y daughter's name appeared on my phone's screen and I answered. "Did you miss me already?"
"Ha ha. Can you come pick me up?"
"Already?" I glanced at the clock. "Is everything okay?"
"I'm just ready to come home."
I tried to push the worry out of my voice by smiling. "Rather spend the day with me than with your friends?"
An awkward silence followed and I swore I could hear her rolling her eyes. "Are you coming to get me or not?"
"Give me a minute and I'll be on my way."
She cut the call and I looked at the phone. Willa had been full of attitude lately, and it wasn't like her. I phoned Dax.
"Is everything alright?"
My husband hadn't even said hello first. I fought to keep panic from settling in, but I could still hear it lacing my words. "Why? Did you hear something?"
"No. I'm just not used to you calling this time of day. In fact, you don't usually call me at work unless it's urgent." His voice was almost soothing.
I snuffed out the flicker of irritation I felt and considered my response. "It's just ... I think there's something wrong with Willa."
"What do you mean?"
A safe response from my husband. It was a good thing we weren't on a video call, so he couldn't see the look on my face.
"She's been moody lately. Withdrawn. Moaning and complaining about family movie night last night."
I switched to speakerphone as I picked up my purse. "Housecheck, Ros."
The programmed voice of our residential oversight system drowned out whatever my husband was saying as I stepped outside and locked the door behind me. "Your stove, curling irons, and portable heating devices are all turned off. CO2 levels are safe. All entrances are secured."
I tapped my screen to disengage Ros.
"Where are you going?"
"Willa called and wanted to be picked up from swimming practice early."
I twisted the key, put my SUV in reverse, and backed out onto the road.
"Why don't you call me when you get home, after you've had a chance to see her. It may be nothing."
"Just spit it out, Dax. I can drive and have a conversation at the same time without crashing."
"Or you could use the automated driving app."
I merged onto the main road to town and the whir of an engine from a car passing by filled my ears as Sky Lake Bridge came into sight. My side of the road had a narrow shoulder squished between the lane and the steel railings that kept vehicles from plummeting dozens of feet to the indigo blue water below. I tightened my grip on the steering wheel. Although I often relaxed at the public access areas that lined the shores of the reservoir, I did not enjoy driving over the 300-foot bridge that spanned the waters, but I still didn't want to give control of my vehicle to an automated driving app.
"Not the time, Dax."
"Fine." There was an edge to his voice that hadn't been there before, the kind of edge that crept into his voice every time we argued about my reluctance to embrace technology. It clearly wasn't enough that he'd heard me call the house system 'Ros' and ask for an update before I left. No, Dax was going to keep pushing until I let apps handle every aspect of my life. I sighed and bit back my retort as he continued. "She's a kid, Tina. Kids go through phases. Remember teething? Remember her asking why every five seconds? And then there was the Year of No."
I rolled my eyes as I left the trees behind and was surrounded by clear blue sky, blue sky that reflected off the water below. There was nothing better than lying back in an inner tube and floating under a summer sky. My cares drifted away with the water. Driving over it was a different story. It was funny how in one situation, the water took my stress away. In another, it multiplied it tenfold.
The same was true of my husband. Sometimes he eased my stress. Other times, he drove me up the wall, and clearly, I'd miscalculated the effect he'd have on me now when I'd called him.
"Willa and I have always been close, Dax. But I feel she's pulling away."
"You mean she's getting to the age where she might have a crush on someone and have feelings she wants to keep to herself and you don't like it."
The SUV shook as a semi blew by and my arms burned as I held the wheel tight and kept my jeep from veering toward the edge of the bridge. "I'm surprised you aren't bothered by the idea of our daughter dating."
"There's a big difference between her having a crush and her dating someone and it's perfectly natural. You know what isn't natural? Kids sticking to their parents like dog shit on a shoe forever. Talk to any child psychologist and they'll tell you it's normal for kids to become more independent around her age. Maybe you should try giving her some space."
I sighed, and searched for a way to end the conversation without lying. Dax wasn't going to take my side, or even offer sympathy, so there was no point discussing it further. "I guess I just didn't expect her to ask to be picked up from swimming so soon."
"They had that big training last weekend and then she got sick. She's probably just tired. That could even be why she didn't want to watch the movie last night."
"I'm sure you're right," I said as I turned into the parking lot in front of the recreation center. "I'm here so we'll see you at home."
We said our goodbyes as I backed into a parking spot. I was just about to unclip my seatbelt and head for the front door when Willa exited the building and marched down the stairs. Her dark brown hair hung down around her face and contrasted her pale skin. Her light blue sundress had dark patches on the straps from her wet hair. Willa usually liked to dry it and style it before she left practice. Something was wrong, but maybe Dax was right. Maybe she still wasn't feeling well.
She stopped by the front passenger door and I shook my head. Willa threw hers back as she let out a sigh before she climbed in the back seat.
"Did practice finish early?" I asked.
I glanced around at the lot, which was almost empty. "None of the other girls' moms are here yet? Should I wait and make sure they all have rides?"
She nodded and slumped against the door. I watched her for a moment as she stared through the glass at nothing in particular.
My maternal instincts kicked into overdrive and I reached back to feel her forehead.
Willa turned, straightened up in her seat, and swatted my hand away.
I glared at her. "You don't seem yourself. Are you alright?"
Her words dripped with sarcasm, something I wasn't accustomed to from my daughter. I chewed on my bottom lip as I pulled out of the parking spot, made my way out onto the road, and headed back toward the bridge.
