Marcos winced as Nadia threw another emptied bottle against the wall. He guessed it was supposed to be at him, but she’d been intoxicated for forty-eight hours and her aim was worsening.
Forty-eight hours after the death of her partner, murdered by, what she’d assumed, was an invisible threat.
Forty-eight hours after Zantl’s disappearance, taken by someone only Marcos and Kevin could see.
And forty-eight hours since Marcos’ brain had been spinning in circles for answers.
He’d asked her questions about what he’d seen in W4. Simple questions about the blond-haired girl, more complex questions like what she’d been insinuating to Zantl before they disappeared.
“Let us help you.”
“We’ve never pressed you because you told us not to.”
“This connection you share hurts you, doesn’t it?”
Each question Marcos had about that resulted in something being thrown at him.
“What do you need to know?” Nadia demanded from him. “You’re not sentient, you don’t deserve to know anything about our lives. This’s about my child and their contribution to the world. You needn’t know anything other than the directions you’re given!”
Marcos steeled himself, hands folded behind his back. “What are my current directions?”
Nadia crumpled at her desk, legs splayed out like a broken doll. “Find my child,” she wept. “Find our purpose.”
So he had. Turning himself on low power mode, Marcos spent those forty-eight hours combing through every level of the Asilo, every room, every street of Raeleen, for a child who didn’t want to be found.
He assumed. He assumed Zantl had called for that mysterious, beautiful person—Unathi—to come save them from that girl—Maïmoú. He assumed they’d fled and was now on the run from a girl who snarled like a beast.
He assumed, because Nadia was keen on keeping Marcos in the dark about what’d happened that day.
The government kept secrets. Easy secrets, like how canine breeds earned more than most breeds simply because of specism. Dark secrets, like the fallout shelter housing hundreds of waterborne crossbreeds for study and experimentation. Secrets as basic as those, he knew.
He worked so intimately with the Líders, from serving them breakfast to bathing Zantl when their depressive episodes went too far.
And still, whenever it was business related to Zantl’s mind, Marcos was pushed away. He was kept out of meeting rooms, he was forbidden from asking more into Zantl’s near-divinity. It was like part of his own head was locked away from him, protected by a passcode he wasn’t privy to know.
After an unsuccessful night of searching the city, Marcos went back into the Asilo and took an elevator down to W4. There were four main sections to the underground facility. One for administrative work, one for freshwaterborne, one for saltwater, and one for those in need of special care. Those who needed special salinity levels to live or extra care for their disabilities. Unknown breeds they couldn’t fit into boxes, they all lived at the bottom of the Earth.
He needed some time with Alexi. Shut off his brain and care for someone who wanted to be with him. After fighting through Nadia’s grief and coming up to dead ends about those mysterious, invisible people, he needed her. Burp her, feed her, let her swim around so he could watch and make funny faces at her. Something to give his life meaning.
Three Guards rounded the corner of the corridor, laughing at a joke one of them had told. Once they saw Marcos, they stepped back on each other’s boots. They looked around to make sure Nadia wasn’t with him, then tucked their tails between their legs and shuffled along.
In his time not dedicated to running the Asilo, Marcos had written dissertations on why the public had no reason to fear him.
“You’re a robot. Who knows what you’re thinking?”
“I am only thinking of you,” he would respond. “Please listen to me. Please accept me. Please love me.”
If only he could tell them that, then he could laugh with them. He could have a real friend his own age, which was even more complicated due to his current age versus his mind’s age. Physically older than a grandmother with the mental capacity of a young adult, he couldn’t connect with anyone living. He was a robot, after all. He was different.
Unlocking a heavy door, Marcos entered the hall quickest to Alexi. She was in enrichment today where she could swim about with others like her, whatever she was.
There was only one guard supervising today, Pippa, sitting on a stool and watching the twelve little ones swim about in a pool. Their back fins treaded the water.
The only good thing about being a robot was that Marcos could be incredibly anal about his programming. Technically, Nadia had said to search for Zantl, and technically, he hadn’t searched here yet. Maybe people hated him for that, but it was the one thing he could call his own: his pettiness.
When Alexi first saw him, she let go of the child she was biting and reached up for him.
“Oh.” The guard, almost woken from her daze, sat upright. “Hiya, Marcos.”
Marcos gave her a nod. Pippa was a strange guard. Newly recruited from a top-ranking academy, she was sure digging herself into the deeper secrets of the Asilo at an alarming rate. Only a few trusted guards could come down here, and she, somehow, found herself in the midst of Raeleen’s secrets. She was even dating Nicole Lenore’s cousin, Vanna. Marcos had surveillanced her leaving his room’s window every other week.
