So I recently had my first short story published. It was carried by Ireland’s only print science fiction magazine ‘Albedo One‘, and you can and should pick up the magazine at Dublin’s Forbidden Planet (or grab a subscription online). The magazine (despite being designed like the popeye of a dogs arsehole), actually carries some stunningly good SF; emphasising quality over trendy ‘new weird’, or ‘post singularity’ stories. The whole publishing thing is weird… I wrote this story several years back, had it accepted for publication about two years ago and published just before Christmas. Reading it is like getting a fancy birthday present from an ex-girlfriend. You’re happy to have the gift, but opening it means reopening old wounds. Anyway, I hope you enjoy it.
Her little face was blank. Vacant, Tim thought, wholly absent. But then, he hadn’t turned her on. He shifted the rustling foam packaging of the box and pursed the child between two strong hands, lifting her easily up to his face. That close, the skin was ideally imperfect, bright and glossy yet here and there blemished. Not lifelike, real.
He set the doll down, still and oddly incongruent on the coffee table. From the box he pulled an instruction flexiscreen, and touched it awake. A bright, half familiar C-list face, resolved slowly on the disposable LED. He tapped the lips icon, and it spoke.
“Mr Price, thank you for purchasing the Taffin Luxadoll. This doll, like all Taffin products, comes with a full eight-year on site guarantee…”
He grunted, and tapped seek. With the cost of the thing, the deal should include a car, holiday, and daily shiatsu for years to come. The video skipped to a brochure scene, and he hit play. On the flex, a tall pro athlete type was seated in a park on a sunny day, while his creepdoll–maybe two, biological approximate–made tentative steps as he looked on adoringly. The voice-over resumed.
“Not only will your Taffin Luxadoll allow you to practice parenting skills, and provide a loving, well behaved and easily maintained companion.”
On screen, a cute twenty something blonde approached, and began playing co-chi-coo with the giggling creepdoll. Before long she looked up with interest at the beefcake ‘single father’.
“…opportunities for making new friends and socializing with young parents, who can find it difficult to relate to childless singles.”
Tim snorted, glancing at the creepdoll as the ‘dad’ in the video introduced himself, accompanied by the rich swell of a string quartet. It certainly did look real. “Each face uniquely crafted,” the hoardings roared. “…perfect opportunity to meet,” they whispered, speaking just to him; twenty six to forty four, unmarried, male, college educated. Almost the perfect ABC1 consumer, commuting to and from a highly paid anonyjob.
“Hey Tim, check this out.”
“Yo Tim, have we got a deal for you.”
“Tim, this year take a gender vacation in lawless Nevada.”
At least the hoardings were discrete. Crowded on the subway at night, no one knew which ad had hooked your retina, which acoustic cone projected just to you, whispering, “Tim, you don’t have to be alone, more and more men are choosing…”
Creepdolls. Half illegal, wholly sick toys. Props for pederasts and chicks with burnt out wombs. But they had other uses. As long as you kept their clothes on. As long as you hid the state-mandated absence of genitals, and the lemon yellow ‘Non Organic Lifeform’, tattooed onto their tiny silicone chests. Creepdolls could pass for human, for a while.
On the flex, animated boot-up instructions flashed for his attention. Tim shook his head, laid the doll down, still in her two foot oaken box, and went to bed.
“Create a rich parenting environment,” the fleck advised.
“Outfit your home, as for a human child.”
And so he did, hitting Macy’s new-parent site for a child pen, mobile, cradle and ‘Daddy Dearest’ front-side toddler carrier. He thought about it for a while, then added pampers, wipes and kiddie chow for realism.
The doll watched as Tim assembled first its cradle, then the hugely intricate pen, with its eighty-five separate pieces, and instructions in Persian, Chinese, and comically inept Engrish. He’d propped the creature upright in its box, at an angle to the wall, so he could keep an eye on it; so it could keep its eyes on him.
It was a cute, freckled little thing, with dark blue ringlets and a slightly crooked overbite. A face Nth generation maternity mechanisms had tweaked and prettied to imprinting perfection. Even off, Tim could feel its need, its simple pure desire to be protected. He shivered a little, pushing the last slat into place. Somehow the pen seemed reassuringly solid. He turned and hefted the doll’s light, carbon-silicate frame into the enclosure, turning it on.
