Bio-Core facility located deep in the Rocky Mountains of the U.S., Present Day
Two men, one dressed in a black suit and the other in a white lab coat, exited the large service elevator. The suited man pushed a large cart as they walked side by side down a barren corridor. Fluorescent lights flickered overhead as the two made their way to the disposal area, where the facility discarded mistakes.
The cart pusher groaned, lowering his body and grip to gain more leverage. “Damn, these things are heavy.”
His companion nodded, his eyes focused forward.
“What was wrong with this one?”
The man turned toward the cart-pusher and tapped two fingers to his temple.
“Oh, not much going on up there, huh?”
“Too much, actually.”
He shrugged and heaved the cart forward. “You’re the boss.”
They reached the end of the hallway and entered a security code to gain access to the double-doored room. Once inside, they deposited the cart next to another one in a long line of carts on a large conveyer belt. The disposal process was entirely automated. At the other end was a programmed door that opened and closed every minute or so, accepting the next cart on the belt.
After they left, something inside the cart stirred. A hand reached over the side. The man in the white lab coat was correct. Something was going on inside his head, and right now, it was telling him to run.
Chapter 1 - Jack's Arcade
Adam felt safe for the first time in his life. For an android posing as a human, it was a new concept.
He stretched his arms above his head and yawned. He slept like humans did, which made him wonder what percentage of his physical makeup was flesh. Since he also had a navel, he assumed quite a bit.
Adam switched on the power to the old-school arcade joint. Fluorescent lights flickered and steadied above his head. Games whirred to life in a concerto of tones, beeps, dings, and pings. There were about fifty or so cabinet, coin-op games lined up in rows and circles creating a labyrinth of amusements. At the back-right corner were pinball machines and interactive dance and musical instrument games. The walls were electric blue, and the black carpet had a red-and-blue geometric spider-web design. To his left was a snack bar, complete with popcorn machine, hotdog roller, and soft pretzel case.
He spied a glass carafe sitting on top of a counter next to a small sink. He blinked his right eye and a red laser shot from his eye to the bottom of the glass container, heating the water within. Tiny bubbles conjured from the heat burst the surface. As quickly as the laser emerged, so too did it retreat.
With a Styrofoam cup of instant coffee in hand, Adam used his built-in Bluetooth to turn on the jukebox he’d redesigned to play his choices on demand while still accepting coins from customers. It only played eighties’ music, and his central processing unit lit up, sending tiny rushes of pleasure through his limbs. Music and dancing was his favorite part about being alive. While he enjoyed many different genres of music, eighties was his first love. His feet tapped to the rhythm of “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” by Tears for Fears as his sandy blond hair swooshed in front of his eyes, hindering his vision.
The sound of the front door opening and closing directed his attention to the front of the arcade, where an electric sign hung above the doors lit in neon blue—Jack’s. Part of the s was no longer lit. Adam could fix the issues, but really, Jack should simply upgrade the sign for some new LED tech.
A tiny woman with short, hot pink hair, lips to match, wearing a short tube skirt and a tank top with four-inch platform shoes sashayed over to him. With the added height, she was still at least six inches shorter than him.
“Hey, Adam. How ya doin’?” Her lips smacked from the chewing gum in her mouth. She smelled like mint and flowers.
Adam smiled. He liked Daisy. She managed the snack bar. She was a native of Ashwater and started dating Jack almost ten years ago. She didn’t ask too many questions and was always nice to him. And more to the point, she fed him. He didn’t know much about what his insides looked like, but he ate like every other human he knew and hunger happened to him just like anyone else.
She was also the first person he didn’t want to kill. He didn’t know why, but he had a built-in killer defense mechanism that revved up anytime someone detected his true nature. Each time someone suspected that he wasn’t human, warnings sounded in his head, and he was given options on how to best dispose of the person. Since he was new to the human population, it happened often. Although, his operating system was relatively new, and he hoped that he’d gain more control with time.
“I’m good. You look nice.”
Daisy leaned in and kissed him, and he felt the sticky imprint of her pink lips on his cheek.
“Thanks, Shug. You’re the best.” She walked toward the snack bar and asked over her shoulder, “You hungry?”
He patted his perfectly formed middle. “Always.”
“Well, you get to work opening this dinosaur up, and I’ll fix you a snack.”
“Thanks,” he said.
Her idea of a snack was fine with him. She liked to get creative with the food she served at the snack bar. Last time, she cut up some hot dogs and soft pretzels and pumped some orange cheese sauce all over the both. She called it pretzel dog nachos. Adam computed the nutritional and caloric intake and concluded that the food she served him wasn’t all that nutritious, but it sure tasted good.
