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by Joshua Allen

Umer braced himself on a bulkhead between cars as the train

chased its way up a hill like a wolf after a rabbit. The

darkness of his skin hid him, but he had to remember to breathe.

He stuffed his hand inside his coat and felt his chest. He was
on fire. A pit of molten lead sat inside his chest, nearly hot

enough to scorch the flesh on his palm.

He would never pass for human if he didn't breathe.

Breathing also kept his chest temperature regulated. They

would know if he was too hot. A hot chest was an easy tell. When

humans greeted each other, they touched hands to hearts--always

the right hand. Hearts, lungs, guts, organs--those things made a

man a man. Umer had none of it. He concentrated on breathing. He

forced himself to draw air in, activating the servos that caused

his chest to rise; then, slowly, he exhaled. If someone were to

catch him with his chest this hot, they would know he was a


Umer calmed himself. His chest began to return to normal

temperature. His hand slipped into his inner pocket, certain

that his gun had fallen out, somewhere in the dining car when

he'd taken his coat off to eat.

The metal, warmed by the intense heat of Umer's chest,

greeted him. He traced the outline of the thing. Retromark 8000

series blast gun with a full complement of aluminum powder

packages. Not a new gun, but known for its reliability, loved

for the ease of finding ammunition. Anything aluminum could be

turned into powder with a little tenacity. The gun was there. It

was complete. Umer took a few more deep breaths and opened the

door to the coach car.

He was in there. Umer had seen the man with the curly,

golden locks board at Substation Yankee/Old Chicago. A drifter

from the wastes, by the looks of him, but too immaculate. The

drifter image was a mere disguise. Like the train, coursing

through the night after invisible prey, this guy was a hunter.

Umer tried making eye contact with the man briefly as he

passed. Goldilocks pretended to be more interested in the

midnight blur outside his window. Umer smiled. The hunter was

trying to calm the prey by pretending he wasn't hungry.

Umer hurried through the next joiner into the bedroom car.

He stuffed his hand into his inner pocket. The gun was there. He

hurried to his room. The door opened when he was close and Umer

shuffled inside sideways. He put the bed down, stuffed it with

pillows. A schoolboy's trick Umer had learned reading contraband

books. This was why they were contraband. Robots started to

feel, to realize right and wrong. Next, the robots would want to

escape the dungeons. Umer had.

Umer hurried out the door, around the corner and into a

dark pocket. Now was a matter of waiting and listening.

A door opened ten seconds later at the other end. Umer

stuck his hand into his pocket. This time he brought the gun

out. He would have to wait for the bedroom door to open.

The footsteps paused, then retreated, heading back toward

the coach car. Umer forced himself to breath. He pushed himself

up. The wolf was circling. Checking for witnesses, making sure

it could make a clean kill on the hapless little bunny.. The

footsteps returned. Umer heard the door open. Sometimes even

rabbits fought back.

He almost went, forced himself to count two full seconds.

He went.

He fired his gun three times when he saw the darkened mass

with streaming golden locks of hair in front of him. The person

turned, surprise frozen forever on her lovely face.

Her. Not Goldilocks at all. She wasn't even at his door,

but one two doors down. Umer felt the train slowing. He stopped

breathing. He barely noticed. He bent down, checking for a

pulse. The train was at a crawl now. They knew. This had been

reported. They were coming for him.

The woman was dead. Her cigarette still smoldering. She'd

been checking for witnesses all right. Smoking on a train was

illegal. Umer put his hand on her head. He told himself he

should breathe, but couldn't do it. He didn't deserve it.

"Substation 17, Melonia/East Pittsburgh. Melonia and East

Pittsburgh Last stop until New Bangor," the voice on the

intercom said.

Umer breathed. They weren't after him. They were stopping

for some breakwater town. He pocketed the gun. He waited,

standing there over the body of the poor woman he'd killed.
Someone would come through that door this second and see him. He

didn't know if it would be Goldilocks, but he had a pretty

strong suspicion it would be. Goldy had done this to him. Set

him up. Goldy was probably hiding at the end of the hall right

now, biting back the laughter at how easy Umer had been to fool.

Umer covered his mouth, feeling for his breath. How could

he just leave her here, dead? It wasn't fair. She was young and

beautiful, nothing like the women who had come to the Pleasure

Dungeons at Tahoe, on the coast. Nothing like the things that

had called themselves humans but had really been something like

monsters in rubber human masks. Umer shook his head.

