It’s the tenth day of February, and Stan is still here. Still among the living, still in the house, still in limbo. He hasn’t been sent back to Positron, not yet; and [his wife] Charmaine didn’t reappear on New Year’s Day, as he’d been both hoping and fearing she would. Hoping because, he has to admit, he wants to see her, especially if she replaces Jocelyn. Fearing because would he lose his temper? Belt her one? Would she be defiant, would she laugh at him? Or would she cry and say what a mistake she’s made and how sorry she is, and how much she loves him? And if she does say that, how will he know she means it?
“I think you two need more time apart” was what Jocelyn said, as if he and Charmaine were squabbling children who’d been given a time-out by a loving but strict mother. No, not a mother: a decadent babysitter who’d shortly be charged with corrupting minors, because right after that prissy little sermon, Stan found himself on the blue sofa with its chaste but by now grubby lilies, enacting one of Jocelyn’s favorite scenes from the frequently replayed video-porn saga featuring their two energetic spouses.
“What if it were both of us at once?” he found himself growling as if from a great distance. The voice was his, the words were Max’s. The script called for some handwork here. It was hard to remember all the words, synchronize them with the gestures. How did they manage it in films? But those people got multiple takes: if they did it wrong, they could do it over. “Front and back?”
“Oh no, I couldn’t!” Jocelyn replied, in a voice intended to sound breathless and ashamed, like Charmaine’s on the video. And it did kind of sound that way: she wasn’t acting, or not entirely. “Not both at once! That’s …”
What came next? His mind went blank. To gain time he tore off a few buttons.
“I think you could,” Jocelyn prompted him.
“I think you could,” he said. “I think you want to. Look, you’re blushing. You’re a dirty little slut, aren’t you?”
When would this be over? Why couldn’t he just skip all the crap, cut to the chase, get to the part where her eyes rolled back in her head and she screamed like a raccoon? But she didn’t want the short form. She wanted dialogue and ritual, she wanted courtship. She wanted what Charmaine had, right there onscreen, and not a syllable less. It was sad: she must feel she’d been left out, like the one kid not invited to the birthday party, so she was going to have her own birthday party all by herself.
And she was having it all by herself, more or less, because Stan wasn’t present in any real sense. Why doesn’t she just order herself a robot? he thought. Among the guys down at the scooter depot, talk has it that they’re now in full production down at Positron with a line of Dutch-designed prostibots, some for home consumption in Positron itself, but the majority for export. The prostibots are said to be lifelike, with touch-sensitive plastic fiber skin and several different voice modes, and flushable interiors for sanitary purposes, because who wants to catch a dick-rotting disease? These bots will cut down on sex trafficking, say the boosters: no more young girls smuggled over borders, beaten into submission, chained to the bed, reduced to a pulp, then thrown into sewage lagoons. No more of that. But it won’t be anything like the real thing, say the detractors: you won’t be able to look into their eyes and see a real person looking out. Oh, they’ve got a few tricks up their sleeves, say the boosters. But they can’t feel pain, say the detractors. They’re working on it, say the boosters. Anyway, they’ll never say no. Or only if you want them to.
The guys joke about applying to be prostibot testers; some claim to have actually done it. It’s a wild experience, they say: you choose the voice and phrase option, the bot whispers enticing flatteries or dirty words, you touch her, she wriggles, you give her a jump. Then, while the rinse cycle is kicking in—that part is weird, say the testers—you fill out the questionnaire, you check the ratings boxes for this or that feature, you suggest improvements. It’s better than the bonk-a-chicken racket that used to go on at Positron, they add. No squawking, no scratchy claws.
There must be male prostibots for the Jocelyns of this world, thinks Stan. Randy Andy the Handy Android. But that wouldn’t suit Jocelyn, because she wants something that can feel resentment, even rage. Feel it and have to repress it. He knows quite a lot about her tastes by now.
That night—the night of New Year’s Day—she’d made popcorn and insisted they eat it while watching the video prelims: Phil’s arrival at the derelict house, his restless pacing, the breath mint he’d slipped into his mouth, his swift preening of himself in the reflection of a shard of glass left in a shattered mirror. The popcorn was greasy with melted butter, but when Stan moved to get a paper towel, Jocelyn laid a hand on his leg; lightly enough, but he knew a command signal when he felt one. “No,” she said, smiling her square-toothed smile. “Stay here. I want your butter all over me.”
At least it was something extra, something Phil and Charmaine hadn’t done. Or not on the videos.
And so it went on. But toward the end of January, Jocelyn’s ardor or whatever it was had flagged. She seemed distracted, she worked in her room at the computer she’d set up in there, and some nights he found himself drinking beer alone because she was out of the house. He felt relief—some of the performance pressure was off—but also fear, because what if she was about to discard him? And what if the destination she had in mind for him was not Positron but that unknown void into which the bona fide criminals who were originally warehoused at Positron had vanished? Jocelyn could erase him. She could just wave her hand and reduce him to zero. She had that power.
But the first of February had come and gone, with no switchover for him. He’d finally dared to bring the subject up: when, exactly, would he be leaving? “Missing the chickens?” she’d said. “Never mind, you’ll be joining them soon.” This made his neck hair stand up: the nature of the chicken feed at Positron was a matter for grisly rumor. “But first I want to spend Valentine’s Day with you.” The tone was almost sentimental, though there was an underlayer of flint. “I want it to be special.” Was special a threat? She watched him, smiling a little. “I don’t want us to be … interrupted.”
“Who’d interrupt us?” he said. In old movies, the kind they showed at Consilience—comic movies, tragic movies, melodramatic movies—there were frequent interruptions. Someone would burst through a door—a jealous spouse, a betrayed lover. Unless it was a spy movie, in which case it would be a double agent, or a crime movie in which a stool pigeon had betrayed the gang. Scuffles or gunshots would follow. Escapes from balconies. Bullets to the head. Speedboats zigzagging out of reach. That’s what those interruptions led to. But who’d do the interrupting here?
“No one, I suppose,” she said. She watched him. “Charmaine is perfectly safe,” she added. “I’m not a monster!” Then that hand on his knee again. Spider silk, stronger than iron. “Are you worried?”
Of course I’m fucking worried, he wanted to shout. What do you think, you twisted perv? You think it’s a kiddie picnic for me, being house slave to a fucking dog trainer who could have me put down at any minute? But all he’d said was “No, not really.” Then, to his shame: “I’m looking forward to it.”
“Looking forward to what?” she said with a blank stare. She was such a gamester. “To what, Stan?” when he stalled.
“Valentine’s Day,” he muttered. What a loser. Crawl, Stan. Lick shoes. Kiss ass. Your life may depend on it.
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