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The city streets below were surging from the momentum of anticipation. Friday nights in Chicago were promising and civilians swarmed the congested avenues in search of an end-of-the-week release. No pedestrian could feel Téa’s piercing gaze drilling through them, three-hundred stories above in a hotel room. She was anxious and a bit jittery.
Lily and Katy, her roommates, were unfazed by the urban clamor. Their attention was fixated on handheld mind-stimulating machines, although it was a small effort. Twittering digital sounds eclipsed any opportunity of conversation. The automated voices had a command over their so-called ‘controller’.
Téa could not help but observe their virtual excursions from afar, leaning on a heavy wooden bedpost. The occasional boast of a victory sufficed as communication. Téa dared not object to her friends. “If only they knew what those devices are doing to them,” she thought, although daring not speak about it.
“Isn’t the Chicago wonderful?” Lily exclaimed as the three girls stood at the corner of the sidewalk, waiting for the light to change. Katy nodded enthusiastically as they chattered about their preferred places to visit. Téa had her doubts.
Unyielding taxi cabs raced through the intersection, honking their horns obnoxiously. The ground tremored from the rumbling of underground subways and generators. The urban jungle was alive.
“Please be here,” Téa mumbled as she rummaged her backpack for pills to calm her malicious headache. She stared with wide eyes at the overwhelming neon lights and electronic billboards plastered on every available building space. She rubbed them, hoping moisturizing tears would form, and tucked her coat closer to her body for it was chilly in the fall. The green light flashed and impatient cross-walkers rushed leaving her like sand after a tide.
She continued to search frantically for that distinctive white-capped orange bottle, losing sight of Lily and Katy. Téa turned wildly in a circle. Her friends were nowhere in sight, It happened like a blur. Two dark silhouettes stood close enough that she could see the steam of their breath touch her. They shoved and pushed her like a rag-doll. Téa reached out for help but she was invisible to the aimless wanderers of the streets. Her one voice blended in with the background noise that people had become selectively deaf to. The waves swallowed her up.
“Let me go!” she demanded, letting herself drag on the cracked, asphalt road. Struggling merely tightened their vice grip on her scrawny arms. One man drove the stolen police car waiting for her, and the other restrained her into the back seat. The car shied away from the brightly-lit boulevards and turned into the quieter residential districts. These streets were poorly lit. Téa knew about the electricity shortages. The car lurched to a halt in front of a shabby, red-bricked townhouse. She came to a chilly conclusion, “These aren’t the police. This isn’t their police station.”
Stricken with terror she mumbled, “what is this place?” as they hauled her to the entrance of what appeared to be a basement. The dark-haired said grimly to his partner, “I thought their kind is supposed to be far intelligent from our’s.” Téa didn’t understand, but the faded letters on the window read The Chicago Humanoid Club. The interior was illuminated by a flickering yellow light at the top of the narrow, steep staircase; not a basement at all. The air was stuffy and hot to breath and the walls had a faded coat of pale sea green paint. They climbed to the second floor.
A blast of cool air greeted them, along with a slew of papers strewn all over the carpet. Téa looked around the hallway. It was was lined with several rooms parallel on each side. Some were wide open and some tightly shut. She was lead into an open room on their immediate left and the door sprung closed behind him. Penetrating stares followed her as she walked to the back of the room and joined Lily and Katy, who seemed undisturbed at all.
Indiscriminate voices talked in the background as Téa gasped to her friends, “I’ve been kidnapped!” Lily and Katy gave each other bewildered looks and giggled in delight.
“It was just a joke!” Katy explained.
“The guys in our tour group played prank on us,” Lily added.
“They must’ve scared you!” Katy laughed, remembering how gullible her friend was. Téa released a sigh of relief, although a bit defensive that someone would take advantage of her. She could see her kidnappers listening attentively towards the front row of the cramped bedroom and looked on with contempt, vowing to hold a grudge.
Téa picked up on the club’s current discussion in a snap. The topic on the floor for debate was androids’ rights, something she knew little about. The President, Richard, presided at the podium, wearing academic regalia in the magnificent colors of purple, gold, and crimson. He gave John, a scruffy-faced and blue-eyed young man, permission to speak. He quickly overtook the dais as the President sat down and immediately fired away.
“Androids’ rights may be of little concern to humans. After all, androids were created by their hands to be pets, house servants, workers, slaves. But they, and we, cannot deny that as a race, our capabilities have reached, if not surpassed that of humans. Newer android models have superhuman physical strength and intelligence. Considering this, would it not be logical that androids be treated and valued the same as humans, if not more?” he said.
