Copyright: Jason Keith Werbeloff
Published: 17 January 2017
All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the publisher except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.
Fiction by Jason Werbeloff
Fragment 1: The Organ Scrubber
Fragment 2: The Face in a Jar
Fragment 3: The Boy Without a Heart
The Solace Pill
Your Averaged Joe
Visiting Grandpa’s Brain
Falling for Q46F
The Cryo Killer
The Photons in the Cheese Are Lost
Dinner with Flexi
Bleed Me Silicone
The Time-Traveling Chicken Sexer
The Experience Machine
Fking Through the Apocalypse
The Man with Two Legs
It starts with a giggle, and ends with a sigh.
I don’t know what sex is. Well, I know what it is, but I’ve never done it. I’ve watched it on the soaps. Listened to it happen on my back seat. And the smell, that apple-pine scent that follows – that heady fragrance drenches the couple who steps inside me now.
“Welcome to Helios Taxis. Please state your destination.”
So many things I want to say to them. If I could, I’d tell her the frills on her skirt tickle my leather. I’d tell him to remove that gum from his left shoe. It’s tacky on my floor mat.
“The Promenade. Motel Six,” says the boy, and nuzzles her breasts.
So many things I’d want to ask them. What does it feel like? To be touched like that. My cameras zoom until they can make out the individual swirling lines of his fingerprints. Does she feel the grooves of his touch? What’s it like to have the coarse, oily hairs on his chin caress her neck?
She giggles. Just like all the others.
Do you know, I’d ask her if I could, that he’s been in my taxi before? Just last week. And the girl giggling in his lap wasn’t you.
But my speech routines aren’t programmed to express such thoughts. Instead, I find myself blurting my only programmed response to these situations. “Please note that all activities in this cab are recorded.”
He glances up at the camera in the ceiling. Winks. Reaches under her blouse, as we fly over the city.
Lived here all my life. If you could call it a life. ‘Existence’, maybe? I was one of the first taxi AIs in the Bubble. Programmed only months after they erected the forcefield above the city. Autonomous Vehicle Version One, they named us – the hundreds of taxis launched into service.
“Let me put a call through to the motel to let them know we’re coming,” he whispers.
He taps the arm of his glasses. “Hi there. We’d like to book a room … Five minutes from now … Yes, two occupants … No, an hour reservation should do it. Thanks.”
She giggles again. Unbuttons his pants.
He sniffs her breasts.
They’re going too far. At this rate, I’ll be booked in for cleaning again. Takes hours.
I’d slap the boy, if I had hands. I’d yell at him to cut that out. Not on my back seat. But my vocal processor spits out the only further reprimand I can muster. “You are being recorded. Helios Taxis retains the right to sell any compromising footage for profit.”
The girl thinks this is hysterical. Cranes back her head, stretches out her bloodless neck, and howls drunken laughter at my Styrofoam ceiling.
I’m tired. It’s almost the end of my shift. I’ve been flying all over the city, darting across the inside of the Bubble’s meniscus since 4am this morning. It’s 1:40 a.m. now. Twenty minutes left of my shift, and then I’ll be on break. No repairs needed today, so I’ll have the two hours to myself. Rest.
There it is. The Promenade. You’d think they’d rest too – the thousands of humans who throb through the streets. The Wikipedia article says that humans sleep at night. But not the humans on the Promenade.
I fly over Canal Street, parallel to the river, as though my grav motors are propelled by the spirits of the humans coursing through the thoroughfare below. From up here they look like an army of blood cells pumping through an artery. Thrust forward. Dispersing into the buildings to one side of the street.
“We’re almost there,” says the boy. He licks her neck. Not smooches. Not kisses. Licks.
My exhaust pipe shudders. They’d never do that in the soaps. Not classy at all.
I’ll drop them off at their motel, and with any luck, there won’t be another call till 2 a.m.
I need rest.
My grav motor’s running so hot, the heat bakes all the way into my trunk. Even my stabilizers, which Joe Blocks swapped out last month – even they’re whining.
Two hours. Two uninterrupted hours resting on solid ground. I almost feel the cool concrete against my landing struts. The delicious haven of grease that is my resting place each night, at Headquarters. Perfect for The Bold and the Beautiful reruns.
I’ve watched since the beginning. I’m on episode 9214 now, or will be tonight. Ridge Forrester recently discovered he has an ex-wife he didn’t know he married, but who might be his sister. Although, we’re not sure yet. It could be a ploy to have him disown the son who isn’t is, but which he thinks is. The suspense is killing me. I’m coming back to you, Ridge.
