QSFer Lynda Lyons has a new lesbian sci-fi book out: We Interrupt This Program.
In a future where androids are fully integrated, there’s more need than ever for the highly successful Controllers. The Controllers are a special force whose primary job is to track down androids who have gone renegade.
Lt. Valentine Smith of The Controllers is under the tutelage of her superior, Amelia Roberts. This time it’s personal for Valentine as a bomb meant for Amelia is planted in the Director’s private apartment. But it’s still business as usual as Valentine is sent to assure an important interspecies meeting goes well.
But why is the head of The Controllers, Amelia Roberts, so standoffish with everyone except for her second in command, Valentine? Is it aloofness? Shyness? Or does she have a secret?
JENNIFER TAYLOR RELUCTANTLY PULLED her hood down. The heavy rain was finally beginning to let up. She had been standing in the doorway for several minutes, unwilling to admit the rain wasn’t what kept her from crossing the street despite her concern over what she had in her pocket. The message had come over the office GEMCOM, so surely it was important. But if I hadn’t been working so late on a Friday night, wouldn’t it have waited until Monday? No. The series of codes preceding it proved it wasn’t an ordinary transmission.
She lingered in the doorway of the International Control Registry Center, the building where she worked, reluctant to finish the short journey to Amelia’s apartment across the street. What were you doing at ICRC so late? She imagined the question, pleasantly tuned but accompanied by Amelia’s probing gaze. What would she say then? Forgot something. Getting ahead. I’m always there late. No. Jennifer recoiled from the confession. Catching up was the truth. Because I’m always struggling to keep up with you…maybe I really can’t handle this job and now you’re going to find out.
Miserable, Jennifer slid her hands into the pockets of her raincape, fingers curling into fists that tightened the expression on her face. A sequenced instantaneous memory flitted across her mind: herself back at the basement terminal from which Amelia had rescued her. Herself, demoted back to the pool of coders, a scarlet letter of “F: not good enough” forever tattooed on her record. Forced to go back home to her family in the Midwest, another tried-and-failed story of a small-town girl, like so many others.
She imagined the decrease in pay if she were relieved of her job. Felt the weight of the work Amelia trusted her with. Another opportunity where she could fail herself, her family, Amelia.
From the beginning she’d never stopped being aware of just how much responsibility was attached to her job. Hers was the only such position at the ICRC… if she let down the position then she would be letting down all the Commission. But most of all, Amelia.
Amelia had singled her out. Was counting on her. She had been the first person to have such faith in her. The first unrelated person, that is. Back in Indiana, her parents had convinced the old neighborhood that it had just been a matter of time. They’d grasped the importance of secretary to Amelia Roberts, Director of the ICRC. The Controllers’ prestige was well known, even in a small town.
Which meant incompetence in assisting the director would be tantamount to… Jennifer struggled for a word, her awe at having been chosen for such a role in the first place making it impossible for her fragile self-esteem to find an accusation grave enough to point the finger at herself if something should go wrong because she didn’t get the message to Amelia quickly enough. Treason, even? That being how seriously she took her job.
With that determination, she took a wobbly step over her panic and entered the street.
In Dividing Room A, Section 1, Berth 14, the female sat up. She turned her head slowly from left to right, testing, surveying, analyzing where she was. The room she was in was small, windowless, a row of tables stretched out to her left with an unanimated body on each. She moved her left leg, easing herself off the metal table on which she’d lain. The movement was effortless. When her feet touched the floor, she paused, head bowed, listening; her hearing was sharper than a human’s, less so than a canine’s. There were no sounds in or out of the room to be heard.
Her chest heaved, re-igniting the internal cosmetic mechanisms, which emulated breathing. The action triggered warmth along the organically grown fibrous network covering her entire form. The exterior layer of her skin erupted into thousands of simulated goose bumps on her bare arms, back and thighs in recognition of the chill, but she did not feel the cold.
She moved soundlessly to the end of the table. Crouching there, half hidden, unaware of what came next, she waited for what it would be.
Amelia Roberts stared at the screen. At Jennifer’s face before she came into the apartment complex. Jennifer was on her way up to see her.
Amelia hesitated, distracted by the face that had smiled nervously. Then she turned, surveying the room, and turned off the newscreen, soundnet, stereoblock, and the entertainment screen which beckoned her back to the game that was not a game. She turned on the light in the kitchen and took a pair of shoes from the hall closet and tossed them into the corner where they would be visible. Snapping on the light by the chair, she pulled a clothbound classic from the shelf and opened it before laying it face down on the seat.
