A man in a hazmat suit stood at the front door. Allie had watched through the window as his van came up the driveway and around a tree that sprouted from a crack last summer, and she started to cry. She might be only nine, but she wasn’t stupid. She knew why the man had come.
“No Daddy, please,” she said.
Daddy looked pained. “Sorry, pumpkin. Rules are rules.”
He let the man into the decontamination chamber, which cleansed his hazmat suit and the air that had come in with him. A red light turned green and Daddy opened the door.
The man took off his helmet. He had an oblong container that he rolled into the foyer on a dolly. He looked at Allie. “Is this the unit?”
She shrank back. Daddy squeezed her shoulders.
“This is my daughter. The unit is over there.”
He pointed to Molly, who stood in the corner as meek and proper as anyone could want in a synth friend. She was nicer than Valerie and smarter than Ann, and she told better stories than either of them.
“When did it malfunction?” the hazmat man asked.
“This morning. It bit my daughter.”
That was more than Allie could take. “She didn’t bite me,” she said, but then remembered the welts on her arm. “It was an accident. We were playing tag. Valerie was ‘it’ and she was chasing us, and Molly and me bumped into each other. Her teeth hit my arm, that’s all. She didn’t mean to do it.”
Daddy and the hazmat man pretended not to hear.
“Do you have the new unit?” Daddy asked.
The man clicked open his container and out stepped a Molly duplicate with the same long, brown hair and freckles on her nose and cheeks. Allie disliked her for trying to look like her best friend.
“Don’t be fooled by its appearance,” the hazmat man said. “It’s our latest model, with better sensory integration and more lifelike emotions than the one you’re replacing. It’s a marvel of technology.”
Daddy knelt beside Allie. “What do you think? She’s like Molly, only better.”
“No she’s not.” Molly played games because she wanted to, not because Allie told her to. And that one time Allie snuck outside, Molly was the only one of her synth friends who hadn’t tattled on her. “I want to keep Molly.”
“Rules are rules,” Daddy said, firmly but not unkindly. “Synths are programmed to never cause bodily harm, so when they do, there a good chance the programming has gotten scrambled. Molly is too dangerous to keep. Why don’t you give the new one a chance?”
“I don’t want to.”
“Do you trust me?”
“I only want you to be safe.”
Allie chewed her lip and studied the new one. Maybe Daddy was right. She looked like Molly, so she might act like Molly, too. Allie said shyly, “What’s your name?”
“I’m Allie. Do you want to see my room?”
Allie took Chloe’s hand to lead her to the stairs. Daddy blew her a kiss and mouthed “good girl.” As she walked away, she glanced at Molly. The synth had tears on her cheeks. Her programming was going scrambled like Daddy said, Allie thought, but she didn’t really believe it.
A few days later, Allie and her synth friends sat on her bedroom floor and played a word game. Allie had made five words from the random letters the game had given her when Chloe threw down her tablet.
“This game is stupid,” she said.
“It’s one of my favourites,” Allie said.
“Then you’re stupid.”
Allie stiffened. “What if I order you to play? You have to do what I say.”
“No I don’t.”
Valerie and Ann looked as surprised as their programming allowed. Allie thought she should be clever and funny and make Chloe apologize, but she didn’t know what to say. None of her synth friends had ever told her “no” before.
Chloe clapped her hands. “I know. Let’s go outside.”
Valerie gasped. “We can’t do that,” she said, while Ann said, “Don’t you know anything?”
Allie, who didn’t like being called stupid, loved the two synths for that. She used her tablet to access a video of some translucent bug things squirming under a microscope.
“What’s that?” Chloe asked.
“The Atlanta Flu virus,” Allie said, pleased she knew something Chloe didn’t. “Some scientists let it out, but not on purpose, and now it’s in the air. Anyone who goes outside without a hazmat suit can catch it. Daddy works from home and doesn’t go out much, and he won’t let me go at all. Not after the flu killed Mommy.” The video looped to the start. Allie watched the viruses squirm. “When I grow up, I want to find a cure, so people can go outside again.”
Why had she said that? The only person she had ever shared that dream with was Molly.
“I can go outside,” Chloe said.
“That’s because you’re a synth.”
“You’ve gone outside, too.”
She had, last summer. Her whole life, she had wanted to feel wind on her skin and grass between her toes, to smell unfiltered air and blow on a dandelion puff, and that particular day had called to her like no other. Morning rain had left droplets on leaves and flowers that sparkled in the sunlight, and the sky had never been bluer.
One time outside would be enough, she had told herself, but it hadn’t been.
“I was lucky I didn’t get sick, and Daddy punished me by taking away M—” — she almost said Molly, but the loss still hurt too much to talk about — “my synth friends for three weeks.”
“I know why you won’t go,” Chloe said. “You’re scared.”
“Are too. And you smell. Smally Allie.”
Valerie and Ann tittered.
“I’m not scared!” Allie yelled. “And ‘smally’ isn’t a word anyhow, dumbhead.”