Téa processed John’s words carefully, thinking of possible counterarguments, “Certainly animals have rights, but their value isn’t anywhere near as much as humans.” After settling at this conclusion, Téa almost dismissed John’s arguments as absurd but she noticed a few in the group who appeared to agree. Other speakers rotated their turns and she felt compelled to stand up and do the same. Cursing herself, Téa promised she would at the next meeting.
Soon enough, she was a regular member of The Chicago Humanoid Club. Téa paid her dues and spoke at least once at every weekly meeting. This club gave her a purpose. It ran its own magazine and it was Téa’s dream to be published. The Writer & Illustrator featured political commentary and art and she capable at both.
“Although it may sound counterproductive, be careful of how you say things. Censorship’s at an all-time high,” Brian had warned her, the blond ‘police officer’. Téa forgave him after he’d apologized, hoping he might make a good friend.
Androids’ rights had turned into an endless debate that never failed to arise at nearly every meeting. John and his friends couldn’t drop the subject, though Téa wished they did.
“Here we go again!” she whispered to Brian as John approached the podium.
“It’s something John’s passionate about,” Brian replied.
“But can’t he take a hint? Who cares about androids?” said Téa in exasperation. She wished to take it back at Brian’s disapproval. He furrowed his eyebrows and made a deep frown.
“I do, because I’m one of them, and so is John,” he said, turning his attention back to the speaker. Téa regretted her insensitivity and observed her friend, searching for any movement that seemed robotic.
“He’s just like a human,” she thought, “How does he eat? Does he bleed? Or breath?” Téa held her own breath and sat still to notice that Brian did breath, or at least appeared to be. The familiar slight up-and-down movements of a set of expanding and contracting lungs set her at ease.
She tapped his shoulder and said, “I don’t believe it, you look the same as someone like me.” He smirked and ran his fingers along the back of his neck until he reached a prominent, protruding vertebrae. He pressed the bone down and as it retreated, a tiny but recognizable computer chip grew from his skin and Téa gawked in awe.
“Believe me now?” Brian said,"I’m one of the latest models out there. That’s why I’m so real." Brian’s words echoed in her mind as Téa was in process of falling asleep. Lily and Katy had grown uninterested and no longer attended the meetings. She could see her friends’ silhouettes from across the room; her bed was closest to the glass sliding door leading out to the balcony.
“I guess Brian would want to have the same rights as a human, being an android and all,” Téa thought uneasily, feeling guilty of her prejudice that was slowly crumbling away. “I’ve been treating him as my equal since the start, that shouldn’t change now. We’re--we’re friends.” With a satisfying conclusion, a yawn and a few more turns in her bed, Téa drifted to sleep. There was no place for androids in the land of slumber.
Brian was absent at the next meeting. “Why don’t you call him?” someone suggested when asked of his whereabouts. Téa agreed that it was a delightful idea, if she knew his phone number, or address, or surname, or anything else about him. “It’s surprising how little I know of him,” she realized. Téa finished a new article and a piece of art to go with it, ready for publication. She strode confidently to the office of the Writer & Illustrator’s editor, a short walk down the hall. Club members were ripping down the outdated flowery wallpaper and repainting the beige walls underneath a pale shade of sea green, the same as the walls in the stairway.
“I’m sorry, hun. This week’s issue is full, already planned out,” the blond woman said with a Southern drawl. Téa cringed at the screechy twangs.
“Are you sure there’s absolutely no more room?” she begged.
“Yup, I’m sure alright. You know John? He came in a while ago with the last story, something about androids--”
“Androids’ rights, I know,” she repeated.
“Try next week, darling.”
Téa left discouraged, walking slowly. There was John standing beside the painters, commanding their mechanical strokes. They made eye contact, but neither smiled and but quickly looked away. She felt the mood of the meeting plummet and she was stopped on her way out by Richard, who easily blocked the doorway.
“I’m calling a meeting tomorrow, you think you can make it?” he asked softly.
“Yeah sure, what time?” she replied.
“When we usually end regular meetings, this one’s exclusive,” he explained.
She recognized a few faces from the general meetings, quieter members who sat closer to the back of the room like she’d used to. This ensemble was much smaller and no one spoke above a whisper, although the rented townhouse was empty for the most part. The newly painted walls were drying. The painters left trails of shredded wallpaper and sloppy drops of pale sea green on the wooden floor.
“I’d like to thank you for coming out tonight, very groovy of you all and stuff. I know this isn’t our usual get-together time,” Richard said, “I’d also like to call attention to a topic of concern in regards our fellow member, John I-R6.” They were no longer whispering. “I’m sure some of you may have noticed that he’s been dominating the discussions and publications. This isn’t a healthy thing for the club. I’ve pulled John aside a few times before, but it is apparent that his only intentions are to take the club for himself. I fear for myself and the future of The Chicago Humanoid Club.”