"Are you sure you're alright?"
I adjusted the rearview mirror so I could see my daughter. She was still looking out the window, so I twisted around and stared at her.
She leaned against the door again, as though the extra few millimeters of distance she'd put between us would deter me. I glanced at the road to make sure I was still driving straight and then swung back around. This time, I leaned over so I could swat her knee.
Willa glowered at me. "Eyes on the road, Mom."
"I know how to drive," I said, but I turned around.
"It's not my fault you keep disabling ADA."
"Stop calling her that. It makes it sound like you're talking about a person."
"The automated driving app, ADA, is designed to safely transport people in their vehicles. She isn't blinded by sunlight or affected by distractions--"
"Like grouchy girls who refuse to answer basic questions?"
She exhaled as loudly as possible before she pushed out, "I'm fine, Mom."
It sounded like she muttered something under her breath after that, but I couldn't make it out. I swung back around. "You're not yourself, and I'm concerned."
"You're overreacting. Jane says her parents are pleased she's becoming more independent."
"Jane's parents don't care about her."
"I don't want you hovering over me twenty-four seven. That isn't bizarre. It's natural to want some space."
My eyebrows climbed towards my hairline. "And is it natural for you to be mouthy with your mother?"
She rolled her eyes and I felt mine narrow.
"You need to turn around," she said as she folded her arms across her chest.
"You need to answer me."
Her eyes popped wide open and she pointed at the windshield. "I'm not kidding, Mom! Look out!"
There was a split second when I hovered between anger and panic.
Anger that she was telling me what to do.
Panic, because the way her voice pitched higher betrayed her fear.
I spun around. We were heading straight for a van with a ladder and some metal poles strapped to the top of it. I slapped my free hand on the wheel and cranked it hard to return to our lane. A horn blared as the car I almost sideswiped veered onto the shoulder, and I was thankful we were heading home, which put us on the side of the bridge with a wide gap between the lane and the railing. For half a heartbeat all I could see were blue waters blending into the cloudless sky. It was picture perfect; a snapshot of an idyllic place where you could unwind and relax, but the allure was shattered by ear-shattering screams from the backseat. The van had tried to compensate for my error by swerving into my lane and I twisted the wheel back into the oncoming lane of traffic. The van started to spin and the ladder and poles came free. They were headed straight for the passenger windows.
"Willa, get down!"
I cranked that wheel with everything I had, praying there was enough time to put the back of the SUV between my daughter and the objects heading our way. I was so focused on the metal flying through the air that I forgot about the steel barrier that was now in front of us. A sickening screech and the sound of shattering glass filled the air. My chest bounced off the steering wheel, my back crashed against the seat, and then my face smashed into the airbag. The airbag deflated and I was surrounded by blue as everything but Willa's screams faded as we plunged into the waters below.
* * *
I rubbed my left temple as I leaned back in the chair and waited. Within a minute the salesperson, Onyx, returned and put two sets of keys and a small stack of papers down in front of me. "All set. I just need your signature on the top sheet. The other papers explain your warranty."
"Right." I picked up the pen and skimmed the familiar language outlining the terms of sale and transferring insurance.
Then I did a double-take and re-read one of the lines.
Coverage for installed and freestanding synthetic drivers has been activated.
"What does this mean?" I tapped the paper as I looked up at Onyx. They had the warmest dark eyes, which complimented their jet black hair and brown skin.
"Let's see." They smiled and their eyes lit up as they moved back to my side of the desk and leaned over to see what I was pointing at. "That's standard insurance now. It means your coverage applies if an artificial lifeform is driving your vehicle."
I frowned. "I'm sure we had automated systems coverage before."
"Yes, you did, but this applies to synthetic lifeforms."
"You mean if I get one of those feline automated companions and my synthetic cat drives the car, my insurance will cover any repair costs if there's an accident?"
Their smile faded a touch. "It's for synthetic humanoids. In case you get a robotic housekeeper."
I twirled the pen in my hands. "Did my husband ask for that?"
"This is your policy. Your life partner can't interfere with your decisions."
Part of the new world order that did benefit me. Salespeople never talked over me in favor of discussing purchases with my husband. Most people didn't even marry anymore. I was a forty-year-old who had no issue with anyone's gender or orientation or how they lived their life, but had indulged in some basic traditions. I'd gotten married, I still drove myself around, and I cooked my own meals at home. To Onyx, I'm sure I was a relic. A dinosaur.
"I just don't remember this being in the coverage."
"It's standard now. Required by law."
"That seems unnecessary." I felt the edge creeping into my voice.
The warmth in Onyx's eyes was starting to give way to concern, but they responded calmly. "I know it's been over a decade since there was a car accident in this area, but imagine the unthinkable happened. Emergency services personnel include synthetic beings, who are able to respond in dangerous situations that might otherwise cause loss of life. They may need to drive your vehicle. This inclusion makes sure that you're protected. That's all."
"Okay. I really don't like the idea of having a robot doing my housekeeping."
"Or an app driving your car?" Their warm smile was back. "I understand. A lot of people feel that way. Yes, Ada is designed to take over if the driver falls asleep at the wheel, but otherwise, she won't interfere with your driving and nobody's forcing you to take one of these life-size robots home."
I signed, grabbed the keys, and followed them to my new SUV. My steps faltered when Onyx stopped by a pine green jeep. The image of my driveway and a crimson jeep flashed through my mind, along with a dull ache behind my eyes. I reached out with my hand to steady myself, but there was nothing to grasp onto, so I froze.
