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art by Shothot Designs

Sheila

Merc Rustad lives in Minnesota (USA) with her family and ferrets (none of whom are androids). She has always loved reading and writing speculative fiction, especially if there are explosions and cool hats involved. Merc has had fiction published or forthcoming in New Fables, M-Brane SF, Silver Blade, Thaumatrope, Dreams of Decadence, and others. She can be found at: http://mercwriter.livejournal.com.
He walks into the brothel in a heavy black duster and a wide-brimmed hat and asks for Number 536289. I'm not allowed nervousness until ordered to show it, but I've seen it in instruction vids and wonder if it feels like this--a shivery, short of breath sensation with tightening in my abdomen as I step out of the waiting pod. The coolant in the air raises tiny bumps along my bare skin.
He doesn't show his face; he pays in international chips and buys all rights. The Madame gives him the full programming collar and assigns him Suite 12--the finest room in the brothel.
I wait in blank silence until he takes my wrist. His palm and fingers are cool and dry. He hasn't removed his other glove. We enter Suite 12, an empty room fully programmable for any desired situation. I've never been in a suite. Those who go in don't come out whole and are recycled immediately.
He locks the door, thumbs the info pad. I have the oddest wish to shut my eyes and pray. I don't know what a prayer is. This must also be a glitch in my system; I should not think or feel anything until collared and ordered.
Why am I malfunctioning? I've been out of the master pod for less than twenty-four hours, and he's my first patron. I should tell him there's a glitch so his experience isn't tainted, but I don't want to. I don't know why I don't want to, because I should.
His room of choice is four dark wood walls, a single large bed with plush satin sheets and a feather down coverlet, handcuffs and knives on a side table, and a thick book.
"Come."
I follow him to the bed and wait. He tosses the collar into the corner and pats the quilt. I sit, quite certain I shouldn't feel surprise. I'm allowed the recognition of all emotions but not their chemical and mental experience myself.
"What would the master like of 536289?" I ask.
He picks up the book and hands it to me. "Do you read?"
"536289 is programmed with all recognizable language filters, master."
He nods and lies back on the pillows, still fully dressed and his face hidden. "Read it to me."
I look at the cover. Its soft, cream-colored, and printed with letters instead of binary. It spells out Canterbury Tales. This is not standard. I'm programmed for sexual intercourse and he has yet to touch me.
"Does the master wish more of 536289?"
"You're questioning my orders?" He says it quietly, with no anger.
I should be recycled now, the glitches mended in my replacement model. I'm defunct.
"536289 apologizes."
"I don't want your apologies. I want you to read that." He folds his hands behind his neck.
I glance sidelong at the collar. Will it repair the malfunctioning neural firing? I do not want to be recycled. But I should not want that unless ordered to want it. Why am I using pronouns at all?
"Something the matter, 536289?" he asks.
"No, master." I open the cover and begin reading the text. He remains still and silent, and if not for the occasional correction of my pronunciation, he might as well be asleep. I don't understand this. Why should I need to understand?
I read until he holds up a hand.
"Thank you, that's enough."
I set the book down and wait for orders on which position he wants me in, or which behavioral template he wants installed in my network.
"What does the master wish?" I ask when he does nothing.
"I'm tired," he says. "Of orders. Of loss. Of everything." His breath rattles in a sigh. "We go around in circles in our lives, stuck in a deadening cycle of familiarity. Most should be grateful theirs is mundane and inconsequential."
I don't know how he wants me to respond.
"What do you want, 536289?"
I hesitate. I'm not allowed wishes, but he asked--it's an order. Isn't it? "What should 536289 want, master?"
He scoffs. "That's the point of asking."
He's quiet, then. I don't dare ask him again what he wishes of me.
At last he sits up and takes off his hat. The lighting is at dim levels, the candlelight setting. His face is long and heavily lined, craggy. Sunken eyes and cheeks keep shadows on his facial planes. He hasn't augmented his bone structure or changed the coloration of his hair to keep it from gray-white. I realize he is old, a word I have only heard, and never seen even in programming modules.
He watches me. I wait passively.
"Do you know why I picked you, Sheila?" he asks.
"I'm 536289."
His expression hardens. I have spoken a pronoun without permission, and without the collar. A sudden tightening in my chest shortens my breath. Is this fear? I'm not allowed such sensations. He has not ordered that I install the fear module.
He slides off the bed, takes off his coat, and picks up the handcuffs. They are artificial metal, not magnetic or nanothread.
"Give me your hands, 536289."
I hold out my wrists, and my hands shake.
"Did I tell you to be afraid?"
"No, master."
"Then stop it."
I try. I fail. The trembling spreads and my stomach is cold. I want… something. What? I think it is not to die. Yes, I'm afraid to die.
But if I'm not alive, how can I feel that? Programming glitches. He should recycle me quickly before I become unstable and break protocol.
"I've always found the glitches, like you, Sheila," he says.
I am 536289. He hasn't indicated I use the name for whichever persona he wishes me to portray.
He places the handcuffs, the links open, in my palms. I stare at them, and then look up at him. I don't understand. How can I obey and fulfill my programming if there are no orders?
"I can tell which copies come out wrong," he says. "They have life in their eyes."
Yes. I'm wrong. A mistake. Why does he not deactivate me and terminate my existence? I find the waiting hurts. My hands shake more.
He turns his back on me and clasps his hands at the base of his spine. "Cuff me."
"Why?" The word slips out before I can stop it.
He laughs. The sound is odd, disconnected. "Do it, Sheila."
I obey.
He faces me again, flexing his arms with a soft grunt. The cuffs hold. "I always call them Sheila. She was the first one, the one who picked that name."
I nod. The door will open soon and the Madame's controllers will arrive to take me to deprocessing.
"And I always destroy them. That's what I was made for."
Mistakes should be erased. Shouldn't they? "This is good," I say, hesitant.
"I suppose. Do you want me to break your neck and pull out your interfacing, Sheila? Be honest."
"No."
"Then pick up that knife and cut my throat. You can walk out in my disguise and live."
I obey him.
He falls on the pillows with blood soaking the sheets and he smiles before his eyes go dark. I feel wrong, worse than even the fear. There is blood on my hands. And yet, I like it. That sense of control. Living. I should report to the Madame. I'm a mistake. Am I?
Sheila. I'm Sheila.
I pick up his coat, take his gloves and hat, and walk out of Suite 12.
The End
This story was first published on Monday, December 6th, 2010


While there are no explosions in this story, it does have hats. I’ve always liked the darker possibilities in science fiction (dystopia being a favorite theme). That nuanced “what if?” factor—especially when it comes to how people treat each other. While nothing in particular inspired this (beyond my enduring love of black leather coats and cool hats), I found it difficult to get the tone right. The story existed in a series of images, so connecting them in a coherent narrative while maintaining the voice and tone proved a challenge. After several failed starts (in third person), I realized first person was what the story needed. It clicked after that, and “Sheila” was born.

- A. Merc Rustad

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