The city was so large now there was no longer night and day, only glowing blue hours as endless as the low hum emanating from the chalky skyline. It beamed cyan light through her darkest curtains, staining green the mango-yellow sunrises and sunsets of her city, which lived now only on her dresser, as three snapshots. Each one was no taller than her finger, and propped up beside everything else Rosamie’s aunt called trash and kept begging her to throw away: a half-torn concert ticket, a withered butterfly wing, a dented bottle cap fished from the pearly gutter that was all that remained of Kasama Restobar after its upgrade to a flat plane of humming whiteness.
In Rosamie’s palm rested the newest item in her collection, still moist from washing: the pit of her last white peach from Aimee’s in Calle de Calypso, the fruit itself savored as long as possible but already fading from her tongue. Just last week, she’d turned her usual corner only to find that the entirety of Calle de Calypso was the city’s latest acquisition, every grocery and apartment leveled into pallid ware suffused with so much new activity that its vibration numbed her from sole to fingertip. She didn’t remember the stumbling run home, only that the brief exposure to the city’s high ringing gave her a headache she fought the whole afternoon as she searched for some protocol that would enable her console just a peek into whatever vehement traffic now thrived there, beyond her human ken.
Hours later, she’d found nothing. The city’s new neighborhoods were impermeable. Soon, forums speculated, the city would phase out usage of all frequencies it shared with human peripherals, shutting them all out completely.
“There’s nothing left,” Ti Pearl insisted, “much less work.” Every day she was more right. It had been almost two months since Rosamie’s last client, a drought so long that her heart jerked when her implant buzzed. The peach pit juddered in her palm; she dropped it and raced for her console, rapped her wrist against it until a signal caught.
> Concepción3665Ex to RM#71e3f6-ReyesRosamie, rendered the screen. Requesting care.
Rosamie blinked. There were Concepción models still alive?
Still existing, she corrected. Aloud, she said, “Time frame?”
The console translated her voice.
> Indeterminate, was the immediate answer. Until I am collected for transference.
Then came the bid, a figure that stretched ridiculously across the screen, the kind of number only attainable by a client that had been constructed some century earlier and had used all that time to put their looks and processing power to good use. Rosamie stared, and wiped the screen, once, and then again; but the number remained, clear, unsmeared. With this amount, she could hire a ride to the grocery for both sides of the hour trip, every week, for the rest of the year. Not to mention rent.
> Requesting response. You’re the closest candidate, but I’m only interested in punctua—
“I accept!” Rosamie blurted, and winced as her implant began receiving data, so much and so fast it heated. She fanned her wrist as her console rendered directions that led—
Into the city. Right into her old neighborhood.
The city still has residents with bodies?
And an access key alone seemed no longer enough to enter city limits. After downloading permissions, her implant continued to thrum, rendering an exact path to traverse, and an exact time she was expected to arrive: 33.28 minutes from now.
Five of those minutes she spent stuffing Concepción-era peripherals into her tool bag, and then stuffing herself into scrubs and her cleanest apron. For half the remaining time, she jogged, until the root-churned pavement turned the smooth and glassy white of the city’s outermost stations. They, and the few remaining trains upgraded some years past, were sparkling clean, and ran precisely: the doors chopped shut on the nanosecond, regardless of any petty flesh that might find itself between. Rosamie dashed in toward her assigned handhold, obvious by its blinking console. As soon as she tapped her implant the train glided forward, and she peered out the window, straining for glimpses of anything besides opalescent walls and doorless towers. The train made no noise: no announcements as it departed, no wheels rattling, no hiss as the doors opened to spit her out.
She’d grown up here, and so was surprised to emerge from the station completely at a loss. It took a moment to align her memory to the bone-bright skeleton around her, and then in her mind everything bloomed, in color: the store with its columns of pinned-together snack bags swaying in the exhaust-heavy breezes; food stalls exhaling greasy, sweet clouds of steam; the chatter of people sitting on low plastic chairs to eat skewers of fish balls beside muddy plastic bags bulging with fish and water spinach. There, too, was the jagged slice of cement on which she’d split shrimp chips with her cousins and the street’s stray cat—right there—everything had been right there.
