{AN: I wanted to go ahead and post the short story that won me the Roy F. Powell award, not just for you all, but so I have a place to share it with family and friends.}

Dark. Quiet. Home. She breathed in a sigh of relief the moment the door was closed behind her and she leaned against it as her eyes slid shut. It had been an ordinary day, rather uneventful really, but sometimes those were the hardest to get through. Especially today. She’d found herself running low, wanting to go home earlier than usual.

She pressed her hand to her cheek and felt a layer of makeup there that she couldn’t wait to get off. The bathroom was always her first stop once she was in the door. Standing in the sterile white washroom she could relax and disrobe. Plus, she enjoyed the process of taking off her face.

Her evening routine was always the same. She stepped in front of the mirror and pulled out a moist wipe that she used to scrub away foundation and blush. She watched as eyeliner and mascara smeared together around her eyelids, creating a raccoon mask, before wiping clean. She washed her face after; she had to or her pores would get clogged. Synthetic skin was hard to come by and there was no sense ruining what she had by not taking care of it.

She leaned over the counter, getting as close to the mirror as she could, and stared into her own eyes. Her pupils flexed, going wider and smaller each time she refocused her gaze. Still in working order. She glanced over her cheeks, her brow, her forehead. No breaks, no tears, no flaws. Satisfied, she sat back and watched her reflection move as she did.

Her hands pushed at fabric, tugged at her shirt and jeans and all of the underthings she was required to wear because human society said she should. She undressed, doing another quick onceover of her body, then reached up to touch the underside of her jaw. Her fingers sought  out the seamless line that she knew was there. Her skin came away in layers; her face, her hair, down along her throat, her shoulders, her arms. All of it shed. She always felt better afterwards. It was here she could be herself.

She leaned forward again, reaching up to touch the metal of her true face, to run jointed steel hands along the metal casing of her body, beneath which were a plethora of wires, circuitry, and drives that she could feel humming away inside of her as they worked. She didn’t understand why humans prized their fleshy bodies. Hers was far more efficient, more streamlined, and better looking to boot.

She’d spend the evening charging after that. Her apartment was empty save for the single pod in the bedroom that she’d plug herself into. She didn’t sleep as humans did, but she liked to think she dreamed, vividly and in color. She’d start by going over her day, her interactions with the humans, what she had done, and how she blended in.

This was always about learning of course. Their habits were difficult to understand and she had to study them if she wanted to appear as human as possible. As the hours wore on, though, her processors wandered away from the real world, from who she was and how she lived, away from those she had meet and observed. Instead, her thoughts would become almost whimsical, fanciful and fantastic. Odd for a machine. She’d worried once or twice that the humans may be infecting her somehow, introducing a virus into her coding, as if spending enough time among them could be changing her.

She dreamed of places she’d been, of places she could go, of worlds that didn’t exist and creatures that weren’t real. She liked it, dreaming, and often found it difficult to pull herself away when her alarm went off in the morning. Each day she found it harder to focus on her main objective and harder to leave the sanctity of her newfound vice. She wanted to stay there safe in her pod, wrapped up in fantasy. She tried not to listen to the little voice in her mind (when had she gotten on of those?) that said this was such a human flaw.

Books were probably where the virus had started worming its way into her system. She’d consumed them voraciously. Not the non-fiction either, which she could have at least justified to herself as having some kind of purpose. Between soft worn covers, she found printed pages, tactile textures beneath the sensors in her fingertips, the soft smell of age and dust and the touch of a hundred other human hands before hers. She read of rings taken to fiery mountains and whole epics about travelling through space. There were works set in the past, the present, the distant future. She loved it all. She loved how the characters changed and grew and became heroes or villains. It was in these tales she started to find glimmers of truth, of humanity through a lens that was perhaps a bit abstract. When had she began thinking in abstractions?

She leaned over the counter and wiped her face clean in slow smooth strokes. She washed it, dried it, then pressed her fingers just under her chin. Her mind wandered to the latest book she’d been working through, considered how it related to life, to love, to all the things she was so close to feeling, despite how distant they still seemed to be for her. She found the seam she was looking for and pushed her fingers in, wincing at the unexpected pain it caused. Blood began to drip down her skin and as she peeled away the layer that was her face, she found not wires, not cool steel, beneath, but red wet meat and muscle.

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