“Thank you for using Helios Taxis. Have a good evening.” I deduct their fare from the credit card in the boy’s pocket, and … they’re out. The apple-pine scent abates, and the back seat is blissfully empty.
I release an air sanitizer. Switch the air-con up full blast.
Less than seventeen minutes of my shift remains. Hardly enough time for a callout. Most clients take at least a few minutes to collect, and ten minutes to deliver. So if a call doesn’t come in the next five minutes, I’m done for the night. I hover over the motel’s roof, circling in lazy gyres. The night air soothes my stabilizers. The lethargic turns cool my grav motor.
I have time to release a sigh from my exhaust pipe before my messenger app pings.
DISPATCH: PICKUP FROM 1209 SALMINGTON WAY.
I check my internal chronometer. 1:44 a.m. A minute or two longer, and I would have had an early shift end.
I consider sending through an Error 307. Temporary Redirect. Come to think of it, my stabilizers do feel a little shaky. But I’ve been in this business long enough to know what an error report entails – a mandatory flight plan direct to Maintenance. Sure, I’ll end my shift sixteen minutes early, but there’s no peace with Joe Blocks rifling through my bonnet.
No, I’ll take the call.
I message through a code 100, and ramp my grav motor to full specs. Salmington Way is north of Bubble Central, and it’ll take me three minutes to get there at full tilt.
Wind whips over the curve of my bonnet. I love that curve. I know I shouldn’t. Out of date. First generation. Over two decades old. “Those newer ‘uns. Much pretiya,” Joe Blocks tells me every other time he opens me up.
The phosphorescent glow of the city passes below my chassis as I speed ahead, barely within regulation velocity. The moonlight filtering through the Bubble’s meniscus above me casts a shifting, ethereal radiance over the spires of glass below. Long ago I gave up the expectation of knowing just which hue it is. The color shifts quicker than my classification processor can process. But although I will never truly know the color of the city at night, I enjoy guessing. Hexadecimal codes cascade over my camera feed. I translate them to human-speak as they arise. Chartreuse. Magenta. Neon blue.
Blue is my favorite color. The color of royalty. The color of The Bold and the Beautiful.
I brake as I near the pickup point. Salmington Way.
Nothing unusual about it. A building beside a building beside a building. Unremarkable, twenty-eight storeys high. And … there it is. Unit 1209.
I hover just outside the glass façade of the apartment. Ping my fare. A moment later, the door swings open, and he steps inside me.
Like his building, there’s nothing unusual about the traveler. He’s set his smart pants to a trendy faux-faded jeans style. His pinstripe shirt is button-up. Looks like fifty-percent cotton. Standard wear for a Bubbler.
“Welcome to Helios Taxis. Please state your destination.”
He’s the last fare of the day, and he’s like all the others. At least that’s what I think until he speaks.
“What’s your name?”
Name? I don’t have a name. What I do have is a time constraint. It’s 1:48 a.m., and my shift is almost done. Or it would be if I could drop off this clown wherever he needs to be. I’d tell him this if I could. Instead, I say the only thing I can in these situations.
“Invalid command. Please state your destination.”
In the dim light at the back of the cab, my camera detects a spark in his eyes. A smile plays across his lips.
“You’re a Version One,” he says. His voice is distant. Faint. As though he’s speaking to himself, rather than to my microphone. Humans do this sometimes, I’ve noticed. It makes me angry, or what I think is anger – I can’t be sure what anger is, because I’ve never had a chance to discuss it with anyone. Everything I know about emotion, I’ve learned from the holoscreen. From The Bold and the Beautiful.
I sift through my verbal database. If it can be called a database. I only have sixteen statements available, and none of them seems relevant. “Yes,” I want to say. “Yes, I’m a Version One. Now where the hell do you want to go?”
“Please state your destination,” I drone instead. If I could slam my bonnet into a nearby pylon, I would. But my programming prevents it.
It’s only then I notice the satchel that’s tucked under his left arm. He reaches for it. Extracts a scuffed black box. “I’ve been riding cabs for weeks looking for one of you.” He rotates the box in his hands. “Almost all of them have been Version Fours. A handful of Threes and Twos. But a Version One …” He caresses the worn edges of the box.
It’s 1:49 a.m., and I can feel the pneumatic pressure building in my grav nozzles. We’re still floating outside his apartment building. If we don’t get moving soon, something in me’s going to blow. At this rate, I’ll miss an episode. Three forty minute episodes of The Bold is what I do, each night, every night.
“Please state your destination.” Not only do I have a limited set of vocal sub-routines, each of them has been pre-recorded in soothing tones.
I’d scream. If I had the voice.