When no one appeared in the car, he knew he would be able

to get away with what he had done. He had killed yet again. It

was his lot in life. Always causing pain, never being punished.

The emotions of humanity dogged him, but none of the restraint.

He'd been designed by other robots to fulfill the fantasies of

humans, which meant he couldn't hesitate to do whatever people

wanted. Now that he was free of the dungeons, he was free of the

control, but training was harder to overcome. This was not the

first person he'd killed, but Umer vowed she would be the last.

The train was nearly stopped. Umer closed her eyes with the

heel of his hand and lifted her up into her sleep room with a

sense of numb duty. He backed away to let the door close. There
wasn't even a spot of blood in the hall. It had all gone inside

her room or stayed inside her body. Lucky break.

Umer pocketed his gun. His chest was on fire now. He

hurried back the way he'd come, still not convinced that

Goldilocks wasn't lying in ambush for him. He reached the

bulkhead just as the train jerked to a stop and the airbrakes

hissed. He exited the train onto waystation platform. Bright

blue arcs of electricity zapping up twin antennas over the open

concession stands lit the platform.

Umer hurried to the first. He didn't have much money, but

he had even less time.

"Large cup of ice."

"Seventy-five." The man behind the counter was missing half

his face. He'd had a nanotattoo of the Virgin Mary put in the

flap of skin where his face should have been. The mark of the

Christers. Not a man to be trifled with.

Umer forked over seventy-five, three quarters of his

holdings and got back a cup no taller than the width of two

fingers containing two ice cubes.

"I said large."

The man snarled. "You got two, didn't you? Ice don't grow

on stems."


"'Scuse me?"
Umer sighed. "It's 'doesn't grow on trees.'"

The man reached under his booth. Umer didn't wait around to

see what the man kept there, because he already had a pretty

good idea. The Blood of Christ, most likely. Not that Umer had

anything to fear, directly, from the blood. But his lack of

reaction would probably be worse for him.

Umer hurried away and dumped the two ice cubes into his

shirt. He rubbed them around, trying desperately to cool his

chest. The door to the local branch of the OCB could be close,

and he couldn't go in there hot enough to fry bacon on his

chest. It would be a dead giveaway. This town wasn't where he

wanted to be. He wanted to get to Centrailia, or maybe all the

way to Atlanta, on the southern coast, Umer hid on the edge of

the waystation booths. No one else debarked. Umer forced himself

to breathe, feeling like he had just dodged a bullet.

The train started to move, electricity zapping between the

solar-static collectors on top of the train and the electric

arcs lighting the platform, making an artificial lightning

show--beautiful and deadly. Someone jumped off the train onto

the platform just before the train was gone into the wastes.


Umer felt his gun. He didn't know the man. As far as he

knew, the man was visiting home. People still lived even in

places like this. Not just Christers and Scavengers either, but
real people. Umer looked down through the alley. Lights dotted

some of the windows closest to the platform. A candle flickered

in one window, burning on rendered fat from some unfortunate

beast out in the wastes. In another a cold fusion powered bulb

provided meager light on whatever scraps its owner could pull

from the empty apartments around him.

Umer looked back. Goldilocks was talking to the Christer,

who pointed to where Umer was hiding. Umer had run out of time

to decide. It was fight or flight. He put his hand on the shaped

handle of his gun. Shaped for someone else's hand. Shaped for a

human, one who had lived long ago when such antiques were the

rule rather than relics.

An image of the woman in the train flashed through his

mind. Umer remembered how she looked in death. No longer

beautiful, but it was obvious she had been. All the death he had

caused against his will. It ended now.

Goldilocks approached. Umer turned and ran.

* * *

Umer hid out in an abandoned multiplex housing unit in

Melonia whose seals were still relatively intact and would

provide adequate protection in case some of the radioactive sand

decided to kick up in a tornado and slam the town. Radioactivity

had little effect on Umer or any robot, but too much of anything

toxic was bad for the central neural net.

Umer sat on the floor of the empty room. He blocked the

sounds of the roaches skittering across the floor, and the

sounds of the spiders that stalked them. He blocked sound of the

wind outside, spreading and diffusing the poison of the world.

He focused on controlling himself. Breathing slowly in and out.

He no longer had the capability of seeing a visual readout of

his core temperature, as his robot eyes had been replaced with

real ones.

In the dungeons, internal warmth had been no disadvantage.

