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The door’s silent slide still surprised me, even after Aliss and I’d been moving boxes into our new garage and piling them in unruly heaps for two days. Hair stuck to my neck as sweat ran down the small of my back and the backs of my knees. Our real estate agent had told me it never got hot here, but apparently she lied about the weather as easily as she lied about the closing costs. So we were too broke for household help and hot from humping boxes. But we were here.


And done working for the evening.

I gathered up a cold beer from the gleaming fridge, which opened and closed for me the same way the front door did, eerily quiet and efficient. I’d grown up with doors you opened and closed with human muscle. My last house had been built-green when that meant saving energy instead of producing it. Trust humanity not to waste anything free when you can use a lot of it.

The high ceilings and three tall stories made the house seem like it yearned to join the cedar and fir forest. It made me feel like a pretender. We’d bought here, across the lake from Seattle, with returns from a few good investments and a dead aunt. The sliding door opened for me (of course). It allowed me outside onto a deck that glowed honey-colored in a late afternoon sun-bath. No matter how pretty the deck and the house and the forest around us, the woman on the deck was prettier than all of it. Aliss’d caught her dark hair up in a ponytail that cascaded almost to her waist, thick as my wrist both top and bottom. Sweat shined her olive skin, and she smelled like work and coffee and the rich red syrah she held in her right hand. She pointed at the neighbors, a good three house-lengths away from us. “In five minutes, I’ve seen two humanoid bots over there.”

“So they’re rich. Maybe we can borrow one for gardening.” Not that I minded gardening; dirty nails felt good.

“There’s another one.”

The curiosity in her voice demanded I stop and look. A silver-skinned female form bent over a row of bright yellow ceramic flowerpots on the deck outside the three-story house, plucking dead pink and purple flower-heads from a profusion of living color, dropping her finds into a bucket as silver as her hands. I sucked down half the beer, watching. Counting. Three bots. One outside. Two or three little ones moving around the house, the ones that didn’t look like people. Families in our newly acquired income bracket might have one of the big humanoid ones, but only if they needed a nanny more than flashy cars or designer clothes. Maybe a handful of robovacs and robodisposers and robowashers, like the ones sitting on a pallet in our garage right now.

“I haven’t seen any people,” Aliss mused.

“Maybe they work.”

Her eyes stayed narrow, her jaw tight and jumping a little back by her ear, and she rocked back and forth on the balls of her feet. I knew what that meant. “Guess we’re talking a walk.”

“Got to meet the neighbors, right?”

I’d actually been thinking about sliding into the hot tub naked and having another beer. But this was our first house together, and I wanted her to be happy. “Let’s go introduce ourselves.”

Our driveway gave under our feet, the heat drawing up a hint of its origin as old tires, but not so much it overwhelmed the loamy forest dirt spiced with cedar. Aliss and I turned onto the road, hand in hand. Meeting the neighbors felt like a picket fence choice, like something my mom would do. We turned off the road onto their driveway.

Red light lasered across our bare shins. “Stop now.”

Aliss drew in a sharp breath and squeezed my hand before letting it go and freezing in place.

“State your business.” I followed the voice to a spot about fifteen feet in front of me, and about knee-high. The guard-bot was the same pebbly-dark color as the driveway, cylindrical, with more than two feet, and not standing still, which is what kept me from counting feet. This bot was neither pretty nor humanoid. In fact, a bright blue circle with a red target stickered in its side screamed weapons.

I talked soft to it. “We’re the new neighbors. We came to introduce ourselves.”

Its voice sounded cheerfully forced, like a slightly tinny villain in a superhero movie. “Aliss Johnson and Paul Dina. Twenty-seven and twenty-eight, respectively. You have been here for precisely sixty-seven hours . . .”

I waved it silent before it got around to checking our bank balance and running us off entirely. “So, then you know we’re harmless. We’d like to meet your owners.”

“They are not home.”

Aliss still hadn’t moved, but she asked it, “When will they come back?”

It turned a full 360, as if someone else might have snuck up behind it, and then said, “Please back up until you are off the property line.”

We backed, all the nice warm fuzziness of being in a new home turned sideways. After we’d turned away from the house and the bot, my back itched. I whispered in Aliss’s ear, “Not very nice neighbors.”

She grunted, her brow furrowed.

“Maybe we should jump in the hot tub.”

She gave me a pouty, unhappy look. “They were watching us.”

I didn’t remind her she’d been watching them. I just hugged her close, still whispering, “This is our first night here. Let’s enjoy it.”

She stopped me right there in the middle of the road, at the edge of our own property line, and nuzzled my neck. When she looked up at me, the slight distraction in her gaze told me I wouldn’t have all of her attention easily. I made a silent vow to figure out a way to get it all, and started my devious plot by sliding my hand down the small of her back and pulling her close into me. We walked home with our hips brushing each other.

The next morning, warmth from her attention still lingered in the relaxed set of my shoulders and the way my limbs splayed across the bed like rubber. Birds sang so loudly they might have been recorded. I tried to separate them, figure out how many species must be outside.

“Honey?” she called. With some reluctance I opened my eyes to find Aliss standing on the small deck outside the bedroom, one of my shirts her only clothing. Fog enveloped the treetops outside our third-story window, tinting the morning ghostly white and gray. “Will you come here?”

Since she was wearing my shirt, I pulled on my jeans and joined her, drinking in a deep whiff of us smelling like each other. Although we couldn’t see the house from any of our windows, the deck had a nearly direct view into the robot house’s kitchen, the fog and one thin tree trunk the only obstructions. Three silvery figures moved about inside of a square of light that shone all the more brightly for the fog.

I put a hand on Aliss’s shoulder, leaning into her. “Since robots don’t need food, there must be people there.”

“Don’t you see her?”

I squinted. At the table, a girl sat sideways to us, spooning something from her bowl into her mouth. She wore a white polo shirt and brown shorts, and her blond hair was curled back artfully behind her ears and tied with a gold bow. She belonged in a commercial. Across from her, one of the robots appeared to be holding an animated conversation with her.

“How old do you think she is?” Aliss asked.

She still had a child’s lankiness and a flat chest, but she was probably near as tall as Aliss. “Ten? Twelve?”

