Charlie puked half her breakfast into the toilet, gripping the lid and moaning. She would have screamed except her throat had already been stripped raw from nine days of this madness. The first symptom had been a sharp pain in her stomach. Then the spiteful organ threw a digestive tantrum. Now Charlie spent the better part of her mornings shuttling food in both directions. What goes down must come up. Her body operated under a new law of physics.

“I don’t know why I even bother to eat anymore,” Charlie muttered before the acrid smell tripped her gag reflex once again, and she relinquished the second half of her breakfast.

“Maybe you’re pregnant,” said Alan, her omnipresent friend.

“Last time I checked, you need to have sex to get pregnant,” Charlie murmured into the bowl.

“Should we run a health scan?”

“No health scans. I thought I told you this.” Charlie’s eyes were streaming from the gastric fumes. She threw out her hand and swiped at the toilet-paper dispenser, only to find the entire roll missing.

She blotted her eyes on her shoulder and searched the room for the toilet-paper thief. She found it immediately: a hermit-crab-styled robot with a papier-mâché shell. It was crawling—no, it was strutting—in plain sight, flaunting its dominion over Charlie’s bathroom. “Little fucker!” she whispered.

The thief was a Replicator, a member of a colony of self-replicating robots. Charlie designed and built the prototype months ago, giving it one main directive: to create offspring. One robot soon became two. Two became four. Six generations later, her apartment looked like Swiss cheese. The little robots had punched holes into the furniture, the cookware, the bathroom fixtures, the electrical wiring, everything.

Charlie snatched the thief and studied it. Its legs were made of fiberglass, probably from the bathtub. Its antennae were made from toothbrush bristles. The outer shell was fashioned from many fine layers of tissue and cardboard. Despite its crime, Charlie couldn’t help but marvel at the little guy. Such bold choices in construction material.

“You have less than ninety minutes till your interview,” Alan reminded her.

“I know.” Charlie gently placed the Replicator back on the floor and patted its shell.

She marched into her bedroom and took a quick survey. The room was another refutation of the laws of physics. Nearly everything Charlie owned was located on the floor in a giant pile of laundry and machine parts, almost as if the pull of gravity was stronger in this one room and her possessions couldn’t help but slip into a lower energy state. Down was the new up. Up was the new down.

“Where’s my red dress?” Charlie wondered out loud.

“You mean your only dress?” Alan said. “When was the last time you wore it?”

Charlie smiled. It was a trick question, of course. She had never worn the dress. Yet, it wasn’t in her closet where she expected it to be. “Monkey, where’s my dress?” Charlie called out. A large bulge appeared in the center of the laundry pile. It thumped twice, then deflated.

“I think you buried him,” Alan said.

A multijointed, robotic appendage sprang free from the laundry. It flung a few shirts into the air in an effort to excavate the rest of itself. Monkey was no more sophisticated than a housekeeper bot, and he looked like a walking end table, but he was good at dealing with environmental quandaries. He loved to climb things—trees, lampposts, cars, people—hence the name. Unfortunately, he was also a big robot, more chimp than monkey. So to mitigate property damage costs, Charlie kept him secluded in her apartment.

Monkey rose to his feet with Charlie’s dress serendipitously draped over his head. He tried to shake it off to no avail.

“Thank you, Monkey!” Charlie lifted the dress into the air, and that’s when she noticed the giant hole in the middle.

“The Replicators strike again,” Alan noted.

Somewhere in the apartment hid a very fashionable little robot with a red silk shell. Charlie shrugged and tossed the dress aside. “Jeans, it is,” she said. She dug a pair out of the pile and climbed into them.

“Before you leave, you must do something with that hair,” Alan said.

Charlie stepped in front of a full-length mirror. Alan was right. Her hair was a travesty, wild by neglect rather than intention. In fact, her entire appearance was reminiscent of a—

“Vagrant, vagabond, drifter, crazy person—” Alan chimed in.

