Page 9: Corporate Rivals

Alexander Denton was an attentive man. From the pristine quality of his double-breasted suit, to the consummate clarity of his office and even the minutiae of the day-to-day operations of his company, he demanded perfection. He was a tireless man: it was said that nothing could escape his attention. Right now, he was sitting behind his black desk upon polished golden floorboards, illuminated by the mid-morning light shining through spotless floor-to-ceiling windows.

His head of research, Dr. Daniel Meadows, squirmed. Alexander’s heedful eyes were fixed on a conspicuous stain of hastily caught tartare on the right breast of his visitor’s shirt, his eyes also caught the small line of missed whiskers at the base of his neck. He studied the man’s eager abjection to gain approval, a smile stretched between his cheeks, sensitive eyes leaning somewhat forwards as he sat on the other side of the desk.

Returning his attention to a holographic monitor between them, Alex continued to watch the remainder of the footage Meadows had delivered.

Matthias was visible between the shoulders and arms of the second row of the crowd. The observer appeared to be shorter, the visual feed from their retina revealed a neck craning between elbows, struggling to keep line of sight. Beyond the clutter of arms, Matthias was studying the exposed controls of the malfunctioning teleporter booth, and pressing buttons.

‘I’m assuming we’ll be getting to the point forthwith,’ he pressed Daniel.

‘Yes,’ Meadows effused, smiling. ‘It shouldn’t be a moment.’

‘Very well.’

He watched as Chris arrived, and the proceeding confrontation. When Matthias drove his arm into the stasis field, he leant forwards, watching closely as the false coating fell from his silicon, the field dissipating from within.

‘My, that is interesting..’

‘Absolutely, sir, the..’

He drew Meadows silence with a raised finger, watching as Matthias withdrew his exposed sleeve and the woman from the teleporter booth.

‘It’s..’

‘Impossible. I know. Only a nanite swarm operating.. several decades ahead of current aftermarket technologies could have penetrated that field in time.’

He reframed his posture, closing his hands upon the desk. ‘Thank you for bringing this to my attention.’

‘That will..’ Meadows stammered to confirm. ‘Yes.. yes, sir, yes. Thank you, Mr Denton.’

Meadows rose slowly from the chair and left the room betraying a hint of confidence, his head held just a moment higher.

‘Meadows!’ Alexander barked.

‘Yes, Mr. Denton?’ Meadows paused at the door, looking back.

‘This came from Natural Robotics?’

‘It did, sir.’

‘Thank you. That will be all.’

‘Sir,’ Meadows gave a smile and hurried from the room.

Alexander folded his palms behind his head and replayed those few seconds of immediate interest.

‘Matthias..’ he murmured. ‘Phone. Jameson, Security.’

The video paused and was overlaid with a dialog: “Connecting..”, followed by the waveform depiction of incoming audio.

‘Jameson,’ asserted a clear, deep voice.

‘When you have a moment, get to my office. I have a new project to discuss.’

‘Will do,’ James replied.

‘Oh and Jameson.. hold all other concerns, this will take a priority.’

All other concerns, sir?’

‘Yes, everything.’

‘I’ll be right there.’

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Page 8: ‘It’s just a prosthetic.’

Matthias unbuttoned the cuff of his right sleeve.
‘What are you doing?
Matthias continued to roll the sleeve back, up to his elbow. ‘I’m getting her out.’
‘You can’t pull her out.. that’s not just light in there, they’re scattered nanites, you arm will be shredded!’
‘Let me worry about the nanites.’

Matthias thrust his naked arm into the dense blue light. A white flash emanated from the surface of his skin, scattering out like a thousand small bolts of lightning through the surrounding void. Something tugged at his skin, the false surface about his artificial musculature shimmered and disintegrated into a minute dust of skin and flesh. Beneath this, his true form emerged – a dense layer of malleable silicon encasing skeletal rods of carbon fibre with small motors at the joints. Insulated cables were tightly bound about this skeletal framework, and along the frame itself, small flickers of light emanated from a dense network of circuitry and tiny processors.
Chris retreated behind him, taking a few small steps, eyes fixed on the sight before him.