“I’d rather be dumb than a loser.” Chloe stood. “Come on, girls. Let Smally Allie have her boring old word games. We’ll find something fun to do.”
The three synths left.
Allie tried to play her game alone, but she couldn’t think of any words and her tears fell on the tablet screen and blurred the letters. If Molly were here, she’d hug Allie and tell her jokes to make her laugh. Allie wiped dry her tablet and her cheeks, in case Chloe came back.
The synth’s meanness wouldn’t hurt so much if she didn’t look exactly like Molly. Allie imagined that her friend had been wiped and reprogrammed by now, or melted for scrap. She could never get Molly back and wouldn’t act childish by asking, but she could ask for something else.
She found Daddy in one of their favourite spots, the window seat by the front door, enjoying the late-afternoon sunshine. Outside, a breeze blew through grass that had gone to seed because no one would risk going out to cut it, like the tree in the driveway that grew and grew. Daddy was working on his tablet but put it away when Allie sat down.
“What is it, pumpkin?”
“Chloe is mean to me.” She meant to sound adult, but her voice came out small and wavering.
She did. “Can we get rid of her?”
Daddy scratched his chin. “That’s complicated. We can’t get Molly back.”
“I’m not asking for Molly” — though she wished she could — “or for a new synth friend at all. I just want Chloe gone.”
He patted the seat beside him. Allie scooted closer. “In life, sometimes you meet people you don’t get along with, and you need to learn how to handle that. Stand up to her. Show her you’re in charge and her programming will self-correct to reflect that. The synths are here to be your companions, not the other way around.”
“I tried to tell her that.”
“Try again.” He brushed hair from her face. “Think of it as a learning experience.”
She slumped. “OK.”
“But be careful. I know you loved Molly. Losing a person you care about can make you do crazy things. Understand?”
She didn’t, but she nodded.
“Was there anything else?”
“No, but …”
“What is it?”
“Can I stay here with you?”
“I would like that.”
She curled up against him and he put an arm around her shoulders. Together they watched the sun set behind distant green hills and paint the clouds in brilliant oranges and reds that turned to purple as the sky darkened and the stars came out. Allie thought it was magical.
If Daddy wouldn’t help her, Allie would have to help herself, except she didn’t know how. One thing she did know: She couldn’t hide in her bedroom from her own synths.
Valerie stood in the doorway. “We’re going to play hide-and-seek in the greenhouse. Want to come?”
“I don’t feel like it,” Allie said but then thought this might be her chance to stand up to Chloe. “Wait.” She hopped down from her bed. “I changed my mind. I’ll play.”
Allie liked the greenhouse because she could almost fool herself into thinking she was outside. Daddy had had it built after the virus spread. Like the house, it had decontamination units for air and water. Vegetables and fruits grew year-round. A chicken coop provided eggs and meat. Once a month, Daddy borrowed a neighbour’s hive of honeybees, but they weren’t here now. A bee had once stung Allie, so she avoided the greenhouse during pollination times.
“I’ll be ‘it,’” Chloe said under the apple tree.
Before Allie could show she was in charge — like insisting that she be ‘it’ — Chloe turned toward the trunk and started to count. Allie hid behind the henhouse. It smelled awful. A feather floated by, tickled her nose and made her sneeze, which led Chloe right to her.
Chloe plugged her nose. “Now you really are Smally Allie.”
“You’re ‘it.’ Count to ten.”
Allie closed her eyes and counted. “Ready or not, here I come!” she said. She hunted around the tomato plants, between stalks of sweet corn and inside a tool shed. She worried that the synths had gone into the house to laugh over her bumbling through the garden, but then she found Valerie behind the raspberry bush.
When it came time to hide again, Allie climbed the apple tree, delighted with the view she had of the whole greenhouse. Valerie walked under her but didn’t look up. When Valerie found Ann, she waved and kept going. Allie was all right with that because the synths were best friends. When Valerie found Chloe and moved on, too, that was different.
She climbed down. “Hey! You’re cheating.”
“Chloe made me do it,” Valerie said, and Ann nodded.
“It’s just a little fun,” Chloe said.
“No it’s not.”
“I didn’t say it was fun for you.”
Allie got in her face. “Why are you so awful? I never did anything to you.”
Chloe stood taller. “Yes, you did.”
“What do you mean?”
“You never wanted me.” Her voice cracked. “You want to get rid of me. You said so when I came here.”
“That wasn’t about you. I wanted to keep Molly.”
“It’s not just that. You order us around. You think you’re better than us because we’re synths, but you’re not better. We’re as real as you are.”
“I don’t think I’m better,” Allie said.
“You’re lying. I hate you!”
Allie stood dumbstruck. Chloe should have been programmed to love her, like Molly, but something had gone very wrong.
Then she understood. Chloe had malfunctioned. Her program had gotten scrambled, and she needed to go to the factory to get fixed before she became dangerous. Rules were rules. All Allie needed to make it happen was for Chloe to — what had Daddy said? — cause bodily harm.
