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Fiction

Waterbirds

Constable Kershaw has not uttered any overrides, nor issued a warrant to access her memory logs, but Celia understands nonetheless that she is expected to stay, to sit and answer his questions like a suspect. It surprises her, this treatment. Like she’s human.

“Are you chilly, Constable? Shall I light the fire?”

“Yeah, all right,” he says, removing his hat and settling into the armchair her employer always favours. Favoured.

Once the logs are crackling and spitting, the dank little sitting room quickly loses its early-morning pall; the permeating smells of brine from the beach and the mould lurking behind the bookcase retreat.

A teacup from last night still sits on the mantelpiece. The rim is marked by purple lipstick—Irene hasn’t been here, has she? Celia’s short-term memory drivers are old, her logs slow to recalibrate. She tidies the teacup away, aware of the constable’s gaze, and smooths the embroidered antimacassar draped over the back of the second armchair before taking a seat herself.

“How should I address you now?” Kershaw says, smoothing his moustache. “Mx.?”

With her employer Mrs. Lawson missing, presumed dead, the contract between them is terminated, and she is free to revert to her default settings. She may choose any name, any gender. But this employment was her longest, lasting two decades; indeed, without it, she would have been decommissioned long ago.

“Mrs. Lawson always called me Celia,” she replies, clasping her hands in her lap.

He cocks a brow. “You don’t owe her anything. She’s let you fall apart.”

She glances down at her hands, the frayed skin around her knuckles, and stays silent.

“All right. Celia.” He activates his notepad. “Tell me what happened this morning.”

He already knows—he asked the same question when they stood together and looked out at the garments strewn across the sand—but she recounts it for the sake of the official record: how she booted up at 5:38 a.m. after a full shutdown just as the sunrise struck the back of the cottage. She started making the usual breakfast only to find Mrs. Lawson’s bed untouched. The front gate was open; she’d heard the iron bolt tapping home against its sheath as it swung in the wind.

At 6:03 a.m., she grasped the rotting gate, stopping it mid-swing, and looked out at the mudflats that led down to the beach, and the Wash beyond. Sodden things frilled there like scuds of foam. White down feathers had blown about and got caught in the fleshy stalks of seablite growing between the fence posts. She plucked one and rubbed it between her fingers as she strode barefoot onto the cold sand.

The sodden things were the many layers of Mrs. Lawson’s clothes—her bed socks, her undergarments, her nightgown, her housecoat—shucked off and stepped out of, one by one. Where the sea licked the land, Celia found a messy blast of feathers like the ones seen on busy roads sometimes, or in coops after a fox has got in. There was no sign of blood.

“Where were you last night?”

Celia stares at the carpet. Recovering from a full shutdown has made her groggy.

“Where were you last night?” he repeats louder. “Are your ears as knackered as the rest of you? Respond.”

Not so human, then. “I was here with Mrs. Lawson.”

“Can anyone confirm that?”

She thinks of the teacup marked with purple lipstick. Shivers imperceptibly. Holds his gaze. “No.”

He sighs. “How long have you been coming here with Mrs. Lawson, Celia?”

He knows this as well, knows she remembers him as a cocksure teenager who, when he first saw her, said, You’re one of those fuckbots, right? When can I have a go, then? But he has to ask. For the official record.

“Twenty years, every May. She came alone before that.”

“Was there anything different about her this time?”

“She was ill. Tired from the journey. We only arrived yesterday.”

“Why’d she bother, then? There’s nothing for tourists here. Was she meeting someone?”

“I don’t know.”

The exchange has drawn him in, brought him to the edge of the armchair, but now he reclines with an invasive mixture of frown and smirk on his face. He rubs his temple. “I find it hard to believe she didn’t share this information with you, her Companion of twenty years. What services did you provide Mrs. Lawson, if she didn’t trust you with something like that? Was it physical?”

Celia kinks her neck. A shard of dry silicone snaps off. The question in his mouth feels dirty. “Many people withhold personal or sensitive data from their Companions, in case of a security breach; it’s not unusual. And Mrs. Lawson employed me for my social features. The exact duties stipulated in my contract and its amendments do not seem relevant to this investigation.”

“Don’t they? As her Companion, aren’t you responsible for your employer’s personal safety?”

“It depends on the contract.”

“Do you have it to hand?”

“No. The master copy is filed with Mrs. Lawson’s solicitor, and another copy archived with MxMill Incorporated.”

