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Behind me, the door swished closed in the Paris apartment I shared with Pearson, my robot…lover? Friend? Savior?
As I strode across the living room, shopping bags flopped against my legs. That situation had become a joke between Pearson and me, mostly because he spent so much money at a nearby boutique. To the point that whenever I entered the store the sales staff would alert each other by whispering, “Mademoiselle Alden has arrived!” This never failed to crack me up, because in my real life clothes had never been so important. On the other hand, 950 years ago I wasn’t living under the protection of a robot.
Funny how I’d always thought that I wanted to be taken care of.
On the way to the bedroom I passed the kitchen. Real human ladies were in there cleaning up, since Pearson never allowed cleaning robots in his offices, spaceships or homes. And me taking care of the apartment also wasn’t part of his plan.
The ladies’ chatter spilled out into the living room. “It is strange the Capitaine Pearson has not become tired of this woman. N’est-ce pas?” said the one called Giselle.
“You are just jealous.”
“Mmmm, oui. The Capitaine is very handsome. I would be very happy to be his mistress,” said Giselle. “And I would remain faithful. Unlike she. You see, one night I returned for my littlest notepad. And there she was, with another man in their bedroom.”
I could have responded. But over the last few months it had become clear that they worked for Pearson, not me. Sometimes, human help is not worth the hassle.
Besides, Pearson and I kept more than one secret. His being a robot also made it possible for him to morph into my fiancé, Mac, every night. In fact, back in about 2012, Mac had specifically given Pearson that ability, in case I wasn’t able to travel back through time from 2962.
Which I hadn’t. Yet.
At the bedroom door, the sight of my dog curled on a pillow soothed the sting from the lady’s comments. Bill the Chihuahua raised his head as I passed, and I made it into the closet before he began with the questions. “Where have you been?”
I laughed out loud at his response. Bill the robotic canine, created by Pearson, had somehow learned the very Parisian gesture of lifting a single eyebrow. His opinion of my afternoon’s activities aside, however, Bill pranced toward me.
A quick kiss on his noggin, and I headed toward the office in the opposite wing of the apartment, Bill following along. About halfway across the living room, he peered up at me and asked, “Want to play tug of war?” That’s how I kept in shape, trying to keep from being dragged across the carpet by my foot-high dog.
“How about later?” I offered cheerily.
When you’re desperate for something to do, even organizing a book collection is something to look forward to completing. Pearson’s library had become totally jumbled. I’d found a book on reincarnation buried in a folder labeled Mechanics of Space Flight, and his extensive collection of astrology books had been filed away in the Fine Literature folder.
I was about to close the hallway door behind me, but stopped when the front door buzzer sounded. No one ever visited if Pearson wasn’t present, and the few people I spoke with—mostly Pearson’s employees—knew he’d be gone for days.
We waited in the hallway as the lady who’d be happy to take my place hurried to answer the door. When she noticed my presence, her hand almost made it to her mouth. Eyes wide, she made a brief curtsy in my direction and scurried to the door.
“Hello, is Alexa Jane Alden in?” came a male voice. “If so, would you tell her Zaire Chevalier is here?”
“Oh, oui,” said the lady. “Wait a moment, s’il vous plait.”
No surprise, Giselle was slow to come find me. But that allowed me a moment to check if my hair was in order—my corkscrew red curls refused to stay in place.
Giselle came to a stop in front of me, hands tightly clasped. “Mademoiselle Alden? Someone is at the door for you, a Monsieur Chevalier.” She opened her hands wide. “I am very sorry. I did not know you had arrived home.”
My eyebrows were probably in one of those haughty ironic places. “I would be delighted to see Mr. Chevalier. Please show him in.”
When he entered the living room, Zaire and I gave each other a big hug. He didn’t seem to mind that I accidentally pulled one of his dreadlocks from the professional brown band holding them back.
“Unless this is a social call, Zaire, I’m guessing you located Rachel.” As I made the statement, it struck me how long it had been since I’d thought of my best girlfriend—the one who went back in time instead of me.
