Authors: Robin Wasserman
Tags: #Science Fiction, #Fiction, #General, #Children's Books, #Juvenile Fiction, #Fantasy & Magic, #Children: Young Adult (Gr. 10-12), #Friendship, #Social Issues, #Mysteries & Detective Stories, #Family & Relationships, #All Ages, #Social Issues - Friendship, #Science Fiction; Fantasy; Magic, #Mysteries; Espionage; & Detective Stories
One year ago, Lia Kahn died. A few days later, she woke up. She had a new body: Mechanical, unfeeling, inhuman. She had a new family: Mechs like her, who didn't judge her for what she could no longer be. She had a new life, one that would last forever. At least, it was supposed to. But now everything Lia thought she knew has turned out to be a lie; everyone she thought she loved has been stolen away. And someone is trying to get rid of the mechs, once and for all. Lia will risk everything to save herself and the people she can't live without. But not before facing one final truth: She can't save everyone.
For my parents, Barbara and Michael Wasserman,
who did everything right.
(Though I never did get a puppy.)
All moveables of wonder, from all parts,
The Bust that speaks and moves its goggling eyes,
The Wax-work, Clock-work, all the marvellous craft
Of modern Merlins, Wild Beasts, Puppet-shows,
All out-o'-the-way, far-fetched, perverted things,
All freaks of nature, all Promethean thoughts
Of man, his dulness, madness, and their feats
All jumbled up together, to compose
A Parliament of Monsters. ...
Humans are machines of the angels.
NO MORE SECRETS Just make them love you.
This is not real.
"This is real," I said, because the voice in my head ordered me to say it.
Because machines follow orders, and I am a machine.
This is not me.
"This is me," I said. Because I was programmed to lie.
You see everything, but you get nothing.
"What you see is what you get," I said, and I smiled.
You see: Perfect lips drawn back in a perfect smile. Perfect skin pulled taut over a perfect body.
You see: Hands that grasp, legs that stretch, eyes that understand.
You see a machine that plays the part she was built to play. You see a dead girl walking. You see a freak, a transgression, a sin, a hero. You see a mech; you see a skinner. You see what you want to see.
You don't see me.
"So it doesn't bother you, millions of people watching your
every move?" the interviewer asked. She was sweating under the camera lights. I wasn't. Machines neither sweat nor shiver; we endure. This interviewer had a reputation for wringing tears from all her interview subjects, but in my case it would be easier to get a toaster to cry. So something else was needed. Extra feeling from her, to make up for my lack. Shining eyes welling with liquid, rosy cheeks at opportune moments for anger or passion, a shudder for effect when we passed through the really gory parts: the aftermath of the accident, the uploading of spongy brain matter into sterile hardware, the death and reawakening. I had to admit her act was better than mine. But then, pretending to be human is easier when you actually are.
"You don't feel like you need to put on an act for us? Keep something private, something only for you?"
Artificial neural synapses fired, and electrical impulses shot through artificial conduits, zapped artificial nerves. My perfect shoulders shrugged. My perfect forehead wrinkled in the perfect approximation of human emotion.
"Why would I?" I said.
It had been fifteen days. Fifteen days of posing and preening under their cameras, mouthing their words, following their orders. Burrowing deeper into my own head, desperate for some hidden refuge that their cameras couldn't penetrate, somewhere dark and empty and safe that belonged only to me.
"After all, I have nothing to hide."
"The commands will feed directly into your auditory system, and it'll sound like the voice is coming from inside your head," Ben said, giving the equipment one final check like the perpetual employee-of-the-week I knew him to be. BioMax's best mender of broken mechs--mender, fixer, occasionally builder, but, as he was always careful to clarify, not doctor. Doctors tended to real, live orgs, and Ben fixed broken-down machines who only looked human. These last six months, every single thing in my life had changed and changed again, everything except for Ben, who was a constant: same tacky flash suits, same waxy hair, same plastic good looks. Same fake-modesty shtick, as in
Aw, shucks, I'm no one important, no one to be afraid of, certainly no one who'd keep secrets from you and manipulate you and blackmail you and hold the power of life and death over your remarkably lifelike head; I'm just a guy, like any other, so you can call me Ben.
