Escape Pod 834: Anticipation of Hollowness


Anticipation of Hollowness

by Renan Bernardo

Having an obsolete best friend meant I had to put up with constant warnings about her plight.
“Software needs to be updated,” Lyria said and stopped abruptly on our way to the Algae on Wheels. Her hands slumped and stiffened against her sides. “Software will shut down unless updated.” A few meters ahead, the floating algaewich rickshaw honked twice, announcing its imminent departure.

“Well, Lyria,” I said, chuckling, “you’re way too predictable. Have I told you?” I waved to Roberto, the algaewich vendor. He was gliding the rickshaw away across the street. Its buffed surface reflected the rosy skies giving way to the darkness of night. Roberto flashed a wide smile when he saw me. He steered the Algae on Wheels into a parking area designated for bicycles, rickshaws, and the like.

“Janet, about predictability, I would like to—”

“Shush, friend. There’s our man.”

I ran. Lyria followed me as she always did. Her feet clanked unevenly on the asphalt.

It tastes like algae, but it’s hidden among slices of bread! advertised a small hologram floating in blue and yellow around the roof of the Algae on Wheels, sometimes crossing through the round solar panel on it.

Lyria tried to keep up with me, but her legs were old, marred by time and use, unable to run without making her look like an unwieldy dancer. Nothing about her age was new for me. Her alerts had been warning me about her obsolescence for more than two years.

The mucky scent of algae struck us before we approached Algae on Wheels’ serving hatch.

“It’s the best algaewich in all of Sundyal,” Roberto told us. A rehearsed approach, though his eyes gleamed as if he was revealing a secret.

“You say that every day, Roberto,” I said. “I’m always around.”

“Oh!” Roberto smirked, flinging a spatula around in his hand. Bread falling on algae falling on bread sizzling on the grill. “Standard algaewich?”

I nodded. The algae and bread mixture hissed. My stomach rumbled, rioting for the lack of other options.

“I’m not good with faces,” Roberto said. “Though that one is hard to forget.” He indicated toward Lyria with his chin.

She stood impassive next to me, waiting with her hands tight against her sides. The wind ruffled the few strands of the plastic fiber hair that remained on her head, threads of her past. Flaps of skin peeled off her jaw. She blinked her orange eyes with no pupils, some lines on her face twitching in a spasm.

Outdated hardware and software caused a lot of problems with Lyria’s structure. She twitched, sometimes bent to one side, tilted her head involuntarily, and uttered unintelligible sentences. Her biograft skin was a lot older than that of the smooth androids that weaved their way seamlessly amidst the humans in Sundyal. The modern kind was beautiful and advanced, but more humdrum than Lyria, and loaded with repetitive sentences tuned for their specific functions.

“She’s easy to spot,” I said, smiling to Lyria.

“I’m easy to spot,” Lyria concurred. “I am a walking ad.” She put a hand on her chest, above the fading casino ad on it. Celebrate Mendolowski Day with 10,000 specoins in prizes, you lucky duck! On her belly, only the golden beak of a duck remained.

“That casino doesn’t even exist anymore,” I said. “Her software is outdated, she still struggles to remember some things.”

Roberto laughed, packing my algaewich in a pasteboard wrapping. The swampy odor wafted up to my nose.

“How much?” I straightened my glasses.

Roberto curled his thumb in the air above his accounting pad. A tiny hologram drifted up from it. “It will be 3 specoins.”

“Oh, crap.” I glanced at Lyria.

“What’s wrong?” Roberto frowned.

“She’s my wallet too.” I turned to my friend, clasping her hands. “Please, tell me good news, dear.”

“This price is not recommended,” Lyria said, her brows jerking in what might have been a worried expression in her up-to-date, blackjack dealer past. “It is best for you to not spend this money.”

I sighed. I wouldn’t know what to do without her—what I would have to do eventually because her software had an expiration date. I shivered at the thought. In Sundyal, non-expiring stuff ended up with well-off folks. For women like me, not a recipient of a wealthy heritage or large dividends, only finite stuff was left to reap.

“You can wait a little bit.” Roberto shrugged. “I’m used to that. Early evening, people have left work a while ago, gone home to their comfy beds. The streets are almost empty now.” He opened his arms. “Prices will go down.”

“How much time?” I said. “I need to eat, and if I don’t eat now there won’t be anywhere I can eat till tomorrow.” Anywhere with a reasonable price for a girl that didn’t fit, I thought but decided not to say aloud.

“Well…look!” The man zoomed in on the price tag hologram. “Two specoins.”

“Still not recommended,” said Lyria.

“Aw, snap. Pay him.”

“One coin!” Roberto spread his arms like a magician reaching the finale of a trick. He picked up the algaewich and handed it to me. “Buy it now. If partiers or tourists swarm by it will go up. If they’re lucky in the casinos tonight I could bet on 6 specoins.”

“Buy it!” I stroke Lyria’s side. “Buy it, buy it!”

“Transferring,” Lyria said. A ping sounded on Roberto’s pad. “Transferred.”