While easing into one of the chairs, Zaire absentmindedly tucked his dreadlock back into place. “Yeah, found her. For a bit it seemed impossible, despite my best efforts in data mining. Then some anonymous source sent me access codes to three old databases.” Zaire reached down to rub behind Bill’s ears. “It was strange receiving those codes, and I wouldn’t usually trust that type of source. But the data was from exactly the time I needed.”
“Tell me, did Rachel have a good life?” As I asked, Bill jumped up and settled against my leg.
“She did, if you define high society that way.”
I snorted. Though beautiful, Rachel had never been the type to think much about the social elite.
Rachel and I had caroused together in our small Florida town during and after high school in 2002. A life that couldn’t have prepared us for being yanked to the planet Adalans and the current century. Four months ago, she and I parted ways in a tiny garden shed beside the River Ganges—on the same beach where I’d left Zaire.
“Photos of her at various events appeared rather haute monde to me.” He glanced up. “You see, she married. Maybe she was a trophy spouse.”
“Married? Oh good, perhaps to that gallery owner. So, who?”
As Zaire’s notepad powered up, he asked, “You want the database information?” After inputting my address he hit send, and then paged through his notes. “Okay, here’s the name: Armstrong.”
At this, my breath stopped. No, it couldn’t be.
“Yeah,” he said, nodding to himself. “Armstrong MacPhearson, in the Bahamas.”
I swear my heart dropped to the other side of the world, and broke when it hit. Stunned, I focused on the carpet.
Mac, my fiancé. For Mac, I had braved space pirates and murderous robots in order to return through time to him, and the marriage we planned. And now, it appeared the love of my life had managed to get along just fine without me.
Bill tried to nudge his nose under my hand.
The reporter turned his pad toward me, and I recoiled—though not quick enough to avoid certain details on the photo.
“Thank you, Zaire.”
He glanced up in surprise at my tone. “Is something wrong?”
“Thank you for checking in.” I stood up and headed to the front door. He could hardly not follow along. “But turns out I have an appointment.”
“I thought you would tell me the whole story,” said Zaire. “You said if I found Rachel you would explain everything, how Rachel could have such a life then, when I knew her now.”
I made a face that roughly translated into, How can I explain this? “It’s a very long tale, so I’m afraid we will have to get together another time.” Which would be never, if I could help it.
Being a newsman, he parried with, “How about Thursday. I could take you to lunch.”
I practically pushed him out the door. “Check in with me later?”
After the whoosh of the door sealing closed, I had a moment of silence. Even Bill said nothing. Alas, a clattering of dishes intruded.
“Ladies?” In the kitchen, they turned at my voice. “You can take the rest of the afternoon off.” They appeared afraid that I might fire them for gossiping. “It’s all right, your jobs are safe.” I took a deep breath. “It’s simply time for you to leave.” They continued to not move. “For today.”
Determined to reclaim my space, I lingered near the kitchen. As the ladies finally headed for the apartment’s back door, I followed till they nodded to the guard outside and then disappeared from view.
Hard to know how long I stood in the kitchen, staring at nothing. Eventually, Bill nudged me, and when I picked him up he reached to nuzzle my cheek. After creeping to a wall of windows, I gazed out over the ever-renewed city. The top of the Eiffel Tower was visible over some buildings, because Paris continued to insist that landmark dominate the skyline.
Zaire’s photo had betrayed a date of barely a year after Rachel found herself in Florida—with strange clues about my disappearance and no memories to match the information. The authorities had declared me dead. Almost immediately, Mac had begun creating the robot that would become Pearson.
Recollections trounced through my heart. Times when Mac and Rachel shared an easy laugh over a joke that I needed an extra moment to understand. Naive, just plain naive.
Life in Paris with a human-shaped robot playing the role of an ersatz Mac; a sham, an illusion.
The dishwasher switched over to the next cycle. On the mantel, an heirloom clock from the 2700s marked the quarter hour with its intricate beeps.
Bill said, “You are upset. Did you want me to bite his ankle?” He looked up at me quite seriously. I managed a tiny smile at his joke, since we both knew he couldn’t hurt a human.
“No, it’s okay.”
My heart latched onto a possible explanation. The photo appeared to have been taken at a society event. So, perhaps Rachel had simply been a dinner companion and the whole scenario was conjured by an overeager journalist.