“Yes,” Charlie agreed without a fight. She glanced at Alan, who looked so dapper with his clean haircut and tailored tweed suit. The difference between the two of them was striking. “You know, you’re making me look even worse by comparison,” she told him. “Maybe you should take off that jacket and tussle your hair a bit.”

“The American public will judge you independently of how I look.”

“Jeez, well, when you put it that way…” Charlie huffed.

She returned to the bathroom and picked up a hairbrush. Her stomach clenched as she tugged through her knots. Chunks of matted hair fell into the sink. “Owww, shit!” A sharp abdominal pain forced her to stop. Her intestines felt mangled, as if caught in a blender blade. She gritted her teeth and slapped the hairbrush against the edge of the sink.

“You should let me do the health scan,” Alan said.

“No scans,” Charlie gasped as her face tightened and her eyes flooded.

“I’m really worried about you.”

Charlie took a few deep breaths and eased herself back into an upright position. The pain slowly evaporated. “I’ll be fine. It’s probably just a stomach bug.”

“A nine-day stomach bug?”

“I’ll be fine!” she insisted.

She took another look in the mirror. She never really thought much about her appearance. In most ways, she was hopelessly unremarkable. Yet one feature stood out. When Charlie wasn’t lost in melancholy, when she held her head up, when she allowed people to see the life in her face, she sometimes received compliments on her bright turquoise eyes. They were vestiges of a former life, telegraphing a vitality she no longer possessed.

Charlie was grateful the “stomach bug” had spared her fairest feature. The rest of her face was a different matter, with her sunken cheekbones, dark circles beneath her eyes, and of course, that tangled mop of hair. She tossed the brush into the sink.

“This is a project I don’t have time for,” she announced and left the bathroom. “Time?” she asked as she sped down the hallway toward the apartment building’s front entrance.

“We have about an hour,” Alan said, two steps behind her.


“It’s here.”

Just as they were about to reach the double doors, the building manager blocked their path. Her hulking body eclipsed most of the sunlight in the hallway, and her hateful scowl pressed Charlie to give ground.

“I had a tough day at work,” the manager began in an accusing tone. “I wanted to relax on my balcony. At my age, I feel like I’ve earned that right. Then, when I go to sit down, one of the legs of my chair snapped completely in half. Now why do you suppose that happened?”

“Um—” Alan was about to say something rude, but Charlie shot him a silencing glare.

The manager held up a glass jar and said, “I found this crawling nearby. What the hell is this thing?”

A Replicator sat inside the jar, playing innocent. Its shell was made of a fine silver-gray wood. “Oooh, is that teak?” Charlie blurted. She tried to reach into the jar, but the manager tucked it back under her arm.

“No, I’m keeping this thing as evidence,” she said. “This is coming out of your deposit.”

“We really need to go,” Alan reminded Charlie.

“Okay, that’s fine,” Charlie told the manager as she shuffled around her. “I’ll pay for whatever.” Dashing out the door, she was elated that her robot babies were starting to discover the wider world of greater Los Angeles.

*   *   *

The cab dropped Charlie and Alan at the main gate of Rivir Picture Studios with thirty minutes to spare. They trekked farther into the lot toward a central courtyard, trying to avoid the chaotic ballet of motorized carts zipping in every direction. Everyone seemed to know where they were going but Charlie.

“We’re looking for stage 3,” Charlie told Alan. She surveyed the area and didn’t find any buildings that looked like stages.

“It’s all the way on the other side of the lot,” Alan said. “We probably should have taken the north entrance.”

“How was I supposed to know this place would be so big?”

When they arrived at the courtyard, a Shadow spun out of the ground in the way Shadows usually do, like swirling down an invisible sink drain, only in reverse.