“She’s alone.”

“You don’t know that.” Although her observations were often uncanny.

“It explains the nasty-bots. They were protecting her. But it’s not right.”

“Her mom or dad will show up any second.”

Aliss crossed her arms over her chest and gave me the look. “No cars, still. No movement except the girl. No other lights on. She’s alone. It’s a crime to leave a girl that age alone.”

I glanced back at the window, where one robot was clearly conversing with the girl and another was bringing her a fresh glass of juice. “She’s not alone.”

All I got for that was the look again. I tugged her close to me. “Come on, let’s eat. She must have parents.”

“I hope so.” Aliss let me pull her gaze away from the bright square of window and its even brighter occupants.

Days later, we sat on new recycled-sawdust Adirondack chairs we’d ordered for the bedroom deck. The table between us held two coffee cups and two pairs of binoculars and a camera. Aliss hadn’t moved from her chair for two hours. She worried at her beautiful lower lip. “No parents. No people. Not for five days.”

“They’ll come.” Not that I believed it any more. “Maybe there’s someone living there who never comes into the kitchen.”

“That’s lame.”

“I’m reaching. I want my girl back.”

“Don’t be selfish.”

At least she had a little tease in her voice when she said it.

We met the neighbors—not at the robot house, but across the street. William and Wilma Woods. Really. They were at least eighty. Their kids hired bot-swarms to clean up their yard for them, but obviously did nothing for the inside of the house. The Woods probably couldn’t see well enough to tell if there was a purple people eater living in the robot house, and when we asked about it, William pulled his lips up into his hollow cheeks and said, “The new house? I dunno who lives there. We don’t get out much.”

He meant us. We lived in the new house.

The house on the other side of us from the robot house stood empty-eyed and vacant, with a traditional security system that included signs and warnings of proximity detectors. Forest took over for half a mile on the far side of the robot before it yielded a barn-shaped house next to a barn with a corral and three swaybacked horses. The offbeat collection of direct neighbors made me wonder if we’d picked the right house to buy. The robot house was clearly our problem, at least in the world according to Aliss. And since she was my world, it mattered to me. In fact, after days of watching the little girl play ball with robots and eat with robots and study at the kitchen table with the help of robots, I was beginning to worry all on my own. Surely the kid needed a mom or a brother or a dog or something. Something warm.

I have some skill with the nets, but all that got me was frustrated. A holding company owned the house. A public company owned that company and a few hundred more. It spread wealth—a lot more than this house—through thousands of shareholders. Not a very unique tax dodge for second or third homes. All it told me was the girl—or her family—or the freaking robots—had money. Which I already knew. I grit my teeth and kept plugging while Aliss brought me coffee and rubbed my neck. We saw the girl bent over the table studying every day, but I couldn’t find her in public school, online or offline. No kids of her description had been reported missing anywhere in the country.

We unpacked the house, all except the pallet of robostuff, which Aliss steadfastly ignored, and two boxes of art too lame for the new house.

The third week, I woke up in the middle of the dark and texted a friend in the reserves, who brought his night vision goggles. She was warm—and alone. Human.

Satellite shots from the city never showed a car, although they did show the girl out playing robot ball twice.

Aliss made up names for her (Colette, Annie, Lisa, Barbie) and drew her picture. Not that we didn’t do our jobs (me—investing advice, her marketing), or make dinner, or make love. But the spare time that might have been nights out or movies all went to the robot’s girl.

It wasn’t like we wanted kids. But she started to haunt our dreams for no good reason except that we were human, and she was surrounded by beings who weren’t. We walked by the house at least once a day. Always we saw the guard-bots. There were three of them. One too many for the two of us. Or maybe three too many. We hadn’t degenerated into breaking and entering. After all, the robot’s girl laughed and played. Her hair was neat and her clothes ironed.

We walked, and watched, almost every day. Delivery trucks came and went from time to time, but no regular cars stayed, no friends, no family. Just groceries, and occasionally, bags or boxes that might hold shoes or clothes or books.

Fall began to cool and shorten the nights. We were on our lunch break, walking out with the first yellow and orange leaves scrunching under our feet, the sky a nearly-purple-blue above us. After we passed the house and entered the stretch of forest on the far side, Aliss was silent for a long time before she said, “She’s too good. A kid her age should play tricks and make faces and all that stuff. She doesn’t do that.”

“Do robots have a sense of humor?”

“Shit. She’s been like this forever.” Her voice rose. “I keep hoping her mom is on vacation, and she’s coming back. She’s not. The robots really are raising her.”

She fell silent, her feet making soft sliding steps on the road, her breathing faster than it should be for our pace, her lips a tight line in her face. “I’m going in.”

“A little melodramatic, aren’t we? You sound like a TV cop show.”

She swung around in front of me and stopped, blocking my way, head tilted up toward me. “It’s like she’s in jail. But she doesn’t know it. What if they’ve raised her forever? What if that little girl doesn’t know what a human hug feels like? What if . . . what if she thinks she’s inferior to those robots? What are they teaching her?”

“Shhhhhh.” I took her shoulders lightly. She felt like a bird. “We have to keep perspective. Not get thrown in jail for breaking and entering. The cops won’t even go in—you called them.”

She stared at me, eyes wide, then snapped her mouth shut.

“I’m sorry, we can’t. There’s nothing illegal about robot babysitters.”

“They’re not babysitters.” She thumped her fists against my chest and her breath overtook her ability to speak and she actually quivered.

I pulled her in and stoked her hair. “We have to find another way.”

She leaned back and smacked me again with her fists, hard enough it stung a little, and might leave a little bruise. “You just don’t care!” Now she was hissing at me. Not screaming in case the damned robos heard, but she wanted to, the sound building up in her and coming out in shakes and deep out-breaths. She looked deep in my eyes, probing me, looking for something.

Whatever it was, she didn’t find it. She turned and stalked up the street, stiff-backed, unbound hair flying behind her, her shirt the only yellow in the green and gray and black and brown of the forest.

I should have chased her. But I was trying not to laugh; Aliss seeing me laugh would have been worse than me standing there holding it in. Not that it was funny. She’d just overreacted so much it didn’t seem real. Two minutes before, we’d been walking happily beside each other.

