Tina and Jimmy picked their way down the shattered, long-abandoned railway line. It had become overgrown with sinewy red-veined, purple-leaved plants which coiled out from the mossy ground and feasted on the jumble of twisted iron and shards of old broken wood stretching out in front of them. It was oppressively hot, the air so thick with humidity it seemed to mute the buzzing chorus of the cicadas that drifted in from across the sub-tropical lushness of the surrounding wooded fields. The brown, hotdog-shaped heads of the tall bulrushes lining the track nodded gently as if fighting off the urge to sleep.
Tina eyed Jimmy, peripherally. It unnerved him when she stared at him, a habit which she had caught herself doing often. He was a pale, scrawny boy. At fifteen, he was two years younger than her. His head was crowned with a chaotic thicket of shoulder-length brown hair. His hands were shoved deep in the pockets of his shorts, his shoulders rounded from too much time hunched in front of his computers. Semi-autistic, he was silently mouthing numbers as he walked and concentrated on what, she could only guess, was another complex algorithm he was working out. Quiet and different, he was shunned, if not bullied, by the other boys in Outpost 68 who she, on the other hand, was extremely popular with.
“Why do you hate them so much?” Jimmy had once asked her. “It’s just because you’re so pretty.”
“All they want to do is get in my pants,” she had said with a dismissive wave of her hand.
That was a fairly accurate assessment. It also explained why a lot of the other girls mistrusted her or outright hated her. Jimmy and Tina were outcast by their peers for entirely different reasons. Ironically, disinterested Jimmy was the only one to have ever gotten into Tina’s pants and that was after weeks of her gently coaxing him into them. He had looked so frightened and vulnerable the first time and pleaded with her to help him because he did not know what to do. She had always adored him for his undiluted frankness. In fact, she had grown to adore most everything about him; her troubled, dark, fearsomely brilliant savant. The fact that his autism usually prevented him from expressing his own feelings did not bother her too much. Strangely, it almost made her love him even more.
Jimmy suddenly stopped jawing his formulations and cocked his head skyward. She had already heard the subtle sound of the cloaked bomber drones soaring overhead, high up in the stratosphere, but had not wanted to interrupt him. “Hear that?” he asked anxiously, more to himself than to her. A moment later, the bulrushes appeared to snap to attention as the ground shook through the muffled thudding sound of Peacemaker Plasma Missiles. They were targeting encroaching rebel positions in the distance and left a haze of greasy smoke smeared across the blue horizon. “PPMs. They’re closing in. The Kingdom may soon fall.”
“I don’t want your doom and gloom today, Jimmy,” she said hautily, taking his hand in hers and rubbing his forearm gently with the other. “We’re going to beat these fucking mutants in the end. The perimeter will hold. It has to. We’re all that’s left of what’s human.”
“Half the population is Symbots,” muttered Jimmy, wincing. He always winced when she swore which meant he was wincing most of the time he was with her.
“Sure, but they’re almost human compared to the fucking mutants,” she said.
“We’ve talked about this before,” he said grumpily. “They may have mostly human bodies that grow and age. Okay. Fine. But their brains are computers, Tina. They are awesome biocomputers but Symbots don’t feel anything. We can program them to talk to us like humans and make stupid jokes. But that’s it. The mutants are still human enough to hate us, to go to war… to… to feel pain.”
“Whatever. Some say Symbots could be programmed to feel one day.”
“Right,” snorted Jimmy derisively, “the algorithm for a basic thought vector is insanely complex. An emotion vector is impossible. The coding. It just can’t be done.”
“I guess you’re right,” sighed Tina absently. “Ah, here it is, finally” she said as she guided Jimmy over to a small opening to a mossy path that led down, through thick steaming forest, to an arterial web of bayous. As they trudged down the path, startled creatures chirped, sniffed, hissed, and scampered as if some horrific juggernaut was approaching. A two-headed hummingbird, blown in from The Wastes beyond the perimeter, hovered in front of Tina’s face as she walked and eyed her quizzically. Brushing it aside as they reached the water’s edge, she was relieved to see the rickety old boat still tethered a few meters downstream. “I always think some asshole might have found it and taken it when we come out here,” she said, happily. “Don’t look at me like that!” she laughed as she caught him casting her a withering sidelong glance.
