Author: Leanne A. Styles
The gatekeeper snatches the bag out of my hand, the lenses of his telescopic goggles making minute adjustments as he peers inside.
“My watches and coin collection,” I say.
“Searched a lot of yards, have we?” he says with a wry grin.
“Yours is the last.”
His lenses dart out to focus on me. “You have been searching a long time.”
“Twenty-two years. Do we have a deal?”
He laughs and shakes his head. “You old-timers never fail to amaze ‒ so willing to throw it all away, for a robot of all things. They must have really been something.” He raises an eyebrow.
I force a grin. “It was a good time.”
“Until they started shouting about ‘equality’ and stabbing the shit out of people, you mean?” Flatly. He pulls the lever that disarms the electric current on the gate and pushes it open. “Once you step inside—”
“I don’t exist, and if I don’t come back nobody will come looking for me. I know the drill.”
He snorts. “Head south-west for two days. You’ll know when you’ve found the place ‒you’ll be reunited with the rest of the sympathisers.”
After a three-day trek, I reach the dead zone, the place where synthetics came to be “retired”, and where the people they left behind came to rescue them, or die…
I gaze up at the soaring embankment of battered metal and human remains. I can’t see a way around, so I climb, clambering up through the bones and rotting flesh, the stench of death assaulting my senses. Every few feet I reach a pocket of possessions; charred electrics, blood-soaked books, fly-ridden toys with sad faces… memories marked for destruction with the rest of the “trash”.
The thought of finding my treasure, my Annabelle, pushes me on and I scramble to the peak. Everywhere I look, metallic mountains roll on for miles. I close my eyes, praying I’ll find the strength to carry on…
That’s when I hear it, so faint I question my sanity. I strain to listen… There it is again. A muffled tinkling, a melody I recognise.
It’s coming from beneath me. I claw through the rubbish, the tune getting clearer and louder until I unearth the corners of a box. With a few tugs, I yank it from the pile. The ornate glass cover is shattered, but it’s the same music box ‒ just like the one I bought Annabelle for her arrival day. The tune stutters to a stop as the key in the back winds down, and I hold the busted box to my chest, cherishing the memory of that day.
I’m startled by movement below. Something grabs my ankle. I scream as I’m pulled down, down, into the darkness and decay, until I reach a small air pocket.
Faces. Ghoulish, mutilated faces all around me.
“Human, human,” they hiss over each other.
Oily hands claw and grab at me from all angles.
“Yes, human. I’m looking for my wife, Annabelle. She’s one of you. Have you seen her?”
“Wife, wife,” they chant.
“Yes. Do you know her?”
“I knew her,” says a female synth, her bottom half buried.
“Knew?” I whisper.
“She was broken for parts a long time ago.”
I hug the music box tighter and start crying.
“Do you like it?”
“What?” I sniffle.
“Your gift?” Tapping the box.
“Yes,” says a mangled synth hanging above me. “Everybody gets a gift.”
The female flashes a lopsided smile. “Happy arrival day, John.”