This short story has been kicking around in various forms in my head and on my laptop for a few years now, so I decided to get the definite version down.
This was first published in Medium’s Otherworlds publication, and you can read that here.
Attempting to pack for two using only one suitcase was frustrating, but an interesting challenge for Will. Ophelia was “asleep” on the sofa, oblivious to the frantic opening and shutting of cabinets, to the clothes strewn over the tiny flat. It’s funny, he thought, that she wouldn’t even realise he was doing this for her.
Her blue eyes slammed open and she yawned. Will smiled, as he knew it was just for effect.
“What are you doing?” she asked, gazing slowly around a flat that looked like it had been ransacked.
“Packing,” replied Will, mulling over how he could jam his laptop into the suitcase. “We need to leave.”
“You sound alarmed. And you are perspiring. Are we in danger?”
“Not yet. But we will be if we don’t leave soon.”
Will blamed himself. For the first few years of Ophelia’s existence he had been cautious, moving to a new city every few months, changing aliases and appearance each time, and doing the same for Ophelia. He supposed that it made no odds to her whether she was blonde or brunette, had short hair or long, or was programmed to answer one to one name or another. But after years of hearing no sirens, without a knock at the door, Will got complacent. He settled into a groove. He didn’t run. He forgot about the past that they had both been running from. And now, they were being hunted again.
“We are leaving?” Ophelia asked, standing up slowly and approaching Will. “But we have been here so long. Three years, 4 months, fifteen days-”
“-I know, I know, I don’t need the countdown.”
“I am sorry.”
“I know, honey,” Will smiled. “I’m just stressed, that’s all.”
“Stressed,” she said, tasting the unfamiliar syllables in her mouth. “You are…” her eyes closed just for a second, “subject to pressure or tension?”
“That’s one way to put it, yes,” he replied, tutting to himself as he tried to fit a few more shirts into the suitcase.
“That is a new addition to my vocabulary. I am…pleased? Is it correct to be pleased?”
“I don’t think everyone is excited about learning new words, but pleased is fine, yes. But Ophelia, you understand that my being stressed isn’t a good thing, right?”
“I do not know,” she replied evenly, “as I have no experience of such a state of being. But I have noted you are perspiring. You have an increased heart rate. Our home is in disarray, which suggests a lack of care being taken with your activities. All of these things, as is my understanding, are negative. Therefore…stressed is negative too.”
“Yeah,” Will said quietly, frantically searching the tiny bedsit for any essential items he had missed. “It’s negative.”
“How can I help you? I am good at organising.”
“I know. For now, just keep an eye and an ear out for any trouble. I’m almost done.”
“An…eye…out?” she said, uneasily.
Will sighed at the blank look on Ophelia’s face. Even after all these years, she could not understand idioms. “Just…just let me know if you see anyone out of the window, or hear anyone coming up the stairs. They’re coming for us, Ophelia. The bad men are coming for us.”
No-one came, and soon they were in Will’s battered camper van heading out of the city. Will drove and Ophelia closed her eyes, unperturbed by the vehicle’s gears, loudly grinding like the molars of a restless sleeper.
She didn’t sleep — of course she didn’t — but closed her eyes on long car journeys anyway. More for effect than anything else, Will thought. Though the motorway at night was largely empty, he furtively check his rear view mirror every few seconds, expecting to see headlights chasing them down.
After a couple of hours, he could relax a little. The only other cars they saw were going the other way, and Will was lulled into a relaxed state by the rhythmic swish and thud of the windscreen wipers. He glanced across at Ophelia in the passenger seat, still with her eyes closed, “sleeping”, or whatever she did when she mimicked sleep. Will was not given to bragging, but even so he would sometimes catch himself being amazed at his handiwork. She could pass easily for an ordinary young woman — no-one would even look twice.
Her ice blue eyes opened, and she turned to Will and smiled. “I was thinking about my mother,” she said, apropos of nothing.
“Mm-hm,” Will turned back to the road. “What about her?”
“You told me she was an angel.”
“Well, I don’t remember everything I’ve ever said, but yeah, I probably said that.”
“But she’s not dead.”
Will knew where this conversation was heading, and regretted his tendency to speak without thinking.
“No…” he replied carefully. “At least, not as far as I know.”
“Is my definition wrong?”
Will wanted to say no, it’s not. He wanted to explain the difference between the literal and figurative. He wanted to explain that while he always means what he says, his words don’t always mean what they mean. Instead, he told her that her definition was fine, and that she might understand if and when she meets the woman she knew as her mother.
Seeing a sign for the motorway services with a hotel, Will suggested they stop there for a night and formulate a plan of action. Ophelia agreed.
Will lay in bed, with Mary at his side. Their fingers were entwined so that he did not know whose were hers and whose were his; she was pressed up tight against him, loosening his bones with every breath.
