by Beth Cato
Beth Cato is the author of the Clockwork Dagger steampunk fantasy series from Harper Voyager, which includes her Nebula-nominated novella WINGS OF SORROW AND BONE. Her short fiction is in Clockwork Phoenix 5, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and Daily Science Fiction. She’s a Hanford, California native transplanted to the Arizona desert, where she lives with her husband, son, and requisite cat. Follow her at BethCato.com and on Twitter at @BethCato.
MARGO CLUTCHED THE NINE IRON and tilted an ear, listening for the crunch of footsteps from the next yard over. Dead leaves rustled. Even the wind seemed to hold its breath, waiting.
“Is someone there, Mommy?” Tara whispered.
“Maybe.” With one arm, Margo pressed her daughter behind her, against the cinderblock wall. Their last quart of water sloshed within her backpack.
Her fingers twitched on the golf club, a souvenir from salvaging in Palm Springs. It had been weeks since they had seen anyone alive. No one else was stupid enough to cross the desert stretch of Interstate 10 between Los Angeles and Phoenix. It’d been a wasteland before the bombs dropped.
But now they were on the far western fringe of metropolitan Phoenix. People were bound to linger here, and Margo was ready for them. Copper stains already marbled the shaft of the nine iron.
“I know someone is back there.” The brittle, feminine voice carried from the neighboring yard. “Looters aren’t welcome here. Show yourself and I might not shoot.”
Damn it. “Might?” Margo called, gripping the club. She had Doug’s old pistol in her backpack. No bullets.
The silence was long, assessing. “How many of you are there?” the woman asked.
“Me and my daughter. Just passing through, that’s all.”
“Come out.” That voice left no room for argument. “We have you surrounded.”
“I can help, Mommy!” said Tara. The simulacrum of a five-year-old girl hefted up a cinderblock, hoisting it above her head.
“Put it down, Tara!” Margo hissed. Sometimes her daughter’s inhuman strength came in handy, but right now Tara was too fragile. Again.
The real Tara had been dead for two years. Leukemia. The simulacrum had been created using the latest of advancements, complete with programmed memories, fuzzy logic, tantrums, and biological requisites. Tara — this Tara — was all she had left, and why they had walked and driven across three hundred miles of nothingness to find the headquarters of Simulated Innovations.
Margo spared a glance at the sky and sucked in a deep breath. Sim Inno should only be five miles down the road. They were so close.
“Stay here,” she whispered to Tara, pressing a quick kiss to her forehead. Margo’s sun-blistered lips burned.
She lifted her hands above her head, club still in her grip, and eased into the open. Her heart thudded throughout her thin frame.
A gaunt woman faced her, a shotgun in her steady grip. Beneath a layer of grime, her skin gleamed in a golden tan that once would have sparked poolside envy.
“We’re just passing through,” Margo repeated, her voice raspy. She was thirsty. She was always thirsty.
The gaze on her remained hard. “Where to?”
“Going to a place just up the road.”
Margo’s tongue moved as if to speak, tasting dirt and tangy iron instead of words. Surviving, breaking into Sim Inno, running recalibration on Tara — that meant everything.
“Don’t hurt my mommy!” Tara wailed. She crouched at the base of the wall, tears leaking from her eyes. Margo bit back the urge to tell her to stop crying. Tara couldn’t afford to waste fluid, but Margo hated using protocol commands to quell emotional responses. She loathed the reminders that a machine wore her daughter’s smiling face.
The woman jerked her head. “Have the girl come out.”Margo’s fingers squeezed the metal shaft of the club. “Tara, come out. Slowly.”
Whimpering, Tara sidled out and embraced Margo. Her head rested against the hard jut of her mother’s hip.
The other woman recoiled. “She’s pale… and fed.”
Tara had been a skinny five-year-old by pre-war standards, which meant she now passed for plump.
As for her skin, pigmentation nanites had been among the first to fail months before, not long after the cataclysm, but Margo couldn’t tell a stranger that. She knew how people reacted to sims, and didn’t need derision or pity.
“She’s sick. I’m trying to get her help. I… give her all my food.”
“Oh.” The woman’s expression softened a degree. “Other kids have been sick, too.”
“Other kids?” Tara emitted a joyful squeal.
