- This story was previously published in Asimov’s magazine.
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- For a list of all Escape Pod stories, authors and narrators, visit our sortable Wikipedia page
about the author…
I live, work, and write in Seattle, Washington. Gray sky days, abundant restaurant choices, and distant mountains are my idea of paradise.
In 2013 I abandoned my cat, tortoise, and boyfriend to spend six weeks studying writing at Clarion West. The experience taught me to commit myself and do the work, which is a lot less fun than just thinking about writing. It also introduced me to some of the best friends I’ve ever had. If you’re a writer considering whether you should apply, I’m happy to share my take on things. It’s not for everyone. But if it’s right for you, it’s worth it.
My tastes run to modern fantasy with a lyrical edge, though I’ve been writing science fiction, lately. If you’re looking for funny stories with happy endings, I fear you’ve come to the wrong place. I can’t seem to write anything without a dash of heartbreak.
about the narrator…
Erin Bardua is a Canadian singer and performer. She lives in near-rural Canada, where she assembles a living from singing and teaching others to sing. She always has about a dozen projects on the go; some of the more interesting ones have included acting and singing in a serialized film-noir murder mystery, and a collaborative clown opera. Erin is the artistic director of Essential Opera (www.essentialopera.com) which operates in Atlantic Canada and Ontario (so far), and recently rediscovered her writing habit, which she indulges in whenever the house is quiet enough.
Everyone Will Want One
by Kelly Sandoval
On Nancy’s thirteenth birthday, her father takes her to the restaurant he likes, the one with the wood paneling, the oversized chandeliers, and the menus in French. Around them, people talk in low voices but Nancy and her father eat their soup in silence. After the waiter takes the bowls away, her father sets a wrapped box the size of a toaster on the table.
She doesn’t open it, just smoothes down the ribbon and rearranges her silverware. The unsmiling waiter is watching her; she can feel it. She can feel that he doesn’t want her in his restaurant, opening her birthday present. It isn’t a birthday present sort of place, isn’t even a thirteen-year-old in her best dress kind of place. She tries to be very small in her chair.
“Go ahead,” demands her father. “Open it.”
He’s frowning and his frown is much closer than the waiter’s. Nancy picks at the bow, undoing the knot as best she can with her fresh manicure. Checking to make sure the waiter’s not looking, she picks up her knife and slides it under the tape, easing it loose without tearing the shiny paper.
The box inside has the logo of her father’s company on it. Nancy’s tangles her fingers together, stalling. She wants, very much, for it to be a toaster.
“Hurry up,” says her father.
She wants to fold the paper into a crisp square or turn it into a giant origami swan. She wants to pretend that is the present, a sheet of white wrapping paper. Her father clears his throat and she cringes. The box isn’t taped and she tugs it open. Inside, there’s a layer of packing foam, which she picks through, not letting any spill on the table, until her fingers meet fur. The thing in the box is soft, cold, and the size of her two closed fists. She traces the shape of it, four feet, a tail, ears pointed alertly upward.
When, a minute later, she gets it free of the box and shakes the last of the packing foam from its fur, she sees it has the shape of a kitten. Its fur is black and silver, with patterns that look nothing like a real cat’s, all loops and whirling, dizzy spirals. It looks like a synth-pet. They’re popular at her school and her father’s company does make them. But Nancy has a kitten, a dog, and a tiny jeweled unicorn at home. He wouldn’t give her another.
“Thank you,” she says, setting it beside her bread plate. “What is it?”
“We’ve been calling it a reimager. That might change, though. Marketing’s leaning toward Synth-Social.” He looks at her directly for the first time, checking her for a reaction to the name. She wonders if he’ll give her a focus group form to fill out on her present. He’s done it before.
“Oh,” she says. She remembers him telling her about them, months ago. Reimagers were synth-pets for losers; they could analyze social networks and facial expressions, then tell their owners how to react. Nancy doesn’t wonder how her Dad got the idea.