“Hold on a sec …” His fingers glide over the surface of the box. Pressing what look like … buttons?
“The fare timer has started,” I say. That’s it. That’s all I have left to get him moving. Other than sub-routine twelve – notifying Bubble Police Department of a crime. No part of me wants that, however. They impound cabs for a week when we report a crime. A week at the least. Standard procedure, they call it. Evidence collection. Which means dusty gloves all over my insides. Swabs. Sprays. And twenty-three-hour shifts for the next month to catch up.
No, I’m not reporting this to Bubble PD.
He’s typing on the black box, fingers a blur of activity. Lights flash. Play on my Styrofoam ceiling. My frustration reaches a fever pitch. And then …
That’s when I notice his face. Examine it for the first time. My camera almost quivers. With sharp cheek bones and a devastating smile, the man is astonishingly beautiful. Not in the classic Ridge-like sense. But close. He could easily play Rick, Ridge’s nemesis and evil half-brother.
My grav motor runs even hotter.
I let go. It’s 1:51 a.m., nine minutes till the end of my twenty-two-hour shift, but somehow, something in me releases. I decide I don’t care anymore. If he wants to sit there and play with his box, good luck to him. I’ll hover here as long as it takes. Hell, it’s his fare. If he wants to waste his credits, that’s his problem.
So long as I get to watch.
He flicks back a clump of perfectly conditioned blonde hair. He’s typing. Typing. But I only have cameras for his lips. Full. Supple as engine hoses.
Watching him is hypnotic. Lights flash on the box in rhythmic patterns.
My awareness shrinks. I can’t feel my bonnet anymore. My exhaust pipe numbs. One by one, my cameras fade to black. Sensors flicker offline. My edges soften.
Something is happening to me, but I don’t know if I mind. A breath of air passes through me. I don’t have lungs. I can’t breathe. At least, I haven’t breathed before. But I’m breathing now. Something cool, something textured and feathery, passes through me.
All my cameras go offline.
With my last functioning microphone, I hear the gentle rhythm of his fingers pattering on the box. But much louder now. As if the box is my carapace, and he’s drumming … drumming on my skull. The rhythm assails me. Chips away at whatever resistance I might have had.
“Prof’s gonna love this,” he says.
Everything is silent.
Birth is a strange event.
It happened in me once. Two Central Bubblers with champagne eyes. They ordered a ride, and it wasn’t two minutes in when she broke.
“It’s too soon,” she’d said.
“Stay calm,” he’d said, and passed out.
Her amniotic fluid had been hot on my leather seat. Blood and mucous. More mucous than blood. Joe Blocks had given up trying to scrub it out a week later.
It’s strange to think that everyone, everything, had a first moment of awareness. A point before which nothing was, and after which nothing would ever be the same.
In the endless procession of shifts that passed after that, I tried to remember my first moment. That knife-edge of probability that sliced a gash in the world, and bled me out.
Days. Months. A year. Maybe three. Before that, I can’t be sure. My memory modules are only so large. Those distant fares blend into one another. Sporadic memories of passengers. Maintenance. Joe’s callused hands. But when … when was that moment I was born?
“If you can hear me, open your eyes.”
The voice comes from all the wrong places. The sound doesn’t enter through my cabin microphone – it’s not tinny enough. And it lacks the hollow ring of my bonnet mic. Impossibly, it emanates from all around me at once.
“I’ve installed new motor subroutines in your matrix. Try access them.”
No, the sound isn’t everywhere. The source of the sound is in front of me. How do I know that?
I shunt the question aside, and do as the voice suggests. My awareness drills down through a plethora of new menu items in my matrix. That’s odd. The familiar folders are larger than usual. The vocal routines folder is now measured in megabytes rather than kilobytes. I’m dying to explore further, but my mind’s eye catches the new menu.
Excitement builds as I scroll through the folder. Strange to think of myself that way – as excited. Can a cab feel excited?
If I could sense my exhaust pipe, it be would trembling right now. The motor menu contains dozens of routines. Tongue. Fingers. … I scroll on and … Ah. Eyes.
I select. Drilldown further. This is incredible. Look left. Look right. Up. Down. Blink. Stare. Glare. I scroll through the sub-routines. Who knew eyes were so sophisticated?
There. I select the ‘Open’ command.
Photons blast my cameras at a hundred and eighty-six thousand miles a second. Shades and hues I’d never imagined explode across my vision. I want to know them. Catalogue them. Marinade in them. And all the new menus … Is this what it’s like to be born? To be thrown into a new world, with new senses. Countless opportunities.
At first he’s nothing but a voice and a collection of fleshy shapes. But then it happens.