Tears heated Margo’s eyes. She hadn’t seen another living child in ages. “It’s not that kind of sickness. I’m — I was — a nurse. Her case is… special.”
“A nurse?” The woman’s eyes narrowed. “We could use a nurse.”
“I have to save my daughter.” The two women regarded each other. The silence stretched out.
“Of course.” The woman relaxed a degree but the gun didn’t lower. “Just so you know, these houses are already stripped clean. No food or water.”
“We just want to move along.” Soon they would need more sugar, but that could wait until after recalibration.
“Then move along.” The woman granted her an abrupt nod and whistled sharply. “But keep us in mind. There could be a place for you here.”
Margo heard footsteps behind her and turned. Two boys emerged from the shadows of a house, their adolescent bodies as long and lean as summertime tomcats. The youngest couldn’t have been older than twelve, his face emaciated and eyes wide. Both carried makeshift spears. Following the woman, they ran across the street and vanished amongst the houses.
Margo stared after them. She had become familiar with the boney lines of her own body, but seeing children so close to starvation seemed unreal and wrong. And here was Tara, strangely normal in comparison. That felt wrong too.
“Mommy, they were kids like me!” Tara bounced in place. No, not like you, she wanted to say, and forced away the awful thought. She never used to think things like that. Doug had, when they first discussed purchasing a sim, but that was ages ago. Another life.
Tara hopped backwards and directly into the cinderblock. She toppled with a cry. The sweet scent of manufactured blood slapped Margo’s nostrils.
“Tara, stay still!” She swung the backpack off her shoulder and rummaged to find the patch kit.
“It hurts! There’s blood everywhere!” The child whimpered, clutching her knee. The backside of her calf streamed pink fluid.
“Mommy will take care of it. Don’t worry. Scoot here to the corner.” Margo cast a wary glance over her shoulder as she sheltered Tara with her body, then went to work.
Tara’s skin hadn’t blistered from the sun or radiation, but the slightest physical duress caused it to tear like parchment. The blood didn’t even clot as it should. Tara’s every motion, each breath, relied on hundreds of thousands of nanites within her circulatory system. Before the attack, this would have been a simple fix. Two hours in the recalibration module in Riverside.
Nothing was simple now.
Margo retrieved the patch kit and tore off a strip of manufactured skin. She patted it over the wound. Replenishing Tara’s blood-glucose came next. Simulacrum Innovations had promoted their glucose-based life system as the next great thing. No batteries to charge, no obvious computer hardware. It sold the fantasy that this was a real child. Her real daughter, complete with memories up to the point of her leukemia diagnosis.
Margo pulled the sugar and chemical additive kit from her backpack. The half pound of sugar shifted in its bag and trickled like hourglass sand.
She scooped out two tablespoons of sugar and poured it into a pink-dyed vial. After dumping in the additive, she sealed it and agitated the mix. In a practiced move, she hooked the IV to the concealed port in Tara’s arm. Pink fluid trickled down the line and vanished beneath a pale sheath of flesh.
“Sims are so easy to maintain! Just buy white sugar at the local grocery store and replenish their supply once a week, or more as needed. Blood-glucose is energy efficient, nontoxic, and economic!” So the ads once read. Doug once tried a sip and said it was eerily like Kool-Aid.
Without looking, Margo wiped her stained hands against her pants and packed everything away again.
“I did good! I did good!” Tara bounced in place. “I stayed nice and still, right?”
“Yes, you did wonderfully.” She gave Tara’s hand a squeeze.
Tara tilted back and blinked. “I did good! I did good! I did good! I did good…”
Margo bit her lip and looked away. Vocalization loop and paralysis. More signs of imminent failure. Death. Shut down.
“God, why is this happening again?” She rocked in place.
No answer came besides Tara’s ecstatic chant.
After a few minutes, the dialogue loop abruptly stopped. Tara sat up, smiling. In her databanks, the failure hadn’t even happened.
“Let’s go,” Margo said. New urgency pushed her stride.
Margo acutely sensed their vulnerability as they walked the borderland between the desert and civilization. Half-built houses stood frozen in time, their desert vistas now consisting of abandoned cars and debris. She balanced the golf club on the fulcrum of her fingertips. Merciless heat radiated from the pavement. Many people undoubtedly fled to the mountains in search of cooler temperatures and water, but even so, these streets were surprisingly clear of bodies and rot. Someone tended to this place.