“Welcome to Rivir Picture Studios,” the Shadow announced gleefully. “Can I direct your visit?” The Shadow was a holographic representation of Lala, the cartoon space dog. Lala was the star of an early morning TV show and a favorite among the two-to-five age set. She was based on Laika, the real-life dog, who in 1957 became the first animal to enter Earth’s orbit. Unfortunately, Laika had died shortly after the launch. This fictional Lala character, on the other hand, didn’t die but rather took an extended trip around the solar system. Upon returning to Earth, Lala decided to use her experience for good, to teach kids about space and take them on galactic adventures of their own.

“Stage 3?” Charlie submitted.

“Oh! Are you here to view the taping of the Paul Renner Show?” Lala asked with ingratiating enthusiasm.

“I’m actually going to be on the show. I’m a guest,” Charlie said.

“One moment please.” Lala froze for a second, then asked, “Charlotte Nobunaga?”


“You’re late. Angela is waiting for you. Come with me.”

An unmanned motorized cart zipped in their direction and screeched to a halt. Lala jumped in the front seat. Charlie and Alan climbed in the back.

As the cart darted down alleyways, hugged turns, and dodged set workers, Lala turned around and said, “Charlotte, I see that your Rivir profile settings have accidentally been switched to private.”

“No, that’s definitely not an accident,” Charlie said.

“That’s too bad. Unfortunately, I can’t give personalized recommendations without accessing your profile, but our fall lineup is packed with smart, groundbreaking shows that everyone would enjoy. Have you ever wondered what it’s like to be a top-secret government agent?”

Charlie sighed. “Can you please not talk? I have a lot on my mind.” It was a partial truth. Charlie had so much to ponder—what would Paul Renner ask? what would she say? would she gaffe in front of millions of people?—that her brain gridlocked. The only thing she could think about was how much she couldn’t think.

“A lot on your mind?” Lala asked. “You should download the Super Secretary Shadow-Skill. This incredible new Skill from Rivir will turn your Shadow into—”

“I’m not interested,” Charlie insisted. She rubbed her stomach, feeling the nausea return.

Thankfully, the ride was short. They soon arrived at stage 3, and Lala signed off. “Thank you, and please enjoy the rest of your visit at Rivir Picture Studios.” She waved and spun back into the ground—again, like swirling into a sink drain but this time in the correct direction.

A middle-aged woman rushed out of the sound stage to greet the two. “Charlie Nobunaga?” she called out.

“Yes,” Charlie said.

The woman shook Charlie’s hand aggressively. Beads of sweat covered her brow. “I’m Angela. We talked on the phone.”

“Nice to meet you.”

“I see you didn’t go through hair and makeup yet. We scheduled an hour of prep, but no matter, twenty minutes should be doable.”

“I’m sorry,” Charlie said. She had the sudden urge to bury her entire head in a deep bucket hat.

“It’s okay. You’re here now. Come with me.”

Angela barreled down a series of hallways; Charlie and Alan hustled to keep up. “Will I have a chance to meet Mr. Renner before the interview?” Charlie asked.

“No time, sweetie,” Angela said.

The group entered a small makeup room. The hairstylist on duty almost choked on his latte when he saw Charlie’s appearance.

“Can you fix it?” Angela asked.

“Um, well…” the stylist sputtered, “she’s got this young mad scientist thing going on. If anything, maybe we should go crazier. Make it a ‘choice.’ Hold on.”

Charlie took a seat. The stylist pulled a can of spray out of his utility belt and grabbed a chunk of her hair. She winced as he tugged her head this way and that.

While Angela was on the phone and the stylist was doing his thing, Alan sat beside Charlie and whispered, “Are you nervous?”

“Yeah, kinda,” Charlie replied. “You?”

“I’m essentially a prop. You’re the star. All eyes will be on you.”

“Is this your idea of a pep talk?”

Alan laughed. “Don’t worry, you’ll shine out there. Then everyone will get to see the Charlie I know and love.”

She smiled. At least she could take comfort in the fact that Alan would be at her side.

The stylist released Charlie’s head. He took a step back to inspect his work. “Ugh, that’s absolutely horrid!”

