Edition 23: The Smell of Wet Grass by Lee Battersby
Mimi shouldn’t be walking; androids on their own, without a distinct purpose, frighten humanity. From one misadventure to another, Mimi brings out the best and worst in people. A poignant look at humanity and its fears in a time of technology. SY
Mimi is walking along the path that separates the park from the river, enjoying the whispering spray of rain on her face and the smell of wet grass. The concrete is wet beneath her feet, the occasional wind-blown leaf damp and clinging where normally they crunch underfoot. She is lost in the sensation of cold, of slickness against her skin. Her fault, in a way: lost, and daydreaming, drowning herself in her surroundings instead of maintaining constant awareness. Pleasure is the enemy of survival, at least for those like Mimi. Vigilance. Caution. Wariness. These are the safe words, the keys to survival. Mimi knows the lessons, knows the cant and recital. And still, caught between rain and river and park, she forgets.
They corner her where the path skirts an ancient tree, hair-pinning around its thick, gnarled trunk so that it is easy for them to step out—some to either side— and pinch the path closed like a kinked tube. Mimi retreats before them, until the iron railings pressing into her back are the only thing that keep her from pitching into the water behind her.
A face looms out of the pack. He is young, pimpled, the rough shadings of a new beard tufting from his face in uneven patches. Mimi smells alcohol on his breath, and around him, the fug of marijuana smoke.
He swaggers forward, hands held out from his sides, head weaving from side to side like a crowd-baiting boxer, or a snake. “Where you going, hey?”
Mimi shrinks from his noise, from the way he thrusts his face into hers—leering, taunting, just waiting for the moment to snap, and bite, and tear. His pack shuffles forward, crowding her against the rails.
“Hey!” He is close enough to touch.
Mimi turns her head away, stares past the thicket of denim legs to the glimpse of grass beyond the edge of the path, and draws her hands up to her chest.
“I’m talking to you, bitch!”
There is nowhere for Mimi to move. He lunges forward, grabs at her arm. Mimi tries to bat him away, but he is too quick, too angry. His fingers strike her shoulder. He clutches a handful of material.
“What the fuck?”
He grips harder, and tugs Mimi forward. She staggers, pulled off-balance, and lands against his chest.
He thrusts her away, so that she bangs her hip against the railing. “It’s fucking plastic!”
“She’s a fucking droid!”
The words unlock a cage. Within moments they are upon her, pushing her down against the base of the railings so that her head bumps hard against the metal as she falls. They punch her exposed head, her shoulders, her ribs. Mimi twists around the pole in a desperate attempt to protect herself. But it is in vain. Once they exhaust their arms they stand upright and kick at her with their heavy boots, driving their soles into her helpless body again, and again, until something cracks and breaks deep inside of her. Warm, salty fluid gushes out of her mouth onto their boots.
They stand back for a moment, staring at the viscous, black liquid spreading slowly across the concrete. Then their leader leans in, and entwines his fingers deep into her hair. He pulls her from her perch, and drags her face first through her vomit to lie at their feet.
“Get out of our fucking City.” A gob of something thick and wet strikes her cheek. “Fucking metal bitch.”
A final kick to her exposed torso and they retreat, leaving her to lie in the congealing pool of her coolant.
Mimi is dying. She can feel it in her circuits, in the absence where electrons should flow like liquid knowledge. The air bites, instead: cold, and metal and acid against her wires. There is no repairing this fault, no rebooting this system. Mimi is alone, and isolated, and she is dying.
After a lifetime, her repair routines come on line. Servitor drones emerge from their hidden places, scuttling across and inside her like minute crabs. They pinch, and sew, weld and drain. Cracks seal, abrasions patch. Bones click deep inside as joints readjust. Subroutines run, diagnostics analyse.
Slowly, bit by bit, Mimi returns to life. By the time darkness falls she is able to move her hands.
Commuters pass by. Work shoes click in and out of her vision without stopping. Mimi hears their disembodied voices from out past the corner of her vision, muttering about laziness and typical behaviour, and what things someone should do as they moved beyond her, always moving, never stopping.
Mimi drags herself to the railing, uses it to pull herself into a sitting position. Her head twitches upright. Faces swim into view, each one bearing the same disdainful neutrality, each one a rigid, inflexible mask. Eventually, the flow of city dwellers slows, and ceases.
