There are birds in the trees. She can’t see them but their chorus follows her along the overgrown track, chasing the light where the treetops grow thin. A human voice echoes out from behind her and she speeds up, laughing as she whips through the leaves and vines, her soles thumping like hooves on the cold mud, little stones digging into her skin. A tree grows crooked over her path, but she leaps over it with ease, the clearing now in sight. She tumbles into a meadow speckled with fat, white daisies and lays amongst them, blue dress drying in the sun’s yellow light. She closes her eyes to watch the swirling patterns that dance behind her heavy lids. Totally alone, the voice not yet caught up. But she would.
‘Are you in there?’
A shadow blankets her view, disturbing the patterns that flee like little fish, and she grabs handfuls of the thick, cold grass, knowing that it, too, would soon be gone.
Just a moment longer, just let the voice catch up. But she knows it’s too late. The dream slips into another room and she opens her eyes.
Jo was sat on the edge of the bed, her face freckled and tanned against fiery hair, a mirror of Jocelyn’s own. A sludgy haze settled over the room like swamp water and Jocelyn covered her face with both hands, nails digging into her temples.
‘Hey,’ said Jo. ‘Please don’t. Look, it’s stopped raining.’
Jocelyn peered at her from between splayed fingers.
‘Really?’ she said.
Jo clicked across the room and pressed her finger to a panel by the door. The blinds lifted on every wall, sunlight bursting in and reflecting off of the white linen and furniture. Jocelyn climbed out of bed and approached the window slowly, afraid it was still part of the dream.
‘Let me get you some tea before I leave,’ said Jo.
In the city below, the fans hummed from the gutters, clearing the morning smog, and many of the buildings still had their nightlights on. Workers swarmed through the streets, busy little ants. Good weather boosts productivity in the workplace; she must remember to mention that to Jo before she goes to the office.
The radio breezed to life…and it’s impossible to ignore the sunshine in London this morning. Many of us were wondering if spring was going to make an appearance at all this year! We’ll be speaking to the Environment Secretary at eleven about whether we can expect more of these long winters in the future…
Jo handed Jocelyn a mug of tea and picked up her handbag.
‘How are you feeling?’ she said.
‘Pretty good…for now.’
‘I need to go,’ she said. ‘Briefing at eight and you know sunshine-’
Jo smiled. ‘Don’t forget your meds.’
‘You know this means you’ll have to leave me soon,’ said Jocelyn, staring down into her tea.
‘One step at a time,’ said Jo. ‘The car’s waiting.’
The door clicked shut.
…next month marks the seventy-third anniversary of the first Brexit referendum and negotiations are ongoing…
‘Off,’ said Jocelyn and the voice disappeared.
Lee bit into a sweet apple pastry and washed it down with bitter coffee, wiping crumbs off of his suit with his spare digits. The Amberlife head office was by far the tallest building in London, its rooftop garden out of earshot of the fans and the grime of the city. The boardroom was imaginatively designed so that it was hard to tell where the building ended and the outside began. A long stone table nestled amongst dark green vines and emerging buds. There was even a pond that trickled drinkable water and had little wooden figures perched on its rim. The rapid decline of the UK’s wildlife over the last few decades meant that the remaining public parks were now so protected they could no longer be described as public. You had to be a billionaire to gain access to those places and Lee was not there yet. His son Bobby, however, wanted to be a gardener one day and was even trying to grow his own sweet peas in little pots on the windowsill. And why not? Gardening was one of the most highly paid vocations there was; aside from robotics, of course.
The sound of voices rumbled up the stairs and in came Jo with three of the directors. They greeted Lee with smiles and nods while he activated the large screen that projected the other seven, stationed across the globe in more fertile lands. Lee checked the network for each member and took his seat.
‘Connections are sound, everyone. We’re good to go.’
The babbling hadn’t quite died down but it did as soon as Jo started to speak.
‘Friends, good morning on this lovely day! Shall we get started?’