“What should we do about it?” asked a freckled brunette.
“That’s why I called this meeting together, in hopes someone would know,” Richard replied apathetically.
“Can’t we just...kick him out?” suggested a nervous pale redhead.
“Nope, I have reason to believe he’s got connections above me. Humanoid Clubs are everywhere, this is only the Chicago chapter. John’s one of the newer members, but he had papers from headquarters,” Richard said, playing devil’s advocate. There was a stumped silence.
“I’ll challenge him in a debate,” Téa decided, and they were adjourned.
“After much careful revision, my colleagues Joseph and William, and I have a final solution to propose to The Chicago Humanoid Club,” John started, shifting several handfuls of papers around the podium. Téa looked uneasily at Richard for reassurance, receiving a meek smile and approving nod. She took the stand to the right, leaning on the worn wood comfortably.
“Frankly, John, your proposals are too radical to be accepted by the mainstream or implemented on a large-scale,” she remarked. Her opponent seemed unaffected.
“Have you read through the entire document?” he retorted, flipping through the pages rapidly like a stop-animation would with his fingers.
“I have,” she replied, taken aback at his iciness. “But nothing of this nature could ever be passed into law. It contradicts this country’s basic philosophies.”
“Of course it wouldn’t! Humans possess all of the voting power. Androids are fighting for their rights, as they should. But they have fought to no avail thus far; not unless the likes of you continue to see us as inferiors.” John smirked smugly.
“I’ll admit that before joining this club, I was narrow-minded in regards to androids’ rights. I’d never heard of it and it didn’t directly affect me until now. At a personal level, I treat others as I would like to be treated, androids or not.
However, the law cannot be as accepting. This society was built by humans, for humans, and it rests on the shaky fundamental concept that nothing could ever be equal to a human. Dismantling this concept would be to pull a rug from under someone’s feet. They would topple over.” she said complacently.
“I guess Brian must’ve changed your mind,” John cruelly chuckled. Téa was enraged, he was driving the argument closer and closer. This was personal. She glanced at the empty chair behind John. Where was Richard when she needed him?
“I haven’t seen Brian in a while,” she said in defense, immediately regretting that she’d given in to his low blows. She was wringing her clammy hands and gained no encouragement from the somber spectators.
“Certainly, I took care of him,” John replied, taking advantage of the opportunity to tear her to pieces. When she looked puzzled, John added, “He tried to get in my way, so I had to teach him a lesson.” Téa understood, her eyes were wide as saucers. She could feel their accusing gazes boring relentlessly. There were no friends of her’s in the room, only enemies.
“Take a good gander, Téa. These faces may look like you, but, trust me, they are nothing like you. We are androids, you are human. Brian wanted to be a human, he thought he was better than the rest of us. He was wrong,” John explained.
Téa was adamant that she wasn’t the only human in the club. Surely, there were others. Perhaps they were gone, too. “Where’s Brian?” she asked, “Where is he?”
“I’ll show you, but you won’t like what you see,” John walked briskly out the room and she followed, keeping a wary distance. The door slammed shut behind her. The glass window was covered with dark, distorted faces on the other side. A dozen sets of eyes followed her curiously, although menacingly, down the dimly-lit hallway.
John led her to the basement. Their steps made dull thuds on the creaky wood stairs. She saw a glimpse of blond hair and collapsed to her knees at Brian’s side. One of John’s arms hung limply and the other was hidden behind his back.
Téa’s hand stroked his cheek, which was no longer a familiar rosy hue but a sickly porcelain. His skin felt cold and rubbery, hard to touch. She saw the scar on the back of his neck, discovering that the computer chip was missing. Nothing of Brian but his lifeless shell was left. The body was sprawled on a metal table under a white overhead light, as if it was a specimen to be poked and prodded. She brought his stiff hand to her face, which was surprisingly hot with tears.
“What did you do to him? Why?” Téa choked. She squeezed the hand and shook the body in vain.
“You know the job’s much cleaner with androids. All you have to do is destroy the chip, with humans, it’s much messier. I could never get the stains out,” John said coldly in a monotone from the ajar door. He raised his hand to show Téa his nails, cracked with streaks of red crust.
“You killed him! You killed Brian! You killed him, you killed...” she sobbed indistinguishably.
“I couldn’t have. He was never alive, he wasn’t real.” John said harshly. Téa was wailing hysterically over the body. He added, “He was only an android, created to be a companion for humans.”
She slowly rose to her feet. John’s outreached hand aimed between her eyes, casting a long dark shadow. “He was more than that,” she whispered and then slumped over beside Brian.