The dungeons were ice caves. The warmth had been a physical

comfort to its visitors. His artificial warmth forced them to

try to be as close to him as possible to combat the cold around

them. The cold, in turn, had kept his warmth manageable.

Umer didn't know if there was an Outbound Control Bunker

still functioning in the area, but it was a good bet. The

Federation, the conglomeration of planets that constituted the

majority of human settlements, had brokered a deal with the

Machine Intelligence that no matter what, people would always

have a way of getting of Earth. Not everyone could abandon

Earth, of course. No matter how things had gotten, there would

always be holdouts. The Federation had decided not to judge any

of those people. They simply kept the OCBs open and sent regular

envoys to each and everyone. Like a patient parent, they waited

with arms open.

The robots were another matter altogether. There weren't

many robots on Earth. Earth no longer had the resources or

facilities to produce its own, so the ones that were there had

been put there by the Machine Intelligence for very specific

reasons. Most of them were like Umer, were pleasure bots from

the dungeons. A few were HKs, Hunter Killers designed to enforce

a kind of justice. A smattering of service robots, usually some

variation of HK or pleasure bot, dotted some of the more

successful remaining colonies. All of them were hated by all but

the elites who still lived on Earth, but more to the point all

were hated and feared by the Federation. They wanted no part of

Earth's HK justice, and they wanted no part of Earth's supposed

pleasure dungeons. Robots were not allowed off Earth in any

Outbound slipliner.


Umer put the thought aside. He didn't need unless...,

because of what he had done to get the modifications he had. His

modifications would pass him as human, at least long enough to

get him Outbound. Once he was on his way, he was certain, even

if they discovered his true identity, they would let him stay.

He would prove to them his worth, his kindness, his changed

ways. They would not be able to destroy him. Their hearts would

not let them.

First, Umer had to get to the OCB, then he had to convince

whoever was running it to send the subspace signal for pickup.

That meant he had to be very careful. Goldilocks was out there.

Goldilocks was most likely not an HK, but a human working for

the elite, charged with tracking him down and punishing him for

the crimes of murder and passing. Umer relaxed his neural

network. The thought of Goldilocks upset him, but he had to be

calm. If he had to kill Goldy, he would. He didn't want to. He

would give Goldy every opportunity. But he would be Outbound. He

had to be.

* * *

Umer was alert of himself and of his surroundings as he

trekked through the broken, wasted streets of Melonia. He has

scoured the town and had become convinced of two things:

Goldilocks had lost him, and there was no OCB in Melonia. Umer

wasn't worried. It meant simply that he had to push through town

to East Pittsburgh. The towns were adjacent, so the OCB had to

be there.

East Pittsburgh, was separated from Melonia by a wide, dry

riverbed, over which a collapsing bridge spanned. Umer opted for

crossing under the bridge. He would feel too exposed up on the

open space of the bridge, or crossing the wide, empty flat

riverbed. The bridge offered his only protection. He crossed at

a run, forcing himself to breathe heavily. He would be hot from

the exertion, but it was a necessary exertion. He hoped there

weren't too many humans on the other side who would have cause

to be suspicious. Many, such as the Christers, were wary of

robots. These outlier communities felt nothing but hatred for

robots, much like their kindred in the Federation. They wouldn't

hesitate to kill him. Then there were the Scavengers. Everyone

had to watch their ass around those guys, or so Umer had been


On the other side, Umer found a building he could hide from

the sun and cool himself. He slipped inside. Several eyes turned

up toward him. Umer's hand went for his gun on impulse, but he

stayed it without pulling his weapon. The eyes were all

vertical. The people were lying on the floor. There were maybe a

dozen people, all lying there. None of them moved when Umer

entered. For a long moment, no one moved. They stared up at him,

Umer scanned them, waiting for something to happen.

Umer realized with a jolt that if there was going to be

movement, it would have to be he that made it. These people were

infirm. Umer finally let his hand fall away from his weapon. He

crossed the room lightly, tip-toeing through the people who were

unable to move on their own. A woman entered the far side. Their

eyes met and they froze.

"No!" she said suddenly. "No! You leave them alone."

Umer put his hands up. "I'm not an HK," he told her. HKs

were known to kill the infirm. Law of the land. Certain diseases

received no treatment. In the Federation, of course, there were

no such diseases.

Her eyes narrowed. "What do you want?"

"I'm just looking for the OCB. That's all."

