Strangely I end up at my bedroom door, as if that has been my destination
all along. Somewhere between my next drug-induced escapade and real-life
trauma I have been deterred by forces unknown, and now stand staring
at its smooth, whitewashed surface.
think. What was I doing before I ended up here? My mind draws a
blank. Acknowledging the weirdness of the moment for what it is—weird—I
decide to unlock the door with my thumbprint and peek inside.
lays there, one arm reaching over her flaxen-haired head, legs stuck
in a motionless kick, face to the side, looking like a swimmer frozen
in mid-stroke. And she will remain that way, dormant, in STAND-BY
mode, until her Doctor program has completed its function.
did a doll get into my keeping? Quite simple: I’d rescued her.
record I never use dolls, never went near them. But this one had
no permit to be outside the Rim. But after that bar fight not far
from here—of which I suffered a split lip and a few bruised ribs—she
followed me like an obedient dog. Remarkably she could still walk
well enough, despite the pounding she had taken, and her eyes had
remained fixed on me. Me.
her shoulders twitch mechanically, eyes flutter behind her lids,
and she gasps. She does this a few times. I wonder what is going
on behind those eyes….
presses into my back and I turn to see Reena, looking over my shoulder.
“Playing with dolls?” she asks over the noise of the party. “After
everything I’ve taught you?”
I pull the door shut.
everyone wants to try, eventually.”
give her a sideways glance. “It’s not what you think.”
She smiles and leans into me.
one of those quirky, perky, radical, post-graduate dropouts, average
height, but with stunning blue eyes, soft, wide lips, and an enveloping
smile. It was at some pub near the City’s edge where we’d first
met. She’d been with a group of young dropouts, artists, musicians,
would-be philosophers and the like—the pathologically nocturnal,
terminally unemployable—and they debated everything, the accuracy
of our historical records, the social power structure, dolls’ rights,
you name it.
When I walked
over she was arguing with some punk I would later come to know as
Lucius. Much to her dismay, he kept going on about the nature of
objective identity domains as they related to dolls.
interested in any of their bushwa. But as an excitable little nymph
she’d debated with the heat of youth, with her whole self, with
passion. It was the kind of passion I knew translated well under
you know what I’m really thinking?” she coos. It doesn’t take much
for me to respond.
of the party is reaching supersonic proportions, and it is elbow-to-elbow
throughout my living room. The bedroom is out of the question, of
course, but there is always the closet of a bathroom. I am about
to make my suggestion when Jules flags me from the far corner of
the room. I excuse myself and shove my way over.
crazy, Sumner?” Jules asks. “Don’t open that door. You want everyone
wonder why Jules still comes around; it had been ten years since
his sister had divorced me. That was shortly after my daughter had
died. Maybe Jules felt some remaining sense of familial obligation.
It couldn’t have been our sparkling conversations.
say. “I want everyone to know I have an illegal doll in my bed.
Is that what you called me over here for? You could have text me.”
using it in closed quarters. Crossover, you know? Emotion overlap.”
It’s a minor side effect of the interface link that sometimes happens.
Here most have tuned their links to the unified channel to share
the experience, heighten the sensation.
your gain down,” I say.
yours fixed. Those headaches you get aren’t normal.”
is sleep deprivation. But I’m not going to tell him about that.
“Thanks for the tip,” I say.
his head to my ear. “Did you know Miriam is here? She just walked
in a minute ago.” He points his finger carefully over my shoulder.
due back until the next evening. She must have returned early from
her little family weekend getaway. I turn to see her standing at
the open patio doors, scanning the chaos. She catches sight of Reena
making her way to the kitchen. Miriam looks directly at me, eyes
“The fun never ends.”
these days you’re going to go too far.”
might be the night.”
tapping on her thumbnail. You are such an asshole, scrolls
across my left eye screen.
God, I respond. I thought I was loosing my touch.
As I watch
her head for the bedroom, I can just make out Jules moaning in agony
as she thumbs open the door. Miriam stands there for a second, transfixed,
closes the door, and whirls to glare at me. My skin flushes with
the heat of her anger.
way over to my side of the room, Jules quickly ducks away under
the pretenses of getting a drink. Miriam takes me aside and into
I am about
to say something, but she puts her hand up to stop me.
even want to hear it, Sumner. I’ve had enough humiliation to last
a lifetime. I come home to another one of your stupid parties filled
with your asshole friends, that slut of yours, and a thing
in our bed. Honestly, I don’t know who you really are anymore. But
I know one thing for sure, you’re a self-serving bastard who gets
his kicks treating people like crap.”
whips her hand across my cheek, hard. “Now I’m done!”