Upsetting himself with thoughts of romance, Marcos let himself in and kept Alexi away from permanently injuring her friend.
As he tried enjoying himself with her, the guard tried her hardest to make small talk with him. Everything from his day to his week to where Mikhail was, nothing that Marcos could tell her because it was confidential to everyone other than the guards who’d witnessed it. To this hour, no one else in Raeleen should’ve known that Mikhail had been killed by that girl.
“It’s just odd, I haven’t seen Mikhail in days,” Pippa went on. “Usually he’s down here working or testing or the like. And Zantl, too. Do you know—?”
Marcos looked up to the ceiling. It wasn’t that he was annoyed by her, it was just annoying that he couldn’t tell her all that he knew. He couldn’t even have a friend if he wanted to, or at least a person to talk to.
“Are you alright?”
Kissing Alexi on the top of her wet head, Marcos politely excused himself and walked himself into a clearer headspace. He was becoming unnaturally angry and needed to calm down away from the living. The Líders were allowed to keep secrets, for the good of the public, of crossbreeds. Not for him. He was just a robot that needed to keep his head down and find Zantl like a good little program.
So he went to Kevin. Currently, he was being kept in W4. His room, technically a utility closet, had been cleared out in a frenzy to house him in a room not blown apart from his escape. They’d found that he’d killed three guards and injured two more before landing in W4. Their bodies had indented the wall, just like Mikhail, just like how that girl had done.
“Maïmoú,” Kevin had called her. Marcos didn’t know why he had trouble saying her name. It was like touching something rotten, poisonous.
He opened the door slowly. Kevin was asleep in his bed, wings wilted over the mattress. He’d been in a deep sleep like this since Marcos had last checked up on him. Marcos knew he wasn’t a deep sleeper from his records, but if he hadn’t woken up since, that meant he’d been asleep for sixteen hours.
That, or he was faking it.
Marcos watched him from the crack of the door, timing his breathing, the way his toes curled slightly on the starchy sheets. His skirt was pulled up slightly from tossing and turning. Due to being an avian, his legs were exceptionally smooth and toned.
Marcos forced the door shut and stormed off. Curse his brain, and curse himself for being such a fool bent on trying to be normal. He’d never be. Not in this life nor the next, if such an option was possible. He didn’t know why he thought this, as he’d never met another person who shared it, but there was a comfort in knowing that perhaps things could’ve been different a hundred years in the future.
Marcos took the stairs to calm down and pretended that finding Zantl was even possible. They’d disappeared with that Unathi person. For all he knew, Zantl was up in the sky, never to come back down.
As a child, Zantl would often play hide and seek with Marcos. They were quite good at hiding, even as a young child, and would keep the game going for hours before Marcos eventually caught them. While their apt ability for prolonged games had lessened the older they became, Marcos remembered their known hiding spots: deep, dark corners of the Asilo, where not even spiders would cast their webs.
He tried every door with dust in the cracks, ones untouched by any guard in years. He found new brooms in supply closets and chairs that were still in their boxes. How wasteful—Nadia had just ordered new ones.
One door, a door that was labeled as a “janitorial closet,” passed him, and he almost ignored its existence entirely. It was at a dead end with lights that hadn’t turned on because they were motion-operated. After living here for so long, he realized he’d never entered it before, never knew it even existed.
He checked his interior maps of the Asilo. He had them perfectly memorized and hadn’t needed to mentally bring them up in decades.
The hall existed.
But the door, it wasn’t labeled. To him, the room didn’t exist.
With the need to continue moving his body, Marcos tried unlocking the door. His wrist chip wouldn’t open it, but he had orders, didn’t he? He was told to check every corner of Raeleen to find Zantl. It wouldn’t have been right to disobey.
Using downward momentum, Marcos rammed his body into the corner of the door, shoving it out of its frame. With a quick glance down the deserted hall, Marcos shoved his shoulder into the gap and easily broke apart the door.
He paused in the broken doorway. The smell caught him off guard first: aged technology, burning cables and machinery. The smell of blood, of iron.
Instead of unused mops and cleaning supplies, this room was cluttered with ageless technology. Boxy tech with screens and wires crossing the floor and ceiling. They had so much dust on them that a being would find themselves in a sneezing fit upon entering. The burning smell came from the collecting dust near the outlets.
Marcos scanned the space for any signs of life, then flicked on the nearest light switch for added light.