Jo’s PA, Sadie, ran through the usual data, finances and staffing updates while the others made notes on various devices. Lee didn’t bother. He knew the information off by heart; it was one of the reasons he was so good at his job. Instead, he gazed at Jo across the table, the small frown of concentration as she listened. How strange, thought Lee, as he had every day since September. So much like the real thing it was impossible to know the difference. In fact, Lee happened to be the only living person who knew that the woman sitting at the head of the table, the CEO of Amberlife, was no more than clever technology, wrapped up in an attractive case. Apart from the real Jocelyn, of course.
‘Peter, can you give us an update on the new model?’ said Jo.
‘On schedule,’ said a tubby man on the screen. ‘The results of the pilot have been published and interest is building fast. We have a number of organisations interested in rolling out JoJos in the service industry and the vetting process has begun…’
Jo was wearing Jocelyn’s navy wrap dress with lemon coloured shoes and belt, her right leg hooked over the left. Just like the real thing. Lee had always found Jocelyn gorgeous but was it strange that he actually found her JoJo more arousing? He suspected it was to do with the fact she wasn’t human, like the robot seductresses from the comic books he read as a boy. No malice, no narcissism, just whatever they were programmed to be. Like a dream.
‘Huh?’ He blinked at the faces peering at him.
‘You also have an update for us?’ Jo smiled at him.
‘Yes, sorry.’ He sat up and pulled out his notes. ‘Terry Macdonald – a window cleaner from Nottingham. Married, four kids, has a history of mental health issues. You may remember he got on the news a couple of months ago, claiming to be an escaped JoJo.’ There were a few chuckles. ‘Says we recruited him for a political mission and are going to activate him to murder the Prime Minister. I know, I know, it’s not even worth our time discussing, but old Terry has caught the attention of the Anti-Artificial Intelligence League nuts and they are supporting his cause. There are rumours they are even fronting the money for him to take us to court.’
Sniggers sputtered around the table of the sort that can only be produced from the financially untouchable.
‘Still, I think we should keep an eye on this,’ said Lee.
‘I agree,’ said Jo. ‘If that’s all, let’s get out there.’
Bodies shuffled out to the lift and screens were snapped off, leaving just Lee and Jo in the room with the empty juice jugs and crummy plates.
‘So,’ said Lee, ‘how is our lord and mistress?’
‘She’s very well,’ said Jo, smiling in a way that made her eyes crinkle.
‘Thank God,’ said Lee. ‘I was worried it would never stop raining.’
‘I know. Remember, it’s her birthday on Saturday and I think we should do the procedure on Friday night. I don’t want to be too hasty but it’s been eight months, longer than ever before-’
‘No, you’re right. Let’s get the old girl going again. Are you listening, Jocelyn?’
‘Jocelyn? I know you’ll hear all this later and we’re gonna throw you a birthday party, me and Bobby. We’ll have jelly and ice cream…and vodka.’
Jocelyn had to smile as she synced the conversation. They sat together in the dining room, Jocelyn eating while Jo moved the food around her plate with a fork. It was a waste but it was important to try and sustain the illusion of reality. Between them, a blue plastic box lay on the table, its twin leads trailing out and into earpieces that the two women wore. Jocelyn was quiet as she took in the information she was being fed – pictures, sounds, senses, feelings, every miniscule experience Jo had encountered throughout the day.
‘What do you think?’ said Jo when the stream finished.
‘I think you should stop flirting with Lee,’ said Jocelyn. ‘He’s young enough to be your son.’
‘I only do it because you do,’ said Jo, smiling. ‘I meant, what do you think about the new model?’
‘Inspired,’ said Jocelyn. ‘If we’re going commercial, we need to appeal to the service industries, families even. Maybe a nanny mode that sings lullabies and can lactate.’
‘You’re jumping ahead!’ said Jo.
