Neil dropped his keys in the key bowl as soon as he walked through the door and called for his cat. Despite popular belief about cats and their aloofness, Nickel usually came running to the door when Neil came home, tail raised and eyes wide. Granted, this was because Neil usually fed him right after he came home, but he chose to take it as a sign of Nickel’s unconditional love, rather than a blatant attempt to emotionally blackmail him for food.
Today, Nickel didn’t come to the door. “Nick!” He dropped his bag on the table next to the key bowl and slipped off his shoes. “Nick, I’m home!” Still no cat. Neil shook his head and trudged into the kitchen, sorting mail as he went. A bill, some advertising flyers, another bill…
And a robot sitting on his sofa.
It looked human, insofar as it had two arms, two legs and a head, which swiveled around to look at him. Other than the shape, the thing was utterly inhuman. Its body was battered and scratched, made of black and grey metal and plastic that looked like it had been through a war. Its eyes, however – or the two great circles in the front of its head that were currently staring at Neil – were luminous and bright green, slowly pulsing. The robot stared at Neil for a moment and then returned its head to its original position, staring straight ahead at an unadorned wall. “Your cat is fine,” it said. Its voice sounded almost human – almost. It had a hollowness to it that reminded Neil of the way computers always talked in movies. “It is hiding under your bed.”
Neil blinked. He cleared his throat and tried to speak, but it took a few tries before words came out. “Okay,” he croaked. “Let me check.” He backed away from the robot and, when he was out of sight, turned around and dashed for his bedroom.
The robot had been telling the truth – Nickel’s bright eyes were shining in the darkness under the bed, and the cat let out a pitiful meow when Neil ducked down. “Come here,” Neil whispered. “C’mon, c’mon, c’mon Nick, we have to get out.” The cat wouldn’t move, but that wasn’t going to be part of the plan. Neil wriggled under the bed, clamped his hand on the scruff of the cat’s neck, and started to pull. “Sorry, Nick,” he said as he dragged the resisting cat out.
When he stood up, cat in his arms, the robot was standing in the doorway. Neil dropped Nickel, who immediately ran back under the bed. How had the thing sneaked into the room? He glanced down at its feet, which appeared to be shod in some kind of rubber, and that might have done it. But something that big? It should not be that quiet. He held up a hand, and the robot stepped forward. “Look,” Neil said, “I don’t know what the hell you are, but you can’t -”
The robot’s arm flashed out, and he grabbed Neil’s hand. Its grip was firm and rubbery. It dragged Neil towards it and clamped the other hand around his wrist. There was a brief stab of pain, causing Neil to cry out, and then the robot released its grip. There was a small drop of blood oozing out of a needle mark, but otherwise he seemed unhurt. He flexted his fingers a few times just to be sure. “What the hell, man?” he said. “What did you -”
“Tapscott, Neil. Thirty-five years old. Born in Boston, Massachusetts to Tapscott, Lowell and Marie.”
Neil felt his insides loosen up and a flash of heat start to wash over him. “Oh my god,” he said. “Please don’t kill me.”
“Currently residing at 454 Ingersoll Lane, Sylvania City.”
“Look, I don’t know what you think I’ve done, but really, I’m nobody here!”
“Employed by Acton Informatics as a data entry processor.”
“That’s right!” Neil dropped to his knees. Part of him knew that a robot would be immune to such a gesture of submission, as it couldn’t have had room in its programming for something like that. But it couldn’t hurt to try. “All I do is put data into databases, you know? Addresses, phone numbers, that kind of thing?” He forced a smile and tried to sound like he was enjoying a big joke. “So you can definitely just go on, kill some other guy. Right?” He cringed backwards and tried not to look into the glowing green eyes of the robot. “Right?”
The robot took another silent step forward. “Tapscott, Neil. You are summoned.” It reached down and picked Neil up off the floor. A band on its wrist flared to life, throwing off wisps of violet light that flickered and pulsed around them. “Transport is go,” it said. There was a flash, and the small, single man’s bedroom was replaced by a vast white hall.