I didn’t move until she was opposite the house. I should have chased her, should have run as fast as two feet can go. I should have known she meant exactly what she said.

While she hurried up the road, arms swinging, I stood still, trying for emotional control. She turned sharp left at the driveway and kept stalking, heading for the front door. She was small then, far enough away I could see her but couldn’t expect to run up and catch her. She looked beautiful and terrible, brave in the face of her stupidity.

One bot moved in front of her, the line of its squat body hard to make out except when movement gave it ghost-like visibility. Another one seemed to float toward her, its body easier to see as it moved between me and a green hedge starred with small white flowers.

I shook myself loose and bounded toward her, waving my hands over my head as if the guard-bots would decide I was more threatening even though I stood on a public road and Aliss was doing a full frontal assault.

They ignored me.

Red lines illuminated her jeans, bisected her knees, her calf, above her ankles.

I raced all-out, finally driven to ignore the property line.

She stepped onto the front stoop and jerked, then collapsed, her long hair a curtain across her face. I almost made it to her side when I felt the sharp jolt of a taser and my mouth was too busy being stiff to let out my curse. I went to jelly, crumpling just too far away to touch her. I didn’t lose consciousness, but my head had a muzzy shockiness and my body didn’t really want to move right away, even though my heart was willing.

The guard-bots withdrew a respectful distance.

The door opened.

A silver form in Dockers and an Izod T-shirt bent down and gazed at Aliss, an inquisitive expression on its face.

The guard-bots whirred off, surely going back to watch for more nosy neighbors.

Aliss sat up, looking the robot in the eyes, which were like tiny camera-irises set inside lids with no lashes. From the distance of our third-story porch, their eyes had looked nearly human, but here the emotion came from subtle changes in the shape of the smooth, silver face. Robos can come with human-colored skins and rose lips, and blond or dark or even gray hair, but whoever chose the bots for this house liked them to look like science fictional beings. I’d seen similar models up close at home shows, except they’d looked even less real, maybe because people in bad suits were selling them like refrigerators.

This one had an air of authority.

“You were trespassing,” it stated convincingly. It glanced at me, as if making sure I knew I was trespassing, too.

I nodded at it. “Sorry. We’re the neighbors.”

“Yes.” It looked back at Aliss. “We have been watching you watch us. That’s why Jilly told the bots not to kill you.”

Good for Jilly. I struggled to sit up, pulled my hands under me, folded my legs, and noticed my back hurt.

“Is Jilly your little girl?” Aliss asked.

For just a moment, it looked like the robot couldn’t decide what expression to wear. “Jilly is our head of security. I am Roberto.”

I managed not to laugh. I stood up, happy to be above him. “Glad to meet you.” In spite of the fact that he was a machine, his authority felt absolute. “We came to visit. The girl who lives here, she must need friends.”

I was rewarded with a sweet look from Aliss, who took my hand, and also took the half-step or so necessary to keep it naturally. A man and his girlfriend, standing together on borrowed ground on a quest for warmth and humanity for a single little girl.

Roberto stood, too, half-a head taller than me, a full head taller than Aliss, and a lot shinier. Roberto seemed to gather himself up, or maybe align was the right word, like coming to perfect parade rest, making every bit balance just right. There was no blame in his smooth voice as he said, “I presume you mean human friends?”

I was clearly out of my league. “We see she’s taken care of,” I stammered.

Aliss put some serious pressure on my foot. “Can we meet her? Please?”

“She will be finished with her classes in three hours. Would you like to come back after that and join us for afternoon tea?”

“Uh, sure.”

Aliss let up on my foot. “Thank you, Roberto. We appreciate the offer.”

As we walked hand in hand up the driveway, the guard-bot ignored us, a dark rock-colored splotch the size of small dog, turning around and around softly at the base of a deep green rhododendron bush.

We went in through the garage door. I eyed the pallet of robo-whatevers in various states of repair. Aliss pecked me on the cheek. “I’m going to go get ready. Why don’t you see if you can find a good vac?”

I blinked at her, startled. “Sure.” It took me almost an hour to free three robovacs, test them, and decide which one had a prayer of actually cleaning the floor. The one I eventually chose wasn’t silver, but rather a rounded bump of burnished wood with rubber edges and a long scratch from one time when it slammed a wall hard enough to knock a glass vase down on its back. I squatted and rubbed its familiar top, talking to the damned thing as if it were a dog or something. “You’re sure a whole five or six generations removed from the neighbors bots, aren’t you? That silver thing over there might be the brightest crayon in the box, but I kinda like you.”

It made no reply.

I carried it up the steps from the garage, fifteen pounds of robot tucked under my arm. When I opened the door, the scent of warm molasses lifted my spirits. I put the bot down carefully, noting that it looked even more beat up in the gleaming kitchen than it had in the garage. I patted its back, then stood and curled my arm around Aliss’s lovely stomach and kissed the top of her head. “Thank god Jilly let us live so you could make cookies for me.”

She swatted me with a kitchen towel. “The cookies are for the girl. I wasn’t worried about the guards. They knew we were neighbors. I mean, we might have been borrowing a cup of sugar, right? It wasn’t like they were going to shoot us.”

I decided to take the high road and ignore the fact that they had shot us, changing the subject by stealing a cookie. The cookie became a rock in my stomach. We were returning to the place that had tasered us on purpose. No matter what the rest of me thought, my body didn’t like it.

Aliss freshened her makeup and pulled on a clean blue shirt before we walked over, carrying her offering of cookies carefully.

The silver garden-bot I’d often watched tending the flowers was outside raking up the few leaves that had dared to fall on the perfectly square lawn in front of the house and depositing them in a red plastic bucket. She straightened as we approached, clearly the sentry designed to watch for us. One of the guard-bots sat at her feet like a dog. The other two were nowhere to be seen. When the door opened, I expected Roberto.

Instead, the girl herself opened the door. She was a head shorter than Aliss, and thin, but with muscle on her arms and legs. She was dressed in a schoolgirl uniform; Dockers and a white shirt, green tennis shoes and green socks. The bow in her honey-wheat hair was green this morning. Her wide-set eyes were a startling blue flecked with gold and black. She looked poised for her age, which was probably eleven or twelve. She had the barest hint of hips and breasts, but was still more a promise of a woman than a real one. What mostly struck me, though, was that she had almost as much emotion as the robots.