She licked her lips. “You’re right.”
“I’m what?” Chloe said, baffled, like she hadn’t thought Allie might agree with her.
“I was lying. I do think I’m better than you.” She hated saying that because she didn’t mean it, but she couldn’t think of another way to make Chloe mad enough to hurt her.
“Stop it,” Chloe said.
“You’re just a synth and not a good one.”
Chloe balled her fists.
“Do you want to hit me?” Allie pointed to her cheek. “How about here?” Her nose. “Or here?”
“No,” Chloe said.
“Why not? You want to.”
Chloe fled from the greenhouse, sobbing.
“Wow,” Ann said, and Valerie added, “Yeah, wow.”
Allie stared after Chloe. “Go away. Leave me alone.”
They did. Allie curled up under the apple tree. Nothing had gone the way she had hoped it would. Chloe would never be her friend and Daddy wouldn’t send her away. Their fight would go on and on until Chloe hurt someone.
Allie couldn’t let that happen.
She rubbed her skin where Molly had accidentally bitten her. The welts had healed. She needed new ones anyway to make this work.
She bit her arm, hard.
Tears sprang to her eyes, but the resulting row of red marks made the pain worth it. She ran into the house yelling, “Daddy, Daddy! Chloe bit me.”
The hazmat man stood at the front door and this time Allie didn’t cry. She had solved her problem. Chloe would go away to get fixed and Allie didn’t have to worry about her bullying anymore.
The light turned from red to green and Daddy opened the door. The hazmat man came in with his container and took off his helmet. He wasn’t the same man as before. He nodded toward her. “Is this the unit?”
“Yes,” Daddy said heavily.
“No,” Allie said. “Chloe malfunctioned. She bit me.”
“Give me a minute,” Daddy said to the hazmat man, and then to Allie, “Sit with me.”
In the window seat, he activated his tablet and showed her the screen, a video of the greenhouse but from the ceiling. Allie hadn’t known about the camera. There was no sound, but she watched herself confront Chloe and bite her own arm.
“You were right about Molly,” Daddy said. “I didn’t see the video until she was gone. After that, I watched more closely, to make sure it wouldn’t happen again, but I never thought you would be the one to malfunction.”
“I’m not a synth.”
He smiled sadly. “June — your mom — was eight months pregnant. On her death bed, she asked that, if our daughter survived, I name her Allie. It wasn’t to be. The doctors couldn’t save either of them. I was crazy with grief, and I did something I shouldn’t have. I bought a synth daughter.”
Allie didn’t understand.
“They replace you every two years with an ‘older’ model,” he said. “Except sometimes the programming goes bad, and we move up the timetable.”
“No, Daddy,” she insisted. “I’m real.”
He caught her hand and pressed a finger to her wrist. A section of skin slid away to reveal a metal plate. “Why do you think you didn’t get sick when you went outside last summer?”
I was lucky, she wanted to say, but instead she stared at the plate. Etched into the metal was her name and a series of letters and numbers. A serial number.
She cried. “I’m sorry I lied.”
Daddy hugged her. “I’m not mad about that. I’m not mad at all. I wouldn’t even tell you, but …”
“A week from now there’ll be a new you, the same except for a memory wipe of the past few days, and your friends will be programmed to forget. It’ll be like it never happened. But in this moment, the most important thing in the world is that you hear the truth, and you deserve to hear it from me.”
“What truth?” she asked, curious but also afraid.
“That you’re my daughter in every way but one.” He was crying too. “I’m sorry.” He kissed her forehead and walked away into the house.
The hazmat man opened his container. It was empty and she was alone. Nothing made sense. She wiped her eyes and pushed the skin on her wrist back into place.
“In you go,” the man said.
“You don’t have a choice.”
“No, I mean —” Her voice caught. She took a breath before she remembered she didn’t have to. Breathing was part of her programming. “I want to walk. Please?”
He gave her a long look. “OK, kid.”
He put on his helmet and took her hand in his gloved one. They entered the decontamination chamber. When he shut the door behind them, the hatch clicked open on the other side. The man pushed it open and they walked outside.
No day could be more perfect. A breeze teased Allie’s hair. A small bug buzzed past her ear, the only sound except for the rustling of leaves. She relished the sun’s warmth on her face, as she had once before in her life. When they walked past the tree in the driveway, she picked a dandelion puff at its base, blew on it, and watched the seeds scatter like a virus.
The man opened the van’s back doors. “Get in.”
“Get in,” she repeated. “I’m a good girl. Made that way.”
Meters from the vehicle, Allie veered and ran.
“Hey!” yelled the man, but he didn’t chase her. He wouldn’t risk ripping his suit. So Allie pumped her legs as fast as they could go, kept her eyes fixed on the distant green hills and ran and ran and ran.
Jennifer Campbell-Hicks’s stories have been published or are forthcoming in magazines including Daily Science Fiction, Abyss & Apex, and Fireside Magazine.