“They’ll be huge in a year or two, when we’re ready for market. Everyone your age will want one. You’re lucky to get one now.”
“It’ll be good for you. Don’t you want to be popular?”
“I want to be left alone,” she answers, half-whispering, cringing away from him.
“You don’t know what you want,” he says. “It’ll be good for you.”
He’s still frowning and she knows she isn’t being grateful enough. She picks up the reimager, cups it in both hands but keeps it held away from her. She smiles as best as she knows how. “I’m really excited,” she says. “Thanks.”
On the drive home, Nancy stares out the window pretending that she’ll get home and find a birthday cake waiting in the kitchen, maybe even a couple of friends, eager to surprise her. Instead, there’s only a dark house and the slam of her father’s office door. She stands in the entryway, made small by the high ceilings and oversized windows, clinging to her present. She doesn’t even know how to turn it on.
After thirty minutes of puzzling, Nancy finds a seam along the reimagers neck and peels back the fur, exposing the steel beneath. There’s a button, and she presses it, holding it down until the reimager opens its eyes, which give off a faint green light.
“Finding signal,” it says. Its voice is soft and without emotion. “Signal found. Password needed.”
It isn’t the first synth-pet she’s had that wanted access to the internet. She recites the string of numbers by memory.
“Access achieved. Nancy Sterling?”
“Searching.” It leaps from her hands to the thick white carpet. It prowls her room with simulated grace and, watching it, she smiles without meaning to.
“Searching for what?” she asks, sitting cross-legged on the ground to watch it more closely.
It doesn’t answer her and for a few minutes, they are quiet. Nancy thinks about school, where the other synth-pets are simple, and very few talk at all. She knows what they’ll say when they see hers.
“NanS, NanSilver, NJSterling@Sterlingtech.com?
“Yeah, that’s me.”
“Analyzing. Please wait.” It lies down and closes its eyes.
Nancy watches it for awhile, but it doesn’t move again. She takes down the unicorn, turns it on. It runs circles around her room, rearing and whinnying. Without turning it off, she climbs into bed.
She wakes to the pressure of a paw on her cheek, a soft patting that holds the threat of claws. “Good morning. It is time to prepare for school.”
She puts on her glasses, groggily pressing the button above the left lens to bring up the HUD. It’s five in the morning. School doesn’t start until seven-thirty.
“It’s early,” she manages to say.
“I will assist you.” It pats her face again, and she sits up, slipping down from her bed and away from the reimager.
“I don’t really need help,” she says.
“I will assist you.” It follows her to the edge of the bed and leaps, claws out, tiny needle points digging into the thin cotton of her pajama top. Ignoring her surprised whimper, it climbs up to her shoulder, path marked by a series of tiny red splotches.
Nancy lets it accompany her to her closet, where it doesn’t object to her school uniform: gray slacks, a crisp, blue shirt, and a v-neck, black sweater. It’s not until she’s out of the shower, braiding her fine dark hair into a fishbone, that it stops her.
“Not like that,” it says.
“Yes, I know. Dora Jefferson wears her hair in that style.”
“Not just her.”
“I have traced the trend. It began with Dora Jefferson. For you, a ponytail will be adequate.”
Nancy does as she’s told. The reimager also has an opinion about makeup, which she isn’t to wear; homework, which she’s done incorrectly; and the bus, which she is no longer permitted to ride. That, it explains, is why it woke her early. The walk will be healthful.
It’s two miles from Nancy’s house to the school. On the way, the reimager coaches her. It warns her against talking to it at school, where it is wishes to appear as just another synth-pet. It’s aware the school’s wifi blockers will keep it from texting her once they get inside, and makes her promise to fetch it and bring it out with her during lunch. There’s a list of people she’s allowed to smile at. When she gets shoved in the hall, she is not, under any circumstances, to drop her books. She’s not allowed to cry either. That one’s easy. She’s gotten good at not crying.