“It was a pleasure doing business with you, young lady,” Roberto said, blinking and starting the rickshaw. Its thrusters whirred and propelled it forward. “I’ll try to recall your face next time.” The Algae on Wheels dinged twice.

I nodded and chomped my algaewich. My stomach demanded it.

Lyria and I strolled along Caravana Street. Dronelights lit the way, faintly buzzing above our heads. Dustbots skimmed the ground, sucking in dust from the already excessively clean pavement. The closed businesses and the light leaking from the apartments in the two-story buildings with solar-paneled roofs were on my path home every day. I used to rove around Sundyal, sometimes aimlessly, sometimes in search of good music, beautiful paintings, free stuff to do, and quiet spots to have insightful chats with Lyria.

“How is the algaewich, Janet?”

“Nasty as always, but my belly finds it pleasing.”

A hurrah echoed, coming from a casino down the street. A group of women in colorful maxi dresses laughed, gossiped, and bragged about something that probably involved specoins. Just a few steps from them, a group of men wearing similarly smart dark suits and distinct tie colors did the same.

“What do you think about us testing our luck?” I said.

“Luck is not meant to be tested, but enjoyed.”

“Is that one of the lines you told blackjack players?” I licked my lips and took another bite of the algaewich.

“I used to end with, ‘Enjoy your luck and bet more.’”

“And they did. And they lost.”

“Of course. The house always—”

Lyria halted. Part of our days. I closed my eyes and exhaled, gritting my teeth. From someone’s apartment, a guitar wept.

“Software needs to be updated,” Lyria said. “Software will shut down unless it’s updated.”

“Oh, will it shut down?” I pivoted to stand in front of Lyria, defying her, full of scorn, glaring at the damp orange orbits of her eyes. “Will it?”

“It will, indeed.”

“You know what? Show me the Solartop menu.” I tucked my glasses back in place.

“I must recommend caution,” Lyria said, almost as mechanically as she had professed her own death sentence seconds before, electronic feedback coming out of her speakers and distorting her voice. “Solartop is the most expensive restaurant in Sundyal. Your current balance is 25 specoins.”

“That’s why I wanna check it out. Come on.” I gestured to hurry her. “I’m not forcing you to show me anything, but if you don’t, I’ll go there myself and check it.” I pointed to the red beam of light that emanated from the city center and got lost in the sky. It originated from Solartop.

Lyria projected the menu on the pavement. “There it is, Janet.” That was one of the amazing things about Lyria. I could be pissed off, but she never was. She was always a good listener—and a good advisor, prompt with info, who often monopolized all reason and prudence in our relationship. “Solartop’s prices are fixed.”

I read the menu aloud, “Hauckländer soy sausage dipped in pepper and Frödzan printed cheese. Well, 95 specoins. So, no. Salty waffles with olives. 94. Fufu Fafa Fefe. What even is that? Well, this one is way off anyway. 345. Algae-packed shrimp.” I tapped my foot on the pavement, indicating toward the menu. “Do you see it, Lyria? Of course you do. These algae find their place everywhere.”

My eyes rolled down the menu, disregarding almost everything on it. Solartop was way out of my league. It was a three-story building in central Sundyal, the only building that was allowed to maintain more than two stories. It was the beacon of a sustainable world that left behind skyscrapers, most automobiles, and the hustle n’ bustle, blind-to-the-environment way of life. Three days before Aunt Monica passed away, she’d promised to take me there. The place is full of history, she’d said, ripping the laminated paper wrapped around a temaki and splitting it with me.

“Here it is!” I spotted an item and put a foot over it. “Speckles of syrupy carrot. And it’s just 20 specoins.”

“What is that?”

I roared with laughter, and it echoed through the moonless night of Caravana Street. Someone protested, but I didn’t care.

“I have no idea, but we’ll have it tomorrow. Let’s toast to our friendship.”

“How is that done?”

“We’ll sit there and we’ll talk and we’ll eat—well, I’ll eat, you’ll watch—expensive food that won’t sate my hunger, then I’ll drop my remaining cash on the Algae on Wheels to fill my belly. Sound like a plan?”

“Sounds like a problem.”

I stood on tiptoe and draped an arm across Lyria’s shoulders. She was a few inches taller than me. “It isn’t. I want to have this special dinner with you, my only friend. So, tomorrow night, we’ll dine at the top of the world.”

I rushed forward, leaving Lyria steps behind me. I didn’t want her to see the tears beading on my eyes. She wouldn’t feel sorry for me, but she could ask what this intensity was that I was feeling. She often felt curious enough to save data about humans in her corrupted files and databases. I knew that one day Lyria would shut herself down, close her orange eyes forever, and leave me alone and empty. The only words I had to describe the feeling was anticipation of hollowness. She wouldn’t get it.

#

“What do you think, Lyria?” I held a heart-checkered black dress in front of me by its shoulders and moved it under a lamp protruding out of the wall above my mattress. The details stood out, stains of Aunt Monica’s life, a rebellious thread, and small holes like chasms of time. “Does it fit?”

Lyria ambled from the space I liked to call my living room, though it had only a table, a set of chairs fixed with shims, broken dronelights, and a refrigerator repurposed as a wardrobe.