“Mommy, that one boy looked like Sanger, didn’t he? But it couldn’t be him, huh?”
Margo’s steps slowed. “Sanger? But…” Sanger had been another boy in the leukemia ward. Tara wasn’t supposed to remember that time. She knew she was different — special — but no more than that. Innocence was meant to be bliss. “No, it couldn’t be him,” Margo answered slowly, gnawing on her lip.
“Sanger used to give me his jelly cups and I’d give him my apple slices. But we can’t give them any food, huh?”
“No. I know you want to help, but we’ve talked about that before. We can’t give anything away, Tara. I need to stay strong to take care of you.”
The girl was quiet for a long minute. “Do you think if we gave them food, they’d be my friends?”
“Oh, Tara. You don’t have to give them anything to be friends. Just be yourself.”
“Really?” She brightened and glanced the way the others had gone.
“Of course.” Margo rubbed Tara’s shoulder for good measure.
Beyond a chain link fence, the headquarters of Simulated Innovations was a gray and glass obelisk. A broad gate blocked the road. The fence stood a solid eight feet high with barbed wire looped along the top. A quick rummage through the backpack and she had the wire cutters in hand. She hefted the tool for a long moment, immobile in grief and memory.
The fence at Riverside had killed Doug. When they cut their way inside, wire scraped across his ribs. It seemed like nothing at the time. The only thing that mattered then was what they’d found inside the facility: the recalibration chamber disassembled for maintenance. Still, they replenished Tara’s supply of additive and synth skin, and immediately planned to move onward to Phoenix to Sim Inno’s headquarters.
Then Doug’s health failed. Fast.
Even as a nurse, Margo never thought to ask her husband when he last had a tetanus booster. She also thought that nothing could be worse than watching your child die. Then she had to watch Tara’s devastation as her father died in indescribable agony.
Margo cut a wide doorway through the fence this time, tossing the metal aside. She knelt in front of Tara and gripped her by both shoulders. “Whatever happens, you know I love you, right?” Three hundred miles to get here, for this chance to keep Tara alive. Every step, every mile, was worth it.
“I love you, Mommy.” Tara’s arms squeezed her and kept on squeezing.
“Tara, let go,” she gasped. The little girl’s arms painfully compressed her ribs and then suddenly released. Margo staggered back with a gasp, rubbing her torso. Tara smiled, oblivious to her own strength. Yet another nanite failure.
“Let’s do this,” Margo said, voice hoarse.
Margo gingerly stepped through the gap in the fence. Tara inched through with equal care. Margo’s eyes traced over Tara, making sure the wires hadn’t scratched her, and she nodded to herself.
There was no way to tell if the building had any electricity or generators. God, let there be electricity. Let this work. Dark windows glistened through a coat of dirt. The glass didn’t look broken or even cracked. Surely someone had tried to break in and search for vending machines or something.
“I did good! I did good! I did good…”
The suddenness of the Tara’s voice caused Margo to freeze. The girl kept walking, oblivious to her vocalization loop, and Margo hurried ahead. Another failure, that fast.
“Protocol 10, mute,” she said, hating the words, not even sure if they would work. Tara’s silent lips continued to form syllables as she skipped along. As they reached the darkened three-story building, Tara’s lips stilled again. “Protocol 11, volume.”
“This is like a special hospital, Mommy?” she asked right away. “You can fix me up?”
“Yeah.” Margo squeezed her hand. It felt like a real hand, warm and balmy with sweat. It felt like Tara.
Taking a deep breath, Margo tested a door handle. Locked.
“If anyone’s in there, they must be vewy, vewy qwiet.” Tara said that Elmer Fudd style.
Margo’s fingers traced a card scanner and pad beside the door. On a whim, she pressed her thumb against the pad. A red light blinked.
There was electricity. But how to get inside? Riverside’s security had been totally different.
“My turn!” Tara sang as she pressed her whole right hand against the pad. The light flicked to green. With an audible click, the door unlocked.
Margo yanked Tara back, golf club up, breath catching.
“WELCOME, MODEL 311337 B.” The words scrolled across a plate on the door.