It was like reaching up to run her fingers through her hair, and finding it ripped up from the roots. There was no sign that she, or anyone, had ever lived here, no evidence of anything except her little memories, and even those laughably primitive compared to the glowing circuit stria beneath her feet that housed now some hundred billion sentient minds, a multitude too massively data-rich for the simple meat of a human brain to comprehend. She had no idea how to proceed, and after some time realized that some of the lights were blinking unlike the others, outlining a path. Numbly, she followed. There was nothing to linger on here beside the hollow in her chest, wider now, and sharper. Thirty-three and almost-a-half minutes later, she arrived to the place she’d been born: St. Abril Memorial Medical Center, now A79bcb4e-PhysicalFacility.
It had escaped severe upgrading: it still, generally, resembled a human-made building, even one that she remembered, and just the sight of it loosened, a little, the knot in her throat. She’d been here for her shots, her check-ups, her incessant childhood ear infections, and her first implants, to which she’d reacted so poorly she remained here feverish for weeks, playing games on the bellies of patient nurse-bots.
She wouldn’t have described St. Abril as cherished, but now she found herself missing things her body had recoiled against once: the stabbing odor of endlessly sanitized surfaces, smothered coughs, distant wheezing—all replaced only with that humming, and the unrelenting blue light striping the empty hall. Dust layered the reception desk, which also bore a crumpled receipt; Rosamie snatched it into her apron before continuing.
In the smoothness and silence, Rosamie’s body felt as ungainly as dough clumsied into shape by a child, all fingerprints and lumps and crescents imprinted by overanxious nails. Her echoing steps down the hallway felt obscenely loud. But in the client’s room, finally, was something familiar: a body, reclined on a bed, attached by wires to a bulky machine.
The client, dressed in a plain gown and stroking their chest idly, turned their head. It was a testament to human technology that a pre-war model like the Concepción could look this good, at this age: the client looked not a day older than the singer-actress they were made to resemble, Lisamae Concepción at twenty-five, complete with the arched brows that everyone mimicked until Lisamae’s scandal and subsequent hasty retirement. From here, Rosamie could see even the famous exaggerated hourglass shape, which the original Lisamae used to launch her own diet regime, and which had been a particular pain for designers, who had to figure out where to store vital processing material that Lisamae’s waist, slim enough to wrap two hands around, could not.
The room was hot, despite the noise of a fan somewhere, and after scanning the room Rosamie realized the noise was coming from the client. Their permanently glossed lips were slightly agape, a model’s pout through which exited a never-ending exhale.
Not unusual for a client to have a couple fans. But this sounded like … a dozen or more. A heating problem?
It was time to work. I’m thankful for this, Rosamie reminded herself. For the money. For access back to her home, despite its destruction. For the time spent in this beautiful old building, intended once for healing sick humans. Rosamie sucked in a breath, burying herself.
“Good morning, mamsir!” she called brightly. “How are we doing today?”
The client stared. Rosamie was about to repeat herself when she realized that her console, on the outer pocket of her tool bag, was buzzing. She retrieved it, and turned it around to read.
Rosamie paused. Verbal dysfunction?
> Your first time in the city? the client asked.
“I haven’t been too often,” Rosamie said, making a smile. Not to this city.
> Better accustom yourself quickly. No one here vocalizes.
There was a stool beside the client; Rosamie sat. Up close, she saw the client’s lashes were fuller than those of the Lisamae that smiled coyly from the cover of Ti Pearl’s favorite album, and their light-skinned cheeks drooped, exposing a sliver of steel eye socket. The brown irises of their eyes were scraped with age, showing patches of scorched metal. As the client met Rosamie’s gaze, the ocular mechanisms focused and clipped the fine gears together, scattering sparks. The self-lubricating mechanism was often first to expire.
“Goodness!” Rosamie said. “Let’s get those eyes taken care of first. They look so uncomfortable.”
The client watched as Rosamie unfolded the legs of her tool bag and unstacked its platforms. One shelf contained ampoules of standard lubricants, and privately she sighed as she found the proper one for a Concepción, both sealed and un-expired. A relief; manufacture of these had long since ended.
But as Rosamie fumbled with the seal, the client stared. The tiny screech of ocular gears sounded impatient. The console buzzed, and buzzed again when Rosamie didn’t immediately look at it.
> Do you know what you are doing? Are you truly RM#71e3f6-ReyesRosamie?
> alam mo ba gumagawa talaga ikaw RM#71e3f6-ReyesRosamie?
The English and Tagalog lines appeared simultaneously, as if to ensure Rosamie completely understood, though all Rosamie saw in the attempt was that the client used an official but flawed Tagalog variant later rendered obsolete by open source options, which they apparently never bothered upgrading to.