The blue light dissipated in an instant, leaving Matthias free to help the woman from the booth. She stepped out, unscathed and blinking, raising a hand to her forehead. ‘Uh..’
Drawing sight of the crowd, she regained focus. ‘Wha.. what happened?’
The crowd was focused on her saviour. She looked to the man holding her, noticed Matthias’ arm and yelped, pulling away.
‘It’s okay,’ Matthias assured her, and then the crowd, as she took shelter beside Chris. ‘It’s just a prosthetic.’
Between the murmuring crowd, now a gathering of frightened eyes and gaping mouths, a few began to clap.

Later, in the I.T. department, Chris drew a crowd behind his desk. James stood behind and to the left, arms crossed, beside him stood another two coworkers, and behind these three, a taller man, in a darker suit.
Before them on Chris’ monitor, the security footage of the incident replayed at half speed.
‘Theoretically his arm should be gone,’ James commented as on-screen, Matthias thrust his arm into the teleporter field.
‘Theoretically it should be impossible, right?’ confirmed Chris. ‘Isn’t there some kind of.. atomic barrier? Not to mention the nanites..’
‘He shouldn’t be able to touch it, let alone shove his arm through it.’
‘You should have seen the arm,’ Chris swiveled his chair to face them, brandishing his own forearm as an example. ‘It was some kind of clear plastic rubber, hundred of circuits, processors, wiring throughout, perfectly articulated movement, this was like something out of the army. I’d like to know where he bought it.’
‘Do we know who this guy is?’ another asked.
‘Matthias Drake.. some accountant,’ Chris shrugged.
‘I wouldn’t mind studying it,’ a voice came from the rear. The others fell silent in deference as the speaker, the taller man in the suit, marked by dark, heavy eyelids and a forest of eyebrows stepped closer, peering at the screen, stroking a haphazard beard. ‘I wonder if we could coax him into R&D.’ The others waited on his pronouncement. ‘Of course, if we found anything, it would have to remain in the lab, I couldn’t share it..’
There were general murmurs of agreement and acceptance.
‘That’s if he agrees, right?’ stated James.
‘Well, I can tell you, when management sees this, they’re sure to be looking for incentives..’

Page 7

A squat man in an ill-fitting shirt stepped from the crowd and headed for the teleportation booths.

‘What are you doing?’ an officious voice demanded. The man hesitated, turning to the crowd.

‘I can handle it,’ he raised his palms in earnest defence. ‘I work on these things as a hobby.’

‘A woman’s life is at stake!’

‘Do you see anyone coming?’

He proceeded to the booth, scratching his leg as he studied sealed panels around and above the keypad.

‘Does anyone have any tools?’ he called.

‘He’s going to get her killed,’ murmured Stacey.

‘I know,’ said Matthias.

A mammoth black man began to step through the crowd, easily a head taller than the majority of the onlookers, excusing himself as he parted the crowd with barrel arms.

‘Excuse me, sir,’ he called, stepping out at the front, ‘I need you to step away from the teleporter.’

The hobbyist hesitated and stepped back from the booth, as he saw the size of the man. ‘I’m just trying to help.’

‘I’m not going to ask twice.’

The security guard crossed his arms as the man took a final look at the teleporter before walking away, head down, scratching his head.

‘What are you going to do about it?’ someone called.

‘My name is Paul Bowman, I’m from Security. I need everybody to clear the area.’ Amid protests, he held his arms out as if to push them back. ‘Please! Return to your lunch, they’re sending somebody down. Disperse! This isn’t helping anybody.’

As the crowd begin to reverberate, Matthias took a quiet breath.

‘I guess we should go,’ Stacey started beside him.

Matthias stepped forwards and approached the teleporter, eyes focused on his destination. The guard stepped into his path.

