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After the meeting, Leo hurried back to his office and filled his briefcase and pockets with everything that mattered. His company mug brimmed with cold coffee. He poured the coffee over his PC’s keyboard, then threw the mug at a framed portrait mounted on the wall. The portrait was of the company’s founder. Both the mug and the glass covering the portrait shattered.

Gossip would travel fast. And fierce. He had to—had to—tell Irene before she heard it from anyone else. Whether or not it would matter, the awfulness coming first from his lips, well, he had to believe it would.

He strode down the hall, ripping off his ID and flinging it at a potted plant. The strap caught on the branch of a violently green Norfolk Pine and dangled his name badge like a horrific Christmas ornament—Leo Gulliby, HR Coordinator, Rubagub Robotics, Inc.

At the elevator, he punched the down button over and over, though the signal lights showed that the elevator was stalled five floors above him.

No time to wait. And the moving coffin would likely be crammed with noisy, nosy Rubagubbers, their mouths sizzling gossip, their dilated eyes shooting schadenfreude.

At him. Dear Lord. This time at him.

He’d take the stairs.

Three flights he pounded down, strode on shaky legs through the lobby.

Behind the reception desk, Nora filed purple fingernails and chewed gum.

“Toodle-loo, Leo!” She blew a gummy pink bubble from pink puffy lips.

He’d hired this creature! Why had he hired this creature? Now he had only himself to blame. The insolence of this girl! Obviously, she’d already heard about what had transpired at the meeting. How could she have already heard? It had all just happened, what, five minutes ago?

Leo reached the exit, stopped, spun around, and shot both his middle fingers at her.

Nora’s oversized, over-mascared eyes widened. Then she laughed.

“Well, Lucky Leo, Leo Love, aren’t you just full of vim and verve. You know, sweetheart, maybe if you’d shown some of that spunk at,” she finger-quoted, “‘The Meeting,’ you wouldn’t be running away like a scared little puppy with those big brown eyes of yours leaking chocolate tears.”

Leo blinked, shocked to realize that his eyes really were dripping. He swiped at the tears, relieved to see that they were the normal, human, clear color. Not chocolate. Nora was just punching his buttons. Yanking his chain. She’d never quite forgiven him for ending things with her. Not that there’d been much to end. They’d only had three dates, and then he’d met Irene.

“F – U!” he shouted, and pushed open the thick glass door.

Nora’s last words—hopefully the last of her helium-high voice he’d ever hear—were cut off when the door closed: “Drive safe, Leo! The roads are slick and—”

Wind and snow scoured Leo as he ran to the parking lot.

The parking lot was surrounded by a sea of grass, now silked with fresh snow. The snow-silk blanket would stay pure and smooth until melted by sun. No one ever stepped foot on it. Not even geese, squirrels, or rabbits dared trespass anymore. The grounds crew was superb at their job. Leo and Irene had both enjoyed many meals of roasted goose dispatched by the crew. Well, Irene had certainly seemed to enjoy the meat. Leo was not much of a meat-eater, but he’d faked it for Irene’s sake. Faking was easy. Except there was nothing fake about his love for Irene.

Irene! She’d understand! She had to! She loved him! She did!

F-the laws that made their marriage a crime! Human history was replete with laws that criminalized what the heart was, what the heart wanted. Humans. Their own worst enemy. But Leo and Irene could be pioneers in effecting change! Yes! That’s how he’d frame it for her.

Leo reached his Chevy Malibu. His shoulders sagged. It was the only car not swept free of snow.

So even the car lot attendants had heard about “The Meeting.” Had realized that Leo was now . . . Not Important. Oh, he knew he was way too valuable to be terminated. But he’d crossed a line. A Big Line. Entered the one place forbidden to him. He’d be demoted. Downgraded. Unless . . .he never returned. He’d grab Irene. They’d disappear.

As fast as his shivering muscles allowed, Leo broomed snow off the Malibu, flung his trembling body behind the wheel, and zoomed away. He hoped forever. He hoped he would never again see the corporate headquarters of Rubagub Robotics. Ten stories of brick, red as a scab, packed with flaggy, flappy figures whose scruples were as gummery as wet bread. Whose faces were as fat and crisped as toasted pigs. Where he’d spent his entire working life—first and only job right after he’d been certified—six years ago.

G-damn Rubagub Robotics.

Yet, it was Rubagub Robotics that had brought Irene into his life. She’d been a bartender at the company Christmas party. Impossibly blue eyes. Hair that seemed spun from sun. A voice that bubbled champagne right into his core.

Now it was Rubagub that would take her away from him. No! He would not let that happen.