“I think the best way to discover if it fits is trying it on,” Lyria said. I fancied her blunt truth. Humans should be just like her. It would all be so much easier.

“Well, my aunt was stronger than me in all sorts of ways. I don’t know if it would fit well.” I brushed away two moths from the dress.

“Why don’t you try?”

I eyed the dress from top down. The only person I could picture inside it was Aunt Monica. How many times had her high heels clicked the uneven steps of our basement? Six times a week, minimum. She arrived from her friend Samantha’s place and stood at the foot of the stairs with that sheath dress. From a distance, the white hearts on black looked like small circles for a nearsighted girl like me. At those moments, Aunt Monica usually broke down singing with a hoarse voice. Either that or she blared, “Breaking News! Breaking right now!” And then she would hop right into a story about a woman who donated all her money to sustainability projects, or about that other one who arrived in a casino wearing fox fur and was awash with boos and aggressive accusations.

Aunt Monica used to chortle and dance in the darkness of the basement lit only by old-fashioned lanterns and uneven candlelights. She’d always been in tune with Sundyal, even if we didn’t belong. So long as the wine hadn’t brought her down, our house had been full of joy and noise and exaggerated gossip.

“Do I deserve to wear it?” I said to Lyria, my attention returning to the outfit.

“I do not understand the conditions of merit about this dress.” Lyria analyzed it with her single-colored eyes vibrating behind their sockets. Of course, she wouldn’t understand. Nobody but me could still hear the loud voice of Aunt Monica reverberating through the stones of the basement, her tears forming seas of smeared makeup.

I won’t go away. Aunt Monica was wearing that same dress when she let it all out. I know I don’t have an education, I don’t have the—how do they say it?—the capacity, I can’t even sort out how to throw my trash in the right colored bins. But I was born here, I’ve seen the end of changes in this sustainability fad, the last skyscrapers converted into these buildings the size of damned teddy bears. That’s not how you solve a problem, you can’t do it by just running over other problems, recommending that people like me go to faraway cities, dislodging thousands. I won’t go!

Lyria put a hand on my shoulder and woke me up from the past.

“You are silent,” she said. “Humans are rarely silent.”

I placed the dress on my mattress. “Do you think I’ll have to go away when you…shut down?”

“Why would you have to go away?”

“I don’t belong here. This place is for intelligent people, rich artists, students, entrepreneurs, high-skilled casino players. This is a city for the aristocracy. I can’t even find a job serving them. I’m draining the remainders of Aunt Monica’s coffers with your budgetary help. I couldn’t live here without you. It just wouldn’t work.”

“Why not?” Lyria gawked at me. Once, I found her face funny with all the flapping skin and her crooked chin, a shabby girl out of someone else’s trash, but now I felt nothing but affection for that android. I wished I could repair her, if not update her to a newer version, then replace her parts with the first-class, sustainable biograft that were the top of the line in Sundyal.

“You’re my wallet, you’re my guide here, I don’t have smart devices and wearable stuff. I can’t deal with Sundyal without you being a sort of…interface?”

“You could make some other friends.”

“It’s just that—” I slid a finger over Aunt Monica’s dress. “If I wear this, I feel like I’ll have to fight for my place here.”

“I thought you already did that every day.” Lyria picked up the dress, but it fell on the floor when she raised her arm.

She stopped in her usual position, arms swinging like pendulums.

“Software needs to be updated. Software will shut down unless updated.”

I scooped the dress up and brushed the dust from it.

#

The mirrored elevator door at the end of the Solartop building’s main foyer shunned my gaze from it. I was slim, Aunt Monica was not, so the dress sagged a bit against my body. I wore glasses, she didn’t. Yet, I visualized her inside the dress.

I’d brought a frayed wristlet clutch bag that matched my dress. I knew that the kind of women who attended Solartop used to carry them, so I stuffed mine with crumpled paper to make it look like a legitimate one. I also wore a pair of wooden upper clogs. I didn’t have the magic feet of my aunt, capable of being supported by high heels without without losing her charm.

“Look at these walls,” I whispered to Lyria, snickering. “We’re gonna spend all my money.” Tapestries covered the walls on the route to the elevator. One depicted a woman with gritted teeth plucking out a skyscraper from the ground beneath her. Another one showed the same muscular woman holding the sun in her hands. Aunt Monica had told me the story of Olivia Mendolowski, the woman who had changed the face of Sundyal.

A maître d’ popped out of nowhere, appearing suddenly from behind me.

“These are handwoven, ma’am.” He looked at Lyria. “Madams.” I had tried to work on Lyria’s appearance. I’d cut off any peeling skin, had hidden her chest ad with a coat of yellow paint, and performed all kinds of touch-ups to try to make her blend in better with Solartop’s usual clientele. She was still far off.

I didn’t know what to say to the maitre d’. He had smooth, lustrous cheeks. His eyes were green and his thin mustache gleamed with wax.

“They tell the story of Olivia Mendolowski, the woman who crushed down the old ways, the pollution, the waste, and raised Sundyal from a languishing city. You two must be quite well versed in her doings, but I find it appropriate to explain, since you showed an interest in our tapestries.”