"Some people get disoriented by the voice--"
"I'll be fine," I said flatly. I'd had voices in my head before. One of the many perks of being a machine: the potential for "improvements." Like a neural implant that would let me speak silently to other mechs, and hear their voices in my head. Like infrared vision and internal GPS and all the other inhuman
modifications I'd had stripped away when I moved back in with my org parents and my org sister and pretended to return to my org life. Like I could close my eyes, make a wish, and suddenly be
again, suddenly be the living, breathing Lia Kahn that had gotten into that car a year ago, pulled onto the highway, slammed into a shipping truck, and been blown into a million burned, bloody pieces.
"I want to make sure you understand how everything's going to work," call-me-Ben said, always pushing. "Once things start, we're not going to have a chance to talk like this."
"What a shame."
He ignored me. "So if you have any questions, it's best to ask--"
"If Lia says she'll be fine, she'll be
." That was Kiri Napoor, director of public relations and my own personal liaison to the BioMax powers that be. She caught my eye and winked, Kiri-speak for
I know he's lame; just go with it.
Kiri was my watchdog, assigned to make sure I kept both feet on the company line. When they'd first told me about her, I'd imagined a female version of call-me-Ben, some puffbag of hot air with a tacky weave and skin pulled watertight from one too many lift-tucks, a nag who would follow me around all day, tattling back to her BioMax overlords every time I opened my mouth. Instead she turned out to be
, with her sleek purple hair, perma-smirk, impeccable taste (retroslum shift dress paired with networked boots flashing mangarock vids,
that first time I saw her), and enough of a punk twist to make her look cool without even trying.
"You say you want to help the mechs," she'd said, that first day. "So I trust you to do that. I'm not here to spy on you; I'm here to help you."
It was pretty much the same line call-me-Ben had been feeding me ever since I'd signed on to the BioMax cause. But when Kiri said it, something in her voice suggested she thought as little of the corp as I did, and felt the same about the crap spewing out of her mouth. Then she'd kicked call-me-Ben out of the room, telling him that from now on if he wanted to bother me, he'd have to bother her first. That sealed the deal.
Kiri was the only reason I'd gone along with this stupid idea to begin with. It had been hers, which meant it couldn't be all bad. At least that's what I'd let myself believe when she talked me into it.
Guesting in a vidlife meant wiring myself with micro-cams and mics, ensuring that anyone who wanted could track my every move. Worse, it meant playing whatever part my audience wanted to give me. The perfect blend of scripted melodrama and absolute 24/7 reality, that's how they had advertised it when vidlifes first started popping up. Your favorite characters mouthing
lines, dosing on
favorite b-mod, hooking up with
choice of guy, running their lives by your rules and ruining their lives for your personal entertainment.
I told myself that it wasn't any different from what I'd been
doing for the last six months as BioMax's poster child for the happy, healthy mech, doing what they told me to do, saying what they told me to say, bowing and scraping for board meetings and press conferences and legislative committees, dangling on their strings. I'd started because my father had asked me to, and I was still playing nice, honoring the letter of our bargain--I got all the credit I needed to help Riley, and my father got his daughter back. Or at least a reasonable simulacrum thereof. But once I'd made the obligatory appearances he'd asked of me, I stuck around. I'd always been good at acting the part, and at least this time the act would be for a good cause.
Baby steps, that was the plan. Persuade the orgs that the mechs offered no threat, meant no harm. That we were just like them. That we were young and foolish--yet also mature. Carefree, yet responsible. Predictable, yet prone to petty spats and parties like the orgs our age. It meant walking a fine line, and singing different songs to different audiences. Kiri customized the sober lectures I delivered to boardrooms, the grinning idiot I made myself into for pop-up ads, each persona carefully crafted to suit its circumstances--irrelevant, apparently, that none of them suited me.