"Are you alright?"
For a second, my mind went blank. Where was I? A car dealership. Why? How?
I looked at the keys in my hand. Clearly I was buying a new vehicle. But why? And how had I gotten there? I searched my memory, but couldn't recall.
Onyx's smile had been completely swallowed by their wide-eyed concern. I could imagine what they were thinking. Do I need to call health services?
I smiled reassuringly. "Was this the color I chose? I had a sudden flash of a red jeep in my mind."
Onyx offered a small smile. "We have this model in red if you prefer. It isn't a problem at all."
I glanced at the row of jeeps to my right. There was a red one right at my end, and I glanced from it to the green jeep. "No, that's fine. I don't know what I was thinking." I laughed it off. Onyx held the door open for me and I climbed inside. "Green is my favorite color. And I've heard people who drive red cars get more speeding tickets."
"I think the artificial protective units are programmed to ensure that doesn't happen anymore. We have colorblind law enforcement now, for cars and people."
"Which is a good thing." I smiled. "Thanks for everything, Onyx."
"Any time, Mx. Amara."
* * *
I rubbed my left temple as I opened the kitchen cupboard and took out a glass. I wished we'd opted for flat white instead of eggshell. The sun bounced off the walls and cabinets and pierced my eyes.
"Is everything okay, Mom?" Willa walked in from the other side of the kitchen and flashed me a smile.
"Oh, yes, fine." I forced my lips to curl up in response as she walked past me to the fridge and squeezed my shoulder.
"How about a retro classic for movie night tonight? I was thinking Goonies
or The Princess Bride
. Or we could skip the historic options and go with something from your childhood."
I glanced at her. "It doesn't matter to me."
She grinned as she set a cup on the counter and poured herself a glass of juice. "Seriously, what do you think? If you prefer action we could watch Mad Max
Just the thought of revving engines and screams was enough to make me wince. "No, nothing too loud."
Her smile faded. "Is your head hurting again? Here, let me give you a shoulder rub."
She started kneading my shoulders and I flinched, but I let her continue. It felt like every one of her fingers was drilling through my skin.
"You're so tense," Willa said as Dax walked into the kitchen. "Dad, I think Mom needs a day at the spa."
"Oh? Would that be with or without you?"
"I'm serious. It feels like her muscles have been dipped in liquid nitrogen."
She blew out a breath that tickled my ear. "They're hard. Like granite."
Dax didn't seem concerned. He reached around me to get a glass and then went to the fridge. "Not sure why. You haven't been tossing in your sleep, though."
Now, that was unusual. I usually worked out my stress from the day by rolling around in my sleep at night. Willa kept working on the knots as she and Dax settled on a movie, but I kept my thoughts to myself. They chatted as Dax made popcorn and eventually, my daughter shepherded me into the family room, propped me on the couch with a heating pad behind my back and snuggled up beside me. Between the running movie commentary she engaged in with her dad and passing the bowl of popcorn back and forth, she would lean close and ask me how I was doing. I did my best to smile reassuringly and tell her I was feeling better. When she glanced my way at the funny parts I managed to laugh, and when the popcorn was done she rested her head against my shoulder and held my hand.
The numbing pain wasn't as severe as the sharp pain I'd felt from her massage, and the feeling of her hair pressed against my cheek more than made up for the discomfort.
I opted for a nightshirt with buttons so I didn't have to pull it over my head. As I crawled into bed, Dax shut off the bathroom light and walked over to his side of the bed.
"You must be feeling better."
I pulled the covers over me. "Hm?"
"About Willa." He sat down beside me and turned the lamp on his nightstand off. Although our room was muted shades of green and cream, the tension in my head eased as the darkness engulfed us. "She's her usual self now that she's over that bug. You were worried about nothing."
I felt him settle in beside me and then he leaned over and kissed my cheek. "She's being a little too attentive now, I think."
He chuckled. "She can't win. No matter what she does or doesn't do, you're going to think it's odd." I felt his fingers stroke my hair. "She's just growing up."
Dax lay down beside me and turned over. I started to turn onto my side, but my shoulders protested, so I stayed on my back, staring at the ceiling.
* * *
The smell of coffee welcomed me as I headed for the kitchen the next morning. Dax must have made a pot when he realized I was running late. My muscles had tightened up overnight, and even lifting a toothbrush made me want to cry. I had no idea how I'd managed to injure myself, but I must have done something. If it didn't get better soon, I was going to have to call health services myself.
I winced as bright sunlight bounced off the counters and cabinets and my daughter's toothy smile. She held out my favorite mug. "Two creams, two sugars. Just the way you like it."
"You've never made me coffee before."
She ignored that and gestured at the counter beside me. "And your lunch is packed. Turkey on rye with Swiss cheese and lettuce. Tomato, mustard, and mayonnaise on the side. I packed a fresh peach and an apple and some napkins." She paused.
Was she waiting for acknowledgment?
"Thank you, Willa."
"Any time." A horn beeped outside. "That must be Jane's Mom."
I frowned. "What does she want?"
Willa's eyebrows shot up. "She's taking Jane and me to Splash Factory today. Remember?"
I didn't, but I wouldn't admit it. "Right. Have fun."
"Thanks." She hugged me and I winced again, but I patted her back and tried to remember the last time Willa had hugged me like this.
It had been months.
She let go and walked past me, to the front hallway. "Dad's waiting for you in the dining room."
"Your appointment. Remember?"