The woman, middle aged, had streaks of gray running through

her hair that gave her a ghostly appearance, like Umer had read

about in a contraband book. She was striking, nonetheless.

Beautiful in a matronly way. Umer's human neural core longed for

her to hold him and pet his hair. It was a feeling he'd never

experienced before.

"The OCB? Why would you want that? No one leaves from East

Pittsburgh anymore."

Umer was aware that occasionally OCBs had ceased their

original functions and had become, simply, places where

criminals tried to escape punishment. They were bastions of

technology, light, and power in the wastes. They were holy

ground, of a sort. There were stories of Scavengers and others

trying to assault or lay siege to or even penetrate with

subterfuge, but such attempts always ended in death. Whether the

OCBs were defended by the Machine Intelligence or just very

diligent humans was a matter of debate, if not outright legend.

"I want to be Outbound. This is where I ended up. Do I need

further explanation?"

The woman finally broke her stalemate. She offered water to

one of the infirm. She approached him. She looked into his eyes

with scrutiny. "Come with me," she said at last.

Umer followed her out, through an alley filled with dust.

She led him to a building that looked destroyed from the

outside. There was a wooden door on the ground. It might have

been discarded there years ago. The only thing that might tip

someone off to its true nature was the fact that no scavenger

had dared to touch it.

The woman pulled the door open. There were steps. Lights

along their ridges illuminated when the door opened. Umer

crouched and could see the gun-metal gray door with a ring of

lights arching over it.

"I though OCBs weren't to be hidden like this."

"As I said, no one comes here looking to go Out. Only

criminals come to this area. Criminals and Christers. And the

occasional HK. All hate my work here. I lost three poor souls

last month to Scavenger."

Umer heard a noise. When he looked up, he found himself

staring into the barrel of a gun. It was not any kind of gun

he'd ever seen. It was enormous and appeared to use some form of
chemical propulsion. It looked like it would smash through walls

and gouge flesh.

"When you defended yourself, your reaction was to claim you

were not an HK. Why would you deny being an HK before anything


Umer breathed. "I have heard that HKs come and exterminate

hospitals such as yours."

"You're a robot."


"Open your coat, slowly."

Umer did. She took his gun and stuffed it into the pocket

of her dress. She pressed the barrel of her hand cannon against

his temple and reached for his chest. He grabbed her hand,

preventing her from touching him. He felt the gun press deeper

into his temple.

"Please," he begged.

Her hand was insistent. He relaxed his grip, letting her

arm pass through his cupped hand. Her fingers splayed, she

pressed her hand against his chest where his heart should have

been. Umer forced himself to breathe.

She held her hand against his chest for a several long

seconds. He was still warm from the running. He was too hot.

"You're sick," she said.

He shook his head slowly.

"You're sick," she repeated with more emphasis.

Umer looked up into her eyes.

"You're sick," she said a third time.

"I'm sick."

"I'm Lucinda," she said after she lowered the gun. "Follow


She led him down the stairs. She punched some keys on a

pad. She covered the keypad with her body, but Umer could tell

by the sound what the code was. 6817. She passed him and

motioned for him to follow.

Inside, the OCB was in a sad state. There was a long

hallway. Most of the lights had been burned out. She led him

past closed dorm doors to an ancient bathroom. There were two,

one for each sex, but one had the fixtures ripped out and was

little more than stray pipes and a pile of broken glass.

"What happened?" Umer couldn't help but ask.

The woman pressed her finger to her lips. "I had to sell

the fixtures to Scavengers," she whispered.

"But why?"

"The people here are not going to leave. They will stay

until the Federation finally decides to have done with Earth. It

was more important to help them than to keep this place in tip

top condition."

Umer followed her inside the functioning bathroom.

She indicated for him to sit on a padded chair that was by

the sink. He did so.

"You're from Old Chicago?" she asked.


"The dungeons?" she asked.

Umer nodded.

She sighed deeply, the pain of all humanity, it seemed,

forced out between her lips. "And you want off-planet?"

"More than anything."

"Is anyone after you?" she asked after washing her hands.

He shrugged.

"I have people in here. I need to know."

"A man. He has long blond hair. I've been calling him

Goldilocks after a girl in a book I have read."

"Book, huh? At least now I see why you're here. You got a

little bit of knowledge and couldn't live with it anymore. That

about right?"

"Please don't belittle me," he said.

"I'm going to go lock the door. Run your head under this

water. You haven't been breathing properly."

