bootstrap() preview

Chapter One: The Apple

Winnipeg, August 2197

“Apple!” my little brother Patryk squeals happily. He reaches for the treat with all the force of his three-year-old body, nearly falling off the chair. “Apple! Want apple!”

“Later,” Mom says, deftly pulling it out of his reach. “You can share it with Claire after dinner.” She gives me a smile, which I return after giving the apple a look of longing. When was the last time we even had a fresh piece of fruit? Christmas?

The apple is wrinkled, a little soft—nothing like the pictures of apples you saw on the Time advertisements—but it is, recognizably, real fruit. Not like the dehydrated, reconstituted nutrient meal that sits unappetizingly on the counter, ready for dinner. I’m pretty sure that stuff is made of kelp. It sure tastes like it.

Mom sets the apple on top of the fridge with infinite care, watching to make sure it won’t roll anywhere. The fridge is a bit of a joke—nutrient meals don’t have to be kept cold, and we never have anything else to eat anyway—but she likes to keep it in the kitchen, all charged and ready, ‘just in case.’ I’ve heard ‘just in case’ so many times, about so many things, that the three words make me want to scream. Learn French ‘just in case.’ Practice the piano every night ‘just in case.’

Well, it looks like our ‘just in cases’ are about to disappear after all, because tomorrow…

Mom turns back to us with a huge smile. She might fool Patryk with it, but she isn’t going to be winning any acting awards. “Well!” she exclaims. “All packed? All ready to go? It’s our last night, after all.”

I sigh and nod. “There isn’t much I can bring anyway,” I reply glumly. “I can’t bring my clothes, or my computer, or…”

“You’re allowed one memento,” Mom says with a frown. “And some personal hygiene items. Are those ready?”

I nod. “All ready.” I glance at the apple again and it feels like something has gone wrong in my throat, like spasming. I’ll never see this stupid empty fridge again, after tomorrow. It should be liberating… I should be happy.

“I’m going to go out for a walk,” I manage to say thickly. Mom’s smile slips away in an instant.

“It’s getting dark out.”

“Just around the neighbourhood.” I can’t explain it, that I need to see everything again, because after tomorrow…

Finally she nods. “Try and be quick. I want us all to stay together tonight.” Our last night at home. I nod quickly and leave, trying to swallow down the lump that won’t get out of my throat. Who would have thought I had so much affection towards our old place?

As I walk outside, it stands behind me, stern. Our old house—literally old, at least a couple of centuries. It was built after the third world war, and the architecture reflects that: imposing, defensive. The windows are all on the second story like a medieval fort, and the roof has this fence all around so you could evacuate up there if you had to.


The rest of the neighborhood is more or less abandoned. The evacuations have been going on for so long—my whole life—that most people have already left. There’s only holdouts and palsies left, strapped into their VR worlds and ignoring the houses emptying around them. Mom is—or was—a holdout. After Dad disappeared, we couldn’t leave our only hope of finding him behind… I think she still doesn’t want to go, she just won’t tell me because she doesn’t want me to worry.

Like I’m not going to worry.

My footsteps are leading me around the neighbourhood, not in any one direction. I pass the school, all dark now as the sun sets. There aren’t even any teacher’s bikes left. The streetlights flicker on as I approach and then flicker out as I leave them behind, creating my own little bubble of light as I walk. I pass the park where we used to spend winter days. It’s bleak now, in the dim light. It was never like the pictures I’ve seen of old parks, with trees and grass and flowers, but it was a lot of fun anyway.

I’m about to turn around and head home—the sun has actually set now, and even in our neighbourhood you run the risk of poachers after dark—when I realize where my footsteps have been leading me, set off at the edge of the neighbourhood. There’s a ring of empty dirt around it, like someone wanted to plant a lawn, but of course the grass doesn’t grow easily anymore.

The evacuation centre. It’s dim like the rest of the neighbourhood, shut down, but not dark like the school. The evacuation centre gets preferential power, preferential supplies. There’s still people working in there, and will be all night, prepping for the next day’s evacuees to the past. Prepping for us.

We need appropriate clothes, underwear, books, pencils, hairstyles, grooming accessories… soap and food and bedding… everything. That’s the number one rule of evacuation: you must blend in with your destination.

I still can’t believe we’re going tomorrow. It feels unreal, like this is a nightmare I’ll wake up from and Mom will be there, with some warmed up nutrient loaf for breakfast. Just like grandma used to make.

And maybe Dad would be there too, I think wistfully for a moment. The thick feeling rises up in my throat again. That’s the other reason I don’t want to leave. Even aside from losing my home, my friends, everything I know—if we leave, we’ll be saying goodbye to the chance of ever seeing my dad again. It’ll be The End.

