Still, I just can't bear the thought of my baby sister never seeing her brother's face again." His mouth twists briefly, smooths. "We're doing well out here, everybody as hale and hearty as can be expected, I guess. And we're making good progress, I think. Of course I can't say too much." He makes a big show of looking side to side, as if the federal government will pop out of the walls at any second. "I miss you, girl. I hope you're doing okay. Staying out of trouble. You better stay out of trouble." There is a noise somewhere off camera that grabs his attention. "I gotta go, Iz. Love you." With that the screen goes dark.
She flags the video, a red star for important, and forwards it along to the contact email she was given the first time she was brought in for questioning, when Omar first disappeared. It's a symbolic gesture, she knows. She's certain some low level government spook is keeping tabs on everything she does online, from porn to pie recipes, and she's sure that every video he sends gets poked, prodded, analyzed, and traced.
It makes her nervous, knowing the risk he's taking every time he sends her a hello. Still, he hasn't fucked up this far, and anyway, whether or not he kept in touch the whole house would still be under surveillance. Having a relative in the rebel army is more than enough to keep her lines bugged even if she cut off contact and kept her nose perfectly clean for the rest of her life, so she guesses it's nice to know he hasn't been blown up yet.
She clicks out of her email, and turns around to find herself face-to-chest with a MonitorBot.
She screams and backs up into the edge of her desk before she can get a hold on herself. MonitorBots are scary sons of bitches no matter what form they're choosing to take, and right now this one is in full-on enforcer mode, having arranged itself into a humanoid shape, except eight feet tall and with solid blocky limbs that could piledrive through her skull like it was nothing. No face on the thing, either, just an almost-smooth expanse of miniscule gunmetal gray blocks.
Thirty seconds pass in unadulterated terror. Then, slowly, Izzie realizes that she isn't dead yet, and fear bleeds into annoyance. "What?" she asks. "I already forwarded along the video Omar sent. Is there something else I can help you with?" Her voice comes out sounding a lot more confident than she feels.
An array of tiny blue lights twinkle around what approximates the MonitorBot's right shoulder, but otherwise, the bot gives no indication it heard her speak.
There is a tense moment while Izzie waits to find out if the lights indicate the start-up sequence for a laser rifle or something. When she isn't vaporized, she says, "Well, okay, if there's nothing else, I'm pretty sure you don't have any right at all to be in my home," and wonders if the thing understands sarcasm.
Lights start blinking again, much more quickly now and in no discernible pattern, orange and white and purple and green.
The voice is surprisingly smooth for a bot, and since the concealed speaker from which it emanates is nowhere near what should be the mouth area, Izzie has to fight the urge to look around for another person in the room.
"Oh. Routine check. Sure," she says, trying to sound tough but mostly just feeling relieved that, for now, she isn't getting shot.
"Yes. Routine check," the bot repeats. "Thank you for your cooperation. Please have a good day." Before Izzie can come up with a retort, the thing starts to disassemble itself, looking for all the world as if it's melting from the bottom up. Its structure breaks down to spread into a silvery pool of tiny bot-blocks only a few millimeters high. The pool coheres into a narrow stream and slithers across the room, where it disappears into the space underneath her front door. In less than thirty seconds the bot is gone entirely.
Izzie thinks of herself as fairly pragmatic. She doesn't usually let herself get too freaked out over things she can't control, and that goes double for things that don't make any sense. Still, she tosses and turns in bed for hours that night, mired in waking dreams about her body disassembling itself, throbbing left knee first, and seeping away into cracks in the floor.
There's another MonitorBot waiting for her in the cafe the next morning.
She's just finished punching her order into the cashier terminal when she sees it, human-shaped but this time more slender, less intimidating. She goes rigid, gives the thing a wide-eyed stare, but it doesn't see her, or acts like it doesn't. It walks right past, in fact, and joins a couple of human cops who are sitting at a nearby booth sipping coffees. She doesn't take her eyes off the thing as she waits for the conveyor belt to bring out her extra-large soy latte.
It's not unheard of to see two MonitorBots in two days, she tells herself: improbable, like finding four leaf clovers two days in a row, but the odds are probably skewed when one of the sightings is delivered straight to your front door. The other option, that she's under heavy enough surveillance to warrant a dedicated warden, doesn't bear thinking about.