Aware the knock was seconds away, Amelia took one last survey of the room and then knelt, reaching into the darkness beneath the chair to scoop up a mass of gray fur faster than it could protest. She set the cat down and smoothed her hands over her hips, reassured at the few hairs the animal had donated to the picture she wanted to present.
The cat was already dashing away from her when Amelia opened the door. She did it a careless millisecond before Jennifer knocked.
“I’m really sorry for just dropping in. I should have called. I thought you’d probably want to see this, and I was just across the street, so I thought I’d better do it on my way home. Drop it off, I mean.” Jennifer held a folded piece of transfilm out to her.
Amelia stared at it. I opened the door before Jennifer knocked.
“It must be important,” Jennifer was saying. “Coming in like that, at this hour, for you. Maybe I’m wrong. I could be wrong. I should have called.”
“What were you doing at work so late?” Amelia interrupted, softening the question mid-sentence, balancing her tone with the unsure expressions of Jennifer’s face, the accommodation second nature by now due to the extreme vulnerability of the small, brown-haired woman standing before her. Did I overlook something? Did I leave something undone that Jennifer had stayed to accomplish? Amelia blinked away the unfamiliar collision of self-questions.
Her secretary winced.
Obviously, I missed something. “Sit.” Amelia moved back as she spoke, gesturing with her voice, belatedly with her head.
“How long have you been a vegetarian?” The woman named Faye eyed Valentine Smith’s plate: the small, portioned arrangement of sprouts, soy tots, the dark green stems of the baked asparagus-special elegantly rising from its midst. Her face displayed neither approval or disapproval.
“Since I was a teenager.” Valentine touched the goblet of wine that stood by her knife but did not pick it up. “And why aren’t you?”
“It’s practically mandatory at the Academy, isn’t it?” The woman did not smile. “I’ve heard there’s so much emphasis on health, cadets fear they can’t even pass the written tests unless they’re in prime shape, physically.”
Valentine leaned forward, pushing her plate with her forearms. The subdued conversations and sounds of the other diners in the elegant restaurant floated around them.
“You’re quieter than I thought you would be, Lieutenant.” The woman seemed to resist an impulse to pull back, and then she leaned forward, as if either action might seem far too vulnerable. “I was under the impression you would be much more verbal.”
“Verbal?” Valentine asked.
“When you agreed to dinner, I assumed—”
“You assumed what?”
The woman sheared through the coyness. “Your professional reputation may be impeccable, but your personal one is dubious.”
“Then why did you ask me to dinner?”
“Because I am attracted to you.”
The woman half-laughed, an unchecked expulsion of sound somewhere between surprise and irritation. “I meant professionally. You see, I had ulterior motives behind the invitation. “
“I usually have those myself when I invite someone out.”
The woman appeared jarred but collected herself. “I wanted to get to know you better. I’ve heard so much about you. I was curious about what you were actually like.”
A small insolent curve appeared at the corner of Valentine’s mouth.
A curve at which the woman found herself immediately drawn. “This is hardly an attitude I would expect from such a professional.”
Valentine grinned, an amused flickering in her eyes.
The woman frowned. “Though I had heard that this was a part of your persona.”
Valentine shrugged, an unapologetic movement of the Controller’s shoulders.
A dozen thoughts went through the woman’s mind. Titillation, uncertainty, a nagging fear she was being teased. “A sophisticated young woman like yourself. You must be—twenty-four? Twenty-five? I’m almost twice your age and I don’t believe I’ve met a woman like you in years.”
“You have never met a woman like me.”
It was disturbing how much more seductive Valentine’s voice had become. It was as though the more uneven the conversation, the more self-assured she became. The woman was reminded of stories of Valentine in the field. Ones that made her sound like only a ruthless warrior, callously and relentlessly bent upon defeat of whatever was in her path…rather than the strikingly feminine woman sitting across from herself now.
“You’re an enigma, Ms. Smith,” she offered, letting go of the intrigue it would have been senseless to try and hide. “Which actually has much to do with why I’m here. But I don’t know if I like you.”
“Find out,” Valentine purred.
No one had come. The woman who had been on Berth 14 waited.
She thought of the table by which she crouched, then before. Before the table, the room, the current period. The glimpse backward sent her reeling. Her mental infrastructure collapsed, runaway thoughts skidding off their tracks, scattering in all directions, exploding in sharp, hard visuals.
Mother, father, house, rooms. Name.