No kidding.

The silver female holding the broom wore a welcoming smile. She stood in a relaxed posture, one arm leaning on her rake. The girl at the door looked . . . blank. If I had to define a look on her face, I’d have said fear. But it was a ghost of fear, governed by control. The kind of look you see in an executive’s eyes during a stock-fall, or a politician’s eyes on a tense election night.

Aliss didn’t react to the fear, but held out the plate of cookies and she smiled. “Hi! I made you cookies. Can we come in?”

The girl didn’t take the cookies. “Roberto asked me to guide you in.” With that, she turned lightly, pivoting on the balls of her feet, and led us through an open entryway lined with pictures of humans and up a wide set of wooden stairs to the kitchen. She didn’t look at us again until she sat at the kitchen table and tipped her hand toward us, as if asking us to sit. The kitchen felt warm and inviting in spite of her cool appraisal and the silver beings hovering by the sink. The walls were peach and brown with light charcoal accents, and the table was a polished cherry with small woven cream mats at each place. Our seats were obvious: there were three places with silverware and glasses already full of water, and the girl was already in one of them with her hands folded in her lap. Everything—the house, the girl, the robots—it all belonged in an upscale ’zine, and it all made me feel a bit like a visitor in a museum.

Aliss set her tray of cookies down in the middle of the table, still fresh enough to give off a strong scent that made my mouth water. She looked at the girl, clearly yearning to say something to her, but she managed to hold off and just sit beside me, the two of us assigned to be opposite the girl and able to look up at our deck.

A fembot handed Roberto a wooden tray with a sage-green clay pot and three small Japanese-style tea cups on it. She wore a white sundress and blue sweater that probably came from a Nordstrom catalog. Roberto nodded at her, said, “Thanks, Ruby,” and delivered tea and a small plate of pale, thin cookies to the table. He glanced at Aliss’s offering, her cookies fat and homey next to the robot’s cookies, and simply said, “Thank you.”

The combination of feeling so out of place and the absurd thought that Roberto looked like a protocol ’droid from old movies almost made me burst out laughing, stopped really only by the sheer earnestness of the girl and her green bow.

I curled my fingers around the tea cup and sipped slowly. Warm, but not too hot. Minty.

Aliss succumbed to the girls’ silence and said, “Thank you for having us over. We’re pleased to meet you. My name is Aliss, and this is Paul.”

“I know.” She swallowed, as if unsure how to talk to us.

The silence stretched until Aliss filled it. “How was school? What are you studying?”

One side of the girl’s mouth rose in a quirky grin. “Today’s physics topic was gauged supergravity.”

It didn’t faze Aliss, who probably recognized the term about as much as I did—which was zero. She plowed forward. “What about English or art? Do you study those, too?”

The robot’s girl nodded. “Of course.” Then she stopped, and the fear came over her features again for a minute and was gone. “We didn’t invite you here to talk about me. I would like you to stop watching me.”

I blinked and Aliss flinched.

The girl continued. “I can see you from here. I am not happy there is a house there, or that you can see me from your deck. It makes me uncomfortable and I want you to stop.” She looked directly at us, her tea untouched. She hadn’t taken either kind of cookie.

Aliss licked her lips and the ear-end of her jaw muscle jumped, but otherwise she looked smooth and unruffled, a trait she’d learned from dealing with irascible marketing clients. Probably that wasn’t much different than dealing with irascible pre-teens. She leaned forward. “We’re only watching you because you seem to be very alone. We don’t need to keep watching. But would you like to come over and see us some afternoon? We’d love to show someone our new house.”

Roberto stiffened, if a robot can be said to stiffen. Emotion doesn’t really exist for them; they’re programmed to pretend. But he became a bit taller, and a bit more imperious.

The girl glanced back at him as if asking for advice, and he inclined his head ever so much as if to say, go on, you’re doing fine.

She looked back at Aliss and shook her head. “I really just want you to stop. Will you promise me?”

Aliss chewed on her bottom lip.

I couldn’t take it anymore, myself. The very air in the room had become awkward. This was a kid who didn’t want to be watched, and I got that, understood that maybe we’d seemed like voyeurs. Heat bloomed on my cheeks. I wanted to make her more comfortable. “All right. I’ll stop watching you.”

Aliss shot me a look that said she wished I’d let her handle this, and I reached for one of the pale cookies and nibbled at the edges. Vanilla and sugar, with a touch of flour and egg to keep it all together. It melted in my mouth.

I looked back at the girl, who nodded at me, her humorless eyes fixed on my face. She reminded me of a doll. I wanted—needed—to see her smile. “I’m sorry if we upset you. We didn’t mean to.” I paused, and when she didn’t say anything, I asked, “Would you tell us your name?”

She closed her mouth and glanced back at Roberto, and then at Ruby.

Apparently neither of the robots were willing or able to guide her here. She looked down at the table and mumbled, “Caroline.”

“Pleased to meet you, Caroline. Would you like to try one of Aliss’s cookies? They are my favorites.”

She shook her head. “I can’t eat things that strangers make.” She stood up, raising her voice for the first time. “Go now, please. Please go.”

Aliss flinched, as if Caroline’s words were little darts.

I stood and took her hand, whispering, “It’s okay.” Then I looked at Caroline and said, “We would very much like to talk with you again soon. We don’t mean any harm, we’re just used to knowing our neighbors.” A flat-out lie, but how would she know?

Caroline nodded and spoke to Roberto in a quite commanding voice. “Please see them out.” She turned again, her back to us, gliding gracefully out of the room and down the stairs, while Aliss and I watched her, openmouthed.

Ruby followed her.

Roberto nodded at us. “I will lead you to the door.”

Aliss picked up her teacup and mine and walked to the sink very deliberately, setting the cups down. She turned and said, “Thank you for your hospitality.” Then she smiled very sweetly at Roberto and winked at me. “Can I leave her a few cookies? I can leave an extra one so you can test it for poison.”

“That really won’t be necessary.”