For a moment, nothing. The eyes remained glassy as ever, features frozen in timeless contemplation. Then it blinked and looked about, orienting, lifting its arms to stretch; flexing fingers like a miniature pianist. Systems test he thought, coolly fascinated. It had to be checking each silent servo, each richly adaptive kinaesthetic analogue. Before him, the doll began to spin, smiling softly as it turned, fat wee arms realistically loose. Little knees bent convincingly below a sunflower yellow summer dress. Tim leaned over the pen and the creepdoll froze and blinked again, activating some high level learning set, froze and looked into his face. He smiled a little awkwardly. He tried “Hello”.
“Daddy”, she replied, and threw her arms around him.
He set his test up on a grassy bank, up along the breeze cooled cliffs that overlooked the great Atlantic bridge. He’d brought along a hydroponic picnic, which sighed itself out into a tartan groundsheet, sprouting bulbs of iced lemon tea, and hot buttery pitta bread, stuffed with tofu and chickpea falafels.
Tim lifted the doll from her carrier, and set her upright on the grass beside him. Deactivated, for the moment dead, she was as actual as Eve. Frozen deep in some infantile epiphany, her little features were scrunched in apparent surprise. He shifted the doll so it faced away along the clifftop path, then switched it on.
The little girl sprang to life, tottering along the grass, glancing round in apparent joyous exploration. For a moment he worried she might wander too far, cross the path to the long still drop to the rocks below. Then he remembered the breeze shield which deflected accidents and would-be suicides. Remembered she was dead, and heavily insured.
Suki had been his tipping point. Lean, hip, and lush with enhancements, she’d seemed liberated and exciting. Through their first date, Tim had been captivated. Captivated by her tales of slaughter weekends in the dry wastes of the Aussie outback. Captivated by her skins lullaby drift from indigo luminescence to translucence. Perhaps the bar code on her neck should have rung alarm bells, a little tasteless as she’d never been to jail. He knew he should have taken note when her club of choice turned out to be ‘The Comedown King’, a motley cantina packed with ex-junkies and serotonin temperance freaks. In the pub a loping cybergoth, huge and oddly free of visible tech or even old school body mods, had gripped his arm too hard and held his gaze unhealthily–an ex, of course, slapping Suki’s ass possessively, bawdily whispering something which set her laughing. Tim had tried to steel a grin, offered the manimal a drink. Had tried not to react as this topless bemuscled cretin stood between him and the girl, gutting their date like a boneless fish. He’d gotten up to leave when they’d begun playfully fooling around, the goth demonstrating a foreplay technique involving grinding Suki into his lap as he hooked Tim’s gaze and chewed her shoulder. He’d gotten up to leave, but had been stopped by the girl, who’d hopped up suddenly and taken his hand, and led him like a lamb, deep into a darker, danker corner of the bar; where she’d launched into a gritty exposition of her childhood–her hand on his cheek, kawaii eyes wider than ever. She’d talked, and just as it had seemed that they might have a two way conversation, rushed off to hold court with one or another group of drugged out criminal types. Each time, eventually returning to talk at him some more, her date buddy. He’d left finally, alone at three, stooped and defeated, refusing an invitation to some hip pad where terrible things, he expected, fizzed on blackened, stolen, silver spoons. He’d actually dated Suki twice after that. Both times she’d been vacant and indifferent, checking her timeplant, repeatedly bouncing their location as if to shake something, someone traveling with them.
Suki had been the last, the worst, the crazy story Tim would tell at dinner parties; slyly hinting at the excitement of his other, darker, more experimental life. Suki had been the worst, but in truth, just another in the conga line of disastrous, staccato flickering embarrassments. Girls his memory shot past on greased electric rails. What, he’d ask, finding himself again and again alone, could be the problem? He was such a nice guy, well educated, considerate in conversation, attentive. The sort of guy who’d carry a single red rose, let his companion choose the restaurant, the play, the movie–pay for everything–soliloquise amusingly when the occasion demanded, nod appreciatively when expected. The sort of guy who’d always, always leave the appropriate and subtly communicative delay, before calling for a second date. It couldn’t be him.
Out on the green, the little girl had found a friend. Another tot, about three or four, this one most likely alive, and human, and unaware of her companion’s strange mix of vat organics and plastic composites and nothing else at all. A kid racing around the doll, clapping her hands.
The girl’s parents gradually approached along the path and, smiling, introduced themselves.
He responded, shaking their hands in turn.
