The Moment in the Bar
Not a single customer had walked through the door today.
Paisley Park was not some sort of out-of-the-way watering hole. Laura was in prime real estate here, and even on a Tuesday afternoon there would be a few drinkers littering the bar. She turned around and filled in the details, adjusting her gaze so they all appeared to pop right into her world. There were three off-duty cops, still in uniform, each with a Pabst and each trying to one-up each other with stories from their days at the Two-Seven. Here in front of her are a half-dozen college kids from the dorms down the street; they gather here some days and ask her to play old cartoons, attempting to grasp the last remaining fragments of pure childhood before they’re thrust into a cruel world where alcohol is used for salve rather than celebration. And in the back there’s one lonely soul from the “old neighborhood,” a perpetual drunk with heartbroken eyes and more wrinkles than a Shar Pei. He was the one who walked over to her and demanded that she never get as old as he felt. She said that she never could.
They were all gone today. Horrible weather and the general strike had left this corner of the world deserted. Laura was alone with a stack of films and the steady drip of the rain. Clue had given way to Repo Man had led to Flashdance. The mix of DVDs left behind the counter were those she had spent hours watching with Steven, ones from her initial cultural programming, and titles she had heard in passing but never witnessed for herself. On days like today she tried to catch at least one of each. She would revisit a past which was much shorter than her appearance suggested and then fill in the gaps where her knowledge was lacking. She always attempted to pass muster as what the world saw: white, late twenties, Midwest-raised and Northeast-educated. Fidgety. Tomboyish. Outwardly confident with a sensitive and occasionally doubtful bent.
She was sure it was all in a file somewhere, the full breakdown of who she was when she was first activated. There had to be documentation about every part of her. She never wanted to see it. She’d been out in the world for a while. She was something else entirely.
Laura pulled one of the bottles out of the well behind the bar, looking at it for a moment. It was a putrid gin, the kind that one could buy at Costco at three bucks a gallon. The alcohol didn't often matter when hidden underneath mixer after mixer; her customers were therefore lucky that she had gained a reputation for complex, damn-near-labyrinthine cocktails during her time in this bar. The drinks had become somewhat of a sensation, along with Laura herself, when she was featured on the front cover of the local alternative weekly wearing a Tinkerbell costume, pouring a genuine Flaming Moe and serving it up over the bar in defiance of the laws of both God and the State. That Halloween night of complex and irresponsible mixology had brought Laura a minimal amount of local fame, albeit more than she had ever imagined, and even garnered her a nickname: “The Pixie of Paisley Park.” With the trend to make nicknames out of nicknames, that moniker got shortened to “Pix,” and then finally “11,” after the local television station’s call letters.
Her fingers involuntarily flexed into a ball the first time she heard that. Her serial number started with 11. There it was again, that pull between her outward humanity and her machine self. She told everyone that she preferred Pix. If they had to call her anything, call her Laura or “New York’s Movie Station.”
Not surprisingly, it stayed Pix.
She sighed, considering making herself a drink. If this weather kept up she wouldn’t see another soul for a few hours, and she had her fill of movies for the day. Drinking would help alleviate boredom, but it wouldn’t do anything to her. One of the perks, or maybe one of the drawbacks, of being a robot. Alcohol had no effect on her, and she hadn’t needed to simulate drunkenness since she first met her husband. Still, if she was going to pass the time, why waste the booze? Instead she pulled a thermos out of her bag, a missile-shaped thing with LED indicators up and down the side. She carried it with her all the time, but she barely ever had a chance to use it. The clear sludge that poured from the container would arouse suspicion. Not that anyone would know what it was; not too many people are actively involved with the care and maintenance of an artificial person. Still, everyone would know enough to wonder why she was carrying around a futuristic canister of what looked like simple syrup in her bag.
She poured it out into a pint glass, shooting it down faster than a human ever could. The effects took hold immediately, covering her aching joints in a sudden cool sensation. She really should do this more often. She was treated no differently in the outside world, but she had to remember that she was a machine. She had to be maintained, oiled, recharged, serviced, broken down, arranged into tiny pieces, reprogrammed, reminded that she was owned—
Laura reached out for the bar, grasping the tiled counter as hard as she could to steady herself. Occasionally her fantasies would get the better of her, sending her into a loop from which it was hard to escape. It did not look so different from a human daydreaming, but with her perfect recall and sensory programming being what it was it could be a much more intense experience. Ever since she had revealed herself to her husband these fantasies had become their reality: every delicious thought in her head, every possible combination of her metal body and his hands had played out in the bedroom. She had been the maid, a programmable hooker, the robot double that had “replaced” his wife, the perfect lover he had built to his exact specifications, even one of those animatronics dummies on a ride at Disneyworld. She had loved it all.
It was freeing being what she was…no, having him know what she was. Being able to share that with someone she loved dearly was as grand as it could get. But she knew she had to keep up appearances outside. Those feedback loops were just daydreams. Her lunch? No, she already ate. Booze? No thanks, she’s working. Anything to make sure the world believed she was a woman and nothing else.
The girl at the door must have seen Laura snap out of it. She was looking down at the bartender’s hand, the hard yet unsure grip on the counter. The first customer of the day could have come at a better time.
Laura watched the girl inch to the bar. She moved in slow, unsure steps, as if she was still getting used to the motions. Her flame-red hair with the gold streak in front could probably be seen from space, but this defiant choice of coif was the only confident thing about her. She maybe weighed ninety pounds soaking wet…which she was.
“Good afternoon.” Her voice came out steady. Laura wondered if the girl was a native speaker; the girl’s features spoke of some Asian ancestry, but definitely several generations removed.
“Welcome to Paisley. What can I get you?”
The girl thought for three whole seconds. To Laura’s brain this was an eternity. “Vodka Soda? Those on Happy Hour?”
Laura smirked. Everyone watching their wallets. “Four dollars. I’ll just need to see your ID.”
The girl fished for it, digging into her pocket as Laura made the drink. She held out the driver’s license, a New Mexico issue, for just a moment before pulling it back. Something behind Laura had grabbed her attention.
It was the sign. No one had really mentioned it in a while; honestly, Laura had forgotten it was there. It was a tin relic, something the boss had put up when they first moved into the space. It read, in big block letters: “Mother wants you to call home.”
Laura watched the girl’s hand as it contracted. “Is everything okay?”
The girl scrambled for an answer. “Oh! Oh, yes. I…my own—fiancé…his grandfather fought in Vietnam. I saw the sign and—“
“Operation Frequent Wind.”
“My pop-in-law was in the 107th. I know how it is.” Laura smiled and coaxed the ID to her with a welcoming motion of her hand. The girl softened, handing it over.
Laura looked at it for a long time. Charlotte Ross. Punto Verde, New Mexico. May 12, 1987. The ID wasn’t a fake, but there was no way this girl was anywhere over nineteen.
Laura looked up into Charlotte’s eyes. It took her less than a second.
This girl isn’t human.
It took Charlotte a fraction more.
“…You’re not either?”
The women stared at each other, wondering what the next moment would bring.