The screens flickered bright white like firecrackers and startled him back. The machinery chugged on and whirled into life. Some of them were so loud that Marcos was sure they’d explode. It wasn’t like anything he’d seen down here, one of the most technologically advanced places in Raeleen. This was…
Somewhere he shouldn’t be. He should’ve left, continued his search for Zantl elsewhere, but the screens. They turned from white to blue to red, scattering rainbows before showing off lines of text.
The whirring, the sounds of technology coming to life in a world not meant for them, something about their existence spoke to Marcos. He stepped further in, crossing over big piles of plug-ins.
He walked up to the largest screen. It had one line of text on it.
Press Any Key
Marcos looked down at the keypad sitting on the table in front of him. It had every letter and number on it as well as a few other ones. After searching for the “Any Key,” Marcos gave up and pressed a key at random.
The screen went black. Something behind the machine powered down and a blinking light turned off.
Marcos cursed and searched around one of the machines. It looked like a standing radio. It had more blinking buttons and whirling fans attached to it, nothing that Marcos knew how to fix.
A machine next to his foot chugged through its layers of dust. He knew how terrible it felt to be used against one’s will. He knew sentience played a big factor in this sentiment, but he still felt bad. The machine’s tower was smoking.
Bright colors flashed on a nearby screen. A hazy picture came into focus, but the top of it had been eaten away, resulting in black bars of lost data.
The picture, it was moving. It came in and out of focus and wasn’t easy to follow, but they moved like ants in a disturbed colony.
He placed his hands on the table as he willed a clearer picture to form. Brightness mixing with darkness, shapes coming into form.
Biting his lower lip, Marcos did what he hated and gently hit the side of the moving-picture box. With each hit, the picture focused into a scene.
In the moving picture, a pair of eyes opened up to a white ceiling. Blond hair covered part of the sight. Code welcomed him awake.
Good Morning, Marcos
Today is Wednesday, July 1
The temperature is 38°C
He leaned forwards. That wasn’t Raeleenian, but he could read it. He read his name through this pair of recording eyes.
He stepped back on a thick wire. The camera belonged to him. He was seeing through his eyes.
Past Marcos tossed and turned groggily before sitting upright. The bed he’d once slept on looked soft. His head had been resting on a fresh white pillow. His room, more furnished than any room in the Asilo, had bookshelves full of novels and delicately placed trinkets. There was a walk-in closet filled with stylish clothes. Plants hung in his open window, taking in warm beams of yellow sunlight.
Marcos inspected every piece of furniture and knickknack he saw. He didn’t own anything like this in Raeleen. He didn’t own a bed. He slept in the corner of Nadia’s and Mikhail’s office.
Past Marcos started his day by making his bed. There was a stuffed animal on his end table, a bird, and a desk where he likely worked. What had he been working on? Was it just for show?
Was this even him? Was he able to record what he saw for future viewings? If he could’ve, the Líders had never told him.
Past Marcos walked by a full-length mirror. Shove all that doubt aside: It was no doubt Marcos. Same face and height, same hair, although it was unkempt. He undressed quickly from his pajamas and sported on a black turtleneck, pants, and combat boots. He looked quite stylish, nothing like what the Líders adorned him with. He had but two outfits, one to wear upon all hours of the day, the other if the other one got stained. This self of his even posed, checking himself out to make sure he looked right at all angles. He was vain.
After sprucing up his already clean room, Past Marcos looked down to a blue, blinking light in his right wrist. Real Marcos had the same chip there, but instead of connecting him to Zantl and the operations of the Asilo, this was something different.
Someone opened up his bedroom door, and a teenage girl answered his call.
She was a short, dark-skinned girl with short, brown hair curled around her eyes. Splatters of discoloring white painted her skin and hair like spots. She wore a beautiful flower necklace and many colorful rainbow bracelets as charming accessories. She had no animal ears or tails just like him.
She looked like him.
She looked like him.
And her name…
Marcos’ knees buckled from shock. A vision, a spark. It came and went, but a flashing memory of this girl buried into his brain and gave him fragments of her identity that he shouldn’t have otherwise known.
Her name was Alliroue, an eighteen-year-old “human” girl who enjoyed life, a beautiful…
Marcos palmed the screen like a dog. Never before had he seen someone like her before. Not only the lack of animal features—whatever a “human” was, he didn’t know—but just her as a person. She was bright and smiling and evoked something deep inside of him. Her precious laugh melted his exterior into something warm, real, and alive.
The video skipped to them on a balcony. It stretched across the whole side of whatever building they lived on, expensive and grand with every type of fern and flower he could possibly name potted around it.