‘Excuse me sir, I need you to..’

Matthias stopped, staring into his eyes. ‘I can save this woman.’

‘Maintenance is sending somebody..’

‘If you don’t give me access to this teleporter, that woman has about five minutes to live.’

‘And I suppose you’re an expert?’

‘I am. She has five minutes. Regardless of the person inside, that teleporter will reset itself and lose her data in the process. There’s no guarantee of getting her back. Do you really want a dead woman on your conscience? On your personnel record?’

‘Look, I can’t allow you to..’

‘I’m not asking for your permission.’

Matthias stepped around him but Paul caught him by the shoulder. Matthias turned and locked one hand below the man’s elbow, and another about his wrist.

‘Release me or I’ll snap your forearm,’ Matthias informed him. ‘Either way, she’s getting out of there.’

Paul hesitated, but raised his other hand in compliance. Matthias released him and backed away, before returning to proceed for the teleporter.

Tugging a steel plate from the wall as if it were weightless, he sat this to one side. A dozen buttons and a small display lay behind it, protruding from the internal casing. Further components were guarded behind a wall of plastic and silicon. The display read: “Error 505: Unstable transmission. Atomic integrity check failed.”

Studying their labels, he pressed a series of buttons. The display changed: “Unable to release. Integrity check failed.’

A few more buttons.

“Cannot instantiate. Original status unavailable. Primary buffer invalid. Secondary buffer invalid.”

 

Chris almost toppled his chair as he ran from his desk to a teleporter booth at the wall adjacent to his desk. James paused in his work, raising an eyebrow.

‘Some jerk is screwing with the maintenance panel,’ Chris fumed, punching code into the side of the machine.

‘So what?’

‘The feed says he’s from accounting!’

Chris stepped into the booth and reappeared in the cafeteria, in the booth to Matthias’ left. Stepping out, he approached Matthias’ side.

‘Sir, I need you to step away from that machine.’

‘Are you qualified to fix this?’

‘No..’ Chris began.

‘I’m almost done here,’ Matthias confided. ‘Just give me a moment.’

‘Sir,’ Chris took Matthias’ arm and attempted to pull him away, finding the feat impossible.

‘Do you have codes to override the locks?’ Matthias prompted, unperturbed. ‘The software won’t release her.’

‘It’s not supposed to, we don’t know the status of the original. If you release her she might not be all there, or she could be an illegal copy. That’s jail time..’

‘Do you have the codes or not?’

‘No!’ Chris grimaced.

‘Right then.’

Page 6

Several floors above, in a quiet office lined with empty workstations, a balding man named Chris caressed a day’s worth of stubble. Placing his hands behind his head, he leaned back in his chair emitting a shallow groan. Coming back to the desk, he leaned forwards, propping a chin on his hand and blinked at the screen. Rubbing at his eyes, he withdrew and raised a steaming mug of coffee to his lips. Eyes widening, he spat back into the cup, cursing, and replaced it on the desk, sloshing coffee onto his plaid shirt and beige pants.

With a cry he clawed for a box of tissues nearby and padded at his pants as a damp patch formed on his thigh.

‘Jesus.. this better not stain,’ he muttered. Chuckling carried from a desk at the centre of the room as James, an electronics technician, paused from soldering a robotics component.

‘Don’t you laugh,’ Chris grimaced, ‘I’ve seen you spill a few.’

‘Yeah, but I’ve never managed it sitting still,’ James laughed.

Chris returned to rubbing at his thigh as an indicator began flashing in the corner of his monitor. When it caught his attention, he gave a casual jab to the screen. When a window opened and he observed it’s contents, he ceased rubbing, the tissue slipping from his fingers as he swiped and gestured through a dozen dialogs.

‘James, we’ve got a problem..’

‘What is it?’

‘There’s a phase malfunction,’ Chris swallowed. ‘Teleporter in the cafeteria.’

‘So what?’ James shrugged. ‘Let maintenance handle it.’