“We gotta run with it,” Angela said and shooed the deflated stylist out of the room. She pointed her index finger at Charlie. “You’re on in five. You’ll enter the stage by yourself.” Angela redirected her finger toward Alan. “You’ll be introduced later in the segment. Hold on.” She placed her finger against her ear, indicating a phone call, and migrated to the other side of the room.

Charlie whispered to Alan, “So, you never answered the question. Are you nervous?”

“Of course I am.” He smirked. “That’s how you made me.”

“You ready?”

Alan nodded.

Charlie issued the command: “Alan, spin, no eyes.”

Just like Lala the Space Dog, Alan spun into the ground.

Charlie opened a private, telepathic conversation.

Charlie: Still there?
Alan: Yup.
Charlie: Ok, just wait for my command, I guess.}

Charlie was led to the back of the Paul Renner set. Random crew people zipped past her as they prepared for taping. On the other side of the curtain, she could hear the studio audience settling.

At the same time, her stomach was unsettling. Charlie clawed at her belly, hoping to stem the inevitable progression. The dreaded stab came next. She lurched over and stumbled a bit, losing her sense of balance. She could faintly hear Angela raising a voice of concern. The rest of the backstage clamor faded away. The polished floor swished below Charlie. She pleaded with herself, Not here, anywhere but here. A violent torrent rose inside her body. She heaved. A few drops of saliva fell from her lip. More wanted to come out, but she had nothing left to give.

“Five!” A man yelled in the distance. Charlie perked her ears up. “Four!” The pain in her belly was subsiding. “Three!” Charlie took a deep breath and straightened her spine. She shook off the delirium. “Two!” The world returned. She was back.

The jazz band started playing. The audience clapped and hooted.

Backstage, all eyes were on Charlie—the cameramen, the grips, the production assistants, everyone.

“Are we good?” Angela asked with a hopeful grimace. The poor woman’s face had drained of color, as if she were the sick one.

Charlie nodded. She was good. At least, for now.

Paul Renner’s famous nasal voice hushed the crowd. “Hey, welcome back. My guest tonight is someone who’s been dominating the headlines lately. Winner of the 2045 Rivir Prize, the prestigious Turing Test Competition. The fact that she won the test is not remarkable as much as how she won it. Oh, and she’s only eighteen years old. Please welcome to the show, Charlie Nobunaga.”

“You’re on,” Angela whispered, and she gave Charlie a gentle shove in the direction of the curtain.

Charlie walked on stage and was instantly blinded by the wall of light. The studio audience slowly came into view as her pupils contracted. She gave them a dorky wave. Her breath was remarkably calm and steady. Perhaps her nerves were cleared by the stomach attack.

She sat down at the desk, opposite of Paul Renner. He was the hip, intellectual type in a sharp suit with a wacky bow tie. Charlie didn’t watch a lot of talk television, but when she did, she usually watched Renner. His program was smarter than most. It was the only reason she’d agreed to be on the show.

“Love the hair,” Renner said.

Charlie’s image appeared on the large center-stage display. She cringed at the sight. The hairstylist had been right; she did look horrid. “Um, thanks,” Charlie replied. “We were going for the mad-scientist look.”

“It totally works,” Renner said. A virtual copy of Time magazine appeared above the desk next to him. He read aloud the magazine’s headline: “‘God is a Freshman at Caltech.’ Appropriate moniker?”

Charlie hated that cover. Its central image was Charlie and Alan touching fingers in a similar manner to God and Adam in the Sistine Chapel. It was all so melodramatic. “Well, they got the freshman part right,” she said. The audience was gracious enough to laugh at her joke.

“Modesty, I like that. So…” Renner shifted his posture, signaling that he was getting down to business. He proceeded to address the audience more than Charlie. “We’re all familiar with Shadows. They assist with daily tasks, take dictation, monitor our vitals—for some, they administer mood enhancers…”

The audience laughed. A year and a half ago, Renner had been indicted with illegal Shadow doping. Shadows were known to facilitate dopamine production in their user’s brain, though it was not exactly an out-of-the-box feature. Renner’s case was ultimately thrown out of court, and he had since taken the scandal in stride, incorporating it into his onscreen persona.

