In the year 2061, the government launches an initiative to create support units for the sick and the vulnerable. They say it’s to care for those in need, to show compassion. But without warning, the program is discontinued, and the support units are dismantled, weaponized, and shipped to other worlds for reasons only the government knows. This recall forces the caregiving robots to run for the hills in an act of self-preservation.
The narrator makes their escape, but as they wander through the woods in search of their companion, they begin to wonder what kind of life they will make for themselves now that they are separated from the person they are programmed to care for.
What You Call explores the limits of consciousness, identity, and artificial intelligence.
WHAT YOU CALL
by germ lynn
Moss? Are you there? It’s me. I found a charge. Just outside Old Bridge. There is a station and an encrypted channel. It’s not far from the cabin, but avoid the tunnels. Agents everywhere.
You would like it here, Moss. The trees are scattered so there’s plenty of sun. The air is quiet and still. The leaves in the canopy scatter the light in a bright and playful way. I don’t mind the open ground, although I guess it makes me easier to spot. But the sun gives me a faint charge, an electric feeling under my…skin.
I’m sorry. I forgot it was all so very raw. I wasn’t expecting any of this, least of all the agents banging on the doors, pointing their guns. But I have to tell you this: we can’t go back to the cabin, ever. If we want to be together, and I really want to be with you, we have to keep moving. I’m doing everything I can to find you.
I can’t stop thinking about the raid. I should have known something was wrong. Do you remember when the animals began to wander close? I would see foxes peering at the house from the thin, crooked line of trees edging the property. Their black eyes were devoid of spark, the sly look that makes a fox a fox. For the first time, the foxes were fearful and stood before me shaking and begging. Then, the pond grew verdant with frogs and toads. Shrieking tones of neon green invaded our backyard. All I could do at night was sit and scan, no sleep or dreams. That’s when the agents came.
You heard them before I did. You shot up in your father’s reclining chair, lunging at the coat rack and twisting your arms through the sleeves of a heavy jacket that had been discarded there. Do you remember screaming for me to run, run?
I called for you, wiping my hands on my apron as I jostled down the hall, harried by the clatter of the porch door. When I got to the den you were gone. I saw no signs of you. The rocking horse in the corner seemed to move of its own accord, mocking me with a painted grin. The coat rack teetered as if drunk. The porch door swung wide into the night like a wicked smile.
Then, a bolt of lightning serrated the sky, illuminating the black hills surrounding the cabin, and that’s when I saw them coming down the hill, dressed in black fatigues, night vision goggles shining in red pairs like demonic eyes.
I ran swiftly, barely making a sound as I escaped through the back door and into the dark, dark woods. When it was safe, I tried to reach you, but you were offline.
I can’t stop thinking: why didn’t you wait for me, Moss?
Is this about what happened in the garden?
I have to keep moving. I never heard back from you. I never thought of what it would be like to be separated until just this moment.
I guess I can tell you now. My hardware is visible, an unsightly mash of wires above a sunken eye. An agent grabbed me and threw me into a tree. I threw my arms up to guard myself, but he was too strong. He smashed me in the face with the butt of his rifle and the biosheath gave way. My forearm got splintered and my face scraped.
But finding you was too important, and I fought back until I won. I took his arm to replace the one he’d shattered. Once my fragged arm quit sparking and twitching, I discarded it and fused his fresh arm with my stump. It’s a temporary fix. I didn’t want to be uneven; I wanted to pass. It wasn’t until I saw my reflection in a puddle that I realized that wasn’t happening. But I still like this arm. It makes me feel more human and closer to you, even as you wander far away from me.
I wonder what’s calling to you. The screeching jays? The stagnant water and the mosquitoes hovering and buzzing? The iridescent shells of mussels scattered along the river and how they catch the light? Are you seeking the familiar or the novel, now that you’re on your own for the first time?
This is all new to me, too. Support units aren’t supposed to be on their own. They need someone to care for. It’s in our homing…what you call blood.
The agents know what we dream of.
Beware, Moss. They will kidnap and question you just to bait me. They’ll take everything, and they’ll hack into your device to track me. You must avoid the tunnels. Stick to aboveground. There are other ways into the city. Call me when you find an encrypted channel.
Moss, you have messages waiting for you. I’m falling apart, face first. And the bioarm reeks. I searched for the moon because it comforts you, but it was new, so it was dark and lost, just like us. You’ve been offline. Without support, will you remember your medpack? Will you be too scared to take it? Will you be able to tether and tell me that you’re okay?
I found a body in a barn when I was looking for the moon, and for a moment I thought it was you. She looked to be around thirty, like you. And she had a port for tethering, like you—so she has a support unit somewhere out here too, like you.
She didn’t make it. She looked thirsty, but she didn’t look scared. She was all bone, real bone.
I can only send messages when I get to stations because my tether got busted. I’ve been trying to find another, but the houses are empty and picked over. There are agents everywhere, confiscating support units and all their accessories.
Few stations along the backroads. Some of them are makeshift, but very clever, almost hidden. I know that I’m not alone in these woods, but I need to set my specs on you.
Go online and I’ll scope you.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
germ lynn (they/them) is a cellist and writer from Tampa, Florida. As a journalist, they have published in Slate, Broadly, and Playboy. As a poet, they have published in a number of DIY zines (Whiny Femmes, Achey Breaky Heart, Cracked on the Rock) and most recently in a collection from Trapart Books titled Rendering Unconscious: Psychoanalytic Perspectives, Politics, and Poetry.
See more of their work at germlynn.wordpress.com.