He had to reach her before “they” did. He knew the drill. The Dispatchers, all four of them, would eventually show up. Start the Dispatching Process. Make her sign the Confidentiality Agreement. Then the Termination Form. Not even give her a chance to beg, to explain, to melt whatever empathy or sympathy was frozen inside their bloated bodies.

If he could just get to her first. Explain. Apologize. Beg for her forgiveness. Then they could present a united front. Stop the Dispatching.

He gunned the engine. The Malibu slipped and slid over slick roads. At least there were few other cars to dodge. Everyone was tucked away at their tasks at the workaholic hour of 11 in the morning.

Snow lapped and spit at his windshield. Wind buffeted the car sideways.

One hand steadied the wheel. His other hand scraped his phone from his briefcase as he sped toward home. Home. His secret beautiful white clapboard house surrounded by trees. Twenty-two miles away from Rubagub. Where, though not pregnant, Irene would likely be knitting another pair of baby booties or another baby blanket or rearranging the nursery whose crib he’d made himself. Unless the Dispatchers had already arrived.

“Oh God, Irene!” he wailed. “I am so sorry!”

He plugged his phone into the dash console. Should he call her now? But he had to stay focused on the road. It would be better face-to-face, so she could collapse in his arms, or he in hers.

Car exhaust boiled around the Malibu like arctic mist as he blasted down the tree-lined highway. Ten more miles. Not much longer.

But then his cell phone vibrated, and Irene’s face filled the dashboard screen. Icicles hardened her eyes.

“Leo. How could you?”

“Irene, you know? How do you know? I’m almost home. I’ll explain. We’ll fix this. I love you. I’m sorry.”

“They’re already here,” she said. “They’re in the”—her voice broke—“the nursery, packing everything up. I asked them to do that for me first.”

“First? What? No! Who? Who’s there?”

But he already knew, even as Irene said the names.

“Mr. Nidd. Mr. Drover. Both Binnacles.”

The Dispatchers. All four of them. They must have set out for his home while he was being humiliated in the meeting. So much for a secret home. He had no secrets now.

“Irene. We can divorce. That’s our only crime. Getting married! I didn’t want to, but you—”

“Don’t you dare put this on me, Leo! You promised me children! And you knew I wasn’t going to have children without being married! You deceived me! You made me believe I could have babies with you!”

“I love you, Irene. With or without babies. And we could adopt. That was always my plan. So I wasn’t really deceiving you.”

Her blue eyes stared at him without blinking. “I wanted babies,” she said. “My own babies. With you.”

From her beautiful eyes, the epiphany blasted at him like a missile: she did not love him enough; or she did not love him anymore; or being a mother was more important to her than being his lover.

“When they’re done with the nursery, Leo, I told them I’d sign whatever they want me to sign. We’re over, Leo. Don’t come home.”

He stared at her beautiful face as it faded from the screen. The car wheels suddenly bumped and pounded. He looked up. A suddenness of trees filled the windshield.

*

A short while later, the same Rubagub crew that tidies corporate grounds is dispatched to the crumpled Malibu.

“You know,” says one as he uses his titanium claws to pull a large piece of Leo from the wreckage, “this is like the fifth time in two years a synth has tried to fake it with a human. Whadda they think is gonna happen if they make ‘em look like humans? Of course they’re gonna want all the bennies of being human!”

Another agrees as he extracts Leo’s head from the shattered windshield. “Give ‘em an inch, they want a mile. Make it legal to date humans, then next thing you know, they’ll wanna marry ‘em.”

Fiber optic tendrils dangle like tinsel from cracks in Leo’s skull. Gently, the worker tucks them back into Leo’s head.

“Well,” says a third as he begins boxing up the extracted pieces of Leo. “I just hope this don’t mean they’re gonna discontinue the synth line. That’ll mean layoffs for sure. We might find ourselves being boxed up!”

“Nah,” says the fourth who is readying his suction tube. “We robots do all the grunt work humans don’t wanna touch. They’ll always keep us.”

The crate is sealed and loaded into a company van. The van speeds back to headquarters.

The fourth crew member stays behind, vacuuming from the wreckage any small but valuable bits the others missed. “You synths,” he mumbles. “Looking down on us bots. You think just cuz you look human, cuz you feel human, cuz you can even eat and shit and shiver like humans, that makes you human. Well, there’s one thing ya can’t do. And when ya try to fake that, well, this is what happens.”

 

End

 

Marie Anderson is a Chicago area writer. Her stories have appeared in over two dozen

publications, including LampLight, Gathering Storm, Morpheus Tales, Woman's World,

Downstate Story, St. Anthony Messenger, and Brain Child. After escaping from the

University of Chicago Law School without a degree, she married, raised three children,

and worked in schools and offices. In her daily life, she strives for tidiness, timeliness,

and simplicity.

 

 

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