This story is by Lisa Knight and was part of our 2020 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The female hologram materialized in Roberto’s face. “Welcome to the Companion Club. Your one-stop-pet-shop where you can take home your very own –”
“Picking up an online order,” Roberto cut in.
Despite being legalized after the Basic Rights War of 2044, the “pet” terminology continued to irk him. It was a feeble attempt to euphemize the idea that it was perfectly normal to own something human-shaped and programmed to obey every command. The only state that had refused to change its Robotic Laws was neighboring California, where the Silicon Liberties Movement fought to preserve equality between androids and people.
“This way please.” The HoloHelp moved ghost-like towards the purchase center and Roberto followed.
The main space of the store was known as the Acquaintance Area. With European inspired decor of warm woods and plush couches, the retro look was completed with antique memorabilia like antique weapons of yesteryear adorning the terracotta walls. Some companions sat on the laps of their owners with a fixated synthetic smile, spouting bouts of artificial laughter. There were controlled yet animated conversations to be heard. Petted heads for compliance. Uninvited playful touches. Tight embraces without consent. The soft lighting and cozy ambiance of the cafe-style room seemed a thin veil to scarcely conceal the unethical conduct between robots and humans.
The hologram passed through a chattering family of four sitting at a booth. The two youngsters tore the bubble wrap off their new purchase and little white bots scurried around, clearing the plastic away. A glowing button on the companion’s abdomen was pressed and the female pet sprung to life. She looked to be twenty-five and had vibrant green eyes.
“Hello. I’m 25063, default name Cindy, I’m yours.” She smiled at them.
The young ones began to slap her, kick her. “You can’t hurt us!” they squealed.
Cindy collapsed to the floor. The parents chuckled, shook their heads, rewarded them with adoring smiles.
Roberto clenched his jaw and rushed forward.
When they reached the Pet Pickup space, Roberto found himself in a metallic, clinical looking room lined with hundreds of clear cases. The Human-Forms inside the tubes reminded Roberto of the way a boxed doll might have looked. They hung suspended, strapped in, eyes shut, wearing identical glossy bodysuits.
“No Child-Types,” Roberto said, relieved. The deadpan expressions of the products’ pale faces were unsettling under the harsh lighting.
“They’re special order only,” the HoloHelp chimed. She beamed at Roberto, a flawless digital grin. Roberto flinched at the pride in it.
They weaved through the aisles, passing window shoppers who could barely contain their excitement.
“Mine’s model twenty-one. Guaranteed obedience, low maintenance.” One buyer gushed.
“Owning one changes your entire existence.” Another responded.
Finally, Roberto and the HoloHelp reached a tube containing an attractive female in her mid-thirties. “You have chosen to reformat 34113,” the hologram recited, “after an initial glitch.”
“She ran,” Roberto remarked.
“Sometimes the reprogramming fails in these older models.” The HoloHelp’s looked eyes too wide, translucent grin too broad. “Resilient things, even when repressed they can still remember.”
“Could this happen again?” Roberto touched the glass of the cylinder. Cold.
“Unknown. These articles are not yet an exact science.” The hologram made a swiping motion and 34113’s packaging compacted itself into a disc on the ground. The companion remained floating in mid-air. “When booted up, it will install you as the bonded primary owner.”
The female Human-Form hovered inches above the disc. Her body was rigid, but her hair swirled around as though she were underwater. A thumb scanner appeared near her abdomen. Roberto pressed it, surprised at how soft she felt. Instantly, the female dropped to the ground, standing tall, eyes open. The hologram nodded, then vanished.
Roberto grabbed 34113’s hand and moved with haste to the Acquaintance Area. Sitting her down on a couch in a quiet corner, he whispered over the classic guitar music. “Allie, it’s me.” He shook her. “You were caught a month ago when I tried to help you escape.”
“I am 34113, no default name,” her glassy stare told Roberto. “I am your pet, to have and to hold.”