Nancy’s school is Thompson Middle, an exclusive, merit-based middle school with a technical focus. It’s the school her father went to but for him, it was different. He actually passed the entrance exams. Nancy’s entrance exam was a sizable donation and a handshake. Everyone knows it. She misses grade school, where she could fade into the clean, brightly lit hallways and imagine she didn’t exist. Thompsons is a multi-storied brick building, with state of the art equipment and peeling paint. Her Dad’s money bought the school a full software update and repaired the leak in room 34-C.
Like every morning, the students gather in companionable clumps on the lawn. Many of them have synth-pets, which the student council recently voted to allow. The teachers don’t see happy with the new rule, but they’re the ones bragging about student-centered leadership. The reimager, which sits on Nancy’s shoulder, doesn’t look unusual. There’s a second where she wonders if it might work, if someone will turn and smile at her as they’ve never done before. But no one looks her way.
She hurries inside, not staring at her feet like she usually would, because the reimager doesn’t like that. One of the boys from her homeroom tries to trip her as she climbs the stairs, but the reimager taps her neck with its tail and sends a warning text. She gets inside without making a fool of herself and feels a wash of gratitude toward her father.
After fetching her school tablet from her locker, Nancy debates putting the reimager in her coat pocket. It’ll get taken away if she’s caught with it in class, but she likes the idea of having it close. In the end she leaves it, and it doesn’t seem to mind.
She makes it to lunch almost without incident. There’s a point where the mathematics teacher asks her a question, and everyone laughs at her fumbled answer but that’s minor compared to what she’s used to. The reimager is waiting for her, its tail wrapped around its feet, its eyes lighting her locker with a faint green glow. She sets it carefully on her shoulder, where it purrs with imitation contentment. Together, they head out onto the lawn, beyond the school’s wifi blockers.
Even in spring, with the sod freshly laid, the grass is patchy and brown. The school uses a green certified recycled drip system, but water is water. Nancy likes to sit near the fence, where the desert presses against the grass, and the ticklish smell of sagebrush hangs on the air. But the reimager has other ideas, and they settle under a timid stick of a tree, still supported by stakes on both sides.
They’re close enough to where Lydia and her vicious, pretty clique sit that Nancy can hear their laughter. She assumes it’s about her. She recognizes Dora Jefferson at the edge of the circle. Dora is a floater, welcome in a number of the tight little cliques, and even Nancy likes her. She isn’t mean, the way the others are. Instead she doesn’t seem to see Nancy at all, and invisibility has become the best thing Nancy dares to hope for.
Too nervous to eat her lunch, Nancy throws bits of pita into the grass and watches as the little brown wrens that patrol the school yard debate over whether it’s safe to steal them. Unlike a true synth-pet, which would have pounced awkwardly at the birds, the reimager seems more interested in exploring. It jumps from Nancy’s shoulder with a stiff lack of grace and prowls toward the girls talking only five meters away.
She snatches for it, whispers, “No, get back here.”
-Addressing me at school is unadvised- it texts her. It doesn’t stop.
The girls don’t seem to notice it at first. They’re all watching Lydia’s synth-parrot, which has bright purple feathers and really flies. It repeats whatever they say, and they are feeding it progressively dirtier words. Nancy can just hear it from her tree. “Cock,” it says. “Cock, cock, cock.”
The reimager reaches Cleo, whose straight, black hair and excellent test scores are only half as memorable as her glare, which Nancy senses constantly. Cleo calls Nancy ‘Daddy’s little retard’ when Lydia isn’t around to take offense. Lydia’s little brother has issues though no one seems to know what they are. Everyone says he’s so sweet, that Lydia is so good with him, a real saint. Lydia certainly looks the part with her tired smiles and sad brown eyes. She calls Nancy ‘poor, stupid, rich girl’ which feels the same as what Cleo says, in the end.