Like a wrestler
she shoves her way back through the crowd, to the front door, and
is gone. I stroke my cheek as Jules slowly walks by, shaking his
smiling at me from the kitchen door. The music is pumping loud,
surging with aggressive energy, like me. As I make my way through
the sea of bodies, I open my link to her frequency and am awash
in her erotic glow.
* * *
me that night, which is no real surprise. She has done it before.
But I know it will be different now. I feel it, even though she
has switched her link off.
has returned to get her stuff; it is just past midnight, after everyone
has gone. Without a word or sound between us, I sit outside on the
stone patio and watch her throw her things in a bag and head for
the door. She doesn’t slam it, as is her signature style. No. This
time she walks out quietly and closes the door firmly, a tone of
finality in its solid thump.
Then I feel
it: guilt, slow burning in the back of my mind.
should’ve told Miriam about the doll. Maybe I should’ve explained.
should’ve explained a lot of things.
All I can
do is sit, my fingers feeling the patterns on the cold stone, tracing
the pits and grooves that live there, swirling around and around,
over and over.
* * *
me in the morning on my home system. Of course I’ve forgotten our
breakfast meeting again.
he says. “You’ll miss the whole morning.”
that like it’s a bad thing,” I moan, but he has already closed the
I hate that
urge to rush about, get things done, be here, do that. I prefer
my life of limited comfort and time in great measure. The dole offers
me just enough of an existence to be satisfied. I’d tried going
back to work when I began seeing Miriam, but gave it up after a
short while. I already own my modest apartment, and with my previous
debts repaid, I never could see the reason to have more than I needed.
my reluctance to move I get up and rustle into some clothes and
look in on my “guest.” The doll is still unconscious, but I notice
some of the cuts and bruises have disappeared. Before leaving for
the tram station I check my receiver for held messages: nothing
from Miriam. I delete the rest.
I meet Jules
at the usual small café near the shopping district. The place
operates out of the corner of what was once an old foundry building.
It had probably been one of the first buildings to go up after the
First Born had arrived here from wherever it is we come from.
would have torn down such an old building. But everything is recycled
here; turned into other things….
a window booth we both order the same plate: reconstituted scrambled
eggs with slices of something that tastes like ham, some waffles,
and coffee. We eat in relative silence. Jules picks at his breakfast.
about as well as I sleep,” I say. He pushes his plate to me.
enjoy yourself last night?” he asks.
He waits, wanting more details, about Miriam.
to bigger and better things, if that’s what you want to hear.”
he snorts. “Who is this Reena? Some radical post-grad dropout with
delusions of adequacy. ‘Free the dolls,’ and all that shit. Honestly.”
almost funny.” I finish my coffee. “Though it pains me to admit
it, you’re right. She’s a bit loony, that one. But I’m not exactly
interested in her mind.”
to try thinking of someone else for a change.”
shovel eggs into my mouth.
is a good person with a big heart. She didn’t deserve that. No one
at his naiveté. His sister and I had been married almost
eleven years, our daughter Janina had been born five years previous.
My wife had worked in some boring municipal office, cataloguing
data; my domain was a delivery truck. We didn’t earn a lot, hardly
anyone does. But we plodded on like everyone else, deep in debt
and barely one-step ahead.
was a moody girl, a difficult girl, introspective, socially awkward,
didn’t have many friends, didn’t confide easily, and hardly ever
left her room. We thought it a typical adolescent phase. Then one
day I came home early to make sure she went to—uh—work, and found
her in the bathroom. She had cut her wrists. She was fifteen years
a lot of things no one deserves,” I reply. “It’s a cruel world.”
is. But you don’t see me acting like an asshole.”
should try it sometime.”
that. “I hate to break it to you—”
most things in your life, Reena is a distraction.”
I chew his
food and stare at him. “From what?”
you, Sumner?” he utters incredulously, but more to himself than
You said so yourself.”
hear; his eyes are distant. “She’s a lot like my sister, actually.