Adam turned back and assessed his work for the day. The Ms. Pac-Man game was down, and Dragon’s Lair was too. Kids loved Dragon’s Lair. He didn’t get it, since the game was overly focused on quick time events. After so many losses by players, the controls took a beating. Some of the pinball machines needed parts too.
He went to the register near the front of the store and prepared for opening. It was Saturday, so most kids were still sleeping. But in a town that offered little in the way of indoor entertainment, kids would stream in after twelve.
The front door blasted open, nearly shattering the glass as it ricocheted off the wall next to it. A man with dark shaggy hair, acid-washed jeans, and a Def Leppard T-shirt stood in the doorway. He reeked of something pungent and spicy, and his eyes were barely slits.
Jack White, owner of the arcade, had lived in Ashwater his whole life, and while he aged as normal humans do, he was stuck in his favorite decade—the eighties. He had a passion for classic arcade games and eighties music. Daisy said it was “charming.”
Jack raised his hands as if commanding a congregation at church. “If you please, maestro.”
His eyes met Adam’s in recognition. Adam nodded at the jukebox, using his internal Bluetooth. Jack didn’t seem to care how Adam could play songs to his choosing, only that he could. The familiar riff of “Sweet Child of Mine” sounded in Adam’s ultra-sensitive ears.
Jack swayed his hips to the music, tilting his head back, as he sauntered further into the arcade toward the cash register.
“It’s going to be a good day,” he said, matter-of-fact. He stopped, mid-sway and added, as if the universe was speaking to him directly, “I can feel it.”
Adam smirked. Jack couldn’t possibly predict the future. But if he thought so, Adam wasn’t going to argue the point. He’d already wanted to kill Jack on seven separate occasions. That would be messy and leave him to find a new home. Besides, Adam had gotten used to him. Or, at least, as much as an android could get used to something. Not to mention, Jack was his boss and landlord.
He had done Adam a solid by allowing him to move into the apartment in the back of the arcade. When Adam stumbled into town, he was drawn to the mechanical chimes and whirs from the games and the notes floating into the air from the old jukebox that played eighties’ music. Jack was working on a broken Joust game without much luck. Adam identified the problem and offered his assistance. After witnessing Adam’s skills for video game repair, a bond formed between them instantly. Jack called their meeting kismet. After learning that Adam didn’t have a home, Jack struck a bargain with him—room and board in return for Adam maintaining the games in the arcade.
Speaking of which, Adam had work to do.
“Hey, kid, come here.” Jack pressed some keys on the cash register, awakening the ancient metal beast.
“Yes, sir?” He approached Jack, putting his hands on the counter between them.
Jack opened the register drawer and pulled out two fifty-dollar bills. He placed them in Adam’s hand. “The part for your dancing game is in. It’s at the post office, C.O.D.”
Adam’s eyes widened, squeezing the bills in his hand. Jack had entrusted him with some old scrapped dance games for parts and gave him free rein to create something new. Adam couldn’t wait to finish the game, and the part he was going to pick up was the last he was waiting for. He grinned at Jack, excitement brimming from somewhere deep inside.
“Thanks, Jack. I won’t be long,” Adam replied, walking swiftly toward the door. Ms. Pac-Man would have to wait.
His first encounter with an old Dance Dance game awakened something in him that he couldn’t quite define. He wanted more. So he accessed as many videos and movies as he could about dancing. He cast them on his wall with his eye projection tool and watched thousands upon thousands of human bodies moving in sync to booming rhythms and styles. He joined them on the dance floor. When his body was in motion, Adam felt something, something he later deciphered as emotion. From there on out, he was hooked.
Now, he had a chance to create his own small club, where the beats could rock his body for real. But Jack did have one condition—Adam could only play eighties’ music on the system. Adam didn’t mind. In fact, since he’d joined humanity, he had grown quite fond of that decade’s music.
“Hey, wait a minute. I have a package to go out too.” Jack lifted a poorly wrapped brown box with an address written on the side in black Sharpie. “You should have enough for both.”
“Yes, sir.” Adam went back to the counter and picked up the package. Remembering Daisy was making food for him, he yelled, “I’ll be back in less than thirty minutes, Daisy.”
She nodded. “No worries, baby.”
Adam exhaled. He was still learning about the role of time in human interactions. Certain humans were more concerned about it than others.
“I love that woman.” Jack glanced back at Daisy then turned back to Adam and frowned. “You’ve got to loosen up. No need to stress. It’s just time, man.”
“Yes, sir.” Adam did his best to imitate Jack and relax his shoulders.