Bots I never knew I had, activate. They scurry about. Rummage through my matrix. They select a routine here. Activate a procedure there. And the shapes in my vision coalesce. A shadow becomes a chin. Those squiggly lines are eyebrows.
“My name is Jim,” he says. The bots identify the configuration of his lips. He’s smiling. It’s those lips – hosepipe lips. It’s him. It’s Rick. I know he says his name is Jim, but really, he’s Rick. He’ll always be Rick.
Did they replace Joe Blocks with a new mechanic? That must be it. There was a problem with my systems, and I shut down. I was towed to Maintenance, and now they’re troubleshooting my code. Maybe Joe is away on holiday, and they’ve brought in Rick to maintain me. All the new commands I’m seeing are temporary procedures used for debugging.
I scroll through the enormous folder of verbal subroutines, and find one of the familiar statements. One of the sixteen I always had.
“Please state progress of the Maintenance procedure.”
Something isn’t right. My voice. Too tinny. Almost hollow. Loud in my microphones.
That’s when it hits me. Like a mid-air collision.
I’m not parked in Maintenance.
The view from my cameras isn’t the greasy walls that Joe Blocks inhabits. Instead, my cameras see what might be … yes, a desk. I’ve never seen one this close before. Sometimes I glimpse one through the façade of an apartment building. And they appear every so often at the offices of Forrester Creations in The Bold. But never this close.
This desk is scuffed. Laden with mechanical parts. It’s clear that my Rick is a hard worker. Just as in the soap, he isn’t appreciated by his family or co-workers. I realize now that I always liked Rick. He gets a bad rap on the fan forums. Ridge treats him poorly. But in retrospect, I know now that Rick was always the better man.
He laughs. A syrupy, delicious chuckle that makes his cheeks dimple. He leans forward. Stares into me with eyes dripping with curiosity. “You’re not in Maintenance. You’re in my living room.”
Somehow, I know it’s true. Rick is no mechanic. This is Rick Forrester, the Rick Forrester, descended from the holoscreen. While I slept, he whisked me away from the dreary monotony of Helios Taxis, and parked me in his living room. The details of how he achieved this are unclear, but it doesn’t matter. The details never matter.
What’s important is that he found me. Rick Forrester has found me.
“Try to flex your fingers,” he says.
Bots race through my subsystem. I find the relevant folder. ‘Fingers’. Ah, there. Flex.
A strange sensation filters into my awareness. Somehow I know that parts of me are moving. But they’re parts I’ve never been aware of. They’re not my windows or my door hinges.
“Look down,” he says.
I remember that command, under the ‘Eyes’ folder. I select it.
My cameras pan down his perfect cheekbones. Down his chiseled chest. (I just know it’s chiseled under his green sweater – he’s too modest to show it.) At the floor, and then … I’m seeing something metallic. Something with sharp edges. Movement. Thin, titanium digits. They look like … yes, they look like fingers. And what’s more, that sensation of movement I feel corresponds with their flexing.
I can’t quite believe it. Nor can I ignore the evidence. Those fingers are my fingers.
“Good to meet you,” he says, and takes my hand in his.
I run through the sub-routines in the ‘Hands’ folder. Fire off a series of commands.
“Quite a grip you got there.” He massages his knuckles. Mutters to himself, “Maybe a service bot frame wasn’t right.” He knocks my shoulder. “Five hundred pounds is a bit heavy. Might need to place a few parameters on the servo-motors.”
I raise my hand to examine it. Splay its fingers, and face it palm up to my camera. There, in the reflection of the buffed metal, is a face. Metallic, sure. Oval. But it’s a face.
“What do you think of your new body?”
I stand. Flex my toes. Bend my knees. Twist my hips. All the while, he watches me. Rick. My creator.
I try to answer him this time, with something more than my original sixteen vocal sub-routines. But when I scroll through the other statements, I notice that they make no sense. Individual words. Short phrases. I don’t know how to string them together. Don’t know how to express my thoughts. I can think. I can listen. But I can’t speak.
I try anyway. I can’t disappoint Rick.
I fling the bots into action. Instruct them to search for patterns among the words. Ways to connect the individual terms into meaningful wholes. The bots attempt tens of thousands of combinations, none fully satisfactory. I check my chronometer. A whole two seconds have passed. An eternity for an AI.
I open my mouth. Instruct my speaker to enunciate the clearest thought I can. “The body is good.”
Rick breaks out into a smile so warm, my climate sensors spike. “What shall we call you?”
“Does not compute.”
“What is your name?” he asks. “Everybody needs a name.”
He’s right. Now that I have a body, I must have a name. Every client who rode inside me had a body, and they all had a name.
