Four Songs

As mentioned the other day, a story for a flashfiction challenge:

Halfway through the evening, ‘One Night in Bangkok’ comes onto the system. Fortunately, Rachel’s break has started and she sits on the stairs, picking at some chips, while below her three hundred people sing along with the chorus. She’s probably got about another four songs; time enough to get some fresh air, if there’s any to be found.

The chips are abandoned and Rachel walks out of the pub, past the lurid sign advertising the Night of Nostalgia (free drinks for androids before eleven, non-surgically attached devices left in the cloakroom at your own risk), past the office buildings next door and crosses the street to the small, unlikely park which offers a little peace.

Once Rachel is inside the park, the noise of the city dips considerably. It’s hardly surprising, now that sound-dimmers have been installed in the hedges, but Rachel can remember the same thing happening when she was younger, in Richmond and Hyde and Ravenscourt, before what’s been hailed as the second industrial revolution. Rachel is thirty and feels old when people talk about the barbarism that existed before android rights, or the ignorance of trying to ‘save’ the planet. She mentioned doing a school project on the rainforests once and Sammie looked at her, clucked and said, ‘Bless.’ Sammie is ten years younger than Rachel and is going to apply to run her own bar on the colony, despite having a head as suited to business as a goldfish is to flying.

Three songs, perhaps. She checks her watch, old-fashioned but reliable, and nearly walks into someone.

“Sorry, sorry,” she says, before looking at the someone properly. “…Madonna?”

The iconic face from the eighties flickers, then with a small buzz vanishes entirely to reveal, joy of joys, Sammie’s face. “Ray-chel!” she squeaks, grinning delightedly, “I didn’t know you came here!”

“Well, it’s just – ”

“Across from the bar, I know.” Sammie nods happily. “I thought I’d come to Night of Nostalgia incognito, y’know, bit of fun.” One of the tiny projectors glued to her face is blinking red, on standby, ready to transform her again. “It’s not going well though, I think Nish spotted me when he was serving.”

“Mm. Look, Sammie, I’ve got to be off soon and – ”

“Don’t!” Sammie’s happy tone turns slightly desperate. “Can you just – sit with me for a sec?”

A second is likely to turn into a minute and then several minutes. But Sammie sounds upset, so they sit down on a nearby bench, ready-warmed for them.

It’s quiet apart from a few birds, confused into wakefulness by the city lights, and Sammie’s breathing. Rachel looks at her watch again – two songs – and is about to try and excuse herself when Sammie says, calmly, “I’m not eligible to go to Earth Two.”

Sammie is annoying, patronising and somewhat ignorant of how to keep accounts, but she’s likely to be perfect for a new colony. Rachel makes a noise of disbelief and Sammie looks at her, briefly, before staring at the ground. “It’s true. They don’t want me. People like me.”

“What do you mean?”

“Pure humans.” Sammie grimaces. “They want to give a bunch of androids the first go. They keep saying how it’s right that a new planet should be colonised by a new people, or some other shit, but it’s political correctness gone mad! I mean – ” she leans in closer to Rachel, to whisper. “I know I shouldn’t say it, but androids are barely human and yet they want the same rights. And now I’m probably losing out to a, to a robot with feelings!” She looks half-fearful, half-excited at the slur.

Rachel makes sure her disgust doesn’t show. There’s one song’s length left, but she suddenly doesn’t care about going back to serve drinks to a bunch of people dancing to music that’s over a century old. “I don’t feel well,” she says, standing up, making sure that she wobbles just a bit when she does. “Can you tell Nish that I had to go?”

“Sure,” Sammie’s face is confused, for a moment, but then she reaches up, pinches one of her earrings between finger and thumb and the projectors fizz into life. “See you tomorrow,” Madonna calls after Rachel.

She walks home, not paying attention to the time or which streets she uses. Something is off about this – why, after all the propaganda that’s been going on for two years now, would the international government suddenly decide to reserve Earth Two for a first wave of androids? The legislation has only been in effect for twenty years and it’s obvious that it’s not changed everyone’s minds, judging by Sammie. She is as old as that legislation.

Rachel gets back, switches on the desktop and researches for several hours. Deep orange streaks are shooting across the dawn sky when she sits back, her hands gripping the sides of her chair.

It’s clear that this isn’t about giving androids a chance. If you know where to look, you can find the reality behind the press hype. Earth Two is broken before it’s even begun and the only way of fixing it is to dump a group of androids onto the surface and leave them to it. By the time the background radiation’s done its damage, it’ll be minimal enough for the humans to properly colonise the planet, which will be nicely worn-in for them already.  No need for them to worry about those initial tricky steps when they’ve already been taken by some other poor bastards under the guise of ‘fairness’ and ‘righting the wrongs of the recent past’.

Rachel wants to call her brother – he is her brother, despite what some people like Sammie might say. She opens a new call window in the desktop but a green message alert flickers at her. She knows what it will say before she reads it. She sends Ben a typed note instead, asking him to take care of the cat, then sits back, brushes the hair away from her neck to reveal her serial number, and waits for them to come.

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