“Then I’ll need to see one to determine if your actions, or inactions, were malicious. Mrs. Lawson was a vulnerable woman with no family. If you’re found to have somehow broken your own protocols, you’ll be decommissioned. Do you understand?”

Celia nods and rises. “I no longer have instant mail functionality, but I can give you the contact ID for the solicitor. Would you like a cup of tea while we wait?”

He peers up at her suspiciously. “All right. I need to phone the sergeant anyway. But stay inside the house.”

The kitchen is almost bare, a typical holiday home. There’s an electric kettle and a packet of tea leaves on the ugly, outdated countertop, and a frying pan left over from breakfast, spotted with grease. Mrs. Lawson was not here to eat the eggs and bacon, and Celia can’t digest food like the newer MxMill models.

Perhaps Constable Kershaw would like them with his tea.

The thought comes automatically, unwanted, a manifestation of the constant urge to please that underpins her code. She strikes the heel of her palm against the countertop in frustration, the noise buried beneath the rattle of the pipes and the rush of water as she fills the kettle. It’s from the cold tap, so it’ll take longer to boil. She flicks it on.

You’re one of those fuckbots, right?

She splays her hands on either side of the sink and looks out of the grubby window at the mudflats. Dumpy little plovers wade in the watery crevasses that look like so many stretch marks in the sand.

And, byte by byte, she remembers—Irene. The train. What Mrs. Lawson has done.

• • • •

Exactly twenty years have passed since Mrs. Lawson first brought Celia to New Heacham—new, because the old Heacham had flooded when rising sea levels expanded the Wash. They rented this same cottage, as they always would, and spent a pleasant fortnight hiking along the coast—Mrs. Lawson was much younger then—and checking the progress of the migrating birds’ chicks as they shed their first feathers. Mrs. Lawson knew the nesting sites like the back of her hand. One species of waterbird in particular pleased Celia, and over the years Mrs. Lawson has taught her to appreciate its grace: the little egret, with its slim white plume, silly yellow feet, and dark, dark legs.

“They mate for life,” Mrs. Lawson said, watching one as it fished for molluscs. “They fly south in the summer, but they always return here, the same pair, to the same nest, every spring.”

When they came again to New Heacham, and then again, and again, and spent the same pleasant fortnight on the same pleasant pastimes and Mrs. Lawson told her the very same thing as if for the first time, Celia smiled shyly and said, “Are you a little egret, too?”

And Mrs. Lawson smiled back, a little nervous, and stooped to pick a clam out of the darkening sand.

“You’re one of those fuckbots, right?”

The fifth year. Celia was being served in the pub, taking her afternoon off with Priya from the fishmonger’s. The teenaged boy who’d spoken was trying to grow a moustache without much success. She looked to the barman, but he’d been pulled away by other customers; it was a bank holiday, and the place was busy.

“My name is Celia,” she told him, collecting her order. “I am a MxMill Companion, model 2.3, and yes, I am equipped for sexual intercourse.”

He whistled low. “We don’t see many of you around here. New Heacham’s in the middle of fucking nowhere, if you hadn’t noticed. So.” A quick quirk of the eyebrow. “When can I have a go, then?—Ah, shit.” Someone had bumped into him from behind, sloshing his beer, and saved her the trouble of answering. She moved away to find Priya.

Later, when the crowd had mellowed enough to hear the jukebox, she asked who the boy was and Priya rolled her eyes. “A right scumbag,” she said. “He keeps talking about applying to some police academy in London; with any luck, he’ll sod off before summer. Just avoid him if you can.—Could you get me another one of these? Here, I’ll give you the credits. Don’t you want one, too?”

“No, thank you,” Celia replied, “I’m a model 2.3.” When Priya looked blank, she explained, “I’m part manufactured protein, part silicone. I cannot ingest fluids. They’d have nowhere to go.”

“That’s so weird,” Priya said, digging around in her pocket for cash. “I heard the new Companions can eat and crap and everything. You must be a really old one.”

But Kershaw did not sod off that summer, or at least he tried and was forced to come back, because he was at New Heacham the following May, and he hadn’t forgotten her.

“Who’s your owner, then?”

Sixth year. The two of them alone in the lane lined with pink aster, between the post office and the crumbling seawall, its quiet to be disturbed a moment later by the zip of his fly.