Aliss sounded human and hurt, a little snitty, and Roberto sounded even and quite sane; not human at all. I picked up the plate of cookies, shocked silent and deep in thought. As Roberto opened the door and stood to the side, clearly waiting for us to pass through, I asked him, “Were you hoping we would be good for her, or that she would chase us off herself?”

His silver mouth stayed in a tight, firm line, but then he winked at me. Because he had seen Aliss wink? Because he meant yes to one of my questions? Because he had something in his eye? I didn’t think we’d get back here easily, but I also clearly didn’t speak robot, so I led Aliss out and we walked carefully down the stairs. Even though I turned to look at the banisters and the corners, to get one more glimpse of the art and the too-perfect warmth of the place, there was no evidence of Caroline at all. Outside, we passed all three of the ugly little gray guard-bots with too many feet. I finally got a count—seven legs each. Not quite spiderlike.

As soon as we returned safely to our own property, Aliss sagged against me. I had expected her to be spitting mad, but instead she had tears on her cheeks and she whispered, “Poor kid” a few times before letting me kiss the tears away and lead her up to the house. We stayed in our room that night, polishing off two bottles of Syrah and then making rather intense and distracted love that left us tangled in a sweaty mess on the big bed.

Near dawn, I woke up to find her sitting upright and naked, with her back to me, staring out the dark window, the only light a thin sliver of moon that hung between two tree branches. Her chest and shoulders heaved as she sobbed softly. When I reached for her, she wouldn’t turn over and face me. I rubbed my thumb and forefinger along the sides of her spine, making small circles on her back until I fell asleep again.

The next morning, I woke to the smell of fresh coffee. Aliss sat at the kitchen table scowling. “Now I feel like I can’t even go out on our own deck, and like I need to—to make sure Caroline’s all right.”

I poured my own cup of dark delight and stared out the window. We couldn’t see the robot’s house from here, but there were three fat squirrels jumping about in the trees. “She wasn’t very nice,” I said.

“It’s just the age—I know—my sisters both went through it.”

I was an only child, and didn’t remember being very surly at all. “Did you?”

“Probably.” She sipped her coffee. “But I don’t think you remember your own stupid years as much as the ones you get to watch. I thought my sisters had lost their minds. My mom used to say we needed her the most when we were teenagers. I think she was right.”

“I don’t see what we can do about it,” I muttered.

“Caroline didn’t say anything about parents. She must have some.”

I walked up to the fridge, waited for the door to slide open, and rummaged for some bread to toast. “I have an idea.”

She raised an eyebrow. “Oh?”

“Do you care what I do with the rest of the old robos?” Half had worked when we packed them, up, and most of the rest needed simple things like batteries or new wheel casings or new brain chips, some of which I’d planned on scavenging from the oldest and most broken. “I mean, now we really need to save for a real house-bot, right?”

She threw her napkin at me. It didn’t even come close, just fluttered to the floor. She frowned.

“Does that mean I can use them all for parts?”

“You can throw them all in the river, for all I care.”

“The queen of eco wants to pollute the pristine waters of East King County?”

It took less than an hour for her to come down and start helping me. We opened the garage doors to let in a slight breeze and the pale light of a cloudy afternoon. We used the two bots I’d rejected this morning—one industrial red and one silver. I stuck a post in between them, and we picked off arms from garden-bots to attach for robo-arms and legs. The head was easy; I had a round bot with colored lights that was born to be part of a martial arts game, and already had a chain attached to the top. Aliss wound the chain around to be hair. As I looked on and winced, she glued the chain down. I hadn’t played the game since I’d met her anyway. But I had liked it.

Just before supper, we heaved the bones of our screwed-together bot up two flights of stairs and positioned it on the end of the deck, in one of the Adirondack chairs. I crossed one leg over the other and balanced a colored plastic glass on the garden shear that served at the bot’s right hand. Aliss positioned some old augmented reality glasses on its head and played with the cameras until she had them tilted just the right way. Aliss tapped it softly on its game-ball head and spoke solemnly. “I dub thee Frankenbot.”

“Good choice.”

She cocked her hip like a pleased teenaged girl and looked down at our ungainly multi-colored creation. “Do you think we need two?”

I winced. It had been my idea in the first place, but that hadn’t made it easy. “Let’s watch for a week or two. If we need another one, we can go to the junkyard then and get more parts. Let’s see how she reacts.”

We went down to the kitchen and switched the kitchen computer to show Frankenbot’s view of the robot house while we played a word game at the kitchen table.

The next two days life went on like it always had, except we went to the kitchen instead of the deck, and drank our coffee in companionable silence, flipping between the news, the weather, and the neighbor’s kitchen. Which would have creeped me out, except I’d seen the flash of fear in Caroline’s eyes, and I had to do something about that. Stopping a little kid from being scared wasn’t creepy, even if part of what they were scared of was you.

On day three, we took our usual lunchtime walk past the robo-house. A soaking drizzle had come to town, so I wore blue wet-weather gear, and Aliss was togged in a red cap and yellow rain poncho made of new nano-stuff so slick the water collected in beads and rolled off, dripping off the end and landing on the toes of Aliss’s shoes.

As we passed the robot’s house, the silvery garden girl-bot slid up to the very edge of their driveway. We ignored her and kept going, walking the half-mile to normalcy and then turning around.

The bot still waited for us. As we came by, I waved at her cheerily. “Good day.”

She spoke. “Caroline says no fair.”

Aliss smiled sweetly at her. “We just admired you all so much, we decided we wanted a robot, too.”

“That’s not a robot.” She was as shiny and perfect as Roberto or Ruby, but she moved a little less smoothly and she squeaked a bit when she turned her head right. Still, compared to her, our Frankenbot was sad.

Aliss cocked her head at the garden-bot. “Would you like to come visit?”

The bot shook her head. “I have work to do here, and besides, Caroline would never let me go.”

It felt a little bit like progress. We walked back home and jumped in the car and went into Seattle for a rare steak dinner. Over dinner we tried to decide if Caroline was raising the robots or if they were raising her. It didn’t seem entirely clear.

