Authors: Debra Driza
f I could record real-life moments in my head like a DVR, this afternoon would top the list as one of the most replayed. Far-fetched? Maybe for a normal girl. But normal wasn’t a word that applied to my life anymore. Though, at this precise moment, I was giving it my best shot. Focusing on the now—just me, salt, sand, and the blazing sun baking my skin and reflecting off the dark-haired boy’s head like a million tiny sparklers.
White froth lapped at the shore mere inches from my toes—6.15, to be exact—but my focus remained intent on his head, bobbing out past the breaking waves. He dove under them with the fluid ease of a sea creature, and even from here I could catch glimpses of the sheer bliss on his face. Hunter was completely in his element.
Enjoy it while you can
, I silently urged him. We wouldn’t be staying long.
Or maybe we would. I had decisions to make yet, about my future.
Overhead, a seagull squawked before dive-bombing a leftover morsel on the sand. At the harsh cry, something rippled in the far recesses of my mind, then disappeared.
I shivered, like the sun had dipped beneath a cloud.
Hunter swam with sure strokes in my direction, water curling behind him in a huge arch. I held my breath. Compared to the wave, he looked so small and insignificant. The water swept him up, and in an explosion of white foam, he vanished.
I jumped to my feet, but then he rose from the water like an offering from the sea. My phantom heart returned to its regularly scheduled pumping cycle. I sank back onto my motel towel. Silly. Of course he was fine.
Not that I didn’t have reason for major anxiety issues.
He padded toward me, water beading on his bare skin, his shaggy hair clinging to his neck and causing rivulets to rain down his chest.
“Sure you don’t want to come in? The water feels great.”
“No thanks.” Too hard to be on alert when you were in the middle of the ocean. But of course, I hadn’t said that. My no-swimsuit excuse was much less of an eyebrow-raiser.
Hunter threw himself onto the sand beside me, flinging tiny droplets onto my bare arm. I watched them cling to my skin, and Hunter’s gaze followed mine.
“It’s not because of that, right?” His gaze skimmed my left shoulder, which was covered by the sleeve of my slightly rumpled T-shirt. “Your arm’s okay in water?”
“Yeah, it’s fine.” But his attention made me self-conscious. I folded both arms over my bent knees, making sure the right one ended up on top. Not because I was bashful about my prosthetic limb, like Hunter assumed when he saw wires protruding from it like busted bicycle spokes back in Clearwater, but because my arm wasn’t really prosthetic.
Not in the true sense of the word, anyway. Though, technically speaking, I guess you could consider all of me prosthetic. One of the many pitfalls of being an android.
My stomach twisted, making me sigh. Another pitfall? Finding a tactful way to tell the boy you liked the truth about your little issue with nonhumanness.
In my defense—I didn’t know him all that well. Not unless you considered a shared truck crash, a late-night interlude involving a barn, and a date gone wrong to be the cornerstones of a profound relationship. Yet from the moment I’d met him, something about him called to me. Maybe because we were both loners. Maybe that was what formed the basis for our instant connection. All I knew was that after my world had imploded two days ago, I’d made a panicked phone call and Hunter had answered and here we were, in Virginia Beach.
He trailed his fingers along the area between my sleeve and elbow. I could feel the individual granules of sand that clung to his skin, but I was more focused on the thrill generated by his touch.
“I can’t get over how real it feels,” he said. “I had no idea they’d come so far in prosthetics.”
“It’s a prototype.” I looked into his eyes. “Experimental. Seems to be working okay.”
He shook his head. “I’m not sure I’d have the courage to be a test subject.”
Test subject, ha. That was one way to describe it. Not that I’d really had a choice in the matter. “The risks were low.”
“Still, you’re like on the frontier of science.”
If only he knew . . .
“Do you realize how many people will benefit because you were willing to take a chance?”
“Don’t make me sound like a hero. I’m not.”
He grinned. “Modest, too.”
I flicked some sand at him, hoping to get us off this subject. His eyes narrowed. Then, he leaned over and shook his mass of dark hair. Water drops flew everywhere, catching me in the face. I threw up my hands and squealed.