Nobody has seen him in over a year, so I know the most likely possibility. Probably, like the police said when they called off the search… he’s dead. Caught by a poacher, maybe, although poachers usually don’t go for middle-aged guys. Or wrong place, wrong time. That happens a lot in worse-off areas than ours, the cities where they have to fight even to get their kelp bars. And if we leave, well, it’d take a miracle for him to find us in time.

I take another couple of steps towards the evacuation centre, curious despite myself. You’re not allowed near if you don’t have an appointment, so I’ve never been any closer than this. I can see the shadows of people walking around inside, blurry forms through the windows. And then a shout.

“Get back here! Hey!”

I startle, pressing myself back against a light pole. It’s not much of a hiding spot but it’s the only one I can find across the barren lawn. Is it poachers? I carefully look around, but the sun has now set and I can’t see much. I’m bracing myself to run for the evac centre—I’m not getting caught by poachers on my last night—when I hear it again, and realize the shouts are coming from inside the centre itself.

“Someone stop it! Stop, I order you!”

The door bursts open in a halo of light and I see a figure jump through. It doesn’t stop for a second, but runs down the steps and across the lawn. Straight towards me.

But the person—as they approach I can tell it’s a guy about my age—is being pursued as fast as he can run. He’s not going to make it, there are at least five others running towards him. I don’t stop to think. As he passes, I grab his arm and pull him behind the negligible shelter of the lamp pole.

The first thing I notice is that he’s got by far the most well-formed face I have ever seen. It could have been molded on some Greek statue. Although he’s been running full out, he’s not out of breath and his hair is only disheveled in the most compelling way—I want to reach up and smooth it out.

But then the second thing I notice, as soon as I’m able to get past his literal perfection, is that he’s a biobot. Like, his skin is too flawless, his eyes are too blue, his lips are too…

Focus, I tell myself, dragging my eyes away. Biobot. It’s not a real boy, Claire. But it stares at me as hard as I stare at it, its pupils blown wide. The footsteps of its pursuers approach and it grabs my hand tightly.

“We have to go,” it hisses out, and then it’s pulling me along.

“Stop!” someone yells from behind us, and it sounds like they’re out of breath. “Unit 14, stop immediately!”

‘Unit 14’ doesn’t stop, it just takes a firmer grip on my wrist and runs faster. It’s strong; I can’t pull my hand away or stop running or I might end up being dragged.

“Let go of me!” I exclaim as best as I can, and then there’s a high harsh noise from behind me and a bullet whizzes past my right ear. “Oh my God!”

If anything, Unit 14 runs even faster now. I can barely keep up. It ducks behind a small shed on the outskirts of the evac centre and crouches down, then pulls me in—oh. There’s a window, half underground, hidden behind a bush. It leads into the shed. I wiggle in after him—not like I have much choice, with the grip he’s still got on my arm. And I don’t particularly want to get shot, either.

I’m calling it a ‘him.’ It’s hard not to. “What. Are. You. Doing.” I hiss at him—it. It ignores me, looking warily around the small, cluttered shed. There’s a strong smell of antibacterial cleaning agent and dozens of plastic boxes. It’s too dark to make out much else.

From outside the shed I hear the approach of footsteps—many pairs. Then voices.

“Where are you, Unit 14?” a man calls out forcefully. “Reveal yourself.”

“It’s not going to,” another voice—a woman’s voice—sighs in response. “That unit was asleep too many years. It’s gone crazy.”

“For the last time, biobots can’t go crazy,” the first voice says angrily. “Nor can they disobey a direct order.”

“Well, clearly something has gone wrong with this one then,” the woman replies. I hardly breathe, waiting for them to find us. To be honest, part of me wishes they would. I would already have yelled for help if that bullet hadn’t grazed me. As if he can read my thoughts, Unit 14 puts a hand over my mouth to keep me silent.

“They’ll shoot us both,” he whispers into my ear. “You, too.” He presses behind me, keeping his hand firmly over my mouth, and I can’t help but realize his body is uncannily cool.

But why would they shoot me? Why is he running? “Get someone out here to open the shed,” the woman calls, and there’s a grunted agreement. Unit 14 sighs.

“We’re going to have to run for it again,” he mutters. I shake my head as much as I can.

“I’m not running anywhere,” I say—or I try to say. It comes out as an unintelligible mumble. Ibnarunianwha. Useful.

“Well, stay here then.” Unit 14 affects nonchalance, but I can tell he—it—wants me to come with him. Its voice is still tense and low, whispering into my ear. “Get shot. Do I care?” His hand twitches against my ear as the door rattles. Who ever went to get the key for the shed was sure quick about it.