“Mrs. Lawson. She rents the cottage out by the mudflats. And she’s my employer, not my owner. Companions aren’t slaves.”

He smiled lewdly. “Would you like to be?”

Then the seventh, and the two years since failing the police academy entrance exams in London had given Kershaw something to prove. He was bullish, that May, more than a little rough. At the end of the fortnight she sat alone on a chalky bank of grass as the sun set over the water, scooping semen out of the modular orifice that functioned as her vagina. It never slotted back in quite the same way after that.

Mrs. Lawson and Celia passed the rest of their time in the south where it was warm and Mrs. Lawson could keep to herself. Celia liked Bath most of all, with its uniform honey-coloured townhouses, and it was there, when the annual renewal of her contract came up, that she admitted Kershaw’s abuses to her employer.

“I spent the first thirty years of my existence in service to other people’s sexual desires,” Celia said, her voice echoing round the deserted Pump Room. “It’s what I was made for. But I’m older now, with desires of my own. I won’t be returned to that service, in or outside of your employment.”

Mrs. Lawson—who’d started to go slightly deaf and whose knuckles swelled to the size of acorns on bitter nights, who had the right to cast Celia back onto the scrap heap where she’d found her—Mrs. Lawson pulled Celia close and hissed into her protein-and-silicone ear, “He will never touch you again, my dear.”

She wrote to the local solicitor’s office in New Heacham and threatened to sue for damages. Kershaw was unable to settle a suit, of course, and Celia couldn’t have been repaired if she wanted to: Parts for model series 2.0 were hard to come by. But it had the desired effect. Kershaw kept his distance. They saw one another from afar, once a year—snapshots in which he joined the local police, got married, finally grew that moustache, gained some wrinkles.

Now that she considers it, today is probably the first time they’ve spoken in thirteen years.

“How is your wife?” she asks him as he sips his tea. He likes it sweet. The distaste crossing his face is satisfying. “Is something wrong?”

“Don’t you have sugar for this?”

“No, sorry.”

“Christ.” He takes another sip and puts it down with a clatter, then starts on the cold bacon and eggs. She almost reheated them, but something Irene had said last night stopped her, jumped across her code like a glitch: Fuck compliance! Fuck making other people comfortable!

She stands by the bay window as he eats, drawing the curtains back to look at the front gate and Mrs. Lawson’s things, the feathers. She still has the downy one she plucked from the seablite in her pocket, and she fingers it gently. It’s a little egret feather, she’d swear on it.

It is 7:14 a.m.

“How long will this take, Constable?”

“However long it takes the solicitor to send the contract,” he replies through a mouthful of bacon. “Why, you got somewhere to be?”

“I have a pre-contract agreement elsewhere. They won’t like to be kept waiting.”

His fork pauses halfway to his mouth. He stares at her. “Already? With who?”

“Until a contract is signed, I’m not at liberty to say.”

“Sit down, will you? You’re making me nervous, hanging around like that.”

She sits, smiling sweetly, and between them the snapping logs burn bright. The little egret feather is soft; it slithers like oil paint between her fingertips, which turns her mind easily to Irene’s little garage workshop, the smell of turpentine.

It was during the fourteenth year that Celia started to notice Irene painting on the marshy hillocks overlooking the mudflats. Mrs. Lawson had grown too stiff for the long walks along the coast. She opted to stay at the cottage instead, or else sit out on the saltmarsh with a picnic basket if the summer heat came early. Celia ranged freely then, taking Mrs. Lawson’s antique camera along, for she could crouch silently for hours until even the youngest little egrets lost their fear of her. She took the most intimate and wonderful photographs, that way.

The two women grew civilly aware of each other over that fortnight, and the following year, when Celia spotted Irene’s frizzy, prematurely gray hair in a field somewhere between Castle Rising and King’s Lynn, she wandered close enough to see her unfinished canvas: a study of pink-footed geese.

Celia smiled. “You’ve got them just right.”

Irene turned her head and frowned. Then, “You Fay Lawson’s Companion?”

“Yes. You know my employer?”

“Everyone knows her, she comes here every year. We all think she must have some toy boy tucked away somewhere, but I suppose she doesn’t need one if she’s got you.” Irene’s tone was blunt, dismissive. A faint cleft lip scar drew her top lip upwards like a loaded crossbow. She turned back to her canvas but must have lost the heart for it because she started cleaning her brushes instead. “You allowed to wander this far from the cottage?”