They entered the building. Stagnant air reeked of mustiness. Emergency lights glowed in long, fluorescent strips above. As the door behind them shut, green dashed lines appeared on the floor and trailed down the hallway, flashing on the right side of the fork as if to guide them that way.
“Hello? Is anyone there?” Margo called. “I’m Margo Calloway. My daughter is Tara, she’s from… here. She needs recalibration.” The echo of her voice trailed away.
“You think it’s like a maze game?” Tara asked, pointing at the green lines of the floor.
“It seems to be leading us somewhere. Let’s follow. Slowly.”
They walked deeper into the center. The air cooled, the mustiness faded. Some sort of limited air-conditioning was running.
“Oh my God.” Margo stared in awe at a water cooler. It sat in the hallway, half-full. Her hands trembled as she pulled a paper cup from the dispenser and filled it.
“Wow,” said Tara.
The clean water tasted like heaven. Margo drank and drank again and forced herself to stop. Too much, and she’d be sick. She pulled bottles from her pack and filled them. This might be a place they could stay a while. If there was water, there was bound to be food around, too. Hydrated and hopeful, she herded Tara along the path of lights.
Tara practically bounced up a staircase. Margo smiled as she listened to Tara count steps beneath her breath.
“Forty steps all together!” Tara pointed ahead. “Look!”The green lights stopped at a door. As they approached, it withdrew into the wall with a slight hiss. Margo held out an arm to keep Tara from dashing ahead, nine iron aloft.
Ahead of them stood a child. She looked… perfect. Clean. Groomed. Like a photo shoot from a catalog. A lacey white cardigan clutched the slight swell of her breasts and contrasted with an A-line pink skirt. Straight blonde hair fell to her shoulders. A pink bow perched above one ear.
“Hi!” Her cheeks were rosy as she grinned. “Welcome to Simulated Innovations. I’m model 31145 A. Nice to meet you! Are you a technician with security clearance C?”
“No,” Margo said slowly.
“Oh, dear.” The girl’s shoulders slumped. She clasped her hands together and rocked back and forth in her Mary Janes. “Why hasn’t anyone come in to work? Don’t they realize they have jobs to do?”
“I might be able to help.” Margo eyed the girl.
“Not if you don’t have clearance!”
Great, a sim with a programmed attitude. Margo laid a hand on Tara’s shoulder. “Maybe you can help us, then. My daughter needs recalibration — “
“Oh. She’s a model 311337 B and obsolete.” The girl made a slight sniff. “But even if she was a 311338 or 311339, she couldn’t recalibrate. There was a fatal flaw in the chamber design, and the company ordered maintenance to replace the recalled parts, but no one’s come to finish the job. “
“What?” That couldn’t be right. The chambers couldn’t be offline here as well. She lunged forward to peer into the room.
The laboratory stretched for seventy feet or so, the stark walls and beams immediately familiar. It looked like a larger version of the calibration laboratory in Riverside. The individual chambers were stripped of their walls, wires and gadgetry exposed. Caution tape, toolboxes, and barriers surrounded the site. Everything left waiting for workers who were either long dead or long gone.
A low, agonized wail escaped Margo’s throat.
In that instant she felt the shadowy compression of the hospital walls, the harshness of antiseptic, the soft and steady beeps of the machinery that kept Tara alive. Her Tara, the Tara she birthed in eighteen hours of labor, the little girl obsessed with butterflies and Harley Davidson. At age six, after months of chemo, she was so small, so frail.
“I’m scared, Mommy,” her flesh-and-blood Tara had whispered. “I don’t want to die.”
“We won’t let you die,” Margo whispered back. “You’re going to be our little girl forever.” Even then, technicians from Sim Inno crowded the room and bustled behind her. Ready for Tara to die, ready to revive her.
“Mommy? What’s this mean? Can’t I get all better?” said Tara. She stood in the hallway of Sim Inno. Dirt smudged her face, that miniature replica of Doug’s nose.
A small hand as strong as iron clenched Margo’s wrist. “You don’t have security clearance to go in there,” said 31145 A. Her voice sounded cheery, her skin warm and human, but her grip had all the flexibility of rebar. Margo had the strong hunch that if she made any move forward, her wrist would snap like a twig.