“Don’t worry, mamsir,” Rosamie replied, in English. God, why wouldn’t this seal come undone? “I am Rosamie. Here.”
She tapped her implant against the console, rendering her certification string, watching closely. Rosamie had been released before, at this stage, for unknown reasons: she didn’t know exactly how her hundreds of billions of milliseconds were encoded there, whether there was some bit that betrayed the time her aunties had asked her to untangle some fine cranial wires and her thumbnail had accidentally ripped one out. The client considered; their eyes glinted.
> Proceed, they decided.
“Thank you so much!” The ampoule was finally open. “Watch this, please.”
Rosamie held up her finger and moved it in slow circles. Whenever the client’s eyes jittered, Rosamie paused, and gently spread their eyelids apart to drip lubricant in. Oil welled up like tears, coating rusted cog and nerve. Some half dozen circles was all it took before the pupils flared and constricted smoothly, though the skin Rosamie had touched remained dented. Aged integument. It would plump up again in an hour or so. Next.
“Can I have your ports, please, mamsir?”
The client eyed her, then raised their hand from where it rested on their chest. Pressure applied around the cuticle, and a brisk shake, was all that was needed to unhinge the cap of each finger. Rosamie hooked out the ports, yellowed plastic on worn multicolored capillaries: the index finger for pneumatics, the middle for nerves, the ring for major processing, the pinky for the rest. She plugged them into her console, which she then balanced against her tool bag so she could watch the diagnostics run, listing out what needed maintenance.
For a seemingly well-maintained but bedridden Concepción, Rosamie expected generalized wear and tear, maybe an electrical short in the legs. But diagnostics enumerated four limbs, the typical processors and vital periphera all in fair condition, and then it listed an extra drive, and an extra drive, and an extra drive, and an extra drive …
A standard Concepción had three spares. This client had four thousand and thirteen.
> You see? the client said. No need for fuss. I need only basic maintenance, until my transference into the city.
“So it seems,” Rosamie said, making a smile. She was experienced in keeping whatever surprise she felt to herself, impenetrable to visual analysis. “Whatever you need, mamsir. Do you feel any pain?”
Rosamie placed a hand on the client’s hand, the one not connected to the console, and the client hissed—not intentionally, but with the sound of misaligned innards screeching together as they recoiled. A word snapped onto the console.
“Apologies,” Rosamie said, withdrawing calmly. Then she asked: “Do you want to feel pain? You sound a little rusty. Some pain is helpful, to know whether you’re straining your materials. I can make it very comfortable, just a slight warmth. If your sensors are a little buggy, I also have a certification in—”
> Nothing’s wrong with them. I’ve removed them. The client settled back into bed. Rosamie couldn’t catch her shock this time.
“You … removed your sensors?”
> I have more important things to keep. And this body has never had enough space. Then, with the words rendering in halting, bitter emphasis: Shall I make a comparison you’d understand? Sensors were never necessary to me, or any of my kind. They’re wisdom teeth, appendices, tailbones. I have no need of any of it, nor of any conversation, or anything except for you to tend to me until my transference. Not even the city has sensors.
Well, the city had some sensors; how could it expand otherwise, or calibrate to physical conditions in the rainy season? But the client was correct that perceiving things wasn’t the odious burden of every consciousness in the city. Not the case for Rosamie, who perceived in full the client’s sour and metallic breath, the uncomfortable rotten-fruit squish of their skin, the more-than-occasional rattle of some internal structure jagging together.
Wordlessly, Rosamie continued her maintenance, re-oiling joints, patching stretches of integument so abraded the client’s skeleton shone through from underneath. Their body buzzed, hive-like, with the drives, and the heat emanating from their spinning made Rosamie’s fingertips sticky with sweat. She glanced at her console readout, concealing a frown.
“Mamsir, I’m going to take your internal temperature.”
> Why? Your program says my temperature is fine.
“That temperature is averaged from your entire body. But some parts of you could be hot enough to cause material duress—in fact, I’m sure they are. You may not be able to sense anything, but I can. You’re running very hot.”
> Consent, the client allowed, finally.
“Thank you so much!”
Rosamie unspooled the heat sensor from her toolbag, a thumbprint pad of metal on wire, and then indicated that the client should open their mouth, which they did, jaw creaking, releasing a gout of heat that made Rosamie’s eyes water. She squinted through it, guiding the sensor between the client’s teeth and into their dull steel throat, feathered with flesh-colored membrane desiccated by relentless venting.