As she walks out the thing flashes its shoulder lights at her, a quick array of blue, and she spends the rest of the day with jitters she tries staunchly to blame on the three shots of espresso in her latte.
She starts seeing MonitorBots everywhere.
It feels like she's going crazy, mostly because the damned things are so hard to spot. Not always, of course—sometimes one is just sitting on her bus, human-shaped, like it's another normal passenger. But a MonitorBot can be as unobtrusive as it wants to be. She teaches ballet lessons to little girls three days a week to bring in extra cash, and sometimes there's a weird glimmer around the edge of the studio that she feels absolutely certain is a bot stretched out to single-cell width, ringing the room. When she gets close to look, however, it disappears, which begs the question: if the thing has no problem making itself invisible, why ever be visible at all? To which she can only think of two answers: either she's hallucinating, or it's fucking with her.
When the thing shows up at one of her performances, she has to go with "fucking with her." At first she thinks it's a new piece of scaffolding, and almost runs into it while rushing offstage after "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough." It has arranged itself tall and skinny, mimicking the structure of a light tower. Nobody else seems to notice it's a bot, at least not yet.
"What are you doing here," she hisses, trying to look casual, like she's just pausing for a breather. It doesn't answer, doesn't even flash its lights at her. She grits her molars and tries not to make a spectacle of herself by throttling the stage decorations. "This is harassment," she says. "You're violating my rights." She tries not to feel ridiculous. "Seriously, what are you doing here."
There is a long pause, punctuated by the throb of bass. She feels it driving the blood in her temples to a maddening thrum. "Goddammit," she says, then plunges her hand into the depths of the scaffolding, and yanks.
She catches the thing off guard. She wouldn't have thought it possible, but the next thing she knows she's got a fistful of tiny squirming blocks and the music is blaring her cue.
"Stop," she hears the MonitorBot say, but years of practice take over and she is running on stage, shoulders hunching and legs lock-stepping to "Thriller." She flings her hands away from her the first time the choreography allows it, trying not to think of the repercussions of flinging a handful of MonitorBot bits into an unsuspecting audience, but nothing leaves her hands. She risks a glance downwards.
Thin silver chains wrap around her wrists and fingers. She gives her hand an extra-hard shake, but the bot clings stubbornly to her skin. There is nothing for it but to get through the rest of the dance and try not to hurt herself or screw it up too badly.
When the pyrotechnics flare at the end she runs off stage a bit before she's supposed to, blows past George and his concerned expression and shoves her way out of one of the stage doors to the relative solitude of the adjoining alleyway. Letting herself fall backwards against the rough brick wall, she breathes in hot sea-salt air and stale cigarette smoke and waits. The bracelet drips off her fingertips to fall against the asphalt in a metallic clatter. The rest of the bot quickly follows, seeping out from under the door and reassembling itself tall and thin and limbless, like a snake with a man's head and shoulders. Izzie folds her arms across her chest and glares at it. Vaporize me if you want, you damn thing, she thinks, it's better than trying to soldier on like this.
The thing vibrates a little, and there is an electronic feedback kind of noise, almost like the thing is clearing its throat. "That was fun," it says, sounding almost apologetic.
Izzie's jaw drops. "Fun," she repeats.
"Yes. I enjoy the music of Michael Jackson very much. You are an excellent dancer."
It's too much. Izzie starts laughing, laughs until she almost can't breathe. She collapses, gritty asphalt digging into the backs of her thighs through the thin lycra of her costume, and laughs some more.
The bot starts pulsing a row of amber LEDs. Izzie can't decide if it's offended or laughing along with her, but just in case she presses a palm over her mouth to try to stifle herself. It doesn't really work.
"Have you," she tries, then bursts into another fit of giggles. When she calms down she tries again. "Have you been following me just because you enjoy the music of Michael Jackson very much?" She adopts a flat, nasal tone in an attempt to imitate the bot, and makes herself crack up again.
The amber lights pulse a little faster. "My assignment is surveillance," the bot says. This makes Izzie sober up.
"Are you following me because of my brother?" she demands. "Because I swear I've told you guys everything."
"This has been confirmed."
She feels herself relax a fraction. "So what's the deal, then?"
There is a long pause. The bot undulates gently at the edges, as if there's something running under its surface. "My assignment is surveillance. But I do enjoy the music of Michael Jackson very much."
