Another call from dispatch sent us to a stone house on Aberdeen Avenue in Westmount, but that’s all we had to go on: an address. My veteran partner, Dan, and I hopped out of the ambulance. I lugged the trauma kit. It was cumbersome for someone as petite as me. At least all the heavier equipment was rolled in by the MediBot, a droid I still thought could pass as Wall-E’s big brother, only without the arms and the sad puppy eyes. The diagnostics scanner, the oxygen tank, the defib, the foldable backboard, stuff we sometimes never use . . . they were all in it. We didn’t know what we were getting into except the victim was female.
We speed walked to the front door, cutting through the trimmed lawn and passing the rose bushes. Dan’s stethoscope bounced up and down around his neck, hanging onto him like the sweat in the middle of his back. The MediBot followed Dan’s signal from his belt clip, the machine blazing a trail through the grass with its continuous track, avoiding the bushes.
Dan rang the doorbell. He didn’t wait for an answer before he inserted the miracle key through the lock. The door swung opened.
“Miss Amara? We’re first responders,” he hollered, projecting a hint of a Quebec French accent. It echoed between the cream gilded walls. I peeked in from behind. Beyond the sliding closet doors, the home security system was defused, wires poking out of the alarm cover like red and blue tentacles.
“Please, help me,” we heard from the back of the house.
Dan pulled out his latex gloves from his pocket and slipped them on in two seconds. We ran through the corridor, the matching hallway lights trembling to our quickened step. Our feet sidestepped a smashed painting on the hardwood floor. We passed an opened safe built into the wall. The safe was empty, a clear break in.
Ahead of us was the living room, complete with a fireplace. The back door opened to a terrace. Dark vertical blinds danced a macabre number to the breeze blowing in. A TV screen by the corner played a show with firefighters running back and forth.
We made it to the kitchen and there she was, a slender woman sitting on the floor in a dainty maid’s outfit, her back leaning against the kitchen island counter in between the mess of chrome bar chairs. Dan stopped dead in his tracks. I didn’t ask him why and barged in like the rookie I was, crouching next to the woman with the trauma kit, reaching into my pocket for my own gloves. I heard the MediBot rolling in, crushing the painting on the way.
“It’s okay, Miss Amara,” I said.
Half of her pixie face seemed of porcelain perfection until I moved one of the bar chairs and saw the other half. My body recoiled, believing for half a second she was the female Harvey Dent.
She was an android. Plastic on the outside, metal and tech on the inside, with the nasty automaton half of her face smashed in. Her eye was gone, leaving a deep gash, exposing her internal circuitry, sparking at irregular intervals while her good eye stared at the TV. She looked half dead, half in a trance. Her blonde wig tied in short frilly pigtails slid to the side on her head, and her maid headpiece fell on her bare lap. Her left arm dangled from her shoulder, staying attached to the rest of her body by a few wires.
Dan closed his eyes, panting. He was a burly fellow and cardio wasn’t his forte, but if it meant saving a life, he did it, only there was no life to save this time. He stood there with his hands on his waist.
“If not for the damages, she looks so real, beautiful even,” I said.
“Someone broke into my house,” said the android, but her lips didn’t move. Instead, it came from her throat where little holes were perforated through her plastic skin. Another spark escaped her metal skull.
“Please, I’m hurt. It hurts so much. I’m so cold.”
She sounded human with all the right pauses and intonations at the right places.
“Not human. She’s a Catherine,” Dan said. His gaze was intense and his reprimand exposed a distaste I had never seen before. He took out his phone and mumbled to dispatch to call it off.
“My name is Amara,” she said, correcting Dan.
“What’s a Catherine?” I asked him.
“She learns to speak by mimicking. A copycat. I thought they were only available in Japan.”
Two police officers walked in, sweating under their blue collared shirts, clad in black pants and bulletproof vests. One was tall and built, the other stout and shorter than Dan. They both had one hand on their holster, the other gripping their transceiver clipped above their collarbone. I stood up, hitting one of the chairs.
“There is nothing here?” the taller one asked, his French accent thicker than Dan’s.
“False alarm,” Dan told them.
“Ah. Okay,” he said, his dialect a common sound even in the wealthiest Anglophone suburb in Montreal. He stood to the side, dictating his report to a tablet in French, the speech-to-text software filling up the form on his screen. Dan and the other officer conversed in French, a casual and lively speech with slang and grammatical shortcuts, making it difficult for me to follow.
“Please help me.”
We all looked at her. The men either frowned or shook their heads. The taller officer turned off his tablet.
“Someone broke into my house. Please, I’m hurt. It hurts so much.”
Dan motioned us to leave.
“We’re done,” he said.
“I’m so cold.”
I hoisted the strap of my trauma kit up my shoulder.