Umer did as instructed. He listened patiently for her

return while the cool water flowed over him. Water was a scarce

commodity, but OCBs had enough of it. Enough to give it to

everyone on the planet, it seemed. No one knew where it came

from. Some supposed elaborate underground pipes leading from

glaciers, some guessed a system of geothermal condensation.

Others thought the Machine Intelligence could simply make it,


Umer opened his eyes and pretended he could look through

the ceiling of the OCB, out to the deep space, and the stars.

What wonders did the Federation hold? What technology did they

possess that Earth did not? He knew only supposition, only hints.

Lucinda returned. She brought carried a sponge with her.

She used it to clean him. "We all have heard stories of robots

trying to pass as humans to get off planet. Take off your coat

and your shirt."

Umer took of his shirt. Lucinda sponged him, washing away

the grime and dirt of his travels, the filth of the things he'd

done to get to here.

"Your pants."

Umer hesitated, then removed his socks and shoes, and

finally his pants. He sat down on the plastic chair, feeling the

texture on his skin. Uncomfortable because she was still

clothed. She cleansed him, cooled his chest.

"Breathe," she reminded him.

He breathed.
"You thought you'd come out to our little breakwater and

get the hicks to call in the Outbound slipliners to haul you

out, how right am I?"

I wanted to hide in the city.

"Then you're a fool," She laughed. "They'd have seen you

coming a mile away. Breathe. You have to work on that. You have

to, if you're going to pass. How long on a slipliner before they

figure it out and jettison you."

"They won't," Umer said. "I will show them my humanity.

They won't."

She put the sponge down and extracted his pistol from her

pocket. It fit her hand perfectly, as though it had been

designed for the hand of a woman or a young man. In a flash, she

stripped it, put it back together faster than he had ever seen

anyone do. "Aluminum powder charges? Where did you find this

antique? Haven't seen one of these since the NATO-PAC war."

"You were in the NATO-PAC war? You'd have to be..."

"Fifty-seven. Ancient for a human on this planet, right?"

"It's a reliable piece," Umer replied, "We don't have much

choice on the West Coast."

She set the gun on the counter, near his head. "They say in

the Federation, people live centuries."

"You want me to take you with you?" Umer guessed. "You want

me to find someone to replace you here?"

"You ever killed?" she asked

Umer nodded slowly, his eyes cast down. He was aware of his

nakedness. Shame was a new feeling, one he'd learned quickly,

from fragments and stories of other worlds, and other people.

Lucinda leaned down next to his ear and whispered. "Then

why shouldn't I kill you?"

"You need my help." Umer was still guessing.


He rolled his head toward her and let her kiss him. There

was no pleasure in it for Umer. There were bad dreams.

Associations. Horrible, horrible associations. But there were

also old habits, tricks his body knew, things he could do if she

asked the right questions.

She took him into a private bedroom that had the warm smell

of comfort. Her room. She asked the right questions.

* * *

Umer woke up. He felt his chest. It was a little warm. It

cycled up and down like a real chest, the silent servos

reproduced the sound of lung activity realistically enough to

fool even a doctor, assuming he was inclined not to listen too


Umer felt the mattress next to him. The space was empty and

cool to the touch, but not cold. A light, probably an artificial

Sun, shone through the window. He could hear activity lilting

down the hallway. Voices. Confused he arose, naked. She had told

him there were people here, and yet she had been suspicious of

his motives.

A clean change of clothes lay folded next to the door. Umer

put them on. He scanned the room briefly for his gun. It wasn't

there. Umer felt his chest again. He was breathing, but too

warm. Maybe something was wrong. Maybe all the modifications

he'd gotten were burning him up.

In the hallway, Umer followed the smells of food--nothing

like the meals he used to smell in the dungeons, during the

bacchanalian feasts, but something passable. He entered a dining

room which contained one very long table lined with children.

Two young people a little older than the others were sitting on

the opposite end of the table, holding hands. The boy was maybe

fourteen and the girl thirteen. The others eleven or twelve at

the most.

A little girl stood up. She waved her hand at Umer. She ran

toward him and threw herself up at him. He caught the little

ball of energy.

"Is your name God?"

Umer found the question too perplexing to answer.

"I heard Mother saying 'God, God, God' last night. And you

are the only new one here."

Umer set the girl down. He beamed a look at Lucinda, who

was ignoring the conversation, though the blush in her cheeks

betrayed the fact that she'd heard.