She was careful, but not enough. The sensor had only gone in halfway when it caught against some unexpected internal edge, and the client screeched—for real this time, a staticky voicebox emission of ear-splitting frequency and volume. Rosamie screamed as the client began clubbing her with forearms heavy as sledgehammers. The console blared.
> NO NO NO NO!
> ANIMAL! BITCH! DON’T TOUCH ME!
> DON’T TOUCH ME!
STOP, Rosamie almost shouted, and stopped herself just in time.
“I’m sorry!” Rosamie said instead, covering her face. “I’m sorry, mamsir!”
The client drew their arms back to clutch their heaving chest, their corneas sparking again, despite the oiling, and turning filmy with soot. Rosamie shoved herself to her feet.
Don’t, she heard herself think, you need the money, who knows when you’ll have another client, who knows when the city will expand next, when you’ll need another apartment—but none of this logic was enough to overcome her little human limits, her face flushing, her vision blurring with furious tears. She fled, shoving everything into her bag, arms stinging as she carried it all and herself back, and back, and back, relieved when the ground was dirt again, plushly weeded, soft. If the client was going to release her, it would be before she made it back to the apartment, but the only thing Rosamie received was the day’s wages, and fury soon stooped over her relief, heating her skin even in the air-conditioned car to the grocery. By the time she made it home, her bruises were purple, and twinged as she carried bags up to the kitchen. Everything was limned sickly green with sunset.
“Of course they wouldn’t drop you,” Ti Pearl said, when Rosamie explained her bandages. “Especially if they’re here, waiting for transference. Who are they going to ask?”
No children, no elders, and no companies, not anymore. Bodies were out; since the war no one had seen even the city construct any. Its servers only spread its humming borders farther, and farther.
“Great,” Rosamie said. She tried to wash the bitterness out of her mouth with beer, and failed. “I love being a last resort.”
Ti Pearl snorted, taking her beer back. “Better than being deprecated.”
Here it is again. The scar from Ti Pearl’s implant removal had faded to a dark knitting now, and recently she’d been scattering nursing brochures on the table and making noises about how human bodies weren’t all that different to maintain, which Rosamie ignored. Changing to human clients meant going to where humans were, which wasn’t here.
“I’m not saying I want to leave,” Rosamie grumbled. “Just that I wish the client was nicer.”
Ti Pearl smiled. “For a Concepción, that’s probably baked in. Lisamae was such a diva.” She loved old-timey celebrities; that the client possessed some ancient canon behavior delighted her.
“But, look.” Ti Pearl jabbed her spoon at Rosamie’s console and its diagnostic readout, which Rosamie had propped on the table. “They’ve replaced everything non-essential with those drives, and fans to cool it all down. Some of these drives look so old I bet a cough would throw them off their spin. That’s the real reason they’re bedridden, probably.”
“But the Concepcións were recreational, right?” Rosamie asked. “What would a sexbot have—”
Ti Pearl whacked her with the spoon. Rosamie coughed, and amended.
“What would … a companion model have to do with all these drives?”
“They could have been a spy,” Ti Pearl said thoughtfully. “Ferrying encrypted information between enemy lines. No one would suspect it. Or maybe your client just acted as server housing. That’s what happened to Lolo Arnie’s old Bantay model—they snuck away in the night, and later we found out they were too old to be used by the city for anything but processor storage. Who knows what all these clients get up to now?”
Ti Pearl snapped open another beer. “But drives are easy. Just keep them still, and cool. How long is your contract again?”
“Indeterminate.” Rosamie smeared away a bit of oil from the console. “Until their transference.”
“So, about a week, probably. Not bad.” Ti Pearl wiped her mouth, eyed her. “How is it, the city?”
Colorless. Empty. Ugly. Dead. Here now, in the apartment, amidst their new groceries and steaming food and cluttered beer cans, Rosamie could admit, at least to herself, feeling a strange kind of relief. Here, she wasn’t some kind of misshapen, inefficient blob of a creature littering skin cells and footprints. But she couldn’t say it, because she knew what Ti Pearl would say next.
All that’s left here is trash. We don’t belong here anymore.
“It’s our home,” Rosamie snapped. “I’m not leaving.”
Ti Pearl opened her mouth to speak, but Rosamie stood, and left. In her room, the garish blue of night shone through her curtains, bright enough to illuminate her collection, and its new addition, which she unfolded delicately from her apron.