A few minutes later, they were paddling down the snaking bayou. The crumbling gray trunks of sticky cypress trees jutted up all around them from deep within the riverbed. Damp, misshapen leaves drooped carelessly from the maze of dangling branches, close to their heads, as if surrendering to some deep, unknowable lament. The bow of the boat sloshed quietly through the stagnant water, its surface coated in a thick film of slimy, radioactive emerald-green algae. Although cancer, and virtually all other diseases, had been eradicated over the past decades, it would still be ill-advised to swim in this water given the nature of the creatures that lurked beneath its surface. “What’s that?” asked Jimmy, abruptly, pointing to a dark patch awkwardly splayed in the hectic vegetation of the shoreline.
“Let’s check it out,” said Tina, a slight waver of nervousness in her voice as she redirected the boat. “Holy fuck!” she said breathlessly as they jumped out of the boat and approached the dead body. “It’s a soldier who… who…”
“Shot himself in the head,” said Jimmy in rapt fascination as he examined the entry and exit wounds of the bullet. The latter had blown out a grapefruit-sized hole in the left side of the soldier’s cranium. The delicate white petals of the surrounding magnolias were decorated with flecks of blood, brain tissue, and crimson-stained skull and tooth fragments. The mouth yawned open in a mess of dried black blood. Clear, gray eyes reflected the lazy wisps of cloud overhead; the face a strained mask of yearning and hopelessness. “Check the leathers and insignia. This guy was a high-ranking officer.”
“Wow!” exclaimed Jimmy suddenly.
“I was wondering why they haven’t come to get him. Check it out. He’s got a really old EM Railgun that the Special Forces used to use. Look – he actually had the option to switch off the tracker. See? There’s the switch.”
“Cool!” said Tina, excitedly, wrenching the gun from the dead soldier’s hand, powering it on, and examining it intently.
“Hey!” cried Jimmy. “You can’t play with that! That’s the property of the Kingdom!?!”
“The tracker is off, Jimmy,” she said, rolling her eyes. “Just like you said. So, no one’s coming. Ah, fuck!”
“What?” asked Jimmy, craning his neck over Tina’s shoulder, his dark eyes a storm of apprehension and excitement.
“Look. There are only two bullets left. I was hoping we could blast away at some stuff but let’s just save them.”
“What? You… you’re not going to… you’re not actually going to take it are you?!”
“Fucking right I am. I’ve always wanted a gun. Just in case.”
“Just in case of what?”
“Just in case of anything, Jimmy,” she said in exasperation. “If you haven’t noticed, we don’t exactly live in a safe world.”
“Fine, but I still don’t think you can just steal the property of the Kingdom. You’re in so much trouble if you’re caught with that. You know that!”
“I’ll take my chances,” she said with determined finality as she shoved the gun down the back of her pants, and pulled her shirt over top of it. Now let’s get deeper into the woods. I want you to fuck me.”
“I don’t know if I can today,” he said, his words catching hoarsely in the back of his throat.
“What’s that matter?” she asked putting his arm around his waist.
“Ow!” he whimpered, pushing her hand away.
“Not again!” she cried as she pulled up his shirt. “Oh, my God!” she gasped as she examined the deep welts that crisscrossed his back. Oh, no! No! Fuck no! Fuck this! What did he hit you with, Jimmy“?
“I don’t know”, he said, embarrassed, large tears welling up in his eyes. “Something he pulled out of the engine of his Ranger. He couldn’t fix something that was wrong with it. I only asked him if he wanted a glass of water. He looked so hot and angry.”
“Oh, Jimmy!” She pulled his shirt up over his head, threw it to the ground, and started kissing the wounds gently, one-by-one. He moaned in pain when she tried to touch his penis through his shorts.
“What the fuck?!” she said frowning as she unbuttoned his shorts and pulled them and his underpants down. “Oh, my fucking God! What the hell did he do?!”
“He… he almost bit it off. He was just… so angry.”
“I can’t believe this shit!”
“Tina,” he said, as he focused intently on absolutely nothing over her shoulder, “he’s going to kill me. It’s just a matter of time. He said it right in front of my mother. She said nothing. I’m going to die soon.” She stared at him. Looked deep into his wild, haunted eyes and knew that this boy she loved so much truly felt he was imminently doomed. And then, as she pulled his shorts and underpants back up, she made a decision.
“Jimmy,” she said, as she placed his hand beneath her left breast. “Can you feel my heart beating?”