I feel my
head go down between my shoulders. His sister, my wife, disappeared
soon after Janina’s death. No one could find her. Not even Jules.
Months went by; then I received an electronic notice, divorce papers
from a solicitor. I tried looking for her once but she must have
changed her identity.
hunting for the next Mrs. Sumner Lothian, thank you.”
did you get involved with her?”
I wave his
in his seat, then bounces up out of his chair and returns with a
fresh cup of coffee. “So what’s with that doll, anyway?” The words
spill out of his mouth.
told you. And I’m not banging her.”
bang just about everything else. Besides that’s what they’re made
you help her anyway? I mean she’s just a doll. You can kill one
and it’s not even murder. Who cares?”
I put my
fork down. “I don’t think a guy needs to call his buddies to help
him kick the crap out of a toy. Do you? So why don’t you sit back,
relax, and enjoy a nice big cup of shut the hell up.”
there is a commotion outside. At the corner of an intersection stands
a doll, pale, ghostly, big eyes, crimson lips, tight black body
stocking, and a work permit fixed to her brow. The doll’s body is
shaking, crawling with spasms; she walks limply in a circle, dazed,
reaching out for someone, anyone. No one touches her, of course.
Then she grabs the lamppost and begins banging her head against
it as she shakes, words, unintelligible, shoot from her mouth.
Syndrome,” Jules says to no one in particular.
is short for what sometimes happens to organic A.I.s and dolls.
Sometimes, inexplicably, they just go berserk.
twitches with pain, and there is a burning behind my left eye.
ought to get that fixed,” he says.
think?” The problem is that I don’t have the available cash just
yet to get it fixed by a pro. But I won’t tell him that. I’m not
looking for a handout from him.
I feel like
my head is being slammed with a hammer; I know the pain isn’t going
away anytime soon.
Jules with the tab I take the next tram home, open the door—and
wake on the floor under the cool light of a full, pale moon. Although
the throbbing in my head has wound down to a dull pulsing I lay
still, waiting for my breathing to ease and the quivering in my
ribs to stop.
* * *
I had had
a dream. It was an odd dream because it had none of the opaque characteristics
and semidetached qualities of a dream. This was something far closer
to the surface, something that lacked distance and engaged all my
senses at a level of awareness uncommon to the dream.
dream was of the dirty outback town I grew up in, and I was on the
dirt road that stretched onward and into town. My family’s quonset
hut stood at the end, coated with dust, shining duly in the dry
sun. My parents were on the step waiting for me. But something was
wrong; they were confused, frightened, and a bit angry. With me.
do it!” I said.
one time,” said Dad. “One time and we’ll be free. No more collectors.
We can even move away. Sell this place and try to get closer to
the City where there’s more work.”
knew I was walking away from the hut, jacket heavy with a full canteen,
and there is a knife, and food wrapped in paper. One hand held a
sack slung over my back.
you think you’re going to go?”
no more last time.”
to use what’s available,” he said. “You’ll understand one day.”
called, and then broke into a cry. She never said much, ever. Never
stood up to Dad. Maybe if he’d actually tried to fix the equipment
around here, he could have farmed something. Anything. He could
have done some real work instead of pissing away the little money
Mom earned cleaning solar panels.
his voice got hard, as it always did. I heard his footsteps coming
after me. “You’ll do what you’re told. You’ll go to work, you hear?”
He grabbed my arm. “If you’re good, this client could set us right—”
go!” I struggled to get away, dropping the sack. “I hate you!”
you!” He whipped me around. I reached into my jacket as I swung
to face him and pulled out the knife. I dug it deep into his ribs,
screaming as I did it.
I woke, consciousness spilling up in a desperate gasp.
* * *
I am startled by a voice beside me.
up I turn to look directly at the doll, standing there, hair flowing
about her shoulders, big and wide green eyes. Her clothes are dirty
and stained with blood.
transaction required, payment in full. No credit. No pay-as-you-go.
You called for me?”