‘Maintenance is off, remember?’

Pausing in his work, James peered over. ‘Well it’s just a phase malfunction, right? Happens all the time. Take it offline, stick an out of order sign on it, or something.’

Chris brought up a security feed, featuring a clear view of the woman trapped inside.

‘No, James, it’s not a routine case. There’s a woman here..’

‘Well I have to get this finished by three or Martin is going to take my head. You took the course, right? There’s a handbook on the intranet. Punch in a couple of codes, problem solved.’

‘That was three years ago! Look, surely you can give it five minutes to go down..’

James had already resumed his focus on soldering.

‘Fine,’ Chris sighed, ‘I’ll try R&D.’

 

Whispers had grown to alarm as the crowd swelled about the teleporter. A red light pulsed above, amplifying the anxiety of those susceptible.

‘Does anybody know how to get her out of there?’ a suit-clad manager demanded.

‘Where’s maintenance?’ cried a voice from the crowd.

‘Someone call Security,’ a tired voice pleaded.

Matthias stood pensive at the front of the crowd, silent eyes watching the woman inside.

‘Jesus,’ Stacey breathed, emerging to stand beside him.

‘I know.’

‘You think someone’s coming?’

‘I’m sure they know about it,’ he replied, indicating the flashing red light.

 

‘Yes,’ Chris answered, rubbing sweat from his brow. ‘There’s someone stuck in mid-phase distribution in the cafeteria.. I don’t have anyone.. I’m in I.T.! …. Can you just send someone down? It’s a five minute job. …I’m an IT Technician! I don’t know the first thing… Yes. Fine..’

Chris slammed a button on his keybord. ‘Fuck!’

‘I can’t do it,’ reminded James. A segment of the component he was working on shifted as he soldered, resembling the pain reflex of a hand.

‘Thankyou James, you’re being very helpful. Will you take responsibilty when she gets dropped?’

James paused. ‘They can’t reinstantiate?’

‘She,’ reiterated Chris.

‘She. She can’t reinstantiate? There’s a buffer, right? From the teleporter she beamed in from. See if you can take an imprint from the buffer and rebuild her from that.’

Chris swiped through screens. ‘She came from somewhere public.. The local copy is corrupted.’

‘If she’s an employee, there’s always a backup… it just might be a year old.. depending.’

There was a chiming from the desk and Chris slapped the keyboard. He paused, listening to his voice chattering through an earpiece. ‘No, we can’t do anything. I’m aware of the situation. Yes, I’ll.. do what I can.’ He hit the keyboard again and sighed.

‘What is it?’ James queried.

“They’re calling someone down from Security.’

Page 5

‘That’s more than we could say for you when you’re at home,’ quipped Stacey, a vivid brunette with dark eyes, vibrant lips and a black skirt. She walked past, drawing the attention of nearby men, balancing a coffee. She took a seat at the cubicle opposite Matthias.

‘You’re welcome to join me any night,’ replied Dennis.

‘I’d rather a screw a gorilla,’ she sipped.

‘I didn’t have you pegged for bestiality,’ Dennis jibbed.

Stacey returned a sneer as Dennis swivelled to wield a chesire grin at Matthias.

‘I’ll think about it,’ smiled Matthias.

‘He’ll think about it,’ Dennis rolled his eyes. ‘Just trying to give you a life, bud.’ He mimed opening some curtains. ‘Look at that. A naked woman that is not on a TV screen.’

“Maybe he has a Real Doll,’ came a voice to his right. Nelson, a chubby man of eurasian descent, took a seat at the adjacent desk.

‘Whatever. There will be shots.’

Dennis’ phone rang, intercepting the conversation. He snapped his earpiece back into place, rotated back to face his computer and jabbed a button on the desk.

‘Hi, you’ve reached Natural Robotics, Dennis speaking.’

Matthias’ attached an earpiece of his own and focused on his own workstation.