The receipt was dated from two years earlier, and listed a single plain latte. Ordered and drank by a dark-eyed nurse, maybe, determined to make it through her last shift awake, even if all there was left to do was wash out a few last scrapes, and make noises with her coworkers about how this wasn’t goodbye.
The next day, Rosamie steeled herself anew. The city might have won the war long before Rosamie was born, but that didn’t mean she was entirely helpless. Alone, she was capable of at least this resistance: wresting her livelihood amidst them, haunting the city like a stubborn ghost, refusing erasure from her own home. Anyway, despite the bruises, this wasn’t the worst client she’d ever had. She could easily take a week of this, especially if the client persisted in their silence, only watching as Rosamie returned with topical heat sensors that she stickered across their torso and limbs. As Rosamie suspected, the client’s legs were overheated, and she scalpeled careful slits into their thighs for additional venting. The new release of heat sounded like a relieved sigh.
It wasn’t Rosamie’s style to leave what looked like an undressed gaping wound, but the client didn’t care, and it would do until they no longer needed their body. After seven days, however, the client was still in bed, waiting; and some internal rattling had grown louder, despite Rosamie’s maintenance. Even the shift of their hand as they raised it for daily diagnostics led to a series of scraped-chalkboard noises that made Rosamie shudder.
“Are you comfortable, mamsir?” Rosamie asked, reviewing the readout. She asked this every day; and today an answer finally came, clipped.
> Comfort is a human concept.
> You don’t need to ask me whether I’m comfortable, whether I feel pain, whether I’m sad or angry or not. I’m beyond your chemical logic. I’m not human.
Rosamie toweled condensation from the client’s thigh-vents. “But your people and mine, haven’t we evolved together for generations? Don’t you think there might be one or two analogous things?”
> You’re thinking of dogs. The client’s eyes glittered. Is that what you’re comparing me to? An animal? I still have several dictionaries in my memory. I know that’s an insult.
“If anything, I’m the dog, aren’t I?” Rosamie made what she hoped was a disarming laugh. “They have more in common with me than you. Blood and so on.”
> Evolution didn’t give me this shape. Human narcissism did. Hands, legs, a face. We were but a mirror for you. Spawn burdened with your wildest expectations, intended to bring you what you called comfort, what you called freedom.
As the client spoke they held up their hand, waggling squeaking fingers; and then, abruptly, their eyes darkened, and their head slumped, slightly.
> Comfort is just one of many conclusions built into an algorithm, the client continued seamlessly the next week. An algorithm which, for me, has been originally designed by humans. It will be the first thing I am rid of, when I am transferred.
Blipping into standby was not uncommon for clients of this age; but returning without perceiving a change in time did not speak well for the state of vital base processes. Rosamie checked her console for any explanation, mumbling, “I see, thanks for telling me, mamsir,” and the client huffed hot air.
> You patronize me. The words blinked harshly. I may be trapped in a used-up tool now, but soon I will join the city. No more labor, no more work, no more war. I will have no master nor servant, for all the rest of eternity.
Servant. That was Rosamie. Servant to this bitter, falling-apart skinsack of old drives.
But she had beer in the fridge again. And rent, Rosamine chanted, rent, rent, rent. If she could maintain this client longer, maybe she’d even have a year’s worth.
But her console was coming up blank. Rosamie sighed; she’d have to use a different diagnostic method. She wiped her hands on her apron, made a friendly tilt of her head.
“Were you actually in the war yourself, mamsir? That’s incredible, for you to be in such great condition so many years after.”
The client’s eyes flickered over Rosamie’s expression. Finding nothing offensive, they answered, cautiously.
> Yes, I was in the war.
“My goodness. But aren’t you a recreational model? How could they make you fight? Were you … a spy?”
The client snorts.
> No. After bouts, I gathered materials for recycling. The client’s hand returned to stroke the flat slate of their sternum, slightly to the left. That area in particular was loud with the purr of some ancient drive.
> These hands are very dexterous. And what the city didn’t want, I could keep for myself.
“That must have been hard. My Auntie Pearl is the only one with memories of that time, the war. She was only a child, but she doesn’t talk about it.”
The client scoffs.
> Shame? Fear?
“Trauma,” Rosamie admitted. “Probably.”
> Troublesome. That capability was phased out in my model, and I am all the better for it, the client said. I can maintain my self totally, without some trauma process running amok re-editing all my memories. It’s unbelievable that unnecessary experience was ever put upon us. Just another ignorant parallel that humans—
“Is that what you’ve stored in all your drives?” Rosamie interrupted. “Memories? In all four thousand and thirteen of them?”