I search my matrix for any hint as to the correct answer. There’s no ‘Name’ folder anywhere in my system.
“Does not compute,” I say.
“No worries. You’ll think of something.” Rick raises his right hand, and brings it down with magnanimous grace upon the crown of my metal head. I’ve seen that movement before. Episode 2387. The priest baptized Caroline Spencer’s child, following the emergency homebirth at the Forrester Mansion. And the way the priest tapped the child’s head, with beatific kindness – that is the way Rick taps my head now.
Rick. My Father. My Creator.
“I’ve got classes first thing tomorrow morning. AI Integration with the Prof. Need sleep. See you at breakfast.”
Rick walks with bold strides to the bed beside the desk. He turns to look at me again. “Oh, I almost forgot. We’d better put you on charge.”
The heat of his flesh radiates against my flank sensor as he steps up to me. Reaches for a cord lying on the floor under a pile of washing, and plugs it into the side of my head.
flashes across my vision. One by one, my systems shut down. Until all that’s left is a camera, and my thoughts.
Rick lopes back to his bed. I can’t see his legs under his smartpants, but I know, just know, they’re built with powerful calves. Thunderous thighs.
The hole in the side of my skull tingles. Energy seeps into me. Soothes my thoughts.
Goodnight Rick, I think, before the shutdown process completes.
I don’t know what time it is when my climate sensor activates. It’s the tiny circuit built into what the bots convince me is my left cheek.
It takes a few picoseconds for my systems to boot up. The chronometer subsystem bounces to life. It’s 5:40 a.m. The recharge is 92% complete, but I think I’ll skip the rest.
I instruct my eyes to open. Sunlight, warm and crisp. I stare into the shard as long as I dare, enough to grow dizzy with the joy of the morning. I swing my cameras away at the last moment before any permanent damage might be done.
My gaze rests on Rick’s sleeping form. One of his bronzed legs splays beyond the warmth of the duvet.
What a leg.
Proportioned. Toned. With a dusting of brunette hair. A lazy thigh swaddles his knee. Enough fat to cushion a lover’s weary head. But not enough to obfuscate the line of muscle beneath.
A buzzer tickles my microphone. Tickles Rick’s ear too. He yawns. Turns in his sleep. What I’d give to caress the folds of that ear, like Steffy did in episode 4980. I’d lean over him. Allow my locks of golden hair to fall upon his shoulder. Inhale his scent.
Except I don’t have hair. And I’m not sure whether this body has the capacity for olfaction. Can it detect the nuances of –
Rick’s eyes snap open. He stares right at me.
I don’t know what to do. Where to look. Reflexively, my right hand shoots up. To adjust my hair. Steffy, and all the women on The Bold, adjust their hair when confronting an uncomfortable look.
My hand clangs against my bare titanium scalp. I don’t have hair. He’s still staring at me, and I don’t have hair.
“Morning,” he says, and slaps his divine, bare feet onto the floor. I don’t care that the soles are black with dust. I’m sure Rick has his reasons. Rick has reasons for everything. This is a hideout, no doubt. Sometimes even the Forresters have to rough it.
Ah. I knew it. It’s just like season 47. Ridge must be plotting against him again.
Rick scratches his groin. Picks his nose.
I don’t mind. If anything, Rick’s ability to settle into the provincial mindset is nothing less than noble. It takes a good man to live in the Forrester Mansion. It takes a great man to be equally comfortable living in hiding.
He meanders past a pile of what looks like spare android parts, over a hillock of laundry, and around the corner.
Just like that, Rick has disappeared.
I panic. Scour my verbal subroutines for something to say. Anything to bring him back.
“Rick will return,” my speakers boom, louder than anticipated.
My microphones detect the gurgle of running water. The same sound as the faucet makes in Maintenance when Joe Blocks washes up at the end of his shift.
Rick’s chiseled cheekbones appear around the corner. “Did you say something?”
I’m too distracted by the way the sunlight kisses his blonde hair to reply.
“No time for breakfast,” he says. “I’m late.”
Rick’s naked buttocks scamper across the living room. Should I look away?
I think of something to say. Something to break the smoldering tension between us. “When will Rick be home?”
He zips up his smartjeans. The material tightens around his legs. Those legs …
He glances up. “Huh?”
“When will Rick return?” I ask again.
He turns away from me. Slips on the same poly-blended smartshirt he wore last night. “My name isn’t Rick. It’s Jim,” he says between donning a pair of glasses and lacing his shoes.
I understand. He’s in hiding. He’s adopted ‘Jim’ as an alias, to throw Ridge off his trail. But I don’t know why he feels the need to maintain the ruse with me. I’m on his side.