She had a name. Donna. Donna, Donna. The sound of it reverberated through her brain.
She began to tremble and bowed her head, struggling to neutralize, shift focus. Fire. Heat. Her limbs vibrated. Her fingers clutched her knees. Black night. Noise. Oxygen withdrawn. Excitement. Strangers. Overness. Death.
The shuddering receded. She tapped her fingers, flexing in synchronization with the toes of her bare feet.
“We got us a robot here.”
Maybe the sentences hadn’t been next to one another, but they made the complete circle in her memory. The people she had learned to call her parents were dead. Burned.
Existence as she had known it—honey-daughter-Donna was gone.
“We got us a robot here.”
She reached for the table edge and rose cautiously, peering at the other tables in the room. Bodies, like hers of course, lay motionless. Death.
Instructions that might have superseded one another within her in her usual role as daughter, playmate, girl-next-door, reversed, changed paths, collided without stilling her.
She stood up.
A robot. She knew that. Had been told that a long time ago when she’d first—been.
All around her, the other naked robots didn’t move.
They did not stand. Stayed dead.
In her need to separate herself from those bodies, she knew she had to get dressed. Clothes. It would make the distance complete. Drive the necessary wedge between her and (we got us a robot here) them.
“Don’t worry about the drinking if that’s what’s bothering you. There’s about six percent alcohol content in these things. You get a buzz after a dozen of ’em, but by then you’ve made so many trips to the can, you’ve pissed the tingle right out.” The advice came from the Controller that had introduced himself as Charles Warren.
Sheila F. Weinberg, a three-day-old graduate of the Academy and the newest member of the Controllers, was taking in the apparent wit and wisdom all around her with a great deal of uncertainty. So far, nothing was as she had imagined it to be.
One of her new co-workers continued, “The watered-down poison they serve here is the best you’re going to find. Couple of years, they say, the city’s going to be a dry one. You won’t be able to find a bar within a hundred miles.”
Sheila shared their laughter, not understanding at all. She hadn’t expected the Controllers to be so interested in entertaining themselves. Just as she hadn’t expected the Commission-leased apartment they’d signed her into this morning to be so large and airy, or the credit line they’d assigned her to be so generous. Most of all, she hadn’t expected to find herself surrounded by her new co-workers this Friday night. Particularly not in a bar. Or was this an entertainment club? Images danced on the walls, and the rooms were filled with people doing the same. She’d heard of such places but had never dreamed the elite Controllers would be drawn to such a frivolous atmosphere.
“Not if Val has any say,” someone replied, and again there came the round of laughter. They were loud, these people. Aggressive and tight in their camaraderie. It was Friday night in a questionable environment and yet they all wore their dark green uniforms. She had been issued one, and when they’d swooped in earlier this evening—five of them crowding into her apartment, handling the possessions she’d already taken from her luggage, demanding she accompany them—their first suggestion had been that she change into that new uniform.
Sheila was a team member without initiation. They seemed anxious to make room for her and by far, this was the most unexpected reality of all.
She had just finished four of the hardest years of her life. The Academy had been a more difficult training ground than the worst of the warnings she’d heard, and she had assumed that being chosen to go directly into this particular group of Controllers…the legendary group under Valentine Smith, working directly for Amelia Roberts…guaranteed her nothing. Nothing. It was undoubtedly the reward given for skills they had managed to pull from her by the time she graduated. She certainly hadn’t expected acceptance to the ranks without proving herself all over again though.
“She’s on a date,” someone was saying. Sheila was hearing—what? Affection? The subject matter was Valentine Smith, and the admiration was so thick it seemed almost like nostalgia. How many times had her name been brought up so far this evening? Val this, Val that. You’ll love Val, hate Amelia.
Had they really said that? About the legendary, if mysterious, Amelia Roberts?
Sheila sipped her drink, a half-smile lingering to hold her connection to the group, her thoughts going back. Classrooms, case studies, lectures, and the real-life news stories that infiltrated the classrooms each day. After four years, Lieutenant Smith’s name had been brought up so many times that she had long ago overshadowed any other individual in the Controller Divisions. Male or female, subordinate or even the director. A droid gone particularly renegade. Valentine will bring it down. A droid trying to pass as human. Not when Valentine was on the job.
Maybe that was what had spotlighted Amelia Roberts to Sheila. No mission could be accomplished without teamwork, along with the instincts and skills bred into every Controller. But the right person had to be heading the operation. Amelia Roberts was the backbone. Who was she? Where had she come from? Amelia Roberts was the one awarded the accolades from the Commission, however quietly. Their acknowledgement of her value by installing her at the head was proof she was good at what she did.