The vidlife took the act one step further. We would offer them proof--24/7, in living color--that I was no more harmless and no less vapid than your average rich-bitch wild child. We would sucker them into caring about my fights and flings, sacred pacts and romantic treasons, and without realizing it,
they would come to believe that
felt. That I was, in my petty melodramas of daily life, no different from them. Or at least no different from the other people they watched on the vids. There were those at BioMax who couldn't understand how acting a part would convince anyone of anything about the "real" me--but they were the ones who didn't watch vidlifes. Those of us who did knew the shameful truth: No matter how much you
you were watching live-action puppets play out the fantasies of the masses, the more you watched the vidlifers, the more you believed in them. That was, after all, the whole point of the vidlife: to forget the fantasy and accept the reality. To ignore the distinction between "reality" and "real."
"Ready?" call-me-Ben asked.
I nodded, and he exchanged a cryptic set of gestures with the vidlife rep, then gave me a thumbs-up. That was it.
Nothing seemed different. Nothing
different. The buzzing of the micro-cam hovering over my shoulder could have been a fly.
Just make them love you
, I reminded myself, waiting for something to happen. Preparing myself to be bright and sparkly, harmless and irresistible, to be the old Lia Kahn, the one who didn't run on rechargeable batteries.
We're the same people we used to be
, I'd said at meeting after meeting, lying through my porcelain teeth.
We're perfect copies of our old selves. We're exactly like you.
The voice, when it finally spoke, was inflectionless and personality-free.
There's a party at the Wilding,
the voice said. From what I'd heard, there was always a party at the Wilding. The club ran full speed from dusk till dawn and round to dusk again, the dancers and dosers locking themselves in a nonstop fantasy.
Find something to wear and check it out.
"You know what?" I said brightly. "I feel like dancing. Maybe I'll go find myself a party."
And without waiting for a response, I skipped out of the bunkered office, already mentally running through my wardrobe, wondering what would be suitable for the Wilding, wondering what the voice would make me do once I got in.
Wondering who would be watching.
Mechs don't get tired. We don't, technically, need to sleep. And obviously there's no need to eat or drink or rest our legs from hour after hour of whirling beneath spinning neon lights, arms twirling, head thrown back, bass-pumping music shaking the walls, floor undulating beneath our feet, bodies on bodies pressed together, sticky, sweaty, salty flesh grinding against flesh, and in the center, me. Seventy-two hours at the Wilding, watching dancers flow in and out, like jellyfish washing up on the beach, then dragged out again by the rising tide, ragged and desiccated by their hours in the sun. Except here in
the Wilding there was no sun, no hint of anything that might mark the time passing, or the daylight world beyond its midnight walls.
It turned out the Wilding had only one rule, anything goes, which was good for me since I'd heard one too many stories about mechs trying to slip into org-only clubs and getting the shit pounded out of them. But here the wasted masses were too lost in their dancing, their shockers, their threesomes and foursomes, their licking and tonguing and whipping, to notice what I really was, or to care.
"You need a guy," Felicity shouted in my ear, with a giggle that sounded almost sincere. Everything she said sounded almost sincere--the same went for Pria and Cally, the other two vidlife regulars who'd swept me into their circle as soon as I stepped into the club. The fly cams buzzing over our heads glowed as they came within range of one another, and on cue the lifers laughed and shrieked, stroked my hair, whipped me in wild loops across the packed dance floor, and didn't seem to care that I was a mech--which of course only meant that their characters didn't care, and they were playing their parts.
Cally grabbed my shoulders and kneaded her thumbs into the synflesh. "Definitely need a guy," she agreed. "You're way too tense."
"I'm just tired," I shouted back, my body still rippling in time with the music, arms, legs, hips on autopilot as we bobbed