“Just let go of me, and they can shoot you,” I mumble. Juzlegomendeyshooyoo. It’s seriously no fun trying to communicate with a ten-times human-strength hand pressed against your mouth. I consider biting it.

“Too late,” Unit 14 says darkly, not bothering to whisper anymore as the door bangs open.

Unit 14 doesn’t try to run. Instead, he drops his hand from my mouth and steps away from me, drawing the guns towards himself. There are three people crowded in the shed with us, two men carrying guns and someone who is probably the woman I heard from outside. She gives us an aggrieved look.

“Take them inside.”

“The girl too?”

“Yeah. They’ll both need to be processed.” She stares at me for a second, her expression confused. “Her especially—we need to get a positive ID. Are you carrying any?” she asks me, and I nod dumbly. Then I’m following them out of the shed and into the evacuation centre.

The centre is even more brightly lit from within than it had seemed from outside. I follow the woman, who introduces herself as Dr Xia, into a comfortable waiting room, the kind that’s full of beaten-up old chairs and magazines kids have coloured in. There’s abstract art hanging on the walls and, even at this time of night, a strong smell of coffee.

Unit 14 was handcuffed before we left the shed. I can feel his gaze on my back, making my shoulder blades itch.

“Please wait here a moment while I get the papers to process you,” Dr Xia says cheerfully. I nod and take a seat, across from Unit 14, who slides into a chair while keeping his eyes on me the whole time. The two men—they look like security guards, maybe, but I didn’t know the evac centre had its own security force—keep their guns trained on him.

I look away first.

There’s a bustling commotion from somewhere inside the building, and the two guards glance up for a second. Unit 14 doesn’t move, but when I look at him again, he’s mouthing something. Lip reading was not one of my parent’s ‘just in case’ lessons, though, so I can only stare.

It looks exasperated with me. Can biobots be exasperated? He’s by far the most human looking ‘bot I’ve ever encountered, though, nothing like the janitor at school that will sweep the same patch of floor all day if you don’t give it explicit directions. It’s only the too-perfect face that gives him away.

There’s another commotion and the guards look at one another uneasily. The first one speaks.

“I’ll go check it out,” he says, and the second one nods in reply. Only three of us are left in the waiting room. I grab a magazine and pretend to peruse it. Unit 14 is still trying to get me to look at him, but I don’t want anything else to do with him.

That is, until Dr. Xia returns to the waiting room. She’s leading the security officer who left, and then she points at me. “She’s the one,” she says calmly. “She needs to go straight into the drop.”

“Straight into what?” I ask. “I can’t go into—I thought you were going to get some papers?” My heart starts pounding. The time drop? I can’t drop, my mom is at home waiting for me.

The guard strides forward and grabs my arm. “The paperwork is all done,” she replies calmly as the guard yanks me away. “Claire Bellamy. You were scheduled for a drop tomorrow, anyway, so it hardly makes a difference to you, does it?”

“You’re—you’re evacuating me?” My voice rises in fear. “But what about my mother? My brother?” The image of the wrinkled apple my mother had put on top of the fridge for us to share comes forcefully to mind. “I can’t leave them.”

“Take her to Drop B,” the woman says. “And the biobot, too. He’s too corrupted.”

I’m pulled away despite resisting as much as I can. Unit 14 stands and follows us calmly, but I can see how he’s gritting his teeth together. All of it is a mystery I can’t process right now.

If I get sent back without my mother or brother, how will they ever find me? Will they cancel their evacuation tomorrow to look for me? They’ll think I’ve disappeared—like Dad…

“No!” I exclaim, trying to fight off the grip of the guard. Just like before, it accomplishes nothing—except Unit 14 acts at the same moment. With a loud snap, the handcuffs break and clatter to the ground. Then in the same movement he grabs a gun from the guard marching him along and levels it at Dr Xia.

“Let her go,” he says not quite calmly. The guard looks at Dr Xia, who nods.

I’m released and immediately grabbed again by Unit 14, who pulls me to his side. “Ow!” I exclaim. His grip is harder than it was outside, bruising. He releases it slightly.

“Unit 14,” she says placatingly, lifting one hand towards him. He, it, tightens its grip on the gun.

“Don’t make any sudden movements,” it says, and she glances at the guards.

“The first law—” she starts to say, but he laughs.

“You want to bet? I’ve already disobeyed orders, haven’t I? What do you want to wager I can’t shoot the three of you?”

The first law. I frantically try to remember what my robotics teacher told us. It seemed unimportant at the time, with everyone evacuating to the past, to a time without biobots. I’m pretty sure the first law is that a robot cannot hurt a human, or allow a human to come to harm if they can prevent it. Pretty sure.

Her eyes dart between myself, Unit 14, and the gun. She’s obviously thinking fast. Unit 14 sighs.