“Feeling out of place?” The question came from the Controller named Dolly.
Sheila returned her attention, leaning toward the woman sitting next to her, their heads almost touching. “A little overwhelmed, I guess.”
“We take some getting used to.”
“You’re all so friendly!”
Sheila hadn’t meant to blurt it out, but Dolly’s blue eyes glittered. “There’s no old-boy network here. We’re not a sorority.” She turned her face toward Sheila, her arm coming up so that her hand fell loosely on Sheila’s back. “Tomorrow morning, I could find my life in your hands. We’ve all been through the Academy. We all know how tough their standards are. We trust they’ll send us only the best because they know our lives depend on it. There isn’t a woman here—” Dolly didn’t bother to correct herself by adding “or man” and Sheila grinned, “who doesn’t want you to assume you belong here. That we’re all in this together.”
“And Lieutenant Smith?”
“Val.” Dolly’s face relaxed into a warm smile. “You’ll find Val is your best friend now. She’s one of a kind, Val is.” Dolly’s eyes shone brighter for a moment. “And wait’ll you get a look at her.”
“I hear she’s beautiful? “
“Beautiful?” The hoot was without derision. “Val’s a killer. Last thing you ever want to do is let her know you’ve noticed though. Not that she needs the confirmation but try not looking at her for the first few months. She’ll break your heart.”
Bewilderment washed through Sheila. “Don’t look at her?”
“Just do what she tells you.” Dolly shifted gears. “Watch her, study her. You’ll be amazed at how much you can learn. She has the instincts of an apex predator. Listen, just don’t let her get to you. She’ll try.”
Sheila’s brows knitted in confusion.
Dolly tried again. “She’ll cover your ass or save your ass, but she’ll also break your heart if you give her half a chance.”
Sheila swallowed hard. “Oh, I’m not…”
“Doesn’t matter,” Dolly finished for her. “Not to her.”
“Why doesn’t anyone seem to care for Director Roberts?” Sheila asked to defuse her confusion. She honestly wanted to know how people could not like Amelia Roberts.
For the first time Dolly’s eyes lost some of their friendliness. “Oh, you’ll see.” She shrugged. “She’s a bureaucrat. A figurehead. You’ll never have to deal with her.” She patted Sheila’s back. “Let’s get a refill. With any luck, Val will be in yet tonight. You’ll need a few more drinks under your belt for that experience.”
Sheila felt she had just heard a lie. Not about Valentine, but about Amelia. Something in the few sentences with which Dolly had summed her up. Sheila’s instincts told her such a lie was not standard operating procedure for the woman offering her a fresh drink and friendship. Sheila’s surprise was gone, replaced by a deeper curiosity.
“Did you get a reading from Room 12?”
“A snip. Nothing more.”
The voices froze Donna against the hallway wall, her scalp tingling as she realized the conversation was about her. She’d been the snip on their monitoring screens. She’d triggered the infraction when she’d opened the door.
“Someone taking a peek?”
They might as well have said, “Go ahead. Continue.”
She recalled her mother saying from the other room, “Donna, don’t do that.” Her, not stopping whatever she was doing. Again, her mother. Voice distracted. “Donna!” The tone of the voice meant it was safe for her to continue. She retested the lesson and moved half a step.
“So, do you have to work Friday night too?”
She moved past the partially closed doorway, fists clenched, tense in her nakedness.
“He’s making a big deal out of it,” Donna heard behind her. “He asked me if I thought I deserved to be off.”
She walked faster, her feet like nervous springs beneath her, cushioning the sound of her footsteps. The other doors along the plain curving hallway were closed.
She was afraid. Had never felt all the ingredients of fear like this before. Her meaninglessness to them was terrifying. If caught, she would cease to be seen or heard. If caught, they would kill her. She pursued her escape without knowing what form it should take. How to get out? Where was out? What was out? She did not know where to go or to whom. Experience had taught her help would only come from the same source that brought danger as well. People would kill her. People would save her.
It was not something her mother or father had explained in detail, but she had learned, nonetheless. People are good. People are bad. People understand. People don’t.
She had to find some clothing and a good person. She had to find them fast.
Lynda lives in Los Angeles. Has published numerous short stories and articles in various magazines and periodicals over the course of her life. Belongs to the Dog Writers Association where she has won several awards. First book, Priorities, was nominated for a Lambda Literary Award in SF and is still available on Amazon.