"Have fun today. Keep your smartphone and activate your implant."
The implants allowed users to connect to their smartphones and be traced. Even I couldn't deny how much it reassured me to know I could locate my daughter with the press of a button. When she turned 16 she'd be able to deny Dax and me access to that information, but until then, the law allowed me to monitor her every footstep if I chose to. I didn't, but I liked knowing that I could.
When I'd agreed to the implant, Dax had considered it a welcome sign of progress on my part. I considered it a practical form of protection, and nothing more.
Dax sat in his usual spot at the table, across from a woman in a gray blazer with her nametag pinned to the lapel on her right side. She looked up and smiled.
"Did you forget we were reviewing our insurance policies this morning?"
I slid into the seat beside Dax. "I just went over the insurance policy for the new vehicle."
"Not transport insurance. Life insurance."
"It slipped my mind."
"Not to worry," Carla said with a smile. "I think we have everything squared away. You're maintaining your existing policies. Dax is your primary beneficiary, Tina. If something happens to both of you, then Willa is the beneficiary. Is that correct?"
"What are the chances?"
Her smile slipped. "The chances of what?"
"Something happening to both of us?"
"Oh." Carla pushed her lips back up into a smile. "It isn't likely. The world is much safer than it used to be, thanks to technology."
"Yes, the car salesperson mentioned there hadn't been an automobile accident in this area in a decade." A statistic I doubted, but I kept that thought to myself.
"Ada has made it so much safer for us to travel on roadways. Life insurance policies have decreased in price by more than 50% over the last decade because people live so much longer now." Her brow wrinkled. "You're 40? I'm a little bit older than you, and I remember cancer, and COVID-19, and then Rhinovirus. The year we had everyone locked up at home and the two years that followed, when people who were over the age of 50 were confined."
I had vague recollections of that period. Recollections of drive by funerals and people wearing bubble suits when they had to go outside.
"The youngest person who died in this state last year was 79. Just a few decades ago, that was unthinkable. Now, it's normal."
She pushed a piece of paper across the table. A glance to my left told me Dax had already signed his. I picked up the pen beside him, pulled my form toward me, skimmed the contents, and stopped cold.
"What does 'covers synthetic lifeform replacement
"If you need an artificial limb or heart you could upgrade those components."
I chewed on my bottom lip for a second and then looked up at Carla. "We've had insurance for artificial replacements for years. I don't remember it being part of our life insurance."
She waved and tried to giggle, but her eyes didn't light up and it wasn't very convincing. "The government is always modifying the language to ensure everyone's rights are protected. This is to ensure that no matter what happens, your life insurance policy pays out. Even if your artificial heart is the cause of death."
"Is that common?"
"Really, Tina? I'm sure Carla has a busy day ahead of her and we've kept her waiting this morning. I'm not sure she has time to talk about statistics."
Was I imagining it, or had he put a bit of an emphasis on "we've" to underscore the fact that I'd kept them waiting this morning, and therefore I'd wasted whatever time I might have had to ask what Dax considered to be silly questions?
Of course, Dax had been working with synthetic replacements for fourteen years. He knew the statistics. And any time he and I discussed technology it led to an argument about my concerns about our reliance on machines and inability to do things ourselves.
I bit my tongue, signed the paper, and we escorted Carla to the door. Once she left, I glared at Dax.
"Do you know what your daughter did this morning? She made me coffee and she made my lunch. Don't you think it's good that she knows how to cook for herself? She'd be able to take care of herself if anything ever happened--"
"If we all lost power because of a zombie apocalypse and had to use manual can openers to eat? Eventually, she'd need to hunt for food or grow plants, and I don't see you taking her to archery classes or the gun range."
"I'm just saying it's good for her to have some basic skills. It doesn't mean she can't get an intelligent sustenance app when she's older, but if it ever breaks down, she won't be stuck."
"I'm quite sure anyone could manage to spread some peanut butter on bread."
"Why are you so opposed to people retaining some basic skills? Even the schools see the value. They teach cooking and sewing."
"Yeah, as part of their historic arts unit." He frowned. "Why are you so resistant to using technology to improve your life? I heard you use Ros the other day. Even that damn alarm clock you have on your nightstand is technology, Tina. It may be outdated, but someone created that device to perform that function so people didn't need to worry about oversleeping. I bet you told Willa to activate her implant today." He paused for half a heartbeat before he shook his head. "You're a hypocrite."
"I don't ever tell you not to use technology, Dax. If you're comfortable with a new app, I don't stand in your way. Why can't you show me the same courtesy?"
"Because this is my livelihood, Tina. I create apps and synthetic beings designed to ensure people live a long life and keep them happy and healthy. You heard Carla. Do you remember what it was like when we were young? My father died from Rhinovirus, Tina. Do you have any idea what it was like to watch a strong man wither away in a few days, to hear him cry out in pain any time he took a breath? To go through life reaching all those milestones and wanting to celebrate them with my family, knowing my dad had missed out on that moment? I don't want anyone to go through that, Tina, and I've devoted my life to doing everything I can to make sure that doesn't happen. And you won't even use the bioreaders for basic health checks." He swallowed. "Not even when you're having headaches and muscle pains and forgetting things."
"Dax, I know how hard it was for you to lose your dad, but none of us can cheat death."
"No, but we can keep the reaper at bay."
I took a step forward and reached out for him, but he held up his hand and shook his head.
"I'm sorry, Tina. You know I don't like to walk out on an argument, but I'm already late and I have an important meeting today. We will have to talk about this later."