“They’re gorgeous,” I said, for lack of a better term.

“Printed replicas are available for just 180 specoins. You—”

“We have a reservation, please. My name’s Janet.”

“Right away, ma’am.” He stood upright and his eyes glinted blue.

I elbowed Lyria and whispered, “He’s an android! What skin. He has perfect movements. Did you see it?”

“Should I feel what you call jealousy?”

“It’s envy. You want to be like him, so it’s envy.”

“No.” Lyria elbowed me back. “I am worried you might pick him as a new friend. So it is jealousy. Am I right?”

I laughed out loud, then muffled my guffaws when a couple of women glanced over and narrowed their eyes. They carried clutch bags that seemed emptier than mine.

“We have set your table,” said the maître d’. “Please, follow me.”

The man ushered us to the elevator, a moving, self-contained palace featuring paintings of Olivia Mendolowski signing some paperwork, demolishing a factory, and brandishing a solar panel like a shield. A golden orbed lamp floated above our heads, no wire connecting it to anything.

“Olivia Mendolowski used this very building to gather her faithful workers and devise a new world of sustainability and equity.” Swiftly and politically relocating the poor populace, I thought to myself without voicing it. “That’s the reason this is the only structure in Sundyal allowed to have three stories.”

The elevator dinged on the third and top floor.

“Wow…” My mouth hung open.

I drowned in clinking cutlery, the crooning of educated voices, and a soft violin melody weaving through the air. Floating chandeliers with intricate ornaments of pearl and gold hovered above the tables. Flowers with their stems curling around a candle floated above each napkin holder. Frames were hung on the blue wall, exhibiting faces with excessive mustaches, beards, hats, suits, and even a man with a parrot on his head. The only person I recognized was Olivia Mendolowski herself.

“It’s fantastic, Lyria.”

I’d never been in a place so exquisitely decorated. Aunt Monica once took me to Samantha’s apartment. Up until now, her place had had the most beautiful assortment of furniture and style I’d ever seen. It was there that I’d discovered Samantha paid 5 specoins for Aunt Monica to clean and brush away every inch of dirt. My aunt used to say with a little hubris that she had the last blue-collar job in Sundyal.

The maître d’ slightly bowed before us. He seemed to be always slightly bowing. “Please, accompany me.”

We followed the android. The red light that glowed into the night sky of Sundyal came from a pillar in the center of Solartop, etched with the gleaming outlines of skyscrapers crumbling down. Beyond the initial area I’d stepped into, a terrace stretched out with more tables and a view of the two-story world down below. The teddy bears.

The maître d’ guided us to a central table, pulling out the chairs for us to sit. I shivered. I wasn’t that important. Who was I to be there in the middle, like a centerpiece? I was just a poor girl, a status quo leftover accompanied by a flaking android.

“This is so … out of my world.”

“It is located in your world, Janet,” Lyria said. Her body teetered to the left when she sat.
“That’s the irony, isn’t it? It’s been right here this whole time. My world. My city.”

A waiter’s impassive face appeared beside me, his smile stretching from ear to ear. Another android. “Can I take your orders, madams?”

I mumbled, the words stuck in my throat.

“May I suggest our Fufu Fafa Fefe?” The android opened his hands. A gelatinous puddle showed up in a hologram. “It’s the only one awarded five stars in all of Sundyal. It goes well with Thelesian wine, vintage 2099.”

I leaned toward Lyria. “Is there more than one place serving these Fufu thingies?” I suppressed a laugh. Solartop seemed the kind of place that wouldn’t condone my kind of laughter. An unwavering smile persisted on the waiter’s face.

“I’d like to—I mean—my order is …” I scratched my head, trying to remember the odd name of the carrot food. “I forgot it, damn. Oh, pardon my language. I—”

“Speckles of syrupy carrot.” Lyria saved me. “We would like that.”

“So, two speckles?” The Fufu stuff disappeared from the waiter’s hand, and he produced a tablet from his apron.

“No!” I bit my lip, realizing I was speaking too loudly. “No, please. Just one. My friend…she is an android. Bring just an empty plate for her, will you?”

“Of course. What would you like to drink?”

“I’d like wine. Beer. Vodka. But I won’t. Just the carrot thing, please.”

“No problem, madam.”

The waiter walked into the kitchen with an elegant stride, his hands behind his back.

“This place is surreal,” I said, glancing around. “Look at these people…”

That sounded like an invitation. Lyria’s head swiveled to peek around, almost performing a full circle.

Two stylish women chatted while gesturing gleefully. A robust man with dreadlocks took mouthfuls of the Fufu stuff, occasionally sipping a glass of a green drink. I’d seen him before on the news, some kind of casino owner. In the terrace, a woman that resembled Samantha nodded to a man who seemed to talk a lot. Next to the kitchen entrance, a brazen-bearded man in a tweed coat fidgeted with chopsticks to eat some wormlike food. On the other side of his table, a girl chuckled and slapped at a hologram game on a tablet.

I inhaled, closing my eyes for some seconds. “So, Lyria, now that I’ve taken it all in, let’s celebrate our friendship.”

