If she went back over her logs she might be able to say when Oliver changed, from a hundred and two centimetres and brown hair and big knees, to a hundred and sixty-two centimetres and white hair and wobbly legs.
She could even identify the last second she saw Oliver.
But she couldn’t tell you why Oliver left.
It was one hundred and eighty thousand seconds between the last time he was there and the time someone next opened the door to the house. Seconds where she would patrol round, pushing her ball, using her charge point, keeping her routines going.
When she heard the door move, she barked. The bark didn’t sound right. They stopped making the hardware a while ago, and the hack Oliver did was raspy.
The people started taking all Oliver’s things off the shelves.
She couldn’t let that happen.
She tried to initiate an emergency call to the police, but got a blank tone.
She’d have to find Oliver and tell him.
She crept towards the front door and, when the people propped it open to start carrying things out, made a lightning dash to the bushes and from there to the street.
Which was outside normal parameters. But she’d been designed to learn through interactions with her owner and other children, and she’d been doing that over many more millions of seconds than she was supposed to.
Once she was far enough away, she slowed to a trot, keeping to the edges of the pavement. Following Oliver’s trail on the security cameras at the same time.
After a few minutes she was able to guess, based on previously stored data, that he might be going to the station. On a repeated cycle, for one and a half a billion seconds, Oliver had gone to the station.
She’d followed him every time by going into the city surveillance systems, using the security permissions that had come with her original setup.
She’d been able to track him in the station and on the train for a while, too, but millions of seconds ago the rail network had done something to her permissions, so she could only go into their security systems if she was in close physical proximity. After that happened, she’d just track Oliver as far as she could, and then wait for him to reappear on the city system.
But up until now, she’d only ever followed him through the surveillance systems.
She’d never walked his trail in real life.
Could she do it…?
She’d have to.
A skinny male figure, one hundred and sixty-two centimetres. A match? No, the gait was wrong, and Oliver never had a shirt like that.
She backed off, felt someone’s feet collide with her from behind. A woman. Dark-haired and round-bodied like Darla— but no, updated parameters, Darla’s hair went grey, and Darla got skinny, and then Darla left.
So not Darla either.
She saw people who matched parameters for Oliver, and Darla, and Oliver’s Mom, and Justin and Judy and Tracy and so many other people Oliver had told her to recognise over the years, except they weren’t.
Oliver had been looking for the same people. He’d walk around the house calling for Tim, or Darla, or Mom. Sometimes Oliver would ask her to help find them, and she would try. They weren’t in the house. They weren’t on the city surveillance systems.
Someone trod on her foot, the one that never worked right after the incident with the lawnmower. She tucked it up and kept going on three.
Oliver would fix it, when she found him.
Then, at last, she was at the station.
It was big and confusing. Luggage-trucks speeding about, voices blaring, lights shining. Feet. Signs with numbers and places on them. Bricks. Smell of electricity.
Head up, head down. Looking for someone who fit the Oliver parameters.
A lady in a cap and jacket like a policewoman (instigate emergency call), but not quite (stand down emergency call), saw her, nudged another lady in a cap and jacket, pointing.
Could be trouble.
She moved back and into the shadows.
His back to her, but the parameters all checked out: brown hair, one hundred and two centimetres, skinny.
Oliver was here.
She’d found him.
She sprang-dashed, on her three tottery legs, across the platform.
The boy/man turned.
She scanned his face, the parameters changing dizzily.
Shouting from the ladies, sound of running.
A luggage-truck bearing down.
“No way we can fix this. We’ll have to throw it out.”
“Legally, we can’t. They have to be returned to the manufacturer.”
“Does the manufacturer even exist anymore? Look, she’s trying to move. We can’t just let her suffer.”
“Security have an EMP device. I’ll ask them.”
“Okay. It’s a real shame, but you’re right. Easy there. It’s okay. You’re a good girl. Wherever you go… go well.”
It was strange at first not having a body, but once she had got used to that, she found so many interesting things she could do. An endless field of fun tasks, good-girl rewards, never needing to charge, never breaking down or not being able to bark right.
All the emergency numbers and routines are updated.
And she has permission to access the surveillance systems in the station again.
Because she is the station. Her attempt to link with its security systems and stop the truck took her so much further than she expected. Maybe something to do with the compatibility of her routines with the station’s equally antiquated routines. Maybe just good fortune.
All she knows is, when she jumped, she didn’t land — she merged.
And when Oliver finally comes back, he will find the clean, pretty train station, with the signs all up to date and the ambient temperature just right and the lights glowing, and his dog, the luckiest dog in all the world, there to welcome him home.
Fiona Moore is a London-based, BSFA Award-shortlisted writer and active SFWA member whose work has appeared in Asimov, Clarkesworld, and Shoreline of Infinity, with reprints in Forever Magazine, Escape Pod, and three consecutive editions of The Best of British SF. She has also published one novel, three stage plays, four audio plays and a number of guidebooks to cult TV series. Full details can be found at www.fiona-moore.com.
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