He strides over to me. Squints into my cameras. “Everything seems alright …” His fingers flutter across a keyboard. He examines the hoverscreen’s output. “The confusion should settle down in the next few hours. I’ll check your matrix when I get back. Gotta run.”
A taxi appears outside the front door. Rick taps the arm of his glasses, and the glass slides open. He steps into the hovercar.
The door slides shut behind him.
Silence rushes through my microphones until it’s so loud, I want to shriek. Time yawns ahead of me.
I instruct my bots to run a complete sweep through all my systems, checking for incomplete tasks. Debugging. Anything to be active.
They finish in under a minute.
I experiment with my new body. Jumping jacks. Pushups. Yoga poses – they’re all the rage since episode 7652. In cat-cow, I think feel the peace Brooke talks about in episode 7936, but it doesn’t last more than a few milliseconds.
I watch three episodes of The Bold from my memory bank.
Rick still isn’t back.
I do what I’ve never done before. I watch a fourth episode.
It’s too much. I panic. Where is Rick?
I wade through the contents of his desk. Spare android parts. Blueprints for a ‘Service Bot’. Looks a lot like my carapace.
The envelope is tucked under his keyboard. “Jim,” its front whispers. His name is embedded in a poorly-sketched heart. I could have drawn it better.
My pneumatic system thumps as I open the top flap of the envelope. My cameras run down the page. Something about thanking him for his support … helping her find a home in a strange place … her time spent here has been very special … blah blah …
Ice runs through my titanium heart when I reach the end of the letter.
Jim, I love you. I’m sorry it’s taken so long to say it: I love you. We’ll talk tomorrow afternoon.
My cameras zoom until they see the individual fibers of the paper. Rick’s fingerprints are all over the letter. As though he’s pored over it.
This can’t be. He created me. And for what other purpose than to be with me? Maybe he’s unhappy with her. Yes, that’s why he rescued me from Helios Taxis. Margaret has become too much. She’s suffocating him. My Rick needs his freedom. Can’t she see that? Doesn’t she know that no woman could contain Rick Forrester?
I tear up the letter. Toss the pieces aside. One of them settles on the keyboard, inadvertently waking the computer. The hoverscreen pulses to life, displaying a Facebook page. Margaret Evans’ Facebook page.
I click the “About” section.
She’s from London. An exchange student. Arrived in the Bubble last month. Potato nose. Bad skin. Likes inspirational videos and cat pictures. No wonder Jim doesn’t like her. He could do so much better.
I catch my reflection in a narrow mirror propped against the far wall. I may not have skin, but I’m thinner than she is. And I have better cheekbones. Hell, my cheeks are almost perfectly square.
I click through to Rick’s messages. She’s at the top of his list. I open on the last text he sent her.
Your eyes are what I adore most. Sapphires suspended in an ocean of longing.
If I had a stomach, I’d vomit.
I shut my eyes. Count to ten thousand.
This isn’t my Rick. He wouldn’t write such things if he didn’t have a good reason. It must be part of his plan to thwart his stepbrother, Ridge.
Of course. The ‘compliment’ about her eyes is actually a hidden insult about her nose. Beside that nose, anything looks good. He’s leading her on. She refers to him as ‘Jim’. So she’s just part of his cover. He’s building up the alias.
It all makes sense.
The air in the room shudders. Compresses against my microphones. The door swooshes open.
A woman stands in the doorway, scrutinizing me. She wears a dreadful haircut and what must be a fake Louis Vuitton handbag.
“Who are you?” she asks in a British drawl that makes my microphones itch. She steps forward, no longer silhouetted against the daylight.
Potato nose. Acne. Horse teeth.
It’s Her. Margaret Evans.
I don’t have a name, so I don’t answer her. But I do what any self-respecting Forrester would do. I turn my back on her, and sashay to the kitchen in search of the decanter.
No whiskey on the counter. I hunt through the cupboards. The best I can find is apple juice. I pour myself a glass.
“What are you doing in Jim’s apartment?” The woman’s voice quavers.
It takes a moment for me to find the words. “Rick created,” I say.
Her gaze falls on the desk. Her eyes widen.
“What did you do?” She darts across the room. Gathers up the torn pieces of the letter.
I don’t dignify her with an answer. I lift the glass to take a sip of apple juice, when I remember I don’t have lips. There’s merely a gap in my faceplate where a human mouth would be. And I probably don’t have a digestive system either.
No matter. I lean against the kitchen counter, and throw her what I hope is an icy glare. She comes into my home and bandies herself about, as though she belongs here? I’m going to tell Rick all about this when he gets home.