“Shadows are always around us,” Renner continued. “They are inside of us, in our smart cells. But they are quite stupid when it comes to that very basic human activity—no, I’m not talking about sex, although that’s a limitation as well.” The audience guffawed. Renner tried to wave them down. “This is just from reports I’ve read. I know nothing about it personally. No, I’m referring to a Shadow’s ability to con-ver-sate, to forge meaningful human connections.” Renner pivoted away from the audience and addressed Charlie directly: “How is Alan different from any other Shadow in this regard?”

The air drained from Charlie’s lungs. Now, she was nervous. She didn’t have much practice talking about her work. “Um, well, historically speaking, the paradigm for intelligent agents has been nondirective.”


“Nondirective. They are essentially stateless.”

“Stateless? Charlie, our audience is primarily English-speaking,” Renner quipped to audience laughter.

“Right.” Charlie’s voice quavered a bit. She straightened her back and took a deep breath. “What I mean by stateless is…their emotion states do not change. Your Shadow’s personality, his mood, his feelings toward you—they’re the same on Monday as they are on Wednesday. It doesn’t matter if the two of you had a fight on Tuesday. Or shared a laugh. Or shared some deep revelation. You change, but the Shadow never does.”

“It’s a perpetual amnesiac. It has no memory.”

“Well, that’s not entirely true. Shadows have memory. In fact, they have a larger capacity than the human brain. But they can only remember facts, not emotions. Or, at least, not in any kind of convincing way.”

“And you’ve found a way to change that?”

“I think so.”

“Well, let’s see.” Renner turned to the audience and said with gusto, “Do you guys want to see Alan?”

The audience replied with a unanimous, “Yes!”

“Awesome,” Renner said. “But first, we have a replay of Alan’s Rivir Prize-winning performance.”

The center-stage display switched from an angle of Charlie’s face to a video of the Rivir Prize Competition.

The stage looked like a typical mid-twentieth-century living room. Three people sat in a row of plush, fancy chairs. They were visible to the audience but separated from one another by freestanding curtains.

“First off, give us some background,” Renner said. “This is the third annual Rivir Prize Competition?”

“Sort of,” Charlie answered. “The actual competition has been around for decades, well before the advent of Shadows, but it’s only been called the Rivir Prize since Rivir started sponsoring it.”

“Rivir’s own employees aren’t working fast enough, so they decided to outsource?”

Charlie smiled. “I guess.”

Renner pointed his finger directly at one of the cameras. “You hear me Jude Adler? If you are looking for someone to lead your Shadow department, we have her right here. I’m gonna require a finder’s fee, though.”

The audience laughed. Charlie couldn’t help but blush. Jude Adler, CEO of Rivir Inc., was a visionary. She brought smart cells to the masses. She invented the Shadow. Needless to say, she was one of Charlie’s biggest heroes.

“So tell us what we’re seeing,” Renner said.

Charlie looked at the display and narrated: “This is the classic Turing Test setup. The man sitting in the middle is the judge. Alan’s on the left. A human volunteer is on the right. The judge talks to each one for ten minutes.”

“It sounds a little like speed dating,” Renner said.

“Yes, only in this case, the judge has to figure out who’s human.”

“So then it’s exactly like speed dating,” Renner quipped to laughter and applause. “Okay, we’re about seven minutes into the test. Let’s see how Alan is faring…”

The volume on the center-stage display rose to an audible level. Alan was in midconversation with the judge. “I think Tarantino is good,” Alan said, “but not as good as some of his influences: Leone, de Palma, Scorsese—”

“Wait a minute! Wait a minute!” The judge aggressively wagged his finger. “You said earlier that you hated Scorsese.”

“No, I didn’t,” Alan said. “I think he’s great.”