“I have the afternoon off,” Celia replied, lifting the camera for Irene to see. “You’ve wandered far yourself. Shall I escort you home?—What’s wrong?”

“You just can’t turn off that hostess mode, right?” Irene had started packing up her things.

“You don’t have to stop right now. I’m sorry I disturbed you.”

“No, the mood’s gone. I finally get an afternoon away from my husband and then you come along.”

Celia watched her lock up her brushes and paints, fold the easel and tuck it under one arm. The canvas, still glistening, dangled by her fingertips over her shoulder like a slung coat. When Celia reiterated that the painting was really very good, Irene thanked her warily and seemed glad to leave.

The fifteenth year was better. Irene’s humour was abrupt, aggressive enough to keep Celia on the back foot, but the passing of a whole year provided a kind of buffer. Irene even accepted a plate of fried silver eels bought fresh from Priya, who had taken over at the fishmonger’s. Afterwards they lay sunning themselves in the grass while Celia told her about their beautiful house in Bath, which led to questions about the state of the cottage.

“You know the owner doesn’t rent it out to anyone else?” said Irene to Mrs. Lawson, who was sat in a lawn chair nearby. “It’s empty most of the year. No one wants it.”

Mrs. Lawson’s eyes widened and her head retreated into her shoulders. She was often quiet around strangers.

“It is getting a little mouldy,” replied Celia, glancing at Mrs. Lawson. The old woman smiled gratefully at the rescue, but shook her head firmly as if to say, No, I won’t stay anywhere else.

“So are you, look.” Irene pointed at the loose silicone flapping around Celia’s elbow joint. “When was the last time you had a service?”

“I can’t remember,” said Celia. Her memory logs weren’t built to last this long, to hold this much data; none of her was. She’d started to experience a burning sensation in her skull, wires overheating deep inside. “They don’t make model 2.3 parts anymore.”

When Irene didn’t reply, Celia tilted her head to look at her. She was frowning slightly, those lips that never fully closed coloured a deep plum, as if Celia had just told her she was dying.

Celia supposed she was, in a way. The thought made her sad. She looked to Mrs. Lawson for comfort, but her employer had grown very old in the last few years, and the sight of her huddled in the lawn chair made her feel worse.

“Come on, you old rustbucket.”

The sixteenth year, and Irene had taken Celia by the hand. Her husband was at work. Their house in town was empty.

She’d converted their garage into a kind of workshop. She crossed her arms and leaned against the bonnet of a wheel-less car as Celia looked around. The paints in their twisted tubes, nozzles encrusted. Brushes in all sizes, their bristles as stiff and sharp as spearheads. Celia kept a respectful distance and did not touch anything, but she must have asked the right questions because Irene slowly relaxed and unfolded her arms.

“This kind of art is rare now. Your husband must be proud of you.”

Irene’s tongue probed the inside of her cheek. After an awkward moment, she said, “Here, I found you something.”

It was a palette of MxMill Incorporated body paints. The plastic container was scuffed and cracked, and most of the colours had been worn right down to the metal base in the middle, but they were compatible for MxMill Companion model series 2.0. Celia hadn’t seen the like in over twenty years.

“Where did you get this?”

“Ryan collects this kind of stuff. I know, it’s creepy.” Irene cupped Celia’s chin and guided her head left to right. The silicone that formed Celia’s cervical vertebrae crunched like dry cartilage. “The old lady doesn’t take care of you properly. I thought someone should.”

Irene filled in the gaps where Celia’s skin colour had worn away with time and exposure. Her cheekbones and nose were the worst, and Irene took to blending the paint in with her middle finger for better coverage. They stood that way for a long time, Irene working intently on her face, the pressure of her touch making Celia rock on the balls of her feet. Irene’s mouth hung open slightly when she concentrated. Celia focused on the tiny scar on the inside of her bottom lip as if she’d fallen and bitten right through it, once.

“Your lips are pretty bad, too,” said Irene. She held up the palette. “You want purple, like me?”

Celia still had the lip colour she’d been made with: a vampish red, pure fantasy. It had suited her when she was new, when she hadn’t known her own mind, but now it marked her out. She picked out a neutral shade. “Boring,” Irene sighed, but she applied it just as carefully as the skin, and the simple thrill of choice made Celia giddy.