She stepped back, her mind reeling. The sim relinquished her hold, but the pain of that inhuman grip lingered. “Don’t say that, Tara. We’ll find a way.” Somehow. They had come this far. Margo looked at 31145. “She’s suffering cascading nanite failure. She needs recalibration or…”
“That’s not a surprise since she’s a model 311337 B. What’s she experiencing now? Peripheral neuropathy? Temporary paralysis? Memory errors? Soon her personality nanites will succumb and then — “
“Tara’s not going to forget who she is!”
“Yelling at me isn’t going to help. I didn’t create such an inefficient design. Do you have any idea how wasteful their glucose-caloric burn was?”
Margo’s fingers clenched the club even harder at the use of the past tense. “There has to be something we can do. Instruction manuals or something.” Never mind that Margo had trouble loading Windows on her old computer. For Tara, she’d try.
“There is one option.” The sim’s face brightened as she held aloft one finger. “Hey, sisters?”
A door across the hall opened with a slight pop. Another 31145 stood there, smiling. Margo whiplashed her head looking between the rooms. This new sim looked identical but for a blue bow on the head, and behind her — God, it was a whole line of them. Margo shivered at the freakiness of the clones. Even Tara made an odd sound in her throat and backed up, her fingers clutching at Margo’s thigh.
“That’s a lot of twins, Mommy.”
“Yeah.” A sudden cough shuddered through Margo. Already, she craved another drink.
“These are my sisters, B through M.” 31145 A’s tone was cheery as she stepped into the hall. “We’re all happy to see you.”
“Hi!” “How are you doing?” “What’s up?” “Konichiwa!” The greetings rang out at once, followed by girlish giggles.
31145 A sashayed around them. “See, we can’t recalibrate either, and we’re having to be super careful with all our supplies.” She pointed at Tara. “We need your help! Your glucose can be recycled, and recycling is so, so important.”
“I like helping! What’s my glucose?” Tara asked, her brow furrowed.
“Recycled?” Those words seized Margo’s mind. “That doesn’t… no, you don’t understand — “
“As model 31145s, our glucose management is both efficient and our functions are an integral part of this facility. We really, really, appreciate your help!” The girl reached for Tara, still smiling.
Margo shoved Tara behind her and brandished the golf club.
“You’re not touching my daughter.”
31145 A did a very pre-teen eye roll. “Oh, come on. She’s already in catastrophic failure.”
“Yeah, I mean, nothing should go to waste,” said the unit with the blue bow. She and the others poured into the hall, the sims nodding and murmuring in agreement.
Margo almost tripped as Tara stopped moving. “She will never be a waste!”
One of the sims lunged forward. Margo hesitated only for a split second, seeing that perfect catalog image of a child’s face, then swung the nine iron with all her strength. The club smashed against the 31145’s cheek. She stumbled back with a shriek, setting off an echoing cry among the others.
“Tara, run for the exit!” Warm glucose dribbled down the shaft and pooled at the base of her thumb.
“I did good! I did good! I did good!” Tara’s words slurred. Margo spared a glance behind her. One of Tara’s eyes drooped in the socket, the surrounding skin sagging. Hemispheric paralysis.
Oh, God. Not this, not now. “Tara, go to the exit. Hurry!”
“I did good! I did good!” Repeating the phrase, Tara turned and walked down the short hallway, her left foot dragging.
Margo pointed the golf club at 31145 A. “Do you know the addresses of any local scientists, people who work here? People who can get the chambers working?”
People who were evacuated, or dead. But she had to ask, she had to do something. She hadn’t come this far to give up.
“I did good! I did good!” The faint voice continued behind her.
“You don’t have clearance for that information!” said A, her voice shrill. The 31145s stepped forward en masse, forcing Margo back. Something clattered behind her. Metal on metal, squealing.
The stairs. Tara’s paralysis.
Sims forgotten, Margo burst down the hallway and stopped at the railing. Three flights down, Tara lay in a twisted heap. A small puddle of pink expanded around her.
Her head — her spine — nothing looked as it should.
Margo had no memory of walking down the stairs. She was suddenly at the bottom and dropping her heavy backpack to the floor. Her hands hovered over the twisted wreckage of her daughter.
“I did good! I did good!” The tumble had degloved half her metal skull; a vellum-thin flag of skin and scalp draped over her shoulder. Tara looked like a robot. She was a robot. Burst veins oozed pink. Below — her arms and legs were scraped, but her spine — God, her spine. Her head twisted the wrong way around.