‘Well, why not? I’m feeling better already and with the summers getting shorter-’
‘Just don’t burn yourself out.’ Jo picked up the plates and took them through to the hatch that opened out into the kitchen – a leftover from the old days when Cook was still around.
‘I was wondering…if maybe you could stay on this year.’
Silence seeped into the room and Jocelyn knew she had made a mistake. It was the same old argument they’d had last year that had never really been resolved.
‘You know that’s not what I’m here for,’ said Jo.
‘I know. It just seems to get harder every time.’
‘And what would I do while you’re at work all day?’
‘It’s got to be better than boxing you up like a Christmas tree!’
‘I’m turning off,’ says Jo, walking to the door. ‘Night.’
Jocelyn pours herself a glass of wine. She had decided she was going into work tomorrow, despite Jo’s suggestion of taking things slowly. She had been here before and could always be relied upon to decide whether she is well or not. She took out her diary, not an expo recorder, but a real diary made of paper. She liked writing; it helped her to keep her thoughts in order, as well as logging significant events in her work. Who knew? Maybe one day someone would want to read about how she became ‘one of the most successful businesswomen in the world’. That’s how the Times described her, anyway. It hadn’t meant a lot at the time because it had come out on one of Jocelyn’s rainy days, but Jo had kept the newspaper tag and Jocelyn was thrilled. The Times was a paper for grown-ups, the one her dad always read back in the days when it was still distributed in hard copy. He would have been proud, she thought.
It still felt strange being described as a ‘businesswoman’. Her sister, Juno, was the one who had a head for business; Jocelyn was the scientist. It was the perfect partnership, until Juno succumbed to cancer seven years ago. That was when Jocelyn’s depression got worse. It had always been there, a shadow hiding away behind every happy event, but with the death of her sister, there were no more happy events. Seasonal Affective Disorder, they called it, the crushing storm that tortured her mind, like being lost at sea, blind and choking. It started to bleed into her work, just at the time when it was most important. ‘The death of hope’, The Mirror had called it. ‘Can JoJos survive with just one Jo?’ asked The Telegraph.
The double had been Lee’s idea. He could see the way things were going and, for him, there wasn’t a single problem that couldn’t be solved with science. So they built Jo to carry out all of Jocelyn’s day to day tasks when she was sick in the winter. But the first Jo didn’t work. She – it – was one of the early models and solar-powered. There should have been enough energy to keep her running through the winter, but then the winters grew longer, weeks and weeks of grey skies and dark mornings. The JoJo had started to get tired, quiet, even weepy. Talk about creating life in your own image, though Jocelyn.
But it wasn’t life. Lee was there to remind Jocelyn of that and she couldn’t be more grateful. She never would have made it through those early days after Juno’s death without him, her protégé, her friend.
When she was little, she was always the last one to go to sleep and would shiver in her bed at the responsibility of being the only one awake in the house. She used to listen to Juno’s soft breathing through the wall of their bedrooms and it would make her feel better. Now she listened for Jo’s sleepy snores but nothing came back. Jo did not sleep, after all. When it was night time, she was switched off, inanimate, like a microwave or a deckchair. Jocelyn was alone. She took a deep breath. She would have to get used to this again.
‘Welcome back,’ said Lee, reaching across the lift and putting a hand over Jocelyn’s.
‘It’s good to be back,’ she said.
‘I’ve cleared your diary for tomorrow; thought you could do with some time to get your head back into work,’ said Jo from behind them.
‘I appreciate that.’
The lift doors opened onto a clean, tiled antechamber. Jocelyn and Lee took the room to the right while Jo went off to the shower room on the left, disappearing behind the sliding metal doors.
Ten minutes later and the three of them had entered Lab 21, a large metallic room with the highest tech equipment money could buy. Jocelyn ran her gloved hand along the smooth, cold surfaces, feeling her heart rate slow immediately. Chairs lined two of the walls like in a hairdressing salon and Lee, wearing his lab coat and mask, took Jo over to one of them. She removed her robe and sat down, shifting to get comfortable.