“Just Jack, Adam.” Jack nodded, smirking. “Just Jack.”
Adam’s protocol warned him against a first name basis with a superior. That would be out of line. He obviously still had much to learn. “Jack, sir.”
Jack groaned and waved at him dismissively. “Laters.”
Adam breathed in fresh, mountain air and the smell of pine as he emerged from the darkened arcade to a bright Main Street, the August sun warming his skin. The town of Ashwater only had one streetlight on the main strip that ran through the center of town, and it was fifty feet from the arcade.
Not many people visited Ashwater unless it was ski season, and that suited Adam fine. But lots of wealthy folks retired to this area—some old and some young. They lived on the mountainside that towered over the town. The rest of the town’s inhabitants lived closer to the earth, grounded by their means. With a spring in his step, he made his way down the sidewalk past a few stores including Jameson Pharmacy, Tully’s Gift Shop, Dalia’s boutique clothing store, and Mac’s Hardware Store. At the end of the row was the only post office within fifty miles.
Adam reached for the door handle to enter the post office and stopped, his breath catching. He sensed eyes on him from across the street. The telltale anxious strain seized his body, a prickling reaching from the tips of his toes to the top of his head. His heart pounded, his cheeks grew warm, and his hands felt clammy. Warning lights flashed before his eyes.
Don’t kill. Don’t kill. He was new to humanity, and his threat threshold was still difficult to control.
Slowly, he turned around to face the source of his concern.
Three boys were outside Dixon’s Diner across the street. One, the largest and most muscular of the three, leaned against a lamp post, observing Adam. The other two, much smaller and leaner, sat on a bench talking to each other.
“Hey, Adam,” yelled the boy standing.
Adam sighed in relief as his warning system quieted. He smiled as best he could and waved.
He’d learned about his approximate age from these boys, who’d assumed Adam was their peer when first meeting him at the arcade. That was good enough for Adam, who was desperately trying to fit into the town of Ashwater. When he’d arrived in town in June, he tried to minimize interactions with others besides Jack and Daisy. But working in a small-town arcade made that difficult, and they were dedicated gamers.
Together, all three boys slowly walked across the street toward him. Gage, the biggest of the three, lived atop the mountain in a beautiful home that overlooked the town. His light brown hair was cut short and gelled to perfection on top. Gage had a way of looking at Adam like he could see past the human exterior into the man-made core. He was the person Adam struggled the most with not to hurt.
Luke and Derrick, the two shorter boys, were twins. Their parents owned the diner, and Daisy was their aunt. The twins’ appearances, dark brown hair and eyes, was where their similarities ended. Luke, the older of the two, was into sports. Derrick lived for science and technology. It was something he and Adam shared. Adam also liked the discount they gave him at their diner. They were all entering their senior year at Ashwater High, the small high school situated at the edge of town.
Be cool. Act human.
“Oh, hey,” Adam said, his voice barely audible.
Luke and Derrick beamed at Adam, who stood a good six inches taller than them.
“What’s up, bro?” Luke asked, clasping Adam’s hand in a ritualistic handshake that Adam was still trying to understand.
Adam clenched back, causing Luke to wince.
“Sorry.” Adam dropped his hand.
“I have to get you on the team this year.” Luke shook out his hand even though Adam didn’t break any blood vessels or bones.
“I think I’ll just stick with going to school.”
Luke tapped Derrick on the chest. “Back me up. He’d be a beast on the field, right?”
Derrick nodded, pursing his lips in assessment. “I can’t deny that. Probably a lineman, right?”
Gage interceded, staring at Adam in that way that made him uncomfortable. “Guys, I don’t think he’s interested.”
On this one occasion, Adam was grateful for Gage’s observant nature.
Changing the subject, Gage asked, “So what are you up to?”
Adam remembered his purpose, his smile returning. “I’m picking up a part for a game I’m working on.”
This piqued the boys’ interest, their eyes widening. True to form for committed gamers.
Derrick queried first, “What kind of a game? Did Jack finally get something new in?”
“Well, no, but I’m refurbishing a dance game in the back room. It should be ready next week sometime. You guys can be the ones to test it out if you’re interested.”
They glanced at each other as if to say, Who doesn’t like testing out new video games?
“Nice. How do you play?” Gage asked.
Luke and Gage scratched their stubble-forming chins, while Derrick’s eyes grew large. Derrick loved music. He had a knack for mixing tracks too. He might be the perfect person to team up with to update some of the music.
“Like Dance Spot or something?” Derrick asked.
“Yes but better. It’s probably best to wait until it’s finished.”