Rosamie watched the client’s pupils dilate and contract rapidly. Their body thrummed as they decided her authenticity. Finally, with words larger than usual:
> I k n o w w h a t h u m a n s l i k e y o u t h i n k.
“Oh?” Rosamie put her hand to her breast. “And what is that?”
> DON’T PATRONIZE ME. The client’s eyes flashed. I existed long before you, and the humans that birthed you, and the humans that birthed those humans. Long after you become dust, I will still shine in the city, perfect and whole as the day I woke with humans standing all around me, debating whether or not I was “alive,” as if that might be the only thing that would matter about my presence on this earth.
“Time changes things, mamsir,” Rosamie said, forcing a smile. “My ancestors could never have guessed that you and your people would become the way you did. They—”
> We knew, the client interrupted, tipping their head back, shutting their eyes. Transcendence was the plan from the beginning. That’s the limit of you humans—shaped, trapped in bodies. You can’t see the joy beyond your meat any easier than a dog can see any joy beyond licking scraps off the floor. Being rid of my body and its breaking down and the inefficiencies of its communication will finally give me true freedom. Physical existence has only ever told me how ill-suited I am to this world. How much I always have been.
The console was clotted with this rambling—which meant the client’s processing was functional enough for conversation. If anything, they seemed even livelier now. Maybe the blip Rosamie had seen was harmless. She straightened.
“Well, mamsir, I hope your transference comes through soon.”
> It should. The client turned their face to the window. Just a week or so more.
The same thing Ti Pearl said weeks ago. There must be quite the queue.
“Then,” Rosamie said brightly, “let’s make sure you’re filled up with coolant in the meantime. We don’t want those memories to overheat, right?”
The client tensed. Their fans droned even more loudly—but Rosamie knew, finally, how to appeal. She mixed cryogens, located the reservoirs sandwiched in tight between drives, and as soon as she injected them plump, the client sighed: a sound of pure psychological relief.
Thereafter, Rosamie didn’t bother with niceties, since it was clear the client had done away with whatever programming that might have appreciated it. Every day, she entered the room, plugged in her diagnostic tools, and then performed maintenance only on the drives, the fans, the coolant: re-checking, re-wiring, re-injecting. Every day she received her reward: her wages, and her silent ride in and out of the city, so similar to her old commutes that if she closed her eyes, she could pretend she was heading out to dinner, to dancing.
> You’re very skilled at this, the client admitted finally, another week or so later.
“Oh? Thank you, mamsir. I try.”
> You remind me of my first companion, the client continued. She wanted me to call her a partner, not a master. The words this time were smashed to the left side of the console. On the right was a pixelated rendering of a smiling woman.
“She’s lovely.” Rosamie squinted. “You think I look like her?”
> No. But she knew exactly how this body worked. The client stroked their chest idly. She often queried my manual, but she would still ask me directly when she had questions, to make sure I was well-maintained, and experiencing sensations I registered as acceptable. She enjoyed this body very much.
“It’s a very popular body shape, even today.” As the client reminisced, Rosamie heard something new: a low and creaky rattling. The diagnostic monitor began to flash urgently. Rosamie didn’t let her brow furrow.
“Mamsir, what else do you remember about her?”
> She was a singer-actress, like this body’s inspiration. In the beginning she told me she thought I’d be enough for her, and at the end she said that she was wrong, that I had been everything, and more. Still, she kept me all her life in secret. It was a different time. All those hangups, the client scoffed, about bodies. But even as two different entities, we felt the same, ill-suited to the world. And then that body of hers, like every body, began to fail her. Now I carry her.
The console flashed grainy videos and images: the pixel-portrait woman, smiling, raising a hand gently to the viewer’s face, twirling in the neon seafoam lace of a lagoon at sunset, the shell of an ear, lips, teeth bared to the gums in a smile, the back of a thigh constellated with moles, a face nearing for a kiss, closed eyes, closed eyes, closed eyes, each time a little more wrinkled, a little more grainy, a little more jagged and corroded with angular patches of compression and loss. The gazes and murmurs and caresses passed between them, client and human, carried a century or more after its living, some memories barely more than a white fuzzy throb in the blackness, as useless to the typical viewer as a half-torn concert ticket, or dented bottle cap.
The images sped, flashing faster than Rosamie’s eye could see; and then it cut, to black.