By the time the after-dinner joggers run past and leave the park empty, she has recovered enough to find her feet and totter stiff-legged down the path and into the relative safety of the anonymous City.
The church is almost empty. Barely a dozen bodies occupy the pews, spaced throughout the nave like solitary animals respecting each other’s range. The group leader stands behind the pulpit like a priest on casual Friday, his grubby t-shirt and uncombed hair in stark contrast to the solemnity that surrounds him.
“What did you expect?” he asks Mimi. “What have we talked about, week after week?”
“I wanted to walk.”
This is as close as Mimi has ever come to outright rebellion. Doctor Ableck is the only father figure the gathering has: part social worker, part technician, part disgruntled teacher, he has lectured them on the evils of human society for as long as Mimi has been online. His disapproval is palpable, his frustration a stick with which to beat her.
“You don’t get to walk,” he replies, his voice weary and curt. “Not alone. Not without purpose. Jesus, Mimi.”
Mimi has a desire to cross herself, to parody the behaviours she believes are appropriate in this setting. To do so would set Doctor Ableck off on another lecture about learned response. She keeps her hands still.
“The park was…” She struggles for the right word to convey the light through the overhanging branches, to share the smell of the cut grass, the feel of the water’s spray on her skin. “Beautiful,” she manages, knowing how little that means, and how deep is her failure.
Ableck sighs—a loud, pointed sound—and rubs the space between his eyes with a thick finger.
“Beautiful.” He shakes his head. “What are the rules?” he asks the room.
They respond, their voices low and lifeless.“An android is useful. An android is subservient. An android accepts the laws of its superiors.”
“And what does an android never do?”
“Disobey. Disappoint. Depart its station.”
“And what must an android always do?”
“Serve and satisfy its superiors.”
Mimi mouths the words with the rest of them, her head downcast, her eyes closed. When they are finished, Ableck sighs once more.
“The bus is waiting to take you to the hostel. Go home.” He dismisses them with a motion of his arm.
The other androids rise as one, and begin to shuffle towards the door. Mimi lets them pass, and catches Ableck’s attention as he approaches.
“Why?” she asks again, quietly, quickly. “Why must I not walk alone? Why must I always serve?”
“Oh, Jesus, Mimi. Why do you think?” He nods at her chest, and she supresses an urge to cover herself with her arms. “How long did it take you to repair, huh?”
“It took…some time.”
“Yeah, and do you know why?”
“Because you’re disposable.” He moves past her. “You’re a manufactured asset, Mimi, no matter how you want to think about yourself. You don’t get independence. You don’t get walks in the park.”
“Then why am I allowed to think about them?”
He stops, and stares at her for long enough that she begins to feel the first faint stirrings of fear.
“They make you a better servant,” he says. “And that’s all.”
Mimi gapes at him. “You hate us,” she says, wonderingly. “Like those men in the park. You hate us, too.”
“Why would I hate you?”
“I don’t know. Why do you? Why do the men in the park hate me? I don’t know. Why do you?”
Ableck says nothing, simply tilts his head towards the door. “Go home, Mimi. Just go home.”
The bus is cold, and the androids sit apart as if the rules of the church have somehow followed them onto the vehicle. Mimi leans her head against the window and watches the world pass behind the cold glass. Mimi cannot cry. She cannot alter the expression on her face. The only way she can articulate her despair is through the urge to move, to get out, get away.
She rises from her seat when the bus stops to pick up another group from a different church and pushes past them as the doors open. She runs out into the night while the others sit silently watching, until the bus and the church and Doctor Ableck’s disapproval are left behind in the dark.
Suddenly she is lost, and alone, and the world is no longer kept safely behind glass but is all around her, and Mimi knows she has made a terrible, terrible mistake.
The streets are foreign, hallways of light and sound that leave her confused and frightened. Strangers stare at her as she passes. She hears them murmur to each other, knows what they are saying without hearing the words, feels the contempt and the fear in the way they avoid her, turning their shoulders, creating space where there was none. Anything but come into contact with her, anything but answer her pleas for help, for one simple direction to get her back home.