“I’m sorry, did I get you wet?” he said, all false innocence and fluttering lashes.
“Fiend,” I said, but my smile faded after a few moments. Silence hung between us, filled with the repetitive roar of waves, voices of the scattered tourists enjoying the early October sun, and the expectant hush of things left unsaid. I’d yet to explain to Hunter the reasons behind the panic-struck phone call that had summoned him to my side.
He hadn’t pressured me, but it was only a matter of time. I couldn’t expect someone to drive across five states at the drop of a hat without rewarding him with some kind of feasible explanation. The problem was—in my case, the truth sounded less feasible than the most fantastical lie.
“Are you sure your parents are okay with this?” I swept my arms wide to indicate him, me, us, Virginia Beach. All of it.
I saw his broad shoulders stiffen, watched his toes shovel into the sand. He averted his gaze. So apparently I wasn’t the only one hiding something. That probably shouldn’t have made me feel better, but in a perverse way, it did. “Do they not know you’re here?”
A shadow passed over his expression, but it was chased away an instant later by his smile. “Oh, they know. They told me that I should come help you. As a matter of fact—and don’t take this wrong—but when I told Mom about the first time I saw you at Dairy Queen, she encouraged me to get to know you, make new friends.” His smile eased into a wide, off-center grin. “Not that I needed any encouragement.”
Warmth blossomed beneath my ribs. I remembered that day when he’d walked into the Dairy Queen while I’d been there with some other girls. Something about his easygoing demeanor and searching gaze had pulled me in instantly, but I’d never realized he’d felt the same.
I stood and skipped a few feet forward to where the sea lapped at the shore. Stooping down, I cupped my hands and scooped up a handful of frigid water, careful to keep my back to Hunter so he couldn’t spot my growing grin. The next instant, I whirled.
“Catch!” I said, flinging the water at Hunter.
He sputtered when the water unexpectedly hit his face, and the sight of his shock—open mouth, wide eyes—was so comical, I giggled. I backed up, skipping and dancing away.
“Oh, you’re in for it now,” he mock-growled, jumping to his feet with that same lithe grace I remembered. With his low-slung board shorts and his wet hair glistening in waves around his neck, he looked like a beach bum. My gaze skimmed his bare chest and I swallowed. Make that god. Beach god.
I backed away down the shore and he raced toward me, kicking up water at my legs. We exchanged splashes, laughing like toddlers, and then he grabbed my hand and pretended to drag me toward the oncoming waves. He stopped before we went too deep, and we stood there together, allowing the foamy white ocean to swirl over our ankles.
The water, the sun beating down, the drag of the tide. All of it flitted through my mind, reminding me of . . . something. Before I knew what I was doing, I was spinning in a circle, twirling with my arms outstretched. Feeling the wet sand squish between my toes.
Twirling, in the sand. Another niggle. A pinch, in a corner of my mind.
I remembered this joy, this gladness.
The next instant, it was gone.
I felt a tug at my hair, and opened my eyes. Hunter’s face was only a few inches away. I inhaled salt and sweat, sandalwood and a hint of sunscreen. “Don’t worry about looking too cool or anything,” he teased. But his wink suggested approval of my beach antics.
He stepped closer, until our toes touched beneath a tiny hill of sand. The instant shock of awareness intensified when he bent forward, his breath tickling my ear, triggering my heart to pound harder. A slow, steady warmth traveled through my body, from my head to my arms, all the way down to my tingling toes. I yearned for his nearness in a way that I longed for nothing else. Maybe that was the reason I’d called him. Grief and fear had nearly dragged me under, and in the past, Hunter had been one of my only sources of comfort.
“Sorry,” I said, struggling to keep my tone light.
“Don’t be. You’re just . . . you.”
I turned my head, gazing off into the distance. Just me? And who might that be?
In a stroke of irony that thankfully only I could see, red words blinked to life in my head, accompanied by an all-too-familiar digitized voice. My voice.
Apparently the universe’s way of reminding me of exactly who—no,
Threat detected: 4.52 mi.
I froze. Four and a half miles? What the—
Two jets, due west.