"Wow. Jesus. Okay, fine. I get it, I guess."
She doesn't, not really, but it certainly doesn't seem worth stressing over. The thing's broken, it's got a virus, it's got a programmer with a weird sense of humor, it's magically become sentient and wants to make friends, whatever. She's not going to give the thing grief over it. Besides, if the bot is getting its jollies watching her show, it's not getting its jollies bashing in the heads of innocent citizens, which is worth something, at least. She hadn't known the MonitorBots were capable of getting their jollies from anything other than bashing in the heads of innocent citizens, but then, really: the fuck does she know. She shrugs and crawls to her feet.
"Well, the show's over for the night, Butch," she says, trying on a bravado she doesn't quite feel yet. "And I've got to get back in there before somebody thinks I've gone crazy, and get home before I collapse from exhaustion. But if you stay out of the dressing room while I'm changing, maybe I'll let you come on stage again next Tuesday."
"I would enjoy that very much," trills the bot.
It comes on stage again next Tuesday.
"This is the weirdest thing ever," she complains backstage as she extends her hands and allows it to send rivulets of building blocks trickling up her arms.
"You said I could come on stage," it says. "I did not enter your dressing room. Therefore I am allowed to come on stage. Please hold still." It forms an intricate bracelet along her forearm, and she flexes against it experimentally.
"One of the bots will see you when I'm changing," she points out.
"Your machines cannot detect me if I do not wish them to. Please do not worry." Fat chance, she thinks, but goes on stage anyway. When her first costume change comes, the bot—or at least part of it—trickles up along her spine and hides in her hair for the duration, and nobody is any wiser. After Izzie performs her final number she feels strangely exhilarated, like she's gotten away with something.
"Did you have fun?" she asks as she traipses towards the dressing room, cleanup bots already descending on her makeup.
The bot coils itself in the space behind her ear. "Yes, very much," it hums. "Thank you. May I join you again next week?"
Izzie affects a put-upon sigh. "Oh, I suppose it wouldn't be too much trouble."
The next week, there is a protest in the market square that devolves into a riot, as they all do these days. George Menson gets shot between the eyes, along with sixteen other rioters, protesters, and people who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Izzie finds out an hour before curtain, packed into the lightbulb heat of the dressing room with most of the other female dancers when they get the news. Someone screams a little, then starts sobbing, and it becomes catching. The makeup bots freak out as the girls scrub rivulets of tears and mascara across their cheeks, or press their faces into each other's shoulders and leave rouge-wet smears across the spandex. Izzie doesn't cry—she's not a crier—but she does feel a little like she's not really breathing properly, can't suck in a true breath in the hairspray-heavy air, so she elbows her way through the moaning crowd and escapes into the alley.
The bot is waiting for her, looking almost like a human.
Fuck everything about this. She fixes it with a steely glare, tightens her jaw. "Get the fuck away."
The bot pulses a gentle purple, makes a sibilant noise like it's about to speak. She cuts it off.
"I'm serious. Get the fuck away from me. I'll find a way to report you if you don't, I don't care if I fry for it." This last bit is bravado, but she has a feeling the thing won't be able to tell. There is a silent, tense moment, then the thing merges with the glittering asphalt, and melts away.
Later that night, after one of the worst shows they've put on in awhile, while Izzie lies in her bed and stares sightlessly at the shadowed ceiling, the bot reappears.
It doesn't even surprise her this time. There is movement in the corner of the room, and she is all but expecting it, the slow assemblage of silvery dust. This time it remains small and amorphous, wavers gently.
"I'm sorry about George Menson."
It speaks, as usual, in a flat, amelodic sort of hum. It doesn't sound anything like a human voice, couldn't possibly be mistaken for one. Izzie doesn't acknowledge it. She's busy at the moment, with a head full of memories about how the last few times she saw George she hated him, hated his knees, hated the rest of his stupid functioning body. She's got plenty left to castigate herself with until morning comes and hopefully all the hatefulness has been burned away. There's no time for thinking of sibilant robots who like Michael Jackson and who might vaporize her at any second and to whom the word sorry hasn't any possible meaning whatsoever.
"I'm sorry about your friend George," the robot tries again.