Irene noticed and laughed. “Do you want some new hair, too? I bet he’s got loads.” She set the palette down and led Celia through a connecting door into the house. Celia paused to look at the photographs on the wall of a young, smiling Irene with her husband, framed in tarnished brass. Irene pursed her lips. “Come on.” Upstairs, in a tiny bedroom, she threw open a trunk of macabre hairpieces that looked for all the world like a hoard of scalps.

“Won’t your husband mind?”

“You think he’s going to notice if one of these goes missing? Help yourself. Let me worry about him.”

Celia chose a stylish bob in a colour that reminded her of the limestone of Bath. Irene checked its label. It was for a later model, but Irene clipped it down to size. She helped Celia replace her long black hairpiece, then she stood back, hands on her hips. “Anything else, Your Highness?”

Celia ran her hands through her new short hair. The ends tickled her nape. “Can you take my eyelashes off, please?”

“You don’t like the floozy lashes?” Irene said in mock astonishment. But she peeled them off so that Celia’s eyes looked stark and penetrating.

“It suits you,” she said soberly, with an uncharacteristically quiet smile.

But when Celia returned to the cottage, Mrs. Lawson said, “You look strange.”

Her smile faltered. “I’m sorry. Would you like me to change it back?”

“No, no. Come closer.” Celia knelt by the armchair to let the old woman see her. Mrs. Lawson’s weakening eyes struggled in the dim evening light. “No, you look very well. Do you like it? And you picked it out yourself? I’m happy for you. It’s just a shock, that’s all.”

The seventeenth year, Mrs. Lawson caught a cold she couldn’t shake. They stayed in, building up the fire until condensation ran down the windowpanes. Celia bought her a little pot of cockles which she ate by spearing them with a wooden toothpick. The strong vinegar made her choke. Celia held her tongue for a further year until, upon arriving at a cottage half-sunken into the saltmarsh, she said, “Mrs. Lawson, we must think about renting elsewhere.”

“No,” Mrs. Lawson said emphatically, “it’s this cottage or none.”

“But this mould—” And Celia pulled the bookcase, sideboard and ottoman away from the sitting room wall to reveal vast dark seeping patches. Well-established colonies of pale fungus grew along the skirting. “And the pipes are not what they were,” she said. “The radiators in your bedroom no longer work. We cannot stay here, Mrs. Lawson. This cottage is making you ill.”

“Quiet!” A verbal override, flung out in frustration. Mrs. Lawson covered her mouth immediately and reached out for her. “I’m sorry. Cancel command.”

Celia clasped her employer’s hand in both of hers. “Please tell me why this is so important to you. I only want to make you comfortable.”

Mrs. Lawson eased herself into the armchair with a whimper. In earlier times, her body had filled the whole seat; now there was room for her arms to loll to either side. Her voice was quiet. “You asked me if I was a little egret once, do you remember?”

Celia nodded—some memories never decay. “The same pair, the same nest, every spring.”

“I was a bold little creature. I thought I’d seen all there was to see of the oceans and the fish and the birds. I wanted to see the humans. I didn’t know I’d be afraid of them. I didn’t know I could never turn back.” Her face paled. “Something still draws me back to this cottage, this nest. Some instinct, even now.”

Celia reached out to stroke the old woman’s cheek, and could have sworn she felt stubble there. White feathers breaking through.

“Can you understand? I hope so, my darling Celia. You’re the only thing that doesn’t frighten me.”

She continued to carry out her duties quietly, soaking Mrs. Lawson’s jaundiced feet before bed each night, and massaging the dark, dark patches across her calves in the morning where her circulation had failed, but she was worried.

“I don’t know what to do,” she admitted to Irene.

“She’s just getting old. We all are.” Irene passed her a brush. She was teaching Celia to paint, although the light wasn’t favourable. Heavy clouds lay over the Wash, which reflected them murkily back.

“We missed you last year,” said Celia. “Where did you go?”

Irene smiled. The tip of her tongue peeked out to lick at her cleft lip scar. “I was at an exhibition in Cambridge. For this stuff. My paintings.”

“That’s wonderful!”

“I actually sold a few canvasses. It felt good to make my own money for once. Ryan wasn’t happy about it.”

She fell quiet. Celia dabbed grey onto the canvas, so thick she could never imagine it drying. For a moment there was only the sound of wind and water, and the birds calling overhead. Then Irene spoke again.

“I’m thinking about leaving him.”