I whirled, searching the air for a sign of them.
“What are you looking at?” Hunter asked, cupping a hand to his forehead to shield his eyes from the sun.
“There’s a huge naval base in Virginia Beach, isn’t there? Cool.”
Not cool. Not cool at all. My hands tightened as images from the past deluged me, with crystal-clear precision. Suburbans, men with guns. An airplane filled with soldiers, transporting Mom and me to a secret compound. Tiny, barren holding cells. The salt-and-pepper hair of General Holland, and the smug satisfaction that oozed from him when he issued the order to have me terminated.
Bleeding out after being shot on Holland’s command. By one of Holland’s men.
The gasp-clench of loss wrenched my chest and almost doubled me over, reminding me that Mom was gone. Dead. Murdered by a madman under the guise of defending his country.
I’d never see her smile at me again. Never hear her voice. Never tell her that I loved her.
“I wonder what kind they are?” he said, snapping me out of the dark place.
I didn’t answer, because just then, something moved within my eyes. I actually felt my pupils contract. A thin layer slid open, accompanied by a subtle clicking that only I could hear.
Another click, and the planes enlarged to fill my field of vision, like I’d fired up a pair of high-tech binoculars. The images grew and grew in size, until I could capture enough detail to place them.
F/A-18 military jets.
A 3-D schematic of the jets burst to life before me, rotating to show me all sides.
Red letters blinked behind my eyes:
Presently unarmed—drill mode likely
“Not sure,” I murmured, turning away in relief. But as the weight drained from my limbs, a heavy certainty filled my heart. The planes served as a forceful reminder that this carefree beach time with Hunter was coming to an end. No matter how hard I tried to push reality away, it kept sweeping back over me, as surely as the tide rolled in.
And like the rhythmic cycle of the tide, two names repeated themselves, over and over again.
Richard Grady. Sarah. Names that had slipped from Mom’s lips not long before she’d died. I was most confused by Sarah.
“You always were so brave, Sarah. So brave,” she’d said. But she’d been talking to me, looking at me. Why would she mistake me for this unknown Sarah?
Abruptly, I started in the direction of our motel. “Let’s go.”
I could tell Hunter was confused by my sudden urge to leave, but at the moment, I wasn’t up to explaining everything. I needed to get away, to return to the relative safety of the motel room.
As we walked, we passed an amusement park across the street, a motionless Ferris wheel towering in the sky. As if mocking me with all the normalcy I would never have. Hunter had once taken me to a carnival. In those brief moments, I’d caught a glimpse of a
. What it might feel like to actually be human.
Maybe that was another reason why I’d called him. He always made me feel as though I was more than just some fancy gadget created in a lab.
After one last longing glance, I looked away. I couldn’t live in the past, but I also couldn’t have a future until I learned everything I needed to know about my past.
Richard Grady. This Sarah person. The other Milas.
Maybe once I knew everything, I would finally be free to create a real life. Maybe even one that included Hunter.
We continued down the boardwalk, though I could sense Hunter’s concern in the way he kept sneaking quick glances at my profile. To the east, the waves rumbled toward the sand, mingling with the excited squeals of the few scattered children. From Hunter’s brief conversation with the woman selling ice cream earlier, we knew the crowds had dwindled considerably since summer. But there were still plenty of tourists and locals out sightseeing and soaking up the sun.
My gaze caught on two men up ahead. I quickly dismissed them. Not fit enough. No weapons.
Too many people here for comfort. But at least we didn’t look conspicuous amid a sea of other pedestrians. Plus, Virginia Beach had seemed like the perfect spot—I had such great memories of this place.
Even if those memories were programmed rather than real.
“So, is everything okay? You seem pretty tense.”
“I’m fine. Just a little headache,” I said with a carefree wave of my hand, even though carefree had long ago fled my capabilities. A shriek jerked my head to the right, before I realized it was just a young girl, fleeing an older boy and his two handfuls of wet sand.
My hand closed around my emerald pendant while something flashed in the back of my head. A man, and a woman, dancing along the shoreline. Gulls shrieking overhead, the roar-crash of waves—
Memory banks compromised, defragment.