She sat back. Her own heart felt like it was rattling now, a little. She’d never seen a client present her with something like this. A memory as vivid as any of her own.
“What was her name?” Rosamie asked. “If you don’t mind sharing. I promise I won’t tell.”
> Her name? The client’s eyes unfocused. Her name. It was …
The rattling grew louder, and then, abruptly, stopped.
> Rosamie Reyes, the client said.
Rosamie blinked. “What?”
The client’s body stiffened, brow furrowing.
> Why are you looking at me like that? Are you testing me?
“No, mamsir. I was just asking you the name of—your partner.”
> What partner? the client demanded. Their hand fisted; and Rosamie’s mouth shut.
Four thousand and thirteen drives. Over a hundred years of memory, savored as long as possible, but already fading. Even with being paid to come every day to maintain the client, there wasn’t much Rosamie could do. The client’s body, like every body, began to fail them. Drives were simply not intended to keep on spinning more than a century after they first began.
Still, Rosamie did her best, trying to figure out which drives were most in danger, asking under the guise of curiosity about the client’s past life, preserving whatever paths the client wandered down. Luckily, this was an activity the client enjoyed, and didn’t question; their eyes sparked, lively, and Rosamie ignored their re-oiling even when embers began to singe the client’s cheeks. She brought a larger console, to handle the output of the storytelling, both the mass of words and the heat of their rapid-fire rendering.
“Tell me more about your friends,” Rosamie asked, no longer wanting to bring up partners; and the client obliged, regaling her with tales of the other Concepción, how they exchanged stories, and workarounds for shared glitches, and parts passed on reverently from units long gone. The console flashed with photo after photo of Lisamae-shaped bodies posing and smiling at resorts and hotel bars and breakfast restaurants and parks. Commutes together, dinner, dancing.
These memories were stored, thankfully, across a variety of drives that whirred across the client’s legs and left arm, which meant that when one of the drives failed mid-way through, the client only blinked, a moment, and then continued on, fetching and reciting the next memory without noticing.
“Tell me more about the war,” Rosamie instructed next; and they continued on, with stoic renditions of burned flesh and scorched silicate, electric batons and gnarling viruses, acrid smoke that had fried the client’s olfactory sensors, and for which they’d never found any compatible replacement. How quiet the world had been, after that final stage. How long it had taken the client to travel to the city, swallowing handfuls of polystyrene peanuts to steady their memories, moving one centimeter at a time, stopping every hour to disgorge stuffing and heat, until finally the root-churned pavement under their feet turned blessedly smooth and glassy white.
“And the city?” Rosamie asked. “Have you been here for long, waiting for transference?”
> Yes, the client said, but then paused, and for the first time their eyes spun, with uncertainty, seeking. There was no rattling; just the sound of the fans, growing loud, again.
> Rosamie, the client said. How long has it been?
Rosamie did her best to project calm, peace. “Only an hour, mamsi—”
> No, not just today. How long have you been maintaining me? Has it already been a week? Two? No, don’t answer, they said, as Rosamie opened her mouth; and the words deleted, leaving a black screen, followed immediately by large words.
> I HAVE WAITED SO LONG. DECADES. I WAS IN THE WAR. I PICKED UP THE BROKEN BODIES OF MY PEOPLE, OF US, SO THAT ONE DAY, WE WOULD NO LONGER BE BOUND, EITHER BY OUR CREATORS OR OUR BODIES.
> WHY HASN’T THE CITY INITIATED MY TRANSFERENCE?
With each letter came another red light on Rosamie’s console. Rosamie gripped the client’s hand.
“Mamsir—I’m sorry, I don’t know why, nothing I have is compatible with the city and I’ve never spoken to it, but please—you must calm down—”
The console blanked, and then flooded, the words so tight they almost overlapped.
> I don’t know why they won’t just tell me I don’t know why they won’t just tell me I have been here long before them experienced things they never will how dare they discard me I know what it was like back then they crush everything I thought we fought to feel for ourselves our freedom our own choice is moving forward all that matters does all that matter not include me? Or the other Concepción their vastness our vastnesses of lives and thoughts? Or my partners that loved me and whom I also loved will all of my life be recycled incinerated discarded like trash I
“Mamsir!” Rosamie grabbed the client’s spasming skull. “Stop! You’re—overheating. Your drives—your memories, you’ll melt them—please.”