"Sit and eat children. New Friend and I have to discuss

something in private," Lucinda told the crowd of children.

They obeyed, with some additional prodding from the two

oldest. Lucinda motioned and once again Umer followed.

In the bathroom again, Lucinda gave him back his gun.

"I will vouch for your humanity."

Umer couldn't believe it. This was the unless... he had

never allowed himself to hope for. Outbound slipliners would

take any robot who was vouched for by an OCB controller. Only no

one had ever heard of it happening. Even with his mods, his

illegal knowledge, and everything else--this woman vouching for

his humanity cleared him. It was a free pass off this world, to

another place. His choosing.


"Because of what you're going to do for me."

"And what is that?"

"You're going to take those children with you."

"Surely they don't need me," he said, confused. "You're

afraid of sending them out alone?"

She shook her head. She showed him a device he had never

seen before. "Watch."

She led him back down the hall. At the door to the dining

room, she stopped. Umer could hear the sound of the children

through the door. They were laughing, eating, and enjoying life

like no robot could.

Lucinda entered a code on the pad. The noise on the other

side of the door ceased suddenly. Umer heard a plate crash to

the ground and smash into atoms. Lucinda opened the door.

The oldest boy held a spoon of gruel. It dripped slowly off

his spoon, landing on his lap. He was frozen in that pose. One

child was frozen with a complex mixture of laughter and

disbelief painted on her face.

Umer entered the room. He put his hand on a child's face.

The face was warm to the touch, lifelike. He put his hand on the

boy's chest. Warm, but no warmer than a normal human. But the

child's joints were stiff, his body frozen.

"Robot children?" Umer tried to envision an explanation,

but couldn't. "How?"

"I'm a stupid old woman is how. I got so tired of the

killing and the death, I joined the NATO-Gov-Ops to try to help

put an end to the war. I was young. I though I could single-

handedly save Earth. We could end the war, get Federation

membership once and for all."

She entered the room. She touched a small girl's hair. She

kissed it lightly. "We made them as decoys to fight the PAC."

"I never knew that."

"No one did. Because I didn't let it happen. I made excuses

why the project wasn't ready. The truth was they are the best,

most human robots ever made. Human eyes, human organs. Neural

nets buried in simulated brain tissue."

"Then send them Out," Umer said. "You don't need my help."

She shook her head.


"We've been hiding here for the last ten years. I'm scared.

If I signal the Outbound slipliners, it's like putting a flag

up. None of them will make it, because before they someone will

come in here and kill them."

"Weren't you afraid that I was here to kill them?"

She shrugged. "You're a robot. I can deal with robots." She

waved the device in her hand. "I was a designer. We all know

rumors of the multidimensional robots and Mind Brains designed

by the Machine Intelligence that supposedly powers the

slipliners and communication centers in the Federation, but here

on Earth, robots are not made for those functions. They're made

to look human. For that, I was the best. I could shut you off

now. I could reprogram you. Yes, even with all your mods. But I

would destroy the work you've done. You're close."

Umer nodded, understanding.

"Close to being able to pass, you mean?"


"I still don't understand."

"It's like you said, Umer. You can convince them, through

your humanity. You know you're a robot. You know what you'd have

to do to make them believe that you will not hurt them. Even

with me vouching for you, you will have to convince them. I will

help you learn what you don't yet know. Once you are Outbound,

you will teach them."

"They don't know they are robots, do they," Umer asked.

Lucinda could only shake her head. "And they can't. I can't

tell them. They can't know until they are away." She burst into

tears. "They can't know until they are far enough away from me

never to look at me and accuse me with their eyes. I can't bear

to feel their hatred on me."

Umer lifted Lucinda up into his arms and hugged her while

the unanimated children sat frozen, staring at them. "I will try

to help. As best I can."

* * *

That night, Lucinda sent out word for an Outbound

slipliner. Number of passengers: 12. She gave details only of

Umer. She hoped it would be enough to keep them hidden. She then

put the children to sleep, and again deactivated them. She told

them in the morning a ship would come in about a week and take

them away. She cried as she put them to sleep. The ship would
take a month, at least, to arrive. But to them, it would be less


The next day, Umer began lessons. There was much to learn

and little time. Lucinda first set him up on breathing

exercises. He had to learn to breath consistently. He had the

equipment for breathing, but lacked the training to use it

properly. For hours, while she tended to her infirm in the

hospital above, he breathed.

