Ping

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He never thought it would get here, end with him searching through missing persons reports from all over the country. This application of the internet was not one he had ever planned on using. Here he was sorting through Google results from every little town in all forty-eight contiguous states, hoping for some kind of report that she had turned up safe, or at least in one piece. Her name, a message, some kind of reach out to him. He even looked at every Jane Doe, hoping against hope that one would jump out at him as familiar.


He knew that he wouldn't recognize her on sight. She probably had a brand new form by now, something that would never be spotted by anyone close to her. That was the point in running away. She left her body behind. He had found it laying prone in the kitchen, pushed up onto the counter with a note pinned to its bare chest.


"Dave, I'm sorry. I have to do this. I've hitched a ride in another 'bot's mind, and I don't know where I'm going to go from there. I'll find my own way. I'll be back. I love you. --C."


That was ten months ago. Not a word since.


To the outside world, she was at best an experiment, and at worst disposable property. She had a will of her own, a mind that dazzled; more of her kind were like that than anyone realized, or rather cared to admit. To Dave and those closest to him she was family. She was a person. They would have done anything for her. Dave backtracked: they would still do anything for her. Because she was out there. She was going to come home. She told him that she was coming home.


It was nearly midnight. He had been up for too long, and he had barely slept the night before. This was the routine. He got home from work, or from whatever nominal social interaction he had that night, and he went to the computer to start searching. The TV was on, but he rarely paid attention. He didn't eat, only scarfing down a meal when his sister or a concerned friend dropped by with Chinese food and beer. They would sit with him and try to talk about anything else, but then the conversation would invariably turn back to Charlotte. It turned out, unsurprisingly, that they all missed her, that they all harbored that horrible fear that she had gotten herself destroyed.


But everyone was willing to help. "Where are you going next?" Dave thanked the lord that he had so many friends who traveled for work; it helped in the search. They'd talk about the next destinations, the likelihood that she would be there, whether she'd even respond. In the last few months they had covered so much ground: the lawyer had gone to San Francisco, the actress to New York, the baseball scout to Vero Beach, the salesman to Dallas, the banker to Minneapolis. Everywhere they went they tuned into the frequency Dave said Charlotte always had open. She left one emergency channel on which she could always be contacted.


They asked for a message. "What would she know? What's the signal?" It took him a moment. He had to dig back through all the days since she had first been activated, the moment she first opened her eyes and asked for a name, through every single thing they had done from that moment until she had disappeared. "Tell her...'Mother wants you to call home.' Then play this tune."


Dave had settled on Soul Asylum. Songs about runaway children to bring back a robot on some kind of vision quest. Everyone laughed because Charlotte was going to laugh. She'd think the pathos--no, the schmaltz--of the piece was just too much, and she would laugh up a storm at the silly humans.


Then everyone would breathe a sigh of relief. She was home. She was safe. "We missed you so much." "Don't ever do that again." "Have your body back. It fits you too well."


Dave was still waiting for that moment.


<<Assface, are you still awake?>>


One in the morning. His sister, half a world away, rousing him through text.


<< I know you're there text me right now. >>


His phone let out horrid chirp-chirp noises every time a text came in from her. It was a substitute for Donna's up-and-down excited bounce of urgency, the kind that text can never adequately express.


--Hey, Young'un. What's the noise?--


<<We have to fly to Memphis next week for some corporate thing. Do you want me to check for her while I'm there?>>


Memphis. He was trying to remember if they had looked there. He couldn't remember where he had put his notes last time, whether it had been a few months or last week or never--


<<Stop looking for your notes.>>


Damn. She was a pain, but she knew. She always knew.


--Yes. Check. Please. Same song, same frequency.--


<<We'll find her. Don't worry.>>


--I know, Donna.--


<< I miss her too. >>


--I know.--


<<Get some sleep. And turn off the computer, okay? Loves you.>>


--Love right back. I will.--


He put down the phone and went back to staring at his Google results. It was barely any use now; the reports were just dots on a map, an odd jumble of words, a swirl of pixels on a screen floating in the dark. His thoughts went not to where she is now but rather why she wasn't there when he woke up that morning. Was this her rebellious stage? Was she running away for good, despite what she wrote in the letter? Was this all to find herself?


She wasn't going to find herself, but that's not something you can tell anyone. There's no moment of epiphany. You just keep living until it piles on, until you're buried under your experiences, and somewhere in that avalanche of memory you become something more. Maybe that's hard to explain to a woman who from birth is fully formed, who never grows physically and therefore finds it difficult to grow mentally.


These were the conversations he should have had with her when she was here. If he was going to make her a functional part of the house he should have explained what it's like to be part of a family. Should have thought forward before--


There was a clanking sound. Metal on metal. Industrial. It was on his phone, but it had been so long since he heard it that it barely registered. That noise was reserved for Charlotte. That was her sound for texts. He looked down at his phone, scared to pick it up for fear that it would be a false alarm. His fingers grasped the device and flipped it over, handling it like it was hot to the touch.


A single line on the screen.


<<Mother. I'm ready to call home.>>



Forwards to The Moment in the Bar. Change tracks to The First Moment in Her Head or The Moment When.


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