Tears pricked at the corners of my eyes as he shut the door behind him. I gathered my stuff, had Ros do a housecheck, and swallowed the lump in my throat as I left for work.
* * *
Dax came home late and we went to bed without discussing our argument. I was moving so slowly that he was asleep by the time I pulled the covers over me, and I listened to his deep breaths while I stared at the ceiling for the second night in a row.
Eventually, a glance at my outdated alarm clock told me almost three hours had gone by. I crept out of bed.
Within minutes I'd slipped into a pair of leggings, left the house, and pulled out onto the road in my new SUV. I didn't remember Dax and me talking about the purchase, and I still didn't remember how I'd ended up at the dealership.
I'd thought Willa's behavior was odd before I got the new vehicle, but it was even worse now. She seemed to be overcompensating. Like she felt obligated to dote on me to prove everything was okay.
Dax had dismissed my concerns when Willa had seemed withdrawn, and he'd dismissed my concerns about her attentiveness now. Maybe Dax was right. Maybe the problem was me.
I pulled into the parking area near Sky Lake Bridge. This time of night it was usually the perfect place to sit on a picnic table and watch the reflection of the stars dance on the water, but when I walked through the thin line of trees that separated the parking area from the waterfront, I realized I wasn't alone. A handful of vehicles dotted the shoreline, past the point where cars were allowed. One of the trucks had a winch attached to a crane. Spotlights were pointed out at a boat on the water.
I'd never seen anyone on the water at this time of night. Park of me wondered if I should leave, but the other part was curious about what was going on. The clink-clink-clink of metal gears turning dispelled the stillness and then an object rose up out of the water.
A light flashed on it, and I swallowed.
A red SUV.
I stumbled back to my jeep as an image flashed through my mind. Me and Willa and her screaming as the nose of our jeep cracked into the water. An airbag smashing against my face.
The real reason I wasn't sleeping. Every night when I drifted off, I found myself back in that moment. Plunging below the cold water, and then shooting back up as the vehicle flotation devices kicked in. Turning, and seeing Willa's lifeless eyes staring at me as blood seeped from the hole created by the metal rod through her chest.
Had that actually happened?
It took three tries for me to turn the key over and I broke down. "ADA, activate."
I swallowed. "Home."
* * *
"Earth to Tina."
I looked up as I took a bite of my sandwich. Lara sat down across from me. She had a gentle face sprinkled with faint freckles and framed with auburn curls. There was something unassuming about Lara that always made me feel I could tell her anything and she'd understand.
"Spill. You were away for a whole week and it seems like your soul didn't come back from vacation. What's wrong?"
Vacation? I hadn't gone away. What on earth was she talking about?
I shook my head. "Just got into a fight with Dax this morning."
"Which could be good for your sex life later."
I doubted that, but decided not to comment. "Nobody seems to be themselves these days."
"You certainly don't. Your eyes tell me you're a million miles away. You didn't have a good holiday?"
"I don't even remember going on vacation."
Lara pulled her sandwich out of her bag and tried not to let the skin between her eyes pinch together. Tried, and failed. "What do you remember?"
"Thinking Willa was acting strange. Not feeling well. Picking up a new jeep that I don't remember deciding to buy. Sleeping in. Forgetting about Willa's plans for today and an appointment Dax and I had."
"Did your last biocheck turn up anything that might explain the forgetfulness?"
I made a face at her.
"Oh, right. You don't do biochecks. And let me guess. That's why you argued with Dax."
"That's part of it."
"What's the other part?"
I glanced around. We were in the far corner of the cafeteria, which was one part eating area, one part greenhouse. The vines and potted trees provided natural barriers between seating areas, created fresh oxygen, and purified the air. Nobody was close enough to hear us, but I still leaned a little closer.
"Do you ever question things you've been told?"
She smiled. "I don't believe in the Easter bunny, if that's what you mean."
"Our insurance broker told us this morning the youngest person who died in our state last year was 79."
"And you don't believe her?"
"The car salesperson said there hasn't been a car accident here in over a decade."
Her nose wrinkled as she took a bite of her sandwich and looked away. When her gaze met mine again, she nodded. "I can't remember the last time I heard about an accident."
"Doesn't that seem odd to you?"
She shrugged and rolled her eyes. "Well, they tell us that's the point of the apps and synthetic systems, right? To keep people safe and ensure everyone gets to live a long, healthy life? We've eliminated illness and disabilities and improved safety."
"But something in the way you say that tells me you don't believe it."
"Jubilaine deals with a lot of statistics for her work. Only 37% of drivers use ADA. And if only 37% of drivers use ADA, how have people suddenly stopped having accidents?"
That was a damn good question. "I used ADA for the first time last night."
Her eyes widened. "I mean, good for you, but why? I know you prefer to drive yourself."
This was it. The moment of truth. I usually trusted Lara with everything, but how would she react if I told her what I'd seen?
Dax already thought something was wrong. Lara could confirm that, but there was a chance she'd have a different opinion.
There was a chance she'd understand my concerns.
Only one way to find out.
I told her about my dream, and then I told her what I'd seen, and all the missing gaps from the past several days, when I'd apparently been on holiday.
Her lips twisted, and then it was her turn to glance around nervously before she spoke.
"You know Jubilaine works for the same company as Dax."
I nodded. Dax never talked about the specifics of his work, but I'd gleaned from prior conversations with Lara that Jubilaine was more forthcoming. Was Lara inferring that what I was experiencing could be connected to Dax's job?