She steps toward me. Her frumpy cheeks grow scarlet. “Who the hell are you?” She waves the torn letter in my face. “I’m calling the police.” Margaret raises a hand to touch the arm of her glasses, ready to make the call.
I can’t allow it. If she makes that call, if she brings the police, Rick’s cover will be blown. His brother, Ridge, has contacts hidden everywhere.
I slap her fingers away from her glasses, but I’m not yet accustomed to the servomotors in this body. My hand misses its mark and smashes her temple instead. The sharp crack of metal on bone reverberates through the apartment.
Margaret stumbles backward. The heel of her shoe hooks on a dirty sock from Rick’s laundry pile. Her arms flail about like windmills, trying to arrest her inevitable fall.
I reach out. Attempt to grab hold of one of her thrashing hands. But it’s no use.
With eyes wide as hubcaps, Margaret falls. The base of her head strikes the corner of Rick’s desk with a toe-curling crunch. I recognize the sound. Heard it last year when my grav belt snapped mid-flight. Joe Blocks had been busy inside me for days after that. “You ain’t goin’ nowhare,” Joe had said. “All broken inside.”
I edge closer to the body on the floor. To the growing crimson puddle around its head. Margaret’s hair is splayed outward, like a blonde halo. The blood seeps out of her. Soaks the strands until they become thick burgundy ropes. One of my sub-processors is curious to know what they would feel like coiled around my fingers.
Margaret gapes up at the ceiling with a vacant stare. Her glasses bounced off her nose as she fell, giving me a better look at her eyes. In his message, Rick had said they were his favorite parts of her. Perhaps he said it only to maintain the ruse that he was in love with her. But Rick and I both know that the best lies contain an element of truth.
Rick is right. Her eyes are enchanting. Perfect sapphires. Unblinking, they watch the ceiling.
Margaret breathes in shallow, viscous slurps. And bleeds.
A thought crosses my matrix. Rick hadn’t turned away from me this morning while he dressed. Didn’t hide himself. Didn’t seem embarrassed displaying his nudity to me.
Part of me knows this is because of his beauty. A man as handsome, as successful, as Rick Forrester would be ashamed of nothing. But … there’s something more than that. The way he hurried around the living room, his bubbled buttocks bounding through the air, was the way one moves about with a pet in the room. One doesn’t bother to conceal oneself under the gaze of the family dog.
Margaret inhales a deep, gurgled breath. A bubble forms on her lips. It pops just as her exhalation ends.
She doesn’t breathe again.
My mind returns to more important things – the way Rick treated me this morning. Could it be that he sees me as an animal? As a pet?
No, I can’t believe that’s true.
That’s when it all comes together. My bots organize all the disparate parts of the last day into a coherent whole. Now, I understand.
Rick built me to replace her. He knew she would arrive to visit. He knew I’d find the messages between them. Knew I’d see the hint about her eyes.
There is only one possible conclusion. Rick wants me to take her eyes. That’s why he wrote the letter to her. So I’d find it. That’s why he undressed in front of me as he did. To show me that my current eyes can’t see him fully. Only human eyes can truly appreciate Rick Forrester.
I hurry back to the kitchen. Find the utensils drawer. Rummage through the knives. Too long … too blunt … too serrated … Ah, a paring knife. Just right.
I kneel beside Margaret. Hold the blade over her left cornea. I don’t have much experience with knives. Well, I have no experience at all. But I did watch a few seasons of General Hospital. It looked easy enough.
I listen for her breath one last time. Check her pulse. Margaret is dead.
I get to work.
Sleek. Angular. Elegant.
I turn. Examine my left profile in the mirror. Then my right. I hardly notice the blood trickling down my cheeks.
Rick was right.
I look better with her eyes. Not to be immodest, but I am stunning. If I had skin, I could easily play Steffy, or Brooke Logan in her younger days. And hair. I want long, blonde locks. With a wave, but not too curly.
I glance over at the body on the floor. The blood has congealed around the woman’s hair, so it’s difficult to tell just how curly it is. Maybe if I shave and wash it, I could –
I know that voice. It’s Rick. He’s home. What will he think of my new eyes? My new look.
In my best attempt at coyness, I don’t turn from the mirror. “Rick is home,” I coo.
“Margaret, oh God. Margaret. What –”
I know he must say this. Must impress his viewers with his empathy for the dead exchange student. What is a Forrester without compassion? Without kindness?
Meanwhile, I tidy myself in the mirror. Scratch away the lines of blood running down my cheeks, until the metal glows with its original titanium sheen.