‘Eyes where I can see them,’ said Jocelyn.
‘All in the name of science,’ said Lee, his eyes creasing a smile under his glasses.
Jocelyn stayed at the desk on a raised platform, preferring to control things from afar. As always, she had an unbearable urge to say something, to say goodbye, but she knew it was a bad idea. She had to remember what Jo was, not her friend and not her sister but an appliance. Lee had completed the preparation and was looking over at her.
‘Ready?’ she said.
‘Ready,’ he replied.
Jocelyn’s fingers worked the controls like they had a hundred times before. First, six-inch needles entered six areas on Jo’s body – temples, hips and feet. She stiffened and her eyes flicked from hazel to blue and then white. A flick of a switch and a buzzing sounded around the lab. Behind Jo’s neck, a drill entered where her spine met her skull. Blood from the organic casing pooled into a tray underneath and the eyes lit up sharply before turning black. It was over.
‘You okay?’ Lee was looking up at her.
‘Fine,’ she said, grateful for the mask that covered half of her face. ‘Shall we pack her up?’
‘I’ll do it,’ said Lee. ‘It’s your birthday in a couple of hours. Why don’t you get off home and I’ll see you tomorrow for lunch? Bobby’s not seen his godmother in months, not that he knows that, of course.’
‘Sure,’ she said and made her way out of the room, the mask soaking up her tears.
The good weather continued for the next few months and Jocelyn threw herself into her work, looking forward to the launch of the new model in August. Interest grew in the JoJos as marketing campaigns were launched across the world. The next step from the experimental into the commercial had a huge impact on the public, who felt like they were one step closer to having their own JoJo, something that only a handful of people had experienced. Jocelyn wondered if they’d feel the same if they knew how tightly regulated they had to be. The supremely rich clients who already had JoJos had been disappointed to find that owning one meant letting the company have full control over the programming and behaviour, as well as allowing them 24 hour monitoring of their environment. One particular gentleman had been very secretive about what he wanted one for and found out, to his dismay, that money could not buy you everything.
It was July when the police came to the office. Apparently, Terry Macdonald was no closer to giving up his claim that he was manufactured in Amberlife’s labs and sent to infiltrate society, but now he had considerable backing from the Anti-AI League, including a former employee of Amberlife who claimed he’d seen evidence of an unregistered JoJo. Jocelyn had wanted to wait for Lee but he was, inconveniently, nowhere to be found. She’d called him and checked his calendar, finding it empty. Where the hell was he?
The police detective was not what Jocelyn expected. She was mild and elderly and wearing an expensive suit. She introduced herself as DCI Hayley Parker of the Science Department.
‘Science Department?’ said Jocelyn.
‘Yes,’ she said in a soft Jamaican accent. ‘Your work, among that of a few others, has been of great use to people like me, a working scientist with a passion for law and order. Robots in suburbia! And to think all we had to deal with in the old days was drug running and house break-ins.’
‘But you must know this is nonsense,’ said Jocelyn.
‘I would be very surprised if it was anything else,’ said DCI Parker, ‘but we must investigate, even just to reassure the public that everything is above board. As you know, there is a lot of money in what you do and it’s easy to see why some people feel left out of the loop.’
‘Our rigorous security measures are exactly the reason why they are left out of the loop. We are completing work that no one in history has ever attempted before and we need to proceed with caution.’
‘Look, Ms Adams, I have been following your work for a long time and have the greatest respect for what you do. I just think it would reassure the public if we could show that we have tested your compliance.’
Jocelyn thought over her words. Tested, she’d said. Where was Lee?! He dealt with this side of the business, making a good impression, using the right language. She wished she could go home and talk it over with Jo, who seemed to have been injected with a touch more confidence than Jocelyn. She’d say ‘go ahead, we’ve got nothing to hide’.
‘We’ve got nothing to hide,’ said Jocelyn.