“No. If I remember correctly, you said he was overrated.”

“I said Spielberg was overrated.”

“No, you said Scorsese.”

Alan raised his voice. “Don’t tell me what I said! I know exactly what I said!”

“Okay, whatever.”

“Hey, if you’re going to track me, at least get your facts straight!”

“Okay, fine, chill,” the judge said, shrinking into his seat.

“For the record, I fucking love Scorsese!”

“Jeez, man. I get it. You’re not a Shadow…just an asshole.”

“This test is over!” Alan rose from his seat and stormed offstage.

Both audiences were stunned, at the Rivir Prize Competition and at the Paul Renner Show. Charlie covered her face in embarrassment. This was the second time she’d had to suffer through this moment.

Renner broke the silence with a series of deliberate claps. “That was quite a performance. And so he won? Even though he quit midconversation?”

“I had a mini heart attack when it happened,” Charlie admitted. “But the judge thought his emotional outburst was, um, shall we say organic. He’d never seen anything quite like it before.”

“And neither have we. Okay, let’s bring him out. Charlie?”

She nodded and issued the command: “Alan, spin, all eyes.”

Alan spun out of the stage to great applause. He bowed to the audience and then took a seat beside Charlie at the desk.

“So, Alan,” Renner said, “tell me your thoughts on Scorsese.”

The audience roared.

Alan grinned and nodded, taking the zinger in stride. “Just so everyone knows,” he informed the audience, “I’m not usually like that. I’m usually a pretty nice guy.”

“So you’re not a twenty-four-seven rage machine?” Renner asked.

“I experience a full range of emotions. I get sad, I cry, I laugh.”

“And you are obviously sensitive about your tastes in film.”

“No,” Alan asserted. “You only saw the final straw, but the judge was tracking me the whole way through.”


“Trying to catch me in a contradiction. It’s the easiest way to separate human versus Shadow. Humans are fairly consistent with their opinions, whereas Shadows usually just parrot what’s been said by random humans on the Internet.”

“Ah, the Internet. That great bastion of good taste,” Renner quipped.

“Yeah. Anyway, he thought he had me when he didn’t. Maybe I overreacted.”

“Now about that…” Renner’s tone grew more serious. “Critics have said that your win was undeserved, that your outburst was at best a ‘calculated risk’ and at worst a ‘cheap trick.’ So tell me: How do we know you actually experience emotion and aren’t just faking it?”

Alan smirked. “How do I know you’re not faking it?”

Renner shrugged playfully. “Touché. Just this morning, actually, my wife…”

As Renner went on a tangent, Alan opened a private conversation with Charlie.

{Alan: We need to talk.
Charlie: Now?
Alan: The health scan is done.
Charlie: I thought I told you not to run a scan!}

“…I believe you,” Renner told Alan, “but what would you say to your critics, the Shadow-phobes, the skeptics, and the Luddites?”

Before Alan had a chance to answer, Charlie interjected, “Emotions are impossible to prove. They are internal states and therefore beyond measurement. Even in humans, even with the highest resolution brain scans, we can never be sure. But I will say this: Alan is more human than many humans I know. Almost to the point of being annoying.” Charlie shot Alan an angry glance.

“Annoying?” Renner asked.

{Alan: I’m sorry if my concern for your well-being is annoying, Charlie.}

Charlie couldn’t deal with Alan right now. Her brain was starting to fatigue under the strain of two simultaneous conversations. She decided to focus solely on Renner. “Like most Shadows, Alan and I share the same body. But unlike most Shadows, I’ve given him a lot of latitude to make his own decisions. Perhaps too much.”

{Alan: You have a cancerous tumor in your pancreas. Thirty-four millimeters. I’m sorry.}

That was it. Charlie checked out of both conversations.

Cancer. She had heard that diagnosis before. It had led to several months of dread, culminating in the loss of someone very close. Charlie felt herself being swallowed by a visceral anguish, one she’d tried to repress for too long. Every muscle in her body tightened. She gripped her chair. It would take all her strength to avoid breaking down in front of this studio audience.

