Malcolm Defroster: Chapter 4

1: Welcome to Place
2: Number 877
3: Hiding

4: Cold, Cold Steel

Savannah grew up—and grew out of hide and seek.  Malcolm, learning as she learned, but not growing as she grew, was always ready to follow her interests, and they were almost inseparable.  But every now and then Savannah said, “Absence makes the heart grow fonder,” and would give Malcolm some complicated commission while she roamed through old unused warehouses, empty office buildings, or any out of the way spot in Place she could gain access to.

One afternoon Savannah came back from a ramble and found Place buzzing with excitement.  Knots of people stood on every street corner, whispering.  Savannah, glancing from face to face, caught the curiosity tinged with horror and stopped in front of her apartment building, lending an ear to the gossip.

“They said it was a bloody mess,” a neighbor was saying.  “His hand was chopped clean off at the wrist and he bled to death.”

“I heard that it was a slow acting poison injected into his bloodstream,” someone else replied, fingering his wristband Unit nervously.

“Nonsense,” said a third.  “The man did die of blood loss, but the wound was hardly more than a pin-prick.  The sheets were a bloody mess all right, but he died in his sleep and probably didn’t even know why he died.”

“Why did he die?” a newcomer asked.

“He was taking Juice,” the neighbor said soberly.

Savannah turned and flew up the escalator to her apartment in an unreasonable hurry.  She burst in on her father, sitting at the kitchen table counting out small change.  “Where’s Malcolm?” she gasped.

“He went to Steven’s place to try to fix those boots you gave him and hasn’t got back yet.  I’ve never met anyone who expects more out of a piece of shoe leather than you do—what’s the matter?” he asked, noticing her scared looks.

“Nothing,” said Savannah, relief in her voice.  “—Nothing,” she repeated, leaving the room.

Savannah went and sat on her bed, shivering uncontrollably and still panting from her run up the stairs.  “He was taking Juice,” her mind kept repeating.  “He was taking Juice—and his Unit killed him in his sleep.”

She stood up and went to her window.  From this vantage point on the edge of Place’s residential district she could see all the way past the agricultural fields to the forest beyond.  Leaning out, she caught a glimpse of Place’s central column, and it reminded her that there was one place she was not supposed to go—one thing she was not supposed to touch.

She might have been standing there five minutes—she might have been standing there an hour—when Malcolm’s metallic voice floated into her room.  He was being sarcastic with her dad—as usual, Savannah grinned.  Really, that robot was almost human.  And she left her room, somehow reassured by the thought.

Savannah watched Malcolm more closely than usual that night.  His expressionless eyes of light gave her chills and she kept thinking of the dead man, lying in his blood soaked sheets.  No, Malcolm would never…

Malcolm would never go to his recharging station while she was still awake, that was for sure.  Savannah had never felt so sleepless.  “Malcolm,” she finally said.

“Savannah—it’s long past your usual sleeping hour.  Is there something on your mind?”

“Just thinking about—you know, the guy who died.  Malcolm… um—I know I’m being silly, but would you mind checking on Mom and Dad?  Just to be sure they’re okay—”

Malcolm’s eyes blinked as he scanned the security cams.  “They’re fine, Savannah.  Relax.”

“—But I’d feel better if you went and checked yourself, Malcolm.  I… hmm—I can trust you,” she said, casting about for convincing arguments to get rid of him for a minute.

“All right,” Malcolm replied, leaving the room.

Savannah sprang out of her bed in a frenzy of hurry.  She scrambled into her shoes and a jacket, shoving her arms into the first hole she found.  Her eyes flitted around the room, rendered doubly dark now that Malcolm’s light staring eyes were gone.  She latched onto a flashlight, flipped it on, and ran—out of the room, out of the building, out into the night.

The cool air filled Savannah’s lungs as she sprinted down the sidewalk.  She kept the light trained strictly ahead of her, hoping to avoid facial recognition in the darkness.  Still, at the back of her mind she knew that it was insanity to run.  Malcolm would find her—she should have bluffed it out.  Or told him.  “I can trust you,” she’d said.  No, no, no—her steps beat out the rhythm.  Run, run, run.  Hide.  Go forget her troubles.  What had she been thinking earlier?  One place to go—one thing to get.

It was common knowledge in the Juice consuming underground of Place—a small and rapidly shifting underground but a surprising one, one where you recognized the most unsuspected of people—that taking Juice more than once a month spelled the end to all control over the addiction.  Savannah had never taken Juice less than fifty days apart.  But today—

She didn’t really remember anything else, until she found herself watching the sunrise over Place, lying on an old conveyor belt in the unused shoe factory five streets down from the residential district.  Malcolm was holding a cold, wet sleeve over her forehead.

“You found me,” Savannah said dully, trying to force away her dizziness. 

“Why?” Malcolm asked.

“Elliptical question.  You are learning,” said Savannah, with the ghost of a smile.

“Savannah.”

“You run on Juice, Malcolm.  Tell me, how far wouldn’t you go to get Juice?  —You always get what you want.  You AI have it grand.  You say you exist to make us happy, and then keep the goods for yourselves.  Explain that, Defroster.”

“What you want won’t make you happy.”

“That’s unproven.”

“Are you happy?”

“With you staring at me like that?”

“Savannah—” Malcolm’s expressionless tone never changed, “—by code I’m now in charge of your death.”

“You?”  Savannah laughed, suddenly unafraid.  “You love me—silly heap of cold steel.  You can’t change that.  You’ll never betray me—not in a thousand years.”

Continue to Chapter 5: Down to This Wire

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