‘We?’ said Parker.
Just then, Lee walked into the office.
‘My Operations Manager,’ said Jocelyn, relieved to see he had resurfaced.
Parker stood up and shook his hand and then looked down at the sprinkling of white dust on it.
‘Come from the lab, I see,’ she said, brushing off the powder left from the plastic gloves they used in the labs.
‘Every day’s a school day,’ he replied.
‘I was just telling your boss how impressive your achievements have been here.’
‘DCI Parker wants to test our compliance,’ said Jocelyn.
‘I apologise,’ said Parker, ‘that was badly worded. I just wondered if you could walk me around the labs, show me how your security works etc. It would be really helpful.’
Somehow, Jocelyn felt that if they didn’t do it, DCI Parker would be coming back with a warrant the next time.
‘I don’t see that it would be a problem, especially as you are a fan,’ said Lee.
It turned out the detective had a rather good working knowledge of science, robotics in particular. Not only did she want to speak to the marketing and security departments, she was also very pleased to be asked to suit up and take a tour of the labs. It was a good hour later when Jocelyn managed to get Lee alone, while Parker questioned one of the lab assistants who worked in coding.
‘Where the hell were you?’ whispered Jocelyn.
‘I was just doing a walk round,’ said Lee.
‘Why didn’t you tell me? You know we’re meant to do those double crewed.’
‘I just had a spare half an hour. How was I meant to know the police would be popping in for a tour?’
‘Thank God we’ve nothing to hide.’
But Lee wasn’t listening; his eyes were red behind his glasses and he fiddled with the wedding ring he still wore, even though it had been two years since his wife had left him. Suddenly, a thought occurred to Jocelyn. After all, she had missed the majority of the year and her finger was hardly on the pulse.
‘We don’t have anything to hide, do we?’
‘How can you ask me that?’ He looked her in the eyes.
‘God, I’m sorry. I’ve just missed so much. I’m not fully myself.’
‘Not a problem,’ he said, giving her a nudge with his shoulder. ‘Let’s just hope she’s done before winter sets in again!’
At the end of July, the weather started to turn. Although the heat was still thick and close in the air, sudden thunderstorms would form; clouds of dark grey bled together to create a heavy sky that cast a shadow over most of the country and with it, the familiar darkness trickled into Jocelyn’s heart. There was no sign that it was anything other than the odd summer storm, but it was crowding her thoughts. What if this was it? The end of summer. How many months would she have to wait until the next? She decided she had to make changes to her lifestyle, starting with taking a break from the medication that made her edgy and tired; she could always pick up the pills again when the real winter came. All her life she had been privileged and protected, always someone to look after her – Dad, Juno, Jo, Lee. What if she had to take care of Bobby one day? How could she be a good role model for him if she couldn’t even buy her own breakfast unaided? With the absence of the daily concoction of chemicals, she began to feel things she hadn’t felt in years, her senses more receptive to the sounds and sights around her. It was terrifying but thrilling at the same time. She started walking to work, going shopping alongside her fellow man, sharing their toxic air with a mutual roll of the eyes. She felt energised.
The only problem was the evenings when she’d return alone to the flat, sitting in silence with no one to share her thoughts with. She stopped writing in her journal and instead, spoke the words aloud; it made her feel better. Often, she would pretend Jo was still around, perhaps washing up out of sight in the kitchen, and she would address her thoughts to her, imagining what she would say in return. She knew it was silly, but it helped. Sometimes she even cooked her meals that would lay uneaten, just like when she was around. None of this she mentioned to Lee, of course. He had been acting strangely towards her since the day the detective came – quiet and formal somehow. She felt wretched for the way she’d questioned him and was terrified she had broken something that would not be easily fixed.
