The Quality of Free Air
By Aaron Polson
She was back.
Hector stood behind the counter, empty tray dangling in one hand, and stared at her, despite himself, despite the rolled down sleeves to cover his makeshift ink, the skulls, dragon, and Virgin Mary given birth inside penitentiary walls. The woman, the focal point of his moment's pause, sat at a two-top near the plate glass window, right under the "g" in Bellinger's painted sign.
Hector startled, and the empty tray clattered to the tile floor. He stooped, blushing, and picked it up. When he stood, the stony face of Gottin met his eyes. Gottin's wiry arms crossed above the white plastic "manager" badge.
The blush burned through Hector's chest, down his arms, and into his fingertips. He clamped his fingers onto the tray, feeling as though they would sear through the plastic and leave a red puddle at his feet. His eyes twitched towards the woman under the "g".
"Sorry, Mr. Gottin." Hector nodded to the reduced price rack. "Just putting out the discounted bread."
Gottin's granite face oscillated towards the clock behind them. "Bakery closes in fifteen, Hector. You have cleaning to do?"
Hector's eyes closed and his head bobbed up and down. Orders were always questions with Gottin. He swooped towards the kitchen, but paused at the silver doors. Was she looking? Hector's neck pricked at the thought, and he risked another glance.
Gottin cleared his throat.
"She's a 'bot, dude." Alan's thick arms were covered in suds and matted, wet hair. "Gotta be a 'bot. No fem that delicious comes into Bellinger's. This effin' bakery is for geezers who want things the old fashioned way. Your sweat and my sweat, dude. Paying our dues."
Hector looked down at the discolored pockmarks on his forearms. Those spots showed the early signs of a baker's life: tiny marks merged with jailhouse ink, small blemishes, scars where hot grease spattered and singed his skin as he fried waves of doughnuts for morning customers. Other bakeries--the newer places in the suburbs and along major city arteries utilized automatons, of course, but Bellinger's was different. Bellinger's was family owned. A robot couldn't make a Bellinger's croissant. No robot, no matter how pressure sensitive gyro-balanced, possessed the Bellinger's touch when gently kneading and working a ball of dough.
"She's not a robot," Hector muttered.
Alan chortled. "Right. How would you know?"
"She's been here every day for weeks. She's too good. Too beautiful."
"And she's in love with you." Alan cradled his face with his soapy hands, and mocked with a sing-song. "Oh, Hector, take me to your halfway house where we can make sweet love and have little cyborg children."
Hector's chest swelled as he sucked in a lungful of humid, moist air. The warm heaven of bakery smells was lost to the wet, clinging odor of mildew and soap in the dish room, the last stop on Hector's five-day-a-week leave from the halfway house. His hands, deep in the hot water, scraped at the residue of muffins and rolls, the room filled with the muted clunk of tin pans coming together underwater, but his brain worked with the slender face and long hair he'd seen by the window. When he would talk to her, his sleeves would be down, of course; the stories on his arms hidden. Six more months in the house, and then a new life.
A new life.
"Dude, she's a 'bot." Alan shook his hands, spraying droplets on the rubber mats at their feet. "You been locked up how long?"
Hector laid the last pans on the drying rack. "Five years."
Alan nodded as he stripped the apron from his waist and draped it over a hook near the back door. "A lot happens in five years, buddy. They've even got these little kid 'bots for folks who--"
"Screw yourself Alan." Hector rubbed his water-wrinkled hands against the damp fabric of his apron.
Alan shrugged. "Goodnight, then." He held his card to the sensor, and the back door clicked onto the twilight alley. He paused with one hand on the doorjamb and turned. "You think they could at least install one of those damn things to do the dishes, huh? 'Course, where could a couple of 'cons find work if they did."
Hector nodded. "Right."
The door clicked shut, and Hector closed his eyes.
Sometimes with his eyes closed, he remembered. The world would go mute then. He saw his brother's face, pale and cold like the night sidewalk, lying on the tile of the bakery floor, but he wasn't in a bakery; it was a corner liquor store lost down a dark street, one of the few places that still dealt in cash. Too much cash. His brother said it would be an easy job, a quick hit to load their wallets for a big weekend. Hector balked, already on probation. His brother died that night, and Hector added more ink to his arms.
Leaving Bellinger's by the alley, he walked five minutes to the tube--five minutes of free air before the tube train zapped him to the gates of his purgatory. At the station, the clerk mocked his brother's killer with titanium cheeks and silent LED-eyes. It was the same model hawking over the underground train that worked the corner shop five years ago.
"Stupid robots," Hector muttered as he held out his card. The metal face didn't flinch.
On the train, the murmur of electricity vibrated around Hector, lulling him to light sleep. His dream was lucid: a thing filled with artificial men and women, robots of varying builds. She was there, the woman with long hair and a thin face, her green eyes hovering like beacons of light. Lithe fingers pressed against her clothing, and she peeled it back--the cloth, the skin, the layer of metal protecting a chest of circuits and wires.
Hector woke with a start as the tube slowed.
