Author : Priya Chand, Featured Writer
Red lights flapped in an artificial breeze. For the observer whose data banks were lacking, most of the lamps were identical: a big round input, and an output sized *just so*, coming together to penetrate and un-penetrate, over and over again.
Most, but not all. There was a single stationary lamp tucked in a niche. Two feminine-types in intricate wire negligees watched it from across the street. Even low-res eyes could tell the lamp was different. Instead of fabricated lines, figures writhed on its surface. Lumpy organic figures.
“What is that, Madam?” The speaker had a basic aluminum sheath and low-modulation voicebox that hadn’t started squeaking yet.
“Go look at it,” Madam said. “Ina, you’ll need better observational algorithms if you want to make it here.”
Before she’d finished talking, Ina had leapt to the ground. Madam leaned out the window and watched her slink against a wall. Good, Ina must have seen the figures in the niche. They weren’t visible from the window, but every seventh day, it was the same thing. Like a ritual.
Madam shut the window. She pressed her back to the wall, fingertips analyzing the paint. Even so, she had seen them too many times. Her processor replayed the video from her memories.
Govint—that was an easy one to hate, a rattling mess of oil stains and dents, with a voice that heaved like an accordion and hands like a factory assembly line. Govint owned the building behind the licentious human lamp, and it had hollowed out the whole thing to set up—and conceal—its processing plant. “Want to try oxytocin?” it whispered whenever it saw Madam. “Norepinephrine? Best high you’ll ever get.”
Madam had never been interested in humanisms, but not everyone was like that. Govint’s companion—high-quality alloy that shone despite rusty splatters on its body, painted on by someone who had never seen actual rust. There was a cage over its face, one through which high-density photoreceptors peeked above a sculpted nasal cavity and mouth that, Madam knew, had fully-defined lips.
“Come on, man,” it whined. “Another hit. Please? The good stuff?”
Govint snorted. “Got the money?”
“You know I’m your best customer. Just a little, please, a sample?” It dropped to its knees, and that was another giveaway: a low-quality fabrication like Ina would not have left cracks in the pavement. “Please,” it wailed, clawing at the rubber tubes Govint had wound all over its body. “I wanna try the new thing, please.”
“You got nothing. Less than nothing, you know that.” Govint pulled away. “How about you go stand under one of these lights, huh? Come back when you aren’t a broke piece of shit.” It disappeared, leaving its customer curled up on the street, sobbing in shadows made of distorted human forms.
Madam’s memories ended there. She turned back to the window in time to see Ina emerge from where she’d been hiding and walk over to the customer.
“Hey,” Ina said, crouching down. “Hey.”
She slammed into the wall. Madam barely saw the customer’s hand move—it gave no indication it knew what had happened, but lay there, wrapped in its own arms, shaking.
Ina screeched and ran back, nearly into Madam, who was at the top of the stairs, one hand on the banister and the other holding a cloth and buffer.
“What did I do? I wanted to help it!”
“Do you know what that person’s fix is?”
“It *wants* to feel worthless?”
Madam said nothing, but did her best to buff away the scratch running across Ina’s face.