"Jubilaine works on memory construction."
"You mean like machine learning systems that enable those artificial pets to learn their names and commands and stuff?"
"No. I mean human memory construction."
It felt like my heart shot up into my throat. "Why would we need to create human memories?"
"There are a couple reasons why. For one, health service workers have the authority to wipe your memory and replace it if you witness something traumatic, like a crime."
"But, there is no crime. The artificial protective units maintain order and since everyone enjoys a good standard of living now, nobody has the need to commit crimes."
"You really believe that? People think there's no crime because anyone involved has their memory wiped."
"But why would they do that?"
"The same reason they might wipe your memory if you're in an accident. To keep you from experiencing mental health issues."
I swallowed. "You mean my dreams could be memories seeping through? Memories they tried to wipe out?"
"Well, you said you've been having headaches and sore muscles, but you don't know why. Maybe you were in a car accident. Maybe that was your jeep you saw them pulling out of the reservoir last night. Everyone who knows you was told you went on vacation, when you were really in a medical ward being treated for your injuries and having your memory wiped and replaced."
"If that's the case, the replacement didn't stick."
"Jubilaine said that happens sometimes. They've refined the process, but they haven't perfected it."
"But Willa. She looked ..." I couldn't say it. I could hardly bear to think it.
Lara shifted in her seat. "Well, that brings me to the second reason for memory construction."
She paused, and I nudged her. "Go on."
"The intelligent sustenance app is designed to prepare food and nutritional supplements. It doesn't have much of a personality. Nobody would mistake ISA for a person."
She took another bite of her sandwich and I let her words sink in. "Do you mean they're planning to make artificial people who will live like humans?"
"They don't plan to make artificial people who live among us. They already have. They can replace any person with a synthetic lifeform."
"Why? So all these people who are dying in the accidents they say don't happen can be replaced."
"That's ..." I couldn't even push the words out. All I kept thinking was how Willa hadn't been herself lately, and about the lifeless look in her eyes in my dreams.
"I'm not saying anyone you know has been replaced with a synthetic being. I'm just telling you, it could happen. In such a short span of time we've cured diseases and disabilities and ensured every single person lives to a ripe old age. Apparently. And that was enough to end racism and sexism and every other problem on the planet? Every workplace has a 100% safety record? Nobody drowns in a flood?"
The bells chimed, warning us that we had ten minutes before our lunch break was over, and we hastily picked up our garbage, disposed of it, and headed for the bathroom. When we were on our way back to our work stations, Lara stopped and touched my arm lightly.
"Because I trust you, okay?"
There was a weight I'd never seen in her gaze before as she stared into my eyes, and I nodded. "Because I trust you."
She offered a wan smile and dropped her arm. "If you have questions, don't ask Dax. Ask Jubilaine. She'll talk to you." Lara headed for her office. I turned and headed towards mine.
* * *
Willa fussed over me again that night, and I had to blink repeatedly to keep tears from welling up in my eyes every time I looked at her and remembered what Lara had said. Every time I thought about the possibility that the ... person ... rubbing my shoulders and touching my arm could be some artificial lifeform, my chest formed a knot I couldn't undo.
I managed to lie on my side that night without too much pain. One small source of comfort in my life was that my muscles weren't as stiff as they had been and the headaches had subsided.
One large source of discomfort was how distant Dax was. We'd never talked about our argument, and he managed to avoid me each night. He was either asleep by the time I got to bed or waited to slip into bed under the cover of darkness.
That night, I was in bed first. I was just starting to drift off when I felt the mattress shift, and then I heard his voice.
"You have an appointment at health services tomorrow at 1640 hours."
Heat filled my cheeks but I fought the urge to bolt upright. In fifteen years of marriage, he'd never interfered with my health. Now he was making appointments for me without my consent?
"Did you hear me?"
I tried to extract the anger from my voice. "Yes."
"I need to know everything's been okay. You haven't been yourself. Willa and I can't lose you, Tina."
He was offering an apology for the imposition because he knew I'd be angry, but he'd still done it anyway.
Was I being unfair? Was I the one who was really acting strangely?
For a second, I thought about telling him what Lara and I had talked about, but then I remembered the promise we'd made to each other.
I couldn't betray her. If the statistics about deaths and accidents were all propaganda, if health services workers could wipe and implant memories, what would the authorities do if someone questioned their system?
It was ridiculous. I remembered reading about conspiracy theory nuts who thought 5G gave people viruses.
If I shared what I was thinking I'd sound just like one of the crazy anti-vaxxers who contributed to the deadly measles resurgence when I was five. My sister had been quarantined with the illness, and I still felt rage when I thought about how selfish and ignorant people had been with their health.
Was I guilty of the same thing now?
"Thank you, Dax. I think we'll all feel better if I get a clean bill of health."
The mattress rose and fell as he rolled over, gently wrapped his arm around me, and whispered in my ear, "I love you."
I turned toward him, felt his lips meet mine, and for a short time, everything seemed right with the world.
* * *
I made a point of telling health services that the headaches had subsided, along with the pain in my shoulders. They still ran comprehensive exams. I didn't flinch at the white walls and I smiled at every worker who entered and exited and answered all their questions.
Within reason, anyway. When they asked if I'd had any unusual thoughts, I kept most of them to myself. They asked about the family, and I mentioned Willa's age and said she was becoming more independent and it made me sad, and I pushed all my other thoughts and fears aside so I could smile convincingly.