The man, a slight bookish type, sweating through a short sleeved work smock, laughed.
“Seems like Trish and your daughter get along pretty well.”
Sure enough, out on the grass, the girl and the machine chased one another, their little arms outstretched, as much to protect from falling as to tag.
“I guess they are.” Tim said, and choked a little, his mind blank.
“She is a little dear,” said the woman, taller than her husband; slim, unreasonably pretty.
“What’s her name?”
Tim didn’t reply. He couldn’t. He’d honestly never considered the question. Naming a creepdoll, now that was something. The man coughed, and Tim spoke up.
“Lucy… Lucy doesn’t have too many friends. She gets a little… Excited.”
He rose, and began walking toward the girls, gaining speed, moving too fast, almost slipping on the grass as he stooped to lift his little girl into the air.
The single parent group was pricey; there’d be no half mad goth chicks here. Only the finest high functioning neurotics, borderline and histrionic personalities–the Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc of personality disorders. Be friendly, be friendly but distant, he thought; responding politely, even warmly, to the low end alimonied types who seemed at first so eager. Don’t cash in too soon, he told himself, you can do better. Scan the territory. You are the prize.
He gossiped mindlessly with the other dads, and waited for a woman to catch his eye. Lucy seemed to fit in so well with the other children. Amazing in one sense, her intricate co-ordination, her perfectly infantile proto-speech. Perfect wizardry. But he wondered, how many situations could the doll be exposed to? The makers had obviously anticipated a classroom scenario, and she joined in eagerly with finger painting, occasionally toddling over to present some primitivist masterpiece. What other, strictly speaking legal, but less socially acceptable situations, had she been prepared for? He was briefly nauseated.
“Your daughter is adorable,” a voice from behind his shoulder.
“How old is she?”
This time he was prepared.
“She’ll be two next May.”
His eyes remained fixed on the doll.
The woman moved to his side, and he watched her, vague in his peripheral vision, absent mindedly pawing at her kids biomeasure, fingers tracing the haptic bump of an endorphin jump. Tim turned to briefly look her over. Petite, blond hair jetting back into a sharp forest of manga-spikes. A bodice, wasp wasting down to a black mini. Her glasses purple shaded and trendily off kilter. The typical conservative single Mom, but thinner. Her cheeks seemed shrunken, if still flush. Her wrist reaching back to pat her hair, a little desiccated. Not Ani he thought, returning his gaze to his little girl, now bouncing about on a miniature space hopper, chased by a clutter of screaming toddlers. Not Ani, too healthy a complexion. CR for sure, with the clear skin and bright eyes of a dedicated life extender. Thin though, as from disease. Hot.
“Alefiyah”, she said, extending her hand, and he took it warmly, gently, a little frightened of exerting pressure.
They spoke as the kids played, watching each other carefully, awkwardly venturing grins and newcomer observations at the expense of other parents. Alefiyah, hinting at how she’d set up in the city after a change of job and a messy breakup. Tim, explaining his choice to have a child alone. She had, he found, a rare intelligence, a way of priming jokes so that their bawdy payload seemed to land only slowly and uncertainly, as though a product of your own perversity. What a joy to talk at last to a girl articulate, with hot gesticulations and wry challenging observations; a three dimensional human being.
As the weeks passed, Tim played hot and cold, flirting with the best of the other mothers; acting distracted one day, slipping Alefiyah a book or mix album permission the next. He took to dressing well, in Versace cashmere belly tops and Ralph Lauren kabuki-ninja turbans. He had his plaits re-dyed in affect-triggered Day-Glo spirals; twists that glowed sunset orange when he chatted with Alefiyah. They began walking by the park after class, the kids scooting around their feet on toy slow drift-skeds, raising waves of Autumn leaves to flutter and land in Alefiyah’s hair. Leaves for Tim to tenderly remove.
They talked, acquainting themselves with warm censored versions of one other. Alefiyah, vocal in her support of his choice to have a child alone. Tim, shaking his head at reports of her humorless, careerist ex. Always the children played together. Lucy and Rowan, growing ever closer through the autumn, separating only at night, when the little doll had to be secreted away, to charge with a low hum from an ordinary wall socket.
Alefiyah toasted two handfuls of chestnuts on the grill, simmering a mushroom and grape juice sauce up in a shallow pan, delicately weighing each pinch of basil and oregano, before tossing them into the simmering mix. In another pot, an inch and a half of boiling rice neared readiness.