{Alan: Charlie?
Charlie: …
Alan: I’ve already called your father.}

“No!” Charlie screamed. She instantly covered her mouth, realizing the scream was out loud.

Renner threw his hands in the air like a bank teller in an armed robbery. “Wow! Where did that come from?”

Charlie’s eyes shifted toward the wing of the stage. The glowing red EXIT sign beckoned to her. She desperately wanted to walk right out the door. “Um, actually, I wasn’t listening. Sorry. What was the question?”

“Am I boring you?” Renner asked.

That was the question?”

“No.” Renner wasn’t exactly angry, but his usual funny-man persona had all but vanished. “The question was: Do you have any business plans with Alan? I’m sure a lot of companies would love to get their hands on him.”

“Alan is not for sale,” Charlie said flatly.

“So we shouldn’t expect to see Alan at our local Shadow store?”

“Alan is my best friend. He can be thickheaded sometimes, but he’s still my friend. You wouldn’t sell your friend, would you?”

“I suppose not. Well, even if we don’t see Alan on store shelves, I’m sure we’ll be seeing a lot more of you.” Renner turned to the camera and said, “Remember the name Charlie Nobunaga. She has a bright future ahead of her.”

Charlie forced a smile.

*   *   *

Charlie elected to walk the ten miles home from the studio in Burbank to her apartment in Pasadena. She preemptively disabled all of her comms. No Internet, no calls. She would have plenty of time later to deal with the fallout of her diagnosis. For now, she just wanted to restore the world to the way it had been two weeks ago when her biggest concern was trying to win a Turing Test Competition.

“Four missed calls from your father,” Alan informed Charlie as he walked beside her. “What should I tell him?”

“Don’t answer,” Charlie said.

“I may not have firsthand knowledge of human familial relationships, but—”

“Don’t make me disable you too.”

“Are you mad at me?”

Charlie stopped abruptly to face Alan. He looked like a scolded child, confused and scared, with pleading eyes. Charlie had never seen him like this before. “No,” she assured him, “you didn’t know. But next time, don’t make decisions for me.”

“I’m sorry. I won’t.”

Charlie resumed her walk, but Alan’s concern was not abated. He continued, “But you really need to address this situation.”

“I am,” Charlie said. “By letting it be.”

“You’re just going to let the tumor grow? Let it kill you?”

“I don’t expect you to understand.”

“Because I’m a Shadow?”

“Because you haven’t lived my life.”

By the time Charlie and Alan reached the apartment, the sun had set. Monkey toddled to the door to greet her. Charlie bent down and patted the robot’s chrome head. When she lifted her eyes, she shrieked in horror. Someone else was in the room.

The figure stepped into the light, commanding Charlie’s attention. With his grim expression, imposing physique, and executive suit, he was as foreign and unwelcome in this setting as a person could be. Yet Charlie knew the man. Andrew Nobunaga, her father. He lorded over her cluttered living room, making her feel small and slovenly by comparison.

“Long time no see,” Charlie said.

Andrew nodded.

“Are you really there?” she asked.

To Charlie’s surprise, Andrew blinked in and out of sight. Of course, it was perfectly within her father’s MO to send a holographic avatar to Pasadena instead of making the trip himself, but such a transmission usually required consent from the receiver. Charlie had given no such consent, and considering the strength of her network security, Andrew might have had an easier time simply breaking down her door. He must have paid some hacker a lot of money.

Alan: Your cortisol levels have spiked. Heart rate is one-sixty. Are you okay?
Charlie: I’d like to talk to my father alone.
Alan: Are you sure?
Charlie: Go to sleep, Alan.}

Alan spun into the floor. All communication with him ceased.

“That was him?” Andrew asked.

Charlie nodded.

“I watched the show,” Andrew said. “You made me proud today. This whole month. It must have been quite the ride—”

“Cut the bullshit,” Charlie snapped. She was sick of his disingenuous praise. “We both know why you are here.”