Eventually, they told me that everything seemed fine, but they gave me a shot and recommended I take a few days off just to be sure. They authorized the work break and by 1535 I was ready to leave my appointment and head home.
Instead, I performed a location search for Jubilaine. It wasn't until I reached Dax's work that it occurred to me that he might be there. I used him as my excuse for accessing the building; the guards knew me by name and waved me in without questioning my reason for being there. I stopped by his office.
Empty, and devoid of anything that would give me a clue about what he was working on. His habit of keeping everything under lock and key had given me the impression his projects were classified, and I'd never pried.
Partly because I wasn't fascinated by the latest technological advancements most of the time. I was bothered by them. I'd thought Dax had appreciated the fact that I didn't try to coax secrets from him, but his words the other morning had planted seeds of doubt that had taken root.
He wasn't happy I respected the boundaries. He was offended I didn't value his work enough to try to find out what he was doing, how he was changing everyday tasks with new technology that I thought eroded our humanity a little more each day.
I turned down the wing toward Jubilaine's office. The door was open, but I could hear voices, so I slowed down.
"Last year, we successfully replaced 952 individuals in this county who died prematurely."
I recognized the distinct British accent that belonged to Jubilaine, but the voice that responded wasn't familiar.
"That sounds low."
"We have made great strides in reducing premature death. If more people used ADA and some of the other apps, the number would be even lower."
A third voice entered the conversation. "Have there been any issues with the IRAs?"
"The intelligent reaper avoidance synthetics have operated properly. We do have a classified group monitoring them, but for now, there don't seem to be any issues. Obviously, every replacement is a risk. We just had a tricky one last week. A teenager. Heartbreaking."
I fought to stifle my gasp as a moment of silence followed those words before Jubilaine continued.
"It's crucial Dax Amara remains unaware of our activities. He's fully committed to the death prevention projects, and DPP must progress. Our goal is to prevent people from losing anyone they love prematurely. People used to be crippled by grief. Some were unable to work or function. They endured long, joyless days. Some even tried to kill themselves."
A pause followed before she continued.
"You're all too young to remember, but our job is crucial. Our society depends upon us. We have the ability to ensure that nobody ever suffers a heartbreaking premature loss. Our economy relies upon everyone performing optimally. Without the IRAs, food production and manufacturing could grind to a halt. And nobody has to worry about loss of income or funeral expenses because a person dies prematurely. Bodies are kept in stasis and when the IRAs complete the predetermined natural life cycle, the real person is buried or cremated. People really are reunited with their families in death."
I turned away, and hurried down the hall as quietly as I could. Images flashed through my mind as I made my way out of the building to my jeep.
Willa's bright smile.
Dax's eyes when we'd argued.
A wrecked red jeep being raised out of the water.
The pain in my head and shoulders.
The montage played over and over again, along with the words I'd heard from Lara and Jubilaine.
They don't plan to make artificial people who live among us. They already have. They can replace any person with a synthetic lifeform.
The intelligent reaper avoidance synthetics have operated properly.
All these people who are dying in the accidents they say don't happen can be replaced.
Obviously, every replacement is a risk. We just had a tricky one last week. A teenager. Heartbreaking.
People used to be crippled by grief.
I'd gone from thinking my heart was going to stop to being afraid it would burst when I just suspected Willa had been replaced. Jubilaine's word echoed in my mind again.
She'd confirmed my worst fears.
Willa was dead. She was gone. And I couldn't even mourn for her because she'd been replaced with some thing
that wasn't my daughter, but I would have to pretend that it was for decades to come.
The tears that filled my eyes were mirrored by thick rain pelting the windshield as I drove. My wipers were set on maximum and still unable to keep up with the rain. Part of me didn't care. What did I have to rush home to? Yes, a husband I loved, but every time I set eyes on that thing that had been sent to replace my daughter my heart would clench and I would feel a loss I couldn't even talk about.
Dax was lucky he'd never know.
A horn beeped and I leaned forward and wiped the back of my hand across my eyes. I still couldn't see anything. Another horn blared long and loud, and I hit the brakes as I peered through the windshield, searching for some sign of the traffic nearby. The back end of the vehicle pulled to the right and I swung the wheel to compensate, but the jeep swung out the other way. Then I felt the force of something slam into the side of the jeep and my body was tossed from side to side. The metal shrieked, glass shattered, and the next thing I knew, the world was upside down.
* * *
I opened my eyes and sat up. My body rested on undefined darkness. The edges of the space shimmered with red and gold, but there was no form or structure.
"Where am I?"
"You mean what."
I spun around at the familiar voice.
She gave me a sad smile. "The one and only. At least, the one and only dead one."
I swallowed. She looked the same as always. Same auburn curls, same lightly freckled skin, same caring eyes. What was she doing in this strange place?
What was I doing here?
"What do you mean by that?" I wasn't sure I wanted to know the answer, but I couldn't hold the words back.
She pointed up and I followed her gaze. I could see inside her home. Jubilaine and Lara were laughing as they cooked dinner and they stopped to kiss. It wasn't a casual kiss, and I looked away, embarrassed.
"Those IRAs are so damn good, Jubilaine doesn't know she's living with one."
IRA. What had that stood for? I searched my memory until it clicked. Intelligent reaper avoidance. Synthetic beings. Beings used to replace humans who died prematurely.
"Wait. Are you saying ..."
"I'm dead. They replaced me with a synthetic being."
Our conversation flashed through my mind. "Wait. When--"
"Don't worry. It happened after our chat."