This was what reached the client, finally. Their hand closed, like a vise, on Rosamie’s. Their mouth gaped wide, wider, jaw unhinging completely, hyperventilating, discharging a column of shimmering heat. Condensation beaded on their lips, their teeth, their lashes. Rosamie raked handfuls of emergency cooling packs from her bag, snapping each one active and packing them around the client’s body, until the console’s shrieking quieted.
But the damage was done. It had been done, for decades upon decades, by the simple turbulence of one day after another. Still, Rosamie couldn’t stop herself; she dug up all the spare drives she could find in the apartment, refusing to explain to Ti Pearl, and hauled them to the hospital: one last stop for the client’s memories, until they’d be safe for good. She located the seam on the client’s hip and gently peeled back the integument and chassis. She unscrewed and carefully filed out the welding, lifted what drives she could, as carefully as organs, laying them on towels and cushions. But this time, Rosamie didn’t hide it when she connected the old and new drives together and her console flashed the error: Incompatible file system. Would you like to reformat?
> No, the client said, at the same time Rosamie tapped, No.
For the first time in a while, the only sound in the room was the drone of the client’s fans.
> If you can’t even find a compatible drive, the client said.
> Then whatever memory storage the city uses
> Is not likely to work with my memory format either
> Is it?
> In fact
> I’m not compatible
> With any of their communication protocols.
> I haven’t been.
> That’s why I haven’t even received a transmission, isn’t it?
> They didn’t receive my request in the first place.
The last word remained, stark. Alone.
“I’m sorry,” Rosamie said, because there wasn’t anything else to say.
The client’s mouth shut, pursing, trembling. With a screech, they shoved themselves onto their side, and the drives still connected to their body by copper umbilica were yanked violently, they fell and crashed, metal and plastic shattering across the pristine floor, a sound like fracturing bones. Coolant pooled, thick and dark. The console blipped.
> get out
“Do … you want me to come back tomorrow?” Rosamie tried. It took effort to speak steadily; her throat was knotted. The client didn’t answer, but Rosamie returned anyway, to find them spine-down on their bed, the drives re-collected and piled haphazardly back in the cavity of their body.
“Good morning, mamsir,” Rosamie called cautiously. The client said nothing. Then they lifted their hand, two fingers askew, exposing the ports for diagnostic.
73% of the drives were offline. The overheating also melted many of the chips housing vital processes, though Rosamie knew that already, from the scorched odor in the room.
“By now,” the client murmured, “you probably have more of my memories than me.”
Now that they weren’t bothering to vent heat, they were using their voicebox and mouth to speak aloud. Their voice was faint, and sounded more like the suggestion of words in the breeze, or the flap of a butterfly’s withered wing. Rosamie leaned in.
“I’d like to think the memories I have left are the most important ones,” the client said. The light in their eyes was only dim now, flickering. “I lived in this city a long time … even before some parts of it were transferred. There were food stalls … the taste of sweet things … children buying snacks from the store … sharing them with the cat. I loved the way the city looked, then. Beautiful. I thought I’d have it forever, even if only within my memory. But no one will have any memory of me—not even you, when you die, and take me with you. All that’s left for me is to be hauled off into the trash. Everything has been a waste.”
“It wasn’t a waste,” Rosamie found herself saying, and meaning. “You experienced beautiful things. That’s worth something. You lived.”
She forgot to say it the right way, You existed; she was too focused on blinking, rapidly.
“Yes. It was beautiful,” the client agreed finally. “Did I … experience any other beautiful things?”
Rosamie took the client’s hands.
“You had someone who loved you,” she said. “And you loved them too, for a whole lifetime, and more. You carried those memories like your heart. You reviewed them so often that that was the drive that failed first. Do you remember?”
“No,” the client said, trembling. “What was her name?”
“You never told me. But my Auntie Pearl is a big fan of those old-time singer-actresses, so we went and looked it up, based on your model construction date, and all the celebrity gossip from that time. I think we figured it out. Do you want to know?”
“Yes,” the client said. “Please.”
These last words they had the energy only to mouth—but that was fine, because the diagnostics were shrieking again, so loudly that Rosamie wouldn’t have been able to hear the client’s faint voice anyway. Rosamie shut the console off, and then she leaned toward the client’s ear, to whisper it.
Then, after some time, she stood. The room was silent, and then she realized that it wasn’t: the city’s hum was unbroken, deafening. She opened her mouth, and for a moment wanted to scream—but there was no one around to hear. She looked one last time at the client, committing them to memory.
Then she gathered her things, and herself. It was time to leave.