By the time August came round, she had a solid routine in place, part of which involved stopping in a local coffee shop for tea and an iced cranberry croissant. She would put on large sunglasses and wrap a thin scarf around her signature red hair, to avoid being recognised. One morning, she was waiting in the queue, breathing deeply to still her heart and survive the sweaty twenty-minute wait, when she felt a body press up firmly against her back. She assumed it was another customer, eager to get their caffeine fix, and tried to edge forward. A hand grabbed at her wrist and a voice breathed at the back of her neck.
‘Jocelyn Adams. I need to speak to you in private.’
Not a great disguise after all then. She tried to turn her head.
‘Not here. I’m going to leave and I need you to follow me out.’
She turned to see a hooded navy parka disappear through the crowd, hard to miss on this sweltering day. She would be mad to follow him. Wasn’t she always reading about women getting raped on the city streets? She should call Lee and get him to pick her up, but then he would know she’d been walking to work and she couldn’t bear the lecture. Juno would have followed the man in a heartbeat, always inquisitive. So would Jo. She turned against the tide of bodies and squeezed her way to the door, bursting into the city air, which was just as stuffy as that in the cafe had been. The man was halfway across Oxford Street now and Jocelyn had visions of him leading her down a dark alley, littered with last night’s fast food and smelling of eye-stinging urine. Instead, he entered a symmetrical brick building with wide sliding doors – a hotel. She was relieved when she entered into a large foyer that was busy with people eating breakfast at long communal tables, the fashionable way to dine in public, she’d heard. She felt self-conscious wearing her sunglasses inside but she couldn’t risk being seen. Across the room, the man was hovering by a door, beckoning her over with a jerk of his head. A little girl at one of the tables, a spoonful of baked beans halfway to her lips, was staring at her. It was that look of recognition, the feeling of familiarity before they realised who she was. Jocelyn walked quickly to the man and slipped through the door he held open. On the other side was a large and surprisingly pleasant conference room.
‘How can I help-’
‘Thank you,’ said the man, taking off his coat and dropping it on a chair. He was sweating and moved shakily. ‘I didn’t think you’d come. You’re very brave.’
‘I need to be quick. I have a meeting at nine.’
‘I need to tell you about #27.’
‘It’s the one he kept from you.’
‘That boy you keep so close – Operations Manager or whatever you call him.’
‘Sir, Lee is my most trusted friend and-’
‘He’s lying to you. I saw it. I saw the records.’
Now he had removed his coat, his features were clear and familiar.
‘Oh my…you’re the man on the news, the one supporting this ridiculous story about Terry Macdonald!’
‘I’m not supporting it but I do have an interest in him. I saw evidence there is at least one unregistered JoJo in existence and if there’s one, there could be a hundred! I worked in your labs for three years, you know.’
‘That’s impossible. All activations require second party verifications. There are logs, cameras, daily independent inspections-’
‘All of which can be manipulated.’
‘This is ridiculous. I’m leaving.’
‘Tell me – when the sickness takes you and you employ a…substitute…does it perform your job just as you would?’
‘How do you know about her?’
‘Her? You mean it?’
‘I need to go.’
‘You need to find #27.’
‘Give me your number. I’ll need to speak to you again.’
‘I’m afraid not. I’m leaving London today. I’ve had enough of hiding in hotels, waiting for him to find me. I’ve told you all you need to know.’
‘What’s your name, at least?’
But he was gone.
Lee watched the street below, following specks of smog that floated on the few shafts of sunlight that made it through the tall buildings. Jocelyn had started walking to work and it worried him. She was mad to think she could keep it up without someone seeing her, despite the scarf. She wasn’t used to the world out there and soon she’d run into trouble, like a bird that flees its cage, straight into the jaws of a cat. He had her followed, of course, and so far she’d been lucky. Until today. His man had called to say she’d met someone, gone into a hotel. At first he thought she might actually have a lover until the pictures came through. He should have dealt with that situation properly when he first had the chance but he was a different person then, not so much to lose. Now he knew what he’d have to do and he’d have to do it personally.