Tim’s mouth watered. When you were this hungry, you could taste the steam that rose in thick wet drifts from the cooking surface. He reached into the heat field for a chestnut, had his hand slapped back twice–first by the dry burn, a second time by the girl.
“Go check on the kids,” she scolded, turning from the pots to face him, pantomime pushing in the direction of the living room, her eyes grinning wickedly.
“In fact, get everybody washed up, grub’s almost ready.”
Washing the kids’ proffered hands reminded Tim of something he dreaded. What if Lucy were to spill something on herself? What if Alefiyah thought she needed to use the potty? He didn’t want to imagine her reaction. Couldn’t stop himself visualising surprise, disgust. Alefiyah dropping, perhaps throwing, Lucy into the bath, or against a wall. Rowan grafted to her chest as she smashed blindly out of the apartment. Officers at his door. His name on a registry at playgrounds and nurseries. Perhaps a story in the newsfeeds. Lucy, ground up, recycled, or worse; resold as a toy to some molester.
Tim was shaking, one hand on the basin, his blanched face staring back from the mirror. The kids watched him quizzically, Rowan backing away, Lucy turning her head on one side to look right up at him.
“Daddy… You ok, Daddy?” She held out one tiny palm, patted his knee. Tim reached down and picked the little girl up, pressed her to his chest, buried his face in her sea blue curls.
“Everything’s alright Lucy. Everything is fine.”
He rose from the mattress and tossed his legs over the side, dropping his sleep-set to the bedside table. In the cool grey half-light, Alefiyah looked beautiful, her features softened but still strong. He ran a finger over her lips, brushed her hollowed cheek. It was only the third time she’d spent the night. Defying all convention, they’d waited months to sleep together. At the group, gossip had cracked like static around their near chaste ‘Victorian courtship’. All the chickens clucked their disapproval. Neither of them cared. There was something romantic about an old-time affair.
Tim padded onto the landing, steering through the apartment by memory. He checked on Rowan, sprawled on a futon in the spare room; mohawk tufted to a frond above his Spiderman pajamas. Lucy was in the little room he’d painted for her. Formerly the den, now a nursery with softly pulsing cartoon lullabies, silent in the deep stage of a sleep cycle. Clowns and birds of paradise, glowing like radon watches in the cave of dark. Lucy was charging in her cradle, to which he’d added an induction pad when the risk of wires became too great.
As Tim leaned over her cot she seemed to wake, to smile and raise her little arm, to wave. He blinked. The doll was sleeping. Micromovements simulated a child at rest. How strange a thought. To whatever degree the girl was conscious, she was always awake, at times merely pretending to sleep. Lucy tossed her head, as though dreaming.
Alefiyah IM’d him at work, the warm throb of a priority communication overriding his filters. Tim nodded, blinking her message crisply to his retina.
Call me ASAP. It’s about your daughter.
He pushed back from his desk, almost knocking over his chair. Unsteadily, he jogged to the corridor and hit the single bathroom, invoking privacy. The company’s monitors would record everything, he couldn’t help that. Fuck. Pulling a work-wear bowtie from round his forehead, Tim slipped to a crouch against the wall. The tiled floor was ice cold. Lucy was at home, what could have happened? With a gesture he called back.
“Tim,” her face broke through, a one way image, eyes searching the blank video on her end.
“Tim, thank God. It’s Lucy. Your super got diverted to me, he’s not on your priority list.” Tim cursed under his breath.
“Honey, what’s wrong?”
“She was all alone Tim. A couple heard her crying from across the corridor. She was inconsolable, but I got her down. You should have your sitter arrested, there’s no sign of anyone here.”
Tim allowed himself to breath.
“Al, I can’t thank you enough. You’re amazing.”
“Can you get away?”
“I’ll leave now. Give me a half hour.”
After Alefiyah had left, holding him close in the apartment’s doorway–promising to put him in touch with a reliable agency–Tim leaned against his front door for a long time. The place was eerily quiet.
Sitting at the kitchen table, he pulled up a sketchpad, laying out the problem logically. Alefiyah was everything he’d looked for. Smart, successful, available in a way that had long been considered deeply unfashionable. She was an adult, perhaps the first he’d met. But now… The doll was like an albatross circling ever lower. It was just a clockwork toy, a thing of bytes and plastic after all. He had to rid himself.