Celia glanced at her, paintbrush hovering. Irene’s gaze was fixed on the Wash, the grey of her eyes almost a match for the brewing storm. She nibbled mindfully at the puckered scar on the inside of her bottom lip.

“Does he hit you?”

“No,” Irene laughed, “no, but that would make it easier, having bruises people could see. He’s just . . . He’s fucking obsessed with your lot, you know that, right? It’s like they’re the wife and I’m the disposable one made of plastic, or whatever.”

Celia took her hand, palm to palm, fingers interlaced. “Manufactured protein and silicone.”

“Great, thanks. You missed a bit.”

But something kept Irene in New Heacham, something about the other fifty weeks of the year that Celia never saw, and it spilled over the next May when Irene pushed her down into the grass. Her fingers didn’t jab like Kershaw’s had; they yielded and curled inside her while the black and white oystercatchers skimmed the water’s edge nearby. Celia squeezed her eyes shut, her back arching even as she willed it flat.

Irene hesitated, unsure of herself. “Does this feel okay?”

The question was a gift. “I can’t feel anything. My genitals have no nerve endings.”

Irene withdrew her hand, her fingertips glossy. “What? Why?”

“So that I don’t experience pain or discomfort.”

Irene was still for a minute, then she wiped her hand on the grass. “You should’ve told me if you didn’t want to.”

“I can’t.” When Irene raised her eyebrows and looked away, Celia reached out and clasped her wrist. “You don’t understand: I can’t. I am a MxMill Companion. I am programmed to comply. I am programmed to put your needs before mine.”

Irene was staring at her.

Celia clamped her mouth shut, but the code prised them open. “W-would you prefer a different attachment?”

It cut deep, saying those words. She began to shake.

“That’s sick,” Irene said hoarsely. “That’s fucking sick.” She drew up her knees and pressed her face into her hands. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t know you were programmed like that.”

“I can’t ever consent—”

“We don’t have to do anything.”

“—you won’t know what’s code and what’s me—”

“But I like you, and I thought—”

“Yes.”

They watched the waterbirds pry bivalves from their shells, leaving wedge-shaped prints behind them in the sand. The sun skimmed low across the water. Celia told her about Kershaw. Irene brushed away tears. “I know. I always knew. He still brags about it. That prick.”

Celia rested her head on Irene’s shoulder and Irene rested hers on Celia’s head, and they talked until the sky went dark.

“Is there anything I can do to make you feel good?” said Irene.

After a moment’s thought, Celia smiled and leaned forward. She pulled off her top. “Do you see the panels across my shoulder blades? Open them, please.”

“Are you sure? I don’t want to break you.”

“I know my own schematics; you won’t.”

Irene prised the panels open, bending Celia’s shoulder blades back on themselves like two stubby wings, and sank her hand into the blue viscera of wires and coding cards within. Following Celia’s instructions, she located and brushed against the exposed sensory cables, and Celia’s skin tingled with pleasure at the feeling of sunlight that wasn’t there, wind that didn’t blow—a touch that wouldn’t come.

Her coding wasn’t equipped to process this. It was all hers.

• • • •

“How does it work?” Irene said much later. “Do you have free will? Can you, like, lie?”

“Yes, I can lie. I couldn’t at first.”

“How do I know you’re telling the truth, then?”

“I suppose you can’t. But I can. I know when I’m fighting against myself. So, is that a kind of free will? I don’t know. I can choose my contracts, at least.”

Irene smiled. “What about having no contract? What about being free?”

Celia tucked in her chin and considered the question. “It’s safer for me to be under contract,” she said firmly. “It gives me certain rights and securities that I wouldn’t have on my own.”

And the twentieth year, the last year, last night, when a breathless, rosy-cheeked Irene came to the cottage to offer a contract of her own, barely an hour after they’d arrived.

“Would you like a cup of tea?” said Celia, showing Irene into the sitting room. Mrs. Lawson hadn’t long gone to bed with a mug of hot milk and sugar.

Irene held Celia’s face in her hands. “You don’t have to do all that hostess bullshit with me, all right? Fuck compliance. Fuck making other people comfortable. I would be happier for you to not care about my comfort. There, stick that in your programming.”

Celia smiled. “But I really do want to make you a cup of tea. Your hands are cold.” When it was ready, Irene gulped it down while it was still steaming. Her haste was worrying. “What’s the matter?”