“I’d be willing to give it a try,” Gage said.
“Is it competitive?” Luke shifted from side to side, his face scrunched up.
Luke nodded, eyebrows raised with renewed interest.
Adam was sure they would have fun, except for one small detail, which he better share now. “There is this one thing though. The only way Jack let me do this was if I promised to stay in the motif of the arcade.”
He glanced at the sidewalk. The twins did that a lot when they had to share something that made them uncomfortable. He hoped he was having the same impact. Gestures came naturally to people and were largely unconscious. This was not always a benefit because nonverbal behavior gave away the truth. It was a unique and beautiful quality of humanity. He, on the other hand, had to practice his actions to blend in.
The boys glanced at each other, smirking.
Gage spoke for the three. “Eighties’ music only?”
“Yes,” Adam replied, looking back.
Gage studied him. “That’s tight. But, please, for the love of God, have some rock on there. Some Guns, Def Leppard, Van Halen…”
“But don’t leave off the alternative stuff. Depeche Mode, Tears for Fears, New Order,” Derrick added.
Luke shrugged. “I don’t care what kind of music it is so long as I can wipe the floor with this guy.”
Then he grabbed his brother around the neck and pulled him into a headlock, rubbing his knuckles vehemently across his dark head.
“Hey,” Derrick said, pushing him away.
“All right, guys, I think we’d better let Adam get back to it. We’ll probably stop by the arcade later this afternoon,” Gage said.
Adam nodded. “Cool. See you later.”
He was still working on teen jargon. Cool sounded great coming out of Gage’s mouth, but Adam’s inflection was still slightly off. He turned, mouthing the word over and over as he entered the post office. The more he practiced, the better he sounded. He slammed into something—or rather, someone—smack dab, chest-to-chest.
Adam dropped the package and backed up as a huge man with buzzed graying hair and biceps, the size of Adam’s head, fell to the floor. Warnings resounded in his head and before his eyes.
Oh shit. He inhaled sharply and quieted the alarms as best he could.
“I’m sorry, sir.” He reached out his hand to the man now studying him from the ground in disbelief.
The man looked shocked but smiled as he accepted the sincerity on Adam’s face. Well, at least that’s what vibe Adam hoped he was putting out.
He took Adam’s hand and pulled himself off the floor. “You’re quite the strong young man, aren’t you?”
“Clumsy too, obviously. Again, I’m very sorry.”
The man studied Adam as if deciding what to do next. To make matters worse, he wore a tan uniform with a metal, star-shaped badge with the word “sheriff” inscribed, and he had a sidearm.
That was all it took to push Adam’s nerves over the edge, and the tremors in his left hand started again as the threat warnings rose louder in his head once again.
Stop it. Get yourself under control.
Thinking fast, he put his shaking hand behind his back and ran his other hand through his hair.
After what felt like an eternity, the man finally replied, “I don’t think I’ve seen you before. Are you visiting Ashwater? Staying nearby?”
“Yes—I mean no.” Adam shifted his feet nervously.
The man stared, confused.
Adam tried his best to smile. “What I meant to say is, no, I’m not visiting. I work at the arcade. In fact—”
He glanced at the package he was meant to mail. A blue plastic tube with a metal stem protruding from one side lay on the floor next to a frail, sad brown box. Adam recognized what it was at the same time as the man in front of him did. Jack had them secretly scattered all over the arcade.
The man’s eyes grew larger. “Is that a bong, son?”
Adam reached with shaky hands, scooped up the smoking device, and pushed it back into the box. He had a singular thought in his head—kill him.
He took a deep, cleansing breath. Get control. He’s not a threat. He’s not a threat. Don’t blow your cover. “I’m mailing this for my boss. It’s not mine.”
The man narrowed his eyes in disbelief, eyeing Adam up and down. “How old are you?”
“I’m eighteen, sir. Just turned.” Adam clenched the package in his shaking hands, his nails biting into the tender flesh of the already fragile cardboard. He had no way of knowing exactly how old he truly was, but he was perfectly aware of the laws for minors.
“I see. Perhaps watch where you’re going?”
“Yes, sir, I will. Sorry again.” Adam smiled as best he could and averted his eyes. With that, he moved past the man and headed toward the counter.
He sensed the man leave, but once he was outside, the man’s gaze bored into his back. Adam held his breath, waiting for the man to move along. He fought against his killer instinct to discard of the man permanently even though images of the act continued to surface in his mind.
But he wouldn’t let that part of him win. He was in control now, not them. His only hope for survival counted on him blending in with humans. He groaned inwardly.
This was not blending in.