Izzie turns over and pulls a pillow over her head and doesn't sleep the whole night through. When her alarm goes off the next morning, the bot is still there, still blobbing about on her worn out rug, still glowing whitely to itself. She ignores it the whole day, eats her breakfast, reads the paper, runs to the bank, scrubs out the stove. When late afternoon comes, and it's time for her to get back to the resort, she holds out her hand, and doesn't even feel like shuddering when the thing spills up and along her arm.
They become a routine. Izzie thinks she's had worse routines in her life.
"Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough" pulses in the air all around her, and Izzie thrusts her hips at the audience, almost able to ignore the extra weight of the MonitorBot bands encircling her wrists. She's tired. It's a holiday weekend, which means an extra performance, and her knee has been twinging nonstop. It's getting bad enough that she's regretting not calling in an understudy for the weekend, no matter how much she needs the money, and she's mincing her steps in a way that can only be totally obvious to her backup dancers. The last move of the number is a knee slide, and getting back up to her feet hurts enough that she wonders how the hell she's going to get through the next five numbers.
"Do you have an injury?"
She's almost gotten used to the electronic sibilance in her ear, doesn't even jump this time, just stares straight ahead and segues into "Off the Wall."
"Yeah," she mutters back, out of the side of her mouth. "Bum knee."
"I see. If you'd like, I can help," responds the Bot.
"What?" she replies, alarmed, but she can't protest because the next bit of the dance is tricky, fancy footwork all on her toes and she has to pay attention in order to not trip over her own feet. Then she feels the cold trickle of MonitorBot blocks between her shoulder blades, and stumbles anyway.
"Wait," she manages, but it's too late. The bot is vacuuming itself around her left knee like some kind of demented brace, and God help her if it doesn't actually feel a little bit better.
"See?" comes the electronic trill deep in her ear.
She does see. It's kind of fantastic, actually—the bot seems to know what she's going to do before she does it, and it bends in accommodation, shoring her up at just the right moments. There are a couple of jumps that she's been phoning in recently—they launch off the wounded leg—but now she could swear the bot is doing something to let her fly higher, travel father. It feels almost surreal.
It is, hands down, the best performance she's ever had. At the end of her section, she gets a standing ovation from the audience, something that has never ever happened before in her ten years of doing the show.
"That was amazing!" she mutters as they exit backstage, feels a little thrill along the back of her neck that must be the bot vibrating in pleasure. They have to shut up, then, for fear of being detected by the stagehand robots, but once she is scrubbed clean and fresh she escapes to the back alley again, waits impatiently for the MonitorBot to reassemble itself, a glittering statue in the blue night air.
"You've been learning my dance steps, I see," she says, feeling smug for some reason she can't put her finger on. "Where'd you learn how to do that?"
The MonitorBot thrums. "MonitorBots are programmed for a variety of uses, including but not limited to exo-skeleton based applications."
Izzie can't help but raise an eyebrow. "Exo-skeleton based? Is that what you'd call that?"
"One variation thereof. Would you like a further demonstration?"
"Of the full range of the exo-skeleton based applications," says the MonitorBot, as if it's an explanation.
Izzie purses her lips. "Sure," she says, before she can think better of it. "What the hell."
The MonitorBot dissembles itself and then, far faster than she can blink, has reassembled itself all around her body from the neck down, like a hard candy shell. She jerks in surprise, trying instinctively to get away, but finds the bot to be immovable.
"Please try to relax your muscles as much as possible, to avoid injury," it says, which of course has the opposite effect, and before Izzie can process anything else the bot is taking off, leaping down the alley at an impossible speed, her fragile human body ensconced within it.
Izzie feels, momentarily, as if she's being pummeled from every angle. Somehow common sense takes over from blind panic and she recalls the bot's instructions, makes herself stop tensing her muscles and immediately feels better. Then her brain registers exactly how fast they're going and panic kicks in again.
"The hell are you doing?" she tries to yell, but she can't even hear her own voice over the roar of the wind.
"Speed application demonstration," replies the bot.
They're moving away from the coast, the city sprouting from the ground in fast forward, until they are deep in a thicket of towering buildings and Izzie is wondering how they have managed to avoid obliterating any innocent pedestrians. "Please prepare for vertical ascent application."
"What," she yells, but it's too late. The entire world tilts sideways, and her stomach lurches. The bot is sliding straight up the side of a glass-walled skyscraper, carrying her like an egg sac bundled on its back as hooks and tentacles burst out at random, slapping against the wall and finding invisible crevices. Before her brain can catch up they're hundreds of feet above the earth, teetering on the edge of the building's roof.