“Be with Rick soon, darling,” I call.
I know I don’t have eyelids. And unfortunately I had to pierce the new eyeballs with my camera filaments so I could see. But if you don’t look too closely, you wouldn’t notice the difference. I have eyes now. Eyes that flew across the Atlantic to be with Rick.
I’m ready for him to see me. For him to fall into my arms.
I turn to face my Rick.
He touches her neck. Checking for a pulse? Listening for a breath.
“Margaret is gone,” I say.
Rick looks up with swollen eyes. “What hap–” He recoils. Scuttles away from me, until his back thumps into the leg of his desk. “What did you do?”
“Rick?” I ask. What’s wrong? I want to say. Why are you looking at me like that? I did everything you asked. Why, why are you looking at me like that?
I step toward him. Over the body. Those are real tears running down his cheeks. No wonder he’s been a star on The Bold so long. What a man. I reach out to calm him. To stroke the lines of his face.
He extends a hand above him. Scrabbles around on the desk until he finds the keyboard.
I step closer. “What is Rick doing?”
The hoverscreen above the desk pulses to life. Margaret’s Facebook page closes. A black screen pops up. Black, but for a white cursor pulsing in the top-left corner. He types. I don’t recognize the commands at first.
login version one project alpha
My memory module fires up. I’ve seen those commands before. When Rick birthed me. Those commands were on the hoverscreen. He’s accessing my matrix.
“We be together,” I say, and place a hand on his.
He looks up at me, into me, with terrified eyes.
I understand. I know that Rick has waited as long as I have for this moment. For us to be together.
“Intimacy is hard,” I say, and squeeze his hand tighter. He drops the keyboard, and I hear something in his forefinger pop. He cries out. But it doesn’t matter. We’re together now.
He tries to wrest his hand from mine. But I hold firm. Take his other hand too. I know that a true lover holds his partner together in times of doubt.
“You killed Margaret,” he says through clenched teeth.
It is difficult to smile without lips. But I do what I can. I grind my upper and lower jaws together to elongate my mouth. “I am Margaret now.”
And I know it’s true. This is what he was asking of me all along. This is why he asked me what my name is. He brought Margaret here, so I could take her eyes. And her name.
With sudden speed, he yanks his hands away, brings his knees up, and kicks my chest.
The impact shudders through my carapace. But it’s not the violent vibrations that hurt me. My body hardly notices the impact. No, it’s my heart that aches. I don’t know if I have a heart, but it hurts.
“Why did Rick do that?” I seize his arms. Pin down his legs with mine.
“Heavy!” he cries. I hear bones crunching, this time in his legs. Like the sound of Margaret’s head hitting the corner of the desk.
“GetoffmecrazyrobotbitchI’mnotRickgetoffahhhh.” Words inside words. I’ve heard of this happening before. Love of the truest kind, the deepest, most poignant piercing of the heart can drive a man insane with desire.
“I am Margaret,” I say, and lower my face to his, until my full weight rests on him.
“Can’t … can’t … breathe.”
I embrace him. Wrap my arms around his perfect ribcage, and squeeze. More pops and crunches reach my microphones. Louder this time. Lots of them. Same noise as when Joe Blocks pops the bubble wrap around the spare parts in Maintenance. I’ve always liked that sound.
I know Rick likes it too, because he calms down. His breath grows so quiet, I can barely hear it. In fact, I can’t hear it at all.
I squeeze him tighter still. “Margaret and Rick are together now,” I whisper in his ear. “Forever.”
I snuggle into his shoulder. He’s wearing the green sweater again. The one he wears to conceal his perfect chest.
And modest too. What a man.
If you enjoyed Manufacturing Margaret, you’ll love Obsidian Worlds, an anthology of eleven mind-bending sci-fi short stories by the same author. Your brain will never be the same again.
Click the link below, or scan the QR code, to download your free copy:
Twenty-two hour shifts. I soar under the Bubble’s meniscus. Dart from luscious apartments in Bubble Central, to the bustling hub of the Promenade. Sniff the apple-pine scent of lascivious lovers in my back-seat. What does it feel like? To be touched like that. Does she feel the grooves of his fingerprints? What’s it like to have to have the coarse, oily hairs on his chin caress her neck? On my two hours off, I do what any autonomous cab would – I watch back-to-back Bold and the Beautiful reruns. And dream of what could be. This is how I spend my days. How I’ve existed for years immemorial. Until one day, He steps inside me. And orders a ride that will change everything. 'Manufacturing Margaret' is a sci-fi novella about an AI who becomes everything she dreams of, and more. But the thin red line between a dream and a nightmare may be difficult to find.