 

At midday, employees filed one by one from teleporters into a cavernous space known as the cafeteria. The subterrean hall was assembled from small black rocks, polished from their proximity to thousands of feet and the glancing touch of palms against the walls. Several shallow pools held water fountains tossing droplets into the light descending from great portholes in the ceiling. Beneath these, the vibrant pools were lined in flora and, for the careful eye, a fleet of tropical fish.

Matthias emerged from the teleporter and stood alone, gazing across the room. He noticed Stacey, ordering coffee at a crowded cafeteria outlet by a nearby wall. Navigating a few occupied tables, he dodged fellow employees crossing his path, deep in conversation.

‘Six fifty,’ called a barista. Stacey raised a hand, ‘That’s me,’ and pressed her index finger to a payment console. Matthias stepped in to the counter nearby, and caught the attention of another. ‘Double shot latte and a roll. Thanks.’

Grasping her coffee carefully, Stacey met his eye and stepped through the crowd to pass by.

‘Join me by the pool,’ she said.

 

Coffee in hand, roll in the other, Matthias scanned the crowd. Stacey stood against a short wall overlooking the largest pool and accompanying fountain, gazing into the water.

‘How are you going with those reports?’ he offered, stepping in beside her.

‘Three down, two to go. Honestly for a tech company you think they could trust the machines to do it.’

‘Maybe they know they’re not that good,’ he sipped his coffee.

‘You doubt the competence of our fearless leaders?’ she smirked. ‘Middle management is just retarded. They should do away with the lot of them, useless bureacrats.’

In the intervening silence, she smiled into her coffee. ‘So, how are you planning to evade Dennis and his legion of salacious strippers?’

Matthias laughed. ‘I haven’t found a convincing lie,’ he admitted. ‘Any ideas?’

She shrugged. ‘I would have just said no. But then my plans are limited to a cat on my lap and a good book.’

‘Would you care to..’ his sentence was broken off as he noticed her attention drawn to something behind him. A crowd was collecting by the entrance, stray individuals flocking to the commotion like white blood cells to cancer.

‘Should we take a look?’ Stacey suggested.

Matthias slipped through the crowd from the rear, curious to see the trouble ahead. The crowd was uneasy, thick with hushed voices and whispered tension.

‘Has someone called maintenance?’

‘How are they going to get her out?’

‘Is she conscious?’

Emerging at the front line, all eyes watched a bank of teleporters installed at the wall. A blonde woman in gray office attire stood inside, limbs fixed as a marionette, eyes glazed and unblinking. The compartment was saturated with a deep blue light.

Page 4

‘I have some experience with these,’ he lied. ‘I can probably fix it.’

‘Go right ahead.’ The man stepped out of the booth allowing Matthias to step in behind him. Beneath the hand-shaped mould on the wall, a keypad protruded from a large steel casing. Placing his hands on either side, Matthias tugged it from the wall. There was an immense crack as he broke through the locks. He sat the cover on the floor, to one side and studied the circuits, shifting wires and examining where they led.

Behind him, the woman attempted to peer beneath Matthias’ elbow, following his movements.

‘You’re sure you know what you’re doing?’ the woman asked.

‘Absolutely. Don’t worry about the noise – they secure these things fairly well.’

By quieting his own output, he was able to sense the current running through the machine, like a human sensing their own heartbeat. Locating a diagnostic port, he discreetly detached his fingertip and attached himself to the machine.

‘Where were you trying to go? Matthias asked them.

‘Wellers Plaza.’

Sending a message through his limb, he waited for a response. A reply never came. Testing his own destination, there was an immediate reply.

‘It seems fine. Maybe there’s something wrong at the plaza. Is there somewhere you could ‘port to nearby?’

‘You’re saying theirs is down?’ asked the man.

Matthias disconnected from the teleporter, and slipped on his fingertip before stepping out. ‘Well this one is working perfectly.’

The man broke his gaze and looked to the woman, ‘Well we could just try another floor.’