“It beats for you. Can you feel me breathing?” she asked as she placed his other hand on her throat. “Can you feel my pulse?”
“Yes. What are you doing?”
“Can you feel this?” she asked as she moved his hand and shoved it up under her skirt where her vagina was damp.
“What are you doing? I can’t.”
“Do you believe that I love you?”
“Yes! Yes! But why are you asking me these things?!”
“I’m trying to make sure that you know that I can feel. I can feel everything. I love you and I hate your stepfather. I hate your mother even more. I feel sad. And I’m sad because you’re hurt.”
“Okay, okay,” he said, kicking grumpily at some imagined irritation on the ground.
“I’ve been lying to you.”
“Look into my eyes,” she said taking his face in her hands. “This is who I am”.
Her eyes turned Symbot orange and glowed as numbers began racing across her suddenly dilated pupils.
Although he was shocked to the point that he felt like there were suddenly hundreds of tiny insects racing across the inside of his skull, he was not afraid and did not move. “Wow!” he almost shouted as he studied the combinations which integrated numeric values with symbols he had never seen before.
“You’re not mad at me?” she asked, tearily, her eyes blurring like amber traffic lights through the rain.
“No! No! Not at all!” he protested, clearly awestruck. “Don’t cry! I can’t see who you are if you start crying!” His dopey honesty made her cry even more and she threw her arms around him and sobbed into his shoulder “I thought you were going to hate me.”
“Why would I?” he asked. “But… I… That’s not code. It’s totally unbelievable. I mean… What is that?”
“I was part of a special project,” she said, as she pulled away to explain, her glistening eyes going back to normal.
“No! No! Don’t turn them off! I want to see! Please!” he pleaded.
“Don’t worry. I’m going to show you the whole sequence. I know your gift. I know you’ll be able to remember it. Then you’ll truly know me. Know exactly who I am on this day.”
“What do you mean, on this day?”
“The sequence is evolving every day. Growing almost organically. You don’t even remember how unemotional I was when we first met, do you? Mr. Head-in-the-Clouds!”
“Maybe a bit,” he said sullenly. “But how? Tell me how?”
“The Kingdom hadn’t authorized the project and didn’t know anything about it. It was me, two other girls and three boys. I don’t know what the science was, Jimmy. All I know is they used stem cells to stimulate thought vectors which would teach themselves more advanced vectors, including the emotion vectors you said were impossible. And, actually, you were kind of right. The experiment was mostly a failure. As we grew up, we weren’t that much different from any other Symbots. We had slightly higher functioning and our vectors did evolve a bit. But we could only copy some simple emotions – not actually feel them. Anyway, the chief engineer, his whole team, and the 6 of us kids were traveling to a faraway lab beyond Death River to try some radical treatment to jumpstart the process. Our ship never made it. We flew into a radioactive lightning shower and got hit many times. I don’t remember anything about going down or the crash. I just remember waking up, thrown from the wreck, and still strapped in my pod. When I found that everyone else was dead, something happened to me…”
“What? What?!” asked Jimmy riveted.
“I could feel my coding was changing fast. I sensed something that I didn’t understand at the time. I later learned it was sadness, pain… loss.”
“What did you do?”
“We had no tracker implants so I just walked for two days until I found a refugee camp in the Sandy Marshes. No Symbot child in rags would just show up at a refugee camp, dazed and confused, in the middle of nowhere. There was no question I was human. So, after a few months in the camp, I was adopted and ended up here.”
“Ended up here,” murmured Jimmy, his voice trailing off.
“Where I found you,” she said softly. “Do you want me to show you now? I want to.”
“Yes, I do,” he said with a tenderness in his voice that she had never heard before and, for the first time, he initiated physical contact by taking her hands in his. He stared into her eyes in anticipation as intense as raw sexual desire. And so they settled down into the dankness, oversized bullfrogs belching and splashing off out in the bayou. It took almost an hour for the entire sequence to run but it only needed four runs for Jimmy to have it fully committed to memory. “I got it,” he croaked, finally. “I’m sorry. I’m just so sorry,” he whimpered, as he buried his sweating forehead in the base of her throat.
“For what?” she asked quizzically, cupping his chin in her hand.
“I didn’t realize just how much you feel about me. I didn’t think anyone really loved me at all. What’s wrong with me, Tina?”