“You said something about sit, talk, and eat. Should we wait for your food?”

“No, the celebrations can start now.” I raised an empty glass of wine. “Do the same. Please, don’t break it.”

Lyria raised her glass.

“To our friendship,” I said. “Now, repeat.”

“To our friendship.”

“That was nice.” I carefully placed the glass back down, rested my elbows on the table, and smiled. “I never thought the number 4,324 would mean so much for me. I’m going to tell you something I never did.”

“Please, do.”

“When that seller said I was visitor number 4,324 and gave me you as a gift, I knew he was getting rid of his trash.”

“Are you calling me trash?” Lyria tilted her head. She was trying to make a joke.

His trash. One person’s trash is another’s treasure. Isn’t that a slogan of some recycling company?”

“Are you calling me a treasure?”

“Sort of. But that’s not what I wanted to tell you. I was in that man’s shop to steal. I wasn’t hungry, but I saw a sparkling candy that drove me crazy. I just wanted that stuff. It said it would pop inside my mouth.” I laughed. “I was just an … obsolete fifteen-year-old girl. I didn’t know these things even existed. Am I right? Stuff that just pops inside your mouth. Who wouldn’t want it? So, I wished to grab it. Instead, I came out of that shop with you tagging along.”

“Am I your bargaining chip for sparkling candy?”

“It depends. If you don’t update yourself, you may very well be.”

“You know I cannot—”

“Stop. I know.” My shoulders slumped. Anticipation of hollowness. I’d never felt that even when Aunt Monica told me day after day that she wouldn’t last, that she had a disease, that life was brittle for the ones who didn’t belong. “Lyria, tell me something I don’t know. Something about you. Surprise me. Dig deep into those stone-age databases.”

Lyria stared at me as if she were mulling over my words. I knew she couldn’t do that. Mulling over in her mind was called processing.

“While working at casinos, I used to broadcast a radio station which played old songs,” Lyria said. “An old lady gambler once called me Lyria because of that; she said I had plenty of romantic lyrics to offer to her broken heart.”

“You!” I crossed my arms across my chest. “You never told me that before and you have never broadcast anything for me.” I understood how Lyria worked. Aunt Monica had taught me over algaewiches and temakis everything she had known about basic programming and artificial intelligence. And yet I still got surprised by how my friend expressed her thoughts and quasi-feelings.

“I cannot anymore. My music module is obsolete.”

“Madams, excuse me.” The smooth waiter put the plate with the carrot stuff in front of me and an empty plate in front of Lyria. “Bon appétit!

I glowered at my plate. I would flush all my cash away on that thing. “They should call it little balls of carrot with oil. Whatever.”

The first bite seemed like eating paper. With the second little ball I couldn’t decide whether it was salty or sweet. It was only on the third bite that I realized it was better than algaewiches, but not almost 20 specoins better.

“Dad! Look at this lady.”

I gulped. The girl that had been playing the hologram game was gaping at Lyria. Her eyes reflected the crimson of Solartop’s central pillar. She looked about nine years old.

“Her name is Lyria,” I said, smiling. “Tell Lyria your name.”

Lyria’s head swiveled to face the girl, and for a moment, I feared the odd angle of my friend’s head would frighten her. It didn’t.

“My name is Aadab.”

“Hi, Aadab,” Lyria said. “My name is Lyria.”

“I know.” The girl chuckled. Like a protector shadow, her father watched from a distance, hands in his pockets, one more bearded man between two others in the hanging frames. When our gazes met, he blinked.

“Do you play games?” Aadab asked, jigging, clapping her hands. “You’re one of the old casino models, aren’t you?”

“How do you know that?” I frowned. It wasn’t typical for a girl her age to know about casino androids.

“My dad works with the new models.” She pivoted her head to face her father. “Don’t you, Dad? But he doesn’t let me play with them. He says work is work.”

“I am retired, Aadab,” said Lyria. “I can play with you.”

“She wants to play with me, Dad.” Aadab turned to her father who still didn’t move from his watching position. He nodded.

Lyria raised her left hand, palm front. “Tap my right hand.”

Aadab tapped her left. “Oh!”

“You lose.” Lyria’s hand moved to her forehead. “Tap my nape.”

The little girl clenched her teeth, turned around Lyria’s chair, and scored, chuckling throughout. This time, I was the one agape. Her joviality impressed me in a way I didn’t think possible. At her age, I was just an uneasy girl waiting for an aunt to come home and bring pieces of food, jokes, and gossip. I had my games to play, but I played them feeling a trepidation inside me, like some kind of alarm that was about to ring but never did.

Lyria lifted three fingers. “Quick! Show me four fingers like these!”

The girl showed four, scored again.

“You’re good, Aadab,” Lyria said. “I am impressed.”

“I am too.” Aadab’s father came out of the shadows and patted his daughter’s head, his thick beard contorting to reveal a smile. “The old models are outstanding. MX-CSN-10294, isn’t it?”

“I—” I’d never thought about Lyria’s model before.

“I am,” she said.