“I don’t want to die.”
A chill crawled up my spine. I turned around to look again. Her chin slacked and her eyelid closed over her one good eye, like a doll I had when I was a kid whenever I laid it down, pretending to put it to sleep. My mood sloshed to gloom and helplessness, as if I had seen a real person take their last breath.
“Remember, she’s not human. Let’s go,” Dan said, patting my shoulder.
Indeed. I can save lives, but forget robots. Then, her head released one last spark. I turned to Dan and resisted the urge to look.
“I don’t get it,” I said.
“Whoever broke in, they stole what’s in the safe over there, but they won’t take her? She must be worth a lot.”
“We’ll take it from here,” said the tall officer, waving us off.
The police stayed behind. It was a case of a house robbed in broad daylight when no one was home, no one except an android. I dragged my feet out of the upscale house, following Dan’s lead, her dialogue playing over and over again in my head like a voice recording on loop, canceling the drum of the MediBot behind me. I gave in and stole a last look over my shoulder. With the bar chairs all around her, she looked caged.
Dan crossed the lawn and walked around the ambulance to the driver’s side.
“Last I heard, the most basic model is selling for maybe 20K.”
“Like buying a car,” I said, walking to the back of the ambulance. That’s two thirds of my salary.
“And a lot to cause us problems. They make these androids sound so human even the dispatcher can’t tell a droid from a human. Crazy.”
I gestured to him with my free hand to suggest I was mind-blown. I opened the backdoors of the truck and shoved the trauma kit on the stretcher, slammed the doors shut and loaded the MediBot back in its bay on the side. I joined Dan in the cab, sliding into the passenger seat, catching him scrolling through his smartphone. He smacked his palm on the steering wheel.
“There aren’t enough ambulances to run around. If we keep meeting androids who dial for help because they think they’re human, real people are going to die, just because we couldn’t get to them. What a waste of time.”
“You don’t say—”
“Wait a minute,” he said, reading his phone. He lifted his eyes to check the house’s address then dove back to his phone. “Jacques Roy lives here. The Jacques Roy.”
“He’s one of the lead developers who created Catherine!”
“No way . . .”
“Yes way. My god . . . whatever was in the safe could be worth billions. What if it’s next-gen android programing?”
“I don’t know. Who keeps it in a safe in their house?”
“Beats me. It’s like how people used to keep money in their mattress.”
“Shouldn’t we tell the police?”
“Nah,” he said, after a moment of hesitation. “They hate it when we get in the way.”
We buckled our seat belts and Dan pulled out of the neighborhood. I asked him, “Why is she called a Catherine?”
“She looks like this character by the same name in some Japanese game. Blond, curly pigtails, sexy . . . so the name stuck.”
“You seem to know a lot about this.”
“Well, when a guy like me doesn’t have a girlfriend . . .”
“Keep it in your pants,” I said. “I do hope she wasn’t intended for that.”
“Nope. She’s meant to do chores and to answer the door.”
“The chores, or answering the door?”
“Butlers answer the door too.”
“Just saying,” he said, raising both hands off the wheel for a second as if to surrender. He did have a point.
We stopped at a red light, watching both humans and droids crossing the street through our windshield. This one red and white robot was robust and angular, its panels rusting away. It was one of those PharmaBots that filled out prescriptions and fetched medicine for the physically disabled or for the elderly, keeping its wares in its chest cavity where the door can only be unlocked when the recipient spoke, matching a string of words with the droid’s voice recognition software.
“Look at that. An oldie,” said Dan.
He chuckled. When these bots first arrived on the market, they were often stolen for both the meds and to be sold for parts. They have anti-theft software built in now. Always made me think of newspaper vending machines on wheels.
Crossing its path was a servant-class android dressed in a conservative maid’s outfit, almost like the Catherine we saw this morning. The faded markings on her arm read “CAT206,” an earlier, non-talking version of the Catherine. Compared to this morning’s copycat though, where this one lacked in social and physical finesse with her stiff gait, she made up in functionality. She was humanoid, but everything else about her screamed “robot,” distinct from us humans, unlike our supposed victim, even though she only had half her face.
Seeing her next to the PharmaBot, it was as if multiple droid generations were coexisting in a desynchronized way, much like how we live.
The light turned green and we drove through, parking near our favourite deli. It was time for lunch.
“Ever heard of the term ‘ghosting?’” I asked while waiting in line for our sandwiches at the counter. Dan rolled his eyes.
“Don’t tell me you believe in ghosts.”
“No, I mean . . . you know . . . if androids have souls, or a ghost in them.”
“Nope. Don’t believe in them.”
“I mean think about it: What if the Catherine we saw had a living consciousness? What if she was ghosting?”