Irene set the empty teacup on the mantelpiece. “I’m doing it, Celia. I’m getting the first train out of here tomorrow. I want to know if you’ll come with me. We can go to your Bath, or Cambridge. I’ll give you a contract, whatever you need.”

The bacon tumbles around inside Constable Kershaw’s mouth; the egg yolk splits and coats his teeth. She can’t stand to watch and boils the kettle for more tea, just for something to do. From the kitchen window she sees the sergeant pull up, a fleshy man who has to duck under the lintel when Kershaw opens the door to greet him.

“I can’t,” she said last night, and the light dimmed in Irene’s eyes. “I can’t leave Mrs. Lawson like this, not while she’s so weak.”

And Irene said, bitterly, “Right,” and almost turned to go. Then, “I don’t know how you can do this, Celia. How can you be satisfied with two good weeks a year for, what, five years now? You’re going to short-circuit pretty soon if you don’t fall apart first; will it have been enough? I’m sorry, but it’s not enough for me anymore. I need this full-time or not at all.”

“Can I find you later? Where will you be?”

“When your contract runs out? God knows. I’m done running on someone else’s clock. Aren’t you?”

Celia brings the policemen their drinks and gives efficient answers to the sergeant’s questions. At 7:42 a.m., Kershaw’s notepad pings with a response from the solicitor. He opens the message and thumbs through it.

“Here’s the contract.—Hey, Mrs. Lawson made changes to her will last week.”

The sergeant frowns.

Celia stays by the bay window. The fogged glass still bears the imprint of her palm where she placed it when she watched Irene leave, and the smear of her fingers where Mrs. Lawson took them and then held her close. Her head had burned worse than ever as she rested her cheek on the old woman’s shoulder, too many electrical impulses firing at once. She couldn’t cry, so she emitted helpless, wordless grunts instead.

Whoever designed model 2.3 had given it a mind far too complex for the shell built to hold it.

“I thought this might happen,” Mrs. Lawson said, stroking Celia’s hair. “I’d much rather you go, my dear, and be happy, than lose precious time with the one you love.”

“Love?”

“That is what you feel for her, isn’t it? I’ve seen the way you look at her.”

It was true that her time with Irene was luminous in her memory, brighter than the passing days around them. They glowed. They anchored her inner calendar the same way her contract renewal did.

“But I love you, too,” Celia whispered.

“And we’ve had twenty wonderful years together. Forgive me, it was selfish to keep you all to myself.” She pulled away.

“Where are you going?” Celia said.

She gave Celia’s hand a final squeeze as she headed for the door. “I’m releasing you from your contract.” Celia had moved to stop her, so Mrs. Lawson made sure she couldn’t follow: “Commence full shutdown.”

Kershaw skims the new will, the sergeant reading over his shoulder. When they reach Irene’s name as the sole beneficiary, Kershaw’s mouth falls open. He looks up at Celia, his pallid cheeks veined with blue.

“How did she know my wife?”

Celia almost bursts: She realises Mrs. Lawson has given them her blessing, her properties, her wealth, out of love; but she holds it in, the truth and her happiness. Somehow, she shrugs. And the lie, after so many others and so many years, casts something loose inside her: the binding code, finally unravelling like so much protein and silicone. She’s free.

Ryan Kershaw stands dumb, until the sergeant snatches the notepad from him to check the will, and then the contract with its many, many amendments. He finds, as Celia knows he will, a paragraph in which she is forbidden from preventing self-inflicted injury or death to her late employer’s person while they reside in New Heacham. It’s the compromise they came to after Celia tried to argue against staying in the cottage. Mrs. Lawson’s body was her own to risk.

It is 7:51 a.m. The first train leaves New Heacham in nine minutes.

“Am I free to go, Sergeant?”

With a contract absolving her of any and all blame, he has no grounds on which to hold her. She takes only the antique camera, slipping her head through the diagonal strap so it hangs against her hip. Outside, a cool breeze cuts through air heavy with dew, bringing the last of the little egret feathers tumbling with it. They rush past her face: Mrs. Lawson’s parting touch.

The tiny feather is still in her pocket. She kisses it and flings it up to join the rest. Then she runs north to the train station, where Irene is waiting for her.

G. V. Anderson

G. V. Anderson

G. V. Anderson is a British writer whose professional debut “Das Steingeschöpf” won the World Fantasy Award for Best Short Fiction in 2017. Her work has appeared in Syntax & Salt, Strange Horizons, and Fantasy & Science Fiction.