"Next," begins the MonitorBot and she knows, just knows somehow, that the next bit of the demonstration is going to involve flinging their symbiotic form into midair.
"Stop!" she manages to yell, and mercy of mercies, the bot does, freezing and beginning to vibrate with a frequency that she could swear feels inquisitive. She's still totally enveloped by the bot and its reconfigurable blocks, which have reformed to a humanoid shape again. On a whim, she tries to move her arm; the bot comes with her like some ridiculous suit of armor, and she holds a silver-coated limb the size of a log in front of her face. "Jesus," she says.
"No! No, not yet." Izzie's heart is thudding against her ribcage, and from the peak of the skyscraper the city is spread out before her, improbably minuscule. For a single moment, stretched in length and clarity due to the sheer audacity of it, she considers flinging herself into the empty space in front of her. Doubtless the bot would slow her ascent somehow, clinging to the wall with its mutable little hooks. That or prevent her from completing the motion whatsoever. But somehow she can't bring herself to do it. Instead she asks, "Can all bots do this? The exo-skeleton thing, I mean."
"It is a seldom-used application."
"Seldom-used, huh. How come?"
"Introduction of a human factor results in less predictable outcomes."
Of course it does. Izzie makes a settling motion with her body; the shifting of the bot beneath her feels like burying her body into loose sand at the seaside. It's comfortable, and strange, having the entirety of herself supported upright with no effort whatsoever on her part. She wonders how long she could stay wearing the bot like this before her muscles start to turn soft and useless.
There's something wrong with you, isn't there, she thinks. She thinks it a lot, but now more than ever it threatens at her lips, wanting to be asked aloud. Now, more than ever, she has absolutely no desire to know the answer. "We should probably get down from here," she says instead.
They descend the building, slow motion in reverse, and the bot deposits her gently upon the ground before tumbling away from her body, leaving her feeling surprisingly vulnerable and exposed. Shimmering on the ground in an amorphous, heaping puddle, it suggests, "I could get you home."
Izzie's legs feel a little unsteady underneath her, but she looks around, knows there's a bus station nearby, and decides it's best to give this whole experience a little time to sink in. "No, that's . . . it's okay. I'll take the bus. I'm not sure that's good for me, honestly. You know." She smiles, tries to make it wry, an "it's-not-you-it's-me" gesture, but she bets the bot isn't buying it. It shimmers, trills a little tremolo, then disappears into the cracks in the earth, the sewers, the electric lines, wherever the fuck it goes when it goes away.
The bus ride back is quiet, the bus itself nearly empty. She keeps staring at her hands, their ridges and valleys which look dull and lifeless under the neon light, carved out of some inert material. Her knee hurts; there are so many stairs; she wants to get drunk.
The door to her apartment is standing wide open, and the interior is being actively torn apart by three human officers, all wearing enforcement white and grim expressions. She stands gape-mouthed in the doorway until one of them notices her.
"Ms. Valdes," he begins.
"The hell are you doing," she begins, but gets cut off.
"Ms. Valdes, we have a warrant to search these premises."
"A warrant? What are you talking about? I haven't done anything wrong, I send you everything Omar sends me—"
"Your brother has been taken into custody."
The pieces click into place in her brain, and she sags against the doorframe. "Oh, god. Omar is in custody?"
"That's correct, Ms. Valdes. We're going to have to ask you to come down to the station for some questions—"
He keeps talking, but Izzie can't process any of it. Omar is probably dead by now; that much she can understand. She'll probably be dead, too, before the day is over. She should run, there's no question. Better to get shot in the back than to be tortured for information she doesn't have, right, of course that's right, but her feet are like lead and she can't convince herself to make a break for it. She can't quite draw a lungful of breath and God, she never thought she'd be this scared of trying to do the right thing and somewhere by her ankles she feels the familiar cool trickle of metal.
The police officer is moving closer to her, a pair of handcuffs dangling from his hands. "Ms. Valdes, if you don't comply we will remove you by force," he is saying. The window behind him is gaping open. It is a four story drop to the ground below. Izzie flexes her thighs, her calves, the soles of her feet against the ropey strands of metal there that are growing, flattening out, encasing her. She focuses on the night black sky, and leaps.