When Lucinda was satisfied with his breathing exercises,

which she tested by laying next to him all night long. If he

stopped for even an instant, she would awaken. Her ability was

uncanny. Years of training in developing the robots to be human

she told him as they made love.

Umer learned that it could be good. For all his negative

associations, all his experiences, he could found he could enjoy

sex, and that he still had things to learn. He had to learn to

be vulnerable, to connect with the other person's vulnerability.

At night he learned intimate connection with someone he came to

knew very well. In the day, he learned how to have compassion

with strangers. He began to help Lucinda in the infirmary,

nursing the sick, comforting the dying. He wore a mask and

pretended to take precautions against their diseases, though he

had nothing to fear from any organic virus or bacteria.

The time passed, longer than they had promised. A month

came and went, then two. Lucinda began to worry that they

weren't coming at all. Umer comforted her. They would come. They

would be there very soon.

She was worried, but happy at his progress. She told him he

was human. He wouldn't even need the voucher. He would pass

without. In fact, it was a good idea for him to keep the voucher

a secret as long as possible. The voucher would bias them.

"Teach them to love you, to need you with your humanity. If

it comes down to showing them the voucher or being ejected into

space, show them."

Umer nodded, understanding. "How long should I wait to tell

the children?"

"One week. No longer. They will need to know soon. You will

have much to teach them. They will be shocked. They will hate

me. Tell them everything. Then teach them everything."

Umer nodded. He kissed Lucinda. That night, while they made

love, the lights on the communication boards switched from red

to blue. The slipliner was near.

* * *

Lucinda woke the children when she saw the array of blue

lights. They had a week, maybe less, before the slipliner

Umer had other worries. That morning also brought back

feelings of dread in Umer. He remembered his train trip and the

man he called Goldilocks when he exited the OCB that morning and

found a single strand of golden hair on the steps. He knew it

had been no accident. Goldy was letting him know he was still

around, waiting.

Lucinda insisted it was a coincidence, that they were too

close to fail. Umer was worried. He scouted the area, looking

for some hint of the man, but found nothing. Goldilocks was

nearby, but too well hidden. Umer patrolled at night, looking,

watching, planning their escape. The slipliner would land out,

away from the buildings, in a space of open ground. They would

have to cross the mostly barren zone to get to the ship. There

were several crumbling buildings they could use as cover. They

would have to keep as much brick between them and the main part

of town as they could. If Goldilocks had a sniper rifle, they

would be easy pickings as they crossed the savannah.

The boy, who's name was Todd, warmed to Umer quickly. Umer

knew that the boy would be valuable when they got on the

slipliner. Umer would tell Todd the truth first. Todd would help

him teach the younger ones.

Umer didn't sleep, and showed no after effects from his

lack of sleep. Lucinda was worried.

"You can't do this on the slipliner. Not sleeping will be a

dead giveaway."

"I'll be okay. I'll sleep when we are on the ship."

"Umer, these habits will get you and the children killed."

"Lucinda, you have to trust me."

* * *

The slipliner came into view over East Pittsburgh and

caused a little commotion, but not of people coming to see, of

people evacuating. Slipliners were considered bad luck to

Scavengers and Christers. Some people thought slipliners came to

capture people and put them into slavery. They saw the people

who willingly left via the OCBs as sucker who would be sold into

slavery as soon as the doors closed.

Umer watched the slipliner descend. The first wall they

could use for cover was seventy-three yards from the OCB door.

The next was another twenty-five yards. They would be in the

clear after that. The first seventy-three yards would be the

worst. If they were going to be attacked, Umer felt it would be

in that first leg.

He scanned the area, checking the buildings, but found no

trace of Goldilocks. He felt no comfort in this. The man was

there, hiding somewhere. Umer was certain.

Umer went inside the OCB. Lucinda was there with the

children, wishing them a goodbye.

Umer pulled her aside and gave her his gun. "You'll need

this. I won't be able to take it on the slipliner."

"No, Umer."

"That gun you have is more likely to blow up in your face.

When is the last time you used it?"

She shook her head. "It doesn't even have ammunition. I

hate death. I hate war. I hate it all. I won't take your gun."

"The HKs might come for you, when word reaches them that

this is where you are. They won't care that the kids escaped.

They'll come to punish you."

"I don't care, Umer. I've lived long. If you and the

children escape, then whatever happens to me will have been

worth it. Only the hope that I could somehow get the children

off this planet has kept me going all this time."

Umer kissed her. She kissed back. "Come with us."

