Florinda raises her fist. Two white-hot battery chips glint between her fingers.
“Toil,” Medusa adds, “and trouble.”
Florinda slides the battery into the back of the computer.
Medusa glances at the digital clock hovering over the door inside the shop. The semi-transparent numbers blink another minute by. She hisses beneath her breath.
“I’m moving as quickly as I can.” Florinda grabs a short wire. It looks suspiciously scaled like a snake. “I know midnight is coming.”
“Fire burn and caldron bubble,” Medusa continues. She narrows her eyes at her sister. “Well please move faster. You know how time flies. Look at him.” She stares at an adjacent screen. A grainy sepia image of a young black man moves through the streets. He flips his coat collar up against what they presume to be the wind. It’s not his first time walking towards their door in the crevice of an alley.
“Oh, I’m looking at him.” The third sister, Luciella, shakes a small jar with three synthetic eyeballs. “He’s quite the snack.” She steps over an open toolbox on the crumbling wood floor. There’s a screwdriver stuck headfirst in the wall beside her.
“Will you please focus?” Florinda grabs the jar of eyeballs. She squats down, wiring one to the computer. “Fillet of a fenny snake,” she whispers, “in the caldron boil and bake.”
Luciella dances around her sisters and her movements cause the bare lightbulbs above them to swing. “Eye of newt and toe of frog.”
“Wool of bat and tongue of dog.” Medusa steps closer. She threads several small devices into the computer.
“Shut up.” Florinda doesn’t move her gaze from the eyeball. “I swear you don’t have a single serious thought in that empty skull.”
“Of course not. Where’s the fun in that?” She flops over a tattered armchair. Behind her, there’s a shredded poster of a night sky. “I’d much rather be full of fluff and appreciation for humans. Neither of which you seem capable of.”
“I appreciate humans as far as what they’ve done for us.” Florinda wraps a navy strand of her hair behind the goggles tucked on her head. “Anything beyond that is stupid and simpering.”
“That’s enough, the both of you. We’ve got bigger fish to fry right now and not much time to fry them in.”
“See, Medusa likes them. She even uses their phrases.”
“The use of phrases in a language we’ve been programmed to use hardly equates to liking them.” Florinda finishes the eyeball. It retracts into the computer and spins. She stands. “Though on the record, I think both of you value humans far more than you should.”
“Stop that. Here.” Medusa crosses to a set of sloping shelves and shoves aside broken, grimy bottles. She opens a small bag labeled “STING” and pulls out a small chip. “If it was up to you two, we’d never get anywhere.”
“And miss out on all these delightful humans?” Luciella swings her legs to the floor. The dirty hem of her floral skirt flutters around her bare toes. “I would never.”
Florinda grabs the chip. “You’re both lucky we need three of us to complete any of these. Otherwise I’d have set off on my own a hundred years ago.”
“You’d think that after the first hundred years you’d learn to like humans just a little bit more,” Luciella mutters, bending down to scoop up a handful of screws from the floor.
“What was that?”
“Oh, nothing. Adder’s fork and blind-worm’s sting,” She hurries to add. She winks at Medusa, who winks back, then pretends to straighten her forest-green hair when Florinda rolls her eyes.
“And what have humans really done in the last hundred years? Tell me that.” Florinda slides the chip into the computer. “We’ve far outpaced them and given a few more years, we can do away with them altogether.”
“Florinda dear, I know you and Luciella have differing views.” Medusa reaches up to snip a fan blade from the fist-sized fan in the corner. “But you have been saying that forever. And every few years, it doesn’t come true all over again.”
Florinda huffs. She starts opening drawers.
“Face it, you’ll always need humans as much as they need us.” Luciella tosses the screws in the air before catching them all at once. “And once you get used to it, then you’ll love them just like I do.”
“Don’t they fascinate you, at least a little?” She props her chin on her hand, crossing her ankles, watching the man on the display screen. “They way they react. The way they cry when they get hurt, even if it’s an invisible hurt. Did you know that when they say ‘broken heart’ they don’t mean the heart itself has broken? All this time I thought they walked around with little heart-pieces floating in their ribs.”
“They do have the funniest things they say.” Medusa sighs, running her hands over her faded pink dress. “And their clothes. I would love to feel silk or chiffon or taffeta.”
“Well we can’t.” Florinda turns. “We’re not human. We’re AI. We don’t get cute phrases or pretty clothes. We’re equipped with a single purpose and we’ll fulfill it accordingly.”
The other two sisters are quiet.
Florinda huffs and glimmers out of sight.
“Don’t mind her.” Medusa pats Luiella’s shoulder, catching a few loose strands of her pale pink hair. “You know her bark is worse than her bite.”
“I know. Some days though, I wish we could get into her programming. Change some things around.”
“Luciella! You don’t mean that.”
“No, I suppose I don’t.” She grins and drops the screws back on the floor. “Come on, let’s slip that blade in place.”
Together, they insert the blade into a small fan inside the computer.
“Lizard’s leg and howlet’s wing,” they say, “for a charm of powerful trouble—”
“—like a hell-broth boil and bubble.” Florinda reappears. She’s quiet then. She watches the screen. It flickers again as the young man nears. “I like how they think,” she says, finally. “I like watching them make choices.”
Outside, on the display screen, the man stands on the sidewalk. He looks at the popping neon sign above the door. The sisters know what he sees. The Three Witches. He glances away, then back again.
Above the door, the digital clock begins a tinny chime.
“Oh quickly, quickly!” Medusa flutters her fingers. “Didn’t I say time would fly?”
Luciella fixes the back of the computer. She screws it in place.
The three sisters step back, among the coils of wires and broken batteries. They clasp hands together and close their eyes. “Double, double toil and trouble, fire burn and caldron bubble.”
The computer glows.
Above the door, the clock stops chiming.
“There.” Medusa smiles. “Just in the nick of time.”
On the display screen, the man reaches for the door.
“Yes,” Florinda admits. “In the nick of time.”
He steps inside. The room is empty, save for a computer, built into the back wall. An eyeball inside spins around to focus on him.
Although the young man can’t hear it, Luciella giggles.
Jo Unruh is a Minnesota girl living in the Windy City and a current MFA candidate at Columbia College Chicago, with work published or upcoming in Bluestem, Psychopomp, and Coffin Bell. She is overfond of strong cups of tea, lakes and oceans, and skies brimming over with stars.