Nancy starts to get up. She has to grab it before they notice, before they realize she’s such a loser her Dad had his company build a robot to fix her. But the reimager is already at Cleo’s knee. It bumps into her and falls over, twitching and giving off little electric mews of pain. Cleo, who doesn’t have a synth-pet, pokes it with her stylus, her lips twisting into a sneer.
“Whose trash?” she asks. Her gaze finds Nancy’s pained expression and she pokes it again. “Oh, ew. Come get your reject, reject.”
Eyes fixing firmly on her feet, Nancy stands. “Sorry.” She can only mumble the word.
“Don’t be a bitch, Cleo.” The way Dora says it, the words painted in laughter, everyone mirrors her smile. She picks up the reimager, and it twitches in her hands, still making the same high, hurting noise. “Poor thing. It probably just needs to be reset.” She presses the base of the reimager’s skull and it stops moving.
Nancy’s surprised by her own relief, which lasts exactly as long as it takes for a new text to flash across her lenses. –Do not worry. Say: Thank you, Dora.-
“Thank you, Dora.” She lifts her head again, because she knows she’s supposed to, and tries not to notice the anger behind Cleo’s frozen smirk.
“No problem. I love synth-pets. Haven’t seen that one before.” Dora has a rushed, colliding way of talking that matches the sparkles of her cheap bracelets and gumball machine rings. “Is it from a kit? Did you make it?”
“Of course she did,” Cleo says. “Everyone knows she sucks at programming.”
-Say: It’s true, I’m not very good.-
Nancy can’t force the words out. Her gaze falls to her shoes.
-Look up. Smile. Say: It’s true, I’m not very good.-
“It’s true,” says Nancy, though she doesn’t smile. “I’m not very good.”
“Nah, programming’s easy. I don’t know anyone who can’t learn it, right Lydia?”
Lydia, lying on her back, synth-parrot on her fist, doesn’t glance over.
“Sure,” she says. And the parrot says, “Sure, sure, sure.”
“See?” This is apparently as much support as Dora needs. “I tutored her. I can tutor you too, if you like. I’ve got an opening.”
-I have already cleared the cost with your father. Say: That’d be great.-
Nancy already has a tutor, and it hasn’t helped. She makes herself nod. “That’d be great,” she says. “There’s that test on Friday.”
“No problem, we’ll meet online tonight. Seven?”
“Cool, I’ll message you.” Dora turns back to her friends and Nancy is glad for the chance to get away.
She retreats to the fence, ignoring the reimager’s objections, and looks out over the desert, pretending she can’t feel the continued weight of Cleo’s hostile curiosity.
“I don’t need a tutor,” she whispers.
It stretches each limb, twitches its tail, and climbs back up to her shoulder. –You need Dora Jefferson. She has become associated with three of the five students she taught. This includes Lydia Graves.-
Nancy waits online that night, sure Dora’s won’t show. But, right at seven, Dora is there, smiling. She’s energetic but patient with Nancy’s fumbling. When she teases, it’s gentle enough that they both laugh. They meet twice online, and on the Thursday before the test, Dora invites herself over. Nancy warns her father, who doesn’t care, then follows the reimagers script, putting the number for pizza by the phone where she’ll be sure to find it, and uncleaning her room.
“Wow,” says Dora, as she walks in and Nancy wonders what she sees. “Big. I mean, that’s not bad. Doesn’t have to be. But it kinda feels like it’s gonna bite you, doesn’t it? Something about open spaces. They’ve got teeth.”
Nancy has no idea what any of that means, but she nods like she does, and they retreat to her room, where Dora seems more comfortable.
They don’t study much. They eat pizza and watch the internet videos that the reimager picked out.
“You should bring this one to school,” Dora says, as the unicorn stumbles over her shoes. “It’s neat.
“It’s a kid’s toy,” Nancy says, embarrassed by its flashing ruby mane and golden horn.