“You’re just different, Jimmy,” she said smiling, stroking the side of his face, and running her fingers through the mess of his hair. It was flecked with garishly colored seedpods that floated lazily through the wet air. She plucked a few of them out and flicked them away as she studied his bewildered face. “Just like me, my sweet savant.” Glancing over his shoulder, she frowned at the rapidly melting sun and the long fingers of black shadow cast by the spidery spines of the tree branches. “Fuck. We better get back. No moon tonight,” she muttered.
“I’m going to get it again,” said Jimmy bleakly. “Being this late with no Holochrome for them to reach me.”
“Fuck the Holochromes when we go out together,” she said fiercely. “Come on, let’s go.”
An hour later they were approaching Outpost 68. A kaleidoscope of flickering lights bounced off the bellies of low-lying cloud and distorted the outpost like some kind of shimmering mirage; a puddle of color splashed onto the heaving blackness of the surrounding countryside. She gripped his hand as he mouthed over and over again the code. Her code.
After clearing the checkpoint, they made their way to Jimmy’s place and stood in front in a wordless embrace. “It doesn’t bother you at all, does it?” asked Tina, breaking the silence. It was more of a statement than a question.
“What?” he asked, cocking his head.
“That you fucked a Symbot. You lost your virginity to a Symbot. That a Symbot loves you.”
“No! No… I’m… I can’t find my words,” he said in frustration, scratching the back of his neck. “I guess. I guess I’m just… I’m just lucky,” he blurted out with all of the sincere innocence of a young child.
“I am the lucky one, Jimmy,” she said, as she reached behind her, engaged the tracker on the Railgun, and scanned the doorbell. “Jimmy, look at me,” she said as the door silently slid open and Jimmy’s drunk stepfather appeared, a silhouette of twisted, seething rage. “Maybe someday, somehow, you can find a way back to me.”
“What?” he mumbled, confused, as Tina pulled out the Railgun and shot Jimmy’s stepfather clean in half, his torso flying into the vestibule in a bloody pulp, the legs left behind in the doorway twitching reflexively.
“No!” screamed Jimmy. “What are you doing?!”
“Saving you,” she said calmly as she turned the gun barrel around, put it in her mouth, and pulled the trigger.
12 years later
He had finally done it. She lay in front of him in the lab he had built in his apartment, her body exactly as he remembered it. The coding was done. He took her hand and held it tightly as he powered up the cells from the reactor. It took over 10 minutes but finally her eyes snapped open, at first Symbot orange and then the startling, sky-blue eyes she had been programmed with.
“What the FUCK?!” she shouted violently. “Where am I?! Who in the fuck are you?!”
“Take is easy, Tina,” he said gently. “It’s me.”
“It’s me. Jimmy.”
“Jimmy?” she croaked as she searched his face. “Oh, my God. It… It is you. But… but…”
“I’m twenty seven years old, Tina. It… well, it took a while.”
She sat upright on the stretcher. Lights blinked from the jumble of humming equipment crammed from floor to ceiling all around her. She held her trembling hands in front of her face. “You’re still seventeen,” he said, handing her a mirror. “I thought about aging you but I figured that would be more traumatizing than helpful for both of us.”
“God, you sound so… so grown up,” she said as she blinked at him and touched his cheek with the back of her hand. “You are all grown up. I can’t believe you found me. You found me!”
“I really wanted to see you before I go,” he said quietly.
“What do you mean, ‘go’?”
“I’m dying. No more than a month left.”
“What do you mean ‘dying’? That’s impossible!”
“To steal the technology I needed to make you, I joined a special weapons unit at the War Ministry. I was accidentally exposed to a lethal toxin. There’s no cure.”
“Oh, fuck. Oh, God. Why did you do that, Jimmy? Why did you risk your life for me?!”
“You sacrificed yours for mine,” he said matter-of-factly. “And I need to tell you something. It’s all I have thought about all these years”.
“What?” she asked, her voice quavering.
“You told me so many times that you loved me. I was so stuck in my autism and hormones and abuse. I didn’t know what I had. What was right there in front of me. I was so stupid. I never once told you but now I can. I love you, Tina. You can never understand just how much I have missed you. I was hoping you could maybe stay with me. Just until I go.”
She threw her arms around his neck exactly the way she had so many times before she died and whispered in his ear: “When you go, Jimmy, I’m coming with you.”