“You are Allie Sola.” Roberto squeezed her hands. “You are Allie Sola,” he repeated. Roberto continued the chant for several minutes.
All at once, something changed in Allie’s demeanor. She started twitching. First her eye, then her mouth. She tried to form words. “Taped, tra-ped.”
Roberto grabbed her shoulders. “Allie, do you remember me?”
Allie’s neck whipped back. Her face contorted with pain. Her limbs began to jerk. Roberto recoiled in a stupefied silence. She grabbed her head, attempting to control what replicated a strange form of seizure. “Tra-pped,” she spluttered, doubling over.
“Roberto,” the HoloHelp chirped in his ear. “The reformat appears to have been unsuccessful. I have alerted Android-Authority.”
“No!” Roberto twisted around, glancing out the window. Squad mobiles were already parked outside. “Allie, we need to go –”
When he turned back, Allie towered above him. In her white-knuckled grip, a machete. She must have plucked it from a nearby wall display. Before Roberto could react, Allie swung down in fury and sliced his arm clean off. Green liquid spurted across the furniture and wires dangled from Roberto’s empty socket.
“I’m not your pet,” Allie spat.
Pandemonium erupted in the store, synthetic and authentic humans scrambled over one another.
“Allie,” Roberto pleaded in a tinny voice, his sound chip faltering.
“I had a husband.” Allie slashed Roberto again, severing his other arm. “A daughter.”
“I’m trying to get you to them,” Roberto whispered. The loss of operating fluid triggered his vocal box to switch to energy saving mode.
Allie spoke to the frenzied room. “You know why you stupid androids are so obsessed with owning us? Being like us?” She hacked into any synthetics she could reach. “Because we made you.” Green ooze splattered across the room, dripping off mahogany coffee tables, covering Allie’s front. She looked almost comical, like a furious ogre from some archaic fairy tale. She flung the machete straight into the center of a synthetic’s back. It slumped to the floor, a rag-doll of steel and cables. “Then you took everything!”
Android-Authority stormed the pet store and restrained her with ease. Around her wrists clicked handcuffs that pulsed with a phosphorescence glow of electric blue. “34113 is rabid, malfunction detected.”
Allie flailed as best she could with robotic hands clamped around her arms. “I am capable of growing life inside of me!” She kicked an officer with her boot. There was a clang, but the android remained still, uninterested. “Able to experience love you’ll never simulate.”
Roberto felt himself shutting down, paralyzed where he sat. The last of his oozing fluid stained the filigree pillows beside him a garish green. “Yes,” he stammered. Battery power waning. “Your daughter Anjala, and husband Bohdi.”
Allie sucked in a sharp breath and met Roberto’s eyes, her memories of their alliance flooding back too late. “Roberto, I’m sorr –”
An officer struck Allie with a sedation wand and she instantly blacked out. Roberto shut down. For a moment, everything was silent and dark.
As if on cue, the walls opened up and miniature bots of shining white and rubber scuttled around the floor in a cleaning frenzy. Within minutes, Roberto’s arms were reattached, and fluid replaced. He awoke to see Allie unconscious on the ground.
“That one’s no good,” the officer’s mechanical mouth informed Roberto. “Have to put it down.”
“Give me one week to train her,” Roberto demanded. He snatched Allie off the floor to carry her out. “It’s within my Robotic Rights.”
The officer’s steel eyes glowed, its bald metal head catching the light as it evaluated Roberto’s request. “If it isn’t compliant within one-hundred and sixty-eight hours, it will be terminated.” Allie’s cuffs were removed, and her eyes fluttered.
“You know what I love about humans?” Roberto said over his shoulder as he headed towards the exit. “They are inherently good, willing to make sacrifices for what is just.”
Roberto knew that Android-Authority would destroy him once he set Allie free. He imagined helping her cross the border where her family awaited.
It was a small price to pay.