“They’re all kid’s toys. Even your kitten.” Dora stretches out on her back and the unicorn begins to canter around her. “Besides, they can be fun to reprogram. You ever try?”
Nancy shakes her head and Dora seems to think that’s enough of an invitation for a lesson. She’s outlining the basics and suggesting tutorials before Nancy can even try to be disinterested. By the time Dora winds down, it actually does sound fun. She wants to say so, to ask questions, but the reimager isn’t giving her any and she’s afraid to try one of her own.
“We should hang out, more.” Dora says, concluding her lecture. “Not for studying, I mean. Just to hang out. Of course, I like studying here. Your place is so quiet.”
Nancy, who hasn’t forgotten that she’s paying Dora for her time, shrugs. “I mean it,” says Dora. “Don’t shrug at me, you’ll hurt my feelings.”
-That sounds great- prompts the reimager.
“That sounds great.” Nancy finds another kitten video and starts it. “Just tell me when.”
Dora doesn’t, but that’s alright. Nancy doesn’t expect her to.
She gets a B+ on the test, two full letter grades up from her last score. When Dora hears, she hugs her, and insists on sitting with her at lunch. It’s nice having someone to talk to, and Dora doesn’t seem to notice the way that Nancy pauses, waiting for the reimager to feed her lines.
Two days later, Dora catches Nancy eating alone and drags her to Lydia’s group, ignoring the protests Nancy makes against the reimager’s better judgment.
“Oh, come on,” says Cleo.
“Don’t worry.” Dora mimes a kick in Cleo’s direction. “They’re mostly not bitches.”
“I wouldn’t say that,” says Lydia. But she doesn’t tell Nancy to go.
By the end of the next week, even Cleo talks to her.
“You’re right you know,” she says, catching Nancy cleaning up her locker at the end of the day. “She can be.”
Nancy touches her coat pocket, where the reimager sits. It twitches against her fingers and she tries to turn the shape of that movement into words.
“It’s just how it seems,” she says, trying to match Cleo’s smile.
“She thinks she’s better than the rest of us. Bitch.”
It can only be Lydia. “Bitch,” Nancy echoes, finding more anger behind the word than she expects.
“Well, don’t tell Lydia. Dora’s totally got her fooled. Helps her watch that freak brother of hers.”
Nancy doesn’t say anything. Not even when she feels the sharp puncture of her reimagers teeth on her finger.
“Anyway,” Cleo says, “See you at lunch.”
“See you,” Nancy turns back to her bag, rearranging her folders alphabetically by color. It’s something to do.
On the walk home, she nurses her bleeding finger, and the reimager refuses to apologize for any of it.
“You can’t just do that. You can’t pretend to be me.”
“It’s my purpose. I moderate and control your network to better promote your success.”
“And that means sending Cleo nasty emails about Dora?”
“I like Dora! She’s nice.” Of course, that’s the problem with her. Dora hasn’t come over since the first time. She’s been very nice about not coming over but it’s not like Nancy hasn’t noticed.
“Niceness is not socially efficient. Dora Jefferson is resented by a number of her peers. She will be easy to sever from her primary network.”
“But we don’t want that!”
“Every network has a point of maximum expansion. To integrate new members, previous members must be severed.” The even, measured tones of the reimager are as reasonable as they are infuriating. Nancy cups her hands around it, imagines throwing it into the brush for the lizards and snakes. It rubs against her fingers, almost like a real synth-pet. She knows she won’t do it.
“I want you to leave her alone.” She likes how she sounds, like she believes it’ll listen to her. “Pick someone else. Pick Cleo.”
“Other targets are sub-optimal. They will become negatively inclined toward your success. Dora Jefferson will remain neutral.”
“Then just leave everyone alone. Leave me alone! I don’t even like this.” It’s a little true. She hates remembering her lines, faking smiles, skipping breakfast and only pretending to eat dinner. But she likes how no one pushes her, and it’s nice, not sitting alone.