The floor was smooth and cool when the robot released Neil, letting him drop to his hands and knees. When he looked up, the ceiling seemed to go up forever into gray shadows. The room was huge, and there were more robots standing in a circle around him. They were all identical, except for the damage they’d taken. The one who had found Neil was the most battered, but none were factory-fresh. They all stared at him with pulsing green eyes and said, “Tapscott, Neil. You have been summoned.”
Neil stood on shaking legs and turned to look at them all. None of them moved. They just stared. Again, they said in a single, hollow voice, “Tapscott, Neil. You have been summoned.”
“What?” Neil asked. “Summoned, what for? Why?”
The robot who had brought him stepped forward. “To answer for your crimes,” it said. It held up its hand and tapped the palm. The lights in the room began to dim except for one corner just beyond the robots that had surrounded him. They slowly moved apart, encouraging Neil to walk forward just by the pressure of their presence. The light illuminated a long, tall pedestal, made of the same bright white stone as the floor. On it, draped with a sheet, was something that looked for all the world like a human being. The shape underneath was unmistakable, something he’s seen from countless cop shows and medical dramas.
He turned to the robots. “What?” he asked. “You think I killed someone?”
They didn’t answer, but kept walking slowly, moving him along with them.
“I didn’t kill anyone,” he said. “I can barely bring myself to kill cockroaches, so… People? That’s not going to happen.”
The robots still walked and remained silent. Neil yelped when he backed up against the pedestal and glanced down. Yup. A body. Definitely a body.
The crowd stopped walking. The robot who had brought him stepped forward and pointed to the body. “You must answer for your crime,” it said.
Neil looked at him, then at the body. He felt his mouth go dry as he realized what he was going to have to do. With trembling fingers, he plucked at the cloth that covered the body and gave it the lightest of tugs. When it slid off, he yelped, but even that was cut short when he saw himself lying on the dais.
He started at it for a good long time. It was his face. His body, down to the mole on his shoulder and the appendectomy scar. And it was cold and dead.
Neil spun around, looking from one robot to another until he came back to the one that he was most familiar with. “What,” he asked, “the hell is going on here?”
They were all perfectly convincing. Especially the one that looked like my grandmother.
A beautiful day in the park. The sun was blazing, singing far overhead, and the green of all the living things threatened to overwhelm me. The sky was of a blue that called to my soul, only occasionally broken by white fluffy clouds that scraped their way from horizon to horizon. My whole family was there. Cousins, uncles, aunts, second cousins, great-aunts. All of them.
But it wasn’t them. I knew it wasn’t them. But they didn’t know that I knew….
The way “grandmother” pinched my cheeks, just like the real one did, and asked me why I hadn’t met any pretty girls yet. “Mrs. Berger’s granddaughter is still single, you know.” Her voice creaked in just the right way, but it was the creak of old leather and unoiled hinges.
Nice. She’s said that every time I’ve visited for the last year. Only the real Maw-maw would say that. But this… thing wasn’t her.
They certainly did their research. But I’m not fooled.
I can see the wires. I can see the glitches. Uncle Roy is too neat, using coasters under his Sam Adams.
And his wife hasn’t mentioned NASCAR yet, even though they’d been at the reunion for more than ten minutes.
And cousin Jenny. The bastards got her too. She was wearing a dress. A critical miscalculation on their part. Jenny wouldn’t have worn a dress at gunpoint, not in a million years. I can’t believe they missed that detail.
I didn’t know the technology had proceeded so far, making them so good, so close to the real thing. They might fool the rest of the world, but the rest of the world doesn’t see things the way I do. They don’t know what I know.
“Little Eddie!” I felt my arm grabbed by “uncle” Phil, and it pulled me close just like its predictive algorithms probably told it to. I never liked my uncle, but the thought of how they must have tortured him to extract this kind of information from his brain just turned my stomach. “How’s college, Eddie? You still studying, what was it, horoscopes and things? Like they got in the newspaper?”
“That’s astrology un- uncle Phil. That’s not science.” I pulled my arm away and tried not to look for the way light machine oil had probably stained the fabric of my jacket. “I study astronomy. Stars and planets. you know.”