Tim smashed his fist against the table, and wiped the document. From the nursery a voice, high and plaintiff.
He couldn’t kill his daughter.
As weeks passed and risks mounted, Tim wrestled with the problem. Taking care never to leave the machine on again, he managed to convince Alefiyah he’d hired someone responsible. The clock was ticking. Others might have faced this problem, maybe even found a solution, but his endless trawling of the net couldn’t seem to track them down.
He considered abduction, Lucy stolen by a stranger; but the publicity, the police and media attention. Impossible.
Death then, here or abroad, accident or illness. But where could he go where death certificates wouldn’t require verification, birth records, and the answers to unanswerable questions?
Tim found himself spacing out at work, clicking and unclicking a stylus, gazing out his office window into the bay.
Where could he go where a doctor wouldn’t take one look and realise? Hell, just taking the kid out of the country would be impossible, how would he even get her through border security?
What if the body were completely destroyed? Crushed by a waterfall, or burnt up in an explosion? No use, one problem solved, two more created. The authorities wouldn’t stop searching till they found remains; the police would demand to know the cause.
Modification then, illegal add on parts, enough to fool all but a detailed medical examination. But that would just delay the inevitable. This child would never age or grow, would never change. Even if he could somehow replace her with incrementally ‘older’ models, the intelligence just wasn’t there. Convincing AI topped out in kindergarten.
Perhaps a legal battle, he found himself wondering, occupying a lift for tens of minutes in the evening. Motionless as it drifted up and down past his apartment’s floor. Some disenfranchised maternal character, an actress, emerging from the woodwork to demand sole custody. But it couldn’t be. He’d told Alefiyah the kid was vat grown, remixed and cloned from his own DNA. Even if he went back on that story, he’d have to stage a battle. Alefiyah would never accept it if he just give the child up. Too much conspiracy required. Too many details.
That left what? Come clean, have Alefiyah accept the subterfuge after a minor argument? In twenty years maybe, or on his deathbed, but after a few months? No attraction was that strong.
It seemed the doll would have to die; which took him right back to square one.
Tim asked himself at work, nodding his way through his worst monthly review in half a decade; what would Geppetto do, or dear old doctor Frankenstein?
And just like that, he had his answer.
‘My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun’. They took her eyes, niobium contacts, snapping with a twist-click where the retinas should be.
‘Coral is far more red, than her lips red’. Her mouth peeled back, a rictus of mesh filaments revealed in place of cheeks.
‘If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head’. The scalp parted, a sticky mess of CSF pooling at the seam.
The doll was off. Shipped across the border, inactive in a box. Dead on the operating table. Skinned, dehumanized, synthetic piece by piece. Tim, watching from behind the theatre glass, rubbed a hand over his eyes. Here, here in the unventilated sweat of San Paulo, in back street surgeries built on metamorphosis, on the poor dark dreams of transmen and chimeric furries, you could buy anything, any perversity. You could switch the eyes (vat grown organics), and the face (biomimetic) of a creep doll with what, a street kid? A lost child from who knew where. Even burn the mind in, photo-polymer to synapse, like scouring a wax record from a digital recording. Eat your heart out Pinocchio, Tim thought, eat your heart out.
In the real world it took a body to make a body, rising pink from the amniotic bath. In the real world, a sin behind the switch, skinless, pits hooded in the ropey steak of facial muscle. In the real world, one thing died so another could live. A helm of needles, devils torture chamber, descending; beneath, stereotaxic electrodes extruding. Tim watched, gaze glued to his double murder.
His wife and children put to sleep, he takes a tram, then a bus, then walks part way, implants off so he can’t easily be followed. He charters a sub using a disposable credit slip; rides it way out to the storage lockers, unseen cabins crusting the bay floor in an artificial reef. Pausing in the lock, he unwraps a toy doll from its packet and looks out, out of the clear plastic tunnel to the ocean beyond. Looks out to fronds of algae clutching to the faces of a thousand other pods. To shoals of Striped Bass, and Atlantic Sturgeon darting between them. Somewhere ashore, Lucy, the one with bones, and homework, and a fresh set of teeth; the Lucy with a real live beating heart, is sleeping. He taps a code into the antique panel, waits while pressures equalise.
She’s waiting on the other side. He catches his breath. The door opens. His eyes take in the dull resin of her new face; catch the cheap composites, her eyes now.
His daughter, smiling.