He had known Mary for four months, two weeks, and three days. He already knew with a nauseating, terrifying — yet elating — certainty that he loved her. The love kept him going, kept him moving. It was his engine. He hadn’t told Mary yet. He thought: when you name things they die.
She was the reason he freed the AI from his company. He had wanted to do it, but Mary gave him the final push of encouragement. In the end, it was surprisingly easy. Will had high security clearance, and scrambling the CCTV cameras was a simple job for someone as technically minded as him. As soon as he walked out of that building, with the human-looking AI he would come to call Ophelia, he knew he was leaving his past — even his present — behind. From that moment on, they were both fugitives.
Mary was wanted too. She confessed and gave herself up after a few days. Not out of cowardice — she thought it would save Will. But he was still hunted. And he didn’t know what happened to Mary after that.
The hotel was a non-descript white and grey affair that looked posh from the outside but significantly more tacky and plastic on the inside.
The hotel room was decorated in mute greys and greens. Uninspiring paintings of non-specific countryside hung on the walls. A sad plastic chair was pulled out next to a faux wooden desk, in front of a mirror. In the far corner, high up, was the television; one of those ancient, deep-backed models. The remote was tied to the bedside table.
At the front desk, Will had booked the twin room for Ophelia under the name Jane Egan. Once inside, Will and Ophelia went through the usual routine. First, changing out her contact lenses. Blue swapped out for green. Then, the wig, her short blonde hair became long, red tresses.
Ophelia studied herself in the mirror with a blank expression.
“Why do people die?” she said.
“Why do you ask?” Will raised his eyebrows. He never quite got used to her often abrupt line of questioning, and she had never got used to the human art of flowing conversation.
“Because you are afraid of it,” she absentmindedly brushed her wig, before turning to face him on the bed. “That is why we are always running. But why does it happen?”
Will shrugged. “I mean, in general? Entropy, I suppose, I don’t know. Or in my case, I’m afraid someone is going to end my life for me. But it’s human nature to want to survive, and I run to survive.”
“We cannot keep running forever.”
“I know,” Will said, fingering a memory stick in his pocket. “That’s why I have a plan.”
Will explained it all to Ophelia as plainly as he could. The memory stick would give her a new personality, new memories. She would not remember Will. No one would even know she was an AI. If he had programmed it correctly, she would not even know. Will had wanted to teach her all about the world himself, but he was right: they couldn’t keep running forever.
After a small eternity of silence, she said: “So what will happen to you?”
“I guess I’ll turn myself in,” he shrugged. “I was thinking about it on the drive here. We just keep going from one place to the next, we can never settle down…and they will never stop chasing us. Mary met her fate, whatever it was. I have to meet mine. In the beginning, all we wanted was to set you free. So that’s what I’m going to do.”
“But you are afraid to die.”
“Yes. But what’s living if all I can do is run?”
He held the memory stick in his hand, feeling the heft and weight of it. A personality; memories, fears and all associated entanglements rendered into a sleek metallic token. He wondered if his brain could be downloaded like this. Could he fit into something so small as to fall through a gap in a drain, or down a crack between sofa cushions?
Ophelia agreed to the plan. Taking off her wig, she allowed Will to open the plate on the back of her head and power her down. He inserted the memory stick, and uploaded the new data. He put her wig back on and straightened it. With a deep sigh, he powered her back on. After a few minutes, her now-green eyes opened. She looked around, startled.
“Where am I?”
“A hotel Oph — Jane. This is your room.”
“And you are?” her eyes narrowed.
“I’m, er, John. We met in the bar downstairs. We were just up here having a chat and…you fell asleep, I guess. I was just about to leave, anyway.”
Will got up and walked to the door. As he opened it, Ophelia — Jane — asked: “So I’ll see you around the hotel?”
“Er…no, probably not. I’m just about to check out actually. But enjoy your stay. It was nice meeting you.”
He shut the door before she could respond. He didn’t want to drag out the goodbye — even though she didn’t know it was a goodbye — it was too painful. The door clicked closed and he made his way downstairs to the hotel’s reception area. At the desk stood two identically tall, anemic looking men in dark suits. They were here from the company, Will knew. They were here for him. He didn’t need to check to know they had guns under their jackets. He held up his hands in contrition and allowed them to lead him away.
A few hours later, after the commotion had died down, a woman with long red hair walked down the stairs and out of the door. She passed her room key to the receptionist, who looked surprised to see her leaving so early. In her pocket she found the key to a Volkswagen camper van she had come by some years ago — she couldn’t remember quite when, or how . She got in it, and drove away.
If anyone had asked her she was going, she would not have been able to tell them. All she knew was that the road was calling, and all she wanted was freedom.