Macie lowered herself off the scorching gutter that trimmed the Reclamation Centre and rubbed her scalded hands. She had taken care to land quietly; pressing her back up against the sun-drenched building, commanding herself not to breathe, but knowing it would only postpone the inevitable. They would find her eventually. They always did.
For six years, the motes in DarwinTwo City had tailed Macie everywhere. The small charcoal boxes appeared seconds after her feet hit the city streets, like silent electronic rats scavenging through the dust for human crumbs. They swept voraciously behind her as if to erase all traces of her incompatible DNA, lest it contaminate their precious high-tech citadel.
She wouldn’t be surprised if Mayor Wolfram himself was using them to monitor her movements, ensuring she spent every waking hour managing the ocean wall that encircled the city. Earning her life by keeping his kind safe from the treacherous waters beyond.
Not that there was much else to do, anyway. The whole beige city was made up of numans who rarely registered her presence.
Numans—huh! That was one of Wolfram’s ideas too.
He had them all so tightly meshed with their AI symbiotes and gilded virtual worlds, that they had renamed themselves ‘new humans’ or numans as Wolfram liked to call them—unlike Macie, who was merely human.
It hadn’t always been like that. When she was a child, there were a few others like her, normals who couldn’t adapt to new tech. Ordinary people who smiled. Kids who splashed in puddles, invented nicknames, had sleepovers and played tag through the rooftop hydroponics lanes.
But as the years passed and automation increased, the city’s need for normals diminished along with food allocations. One by one by one, they had disappeared until eventually it was just Wall Manager Macie, the numans and the motes.
A click from a steel door a metre away drew her attention. Macie let out a low slow whistle she hoped would be mistaken for an ocean breeze squeezing between the tall, tightly spaced buildings. It was a copy of the whistle that had wafted under her bedroom door earlier that morning.
Signal apparently received, the door opened and out shuffled her grandmother, Vala. “Forgot . . . your din-ner. Second time . . . since . . . Upgrade 24,” she said in stilted syllables, as though she had forgotten how her jaw worked.
Vala’s hair was pulled back into a severe bun and she wore the same dreary overalls as the rest of the numans. Her clothes hung from her thin frame like wet linen draped over a wire hanger, all pale from being left too long in the sun.
Vala had been pretty once, when she was human. Macie had seen her in old holopics; relaxing at a dinner table, crinkled hair flowing over her shoulders, eyes twinkling at someone off camera. Now Vala’s face had drained to numan grey and her once calming blue eyes had settled into milky stone.
Macie wanted so desperately to hug Vala for the great risk she was taking, but she knew better. Physical contact would leave DNA traces on her grandmother— unexpected for that time of day—that would mark Vala as deviating from her workplan. Non-compliance was the greatest of crimes in DarwinTwo. It would likely result in a painful reboot to end Vala’s recognition of her granddaughter.
Instead, Macie took the offered dinner pail and nodded her respect. “Thanks, Gran,” she whispered.
Half a flinch from her left eye was all the response Vala gave, before shuffling back inside and closing the door.
Remembering the shortness of time—no motes yet, but soon—Macie put the handle of the pail between her teeth, crouched to the ground and leapt back up to clasp the guttering. Then, moving hand over fist, she shimmied along the edge until she was around the corner of the building where a wide overhang made for a perfect escape platform. Once she hoisted herself up, it was an easy mote-free jog across the low roofs of the industrial sector.
When Macie arrived at a thoroughfare which led to the wall, she dropped back onto the pavement. Right on cue, two motes sped out of an adjoining alleyway and began their cleaning task.
“Gee, can’t a girl take a dinner stroll,” she said, waving her pail at them in an exaggerated fashion. One of them shoved at her ankle, delivering a little spark of electricity from its outer casing that made her jump backwards, almost standing on the other mote.
“All right, all right, I’m going.” Physical contact was unusual. This one must have new programming— she would have to watch for that in the future.
Only when Macie arrived back at the wall and climbed the rusty ladder to the top, did they finally leave. With a salute to the scurrying motes, she turned her back on DarwinTwo’s towers with all their monotonous precision and sat down to gaze at the choppy sea.
She knew she ought to be afraid, like the numans. The first few floors of the city sat well below water level. If there was a breach of the old stone wall, it would be just as deadly for her organic form as for the technologically-augmented numans, yet the glistening blue waves always calmed her.
She squinted at the darkening horizon and wondered, not for the first time, if there was another girl sitting alone on another sea wall, somewhere across the ocean. Possibly a technologically incompatible girl like her.
A small swell hit the wall, sending a spritz of cool water up to her toes—the smell of salty brine pulling her back to the job at hand. The motes would expect her to walk the evening perimeter check soon, yet the closed dinner pail was still in her lap. It was time to finish her grandmother’s mission.
Macie unlatched the clip on the side of the pail and opened the lid. It made her instantly queasy to see the clear plastic bag inside; its dusty contents telling an old story she had heard too many times before.
As she read the label attached to the bag, tears welled in her eyes.
Emily Banks, terminated at 9 months of age.
Designation: incompatible DNA.
Macie opened the little bag, said an old prayer for the dead she remembered from Vala long ago, and scattered Baby Emily’s ashes into the water.
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