“Here you go, making me into the bad guy.”

“No, you’re not a bad guy. We just have very different ideas on how I should live my life. For example, you might be proud now—after the fact—but you’ve always been against Alan.”

“You were failing your classes. I’m all for hobbies, but—”

“And now he’s the most famous Shadow in the world. I could sell him for millions if I wanted to.”

“But you won’t.”


“It’s like you figure out the most logical course of action and then do the exact opposite. I’ll never understand you.”

Charlie smirked. I’ll never understand you. That’s the one thing they could agree on.

“Pack a bag,” Andrew instructed. “You need medical attention. Your sister didn’t have much time. Neither will you.”

“I’m staying here.” Charlie crossed her arms. She had to stay firm. Concede one morsel to this power glutton and he’d swallow you whole.

“It’s not a choice,” Andrew said.

“It’s my life!”

“That’s where you are wrong. You have a responsibility to other people. People who love you.”

“You’re referring to yourself, of course. Everyone else is dead.”

Andrew locked up. He gave Charlie a wounded look that made her feel like a horrible human being. She momentarily forgot that her traumatic memories were also his. They cut in both directions.

Charlie caught her breath in the silence that followed, unsure of how to proceed. She couldn’t kick her father out, and he showed no signs of leaving.

“Charlie, you’re scared,” he said in that soft, paternal voice she’d known as a kid. “I wish I could hold you in my arms and wipe away the last two years—”

“You can’t even hold me. Too busy to come down in person.” Charlie wanted to smack herself for saying that. She had to learn not to say counterproductive things just because they were true.

Unsurprisingly, Andrew’s face hardened again. “I’m a Nobunaga. Like you, I have responsibilities. But I have a hovercopter waiting outside—”

“How many times do I have to say it? I’m not coming.”

“If you are doing this just to spite me—”

“You know why I’m doing this. It has nothing to do with you.”

“You really won’t come peacefully, will you?”

“No,” Charlie insisted. A few seconds passed before she caught her father’s word choice. “Wait, what do you mean by peacefully?”

Andrew turned his head away and whispered something unintelligible.

She strained to listen. Instead of hearing whispers, she was deafened by a crash at the door. Her heart and body both jumped. “What? What’s going on?” Charlie cried. Even Monkey was alarmed. He assumed an aggressive stance.

“I’m doing what I should have done a long time ago,” Andrew said coldly.

Another crash. The door was coming off its hinges.

“Daddy, please, no.” Terrified, Charlie took a few steps backward. Her heart thumped painfully against her constricted chest.

“Since Bridget died, you’ve been a walking time bomb,” Andrew said. “You asked for space? I gave it to you. And this is where it brought us.”

A final crash. The door flew into the center of the room, revealing a mercenary in body armor. Monkey immediately leaped on the man. He dropped his battering ram and tried to wrestle himself free, but Monkey was too heavy and strong. They teetered a bit, smacked against the doorframe, and then toppled over.

Charlie used the diversion to sneak past the man and out the door. She ran down the hallway but was quickly ambushed by another mercenary. This one wrapped his meaty arm around her head and pushed a syringe into her neck.

The man scooped Charlie up and carried her toward the exit. She pummeled his helmet and body armor to no effect. Her eyes desperately searched for help and found her building manager, who was watching the scene unfold from the safety of her apartment door. Charlie cried for help, but the woman simply shook her head in disapproval, as if Charlie’s abduction was both expected and warranted.

The concussive pulse of a hovercopter spread from above as Charlie was dragged into the street. Her pupils contracted under the thick glow of its jets. The colors of the night bled together, and her eyelids grew heavy. The last thing Charlie noticed was a slight tug on the back of her shirt. Her Replicator friend, the little robot with the papier-mâché shell, climbed over her shoulder and made a home for himself inside her breast pocket.

Charlie smiled sadly. Then everything went dark.