I marched into Pearson’s office and settled at the desk with Bill on my lap. A data pad was already rolled out flat, and Zaire’s list waited for me in my email. Finally, it made sense to make a payment from the account Pearson maintained for such necessities. I zeroed in on my century and my region; available were lists of driver’s licenses, voter registrations. I even found documents for Alexa Jane Alden, but there was no reason to linger over my death certificate.
Already in the correct part of the century, Rachel was easy to locate. A snort escaped me at the official record of us getting drunk and silly in our little town. The judge had promised to purge the file; didn’t happen.
Then the list of documents for Rachel Mulligan stopped, and Rachel MacPhearson appeared.
Abruptly I pivoted the swivel chair, and stared out the window, glanced at the room’s corners. Anything to avoid that name on the screen.
“All right. The whole awful truth.”
A slight switch to the Bahamas provided Mac’s data, including pictures of him and me at society affairs in the Bahamas. In one photo, I wore a dress we’d bought in Miami. He’d loved it, on me and not.
Next was his company’s announcement about a new line of underwater robots. I was beside him the first time they worked properly; Mac had been so relieved, he’d fallen to his knees. We’d celebrated with a happy dance. Those robots would have been the precursors to Pearson.
Then a newspaper story of Mac working with the police to search for my plane after my disappearance. The photo showed him looking so worried. We were to have been married in less than a week. In fact, I kept my wedding dress in the back of Pearson’s closet.
More photos of Mac in social situations: mostly him standing alone, or with business associates. Very few of the images showed him with a smile. I used to be able to make him laugh—on command, never failed.
After that, I came across a photo of Mac and Rachel, also at a society event. Their grins were easy, happy. They stood very close to each other, touching, like they were a couple.
I had to swallow, with so much spit in my mouth.
Mac and Rachel. Undeniable.
Hunched over and rocking myself, my brain went empty. I lost track of the clock’s funny beeps from the living room.
By the time Bill had begun traipsing back and forth, I stood at the window, slowly beating the glass. Hell, let them be happy. “They’re dead now. Dead and gone, forever.”
Pearson, on the other hand, had been extremely supportive—the perfect partner. He’d gotten rid of all his sleek thirtieth-century furniture in an indestructible version of leather, after a side comment from me that I’ve always liked deep and cushy in some floral print. Too bad, that leather had been much more appropriate for Bill, considering his claws.
Basically, Mac had designed Pearson to take care of me—which the robot did admirably, using both traditional and unusual tools. His business acumen was a force to be reckoned with, while the study of esoteric knowledge never stopped.
Those astrology books weren’t accidental. Recently, Pearson had seemed genuinely proud of me when he figured out that according to my chart I would be considered a hero someday. Hah.
He’d also warned me about an imminent transit of the Moon over my eighth house. When I asked what that meant, he wouldn’t explain much; just said I should be careful.
A memory zipped through my mind: Mac back home, debating about Jyotish—an Eastern version of astrology—at the school of our meditation teacher, Brahmaji. Perhaps Mac had programmed Pearson to be interested in Jyotish.
Perhaps Mac had programmed Pearson to lie to me.
At one point I’d asked what happened to Mac, and all Pearson told me were the details of creating the robot that became him.
Not a hint about Mac marrying, even eventually. I could have understood the ‘eventually’ part, though wouldn’t have wanted to know specifics.
No, it was now clear that Pearson had withheld essential information about my best friend and my fiancé dedicating themselves to each other barely a year after I was out of the picture.
Can. Not. Bear. This.
I began pacing. Bill traced my movements from the sofa.
Being on his first trip away from me, Pearson was scheduled to call that evening from the furthest reaches of the solar system.
My dog trailed along into the bedroom, where I opened my old bag on the closet floor and began packing. Bill sat nearby. “Where are we going?”
“I don’t think we are going anywhere.”
Instead of arguing, Bill jumped into the bag.
Underwear in hand, I stared. The dog could be turned off and left behind. But I didn’t have it in me to do that. To save space, I left behind my collection of little stuffed animals that reminded me of home.
Nope. No longer home. Neither here. Nor there. Leaving Bill in place, I zipped the bag closed.
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
Disruptive data delivered to reporter.
Outcome as predicted by KAG84950.301.
Female human dislodged from protection of humanoid robot.