Stabilize her. Stop the bleeding. Margo’s brain fumbled into crisis mode. She ripped open a pack of synthetic skin and pressed it over Tara’s face, covering an empty eye socket. Where was the eye? That didn’t matter now. She patched here, there, staunching the flow of circulatory-glucose.
Margo exhaled in slight relief, and then grey, gummy fluid dribbled onto her hand. She frowned and wondered what it was.
She looked down. The immediate glucose loss had been averted, but now grey sludge oozed from the break in Tara’s neck.
Nanites. The central nervous system had ruptured.
“I did good! I did good!” The slurred words had softened.
“What happened?” 31145s crowded the railing above. “Oh! What a waste! She’s bound to — “
Margo huddled over Tara with a feral growl and scooped her into her arms. A misaligned rib poked Margo’s chest. Warm fluid coursed down her arm, soaked her shirt, her skin, and deeper. Footsteps pattered down the stairs. Margo ran.
The walls of the facility blurred and then she was outside, dashing across the parking lot, toward the hole she had cut in the fence. The sun pierced her eyes like a laser as she glanced back.
The 31145s had stopped at the front door, their programming apparently preventing them from leaving the building.
Margo kept running anyway. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” she whispered to Tara.
“I did good. I did good.”
Across the parking lot, through the fence. Down the street where not even dust had the energy to whirl.
Freed of the backpack, everything seemed lighter. The sugar, the supplies, they didn’t matter.
What mattered, now?
Tara was dead. She had been dead for over two years. Margo had always known, on some level. What she held in her arms… that was the last part of Tara. A part she loved dearly, more than anything else left on this shattered earth. But it wasn’t truly her daughter.
That didn’t make this any easier.
Margo collapsed in the shade of a nearby building, unable to breathe. Black dots swarmed her vision.
“Mommy?” The word was scarcely audible.
Tara still knew her, despite the nanite loss. Margo hunched over, sobbing. Tara blinked her singular eye.
“It’s okay, I’m here,” Margo said. “I’m not leaving you.”
“I fell. I couldn’t stop it.”
“I know, sweetie, I know. It’s not your fault.”
“This doesn’t hurt, not like last time. I don’t really feel anything right now. It’s not bad, really.”
Margo stilled. “What?”
“The last time I died. It hurt a lot then. It hurt all over.”
“You’re not supposed to remember that.” Sim Inno, they said those things were filtered out. Tara was supposed to remember to age five, roughly, except for associative data.
This was associative. Death remembered death.
“You were there, and Daddy.” Tara’s smile wobbled on her lips. “It’ll be nice to see Daddy again.”
Margo couldn’t speak, couldn’t think.
“I love you, Tara,” she finally whispered. “I will always love you.”
Tara’s smile was distorted, but it was still her smile. “I did good. I did good.” Tara breathed the words.
“Yes, you did. Always.”
Tara’s voice trailed to a whisper, looping until it stopped completely. Margo pressed her face against Tara’s cheek, absorbing the realism of her skin. Warmth flowed against Margo’s lips and invaded her mouth. Sweet, fruity. Delicious. She knew it by the scent: circulatory-glucose.
Almost gagging, she recoiled, staring down at Tara. Despite her mangled face, Tara looked at peace. Margo’s hands shook. Her parched mouth salivated in response to the liquefied sugar.
Slowly, her tongue eased out to lick more from her lips, and then her fingertips, but her thirstiness didn’t subside.
The backpack was gone. She had no food. No water. Margo stared down the street the way they came. The children. The ones Tara wanted to be friends with. They were sick, starving. Margo was a nurse. Circulatory-glucose was food, calories. And she knew where they could get more, and water. Tara was the key. Her palm-print could get them back into Sim Inno. All they had to do then was find a way to defeat a small army of freakishly-strong pre-teen clones.
“We can help your friends, just like you wanted,” Margo whispered, rocking Tara.
She couldn’t help herself. She dipped her hand into the sticky glucose on Tara’s arm, and closing her eyes, brought her fingers to her lips.
The sweetness brightened the darkness, and she drank it up.
“The Sweetness of Bitter” first appeared in the InterGalactic Medicine Show, in September 2013.