“Canceling routines now would lead to negative responses across the network. You would become an active target. Violence likely.”
They’ve reached the house, and Nancy paces up and down the long curving driveway, kicking the stones from the landscaping back into place. She tries not to believe the reimager but flinches at the memory of old bruises.
Dora is smart, Nancy tells herself. She doesn’t need help the way Nancy does. Doesn’t need friends the way Nancy does.
She doesn’t tell the reimager to go after Dora. She just heads into the house, pretending the argument never happened.
The reimager takes no more time than necessary. It sends messages, some from Nancy, some anonymous, some cleverly disguised as being from people who had never written them. Eventually, a nasty letter comes to light and no one believes Dora when she says she didn’t write it.
“You don’t actually believe I’d say that, do you?” Dora catches Nancy as she’s walking home, running up beside her and reaching for her arm. Nancy pulls away, keeping a space between them.
“Who else could have?” Nancy asks, and she can almost pretend she doesn’t know the answer. “I can’t talk to you, anymore.”
Dora doesn’t push it, and Nancy walks on without apologizing. The reimager purrs in her ear, an approximation of contentment.
With Dora gone, the group gets meaner, and Nancy worries she’s traded one sort of danger for another. It’s Cleo that starts coming to her defense, making a pet of her. Nancy knows it’s because of all the clever, nasty things the reimager writes but she lets it happen. She can sit on the edges, not even listening, parroting the reimager’s texts, and everyone lets her be.
They still say things about her, in texts and private messages, but the reimager traces those too, reads them back to her at night, so that she knows who to smile at the next morning. She stops leaving it in locker, keeps it in her coat pocket, reaching for it during class and trying to turn the twitch of an ear or the sharp point of a claw into meaning.
It tells her she’s happier than she’s ever been, and shows her the numbers to prove it. Sometimes, she feels so nervous her stomach knots, and it turns out that’s a good thing. The reimager keeps a running tally of everything she eats, and if she goes over the number of calories it allows her, she has to spend the next day fasting. Hunger fuzzes the edges of her thoughts, but the reimager never lets her score below a 90 on her homework, so it doesn’t really matter whether the problems lose what little sense they temporarily gained.
Even so, she misses Dora, who could turn a string of numbers into reason. Dora doesn’t seem to miss anyone. She floated easily into a new group, and if she notices the way Lydia and her clique glare, she doesn’t let it show. She still smiles at them, though she doesn’t try to stop and talk. Nancy hears her laughing sometimes, an eager, open sound, and wonders what that feels like. The reimager has her practice laughing but never seems pleased with the results.
At night, it curls up on her pillow and reads her the statistics of her own popularity, the soft drone of its uninflected voice lulling her to sleep.
Occasionally, her father tells her to download updates but the reimager never changes much. He quizzes her about its performance, and she tells him it’s great, she loves it. It’s what it tells her to say.
On the morning after an update, she rolls over to stroke it and it doesn’t rise to meet her hand. It sits on her pillow, still and stiff, failing to pretend at life. Its eyes are open, glowing green, but it doesn’t track her finger.
“Processing,” it says, a thin thread of sound. It repeats the word again a few seconds later, and then again.
Nancy waits, not leaving her bed. She’s afraid to get dressed. What if she’s supposed to wear slacks and she picks a skirt? She’s not supposed to get ready on her own.
“Wake up.” She shakes it this time.
It continues its chant, not even scolding her for the tears running down her face.
“C’mon,” she whispers. “C’mon. I need you.”
She doesn’t go to school. She cleans her room, reorganizes her closet. She goes through the fridge and throws out everything the reimager has told her not to eat. She wants to check the internet, see what’s being said about her. But the reimager has told her she’s not to do anything social unaccompanied.
She calls her Dad at work, and when he doesn’t answer, calls again and again and again.