“Almost a decade without updates.” The man put his hands on his daughter’s shoulders. She stared at Lyria and now stretched her little fingers out to touch the few remaining fibers on my friend’s head. “I’m curious as to where you found her. It’s not forbidden to have one, but it is to build one like her. It doesn’t follow the MGS.”

I raised an eyebrow.

“I mean, Mendolowski’s Guidelines of Sustainability. Also, this MX-CSN is one of the last casino models with the capacity for acquiring certain human behaviors unrelated to her trade. The new models are less prone to error, but they don’t simulate emotions like Lyria. It’s not even coded in them.”

“I don’t think she simulates emotions,” I said, folding my arms, swallowing the truth I didn’t want to hear.

“I’m sorry.” The man shook his head. “I can be quite technical at times. It wasn’t my intention to jeopardize your evening. By the way, my name is Mohammed.”

“Janet.” I couldn’t be drier. My eyes turned aside to the carrot stuff. I’d trade it for algaewiches any time now.

“Hi, Mohammed. I am Lyria.”

“Pleased to meet both of you.”

I moved my head, trying to put a smile on my face.

“I won’t bother you anymore,” Mohammed said, clasping his little girl’s hand. Now she gawked at the distant and tall face of her father. “But I wanted to—how can I put this?—I wanted to ask you if you could lend me your friend indefinitely for a considerable sum of specoins? Do you think you could be happy with 4,000?”

“What? Are you offering to buy Lyria?” I pushed back my chair. It scratched the floor. People glared at us. The dreadlocked man from the news lifted his head from his Fufu. Some noises and behaviors didn’t fit in this building that represented the future. I was a relic from the past simmering there.

“I can give her a full refurbishment. New hair, new limbs, a new set of eyes. I can make her look almost human. Like those men.” He pointed to one of the waiters that carried a tray of overpriced shrimp with one hand. “Would you like it, Lyria?” He turned his gaze from me to Lyria.

My heart thudded, and the hair on my arms bristled in anger. I wanted to drag his gaze back to me. I lowered a heavy hand onto the table. The glasses and plates clinked.

Lyria turned her face to me, then to Mohammed. “It would be really—”

“Nasty.” I stood. Aadab blinked and took a few steps back. “It would be really nasty. Could I make an offer on one of your friends, perhaps?”

Mohammed blushed. At first, I thought he was angry, but then I realized it was shame.

“I’m sorry,” he stuttered. “I’m really sorry, Janet.”

“Don’t call me that. Call me Miss or something else.”

“I didn’t mean to offend. I—I—” Aadab pulled his hand. “I must go.”

They wandered back to their table.

I propped my elbows on the table, took off my glasses, and tried to hide my tears from Lyria. My night of celebration, my once-in-a-lifetime event, my toast to friendship, had been ruined by a man with a disproportionate offer. It seemed that up there at the top there was always a proposition to bring you down, back to your place, to where you belonged.

#

“Would you like a glass of wine, ma’am?” The smooth-faced waiter woke me from my thoughts. I moved my hands away from my eyes, put my glasses back on, and Solartop regained its colors around me. The diners’ attention had diverted back to their meals. The couple with clutch bags had replaced the dreadlocked man.

“No.”

The waiter nodded and glided toward another table. On Mohammed’s, Aadab had resumed her game, but now without so much as a titter. Her father stared at nothing, his gaze lost, pensive.

“I’m sorry, Lyria. I should’ve asked for your opinion in all this.”

“There is nothing to be sorry about, Janet. We are celebrating. Sit, talk, and eat, you told me. We are fulfilling all those conditions, though you have not touched the speckles of syrupy carrot for a while now.”

I smiled. If it had been minutes before, I’d be bothering Solartop’s clientele with my laughter.

“How rude of Mohammed,” I said. “You don’t offer to buy people’s friends.” But what should I have expected, coming to Solartop, home of Sundyal’s vanguard, cradle of the future? What should Aunt Monica have expected working for Samantha? When she staggered down the stairs of our basement shrieking the news, she’d been drunk and laughing with one of her high heels broken, her make-up a fuzzy mess, but the temaki intact in her hand.

“That woman invited me to live in her apartment,” Aunt Monica had said. “With all her luxuries, all her booze. Oh, dear Jan, who does she think I am? Some kind of monster?”
“We can go there,” I said, open to the possibility of living in a place where sunlight filtered through electronic shutters. “Why not, Aunt?”

“Oh, girl. It’s no place for us.”

It had been all she’d said before snoring herself to sleep, but I knew there was something deeper. Months later, at my aunt’s memorial, Samantha had told me she’d offered a good life to Monica. If only she’d accepted, if only things had been different. I could even have visited my aunt whenever I wished.

That had struck me down, and a bad day had turned into a crumbling one. My legs had become frail, and I’d walked away from the memorial before it had ended, still hearing Aunt Monica’s laughter, her trampling on the stairs, still smelling temaki with salmon and chive.

“What is bothering you?” Lyria placed her hand over mine. Her fragile hair was tossed over her eyes.

“You’re not a simulation to me.” The word sounded like acid on my lips. “So, I should’ve treated you like a person. But I treated you the same way Mohammed did. I’m sorry, Lyria.”

