by Mariel Herbert
Mariel Herbert lives in Baltimore, Maryland. Her work has appeared in Star*Line and Silver Blade, among others. You can find her online at marielherbert.wordpress.com.
I was on my third drink when she walked into the bar, all long limbs and desperation. The tight synther jacket didn't dispel the sense of now-or-never that slid off her lovely face like oil. My jaw dropped. Is that what I look like? Are my vulnerabilities that apparent? I let my worry go. My Thursday nights weren't for brooding. They were for getting drunk and pretending to be fully human.
"Hey, Z? How about another one of these for the lady who just came in?" I blessed the bartender with what I thought was a saucy wink. He smirked in reply; those lips practically promised that I could be the only woman for him. I sighed. Some of my electric sex slave splashed on my hand; I licked it off. Z poured another slave--with extra lime--and had it sitting on the bar before she, whoever she was, made it halfway across the room. I sighed. If only Z was actually available. There was something sensual and comforting about his efficiency. And I always envied his dreads.
"That for me?" She practically melted onto the stool next to mine.
"Depends," I smiled. "Are you for me?"
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Her expressive mouth frowned. My mind put forth images of flowing sea anemones: bright and extinct and inviting. I squirmed.
"Does that line usually work?" She pressed her lips to the glass--Z only uses the best--and took a slow sip.
"I don't know. I haven't used it before. Does it?" I refrained from shredding my napkin, didn't want to spook her by appearing too aggressive.
"Well, you did buy me a," she eyed the glowing violet ethanol, "whatever this is."
"An electric sex slave." My stupid mouth supplied.
"Oh, really? Well, if you're looking for something that requires batteries, you're out of luck." She finished her drink. "I'm one-hundred-percent natural, plus or minus a few parts. Says so right here." She brushed her hair away and showed me her tattoo: the permanent mark along her right collarbone. I resisted the urge to reach out and touch it. It looked fresh.
"So how new are you, exactly?" I wanted to slap myself. I tried not to think about my own tattoo, the trademark ouroboros hidden inside my left cheek. This was before corporate stopped caring about aesthetics; in 2153 they realized visible branding was the way to a wider profit margin.
"I'm not that new." She replied and turned her head to look at me, all of me: from my scuffed boots to my sleek black hair. She placed her delicate hand on my thigh. I guess that's better than my line, I thought. "I do need somewhere to spend the night," she added.
"That's amazing." My grin nearly spilled off my face and onto the gleaming bar. "I happen to have a place."
She moved her hand up to slip her fingers between mine. They fit.
The next morning I awoke to a strange, yet all-too-familiar, sight. I really needed to stop bringing them home on my nights off. I took a deep breath and unwrapped myself from my bed sheets. I could figure out what to do about it after my shower. It was mornings like these when I tended to avoid the mirror. I was always afraid I'd notice one more frown line, an extra toe for the crow's foot growing by my left eye.
The water really wasn't hot enough.
When I finally found the courage to leave the bathroom, she was already dressed. She wore my sky-blue sundress; it looked great on her--made me feel old. "You can keep my jacket, if you want," she said. "Sort of an exchange."
"This isn't a flea market." I left my wet towel in a heap by my bedroom door. "I need coffee. Want any?"
"I don't think I'll drink coffee." She started untangling her lush black hair with her fingers. I rolled my eyes and went to start the machine.
"Why won't you drink coffee? I like coffee."
"They say it's not good for your skin." She traced a flying buttress of a cheekbone with her index finger.
"And how long do you plan on needing your skin?" I grumbled.
"A long time." She smiled in response. "I'm a free agent."
"What?!" I probably woke up my neighbors, but I couldn't believe it. "Who paid for that?"
"No, I definitely didn't." I heard a beep. My coffee was ready.
"Well, your employer then."
"Hold on." I said, noticing her emphasis. "Are you saying corporate finally authorized freelancing?" My jealousy solidified within my stomach. It pulsed.
"I'm the first." She laughed. "Could I stay with you?"
"I can't believe those... Wait? What?"
"Well, I mean, you're still sort of young. We could share the apartment. It's big enough." She looked around my living room. I sensed her mentally rearranging the furniture.
I grabbed my coffee and held back a shudder. "No way. Look, I don't know who you think you are, but why would I want to do that? I picked you up at a bar!" I plopped down--naked--on my sofa.
"Actually, I picked you up."
I waved my hand, almost splattered hot coffee all over myself. "Semantics. Besides, I don't want to ruin whatever crazy fantasy you have in your head, but I pick up people from bars a lot. The only thing about Thursdays is that I do it not sober. And for free."