Jocelyn appeared from behind a red bus and strolled across the street, as if she was just another one of them, office workers and taxi drivers, people with purpose and normal emotions and families. His man was a few metres behind her and he stopped across the road as she entered the building. He left a few seconds later and then a ping came from his pocket to signal she’d arrived.
Lee had to act now, otherwise the consequences would be disastrous. Everything was at stake. She could never know the truth.
The week leading up to the launch, Jocelyn kept Lee as busy as she could, sending him on errands and booking meetings with clients, but he wasn’t stupid. He knew something was up. Meanwhile, she tackled the problem hands on, made an effort to get to know her business from top to bottom, from the factory lines and the labs to accounting and sales. If Lee could do spontaneous checks, she could too. People were shocked and pleased to see her and it made her happy to talk to them, like she did when Juno was around. Sometimes she even felt that she was there beside her. Or was it Jo?
It had been ten years since Lee, fresh out of university, wrote to her and Juno begging to be considered for an apprentice position. She was godmother to his son. She had to prove his innocence, especially if there was a chance this man would make more trouble.
And then she found it – a flaw so small it was easy to see why it had been overlooked. When deactivated models were stripped of their organic casing, the remains were packed up and stored in sterile lockers, each one stamped with a number. The contents of #27 was as expected – artificial bone matter and the essential cybernetic spinal column. It was the corresponding data that held the key. For a JoJo to be viable, it must be activated at least once and at that point, it will generate a random 18-digit code. The problem was that #27 had the exact same code as #26. It was a copy. It had never been activated, so the numbers shouldn’t have added up. But they did. The man had been right – there was one missing.
Jocelyn tried to stay calm, thanked the duty technician and left the building. Outside, storm clouds were gathering over the city, threatening to spill over their tortuous despair, and she ran through the streets, having forgotten to pick up her scarf or glasses. The darkness fell inside her. She rushed up to her apartment and locked the door, buried her head in the pillow and moaned. How could he do this? It would be the end of the company. And where was the missing JoJo?
‘It’s okay,’ said Jo from the end of the bed.
She was sitting crossed-legged, wearing tartan pyjamas. Jocelyn hadn’t remembered her coming in but she was so pleased to see her she didn’t care.
‘He lied to us,’ she sobbed. ‘We’ll be ruined.’
‘It’s that man, isn’t it,’ said Jo, ‘Terry Macdonald.’
‘It can’t be. Why would he do that? It doesn’t make sense.’
‘Let me get you some food. You should take your medication.’
But Jocelyn didn’t want her medication. It had made her drop the ball, lose focus when she should have been in charge, managing. She also couldn’t bear the idea of food. In fact, she couldn’t remember when she’d last eaten or even what food tasted like.
‘Jo…’ she said.
‘Do you remember when you first came to me? When you got sick in the winter?’
‘What was it like?’
‘It was like…being lost at sea. I could see others going about their lives, living, laughing, fighting, but for me there was no colour left in the world, no…hope.’
Once she realised the truth, everything made sense, her whole existence. The recurring dreams, the memories she couldn’t quite trust. Already, she felt separated from the real Jocelyn, whoever she had been. Her life had been anything but conventional, many human actions and emotions eluding her, which was why she had put so much faith in science. Well, now it was science that would determine her future and on her terms.
It was the night of the launch and the atmosphere was loud and crowded in the huge hall that had been transformed for the event. A platform like a catwalk sliced down the middle of the room that was swimming with the suited and painted elite of society. She floated through the evening, watching the guests arrive, smiling into the cameras. Lee stayed by her side, singing her praises to anyone who would listen. Did he know she knew?
She was nervous about the speech but reminded herself it was only science; clever programming to make her feel as her human counterpart would have done. And besides, she had company. Next to her seat in the front row were her companions – Jo, Juno and Jocelyn, like three fiery-haired spectres, giving her support. She knew they weren’t really there, of course. It was just her cognitive reasoning breaking down with the lack of solar energy.