“Meaning . . .” He made circles in the air with his hand, urging me to continue.
The line of hungry customers budged forward and our growling stomachs inched closer to the sandwich station. The vertical glass separated us from the condiments, and rightly so since Dan had a tendency to lean on the counter.
“You know the stuff the Catherine kept repeating until she died?” I said.
“I don’t follow.”
“Well, if she had a living consciousness, maybe it stayed in her neural relay, making her repeat stuff until—”
“Where did you come up with this stuff?”
“Don’t you read science fiction?”
“I barely read about the Now.”
On the other side of the counter, the scraggy deli owner in his stained apron lined up the cold cuts across two sliced baguettes with his bare hands. Dan and I assumed they were clean. He squirted a straight line of mustard on the other halves of the bread, and with a butter knife, did quick work of spreading it across the entire surface.
“C’mon, we live and breathe around droids,” I said. “Hasn’t it crossed your mind? Maybe they’re more like us than we thought?”
“Keep thinking like that and there won’t be anything separating man from machine.”
“You mean man and woman.”
The deli man wrapped our orders in wax paper and handed us the subs. He never made eye contact with anyone and just worked, preparing one order after another, a mindless mechanized being in the flesh. We headed out of the deli, past the line-up.
“You’re stubborn, you know that?” he said.
“Just enough to stay as your partner.”
“Not a dull moment with me.”
“Believe what you want.”
He shook his head with a playful grin. Once outside, the last available bistro table became ours. I unwrapped my sub and took the biggest bite my jaw could handle, pitying the droids of the world as they’ll never enjoy food the way we do.
“Okay fine,” he said. “Maybe droids are more like us than we thought.”
“You’re just saying that.”
“I still need you as my partner. Just don’t be angry with me.”
“Bet droids always let the other win.”
“Like they have a choice.”
I took another bite when we received a call from dispatch. Lunch would have to wait. We climbed back into the truck. The sirens wailed, but all I heard were the echoes of Catherine’s voice.
I’m so cold.
I don’t want to die.
My shift ended and I went home to my apartment. I shared it with my roommate Becky, my wide-eyed sister from another mother who kept switching majors at her university. Her excuse? There’s no Department of Time Travel, and studying history just wouldn’t do.
The 42-inch TV yapped away and the cramped place smelled of mac and cheese. I opened the fridge, popped the cap off a water bottle and went into the living room.
“What’s that?” I asked, jutting my chin out towards the screen. “Tired of Reality TV?”
“Wise-ass. I’m binging on City Watch. The firemen are so hot.”
I shrugged, chugging down the water. I crossed over to the coffee table and fished for one of my homemade cookies out of a porcelain jar, but my fingers grabbed on to nothing but crumbs.
“I kind of ate them all. They were delicious,” she said.
“Yeah, I kind of figured.” Having a roommate had its downsides.
I glanced over to the TV and those firefighters, the way they were running back and forth, they seemed familiar. In the show, a pair of first responders rushed to the scene as well.
“Being a medic must be exciting,” she said, a bit envious.
“Not really. People’s lives on screen are always more exciting than in real life.”
“True, true,” she said with a mouthful of pasta.
I went back into the kitchen, flipping open the pantry covers to see what I could make for dinner when I heard a familiar voice on TV.
“My name is Amara. Please, help me.”
I grabbed the remote from the coffee table and pressed rewind. Becky dropped her fork.
“Hey! What are you doing?”
I pressed play before she could snatch the remote back.
“Wait!” I told Becky, my eyes glued to the TV.
“My name is Amara,” said a woman into her phone. On screen, she was lying on the kitchen floor, bleeding profusely from the chest area. “Please, help me.”
The scene cut to the dispatcher sporting a wrap-around headset.
“Amara, what’s your address?”
The camera went back on the victim.
“Someone broke into my house. Please, I’m hurt.”
“I can’t help you if you don’t give me an address.”
“It hurts so much.”
Dan was right. That Catherine was a copycat, saying the same lines as this actress on screen, all of it in the same tone, same pitch.
“I’m so cold.”
The scene then cut to a close-up of the woman’s hand. She lost her grip on the phone and her hand went limp.
“Hello?” said the dispatcher in a muffled voice. “Hello? Amara, are you there?”
And that was it. The camera zoomed out of the shot and the screen smashed to black before the credits rolled.
What about the last line? The line where she says I don’t want to die?
“That’s it? That’s the end?” I asked Becky.
“That’s it,” she sighed, as if I had ruined the show for her when she had seen it before.
“What about the rest of the series? What happens to her?”
“You’re oddly invested all of sudden.”
“I need to know.”
Becky raised an eyebrow and reclined back on the cheap tartan couch with her dinner.
“That’s the season finale. She just dies.”