Inside the parole house, he nursed a headache, and went to bed with a knot in his jaw.
"I bet she's a test model," Alan said as they scrubbed the next evening.
"Right, lover boy. I forgot." Alan sprayed a baking sheet with the overhead arm; the water struck the aluminum with a raspy hiss. "They've got R&D places just south of here in the old warehouse district. Some of those god-damned factories hum all night, man."
"Why would they send a robot here?"
Alan shrugged. "Why would a woman come here every day for three weeks and not eat a damn thing? 'Cause she wants to pick up the kitchen help?" He laughed at his own joke, holding another sheet under the hot spray. "Maybe she's some new kind of prostitute droid, out to see if horny studs like you can handle a little metal-lovin'."
Hector threw a wet loaf pan at Alan, and it hit the rubber mat on the floor with a hollow thunk.
"Struck a nerve, eh?" Alan grinned the crooked grin of a man who'd seen enough fights to know when one loomed. "What was it you said about your brother...yeah, he wanted that money to impress a girl, didn't he? I guess the Ramirez boys are dumb as--"
Hector's hand caught Alan's voice in a tight grip. The unshaven neck pricked against Hector's palm as he squeezed until Alan threw a blind punch, cracking against flesh and ribs. The men grappled, colliding with the steel table and scattering pans until the lights flickered.
"Gentlemen!" Gottin's voice cut through the dish room. The two ex-convicts fell apart, panting and heaving.
After a stern lecture from Gottin, Hector straightened the mess and shuffled to the bathroom to examine his new bruises and wash his face. The walk to the tube station only took five minutes, but it was his five minutes, five full minutes of free air on his face, air that hadn't blown past the wired gates of the parole house or festered in the moldy brick of Bellinger's dish room. Hector washed his face because he enjoyed the chill as the air evaporated the trace of moisture left behind.
As he stepped from the bakery into the alley, Hector shoved his hands into his jacket pockets. His eyes roamed across the ground, noting the familiar slick shine from a puddle--the same puddle that usually waited for him in the alley, but this time the light was wrong, darker. He looked up. She was at the end of the block, leaning against a sign, a thin silhouette cutting a piece of his night. With a flicker of shadow, she turned and walked away.
Hector's heart swelled, clotting his brain. He picked up his feet and hurried to the end of the block. She moved past the corner, swishing from side to side, moving with a lightness and grace.
"She's not a 'bot," he mumbled to himself.
He pursued, feeling the rush of the chase. Had she come to the bakery for him? Had she waited until he followed? Every few steps, the woman would stop and tilt her head just so. Hector ignored the rush of traffic, the constant murmur of commands from each street light. The automated world buzzed around him, but his blood boiled, his breath was caught in his throat. Five minutes passed. He would be missed at the tube and then the parole house fifteen minutes later.
As they approached the industrial park, the darkened neighborhoods of sprawling brick and metal, old warehouses and new research facilities, Hector lost sight of her in the spilt ink shadows. His head flooded with the chase, his brain throbbing like a beaten thing. The air filled with wispy puffs of his frosted breath, the sound of his boots crunching against asphalt, the whirr of night machinery inside the factories. He nearly collided with her.
"Oh," Hector caught himself. "Sorry, I didn't...it's dark..." He motioned to her bare arms. "You must be cold."
She tilted her head just so, enough that a piece of moon glittered across her green eyes.
"I'm Hector." He pushed out a hand.
The woman didn't move.
Heat rose in Hector's neck. It crawled across his back and worked its way into his fingertips. He felt the heat rise from his inked arms. He felt latent burning from the tiny pricks where hot grease had melted his skin.
"I said my name's Hector."
The woman tilted her head again, and the green eyes vanished.
Hector's heart swelled again, bulging in his neck and filling his brain with sludge.
His fingers reached around the smooth plastic of her naked forearm. The woman didn't move. He pulled his hand back, hesitated, and clamped both tightly around her slender neck. Under the force of his grip, her head tilted again and the green eyes shimmered. In the distance, metallic voices barked and a siren sounded, but not for Hector. Not yet. Still ten minutes before he was expected at the parole house.
He pressed his hands into the skin-plastic of her neck until they broke through and a small jolt tripped through his body. He held on until the eyes went blank. With the head torn off, he shook the manufactured torso to the ground and fell on it, wild with hunger and full of rage.
He scraped his skin from his knuckles while tearing the batteries and conduit from her body; his fingers bled inside her chest of circuitry and servos. Staggering away from the dismantled mass, he pulled in a lungful of cold, free air and fell panting on the sidewalk. His chest heaved as the stars stared down. The air intoxicated him, and Hector imagined holding his fingers like a gun in his coat pocket, to threaten the titanium-faced tube clerk.
Maybe he would.
WANT TO SUPPORT FREE SCIENCE FICTION?
Three Ways You Can Show Your Support
Monthly Support Via Patreon
Kasma's fuel is coffee.
Buy Our 400+ Page Anthology
Buy our anthology "10 Years of SF!".
Use PayPal to make a donation.