That was a relief. I couldn't imagine talking to a friend without realizing they'd been replaced with a synthetic lifeform. I didn't want to imagine a world where that could happen.
Lara continued. "I was walking to my car and someone came up behind me and jabbed something into my neck. Next thing I know, I'm watching someone put my body into stasis, until it can be buried or cremated years from now." She sniffed. "When they determine my IRA has completed my natural lifespan."
"And nobody can tell that's an IRA?"
"You see that faint yellowish-white tinge that lines its skin?"
I looked and confirmed that I did.
"Living people can't see that. Just the dead ones."
I shook my head. "I can't be dead. I don't remember dying and I never saw anyone moving my body."
She hugged her knees to her chest. "You're here, aren't you?"
"Where is here?"
"Purgatory, I guess. It's the closest explanation I've got. The man who was here when I arrived said his wife had finally started praying for his soul, and he could feel himself ascending to some other level."
"How long had he been here?" I asked.
"Decades. He said when his IRA died, his family mourned and that's when the afterlife started to change. He was stuck here until they knew he was gone."
My voice was barely a whisper. "I can't be dead, Lara. I don't remember dying."
"I saw what happened, Tina. When they killed me, I got worried about you, so I checked on you. Health services gave you a shot, remember?"
I glanced at my arm. "So? That isn't unusual. I've had shots before."
"It was a mortality injection, Tina. Something they could use to monitor you, and if necessary, to terminate you. You were driving in a rainstorm. The adrenaline surge triggered the injection and you died before you got home."
I searched back. "The last thing I remember is the rain and the sound of glass shattering ..."
She offered me a thin smile. "You created a lot of work for their cleaners with that accident you caused. They may not have meant to kill you at that moment, but if they hadn't given you that injection you wouldn't be here now. They killed you. Just like they killed me."
"They knew Jubilaine would always tell me things and I told you. They can control my IRA, and they don't want people to know what they're doing. There could be protests. It could disrupt the economy. The government learned from the past, you know? If people don't know what you're doing, they can't oppose it. And when life is good, people don't challenge things."
"But you said they could wipe our memories."
"That didn't work with you. You started to remember."
"But they could have wiped your memory." I was grasping at straws. Part of me wanted to scream that she was wrong, to close my eyes and wake up from this nightmare.
And part of me wanted to find a way to lessen the guilt I felt. They wouldn't have done anything to Lara if she hadn't talked to me.
"Jubilaine is too valuable for them to lose, but I was her weakness. She always told me what she was doing. This was a lot less work for them. I know I shouldn't have, but I snooped in your file while they were treating you. They wanted to use the slow-acting memory removal on you and see if it worked before they replaced you."
"They're so focused on keeping everyone alive they choose to kill people and replace them for their convenience?" I shook my head. "That makes no sense."
"You're operating from a faulty assumption. They don't care about keeping people alive. They are about keeping the economy rolling. Health and safety issues and personal tragedies used to cost the economy billions each year. Not anymore."
Lara had never lied to me, but I'd never invested much thought into what came after death. It seemed like something so far away that I didn't need to think about it. Could this really be it? Being stuck in some shapeless void with Lara, watching the people we knew and loved?
Watching them move on with replicas who'd replaced us?
"If I'm dead, I want to be able to see my family."
"Think about them, and you'll see them."
"Will you see them?"
"Only if you want me to."
"Okay." I stared at her for a moment. Did I really want to do this? I'd rather close my eyes and shake my head and wake up from this horrible dream, but I needed to know the truth. That was the whole reason I was here. I'd been convinced something was wrong with Willa, and even when I had enough to know the truth, I'd sought confirmation because I couldn't let it go.
Couldn't bear to think the child snuggling up against me was a synthetic imposter.
If I hadn't kept pushing for answers I would have gone straight home. I'd still be with Dax.
I thought about what I'd heard Jubilaine say. I would have been with Dax, but not Willa, because my daughter had died.
"Isn't Willa here?"
"If she is, you'll be reunited with her when you think of her."
My heart swelled. The thought of being stuck in this blank space watching the people I loved live their lives horrified me, but at least I could do it with my daughter by my side.
I summoned her beautiful face in my mind. The darkness above me swirled, and next thing I knew I was looking at my home. Seeing a synthetic version of me in my kitchen, laughing with Willa as the fake me dished out stir fry.
The yellowish-white tinge was there.
But where was my Willa? I pried my gaze away from the scene. The only person with me was Lara.
I looked back at the people in my kitchen and blinked.
There was no outline around my daughter. Whatever I'd seen in my dreams, whatever had happened, she was alive and whole, and she was talking to my IRA as though that robot was me.
My IRA turned and for a second she seemed to look right through the veil and see me. I could have sworn I saw a glint in her eye and the hint of a smile before Willa distracted her.
"I missed you when you went on your work trip."
"Is everything alright? You look like you're a million miles away."
My IRA wrapped her arms around Willa and held her tight. "I'm right here with you and I'm not going anywhere. You won't have any reason to miss me again. Not until I'm so old you'll be ready to let me go."
"I can't imagine feeling that way, Mom."
I'd been so relieved I hadn't been fooled by Lara's replacement, but I'd been so convinced something was wrong I hadn't even recognized my own daughter. How could I not know her?
Now I was sentenced to this hell where I would grieve for the ones I love, while being trapped here until the day they realized I was gone.
A day technology ensured wouldn't come for decades. I'd resisted the pressure to let technology invade every part of my life, and it had taken my life from me.