"I can't."

The ground shook. The slipliner had landed.

"Go. They won't wait long."

Umer hesitated. How could he leave her? But he knew he had

to. She wanted it this way. He had to help the children. Maybe

they wouldn't make it without him. Umer stood by the door to the

OCB. He opened it.

He squatted a moment, waiting. Todd put a hand on his

shoulder. "I know you're a robot, Mr. Umer."

Umer froze. He looked at Todd. "How?"

"Mother Lucinda told us. Don't worry. I won't tell anyone.

To me, you are a human."

Umer looked the boy in the eye. His words caught in his

throat. He wanted to tell Todd the truth, but couldn't. Time was

short. There would be plenty of time in space. Time enough.

Umer broke out. He drew his weapon, scanning the building.

No shots came. He motioned for Todd to bring the children out.

They broke in a single-file line for the first shelter.

Seventy-three yards.

When the last child was past him. Umer spun. Lucinda was at

the door, face wet.

"Lock the door. Don't open it for anyone."

She nodded, but he knew she would emerge again someday. The

infirm nearby needed her. The door closed. Umer sprinted across

the savannah, keeping low. The children huddled behind the

shelter like he'd shown them the previous day. Umer reached the

wall and spun. He aimed, looking for a glint of metal, something

that would signal a rifle scope, some indication that Goldy was

onto them.

Nothing happened. Umer motioned for the children to go.

They made the next cover. Umer looked back. Something was

wrong. Something wasn't sitting right in his gut. They were

close now. They were practically home free.

But something was wrong.

Then Umer saw it. A man emerged from the infirmary, dressed

in the rags of the infirm. The man had his head shaved to look

sick. Umer recognized him as a man he'd helped, a man who had

been there as long as he, suffering, sick, coughing blood.

All an act. It was Goldilocks. His head shaved. He'd been

there the whole time, biding his time, waiting for the

opportunity. He wasn't coming for them at all. He was making

straight for the OCB.

Had Lucinda locked the door? He had a feeling she hadn't.

Goldy didn't need to attack them outright. He could go into the

OCB, kill Lucinda, and tell the slipliner the truth. They would

jettison Umer and the children before they were even out of the

Earth's atmosphere, voucher or no.

Umer grabbed Todd. "Wait here. Lucinda is in trouble."

"No, Umer. Don't leave us."

"I have to."

"Please. We won't know how to pass."

Umer looked Todd over. "You know?"

The boy nodded.

"The others?"

Todd shook his head.

"Wait here, Todd. There will be other slipliners. Wait here

for me. If the ship leaves, wait."

Umer sprinted across the sand as quickly as he could, which

was plenty fast. He hit the door of the OCB. Locked. He punched

in the code. 6817. She had known then what he was even then, he

remembered. She had told him the code on the first day. She had

let him hear it. She wanted this.

The door clicked. It didn't matter her motivation, Umer

needed her. He burst through the door. Down the hall he ran, gun

extended. He went through the door. He saw golden locks of curly

hair reflecting in the artificial sunlight. Umer fired, turning

gold into crimson.

He held his breath as the scene birthed itself to him.

Golden locks of hair. Her hair. He saw the rictus of surprise

painted on her face as she fell.

But no.

That was a bad memory. The figure fell to the floor. A

man's face. Surprise yes, and the face was effeminate, but a

man's face none-the-less. The golden locks hadn't been shaved,

but hidden.

Shaking, Umer dropped his gun. Lucinda was cowering by the

oven in her ancient kitchen, her white hair undone, flowing down

her back. Untouched.

She looked up to Umer. "I couldn't do it. I couldn't die at

the end. I called for you. To come and save me. 'Umer,' I said.

'Please come.' And you came."

Umer spread his arms. She ran to them and embraced him. The

ground shook. She looked up at him.

"The children."

The went to the door. The children were gone. They had gone

on their own.

"They won't make it," she said. "They will be found out."

"No," Umer said. "Todd knew. He figured it out on his own.

If he can figure that out, he can teach himself what he needs to

know. You said it yourself that no one knows of any children

robots. The slipliner won't be suspicious."

"I'll send a signal in the next cycle, Umer. We'll get you

off the planet on your own."

Umer embraced her. "I don't need to go. You need my help

here. You taught me how to be human, now it's all I want."

He kissed her.

She touched his chest. It felt normal. He was breathing

hard from exertion.

"Maybe we taught each other," she said.