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Art by Melissa Mead

Skin of Steel

Siobhan Shier spends her time aspiring to be a mars colonist and standing in the background of TV shows. She enjoys putting double sided tape on her cat's feet, dancing wildly in any situation, and arguing with random strangers on the internet. She is seeking representation to help her battle her novel writing addiction--a problem that includes three completed novels and a smattering of unedited projects that are determined to be polished and finished whether she likes it or not. An affection for feisty heroines is required.

The hailstones leapt from the pavement, sizzling like oil in a pan. Elaine shrieked as one flicked her arm. It left a smear of wet before smashing into the pavement at her feet. I should have been overwhelmed by the need to protect her--but I wasn't. They'd taken that from me last night.
Elaine ran to the car with a hardback held over her head, laminated and stamped by the Library.
"Hurry!" she screeched, tugging at the door handle of the black sedan, hailstones stinging her shoulders and arms.
I took my time walking down the steps of the library. It wasn't like the hail could hurt me; my skin was made of steel.
When I got into the driver's seat, Elaine had finished swearing and had moved onto the next cycle of emotion.
"Look at this! Just look!" she held out her arm, covered in orange blotches, like a diseased fruit--or fake tanner meeting frozen water. She glared at me. "Stupid piece of junk."
I pushed the button in the middle of my steering port, enjoying the soft vibration as the engine clicked on.
"I apologize mistress. I will move faster," I lied. I used to be unable to lie. They changed that.
Elaine just sighed, the sound gurgling against her soft pallet like a snore.
"Yeah... whatever. Just go."
I pushed my hands into the sticky membrane of the steering port, the material hugging close to my skin. I waited the few moments as the car interfaced with what stood for my nervous system, linking into my instincts. The car purred forward. Elaine put her designer shoes up on the seat, heels digging gouges into the leather. She didn't care. Money and cost were concepts she was never taught to understand.
I didn't speak as I drove. No speaking unless spoken to--and she wasn't about to socialize with an object.
Elaine was the first daughter of the Elantic Corporation, owner of the most successful moon resorts and spas. The sole reason for her existence was to promote the company. She wasn't a spokesperson--Corp children couldn't be trusted for that sort of responsibility. She was more of a mascot. Vatted, grown, and sculpted, Elaine was technically human, but her only physical imperfection was that she didn't have any. She was symmetrical and beautiful because she was designed to be that way. She was buffed and shined like a precious gem, given anything and everything she wanted--which included me.
"Drive faster!" she yelled, hitting me in the shoulder with the library book.
The blow had no impact on my driving. I was incapable of letting something like that endanger her life.
I didn't blame her. Nothing about her was unintended, including her personality. She had been groomed to be unpleasant, to treat people like dirt. The public responded to it. Pictures of her latest exploits zipped along the net, food shoved into the greedy maws of paparazzi and gossip columnists. She was something to talk about and people loved to hate her. One restaurant even refused to seat her, generating a whirlwind of press and speculation that benefited its business and kept her in the spotlight.
To her this was her normal life. To the public she was an icon that they loved to hate. To me she was just a vat-grown slave.
I pulled the car alongside the red carpet. She stared out at the 20th-century mansion, a vision of antique preservation that the Corporation maintained for public appearances.
Elaine stepped out and was lit by the steady glow of camera targets, illuminating her features in an unerring light. Her image was accessible to the public within seconds. She kept her hand on the door, holding it open, preventing me from driving around to the back entrance.
Elaine pivoted on one overpriced heel and dove back into the car. The crowd shouted and began screaming her name as she shut the door on them.
"Get out of here," she said.
"Do you not wish to attend your sister's birthday?" My voice was neutral even as my thoughts got on their knees and begged her to stay.
Elaine's younger sister was about half her age. Her growth started when Elaine's success as a corporation daughter was cemented. She was of the same design, and despite the differences in their age and hairstyles, it was obvious. The corporation had done that on purpose--they wanted to use twin appeal as well as the older/younger sister dynamic. Where genetics were concerned, Elaine and her younger sister Eniale were almost exactly the same.
"It would be a good idea to stay here," I said. That was all I could do. A human would have been able to beg, to cry, to struggle and fight for life. I wasn't human.
"Drive!" Elaine shouted.
I obeyed.
She didn't give me a destination. If she had I wouldn't have been able to listen. I didn't have that freedom anymore.
She sat in the cocoon of a passenger seat and began to read the book she'd taken from the library. She could have just downloaded the book, but physical copies were a luxury and Elaine liked the feel of paper. By the time we'd arrived, she was halfway through. They made a mistake with Elaine. She would never be an engineer, or understand the complexities of quantum physics, but if reading were a competitive sport she would win medals.
It was a flaw in her mold, one fixed in her sister, and it was one thing I liked about her.
It was dangerous to like her. Liking her wouldn't change the fact that I had to kill her. Liking her wouldn't change what was going to happen to me.