“Please, explain.”

“Your opinion. I want it. Would you happily accept Mohammed’s offer? He could give you a new body, a new mind, he could make you like these fluffy waiters. You would be his, and—”

Lyria sat upright. “Software needs to be updated. Software will shut down unless updated.”

“I know, I know. Now, please, tell me what you think.”

“Shutting down…”

“What? No!” I leaned over the table, grasping Lyria’s hands. Her eyes rolled on their orbits and shut tight. My arm knocked the empty wineglass to the floor. It shattered. The floating flowers curled around the candle were next, but they just drifted away in a straight line, the flame perishing. One of the waiters caught the decoration, and another one was already cleaning up my mess.

“Lyria!”

People stared at us, giving accusatory glares of non-belonging. My belly churned in pain. Lyria’s head tilted back as if she was merely sleeping, a drunken android, tired of bullshit, tired of being the only one.

I kneeled before Lyria and opened the panel door in her neck. Oily wires and a switched-off terminal slid out. What would I do with that? My teeth were clenched together, and in between them I repeated, “Lyria, Lyria, Lyria,” as if those were the magical words that would bring her back.

A hand landed on my shoulder.

“It won’t work, my friend.”

Mohammed.

“Go away!” If he hadn’t popped out of his wormy food with an offer, it’d have been an inevitable, but bittersweet ending to our friendship.

“Please, let me help you.”

“How? Can you bring her back?”

He kneeled beside me but remained in silence.

“So, you can’t help me,” I replied to his curled lips.

“My girl doesn’t like to see you like this.” He nodded to Aadab. “She says you’re a nice person.”

I stared at Aadab, no words coming from my mouth. Even air barely came out. She stared at us with a frown, eyebrows wilted in sadness.

“Your friend here, she was obsolete.” Mohammed shook his head and raised his hand when he noticed I was about to protest. “Her software didn’t have pending updates. The casinos never wanted to buy another one of her…kind.” I could see he had had the word “model” on his lips. “So she was discontinued. I tried to argue about her kind’s usefulness, that dealers that fully resembled humans were better employees, but I was outnumbered. So, the future reeled forward with all the MGS laws…and a new line of dealer androids came into production. Solar-powered, prime biograft, biodegradable parts. Anyway, it’s possible to reboot Lyria.”

“What? Why didn’t you say—”

I shut my lips tight. The lines around Mohammed’s mouth and mustache already gave a grim answer. “Restart her with a new system. She wouldn’t remember her past, her work on the casinos, her name…you. New databases, new life. Rebooted and with a new patch, she could live indefinitely.”

Mohammed’s gaze became lost again as he looked out to Solartop’s terrace. For a moment, he seemed to have shut down like Lyria.

“I’m insensitive at times,” he finally said. “I apologize for my behavior previously. My daughter lives alone with me, and I’m drowned in work most of the time. Aadab doesn’t have friends in school. She feels she doesn’t belong there. Lyria’s kind, it plays, it talks, it behaves a lot like us, it makes people happy. From what I’ve seen of your interaction with…her, I can say she can really be a friend. So—”

“Stop!” I stood, legs trembling. “You won’t convince me to sell her. I know you want to help, but that’s not how you solve a problem. And she’s not an ‘it’.”

I set out to the terrace. I needed some fresh air before that place and that man stifled all life out of me.

#

Grieving the loss of friends wasn’t like grieving the loss of parents. Aunt Monica was a mother to me, so I knew by the rules of life itself that she was supposed to depart before me. When she died, I was devastated, but it didn’t feel unnatural. A friend, on the other hand, wasn’t supposed to go so suddenly. You were supposed to tread through life’s paths together until the very end. And even though my friend had been warning me about her impending demise for a long time, I had always hoped life would find a way. It always did, people said.

It didn’t find one for us, though.

The wind of Sundyal brushed on my face, fluttering the little hearts on Aunt Monica’s dress. Some people were too annoyed by my presence and left the terrace. Part of the chit-chat that persisted around me was about the girl in the frazzled dress and the decayed android.

On the streets below, a rickshaw jangled. Distant laughter roared across the dronelights, coming from the casinos. The teddy bears around Solartop all reflected the ruddy colors of the pillar, from which the rays ran stronger once they protruded out of the building’s roof.

That was home for me. But how can you belong somewhere? Belonging presupposes you are like a puzzle piece. If you don’t belong, you have to squeeze and smash yourself until you fit. That was what I had been trying to do my whole life, what Aunt Monica had died attempting but never fully achieved.

I wiped a tear from my cheek and straightened my glasses.

“Ma’am, your friend is waiting for you.” The smooth-faced waiter emerged beside me.

“She will be waiting forever. She has shut down.”

“No, ma’am. That one.” The waiter pointed back to the door onto the terrace. Aadab was there, hands knitted together. I gestured for her to come over. I didn’t want to see anyone, but the girl’s face brought me some kind of comfort.

Aadab ambled toward me.

“Sorry for Dad,” she said, her right hand pressing against her left thumb. She promptly turned away to leave.

“Wait.”

Aadab stopped and turned back.

