by Casey Cooke
The first biologic to set foot in Elsewhere was a child. She tottered through the gates on deliciously fat legs and then, when her legs forgot how to walk, plopped down on the polished stone. Then, when she remembered how, she wobbled up again. This time, she ran. She ran until her head was tilted too far forward for her legs, and she collided, face first, into a robot with synthetic skin and a kind face.
The girl-child smiled up at her. She reminded the robot of someone that couldn’t quite be remembered, so she scooped the toddler up and took her home. The kind-faced robot had caregiving protocols, so she knew how to replicate food and bathe and play. Then, when night fell in Elsewhere, she made a little nest at the end of her own bed. She even replicated a small doll for the girl to latch on to.
Once the girl wrapped herself tightly in the blankets, the robot did as all the other robots in Elsewhere did each night; she settled into bed, plugged in to her regeneration tubes, and whispered, "Life is sacred. I am happy. I am safe."
At first the girl-child’s sleep was empty, but she quickly began to dream. Suddenly, right outside the home, there was a great turtle lumbering in the streets. He was peaceful enough - larger than any turtle that anyone had ever seen - but he was hungry. He pulled at streetlamps, rooted up gardens, and ate an entire pumpelroot patch.
In the morning, the residents surveyed the damage. "Harmless enough," they proclaimed.
The next night, the girl-child dreamed of a sky that rained snakes. They slithered through roofs and struck robots where they lay. The robots’ synthetic skin was susceptible, and the venom rotted it away from their metal frames. Even the girl-child’s caregiver was affected. But, when the caregiver woke up, she saw her reflection in the mirror and decided she liked herself better this way.
On the third night, the girl-child dreamed of water. It bubbled up from the dirt beneath Elsewhere, turning alleys into creeks and streets into rivers. As it gathered in volume, it picked up speed. It rushed into homes. The caregiver’s protocols made her sensitive to noise, and she roused. She took them both up to the roof and they watched the marsh set in.
The sturdier robots were pulled from their regeneration tubes. The more delicate ones, with hollow metal framing, were pulled apart entirely: their shoulders and heads still plugged in, the rest of them washed away.
In the morning, the ones who survived pulled themselves up onto the pondweed that now curled around the edges of Elsewhere. They erected boats from the hollow frameworks of their dead. They rowed by the caregiver’s home and waved up.
"I suppose those of us who work will need to row there from now on" the hardware shop owner called, smiling.
The caregiver called down, "what a nice change from walking."
And so it went.
A week of nights passed.
Lilies, bullrushes, and mottled dragonfly flowers pushed up from the water and shadowed the city. Birds of prey, as big as airplanes, pulled the timber from houses and made nests in the petals.
Then fish were born, their scales silver and copper and gold; they were attracted to the robot’s power cubes, and they ate their full.
Rocks rolled away from building walls and rearranged themselves in towering formations, creating waterfalls and places for frogs to hide in safety.
Crabs emerged. They scuttled and scavenged metal robot hulls; it didn’t matter that the hulls were still being used.
Birds with legs as tall as the houses that once stood now splashed through the water. Sometimes, they would aim for a fish and catch it. Other times, they missed and cut through a robot instead.
Still, a few dry patches remained. Moss and marshweed rose up along the dirt; under them, rice rats and voles ran and played. They nibbled small pathways through the mud and muck and made dens out of spaces that were once basements.
By now, all the power cubes were eaten and all the lights were drowned. The girl-child’s caregiver was the only robot left, but she was unconcerned. "Life is sacred. I am happy. I am safe."
On the eleventh night, the girl-child shivered in her sleep. Her caregiver had found them a mossy spot at the base of the pond that now had all but drowned the Elsewhere gates, and they nestled together: the robot with a portable regeneration system, the girl-child with her doll.
Slowly, the caregiver’s skin turned warm. Inside her, a small fire started, and her body lit up from within like a country stove. The girl-child, still sleeping, backed slightly away.
Three days later, when the girl-child had eaten all her foodstores and played with everyone there was to play, she curled up beside her stove and slept. And, as she did, she dreamed of a woman dressed in a suit. An infant frog croaked at the woman through the gates of Elsewhere, and the woman climbed a small flight of stone steps to the top of the water. Waiting for her was a small wooden boat, which she boarded. When the woman reached the girl-child, the girl was smiling in her sleep.
"You’ve caused enough trouble for this place, little monster" she chided, lifting the toddler up. "It’s time to leave."
The girl’s eyes fluttered, and she opened her arms into a hug. As her arms curled around the woman’s neck, the doll slipped from her hand. The girl watched, sleepy, as the doll fell onto the spongy moss and rolled into the water. It remained smiling as it slid quietly below.
"Bye-bye." The girl waved at the water. Then, she closed her eyes and nestled against the woman’s cheek. "Mmmkay," she murmured. "Go home."
Casey Cooke's work has appeared in Little Patuxent Review, Dime Show Review, and 365tomorrows. She received her MFA in 2006. When she’s not working or writing, she hangs out with her husband and their bulldog, Ludo.