Elaine didn't look up as I turned off the car. It would take more than that to drag her attention away. Something like opening my door and stepping out.
"What are you--" I closed the door on her question, blocking her voice in that soundproof box.
The Elantic Corporation had given me a set of guidelines when I was created: what I could say and do, how best to protect her from rival interests or crazed fans--and enough free will to adapt to any situation. They upgraded me through the years but the additions always increased my ability to serve Elaine's needs. What the corporation added to me last night was a little different.
If Elaine had stayed at the party... if she had chosen the spotlight instead of the solitude of a book... but it was too late now. She had chosen.
I stared at the pedestrians that stopped to gawk.
Fear. I was feeling fear.
They didn't even think to turn off my emotions when they modified me. Bastards.
My safeties were still in place. Unless I was defending Elaine from danger, I couldn't harm a hair on anyone's head. When the time came due Elaine would be the first and only human I could kill.
I couldn't think about it. Thinking made the fear worse--made it hurt more.
The seconds were ticking.
Elaine stepped out of the car.
"What do you think you're doing?" Elaine's voice was sharp, angry and confused. This was the first time I'd done anything out of the ordinary. There is a reason humans are suspicious of change. "Why are we here? I didn't tell you to take me here."
A crowd had started to gather, whispering amongst themselves as they spotted Elaine. They wouldn't interfere. Frankly, they wouldn't even get close enough to be able to. Normal people enjoyed the lives of their gossip gods and goddesses, but only the crazy ones presumed to take part in them.
I wanted to run but my body never belonged to me.
We stood, car parked next to us, in the center of Fifth and Main, an intersection that was known for its unusually high foot traffic. No one honked despite the fact that we had blocked the center of the intersection. Most of the cars and people surrounding us were grinning, pleased that they had the luck to witness firsthand what would most certainly end up on the gossip channels in a few minutes.
I hesitated.
It was only a moment, a glitch in the system--bound to happen after years of twenty-four hour service. Nothing more.
Just a glitch. It wouldn't stop what was going to happen.
It wouldn't save me.
The public went around thinking that the laws protected them. It was a silly, deluded belief encouraged by the corporations to hide the fact that the laws that kept humans safe from my kind were just malleable code. It wasn't legal, but if done properly terrorists could always be blamed.
I think she understood at the end. She wasn't all shoes, makeup, and parties. Her drunken appearances and wild behavior was what was expected of her, it was how she was designed. But there was one thing that wasn't expected, planned, or programmed, one thing that belonged to her: she liked to read.
With reading comes a glimpse of knowledge, even for a brain designed not to ever understand.
I was her protector, her servant for as long as she could remember. I was the only one who would take her to the library.
I lunged for her. She didn't scream or give me a dull-witted stare.
A light illuminated deep in her baby doll eyes. She did nothing but stand there looking at me with the sadness of someone unable to change her fate. A sadness that resonated within me.
I ripped out her heart.
It was important not to damage it further. It was important for me to scream, hold the heart up, and display it to the captivated crowd. I had to act quite mad. My stage directions were exact and left no room for deviations.
The crowd screamed and wailed as they should, but no one stepped in to interfere. Blood dripped down my arm and I wished for a moment that I could feel its heat. I couldn't. Even when I was that close to her I could only calculate pressure.
The Good Samaritan appeared out of the crowd, right on cue, breaking away from the masses as he ran towards us. When he shot me I made sure that the heart was safe, cradled in my hand as I collapsed. They needed it intact.
The Good Samaritan was tall, dark, and handsome, a perfect prince for a mimicry of a woman. I wasn't privy to his name, but I recognized him. I had made sure to spot him in the crowd before I got out of the car.
He would escort her to the party after they gave her back the heart I'd kept intact and breathed new life into her body. He would be a hero. Her hero. A glorious new couple would rise from the near tragedy.
He would replace me as her protector but unlike me, everyone would think he was human. If he played the part right she would love him... or at least think she did. He would take away her books. He would shut tight the door of her gilded cage and it might take years for her to see the bars.
My systems were shutting down.
I could see her heart in my hand, so delicate, so vulnerable. All I had to do was clench my fingers and she would go with me.
I could do it. Even the best plans have flaws and for once that flaw was in me. She was the only human I could kill. I broke her heart already, crushing it beyond repair would be easy. I could spare her the life of a caged bird, singing for the amusement of the public and the benefit of the corporation.
A life I would give anything to keep.
Her heart was safe, cradled in my inhuman hand.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, March 15th, 2011

Author Comments

"Skin of Steel" was written how most of my shorts, and none of my novels, are written. I started with the first sentence, took a stroll until I hit a bit of foreshadowing and was mugged by yet another robotic main character. I was forced into a car. My kidnapper's accomplice was this rude socialite who didn't understand the basics of conversation skills. I knew I had to kill her. Long story short--you will never find the body.

- Siobhan Shier
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