“You’re going to let Claire and I go,” he says. Dr Xia shakes her head.

“No, you’ve been compromised. You were in sleep for too long, you were dropped too long ago.”

“I am—” he cuts himself off. “It’s irrelevant. You’re going to let Claire and I go, and we’re going to do a drop.”

“What do you mean?” I ask, startled.

“We can’t allow that, Unit 14,” Dr Xia says smoothly. “Drop the gun and we’ll erase all this; it’ll be like it never happened.”

Unit 14 dodges hard to the right, in between the two guards and pulling me right along behind. A gun goes off, deafeningly loud behind my head, and I shriek. But it doesn’t hit me, and Unit 14 pulls me through the corridor. I feel a hand grab at my other wrist but it’s no match for Unit 14, who practically throws me into a room off the corridor and slams the door shut behind us.

“Lock the door,” he says, bracing the door with his body. “C’mon, Claire, hurry.”

The gunshot is still ringing in my ears—so despite my reservations, I find the button that says “SECURE ROOM” and hit it. There is a muffled banging on the door from the outside, and then another gunshot—apparently someone is frustrated by our getting away—but the door holds firm. Slowly, 14 takes a deep breath (it’s a disturbingly human gesture) and steps away from the door.

Finally, I have a chance to look at our second hiding place of the night.

It’s nothing like the shed. That’s the first thing I see—it’s harshly lit, to the point of unpleasantness, and completely empty except for a computer mounted on the wall and a pool in the floor.

A pool? I wonder and step closer to take a look. That’s exactly what it looks like: a hot tub flush mounted into the white tiles of the floor, except filled with something more akin to mercury than water, now that I look more closely at it. It’s got a dull grey sheen, and the liquid is sloshing gently in the pool, casting rainbow iridescence over the walls.

“Don’t touch that,” Unit 14 snaps. It’s already over at the computer, in fact it’s got a finger plugged right into the i/o. Definitely a bot, then.

I want to ask a hundred things—not least, what the hell is going on—but what comes out is “Who died and made you king?”

It turns to look at me, and… its expression isn’t like anything I would have expected. It seems nostalgic. “I’m king of this room because I say so,” it replies irritatingly. An instant later, the iridescence of the pool changes to a deep, inky black. It’s completely impenetrable. It withdraws its finger from the i/o and for an instant I see the complex circuitry that lies underneath human looking skin.

“Jump in,” Unit 14 gestures. I stare at it.

“Excuse me?” There’s no way in hell I’m jumping into that… whatever it is.

“They’re going to break through in—” it glances at the door, “perhaps three minutes. You need to jump in, now.”

“You need to explain what the hell is going on,” I reply. I point at it, stepping forward until my finger pokes it in the chest. “Starting with you. Why are they after you? And why are you so…” there’s no word adequate to encompass the way it barks orders at me, threatens humans, disobeys orders, “weird?”

“I’ll answer one question,” it says tightly. It glances back at the door and I get the sense that the expression masks genuine fear—or whatever fear a ‘bot is synthesized to feel. There’s a fine line between its eyes that speaks of stress. “Then we jump.”

“I’m not jumping. Tell me why they’re shooting at you.”

The answer comes immediately, fluidly, as though it’s been waiting for this opportunity to explain. The line between its eyes smooths away. “I very recently woke up from deep sleep… I was… I ran away. They believe I’m dangerous; that my code has broken down and I could be a threat to the neighbourhood.”

I blink. “Well… are you?”

The door rattles in its frame behind me and Unit 14 grabs my arm again. I’m about to tell him I’m getting sick of that when he shoves me, hard, and I stumble right into the inky black pool.

I’m expecting a splash but instead

it’s a kaleidoscope

there’s air to breathe, black air. I have been breathing this air since ever. colours are inside out apple is a moebius strip into sky twists into lemon. the taste of a lemon too it all swirls in me

dad’s face mom’s face patryk’s face is so small

I wake up in one shuddering, heaving breath, like my lungs are frozen, like my heart is stopped and I’m having to restart it all with an old-fashioned crank. I can practically feel myself coming back alive. My heart beats and my blood pumps and my lungs breathe air and—

the air.

The air is purer than anything I’ve ever tasted. It’s purer than water, a hundred times purer. The scent of it—the taste of it—I could lay here and breathe forever and ever and die happy. There’s no smog, no gritty particulates, no wheezing in my chest.

But I’m laying here, right? How did that happen? I was in (inky water like the womb) the evac centre… and I got pushed…

Slowly, I open my eyes and see nothing but the bluest sky.


sentient robots,

nutritious kelp meal replacements, and

three-year-old Patryk

one hundred eighty-five years