‘Why not,’ Matthias smiled, stepping out.

Looking at the exposed innards of the machine, the man paused. ‘Well, shouldn’t you put the casing back on?’

‘It’s fine,’ Matthias assured him, ‘Don’t worry about it. I can fix it when you’re gone.’

‘If you say so,’ the man frowned.

‘Just get in there,’ the woman urged. ‘I can’t afford to be late.’

The man stepped in first: his number dialled, hand pressed to the wall, the teleporter bled with an impenetrable blue light. His bulging physique was locked into a fixed position before momentarily, he vanished. The woman followed after. Matthias reattached the casing as best he could, but lacking tools, it barely sat in place.

Teleporting to his destination, the world slipped out for a moment. His consciousness returned first, the world black, until slowly, his vision faded in. The teleporter locks held him in place momentarily, limbs in a fixed position before his atomic makeup was verified.

The arrival lobby at Natural Robotics was paved in wide, blue wear-resistant panels, the walls a sanitary white, running with arterial crevices which guided the way into the corridors of the building beyond. Matthias stepped out of the central teleporter, joined by fellow professionals on either side, the three falling in with a scattered procession towards the centre of the building. The corridors converged on a vast hall. Hundreds of colour-coded cubicles stretched from wall to wall. From the second floor looking down were floor-to-ceiling windows from which supervisors could gaze on the workers below. Matthias navigated the morning crowd, dodging those running against the current, the carefully balanced coffee carriers, one nudge from losing it on the floor.

Matthias’ cubicle was second from the end in a far corner of the room.  Dennis sat by the wall, a fast-talking player with beady eyes and veins flooded with caffeine.  He rotated on his chair, a finger pressed to ear, smiling at Matthias as he took his seat.

‘Absolutely,’ said Dennis. ‘We can have it to you by the end of the week. … Well I’m sorry.. it will only take a second to deliver Ma’am, but that won’t speed up production.’

Matthias logged into his computer by hand

‘That’s right. You too, have a nice day.’

Dennis’ palm fell on a button atop his desk.

‘Friday, I love you. Buddy!’ wheeling in to Matthias’ side, he tugged an earpiece free, and threw it back at his monitor. ‘You, me, tonight. Meta. No exceptions, no excuses.’

‘I, uh..’

‘Don’t even try me, I know you have nothing on. We are getting loaded.’

Page 3

As dawn approached, the central lights over the lounge dimmed and ceased. The tapestry fell lifeless, the vistas replaced with the simple translucent fabric hanging against the wall, rocking in the air currents. The cold light of morning crept through a channel in the wall, casting light across the lounge. The TV was off, while Berkeley lay comatose on the couch, tongue lolling to one side. Matthias lay back in his office chair, arms and legs stiff and locked like a marionette suffering rigor mortis. As, somewhere in the narrow confines of the PC, the internal clock ticked to 8 am, Matthias’ eyes crept open, blinking. His limbs came to life, arms and legs sagging in a sudden response to gravity before he rose to his feet.

‘Wall on,’ he muttered, crossing the room. At the rear, the tapestry seem to glow before shining with the image of a sunlit beach, waves spraying over rocks, caressing the sand. Berkeley snapped awake and rolled onto his belly.

‘Morning Berkeley.’

The dog watched as Matthias stepped to a mirror and adjusted his collar. The dog blinked.

‘Don’t say it,’ said Matthias.

‘You know I’m going to,’ Berkeley panted, pawing his way to the edge of the couch.

‘I don’t need to shower..’

‘You waste time shopping but don’t bother using the shower? For someone who takes himself as seriously as you do..’

‘I can skip one shower, I ran late with the research last night.’ As he spoke, a transparent liquid appeared to ripple through Matthias’ skin, carrying away the dirt as it ran beneath his collar and beyond.  ‘I needed the extra time to charge..’

‘Humans call it sweat.’

‘Humans don’t sweat cleaning compounds.’