“What is it?” he snaps, picking up the phone on her fifth attempt. “You’re supposed to be at school.”
“The reimager. It’s broken. You have to fix it.”
“You broke it?”
“No.” She holds it curled against her chest, waiting for it to whisper the words that will let her explain. “It just keeps saying processing. You have to fix it.”
“Don’t be hysterical,” he growls. She cringes, folding in on herself, a posture that the reimager would hate. “It must be the update. It worked fine on the newer test models here. Well, I guess that proves what we were saying about the new processor. With the amount of data these things handle–”
“Dad,” she says, daring to interrupt. “I need it.”
“Don’t you think you’ve outgrown it?”
She shakes her head. It doesn’t occur to her that he can’t see her.
“Fine.” The word holds more disgust than agreement. “You do seem to be acting out less. I’ll see about getting you another, but it will take a few weeks. The new models aren’t ready.”
“I can’t wait.”
“Dammit, Nancy. I am at work. I don’t have a time to listen to you throw a fit. You’re lucky I gave you that one.”
He hangs up.
She peels back the fur by its neck, thinking to restart it. She’s worried it might hurt it somehow, to restart right in the middle of whatever it’s doing. But when she finally finds the courage to hold down the button until its eyes flash and fade, it doesn’t help. It wakes, takes a single step, then freezes again.
Frustrated, she tugs at the patch of fur. It peels further, revealing a slim port. She finds a corresponding cord and connects the reimager to her computer, thinking of Dora’s lesson on reprogramming synth-pets. She remembers none of it, and the reimager remains still.
Nancy refuses to leave her room for dinner. Without the reimager to count, she doesn’t know how much to eat. She spends the night with her head buried under her pillow, trying not to hear the reimager repeat itself endlessly. It’s still frozen the next morning and she knows she can’t go to school. When her Dad tries to drag her from bed, she vomits thin liquid on his shoes. After the screaming, he’s willing to accept that she’s sick. None of her friends call her. Maybe they leave her messages online, but she doesn’t check. If the reimager were awake it wouldn’t read her the messages they sent her. It would read her the ones they sent to each other, the nasty rumors they were starting.
She waits until just before the end of school before calling Dora. She’s already thrown clean clothes on the bedroom floor and ordered pizza. It’s the reimagers pattern, but she knows it would be unhappy about Dora. She doesn’t know what else to do.
She waits in the closet, curled up with the reimager beside her. The doorbell rings twice before she hears it. She hurries to answer, ashamed of her hope. The pizza guy has to come. It won’t be Dora.
But it is.
“Look, Nancy, what’s this about? You can’t just cry on my voicemail and expect me to come running,” Dora says, her expression a tight line that melts into concern. “Nancy? Are you okay?”
She shakes her head, her tongue caught tight between her teeth. She’s not supposed to talk to Dora.
Dora grabs her by the arm, shakes her gently, “Nancy. Talk to me. Tell me what’s wrong. Did Cleo do something? What happened?”
Nancy likes orders. They’re so easy to understand. “The reimager, it’s broken. I don’t know how to fix it. I don’t know what to do. I thought maybe you would know how to make it better again.”
Keeping one hand on her arm, Dora leads her to living room, and Nancy crumples onto the couch, its leather crisp with lack of use.
“What’s a reimager?”
Nancy holds it out to her, hardly hearing its unending refrain, and Dora takes it.
“Tell me what that means.”
Nancy tells her everything. How it takes care of her. How it knows what she should say. How it has cut her into Lydia’s group and cut Dora away. The pizza arrives, and Dora gets plates and cups and serves them both.
“You can eat,” says Dora. Nancy is hungry enough to pretend she doesn’t know better.
“You want me to fix it?” Dora asks, after the last stuttering words have torn themselves from Nancy in an unscripted mess.