"Come on," she murmured. "Just think about it. Your landlord probably isn't the observant type. We could split the rent. No one would have to know."
I gulped down some coffee and stared at the leafy design of my living room rug. "Seems sort of risky. What's in it other than rent? I make good money."
"I could take some of your clients."
Now that made me look over at her. How flawless she was. I tasted bile. "Nope. Ridiculous. They'd notice."
"Would they? You're what? Two? Three?"
I laughed at her. Her eyes widened when she heard it: dry and dirty. "I'm six." Ancient.
"Oh." She slumped a bit. "Well, you don't seem it. You can keep the clients who are into that. I'll take the rest. Wait... you don't like any of them, do you? Plan on going for citizenship by union? Get your license and your uterus; go native?"
My horror made my tongue turn numb. Sure, there were a few of us who, for one reason or another, decided to petition corporate and then do something else. Like be an incubator for some filthy rich Ancestor's DNA. I can't explain it. I've worked in service my whole life. But I'd never want to be used that way. I've always had this aversion to the idea of popping out a Richard Maystream the Fourth, or Maya Ruth Calvaro XII. An old friend, one I met at a bar on my second day on the job, called it the Pretty Woman Effect. I never asked her why. Four years ago she moved to Brazil with an AI biosystems analyst. She gestated two mini-hims. Although I think the second one might've been switched to female.
Of course, at that moment, I wasn't in Brazil. I was in my living room. And when the woman in the blue dress reached out as if to take my hand, I remembered how to articulate. "I guess your idea might work. I could even use the break. Maybe find a hobby. Something creative."
She clapped her hands like a child. "Exactly! Now, how much do you need to hand over each week?"
"What?" Her melodic voice drew me out of my own head, away from my unopened dreams. "No less than ninety K."
She smiled again. The lump in my stomach flipped over. I vowed not to smile--ever. "That's easy," she said. "What's your name?"
"Me? I'm called Sophie. Sophie Walker." I grimaced at the last part. I certainly didn't choose it. "And what do I call you?"
"I'm thinking I'll go with Bettie." Her lips emulated coyness: a moue.
"Seriously? There have to be at least twenty Bettie Pages working in the city right now."
"Oh." She looked disappointed. It was breathtaking. "Well, I'll think of something. I'm sure your usual clients will want to call me Sophie anyway."
I sighed. I wondered if this was a bad idea.
Seven months later I still wondered. Only I also wondered how she turned out so different from me. Maybe corporate was right--to finally allow some independence among their new models. I mean, she looked like me: the same tiny nose, soft mouth, dark wave of hair, dancing green eyes. And I knew from our very first night together that she felt the same, too.
But we weren't the same. Yes, she learned to walk my walk. She didn't need much coaching to make love like me, either. But she wasn't me. In fact, she gave me the opportunity to find more of myself: my artistic spark. In my spare time I took up painting. You'd think I would have found my muse in her, but I decided being abstract was more fun--or, at least, less narcissistic.
At home I called her Jean. She liked the name. After the first month of calling her Norma Jean, she finally decided to drop the Norma. And Jean matched her quite well. A no-nonsense name. A name I didn't mind whispering after she fell asleep with her flawless hands pressed against the curve of my back.
With Jean I somehow looked forward to my Thursday evenings. She wouldn't work on Thursdays. We'd both stay at home doing things like normal people, like real citizens. Just without the Recursive Reproduction Rights. Jean developed the oddest sense of humor, poked funny little holes in things so dense and black I never saw any bright spots in them. But she found them.
Still, I was surprised when she asked me to marry her. I didn't think it was something she wanted. I wasn't disgusted by it or anything. People marry every so often. Ancestors do it all the time. I did worry that Jean would want to wear the same dress I picked out. She always stole my clothes.
We had our engagement party at Z's bar. He made electric sex slaves for everyone. Jean got some on my shirt--which she was wearing--when I said my toast. "To Jean. I'd never thought I'd fall in love with a younger version of myself. And I didn't. I fell in love with you." She kissed me then. And I realized it had been months since I tasted me when I kissed her, probably since that first night.
She raised her glass. "To my Sophie and our future together. We will need a new apartment."
This story was first published on Wednesday, October 23rd, 2013
I set out to write a story from the point of view of a sci-fi cliché: a product rather than a person. The setting and narrator's voice were also familiar, and not just in science fiction. If Sophie were male, she could have just as easily been a cynical private eye about to meet his femme fatale. Fortunately for Sophie, though, I kept going back in time with my tropes and ended up with the oldest tale in the book: a love story with a happy ending.
- Mariel Herbert
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