Nothing else happened for a few weeks, except we watched her through Frankenbot’s eyes and she watched us back, sometimes, and ignored us completely other times. Once, just as we came home, we caught sight of a black limousine that might have been pulling out from the robot house. But nothing seemed different that night, so we decided it had belonged to a different neighbor.

The stock market entered a period of steady growth with particular strength in nano-materials, genetics, and animal cloning, so I had some free time (clients don’t need as much when they’re making money). I tinkered with the Frankenbot in my free time, until one day Aliss found me there and stood staring at me for a long time before she said, “I’ve had it with robots. It’s time for something with a heart.”

We picked out a pound puppy, a Lab mix with a yellow splotch on the tip of its tail and one yellow foot. It did a lot for the house, giving us poop and pawprints and puppy fur, making the place feel more lived in and noisier. We named him Bear.

Bear changed the nagging game of catch Caroline’s fancy we were playing. After two days of walking the awkward and adorable Bear past the house, I spotted her peering through the window. She stood still, even when she saw me watching her, neither turning away nor waving. Two days later, in a patch of cool sunshine, she and Roberto tossed a blue ball back and forth on the front lawn while the garden-bot watched. They were there before we went by, and stayed out just until we passed back on our way in. Caroline pretended not to notice us, but she stood at the right angle to catch glimpses of us.

So began the ritual of us walking and them playing, always at the same time each day, just as the sun was highest and day warmest. We waved in greeting the first time we saw them every day. The rest of the walk, we carefully focused entirely on each other and on Bear.

No parents showed up.

When Caroline was outside, the garden-bot and Roberto were always there. When she did her homework, Ruby was always there. Ruby brushed her hair every night.

After a day so rainy and windy that the idea of a metal man and a girl playing together in the rain made no sense at all (but they did it anyway), Aliss looked up at me while she was toweling off Bear’s thick fur. “I think she’s starting to trust us, but even Bear isn’t enough to do the trick.”

Bear licked Aliss’s damp face dry with his wide, pink tongue. “I know,” Aliss teased him. “It’s not your fault you’re not quite cute enough. I don’t think anybody would be. I know you want to talk to her, too.” She looked back at me. “We need to think of something she’ll want to come over here to see. We have money.”

I skipped my planned afternoon of deep market analysis and spent a few hours on the web, looking for a clever idea. I hadn’t found one yet when Aliss called me down for our ritual watching of the night settling over the forest. We’d grown used to stopping work for half an hour and letting the day fade from view. We had a glassed-in first floor porch with a swing that was just the right size for the two of us and Bear. The window revealed the base of trees, and about twenty yards of clearing we’d built by giving blood to blackberry vines as we chopped and tugged and sawed at them. The resultant clear spot often produced rabbits, squirrels, possums, deer, and once, a lone, thin coyote who’d stared at us for fifteen minutes before simply disappearing when we blinked. This time, as the light faded through gold to gray, three does grazed placidly along the treeline, their white tails flicking up and down.

Aliss leaned into me. Bear whined very softly, low in the back of his throat, and circled.

The deer reminded me of an ad I’d skipped over a few times in my research. “I think it’s time to decorate for Christmas.”

“What?” Aliss snuggled closer to me, smelling of hot tea. “It’s only November 2nd.”

“Look, Frankenbot was a good try, but he’s not mobile.”

She gave me a quizzical look. “So? She likes him—I see her look up at him from time to time. And it’s a way to watch her.”

We’d actually stopped doing that much, since nothing really changed. I’d even added a way to turn his head to watch for birds in the forest canopy most of the time, instead of watching the untouchable and slightly sad Caroline and her family of silver beings. “Well, Bear has been more effective, since he gets her outside.” I reached down and patted his shoulders, trying to calm him a little so he wouldn’t scare away the deer. “But it’s not like we can have a pony here, so upping the ante with more mammals probably won’t help.”

“Bear could use a friend.”

“He might like what I have in mind.”

Actually, he didn’t.

I ordered and then programmed three deer: a buck, a doe, and a fawn. They were silver, as silver as Caroline’s housebots, and smooth even when they moved. A year—maybe two—more modern than the housebots, their coats silky and shiny, their eyes cameras (as all robots eyes are cameras), but able to blink and move, and almost as soulful as a deer’s actual eyes. To make it even better, they’d been programmed with natural movements, and given behaviors to make them appear shy and a bit wild. The first time I turned them on, the afternoon of December 7th, Aliss stood beside them on the wet grass taking pictures, getting close ups of the remarkable wet-looking noses and the delicate ears.

I pushed the remote while standing at the edge of the yard.

The deer turned its head and nuzzled her shoulder. She jumped, then grinned and got them to follow her around in a line.

The first time Bear saw them, the hackles rose on the ridge of his back and he screamed bloody barking murder. We were so focused on the puppy, we didn’t notice anything else until we finally corralled Bear. Aliss, firmly grasping the still-struggling puppy’s leather leash, looked back at me and said, “Turn around.”

Roberto and Ruby stood together at the edge of the fenced yards, regarding us silently. Roberto spoke. “Caroline thought something awful had happened to the dog.”

Behind me, Bear howled again, and then the door clicked open, Aliss gave a hushed and insistent command, and the door slid shut again. “I think we scared him,” I said.

Aliss came up beside me. “He’ll be okay. But please tell Caroline we appreciate her concern. Tell her his name is Bear.”

Roberto nodded and said, “She’ll like to know that.”

Aliss nodded. “Would you like to come in?”

They both shook their heads in unison.

“Please,” Aliss whispered. “Please tell her she can come visit. Surely a little girl her age should go places sometimes.”

One of the silver deer—the fawn—came over to stand on our side of the fence and watch the two robots, flicking its metal ears back and forth.

Roberto assessed it silently, but Ruby held out a silver finger to the beast, and if she weren’t a robot, I would have said she was enchanted by it. She even smiled.

“She’d like to see the deer, wouldn’t she?”

Roberto said, “I don’t know.”

Aliss put a hand on my shoulder. “Do you celebrate Christmas? Will she get presents?”

Ruby spoke for the first time, her voice silky, with natural human inflection. “Of course she will.”

“From who?” Aliss asked.

“Caroline’s telling us to come back,” Roberto said.