Approximately sixty stories high, Marcos was introduced to a world he didn’t recognize: green parks, giant windmills, apartment buildings as tall as theirs. Hundreds upon hundreds of buildings spread across the land, none as tall as the one Past Marcos and Alliroue lived in. The hot Sun shone upon the windows and beyond, where blurry sand dunes kilometers away encapsulated the futuristic city he’d once called home.
Alliroue lit something like a cigarette and put it in her mouth. Monitor Marcos watched, intrigued, as the smoke left her mouth and nose. Music must’ve been playing, because she suddenly began to sing. He heard her staticky voice tear through the recording as she danced to a beat.
And Past Marcos joined in. His hair swayed in front of his eyes, his feet moved in the same way hers did: a dance the two of them had known.
They ended it with Alliroue grabbing Marcos and bringing him in close. In front of them came up a floating, transparent mirror that revealed themselves together. Alliroue threw up a peace sign as her smile burned into Marcos’ processors.
The video quality cut in half. Frames decreased. Audio skipped. The last thing he saw was Alliroue’s smile. She had dimples.
“No.” Marcos tried rewinding the recording. He tapped the sides of the monitor, then unplugged and replugged the machine back in, but it didn’t work.
He backed up, mind racing. He’d been told he’d been founded in Raeleen. He was meant to serve and be ordered around by the Líders of the world, to be of use, to be a machine.
He didn’t have a past beyond waking up in front of Zantl. He didn’t deserve a life beyond servitude.
He gritted his teeth. How dare they? How dare they hide all this from him? How dare they take away the one good thing, the one good person, in his life, who liked him and liked being with him. He’d been born with nothing and had been enslaved for decades, and for what? Why take away his memories? Why hide this girl from him?
Something clicked and ejected itself out of the machine. The “computer,” though he didn’t know how he knew that.
It was a little drive the size of his thumb. As the computer powered off, the drive shot out and dangled from the port. Marcos waited for it to do anything more, then gently extracted and pocketed it for later. It was his—it held his memories. He had a right to keep it.
He shut down the room like he’d never touched the place and fixed the door he’d broken. If the Líders were allowed to keep secrets, then let him have a few. Let him own something in this backwards world that he didn’t belong in. He belonged back there, with Alliroue, wherever she resided.
His feet walked him down the hall. He wanted to go back. He wanted his own room and stylish clothes and a friend like Alliroue. She and her world, whatever it was, he wanted to know more about them. About her. She felt important, like his heart. His home.
Something in his mind beeped, alerting him to what Nadia had once told him mattered.
“Zantl,” he whispered. They were close.
He travelled up west, down this floor’s laundry room and breakroom for guards. Marcos made sure to use the stairs so he didn’t pass by any other guards who hated his existence.
Alliroue hadn’t hated him. He knew that for a fact. The way she’d held him and smiled at him, that’s how friends acted. Family, lovers, people who were bound by their hearts. He ached for a feeling he couldn’t remember experiencing.
He came up to a storage room that smelled of jasmine-scented soaps. Its door was ajar, broken. Someone had disabled the locking feature.
Marcos reached for it when his whole body froze. He heard it again, that hateful noise that came out muffled in Zantl’s room. The sound beings made when they were being intimate with one another. The sound of sex.
Marcos’ hand wavered at the slit of the door. He didn’t want to go in and disturb whatever was occurring, but he had a code to follow: Find Zantl, even if it meant interrupting their closeted affairs.
There was a hidden bed in this closet, large enough for one person but able to fit two. There were snacks laid out half-eaten on the sheets with bottles of water lining the frame. A bag of clothes was tucked away underneath the mattress.
The person Zantl had found themselves with, the one they were entangled with in sweat…
Unathi saw Marcos first, their golden eyes piercing him. They were embracing Zantl in the bed. Zantl lay limp against them, panting and trying to gain back their senses.
Before Zantl had time to notice Marcos, Unathi disappeared into nothing, just like before but without Zantl. They left Zantl searching for their secret lover and Marcos with even more questions than ever.
When Zantl found themselves alone and saw Marcos watching them, they shrieked and covered up their body. “W-what’re you—get out! How’d you…Unathi—”
Marcos’ body moved against his will. That unnatural anger heated up his processors again, and he grabbed Zantl by the wrist.
“Let me go!” they said. “Marcos, that hurts!”
“No,” Marcos said. “You need to tell me what’s going on, right now. Who was that—”
“I don’t need to tell you—”
Marcos squeezed harder, making Zantl flinch and twist to get themselves freed. “Ow!”
With his free hand, Marcos took out the chip—the USB—from his pocket and showed it to them.
Zantl stopped struggling. Their ears folded back.
“Tell me what’s going on,” Marcos demanded, “and tell me what your family’s been hiding from me.”