I clear my throat and brace myself for the pheromones that might
come spraying from her pours, an invisible, potent elixir. “No,
stands there, looking at me: flesh thin over bone, skin pale upon
pale, trapped in youth. So young. So childlike. She will stay that
way until her lifespan ends (or something worse happens to her).
furrows, eyes dart back and forth in thought. A puzzled expression
washes across her face. She attempts something that sounds like
a small laugh, and says, “Sometimes, I get confused.”
all. So why are you up? You still don’t look well enough.”
my allotted time. I usually work these hours.”
crap Doctor.” I mutter. I can see she is not all “there” yet. Damn
thing probably hiccupped and woke her prematurely.
dart back and forth again. The awkwardness of the moment threatens
to drown me. I try to think. I can think! No pheromones to muddle
the brain. Not all of her systems are fully online. I’m relieved.
you doing in the City without a work permit?” I ask. Every city
has a Rim district for dolls, just outside the boundary limits.
If you want a doll, if you are into that kind of thing, that’s where
another laugh. “I don’t remember.”
you out of a pretty nasty situation.”
“I don’t remember.”
they live in conditions worse than most of us, and she had come
up here for a reason. Work permits are not freely available, and
human prostitutes don’t care much for the competition. I pull out
my cash chip. For an instant there seems to be something like elation
in the fibers of her coded flesh. She bends down and holds out her
wrist. I place the chip on the small pad there, and tell it how
much to transfer.
cover any expenses you racked up while being out of commission.”
bright and beaming. The brothel manager that owns her will be pleased.
you reactivate your Doctor and go back to bed for a few days. Don’t
answer the receiver or the door. Just stay in there. Okay? I’ll
take you back to the Rim when your program is done.”
She switches on her link’s frequency and dabbles with her thumb
do you call yourself?”
you like to call me?”
I feel dirty
with her words. “No. What do you call yourself?”
blinking, and repeats, “What would you like to call me?”
I look out
at the metallic spires of the City, glistening ghostly with silver
in the full moonlight.
it,” I say, and I’m sure she does.
sleep the rest of the night. Don’t want too. So I make some coffee,
sit on the floor, and watch the moon carve its path across the black
beach of sky. Hitting my receiver I call Reena. I keep the two-way
visuals and the voice off, using only text.
one in the morning, she responds after a minute or two.
You’re right. I’m not.
am silent, thinking about how to respond to that, or if I should.
After all we have an agreement: no strings.
on, Sumner. Let me get some privacy. There is a moment of dead
air. Then the blue words return. I’m back. Everything okay?
do you think? I woke up on the floor. I didn’t even make it to the
I did suggest you have my man, Lucius, look at your link again.
man Lucius. Of course I remember.
He’s not licensed,” I reply. “And nothing seems different since
the first time he looked at it. Does he even know what he’s doing?”
Since when do you care about legalities? Besides you can’t afford
a licensed tech.
got me. But nothing seems different since the last time he looked
at it. Does he even know what he’s doing?”
“There’s something else.” I tell her about the dream.
not unusual for you.
was…different. Vivid. Almost like a simulator.”
pause. Does the doll always have her link on, even when she’s
do I know? Wait. Are you telling me I shared crossover with a doll?”
your link is damaged.
on an isolated frequency. Not even their pimps can access it.”
still possible you could have picked up some trace signal. It’s
happened before, just once that anyone’s ever known of, about a
decade ago. It’s documented.
And what happened?”
went berserk and killed himself.
It’s like this Sumner: your subconscious was mulling over something,
and the doll was probably reprocessing the night she was roughed
up, and your memories crossed. Simple.
what dolls are: simple. They’re not made to be that complex, cognitively.”
may not be the brightest candles in the box, but they are not phenomenal
zombies either. They process new information and react to stimuli
like any other complex organism. And if they are processing during
shut down, which of course they are, that means they dream.
which parts of the dream belonged to the doll, and which were really
really think they should be free?”
I ever sounded like I was joking?
just toys, right? I mean does it really matter?”
that they are intelligent enough to function in our society. They
learn, Sumner; they adapt; they can grow. They display true emotions,
even survival instincts. That’s more than I can say for any toy.
identity domains,” I mumble.
Well pay no mind. Lucius fancies himself some sort of metaphysical
philosopher. He’s only half right, but of course he doesn’t think
It’s all just talk, Sumner.
have identities? Yes. Do they develop personalities? Sure. I’ll
agree with that. But that’s just natural with any cognitive being,
it’s not something left over from a previous life, something embedded
in some sort of living universal fabric. There’s nothing metaphysical
you’re right. Sometimes I think…I don’t know.”