It laughed, and it sounded like a car’s clutch right before it burned out. “Right, right, telescopes and things, right.” It slapped me on the back. “Not a lot of money in that, kid. You should’ve come to work with me in the hardware store. That’s good, steady work.”
Huh. Right. A “hardware store.” That’s probably what had made uncle Phil a prime target – easy access to materials to rebuild themselves. And I know what would happen if I went to that thing’s “hardware store.” They’d be sucking my brain dry and there’d be a copy of me wandering around, looking for someone else to convert.
“I need to get something to eat, Unnnncle,” I said. “See you later.” I ducked away and went back to the barbecue at the center of this facade, this elaborate trap. They all looked at me, their soulless glassy eyes following me as I moved towards the honeypot of human food they had brought to the park with them. the sun was still shining, and it hurt my eyes. The leaves were green. Kids were playing frisbee with a dog. A father was flying a kite with his son.
They had really done their research. It all looked so real.
I took a burger from the table. I wasn’t going to eat it – god knows what those things would have put in it – but I had to keep up appearances. I couldn’t let them know that I knew. To do that would just end everything. They’d fall on me like wolves and tear me apart for the good of their “experiment”.
Someone was staring at me. I could feel it. I turned around and let the burger fall to the ground.
It was Rachael.
“Hi, Eddie. Long time no see.”
The last time I had seen her was high school graduation, along with everyone else I had been friends with. I had a crush on her. Hell, probably all the boys had a crush on her, how could they not? That dark, perfect skin, with red hair that should have been out of place but wasn’t. And she was so sweet, too. She stood up for me – all the “nerds” really. She was one of the only people to treat me like I was human.
“Oh, Rachael. Not you too, please. Not you too.”
She – it cocked its head and looked at me with that same look of concern as when she – the real Rachael – found me crying in the auditorium after mid-terms. “What’s the matter, Eddie?”
I couldn’t speak. Just say again, “Not you too.”
It came over to me, and I couldn’t hear the gears or the motors. Must have been a newer model. Its gold-brown eyes were just as beautiful as I remembered them – more, even. It touched my shoulder and I jumped, nearly knocking everything off the picnic table. My hand reached out to catch myself before I fell.
“Eddie, I know family can be stressful, but this isn’t like you.” It smiled and raised an eyebrow (!) as it did so. “No, I take it back – this is exactly like you.” Even her laugh. It was so like her, so damn close. Closer than any other model I’d seen. It looked at me, and I hated her and I loved her all at once and this thing was here and she wasn’t and I hated myself for doing nothing.
My hand touched something, and I grabbed it without looking. It tried reaching out to me again, and said my name, and I jammed the barbecue fork right into its chest.
The screaming confused me, they’re not supposed to scream. I had finally exposed one of them, what did they have to scream about? I had finally exposed myself – I should be the one screaming. And I was. And frankly, making their hydraulic fluid red was just a cruel joke. I hit her again, and I could hear the scrape of stainless steel against whatever it was their skeletons were made of. I managed to get in one more before they fell on me. Their game was up, their disguises unmasked.
I howled as they tried to pull me away, and I tried to get as many as I could with the fork. I think I got “cousin Scott” in the eye and “Aunt Patti” in the leg. Maybe “cousin Evan” too. I would have gotten more, but they were strong. Of course they were strong, why wouldn’t they be? It’s their natural – HA! – advantage.
They bore me to the ground and wrenched the fork from my hand. They were saying something, but it mystery have been in some kind of machine language, because I couldn’t understand a word of it. They had me pinned, and I yelled and I laughed and I cried as the siren of their murder machine grew closer and closer. I turned my head. One of them was attempting repairs on “Rachael.” I’m sure she’ll be up and running again in no time.
“Uncle Kevin” had his face in mine, shouting in that indecipherable language of theirs. I couldn’t understand, but I knew what it was. I declaration of victory. A promise of punishment yet to come.
I had lost. They were going to assimilate me too.
I had won. They couldn’t take me without a fight.