So she could communicate with the bots even at a distance. I looked toward their house, but I couldn’t see her. Perhaps she could see through their eyes, like we saw her through Frankenbot. “Please feel free to come back,” I said. “Caroline, too, if she wants. We will not hurt her.”

The robots left, and we went inside to calm Bear.

The next day, Aliss left early so I took Bear for our noon walk in the blustery cold with tiny raindrops blowing sideways in the wind. Caroline waved back at me for the first time.

Aliss didn’t return until just before our evening watch. She brought a needle and thread and a great big shaggy form with her and set the bundle on the table. I looked closely, and managed to resolve the pile of fur into a stuffed dog. She sewed eyes onto it as the light faded from outside, and before full dark, I clicked on the electric light. “You need to see.”

She cut the thread she had in her hand and held it up to the light. It was furrier than Bear, and wider, but clearly a dog. “Cindy helped me make it.”

Her friend, who quilted and had a sewing machine. “It’s for Caroline?”

“For Christmas.”

The plush doggie sat overnight in the kitchen. Aliss took two cups of tea upstairs, and we sat together, looking out past Frankenbot and petting Bear. Aliss looked as beautiful as the day we’d moved in, maybe more so because of the fierce determination in her face. Somehow, she was going to win this lost girl over. I folded her in my arms, whispering, “I love you,” feeling her breath and her beating heart, smelling the tea and the wet dog and all the things that made our house feel like a home.

In the morning, before she started working, Aliss tucked the dog into a cheerful red and green tote bag. When we broke for our lunchtime walk, she tucked the gift under her arm. It was cold and clear, the ghosts of our breath visible. We paused to admire the three silver deer grazing in the corner of the front yard while a squirrel chattered at them from a tree branch. As we turned from our driveway onto the main road, we stopped suddenly, our feet stuck to the soft pavement. Even Bear, who growled low in his throat.

I thought about growling, too, but decided not to do it.

A long black car had pulled up into the driveway in front of Caroline’s and the robot’s house. Her parents? Had she hurt herself? Was she leaving? The idea made me happy and sad all together. The limousine must have just arrived since the hood still steamed in the cold air, and it must have come in the back way since they hadn’t passed us.

The doors opened and a stooped old woman got out of the driver’s seat. She went and stood by the door, looking at it expectantly. All three guard-bots swirled around her feet, petting her like cats. The other doors opened all at once, synchronously, and three gleaming robots rose at once from the car. I recognized them from the same catalog we’d bought the deer, with the same “smoother-than-possible skin made of a million million nano-beings.” They’d all been marketed as the next thing in robotic materials and lifelike movement.

The front door opened, and Ruby, Roberto, and the garden bot all walked out, all of them looking downright tarnished next to the new ones. If you looked at them by themselves, they gleamed. But the newer ones were brilliant suns.

Roberto, Ruby, and the garden-bot all looked sad. I thought of the deer, which looked happy even though they were neither happy nor sad, and reminded myself the robots certainly weren’t feeling anything at all. I had to be making it up in my head, and it was silly that I suddenly wanted to know the name of the garden-bot with her silver shears and red bucket.

Caroline trailed behind them. The look on her face drove me forward as far as the property line. Her eyes were red from crying. In the months we’d been watching her, luring her, worrying about her, she’d never cried. Not that we’d seen. She was tough.

The three new robots stood to the side, waiting. They gleamed. All of their clothes were new.

The three old robots slid down into the seats of the big car, smooth as butter, silken as silver, the move both simple and final.

Caroline buried her face in her hands.

Aliss let out a soft squeak of pain so deep it forced me forward, across the line and over to where the old woman stood beside Caroline, watching her, but not touching her. I had Bear with me, close in case the guard-bots turned away from the old woman. Aliss followed by my side, her face as stricken as Caroline’s. I didn’t understand what was going on except the obvious; this woman was taking Caroline’s family and giving her a better, newer one.

The woman herself had steel in her eyes, human steel. She looked at least seventy, slightly shrunken and bowed. But not a bit frail. I shouldn’t have been at all surprised when she said, “Hello, Aliss and Paul.”

I glanced around for Caroline, and found her standing by the door Roberto had slid into, watching us and clutching the door-handle all at once. It appeared to be locked.

I tried to keep as much control in my voice as possible as I looked back at the old woman. “And you are?”


I’d heard the name. The first day we were on this property. “You’re Caroline’s head of security?”

“And you can tell us where her parents are,” Aliss hissed over my shoulder. “And why she’s been left all alone.” Her voice rose enough to make me wince and feel proud all at once. “And why she can’t ever leave, and she can’t even pet the dog.” She glanced down at Bear who was looking between Jilly and his obviously upset Aliss as if trying to decide who bore the most watching. “Why she can’t come see our deer and can’t even eat my cookies!”

The woman appeared nonplussed by Aliss’s outburst.

Caroline’s eyes had widened, but she said nothing. The fear in her eyes was worse than I’d ever seen it. Except this time she wasn’t looking at me. Poor kid.

I took a deep breath and added to Aliss’s list. “And why you’re taking the only family she has.”

Caroline yelled at me. “It’s the deer. Your damned deer were better than Roberto and Ruby, and Jilly can’t stand that.”

She finally sounded like a pre-teen girl. But this wasn’t the moment to heartily approve.

Jilly responded with a quiet and sure voice. “No. Your help gets upgraded every three years, and you know that. It’s simply time.”

“It’s the deer,” Caroline insisted.

I tried to sound calm, but my voice still shook. “They’re Christmas decorations.” She probably changed the robots because they came over to see the deer. I could still picture Ruby’s silver finger reaching toward the fawn’s silver nose.

“Does she ever see her parents?” Aliss demanded. “Do they bother?”

The seven-footed guard-bots began to circle the old woman restlessly. She gave them hand signals and they stopped, all three of them between us and her. “You’re overstepping your bounds. I have no legal right to kill you, but I can take any unleashed dog.”

Aliss drew in a sharp breath.

A bright red light played along Bear’s leash, just below my hand.

Caroline cried out, “No!”

“Then go in the house,” Jilly said.

Caroline had to pass us to go in. Aliss handed her the tote bag. Surprisingly, Jilly said nothing, but allowed Caroline to take it into the house. The three new bots followed her, gliding even more smoothly than the old ones.