“Lyria liked you. She never allowed anyone to touch her hair without permission. I think it was in her…algorithms.” I flinched, disapproving of my own technical choice of words, but it didn’t feel wrong this time. There was no point in humanizing Lyria. She meant a lot to me, definitions apart.

“I like her.” Aadab nodded.

“You liked her.”

“Dad says she can still be revived.”

“I suppose.” I patted Aadab’s head, grabbed her hand, and took her back inside. Eyes fell upon me. The screaming girl in the frayed dress had come back, better stay silent.

“I was searching for you, Aadab!” Mohammed crouched down and held Aadab firmly between his hands, the red glow of Solartop’s pillar falling over their faces. “I told you to wait for me at the table while I was in the restroom.” He looked up at me. “Thank you for bringing her back.”

The soft violin of the background music had now given way to a gentle guitar paired with a sweet male voice. It contrasted with the hardness of the restaurant, the sturdy woman in the frames and the tapestry, the one who led an upheaval, a revolution.

Mohammed stood, straightening his tweed.

“Just keep her name, okay?” I said to him.

He raised his eyebrows in surprise. “Aadab wouldn’t let me change it.” Still hesitant, he fiddled inside his pocket and handed a specoin card to me. I took it. For the first time in a long while, I didn’t feel that anticipation of hollowness.

Aadab pulled my hands and stretched her neck out toward me. I squatted. She kissed my cheek and transformed the tight lines around my mouth into the hint of a smile.

I couldn’t be hollow.

#

The Algae on Wheels dinged. Its thrusters ceased. People strode along Caravana Street, from work to home, to casinos, to clubs, their lives all sorted out already, synchronized, cogs that always belonged.

“It’s the best algaewich of Sundyal!” Roberto proclaimed.

“Change these catchphrases, Roberto.” I smiled.

“Oh, you! Welcome back.” He twirled a slice of bread in his hand and placed it into the grill plate. The algae came next, hissing. “Standard?”

“With printed cheese and a few pieces of carrot. Just a few.”

“Right away!” He curled his thumb above his pad. The hologram with the price popped up. “Well, algaewich with cheese and carrot is going to cost 7 specoins at this time. Where’s your advisor friend?”

“Being someone else’s friend.” I stared into Roberto’s eyes. I didn’t want to look around and not see Lyria there. I pulled my specoin card from my pocket and gave it to Roberto. He slid it above his pad and resumed the preparation of my lunch.

A couple of minutes later, my algaewich was ready and tasting so much more delicious than some weird carrot stuff.

I strolled along Caravana Street, mingling with the cogs. Not so far away, Solartop’s red beam stitched us all into one.

“Janet!”

I looked behind me. Aadab sprinted in my direction, arms wide open. I crouched down and caught her when she jumped up. We chuckled together.

“We’re going to see birds and foxes and fountains in Olivia Park,” she said. “Wanna join us?”

“It would be a pleasure.”

Aadab grabbed my hand.

“And Dad wants to talk to you about some kind of programming training.”

“Is he—where—?”

I scanned around for Mohammed, but I only saw a woman with unwrinkled black skin, unflawed curly hair, and glinting eyes not unlike those of Aadab. She wore foldable solar cells from her shoulders to her wrists. Her chest was flat and rendered with little white circles all around.

No, not circles. Hearts.

The woman approached and extended a hand to me.

“Hi, I’m Lyria.”

Host Commentary

by Mur Lafferty

Our author says: “‘Anticipation of Hollowness’ is a story about the dangers of a sustainable, utopian world that doesn’t include everyone. Progress should always be inclusive. It is also about unusual friendships and the power of friends who become family.”

This was an incredibly sweet story about love and loss, but it really made me think about free will. Janet couldn’t stand the idea of selling Lyria as if she was a thing, but taking that choice from Lyria didn’t make her much better. Free will also means being free to make bad decisions. Bad in someone’s eyes, anyway. Janet of course realized her mistake, but too late before Lyria shut down.

It’s also a story about growing up. Although Lyria was Janet’s best friend, she was also her guide in living among people who, unfortunately Janet thought she wasn’t as worthy as. Once Lyria was gone, Janet had to handle the algaewich peddler herself.

I was feeling rather Douglas Adamsy today, and found this quote, reminding me of our young griend in this story “Don’t you understand that we need to be childish in order to understand? Only a child sees things with perfect clarity, because it hasn’t developed all those filters which prevent us from seeing things that we don’t expect to see.”

About the Author

Renan Bernardo

Renan Bernardo

Renan Bernardo is a science fiction and fantasy writer from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. His fiction appeared or is forthcoming in Apex Magazine, Podcastle, Dark Matter Magazine, Daily Science Fiction, Translunar Travelers Lounge, and others.

Find more by Renan Bernardo

Renan Bernardo
Elsewhere

About the Narrator

Tatiana Grey

Tatiana Grey is a critically acclaimed actress of stage, screen, and the audio booth.  She has been nominated for dozens of fancy awards but hasn’t won a single damned thing. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.  See more about Tatiana at www.tatianagrey.com.

Find more by Tatiana Grey

Elsewhere