Nancy’s on her third slice of pizza, full to the point of sickness. Greasy fingerprints spot the white coach. She wonders who will be angrier, the reimager or her father. She thinks the reimager. It has worked so much harder on her.
“I need it,” she says.
“Look, Nancy. I think the nicest thing I could do is leave it broken. But I don’t know that I like you that much.”
“You never did.”
Dora laughs, a harsher sound than Nancy has known. “Well, I liked you enough to stop them picking on you. It’s better than you did for me.”
“You like everyone that much, though. I liked you for real.”
“I didn’t know you for real. I only knew your stupid toy.”
“You only ever noticed me because of it.”
Dora prods the reimager, which sits between them now, “You could have done that for yourself, just by saying hi.” But she doesn’t sound sure, so Nancy doesn’t bother arguing.
“You know they’ll hate me again,” she says.
“It’s not so bad. You can find other friends.” She rests her fingers on Nancy’s wrist, leaving a pizza sauce thumbprint. “I can be your friend.”
Nancy’s laughter has more than an edge of hysteria and after a second, Dora starts laughing too.
“For real,” Dora says. “I like this you.”
“I don’t.” Nancy picks up the reimager and pushes it into Dora’s hands. “Don’t like me. Fix it.”
“Let me finish my pizza.”
After pizza, they clean the living room together. Then there’s nothing left to do but go to Nancy’s room. Dora sits in front of the computer, plugs in the reimager, and starts typing. Nancy sits at her feet. Watching, she can almost remember the things Dora tried to teach her.
It doesn’t take as long as Nancy expects.
“Alright.” Dora turns from the computer and unplugs the reimager. “That’ll fix it for awhile. But I had to reset it completely. It’s blank. No updates, no information on anyone. Just the basic programming.”
“What do I do?”
“Whatever it says, apparently. No. That’s mean. Look, it’s up to you. You start it running like it was before, it’ll be back to normal in a day and you can start feeding everyone poison again. It should last until your Dad can get you a newer one.”
The reimager is silent now. Its eyes glow but there’s nothing behind them. It could be any synth-pet. Nancy squeezes its paw and presses the needles of its claws against her skin.
“Statistically,” she says, “I’m as happy as I’ve ever been.”
“Yeah. I don’t think it knows what happy means. It’ll happy your right into a psych hospital at this rate.”
Before the reimager, Nancy’s dreams were full of razors. Now, she doesn’t dream at all. “It’s doing its best,” she says. “At least I’m not getting shoved down the stairs.”
“Look,” Dora says, not meeting Nancy’s eyes. “I know it’s hard. But if you can twist yourself into one shape, why not another? You can change without turning into Cleo.”
“So, what, I should be you?”
“Sure, as long as you’re the one doing it. You’ve been letting a robot program you.”
“It knows the rules.”
“Rules change. We change them. We’re doing it now. You’re talking to me. I’m not hating you.” Dora says the last like it’s a compliment. Nancy thinks maybe it is.
“I still need it,” she says, shame making her mumble.
“Fine,” Dora says. “You want your monster, it learns fast. Plug it back into your networks. It’ll figure out those rules again.”
After Dora leaves, Nancy sits with the dormant reimager on her lap. Her finger strokes the power button. It’s blank, Dora told her. Wiped clean. Waiting to relearn the rules.
She presses the button. It stretches in her hand, still beautiful and not quite graceful.
“I’m Nancy,” she says.
“Signal found,” it answers. “Password needed.”
“Not yet,” she says. “Do you remember me?”
“No Nancy in records.”
“You like me,” she says. “You don’t think I’m dumb, even though I need to study harder. You like people, and think we need to be nicer to each other.”
“Analyzing,” it says.
“You tell me stories every night. My best friend’s name is Dora. But I’m going to make others.”
She hears the front door open and cringes at the sound of her father’s irritated voice, calling her name.
“Sometimes,” she says, “I’m scared. But we get through it. We’re going to be alright.”