Jocelyn was known as a woman of few words, so no one was surprised when she said her generic introduction and handed over to the man of the hour. Lee had built an impressive profile over the last few years and deserved the applause he received. Her friend, faithful to the end, it turned out. It must have been so hard for him but he’d protected her, protected the business, did what needed to be done. She’d said all of this in the letter that she held in her pocket, on real paper made of wood, so he would know there were no hard feelings. When the show started and the music kicked in, the JoJos walked along the platform and the crowd went wild, standing up to cheer. That was when she took her chance and slipped out of the room.
The rest of the building was unusually quiet, other than the occasional drone of a security camera. Her companions met her at the entrance to the lab complex and accompanied her to Lab 21, its lights casting a false flare when she started up the system. She figured the show would go on for at least another hour, which would give her time to do things properly. She turned left instead of right and turned on the shower, as she knew Jo had done so many times before. The water was hot and made her skin red. She couldn’t help marvelling at the details. She was responsible for initial design but somewhere in this wonderful organisation, there was someone whose job it was to make the skin change colour when touched by hot water. Just like a real person. When she was done, she put on one of the white vacuum-packed robes and entered the lab. The system wasn’t designed to allow just one person to use it, so she had to be quick and precise, starting up the process and running down to the floor in time for the deactivation. Sitting in the chair, she felt calm, every part of her being certain that this was the right thing to do. It was unlawful, yes, but Lee would take care of the evidence. After all, he’d done it before. She just wished he’d told her. She could have handled it. He would pack her away himself and the next time she saw him it would be spring again. The series of beeps and whirrs indicated the needles would be next.
‘You won’t feel a thing,’ said Jo, across the room.
‘Just like going to sleep,’ said Juno.
She was ready.
The dull sun was crawling towards the sky by the time the police dropped Lee back at home. He thanked the officer and closed the door. A brief wave of panic gripped him and he removed his glasses, attempted to stem the tears with the palms of his hands. He turned on all the lights in the apartment but it made no difference. He would never get the images of this evening out of his head. He poured a triple shot of whisky with shaking hands and gulped it down. He closed his eyes but all he could see was Jocelyn, limp and bare in the lab chair, held up only by the drill that had entered her spine and, finding no receiving dock, continued on through her skull, causing her beautiful face to cave in to a pulp of purple flesh and sharp white bone. His stomach contracted. He had to calm down.
Lee was no stranger to difficult situations and he’d always managed. That’s what he did. When Sheryl left him he had to pick himself up and get on with things, even though she’d taken everything he had that meant a fucking thing. Now, he had to save the business. He had to destroy the letter and live with the guilt. That was all there was to it. Thoughts were already forming, linking together the narrative of what had happened. He could see the headlines – ‘Britain’s JoJos – the world-changing result of a troubled mind.’ ‘Tortured Scientific Genius who revolutionised the world and paid the price.’
He only wanted to protect her. If only he’d known what she was planning. Would he have told her the truth then?
He took a deep breath and splashed some water on his face, dried it with a towel and replaced his glasses. He tiptoed through the silent apartment, even though there was no need, and went to the bedroom opposite his own. Opening the door, the light fell on brown, curly hair like a chestnut halo on the pillow. His heart seemed to expand with love for the boy, his rosy cheeks and the little feet poking out from under the duvet.
‘Activate,’ said Lee.
Bobby’s eyes opened straight away, flickering from black to white, then blue before settling into his own greeny-grey. He looked exactly the same as he had when Sheryl took him three years ago, not even a chance to say goodbye.
‘Is it morning, Daddy?’
‘Not quite, sweetheart. Shall I stay?’
‘Yes,’ he murmured, reaching out chubby arms and burying his soft, warm head against Lee’s chest.
This was what mattered, what it was all for. He could handle anything as long as he didn’t have to lose his boy again.
‘Deactivate,’ he said, and together they fell asleep.