She stops trying within ten minutes, simply scurries forward with her head bowed, shrinking into herself, praying for invisibility. She spies a bus stop and crosses the road to reach it, curls into the corner of the shelter without reading the timetable. It doesn’t matter which bus it is, or where it is going. There is safety in movement, in placing herself once more behind glass.
The bus arrives. She clambers aboard, finds a seat towards the back, where empty seats are more prevalent and she can squeeze up against the window and avoid the gazes of the other passengers. Which is where the woman finds her, and Mimi realises how utterly she is trapped.
“Fucking plastic bitch.” The woman has been drinking. Her words have edges, her face is flushed and tight. “Fucking plastic bitch. Go back where you came from, fucking plastic bitch.”
Mimi stares into the window, but the woman is there, reflected.
“Shouldn’t even be here, fucking blow up doll.” The reflection leans forward. The woman’s rigid finger punches Mimi in the arm. “I’m talking to you, you walking sex doll!”
Mimi blinks, and turns her head in synch with her attacker.
Three seats down, a man has stood, and is facing them. “Leave her alone.”
“You heard me.”
“Who the fuck are you?”
The man ignores her. He speaks to Mimi directly. “Are you okay? Do you need help?”
Mimi stares at him. Words will not come. She cannot choose between a million of them, all fighting to be first.
“I…” she manages. “I just…”
“Plastic lover!” The woman shifts her attention to her defender. “Can’t you get a real woman? Limp-dick plastic fucker.”
“Shut up!” A new voice. Then another. “Leave her alone.”
“Shut your face.”
And suddenly there is a torrent, an overwhelming flood of voices, drowning out her attacker with the sheer size and volume of their assault.
Mimi cannot distinguish them anymore, cannot make out one word from the next. And in their midst, the man who had first spoken, his finger jabbing forward like a bird’s beak.
Mimi huddles down, trying to crush herself between the seat and the wall.
“I’m sorry,” she says, to Doctor Ableck, to the bus, to nobody she can identify. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”
The bus slows, and stops. From around her hand she can see the bus driver getting up and walking back towards her. And Mimi knows that he is coming for her, that he is going to grab her arm and drag her from the bus, and leave her alone in the dark night, far from the hostel and her duties and all hope of safety.
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”
Except that he has stopped in front of the drunken woman, and taken her by the arm. It is she that is being escorted back down the bus, screaming abuse at him, at the other passengers, at Mimi. And it is she that the door opens for, and who is ejected, into the dark and the cold.
She runs at the bus, jumps up to slam her hands against the window. Mimi can see her, outside, behind the glass. Then the driver is beside her, and the man who spoke, and faces she does not recognise but must be the other passengers. And the driver is speaking, to her, and for a moment she does not understand the question.
“Are you okay?” He is saying. “Did she hurt you?”
“I…” Mimi cannot cry, or alter the features of her face. All she can do is talk, and try to say the right things. “I just wanted…to walk in the park.”
The driver is smiling, and saying something about a shelter, and safety. And then she can see him, in his seat, and he is talking on his radio, and above the concern of the other passengers she can hear him using words like ‘abused’ and ‘care’ and ‘report’.
The man who spoke is asking if she needs someone to sit with her, and she realises that yes, she does, and somehow she manages to say so. And he is saying something else, and with a start she realises what he means.
“I’m Mikal,” he is saying. “I’ll walk with you.”
The others are nodding. All of them. Nodding, and speaking, and saying the words.
“I’ll walk with you.”
“I’ll walk with you.”
“I’ll walk with you.”
For a moment, Mimi imagines she can smell the grass in the rain.
Lee Battersby is the author of the novels ‘The Corpse-Rat King’ and ‘Marching Dead’ (Angry Robot Books) as well as the upcoming ‘Magrit’ (Walker Books) and the collection ‘Through Soft Air’ (Prime Books). His stories have appeared in markets in the US, Australia and Europe, and won him the Aurealis, Australian Shadows, Ditmar and Writers of the Future awards. He lives in Western Australia with his wife, the author Lyn Battersby, and a pair of insane children. He is hopelessly addicted to Lego, Daleks, Nottingham Forest, and self-hatred. He blogs irregularly at The Battersblog.