‘I don’t shit decomposed food but we make a show of it..’

Matthias turned to face the dog, shrugging, ‘I’m clean.’

‘You’re too dull to be dirty.’

 

On the surface, the elevator emerged to an overcast morning. The fierce flourescent lights still shone in full force against the lobby. A fog fought back against the light, thick throughout the lobby and the street beyond. Leaves drifted in a gentle breeze across the tiled ground, a couple were crushed beneath Matthias’ feet as he stepped out into the street. The roads were as vacant as they had been the night previous, the street silent, his footsteps tapping the ground in steady precision, like muted gunshots. Crossing the nearby intersection, he headed towards a human-sized steel booth installed on the footpath. Behind it, an empty lot stretched back into the mist. A blonde woman in a red jacket and black skirt stood inside the booth, red fingernails dialing a number before she pressed her palm into a hand-shaped mold in the rear wall. A rotund balding man paced on the road, wisps of brown hair falling from his carefully tended scalp.

‘It’s not working,’ she called. ‘I’m going to have to call someone.’

‘Since when do they ever break down?’ said the man, sweating beneath his tweed jacket.

‘Well I’ve tried four times now,’ she answered.

‘Are you entering the right code?’

‘Of course,’ she exclaimed, stepping out of the booth, bound hair becoming unsettled. ‘You try.’

The man squeezed into the booth and punched in the same series of numbers before pressing a confident hand to the wall. A confident smirk dropped from his face as nothing happened.

‘Well, who were you going to call?’ he asked, stepping out.

‘I’ll call the office, maybe they can send someone out.’

‘Isn’t there a maintenance company for this stuff? Who handles them these days anyway?’

Matthias approached from behind, a small smile playing over his lips, patient eyes blinking, hands in his pockets.

‘Excuse me,’ he said. ‘ Do you mind I try?’

Page 2

A light switched on over the foyer as he stepped out of the elevator, illuminating the entrance to a hallway set with brown floorboards and mottled green wallpaper. A lounge opened to the left from which the sounds of a television could be heard. Overhead lights anticipated his movements as Matthias walked down the hallway towards a small kitchen. After a short delay, the lights dimmed and died behind him. The space held a single stove, a modest dishwasher, a sink and a small dining table. The surfaces were pristine, and not so much as a butter knife lay in the open. The toaster had never been used.

Matthias set down his groceries and opened a cupboard against the opposite wall. Pulling a small garbage bin out from beside the sink, he began tossing unopened groceries into the waiting receptacle. Light fell in from the hallway as the patter of animal feet heralded a squat brown dog at the doorway. Ears perked, head tilting to the side, the dog stared at Matthias as he emptied the cupboard and began replacing the unopened goods with fresh groceries from his bags.

‘I really don’t know know why you bother,’ said the dog.

‘Hi Berkeley.’

The dog sneezed.

‘I have to keep up the pretense,’ Matthias shrugged, placing five fresh bananas in a shelf space still compressed from the presence of fruit he had just thown out.

‘You don’t see me pretending to be a normal dog,’ Berkeley wandered further into the room.

‘Why do you think I don’t take you anywhere?’

‘Because I have better social skills than you.’

‘You’re offensive.’

‘I’m hilarious. You’re boring. Let me know when you’re done with that – the internet has been down for hours. I’ve been stuck watching PBS.’

With that the dog turned and left.

 

Berkeley lay splayed out on the couch as Matthias entered the lounge. Around him, mottled red walls and black carpet set the  mood behind a wall-mounted television, and generous amounts of consumer baggage: a large stereo in a glass cupboard, a library of books and old media. A large tapestry of light covered the far wall, displaying landscapes so vivid, it appeared to be a window one might step through.

‘Get up,’ said Matthias, approaching from the hallway.  A dining table sat in the dark behind him, holding a laptop waiting on standby.

Berkely rolled over exposing the remote control to the TV.

Matthias took it, studying the screen, handling buttons while Berkeley spoke.