It’s all talk. I deal in fact; Lucius deals in fantasy. Janina’s
dead. It wasn’t your fault.
you sure? You don’t know—”
punishing yourself. Just face up to it, Sumner. You did what you
did, and that’s that.
I have to do it? Sell a dead girl’s flesh for a clean slate? Our
daughter. Funny that she would be worth more dead than alive.
What I did
was not typical, but not that uncommon either. We were in debt more
than we let anyone realize. I was trying to help my wife. I was
trying to help us both.
If I could
hear her sigh I would have. Hell what do you want?
without my permission. “I want my family back.”
nothing to say.
is all I can utter.
l must go. Consider letting Lucius look at your link again.
I could see you tonight.”
the blue words repeat, and she breaks the connection.
* * *
a while I abandon my home to spend most of my nights walking, as
I did long ago. Walking without any sense of direction, walking
without destination, yet with compulsion, as though looking for
something, some burrow not noticed before, some pathway never taken.
I eat take-away, and sleep where I can, in cheap motels, sometimes
in alleys. I still dream, but not with the reality of that previous
about to arrive now. The thin crimson line of awakening runs across
the sandy horizon, between the buildings of the City. The air is
chill. I walk the near empty streets, cloak about my shoulders,
hunching into it, the smell of cold, damp stone in my nose.
formed during the cool nights, trickles through the grooves in the
rock-made pavement, the liquid whirling and swirling its way through
the many furrows. Maybe in a million years the water will erode
the stones into new shapes, cut new pathways. But changing shape
does not change the essence of the thing itself, and new grooves
turn upon themselves, snake in and out, around and around. What’s
old is new. What’s new is old. What comes around goes around, so
this City. Its various personalities twist, bend, intertwine, and
finally part, only to meet up again in another quarter, in another
trough, in another time, altered but still the same.
finally stop at a public receiver to check my house messages. There’s
nothing there, except for a message from Jules. I delete it.
my access code again, I dial another number. Miriam’s pale morning
face comes into view.
thought you might’ve blocked my number.”
thought I had,” she replies. “You look like crap.”
should smell me.”
not. Where are you? What happened—No. Forget it. I don’t want to
want to say that I hadn’t been out partying for nights on end, that
I hadn’t woken up from a drug-induced coma in some dingy part of
town, in some strange woman’s bed. I want to say these things. But
tick away in the chilled air. Miriam says, wistfully, “So why are
you calling me?”
is stuck for words. “Seemed like a good idea,” bleeds out.
pause. “I can’t be your punching bag anymore,” she says breathlessly.
I do is shrug.
that’s it, huh? Your answer.”
didn’t give you an answer.”
put words in my mouth, Miriam.”
don’t do me any favors. You think I should feel touched by your
call? Wanting? Forgiving? Think again. I don’t need an apology.
All I want to know is that you are going to try; try to be the man
I once knew.”
moves before brain, as usual. “And whom did you think you knew?”
sighs. “Same crap, over and over.”
Sumner, I once thought I saw something in you, something fundamentally
honest and good. Was it all a game? A clever ploy to get some action?
All those women. Just choose someone, Sumner. Anyone. Can’t you
course,” I snort. “When choosing between the lesser of any two evils,
I always choose the one with the best tits.”
* * *
I am back
home now, at my place. Everything is shadowy with dark; a breeze
comes through a half-opened window, chattering. Walking past the
bedroom door now. I won’t open it and look inside. She’s there.
I know it. I feel it.
how hard I try to blank out my thoughts my mind keeps churning,
swirling, round and round, over and under.
in a chair, I try to distract my mind by listening to the night….
up, sweating, breathing hard, heart pumping, fingers clenching in
an unknown panic, images fading like a screen turned off. Something
weighs down on me, the weight of memory, threatening to crush me,
cut off my air.
Then I notice
it, crouched down in a shadowy corner of the room. A small figure,
knees drawn up, arms wrapping around them, and it rocks back and
forth, this figure. The doll? No. A small girl, I realize. Much
want to speak, to say I’m sorry, so sorry, but nothing comes out.
The air is full of her shivering sobs.
I get up and I take a few hesitant steps toward her, my hand outstretched.
no one there.
[to be continued]