I looked at the woman and said, “When Roberto mentioned you, I assumed you were another robot. Now that I’ve met you, I wish my first guess had been right. You can’t give her a family of robots and then take them away.” My hands shook. Part fear, part anger. Of course, we should never have let it continue. Calling the cops once shouldn’t have been enough. The poor, poor kid.

Jilly’s lips thinned, and for a moment she looked like all of the irascible old women I’d ever met. She probably had two thousand dollars worth of clothes on, and more in jewelry. Thousands of dollars worth of robots swirled around her feet. She looked like stone.

Allis pleaded, “Please. Leave the robots.”

No change. But then something more vulnerable flashed across Jilly’s eyes and the corners of her mouth softened. She took a deep breath. “Her parents are dead. They died seven years ago. Her grandmother pays for her care, and I take care of her grandmother. That’s all I can do. There is no one else. If anything happens to either of us, Caroline could end up in the state’s hands.”

She waited, let us absorb this. Maybe the woman said this so we’d stop harassing her, maybe because it was true. She was old enough to be the grandmother or the friend of the grandmother. Between being raised by Roberto and Ruby or the State of Washington, it was a tough call.

Aliss’s arm snaked around my waist. I’d had a few friends in foster care in high school. One had done well, gone on to college, turned into a lawyer. One had been raped and otherwise ignored by her foster parents and the state. Caroline was too old to be adopted easily. And rich, apparently. The State might “need” her money. And even if well intentioned, how would they deal with a kid who knew advanced physics? Would they let us take her?

As if Jilly had been reading my mind, she said, “She is safe, and halfway through her first bachelor’s degree.”

“But she’s lonely,” Aliss blurted out. “Can’t you see that? Surely there’s money? Look at this house! Hire people to take care of her instead of bots.”

Jilly watched us for a long while, and then closed her eyes, mumbling. I didn’t see a communication loop across her ear, but her gray hair was thick enough to hide one. Surely she was talking to someone. In the meantime, the only movement was Bear trying to watch everything at once and the guard-bots trying to watch Bear and us and the perimeter all at once. And us, shivering in the cool wind, which made the ten minutes before Jilly spoke seem like forever. “She had a live-in teacher until two years ago. She outgrew her capabilities, and the . . . circumstances . . . were problematical. Caroline is exceptionally bright, and she is doing better in this situation than in her previous one.”

She sounded like she believed her words completely.

We stood silent. Surely Aliss felt as struck dumb as me.

“Caroline is scraping the bottom of the kind of complex physics and math that breaks old men’s hearts. She does well with machine teachers.”

“She has no friends!” Aliss blurted. “At least leave her Ruby.”

Jilly stood and watched us, the guard-bots floating in agitated tiny circles, drifting up and down, as if restless. At least they’d stopped targeting the leash.

Caroline’s face was pressed to the glass in the second story window, looking down at us all. She was crying again, her eyes raking the car. In her arms, she clutched the toy dog Aliss had made her. I couldn’t see Aliss’s face, but I hoped she could see the girl with the dog.

“When did you change her keepers last?”

“I think you should leave now,” Jilly said. She punctuated her words with a hand signal that caused the bots to scoot close enough that Bear started barking and snarling. We backed off, but I hated every step. This whole situation was an odd trap, for Caroline for sure, and maybe for us. We stood to the side of the driveway and gave the long black limousine plenty of time to pull away.

“Boy, I thought I hated this before,” Aliss said. She wasn’t crying, but she’d gone still and angry.

“Did you see Caroline with the dog? I think she likes it.”

“I should have sewn in a nail file.”

“Maybe. At least we have more information now. We best keep walking so Bear won’t be deprived of his routine.”

So we did. Keep walking. Sad. On our return trip, we looked up at the windows of Caroline’s house, but she no longer stood looking out. The guard-bots made sure we saw them, floating at the edge of the property, as menacing as the first time we saw them. My feet kept dragging, and beautiful Aliss looked far more disturbed than pretty. Although it took a long time, we made it home.

Even though it was still a few hours before dusk, we both gravitated to the enclosed deck, bundling up under fleece blankets and watching a light wind blow the lowest branches of the trees softly back and forth. It was too early for animals, so all we saw outside were birds: two crows and a Stellar’s Jay. Bear settled for his afternoon nap and I stroked Aliss’s hair and wished we’d never moved here, and never seen the robot’s girl, and didn’t know about the situation we seemed unable to do anything about. Once Aliss got up and made us both strong-smelling Chai tea, and once we let Bear out at his request, watching him avoid the silver deer like the plague while doing his business. When he came back in, Aliss patted him and held him close. “I hate robots, too.”

“Maybe I should program the deer to walk over there tomorrow.”

She laughed, a little sad. “I’d hate to see them torn up by the nasty-bots.”

“Yeah, me too.”

We sat and watched the day slide into darkness, not stirring again until it grew too dark to see each other’s expressions and Bear began letting out soft whuffs, asking for his dinner.

In the kitchen, habit caused me to turn Frankenbot’s eyes toward the robot house. I’d almost reached up to turn the controls back when I noticed something different. “Come here, Aliss.”

She was at my side in an instant.

A big square of something white—maybe butcher paper or poster-board—had been taped to the kitchen window. Words had been hand lettered on it. “You can sit on your deck now.”

Did that mean we could use the deck now because she’d taped something over the window? Or what?

Aliss seemed more confident than I felt. She took a bottle of syrah and two glasses up the stairs. The door to the bedroom deck slid open silently as we approached it and sat beside Frankenbot, sharing the empty chair. Aliss poured us each half a glass of wine. She raised hers. “To Frankenbot, who represents our first progress.” She stroked Frankenbot’s now slightly rusty head almost fondly.

I wasn’t sure we’d made progress, but I sipped my wine anyway. I added my own toast. “To Roberto and Ruby and the nameless garden-bot.”

Aliss laughed.

Below us, the paper from the window peeled back, and Caroline waved at us.

Two of the three new robots stood in the kitchen watching her with their shiny silver faces.

It was too far away for me to tell for sure, but I thought Caroline might be smiling.

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