‘Do you know how exciting aphids are? All the little things they do in the rainforest to keep nature going. Sounds fascinating doesn’t it?’

‘You sat on the remote again,’ Matthias advised with a lift of his eyebrows, setting the remote back beside the dog. ‘The connection hasn’t been down, you just disabled your own access.’

‘It’s these paws! What am I supposed to do, bark at the thing? You would think that on one of these pointless shopping trips you could pick me up a body.’

‘You have a body,’ Matthias responded, already walking away.

‘A human body.’

‘If there were other androids, Berkeley..’

‘I know, we wouldn’t be living in this basement. Here’s an idea, let me take myself for my own walks!’

 

Matthias drew a chair from a table nearby and sat down at the computer. He drew a hand towards his face, carefully tugged at the tip of his index finger. The flesh came away, exposing a steel connector he plugged straight into the computer. No activity was obvious onscreen, but the computer came alive inside as, behind his eyes, Matthias processed a massive stream of data, scouring, searching and absorbing from the internet as it flooded into his mind. The focus of his search was the advancements of human technology: nuclear reactors, mechatronics, nano and biotechnology, small developers sharing code in the open and vague hints at secretive R&D projects locked away at large corporations. When he discovered anything new it was filed away, and sometimes he turned over new leads on projects he already knew, but like most of the internet, everyone borrowed, stole and reshared the same information, so the bulk of his efforts were spent sifting through old data.

Page 1

He might have been a ghost for the attention she paid. The cashier’s eyes passed through him as though he were translucent, paying vague focus to some distant point of more interest than her immediate surroundings. A touch of violet eyeshadow and sanguine lips drawn in fine detail added an ostentatious touch to her worn aloofness. Her eyes dipped occasionally, to move in concert with her hands as she scanned through his groceries, a conspicuous golden ring flashing in the light.

His groceries tumbled into the bags. The monitor received a cursory stab. ‘That’ll be fifty-three sixty,’ she advised.

‘I’ll pay by finger,’ he announced, raising his hand. She stabbed another button.

‘Go for it.’

Pressing his forefinger to a biometric reader in front, a small display reported capturing his DNA and verifying it, before prompting him for a PIN.

The receipt was thrust into his hand. ‘Thanks for shopping at Telemart.’

Hefting his groceries from the baggage area, Matthias stepped into the crowd. Possessed of average height and slim build, to the casual observer, Matthias was an inconspicuous man. Dressed in a cheap suit, he passed off as just another young bachelor, a cubicle worker doing his weekly shopping. The hint of a smile lifted his cheeks when he locked eyes with a stranger. He walked with a casual ease, his bags may as well have been weightless, his placid blue eyes betraying no particular emotion. Men paid him no mind, women more often than not returned his smile but neither could let go of his glance immediately. There was something different about Matthias.

Stepping out of the busy supermarket into the crisp night air, he was greeted by an empty parking lot. Several lights shone down nevertheless, illuminating wet asphalt. His immediate surroundings were silent, apart from the supermarket behind him, his footsteps audible as he stepped onto a worn footpath. His feet navigated cracks in the pavement despite the darkness. Few streetlights were operating along the road ahead, and no cars passed him. He held his bags as though they were weightless, despite the plastic stretching for the ground.

Matthias’ route crossed several such empty streets beneath peering streetlights, flooding those patches of earth they could service. No doubt curious, if they had a mind, at the lone patron of their services.

His trail closed on approach to a small apartment building. It gazed down from the corner of an intersection, tan concrete walls interspersed with wide curtained windows. The lobby was open to the elements, dead leaves scattered across a wet, tiled flood. Small piles collected in the corners. White flourescent lights burnt down from above, working to bleach those patches of tile they could capture in dazzling light. At the end of the lobby sat a bank of three elevators, the central member taped out-of-order. Matthias stepped to the elevator on the right and entered. The button pressed, the elevator descended beneath the earth and opened on an underground apartment.